Life is absurd
Everyone makes up a story about their own lives, consciously or not. Some of us like to believe we are on a hero(ine)’s journey:
“In narratology and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.” — Wikipedia
A part of myself believed I was on such a journey. I had and would go through hard times, but one day everything will fit together and there will be a pay off. That somehow the story will make meaningful sense and there will be some justified ending to it all.
I am at a point of my life where I no longer believe that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice (source). Maybe life is long and I will change my mind again. But I have seen and experienced enough to know that there are good, kind, generous people out there who have worked their asses off their entire lives and they still suffer, till the very end. Then, there are people who expend everything in their capacity to oppress other people but yet they are rewarded. Life’s outcomes can be arbitrary, grossly unfair and absurd.
In Chinese there is an idiom drilled into our minds : 苦尽甘来, which loosely translates to bitter adversity brings rewards. Try telling that to discriminated minorities, tribes that have been displaced or wiped out, people who die in the fight for justice, or those who are stuck in a poverty cycle that they have no means to end because the system’s conditions are always rigged against them.
Suffering is felt when the reality does not match up to what we expect. I expected meaning, sense, rationality, compassion, progress. I believed Steve Jobs when he said you can only connect the dots backwards. But what I didn’t see was that you can only connect the dots if you survive the game in the first place. We form great meaningful narratives for the winners — all the suffering had a reason, they just couldn’t be understood at that time.
I bought into all of that. I romanticized my suffering. I romanticized people’s suffering. I injected romantic narratives when things didn’t go well. Some people may call that positive reframing.
If I can endure this unbearable weight now, it will all be worth it when <insert desired outcome> happens.
Sometimes it is worth it. Other times it is not. Sometimes we get our desired outcomes only to discover we have paid terrible prices for it. We don’t stop to think what rippling effects that desired outcome may have for other people. We have invested too much, paid too much. We have to be relentless when we pursue goals. We have to hustle. Don’t give up. Giving up is for losers.
Truth is difficult to bear, so many of us spend a lot of energy rationalizing. But it can be liberating after the initial crisis. Or not. Am I trying to reframe the narrative to make myself feel better again?
Here is what I conclude, for now. It doesn’t matter what the narrative is as long as it helps us bear the weight of our existence. We can tell ourselves any story we want. The only caveat is: that I am aware that it is a narrative.
One may think I am resigned and cynical now. But seeing and accepting things for what they are instead of always trying to reason it out and inject a layer of meaning to it, has its own power.
Now I acknowledge that life can be unfair to a lot of people, events can be random and meaningless, good work may not be rewarded and terrible people get more powerful because they hunger for that power. Seriously, we hand power to people to oppress us because they desire to oppress us in the first place — how absurd is that?!
I feel I have now positioned myself on a more level ground. Unfair outcomes cause me less grief because I stopped expecting justice and rationality by default. I am more cynical and also more realistic. I don’t hope for fairy tales to happen or hero(ine)s to rescue us.
The moral arc of the universe does not bend towards justice. Justice depends on us collectively. It is a choice we have to make. It does not come naturally, nor is it a given with time and progression. Justice in the course of history is hard fought and won by people, and many times — lost terribly. Sometimes justice is won at great cost and on the back of huge sacrifices.
My life doesn’t make sense to me now. Maybe one day it will or it simply won’t. But I stopped waiting for resolutions after bitter adversity. Sorry, my self, sometimes you just have to suffer and there’s nothing waiting for you at the end. And you can work your ass off but that sexist power-hungry asshole will still get rewarded instead.
Yet there will also be random moments of luck, beauty and grace. Sometimes they happen at times when I don’t deserve them. If the world is absurd and random, it can tip either way. Sometimes there is such moving goodness that for just one split second, it makes it worth enduring everything else. Sometimes I don’t endure life for myself but I do it to not break the hearts of other people. Other people endure other unpleasantness to not break my heart and keep me safe.
I may not believe that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but that is precisely why I think we have the responsibility to do everything in our power to bend it towards justice. I may not believe that good begets good but I do believe love begets love.
Being able to see the truth means widening the perspective on the entire spectrum. Maybe life is not worth living if we’re banking on good outcomes and resolutions, but it could be worth living to experience great connections, art, and stories.
Life may be absurd, but we can try to live our very best anyhow. Sometimes our very best means hanging on to life by a thread. Instead of waiting for that big redemption at the end I try to redeem myself in little moments every day. I miss out on some opportunities to do better but I hope I will have the next one. I know there is no way I can avoid the pain of enduring loss but it makes me try to embrace the joy of appreciating what I have now more. I can’t control most of life’s outcomes and I no longer want to be a heroine. Instead, I try to be a decent human being to the people around me, though most of the time I am just trying to keep myself alive.
Enduring life is a lot of letting go. In order to let go I must first accept, in acceptance I may have found little pockets of space to be, instead of always waiting.
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