There is a girl I wish I could have spent a little more time with. Someone from my past. I remember a holiday I took with her, the two of us were swimming with a shoal of fish in the shallows of an island while light rain beat down on the surface. The water was warm.
I remember that swim. I remember the happiness I felt with her. And so I have had my share of wonder, extraordinary moments, and soft, warm light. But I know that my life, when set beside the billions of other lives, like stars in the universe, is mundane. Normal. Not especially special. I am one shimmering pattern in a giant shoal of fish.
Camus wrote the above quotation some time between 1942 and 1951. What has changed since then, since Camus’ time? I think one of the biggest differences is choice. I think Camus would have had a difficult time imagining the colossal amount of choices we now have available.
The abundance of food options and luxuries that are no longer luxuries; holiday destinations and people to marry or divorce; careers to quit and to consider. The range of acceptable behaviors for people, of what is considered “normal”, has been extended.
For women this is particularly true, even if their normal is not yet quite the normal of men. Shame on us really. In Camus’ time there were not any female Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices. And yet what is normal for men-male doctors, male politicians, male bankers-is still not quite normal for women.
Yet the truth of the quotation survives. On occasion, I feel myself struggling to maintain the façade. To make sure that I am a lively and witty conversationalist at a bar, for example. Waiting in line at the supermarket, I try not to stare. Don’t look at people so much, I say to myself. I put my food on the conveyor belt. So many people behind me. Now try to be efficient and cheerful when you pay the cashier. Be normal.
But is it right to sneer at those people who expend tremendous energy to be normal? Should you judge individuals on that effort? Isn’t there a responsibility-a secular grace, an innate dignity in respecting the privacy and choices of other people?
When I was a younger man I moved myself far away from home. I changed where I lived; changed my job opportunities and the people I hung out with. I cannot know if it was the right decision, but I have never regretted it. I would have been bored otherwise, staying in the same place, the same small town.
But sometimes I envy my friends, the ones who stayed behind. Those who spent time and energy, day to day, cultivating a circle of friends, a community, jobs, homes and partners. Sometimes I feel like I should have that, when I look at my dissolute life.
Hearth and home are important. A sense of what’s normal is important. Normal is being polite. Normal is being kind. Normal is considering the fact that some of us fall outside its remit and so struggle more than others.
Consider Kim Jong Un. He is the leader of North Korea, and I would hazard that he is not the most normal or ordinary of individuals, and the people he forces to applaud him live in a rather extraordinary country.
Camus knew a thing or two about absurd tyrants having wrote a play about one, Caligula, where he sought to examine the contradiction between aspiration and reality.
Camus thought there was a universal absurdity to the seriousness and importance we attach to our lives and the values we hold, even if we know these things may have been chosen completely arbitrarily.
In Caligula, the titular character is a murderous emperor who, nevertheless, has something tragically romantic about him. He sends his friend Helicon to look for the moon because he desires to hold the moon in his fingers. Caligula knows it is an impossible task, but wants to search anyway:
‘I shall make them a kingly gift – the gift of equality. And when all is leveled out, when the impossible has come to earth and the moon is in my hands – then, perhaps, I shall be transfigured and the world renewed; then men will die no more and at last be happy.’
Like I said, tragic. But by the end of the play the emperor realises his mistake: ‘I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing. My freedom isn’t the right one’.
If Caligula’s path is the wrong one, what is the correct one?
Let me tell you a story. A kid from Houston, Texas is a good athlete in high school and so he wins a baseball scholarship to college. He majors in English and discovers a love for writing. He starts dating actresses and writes plays. He starts watching movies. Lots of movies. He writes a short story and thinks about whether he can adapt that story into a movie. He finds that he can.
He becomes obsessed. He starts watching movies every day. By his early twenties he is watching 600 movies a year. He dedicates himself to making shorts to finesse his technique and eventually shoots a low budget feature film. To cut a long story short, he grows up to be an Oscar-nominated film director. Who is he? Richard Linklater. You know, the guy who made Slacker and School of Rock.
What’s the point of this story? Well, I like stories. Stories are good. Inspiring. But Richard Linklater once said something that I found quite interesting. Here it is: “I always had that personality, I think it’s a writer’s sensibility, where you’re there but not there. I had to make a peace with myself. It’s like, well, you’re not in the moment. But just by contemplating it, by searching for the depth of the moment, that is itself an experience”.
Now that’s interesting. I could learn something from that. Let me paraphrase something else that Camus said-you can look it up-in the form of a haiku:
A graceful moment
Offers for a minute
A glimpse of eternity
Camus is one of those rare philosophers who actually lived by his words. He thought life was essentially meaningless, even absurd. And so he lightened up. Took life as it is. He tried to live life more intensely, and celebrated the ordinary-sunshine, kissing and dancing.
I think there’s something to that. Those moments swimming in the shallows, with your girl, while soft rain beats down on the surface-aren’t those moments, those heightened moments, the point? You may not be able to hold the moon in your hands but you can spend a minute gazing at the reflected silver light, or a shimmering shoal, and think no more or no less of it. The meaning is whatever you wish it to be.
Isn’t that absurd?
Isn’t that wonderful?