Shortly after my daughter was born I watched the movie 127 Hours and had a totally revelatory experience. I’m probably not the only person to have a 127 Hours revelation — the movie is pretty impactful. In it, Aron Ralston, a lone-wolf mountaineer, is forced to cut off his own arm to save his life. It’s memorable, even if you’re not nursing a newborn.
At the time, I was profoundly sleep deprived in the way only new parents and cannery workers can be. I was probably legally crazy. Plus, it was before James Franco got busted attempting to hook up with high school girls. It actually was a time-delayed revelation — a kind of revelation landmine that I stepped on much later, when I reread an essay written by Albert Camus about Sisyphus — a Saturday Essay of sorts, I guess. (“Camus on Sisyphus” sounds like either the awesomest or absolute worst pro-wrestling matchup of all time.)
We all know the Sisyphus story, in part or in parcel, right? Sisyphus angers the Gods (he’s Greek) and they punish him by condemning him to an eternity spent laboriously pushing a gigantic boulder up a mountain.
In his essay, Camus postulates that Sisyphus was no unhappy prisoner of fate. No doomed and “futile laborer of the underworld,” Sisyphus was neither witless nor despondent. The assumption in the punishment, Camus asserts, is Sisyphus’ awareness of the futility of his efforts will really crush his soul; the knowing that his work will always immediately be for nothing, evinced every single day by the prompt return of the boulder to the bottom of the mountain.
The Gods, bent on revenge and punishment, insure that Sisyphus knows every detail of his fate. This, Camus argues, doesn’t mean Sisyphus can’t be happy. But it’s a sort of sardonic, existential happiness. A Sienfeldy happiness. Our Sisyphus knows he’s fucked, and the knowing allows him to see the bigger reality, in which life itself is absurd and futile. For this reason, Sisyphus can relax and find contentment in his rock-shoving life, since it’s no more or less absurd than anyone else’s. In fact, at least he knows what to expect. As the rock rolls down the hill, he is triumphant over his punishment, because he knows his shit lot, but he’s rolling with it like a boss. In fact, Camus’ essay ends with the conclusion that, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Every day he wakes up, knows his job, and does it.
I imagine Sisyphus like one of the Landmark Forum alums, evangelizing about the transformative power of accepting a life in which all meaning is assigned and arbitrary. The complex and magnificent allegory of the aphorism, “Shit happens.” Add, “ad infinitum,” and you’ve got the CliffsNotes to the One Unifying Theory of Everything.
The horrible suspicion I have is that Sisyphus’ fate is no worse than yours, or mine. We are simpler in that we are largely unconscious of the pointlessness of our efforts. That unconsciousness requires us to labor under a significant and important misapprehension: that we might create something lasting; that our goodness will protect us. But even with a literal God to worship and obey, we shake off the world in which we have so carefully selected our granite-look Formica counter tops and had our perfect babies. We die and leave everything behind; our houses are someone else’s houses, our bodies, irrespective of the formaldehyde aftershave, eventually return to the dirt. We are gone, as certainly as we were ever here.
So, if life is meaningless, but humans endlessly search for meaning (necessitating an entire cult of self-help retreats in which attendees might discover what meaning is assigned and who is doing the assigning), it begs the question: why do we keep searching for meaning? Evolution? Is the only reason we search for meaning because searching for meaning makes us more likely to live longer and make more meaning-seeking babies? Because that would be the definition of irony, and super fucked up. Delusional belief in the meaning of being confers greater survival potential? Jesus. That goes in the same category as the Fermi Paradox — a kind of meta-despondency in which hope is promptly transformed into proof of the inherent futility of hoping.
In the moments in which I alternately do and do not believe there is anyone to whom I might direct a strongly-worded letter on this matter, I’m tempted by Camus’ sardonic comfort. Fuck it, I’ll do it. I’m captain of the futile labor team. I am a proud member of the suicide-averse fatalists: I’m not killing myself because life is bad enough for me, thank you. I’ll cling to this shit show because there is no other shit show. Plus, here there’s cilantro.
I promise I’m getting to the part where Aron Ralston cuts off his arm. Bear with me.
So I was watching that movie. Ralston goes on an independent hike in Utah and gets trapped in a deep canyon, his arm pinned in an intractable way underneath a literal boulder. Over the next 127 hours, he works it out, his role in his own destiny, and the terrible, impossible thing he must do. He cuts off his own arm. It’s so viscerally palpable it inspires a kind of sympathy-induced synesthesia. You can feel his pain. Not necessarily in your arm, but in more powerful, ephemeral locations — like, in whatever you prefer to call your soul.
Before he saws off his arm (after breaking two arm bones using his bodyweight and the boulder as leverage, Lord have mercy) he has a crystalizing moment in which he realizes categorically that he chose his fate by remaining utterly independent from everyone who would love him. “This rock … this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. In its entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago up there in space. It’s been waiting to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the Earth’s surface.”
Rereading the Camus essay, I remembered this scene from the movie entirely and it hit my addled brain like a bolt of lightning. The two stories wove together, Ralston and Sisyphus, two entirely different but equally heavy boulders. Both stories are impossibly evocative, and darkly beautiful. Neither was entirely satisfying to me on its own, but together they finish a broader picture.
Ralston’s life is no more meaningful or explicable than Sisyphus’. Neither climber escaped the boulder — both made their peace in the only ways they could. Sisyphus abandoned a freedom that was defined by ambition and accomplishment, and Ralston abandoned a freedom that necessitated the sacrifice of intimacy. Both relinquished a different aspect of control, to preserve joy. They both returned to the climb, whatever that would be, different than before they’d embarked.
In the end, it’s the union of the two narratives that is the most interesting to me. Because it’s not really about the boulders. It’s the rack-focus between futility and meaning. Not the meaning of life — the meaning of meaning. Ralston was under his boulder because he never told anyone anything, and Sisyphus was under his boulder because he told everyone lies, and they both believed their actions put them under those rocks. They both considered that each individual decision they made to get them to those canyons was possibly part of some larger, unknowable whole. Camus’ Sisyphus concluded that the whole is random, meaningless, and absurd, but makes his meaning in each moment he lives, now. Ralston saw his foibles, his fallibilities, his ego and his selfishness as the causes of his disaster, and he believed himself the architect of his own tragedy. Ralston concludes the whole is comprised of each decision he made, leading him to a tailored destiny in which he might learn an important lesson.
I think both things are true. Lying there in the half-light of the TV, I thought the isolated events in our lives might indeed be meaningless, but we can’t make decisions about them unless we assign meaning to them, and maybe to the events that precipitated them. The meaning we assign, as much as the decisions themselves, are all part of how we demonstrate free will, or exhibit agency.
Either way, Ralston’s boulder was coming for him, or whomever was in that canyon at that moment. Ralston assembled the story of his life, the meaning of his experience to include a destined boulder. If it had been another person in that canyon, the movie would have been very different. I wonder what I would have read in that boulder. How much I would have been willing to leave in that canyon. What would my movie have been? Same scenario. Same rock. Different fate, entirely.
And Sisyphus’ boulder was coming as well. Sometimes shit happens, apropos of nothing, and it’s fucking horrible. It isn’t because we weren’t good enough — our goodness does not protect us. Our worth, our culpability, our intrinsic value don’t protect us. The rocks are coming, the meteors are forming, hurtling through silent, roiling galaxies to the canyons we’re convinced we’re discovering. We are chosen by the gods for pain and destruction, for envy and despair. We shoulder the burden, however heavy, and live in whatever space is left between the effort of lifting and the descent down the mountain.
It’s ordinary to be doomed. We’re all doomed in some way — maybe not until the very end, when, however peacefully, all of our perfect, beautiful silliness will disappear to somewhere unknown. It is, even in its gentlest form, catastrophically unfair. So are the unbelievable gifts we’re given. One sunrise, one baby, one wild blueberry is ridiculous abundance. We are cursed and we are blessed in impossible, unbearable ways.
Ralston and Sisyphus’ stories have been made allegorical by what they did, but I think that’s a mistake. Because your fate is much less determined by what you’re willing to do than what you’re willing to think.
Sometimes, in that brutal space in which harsh truths lurk and strut, I think about something G. Gordon Liddy said. Liddy held his hand over a candle flame until the flesh crackled and burned. Someone asked him what his trick was. “The trick,” Liddy responded, “Is not to mind it.”
And sometimes, in that same space, I think instead of Henry Moore, who said, “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.”