Sisyphus

What’s the Point? A Journey Of Philosophical Pessimism

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LIFE, IT SEEMS TO ME, IS SISYPHEAN. A Sisyphean task is an ultimately unrewarding task that is repeated over and over again—a pointless task if you will. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the founder and king of Ephyra, now Corinth. Zeus, the father of all the gods, punished Sisyphus by forcing him to roll a huge boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it reached the top. Sisyphus was consigned to repeating this fruitless action for all eternity. How could Sisyphus ever be happy when his life was seemingly so pointless?

Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus—a philosophical pessimist—not because I have nothing to live for. No, I have good friends. I’m in a committed relationship. I still enjoy pleasurable activities, but if I were told I was to shuffle off this mortal scene tomorrow I’m not sure I’d be disappointed. I might actually be excited to see what, if anything, is beyond Death.

Perhaps my pessimistic outlook is the result of the loss I have experienced. Being disfellowshipped and losing my possessions, relationships, and religious framework made me realise how tenuous my connection to what seems permanent really is. Maybe it’s the depression talking, but I think I was operating from a place of pessimism way before I experienced my Dark Night of the Soul in 2020. 

Since my Spiritual awakening in 2004, I have struggled to see a point to this human experience. Life used to be about looking forward to a utopian future in paradise, a time when every day would be blissful, where Jehovah would “open his hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” Jehovah’s Witnesses live for that, even to the detriment of living NOW, but it always left me feeling empty. Pictures of paradise in the Watch Tower publications never resonated with me. The idea of living for billions of years on earth as me surrounded by Jehovah’s Witnesses never appealed.

I wanted something beyond the fulfilment of physical desires and so it was that I came to entertain the idea of being born again or “anointed” as Jehovah’s Witnesses call it. Instead of a paradise full of pandas and large watermelons, I looked forward to life in heaven with God and Jesus. I knew that meant I would have to sacrifice everything earthly. I was especially sad to think I would have to leave my children, but I came to accept these losses as the price for a higher Spiritual life—the reward of immortality and sharing in Divine nature. I intended to enjoy my children for as long as I lived on earth but that ended when I was disfellowshipped in 2019. Now, after much soul-searching and spiritual readjustment, I find I have neither an earthly nor a heavenly hope for the future, at least not in the way Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. I just think that at death I will return to my natural Spirit form and then realise that all this was an illusion, a projection of Source, manifested as an experience for the sake of Being. That is my “hope” if you can call it hope.

It seems to me that in the Genesis account—allegorical as it may be—something changed in Adam and Eve, or humanity, when they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Up to that point they were innocent, blissfully ignorant of the bigger picture, lacking self-awareness, just enraptured in the moment, like a baby before their consciousness comes online—animal-like even. This, I believe is how many humans are spiritually—ignorant of the bigger picture, and animalistic in their pursuit of happiness via purely materialistic means. As far as we know, animals don’t ponder the meaning of life. They don’t spend time reminiscing over or regretting past actions, or dreading or looking forward to the future. They live instinctively to satisfy their base desires such as hunger, thirst, and the need to procreate. Spiritually, I used to be like that, until I woke up.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve woken up too early. Sometimes I wish I could have remained blissfully ignorant for a while longer, like hitting the spiritual snooze button, but here I am, fully awake to Who and what I Am—”a spiritual being having a human experience” as Pierre Teilhard De Chardin put it. Frankly, the novelty has worn off, but I’m here, and Dharma says there is a reason for me being in this state of enlightened Moksha while still alive.

The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus argued in The Myth of Sisyphus published in 1942 that as humans we crave meaning but the world can not offer it to us. Instead, we live futile lives. Some philosophical pessimists even see the self-consciousness of humans as a tragic byproduct of evolution. We have the ability to contemplate our place in the Universe—we yearn for meaning—yet we are painfully aware that the cosmos can never truly satisfy these fundamental needs.

The Norwegian existentialist Peter Wessel Zapffe made a similar observation, although he added that the reason for this situation is that we have an over-evolved intellect, an over-abundance of consciousness. In the 1990 documentary To Be a Human Being, Zapffe said: “Man is a tragic animal. Not because of his smallness, but because he is too well-endowed. Man has longings and spiritual demands that reality cannot fulfil. We have expectations of a just and moral world. Man requires meaning in a meaningless world.” If that is true of any human, how much more so it is of the enlightened man or woman! Our self-awareness, it seems, is a blessing and a curse.

Dogs’ brains are wired to live in the here and now. This is why correcting a dog for a misdeed only works in the moment. Disciplining a dog for chewing your new leather sofa to bits days after the fact accomplishes nothing. Correcting it for something it did even a few hours before you got home may serve to confuse it unless you are able to make a connection between the Then and Now. Dogs only know Now. Yet as humans, we struggle to live in the present. I know I do. I spend an inordinate amount of time pining for things I’ve lost—particularly relationships. As a younger man, I also spent time contemplating the future and meticulously planning my goals, but I appear to have reached a point in life where not much excites me anymore. I’d be okay if it all came to an end tomorrow, and that’s not because I’m a miserable git. My pessimism is philosophical. It comes from a place of deep contemplation, like King Solomon who concluded, “everything [is] vanity and a striving after wind, and there [is] nothing of advantage under the sun.”​ (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:11) Certain experiences may be pleasurable. I may love and be loved, but in the grand scheme of things, what’s the point?

In Hinduism, notably in the Advaita (non-dualist) school of Vedanta, Maya is a fundamental concept. Maya means “magic” or “illusion”, the idea that everything is not as it seems. Behind even the most meaningful of lives, it’s all just a dream. Nothing is real but Brahman or Source. This transient, phenomenal world is merely a projection of Brahman experiencing itself. In the Advaitic tradition, Moksha, or liberation from this illusion, is attained through recognising the true nature of Self. In this view, (jiv)Ātman, the conscious Self, and Ātman-Brahman, the highest Self and Absolute Reality, is non-different. You are identical to Source. Ultimately, there is only One and you are it. Having realised this, there is nothing more to strive for. You have arrived. You’ve found your way home. The amnesia has faded and you “know who thou art”. Now, your remaining life can be used to fulfil your duty, your Dharma, your reason for being here. Perhaps where one finds meaning is in the service of others, or fulfilling your creative potential, or some other “purpose” for being a human, right here, right now—but still there is that constant knowing that whatever you do in this life, it’s just temporary, an illusion that your Higher Self created because you were bored. The bubble has burst. The veil of ignorance has been lifted. Any “purpose” is subjective. We create our purpose ourselves.

From a philosophically pessimistic perspective, boredom is intrinsic to human existence. When we wake up to our true nature and cease striving we predictably become bored. In The Trouble With Being Born published in 1973, the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran argues this is not the case with other species, who are quite content with monotony. This is why I would not want to live forever—at least not as me. In a recent video, Gerrit Losche, a member of the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, asked his viewers to imagine living not just for 1000 years, but 10,000, 100,000, 100,000,000, 100,000,000,000 years. Honestly, I can’t think of anything worse than being stuck in one human body and brain for all eternity. What would be the point of that? That’s why the idea of projecting oneself into multiple bodies, reincarnating to live unique but temporary lives is, to me, more satisfying. Each new life starts with hitting the reset button, amnesia of past lives kicks in, and the quest to “find thyself” begins all over again. It’s the ultimate game of hide and seek.

At first glance, it would appear that philosophical pessimism and what’s known as dispositional pessimism—basically being miserable—would go hand in hand. However, there’s no reason that being a philosophical pessimist has to make you unhappy. You can, if you want, adopt the Buddhist belief contained in the First Noble Truth, namely that life is Dukkha—a term meaning unsatisfactoriness—while still aiming for, and achieving, happiness. While philosophical pessimists claim that the world does not offer us meaning, this doesn’t mean life need be completely meaningless. You can still lead a meaningful life while believing that there is no transcendent meaning out there.

The psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl suggested that human beings are driven by the search for meaning or the “will to meaning” as he called it. According to Frankl, there are three possible sources of meaning: 1) Creating a work or doing a deed; 2) Relationships; and 3) The attitude we take toward suffering. These “reasons” for living are as available to the philosophical pessimist as they are to the optimist. For Frankl, it was only in the pursuit and attainment of meaning through these aspects of life that we are able to experience true psychological well-being. In other words, it pays dividends to our mental health if we approach life as if it has meaning, even if it doesn’t.

For a moment, let’s turn our attention to the three ways in which Frankl posited that humans can find meaning:

  1. First of all, there is meaningful work or a meaningful deed. This might be a job or an action that makes a positive difference in the lives of others, such as enhancing someone else’s well-being or knowledge. Careers such as teaching and working in the healthcare sector, though notoriously underpaid, are often said to be fulfilling by those engaged in them. Interestingly, the philosophical pessimist may even express compassion more easily than the traditional optimist, since their aim is to see the suffering of all sentient creatures nullified. Indeed, many of us philosophical pessimists find work and actions “meaningful” when they are directed towards something larger than ourselves, such as a cause. This can even include creative, artistic projects because the first source of meaning for Frankl is, by definition, creative.
  1. The second source of meaning focuses on how we relate to other people, nature, and the world. Though the world we think of as real may be just an illusion, we can still find meaning in the experience of truth, beauty, goodness, and love. For example, Frankl describes the meaning found in the experience of love as follows: “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

In his book I and Thou (1923), the Jewish existentialist Martin Buber argued that humans find meaning in life through their relationships, but only through a certain kind of relationship, which he termed I-Thou. What Buber meant by this was a relationship that acknowledges a connection with another, and this connection doesn’t have to be another person; it can be a pet, nature, or even a concept of God. In such an I-Thou relationship, the other party is not viewed as entirely separate, but it becomes a presence, even a part of them—true empathy if you will. 

This contrasts with what Buber calls an I-It relationship. This is when you relate to another person as a distant, distinct obect that can be analysed, compared, and manipulated apart from Self. Buber states that “all real living is meeting” (or connecting) and it is only through I-Thou relationships that we experience a truly meaningful life. For Buber, I-Though relationships are rare, almost mystical things that allow us to encounter what Buber referred to as the “Eternal Thou”. To a non-dualist such as myself, I translate Buber’s words to mean awakening to the true nature of Self, recognition that I Am God, that God, or Source, or Brahman is All There Is. All things are connected, and if one is searching for meaning, they will find it in the understanding of I Am.

Even if you disagree with Advaitism (non-duality) or the religious aspect of Buber’s dialogical existentialism, you may still view human relationships—friendships, love—as providing “meaning” in an otherwise meaningless cosmos. This is often the reason why desperate persons contemplating suicide decide not to go through with it—because of those they would leave behind, those who would be saddened by their departure.

  1. Frankl’s third and final source of meaning is found in how we respond to suffering. As I have explained in previous posts and podcasts, pain and suffering are not the same thing. Pain is a feeling you get when something hurtful happens to you, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. On the other hand, suffering is how we react to pain. Pain is necessary. Without it we would be unfeeling to external stimuli and unable to react at all, but suffering—especially when it is over an extended period of time—is unnecessary. It serves no purpose but to cause us continued pain when there is no longer a need for pain. For Victor Frankl, meaning was to be found in transforming suffering into triumph—a personal achievement. As Frankl put it: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Rather than resorting to unnecessary suffering, we can view painful things in our lives as an opportunity to experience, change, and grow, and thus imbue pain with meaning. Likewise, Friedrich Nietzsche taught that greatness was often owed to a right view of pain, adding that we have to make pain meaningful in order to bear it.

Happiness is also available to the philosophical pessimist in the form of what are known as “atelic” activities. Atelic activities are those that have no endpoint or goal, an activity that is done for its own sake because the activity itself is the main goal. MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya maintains that when we focus on activities that are enjoyable in themselves, rather than goal-oriented or “telic” activities, we are more likely to experience lasting satisfaction. Maybe we like to sing but we’re tone deaf, or we like to paint but our paintings lack what critics would call “artistic flare”. It doesn’t matter. Sing for the sake of singing. Paint for the sake of painting. The thing with atelic activities is they don’t end when a deadline or a certain level of competence is reached. Atelic activities are just, well, “fun” with no real reason for being such. Examples of atelic activities include time spent with friends and loved ones, listening to music, travelling, spending time in nature and so on.

Some of my readers may be asking: “But surely if you lead a happy life, doesn’t this make philosophical pessimism null and void? If you start out as a philosophical pessimist and then imbue your life with pursuits that make you feel joy, is not your life then defined by optimism rather than pessimism?” To this, I would respond that neither a philosophical pessimist nor an optimist can live a completely happy life. Even if we designed our life in such a way that happiness outweighed pain and suffering, you could still be a pessimist with respect to ideas of “meaning” and “purpose” because such would be subjective. We put the meaning in meaning, and the philosophical pessimist is fully aware of this. The philosophical pessimist sees the bigger picture, and even when he or she is feeling happy, they realise this too is only an experience. Happiness in itself doesn’t make life meaningful.

Of course, a philosophical pessimist can subjectively assign “meaning” to their life or the activities they pursue, and in doing so experience happiness a lot of the time. They can view being alive as worthwhile and a blessing, but this does not negate the underlying realisation that human life is temporary and ultimately without purpose. At best, we can say the purpose of Being is To Be. In the end, everything comes to an end—us, this earth, the cosmos—and then where will have been the meaning of it all?

Perhaps the feeling of being happy comes more easily to the optimist than the philosophical pessimist. If you believe things are better than they actually are then your day-to-day mood will likely be more upbeat compared to a pessimistic outlook, philosophical or otherwise. However, you could argue this “happiness” is based on self-deception, something which philosophical pessimists are averse to. The philosophical pessimist likes to keep it real, to acknowledge the cold, hard truth that there is no real meaning to anything, but in doing so to assign meaning, subjectively, and in doing so to experience what one might say is a purer, truer form of happiness—happiness based on how things really are, rather than a deluded search for something that does not exist. In other words, philosophical pessimists aim to be realistic. They work to draw happiness from life, which often takes considerable effort because their search goes beneath the surface of that old adage, “Don’t worry, be happy!”

For me, I now realise that even the idea of heaven is not what I thought it to be. Now I realise there is no transcendent “God” looking to reward or punish us. I will live and I will die and my death will be merely a return to my natural form. Then I will get to do it all over again if I want to. Yes, happiness can be found in the experience of Being, but that doesn’t mean life has a purpose. It’s like the atelic process of playing a computer game, one you realise you can never win, but still you it play over and over again until you get bored. Then you look for something else to do. This, I believe, is the life of the happy, philosophical pessimist and essentially what I Am is all about.

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