One of my favorite authors I have not written about in this space is Albert Camus (1913-1960), a Nobel laureate (1957) who was both a superb novelist and an influential philosophic essayist. In Camus’ view, life is an unsolvable situation which we (being what we are) will nonetheless die trying to solve. This is not a condition which must lead to despair. It is one to accept the absurdity of, while we continue our struggle against it. Camus was not an existentialist or nihilist. He did not believe life has no meaning outside of what the individual gives it. Nor did he accept that we are inescapably doomed. He believed we live in the position of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was the character in Greek and Roman mythology who, as punishment for tricking the gods, is sentenced to an eternal task he cannot complete successfully. He must push a heavy boulder to the top of a hill. Before it gets to the top, the rock will always roll back to the bottom, and Sisyphus must begin again. What goes up must come down. The brilliant idea that Camus advanced was to point out that Sisyphus represents not merely eternal frustration, but also a noble opportunity, the individual’s revolt against the absurd and uncaring world. What goes down, we can make go up.
We will expend ourselves in learning, striving and growing. The closer we get to the top, the closer death and chaos approach, ready to envelop and forcibly redirect our efforts. Understanding and accepting our inability to properly complete the task is not a reason to stop pushing. The sun rises. We can’t prevent it from setting. Gather what warmth you may on the way up, and know that it’s a cycle. Read meaning into it if you choose, but whatever meaning you find won’t influence the rise and the fall. It will continue unabated and unstoppable, without notice of your actions.
I stand with Camus on this essential question. I can’t stop the process my patients are going through, along with every other living thing on Earth. I will treat them well, and offer momentary respite, though every one of them will die despite my efforts. I might die while doing it. It’s my choice. It’s my revolt against the gods.
If you want to read my favorite Camus novel, The Plague (1947), here’s a link: