Written by John.
Life is full of absurdities. Whether or not you take stock of them or ultimately build your worldview around them is, of course, entirely up to you. But there arefew, if any recesses of the universe free from absurdity. Cancer treatment isno exception. Indeed, it is one of the paradigmatic realms of absurdity. I can’t catalog all the absurd things in our lives the past few months, but here is an inexhaustive list:
- Nina getting cancer treatment at Duke on the same day as her mother, with whom she’s been travelling to Duke Cancer Center for treatments for the past 8 years;
- Nina going to one of her mom’s recent cancer treatments with her bald pate and being asked by a nurse why she didn’t have any hair;
- Nina developing hives after her treatments, a condition she only just helped nurse me through last year;
- Nina facing the prospect, simultaneously disfiguring and absurd, of spending a significant amount of time having only one breast—not zero breasts, not two breasts, not even the cinematically absurd Total Recallesque three breasts—but one asymmetrical breast;
- Me trying to channel my angst into failed home “improvement”projects, such as the pull-up bar made from plumbing supplies or the unfortunate shower curtain with the Jerry-rigged support in the middle, making it open effectively from neither end;
- Me stress/coping-eating frozen Chobani For Kids so often that it makes up 30% of my overly generous current daily calorie intake;
- Me taking up basketball again at age 39 after not playing for the past couple years;
- Me icing my leg, or my knee, or my arm, or my face, or whatever ails me after playing basketball;
- Me dragging myself out of bed the morning after playing basketball.
It’s not that our lives have been that terribly hard, per se. It’s just that they’ve been riddled with a common theme of the absurd.
Our current situation has me thinking. Nina is done with chemo (for now at least).She is starting the period where she’s most likely to feel “normal” for a good long while. Surgery is still a month off and, with any luck, there will be no significant medical interventions before that. To some extent, this has been borne out. On the other hand, she dealing with another outbreak of hives, she has no hair, and she feels pretty crappy a lot of the time. It’s a new kind of absurd situation.
So what do we do with life’s absurd slings and arrows? Do we take to drink? Maybe, just a little, but alcohol makes me feel kind of yucky. Game not worth the candle kind of thing. So do we seek solace in nature? Nina does, and that’s been a real help to her, but I’m not such a huge fan of nature. It’s messy and unpredictable. Do we escape on vacation? Again, Nina probably would, but she’snot in great health for the beach and I don’t like direct sunlight and both sand and water give me the howling fantods. Do we seek out God, or some other form of spirituality? Some might, but it’s not really my thing. God kind of gives me the fantods, too–in a different but not necessarily unrelated way from direct sunlight. Do we purchase way too much music on Amazon? Yes, absolutely, but that’s problematic in a financial kind of way and simply has to be stopped. Also, it has severely diminishing returns as a coping mechanism.
No, our solace has to come from someplace else. In this instance, I’ve been hoping to find it in the dog-eared collection of excerpts from Kierkegaard I bought in graduate school, almost 15 years ago. Because what could be more consoling than sitting up late at night and perusing the works of one of Western Civilization’s most notoriously difficult thinkers? A man whose work was deliberately obscure as a means of organically demonstrating life’s difficulties to the reader, Søren Kierkegaard is my current drug of choice. And I don’t care how much Nina makes fun of me for it (hint: a lot of making fun has happened).
Kierkegaard thought a lot about the absurdity of life and has plenty to offer on the subject. In one of his more famous works he mocks those who are busy in the world going about their business, finding the whole of it absurd. He compares these people with a woman whose house is ablaze who, in her confusion, rescues only the fire tongs. “What more important things, do you suppose, will they rescue from life’s great conflagration?”
It’s hard to say what Kierkegaard really thinks, because he wrote pseudonymously, hiding behind layers of fictive narration. But he didn’t mean for us to simply stand at a distance from life and laugh at its absurdities. While he did not think that simply engaging in ordinary commerce was the meaning of life, he also did not think that life’s great conflagration was actually meaningless.
Kierkegaard was a Christian, but not a dogmatist. For him, God was still the ultimate aim, the “meaning of it all.” But the means to divinity was highly existential, very much of the world and found lurking elusively in its everyday drudge and sludge. No platonic ideals. No Augustinian City of God. Man has to suffer through the seemingly endless parade of absurdities life presents, the greatest of which is maybe faith itself—the requirement that we believe in something that cannot possibly be and requires mankind to accept the impossible.
Because of his focus on existential themes, Kierkegaard is linked as a precursor to Existentialist thought made famous in the 20th Century by thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus—and later satirized in countless turtleneck-clad, chain cigarette smoking parodies.
One of my favorite passages in Camus is from The Myth of Sisyphus. The title is the classical myth/parable: Sisyphus pushes a boulder up a hill over and over only to see it fall back down again, for eternity. The myth is reductive, but we can all relate to Sisyphus. We all feel like we’re pushing the boulder sometimes. Knowing it’s going to roll right back down.
Camus builds on this to craft a metaphor of his own. He says authentic existence is like trying to walk for a lifetime on a razor’s edge. To one side is belief, or religion. It is a comforting alternative for many people, who want some relief from life’s razor sharp way. To the other side is despair and, ultimately, suicide,also a form of escape from the razor’s edge.
The Great Problem of Human Existence is to meet the challenge of knowingly walking on the edge of a razor and still keep going along that path. Although Camus rejects religion, his vision is very much like Kierkegaard’s embrace of the irreconcilable in his Christianity. We have to accept what we cannot possibly reconcile. We have to forge a path and make our own meaning out of something that provides no discernible answers or direct comfort.
So, first conclusion: whatever you think of European Existentialists and the excessive clove-cigaretted darkness of their teachings and turtle-necked followers, you have to admit: they kind of had a point. Life is filled with absurdity. Yet we strive for meaning in it and, for the most part, we don’t give up on life.
Second conclusion: balancing on the razor’s edge, or, if you like the Christo-Existentialist vein better, accepting the unacceptable and learning to live with it, is freakin’ hard. And, despite these things being thoroughly examined by very smart people a long time ago, I am not sure we have advanced the ball that much in terms of how we deal with them.
The nurses at the cancer center who couldn’t stop tittering about Nina’s lack of hair when she showed up to help her mom were astonishingly unprofessional from one point of view. But from their vantage, her presence there—the sight of a cancer patient serving as support for a cancer patient—really upset their normal paradigm. That’s not how things are supposed to work! Why, it’s simply ABSURD! When people are confronted with some of life’s more audacious absurdities, it’s not surprising that they don’t always react well.
I number myself among these people. I have continually been surprised by the simple fact of my own ageing. I’ve played basketball for years. In some ways I have grown progressively better as a basketball player with the added experience of years (all things being relative, “better” has a particular meaning here that does not correlate all that well with “good.”). In other respects, most notably athleticism, I have grown duller and, well, less good. But the biggest changeis my body’s reaction post-basketball. I have soreness in places where I did not know one could have soreness. I ice things. I heat things. I take Tylenol. My wife admonishes me not to overdo things and hurt myself. I overdo things. I hurt myself. I dutifully play the stereotype of the ageing man playing games that are too young for him. And yet I am somehow, despite a fairly keen awareness of all these things, somehow surprised by all this. It is absurd.
Now, my inability to conscience my own growing feebleness is incidental. It is not the stuff of major life events. But it shows the pervasiveness of absurdity in our lives. We’d all probably agree that cancer is a major life event. And it, too, is suffused with absurdity (see supra Nina’s situation). How do we arrange things so that we can simultaneously understand the absurdity and still manage to function?
If I understand Kierkegaard at all—and I’m nearly certain that I don’t—I don’t think there is any answer beyond the question. The whole point is to understand the situation and still manage to function. That’s it. That’s life. That’s Christianity, in Kierkegaard’s 19th Century iconoclastic Danish proto-Existentialist version.
So, the issue comes down to individual decisions, day to day choices, about how to cope with the absurdity, how to measure our responses, build meaning towards our ultimate goal, whatever we want to call that: god, nature, karma/dharma, spirit, family, basketball, assiduous avoidance of sand, water, and direct sunlight, etc.
I’m frankly not very good at this. I get lost in the absurdity all the time. Or more accurately, frustrated by it. The pointless repetition of daily tasks takes on a particularly frustrating hue for me when daily life includes Nina’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, her Mom’s situation, which has been going on for 8 years,or the situation of the people we see at Duke Cancer Center.
How do I continue to referee the kids’ arguments over Marvel superhero necklaces? How do I clean both the blood from Freddy’s nighttime nosebleed and the urine from Benny’s absurdly poor aim from the general vicinity of our toilet? How do we tackle the mundane, when the mundane is, ultimately, deadly for everyone? I am not going to tell you how because I can’t. Can we, astonishingly, somehow “succeed,” at least in continuing to walk along narrow path of not-despair and not-dogma? I feel like we ought to be able to manage. But I could no more explain how to someone than fly to 19th Century Copenhagen.
This is just a long, PEDANTIC way of describing the feeling I’ve been having about being where we’re at. We haven’t been posting much lately. Mostly I think that’s because it’s hard to describe the state we’re in. It’s not that compelling a story in some ways. Neither here nor there, waiting for something that we can’t avoid and cannot wait to get over with, yet are anticipating with all the excitement of a root canal we know is going to go horribly awry. The calm before the storm that we already know is going to knock the shutters off the house. But viewed another way—through a painfully long connection I’ve made with Existential philosophy—we are experiencing the quintessential human condition. So aren’t you glad you waited for me to describe it? I thought so.
If you have answers to these questions I suggest that you create yourself a pseudonym—maybe something in French, Latin, or Danish—and write them down. And please share your conclusions in the comment section.