History is What You Do

Albert Camus is perhaps best known for suggesting that we should all ask a basic existential question when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning: “Why not suicide?”

Now, Camus was not suicidal. Far from it. He saw the question as a clarifying question: Given the absurdity of human existence, what am I going to do today to decrease human suffering and increase human flourishing?

Camus knew the feeling most of us have: individuals can feel impotent in the face of large historical events. He realized that feeling of being overwhelmed springs from the same place as our resignation in the face of large, abstract philosophical questions. Camus wrote, “we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes,” Camus put his finger on the contradiction in the deepest philosophical or theological thought: in the abstract, thought will always lead us to the absurd; but in a lived life, life is anything but absurd.

By the same token, Camus wrote, “we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything.” Existence in the abstract cannot be considered anything other than absurd and history as unchangeable. A life lived in real time, however, can decrease human suffering and increase human flourishing for the self and others.

In his lifetime Camus was often mentioned in the same breath as Jean Paul Sartre, and categorized with Sartre as an Existentialist. Camus disliked the title exactly because of his view of human action. Sure, “being precedes essence,” as Existentialism insisted, but such a conclusion is obvious to those born poor, as Camus was. If the idea remains abstract, it leads merely to a very concrete nihilism. The question is the action taken, and the essence is the action taken.

Lest we forget the value of our actions, Camus says, “It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace?“

No single person caused the Second World War, and no single person stopped the war. The war was not an abstraction; it was the collective action of millions. Which is how human history always works. Achieving peace; achieving a just society — these aren’t abstractions either, if you taken action.

As Camus wrote in his 1947 novel The Plague,

I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.

History is what each of us does. Every day. It adds up.

#Unitarian Universalism #Humanism #History #Actions