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Sisyphus, Suicide and the Search for Meaning

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” – Albert Camus

800,000 people committed suicide in 2020, one person every forty seconds. That is double the number of homicides that occurred in the same year. The gravity of this global epidemic has been smothered and downplayed by many. We live in a scientific world of diagnoses and easy chemical fixes, yet this epidemic’s roots burrow much deeper into the fabric of society. Financial gurus that sprouted from their fathers’ deep pockets berate the public for not ‘pulling up their bootstraps’ and working harder for financial freedom. Malignant materialism has reduced man into machines of menial labour and office drones. Management strips the agency of its workers, leaving them alienated with a salary of ever-dwindling value. This is backed up by the statistics. In an NHS survey, 50% of men contributed work-related stress to the deterioration of their mental health. Perpetual production for profit has robbed society of meaning. How can the individual find meaning in meaningless labour and overwhelming responsibility?

The treatment for the existential abyss can not be found in the lab, it exists within our minds. One of these treatments lies in the literary work of absurdist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. His most famous philosophical lesson highlights the myth of Sisyphus; a greek tale about a man who was condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a heavy boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down when reaching the summit, ad infinitum. However, in the face of such bleak odds, Camus asks the reader to imagine Sysiphus as happy. To Camus, the human condition mirrors that of Sisyphus’: we are forced into working menial jobs, performing mundane tasks and facing hardship only to be met with inevitable oblivion. Nevertheless, in the face of such a excruciating existence, Camus calls on us to imagine Sisyphus happy. Instead of giving in to the absurd and inherent meaningless nature of reality, Camus demands that we revolt in the face of this absurdity. This is a rebellion against both nihilism and the blissful ignorance of the system’s prescribed answers. To the absurdist philosopher, capitulating to the shallow answers of society, such as materialism, status and religion, or falling for nihilism in the face of the futility of existence is philosophical suicide. The absurd meaninglessness of the world is precisely the key to meaning, one defined without the pressures of conformity. This subjective purpose should be founded on a promise to live life vivaciously and passionately. As Nietzsche famously said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”. However, many find it daunting to search for meaning through the famine of time caused by nine to fives.

Yet this meaning is not abstract and all-encompassing, in reality, this meaning is much more subtle and individual. It is found effortlessly with open eyes and open ears in those moments that give us feelings of deep conviction about life. Moments of simple profoundness. Reading with the comforting patter of rain against your window. Sharing a meal with people you love. Fighting for what is right. The focus on maximizing happiness is futile. Happiness is a transient state of being, but meaning is eternal through both joy and sorrow.

The incessant need for production has clogged our eyes and ears, and made us value productivity over the aspirations for billions to live in line with their personal meaning. Making a sufficient amount of money is deeply important to living a full life, yet those who blindly and endlessly pursue it lead to a world of vacant exploitation, alienation and lack of freedom. Paradoxically, this version of the world is prescribed to us as natural and good, to allow the few to reap the benefits from the many. As deeply programmed as this worldview is, its shallow foundations can be waded through to more fulfilling waters. Meaning is the vessel that can carry us to the other side. To lessen the suffering of the masses, a collective revolution from a world of objects to a world of meaning must be undertaken.

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. – Freidrich Nietzche

If you or anyone you know struggles with mental health or suicide please contact the Netherland’s Suicide Helpline: 113


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