I have this thought about a mountain named Edith.
Two summers ago, a close friend of mine and I hiked as close to the peak of Mount Edith as we could get. We spent six hours scaling the mountain, stumbling over rock and root, completely unprepared for the difficult trek.
There’s no better example of our lack of preparation than four hours into the hike when we found ourselves stuck on the edge of a cliff. We could see a flag 50 feet below us that meant we were on the right path, but other than jumping, there was no realistic path forward.
Then an older lady passed by us with all the things we didn’t have—hiking shoes, trekking poles, a proper daypack—and walked down the cliffside like a mountain goat. The same cliffside that was clearly steeped at a 90-degree angle.
When the lady made it to the bottom, she turned back around to find us watching in disbelief from above.
“Do you need help?” she asked.
My friend and I pridefully said “no” and watched her step onward into the forest.
What had taken her seconds to do took us almost 20 minutes. Holding onto the cliffside with both hands and taking our precious time to find the proper footing, my friend and I made it down and continued on our way.
We eventually reached the peak of Mount Edith, and there, laid out before us, was the rest of Banff National Park. Under a blue sky rose cascading mountains, one after the other, blanketed by the lush green of trees, shrubs, and bushes. The gentle clouds above us left the valley below spotted in shadow, and the bluest lakes sprawled out across the landscape, fed by bending rivers that led from one lake to the next.
It was beautiful, and we spent a good hour sitting there, admiring the view, treating it like a sacred obligation.
Five months after the trip, while I was walking across my university campus to get to class, I remember stopping in the middle of an outdoor pathway, struck by the thought of Mount Edith.
At the time, I had been dealing with the regular stresses of daily life—keeping up with my courses, arguing with my parents about things I now don’t remember, and staying on top of my workload at The Medium, my university campus’ newspaper. When the thought of Mount Edith came back to me, everything else seemed a bit less important.
Mount Edith would continue to sit there at the back of my mind, wrapping itself around my perspective of everything I perceived to be difficult or time-consuming. Whenever I would think about a difficult aspect of my life, I would also think about Mount Edith and it’s enormous presence.
While at Banff, I didn’t see climbing Mount Edith as important. It was just another exciting thing to scratch off my bucket list. But it became much more than that. I’m unsure of the reason why. Maybe it’s because, in some futile way, I was able to conquer nature. If I could conquer something as colossal as Mount Edith, a part of me believed that I could conquer most things in my life. What in life is like a mountain, in size and scope and difficulty?
Meaning comes from the struggle, and there’s always one struggle that’s greater than another. Mount Edith represented that great struggle for me.
The mountain is just one example of my attempt to make meaning in my life. This quest began in my first year of university, shortly after I left Nova Scotia to study at the University of Toronto.
Belief in a god, an afterlife, a prayer, or a holy book can make life meaningful for a number of people, but some people just can’t take that leap of faith. All of these attempts at finding meaning in the great beyond are bound to fail because they are built on hope—they suspend our rational understanding of the world so that we can believe in something beyond reason.
This led me to search for an explanation of the world that would make sense to me—something that would help me find peace with the inevitability of my life (and death).
Enter French philosopher and author, Albert Camus.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes, “Rising, street-car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, street-car, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm.” Much of the time, the monotony of life holds us close, lulling us into a waking slumber.
But there are times in life when we are shaken out of this repetitive lifestyle, whether through the realization of our impending death, however near or far, or an awareness of the passing of time. Such experiences can lead us to ask the simple question of “why?” Why am I alive in the here and now? Why is the world the way it is? Why does my life matter?
As Camus writes, “But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” There is an awakening that occurs when we ask that “why” question—a consciousness and an anxiousness about the purpose of life itself.
Camus calls this human appetite for understanding a “nostalgia for unity,” this drive to “distinguish what is true from what is false” an “appetite for clarity.” Living in an age that was grappling with the “death of God,” Camus could not justify human existence based on a metaphysical worldview: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning […]”
For Camus, our reasons for life are confined to what we know. If human existence, as Camus would argue, is futile and the only real answer to life is death, then our justification for our existence will remain unfulfilled. We have nothing that anchors us to it. From this realization, says Camus, we become estranged from life itself.
Humans want life to make sense amid the “unreasonable silence of the world.” This tension between what should be and what is leads us to what Camus would call the Absurd.
The world is full of the irrational. We’re thrown into this ridiculous existence where almost nothing makes sense and where life is filled with insolvable conflict. We’re fleshy and mortal, living on a glorified rock that is hurtling through space with no destination. Regardless of that, we still try to make sense of something that, on the surface, is nonsensical.
The human quest to find meaning in a meaningless world—that tension—is Absurd.
“If man realized that the universe like him can love and suffer,” writes Camus, “he would be reconciled.” But alas, that is impossible.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus acknowledges the absurdity of life: “The human condition is characterized by the probability of suffering and the certainty of death—a fate which human reason cannot accept as reasonable.”
What is more absurd than life itself? We’re doing everything we can to prolong life, to make it worth living, but death is inevitable.
We live to die.
But when we see the Absurd for what it is, when we finally acknowledge the meaninglessness of our lives, and when we realize how silent the universe truly is, what should we do? How can you justify a meaningless existence?
Camus outlines three possible answers. The first is physical suicide. You could kill yourself in the face of the Absurd. In doing so, you believe that life is just not worth the trouble of living. But you can’t have the Absurd without a person there to experience it. It is an essential part of life. Therefore, you can’t have life without the Absurd. It is something we must accept as part of our existence.
Another option is to choose to put your faith in the great beyond—in God or some other omnipotent being. Camus would call this “philosophical suicide,” which is committed when a person performs a leap of faith. That leap of faith suspends our rationality and dissolves the Absurd since a leap of faith would signify that there is an ultimate meaning to life and existence, something Camus rejects.
The final option, and the one that Camus defends, is to embrace the absurdity of life and revolt against it.
In the foreword to Camus’ The Rebel, Sir Herbert Read writes, “[…] the nature of revolt has changed radically in our times. It is no longer the revolt of the slave against the master, nor even the revolt of the poor against the rich; it is a metaphysical revolt, the revolt of man against the conditions of life, against creation itself.”
Consider Sisyphus, the protagonist of the Greek myth who, after cheating death on two separate occasions, is condemned by the gods for all eternity to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down upon reaching the top. Each time, Sisyphus must descend to the bottom of the hill and start again. That is his punishment.
But Camus sees Sisyphus as triumphant, not tragic. Camus believes that Sisyphus shows us how to live “with the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.” It is Sisyphus’ walk back down the mountain, where he becomes conscious of his tragic fate, that he recognizes the full extent of his existence: “All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him.”
The beginning of freedom from the Absurd is in the realization that life, in a way, is absurd. By rejecting the absurd life—the one that offers no clear answers to the “why” question—you can begin to carve out your own answer.
Once you get past the terrifying idea of the “unreasonable silence of the world” and learn to accept it, you realize that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is you and the boulder you’re pushing up that hill. That is your life—your experience. It is yours to own and make sense of.
As Camus puts it, “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night […] crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”
To rebel against the meaninglessness of life is to view every place as the center of the universe and every moment as the most important moment in history. You can eat that delicious fruit and get wrapped up in your favorite song. You can find joy in the process of work and appreciate every single movement, word, sound, image, and idea you come into contact with.
My life up until Mount Edith had been like any other life: I was a 22-year-old guy attending university while working a part-time job at my campus newspaper. I paid rent every month and bought groceries every week. I was living a repetitive life with the same day-to-day routine, but I wasn’t aware of it.
For me, the trek up Mount Edith and the view I admired from its peak was the beginning of my journey to understanding the Absurd. I had struggled for seven hours to get to the top of Mount Edith to appreciate something great and astonishing. When my friend and I sat at the peak of the mountain, the sight was both beautiful and painful. Beautiful because of the breathtaking scenery and painful because of the indifference of the natural world. The sky, the earth, and the water were enormous, perfect, and untouchable. The thought running through my head was that compared to the rest of the universe, I was small and insignificant.
This realization, while not original, felt raw and completely personal. I had come face to face with Camus’ “why.”
Acknowledging your place in the world brings you into the here and now—into the absolute mess that is life. Life is painful and confusing and beautiful, and death is right around the corner. But since I know my death is inevitable, I have to decide what matters. Are my daily concerns really as important as I make them out to be? This is a question I ask myself almost every day.
We may be doomed until the end of time to question the reason for our existence, but that’s not the point. “What counts is not the best living, but the most living,” writes Camus.
All you really have to do is live—and live with passion, vitality, and intensity. Save the worrying for when you’re dead.