“Life is a sum of all our choices”. Albert Camus
Camus was known for his philosophy of the Absurd. He was equally known as an Existentialist, which he always disclaimed. The central philosophical problem for Camus involved the absurdity of our life. We are born to die in a tiny corner of an uncaring Universe – and that mortality is the only sure thing in life. Nevertheless, we do exist and during our short time on earth we are faced with choices and must make decisions. Unless we commit suicide, life does go on.
On a brighter note, I find a lot of positive things in an Absurdist and Existentialist viewpoint, not counting the nihilism often associated with these views. Primary among them is the sense of personal autonomy. Oxford dictionary defines Existentialism as: “A philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will”. I like the idea that we create our own values and determine a meaning in life… and are wholly responsible for our actions. Therefore, as Camus says, we are the sum of our choices (emphasis on “our”). The totality of our decisions adds up to a personality. As the Buddha said:
“Thoughts become words, words become actions
Actions become habits, habits become character –
Watch your character, for it is your destiny”.
The prevailing wisdom expressed above is very liberating. Both Camus’ statement, Existentialism and the Buddha claim that we are the masters of our identity and destiny. Through careful thought and introspective moments, followed by measured action, we can largely determine our future. And we therefore cannot blame anyone else for our misfortunes.*
I’ve sometimes felt that the world seems to be divided into two types of people: optimists and pessimists. The optimists are people who feel they have control over their life. Even in tough times they are certain that happier days are ahead. And, more often than not, their positive attitude takes them back to that place. On the other hand, pessimists tend to blame others for their lot in life. They often consider themselves “victims”. Some seem to actually “enjoy” wallowing in their misery! At times I’d just love to give them a slap… “snap out of it” … but their lack of feelings of autonomy will prevent them from changing… they’re trapped in a web of helplessness and hopelessness.
I was recently told an amusing joke which suggested there might actually be three types of people. First, there are people who make things happen; second, people who watch things happen and, third, people who say “what the hell just happened?” The last type of person sounds like the most interesting to observe, as you wait to see what they do after their initial response. It’s all just light humour but it does have a ring of truth, as many jokes do.
As for our opening quote by Camus, and the words of the Buddha, which carry a similar teaching, I’d add a kind of warning from the poet Pablo Neruda. It suggests a way to avoid the negative consequences of our choices if they develop into overly habitual activity and banal living. “You start dying if you become a slave to your habits, walking everyday on the same path… if you do not change your routine.” The joy of living can be found in making smart choices while continually reaching out and mixing things up. This won’t change the facts of our mortality but it may at least keep our mind off it for a while! As Einstein said “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.”
*I’m not so naïve to suggest that everyone can control their destiny or overcome tragic events in life. Abused children do not have much of a chance and horrible accidents or illnesses can devastate families. These are things we cannot change regardless of perspective and fortitude.