Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?
He looked like Humphrey Bogart, terribly attractive. He could have become an actor, but he didn’t. Instead he became one of the most popular voices of existentialism, a philosopher, writer, and journalist.
Adam Gopnick wrote in an article in the New Yorker a decade ago, Facing History – Why we love Camus, that a person who met him on his one trip to New York, in 1946, when asked what he was like, said, “All I can tell you is that Camus was the most attractive man I have ever met.”
The man himself wrote from New York to his French publisher, “I can get a film contract whenever I want,” joking a little, but only a little.
Looks matter. Think Instagram.
Gopnick reminds us that Camus never asked the Anglo-American liberal question: How can we make the world a little bit better tomorrow? He asked the grander French one: Why not kill yourself tonight?
We are all Sisyphus, he said in his 1942 essay, the Myth of Sisyphus, condemned to roll our boulder uphill and then watch it roll back down for eternity, or at least until we die. Learning to roll the boulder while keeping at least a half smile on your face—“One must imagine Sisyphus happy” is his most emphatic aphorism—is the only way to act decently while accepting that acts are always essentially absurd.
He describes the absurd condition that we build our life on as our hope for tomorrow, while, at the same time, tomorrow always brings us closer to death. For Camus, the absurd arises when the human need to understand meets the unreasonableness of the world.
Camus believes that the absurd can never be permanently accepted, nor resolved, it requires constant confrontation, constant revolt. The contradiction must be lived; reason and its limits must be acknowledged, without false hope. The absurd does not require suicide. It requires revolt.
All this echoes in my mind. There is a lot I recognise.
While there are certainly differences, for me Camus’ thoughts connect, to an extent, with those of Edith Eger and Viktor Frankl. It’s the idea that we cannot change the world, nor those who are sharing it with us.
Nonetheless, we have to keep pushing the boulder up that hill. With a smile on our faces. There is no choice and no way out.
Today, Pádraig and his wider family had lunch in the Constitution Room of the Shelbourne Hotel. No better place to remember his grandaunt who had died during COVID without her family being able to say goodbye. She was a great believer in Irish independence and freedom. And the Shelbourne played an important role on that journey. She would have been in her element today.
We had lunch in the room where exactly 100 years ago, between January and March 1922, Irish Patriots drafted the country’s constitution which later became a model for other states declaring their independence from the United Kingdom, including countries as far away as India. The table, the chairs, the room itself were renovated but never changed substantially. Some chairs, like the one used by Michael Collins, were left untouched. A facsimile of the Constitution is on display. – In other countries, this room be a museum.
It was the first time in many years we all met. A really enjoyable afternoon, with many stories to catch up on. A fitting day to remember Pádraig’s grandaunt.
I want to mention a few things that became clearer to me in the past week in relation to the progress Pádraig has been making over the past months and years.
He is now able to reliably press a switch not just with his left foot or the fingers of his left hand, but also with his left knee. Using a three-button mouse, three fingers of his left hand can click the mouse switches independently and reliably (though we haven’t found an app that he could control with these switches). He should be able to use two or three switches at the same time now – a challenge for the near future. When we were helping him recently with eating some pretzels, he stuck a finger into one, lifted his hand up to his mouth, took the pretzel off his finger and ate it. No help required. At mass, he opens his hand, receives holy communion, and brings his hand up to his mouth. When he washes his hands, he picks up the soap floating in a bowl and squeezes the soap to wash his hands. He opens up a belt around his chest when he is ready to get out of his wheelchair. When I sit him up to prepare for the transfer from bed to wheelchair, he now nearly pulls his body up himself. He also pushes his body up from the floor during transfer to assist. He has travelled around Europe and the US. Most days, he ‘cycles’ around 5k using the MotoMed (no motor). He ‘walks’ around 1.3k using the Lokomat. He understands four languages, can read and respond to pretty complex quiz questions using a switch, he spells words using morse code, and keeps himself and us entertained with his tongue in cheek sense of humour. He is the best informed member of our household in relation to current affairs.
It all happened over a period of time. But when I look at it all together, take stock, and compare this with his condition from where he started following his accident, what he has achieved is truly phenomenal.
And above all, he is ok with his life. He smiles. He likes a cup of tea, rather than coffee.
Here are two more of Camus’ quotes.
“In the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself” and “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Let’s be courageous. Let’s be free. Let’s rebel.
And let’s have a cup of coffee, tea, or whatever you’re having.