Sisyphus was a mythical King. He annoyed Zeus who punished him by having him eternally roll a boulder up a hill, only to trip at the top before he can push it over the crest and have the boulder roll to the bottom, undoing his efforts and forcing him to begin again. You already know who Bill Murray is, and I promise we will get to him, but first we get existential.
Sisyphus is an interesting story, the essence of futility, which also makes him an unfortunate metaphor for the human condition; living the same day, over and over, forever labouring, but never moving forward. He undertakes the same overwhelming challenge each day only to have success elude him because he struggles against the inevitable and unrelenting tide. Sound depressing and familiar?
There’s this writer, Camus, that tells us that we have the story of Sisyphus wrong. We must imagine Sisyphus happy, he says. That’s an argument that seems both practical and intuitive to me, and it is particularly relevant to the current times. I wanted to find out how he arrived at that conclusion.
Now, Camus is not a cheery guy. He’s famous for his novel about an indifferent fellow who murders a stranger. His essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, is an exploration of suicide as a logical conclusion to life. So I was prepared for dark and dense and was not disappointed. Yikes! What a slog. I’ll summarize and save you the trouble.
The problem is our rational thinking mind. You don’t ever look at your dog and fear it’s having an existential crisis about the meaning of life. Our ability to think, to remember the past in context and project into the future, and to rationalize the in-between, this is what separates us from the other animals, but it’s also what leads us into trouble. Camus’ approach was that if it’s our thinking minds that got us into this mess then let’s see if we can think our way out of it. He wanted to look at the problem factually, to accept only a solution that would satisfy his rational mind and that he can judge as true through his own senses and experience.
Humans have a desire to find meaning in their existence, the universe, however, does not care, it offers no answers, there is no empirical rational path to provide us the meaning that we desperately crave. This situation, in which we search for meaning in an indifferent universe is what Camus calls the absurdity of our existence. We can simply make the paradox disappear by injecting it with hope, with belief, with God. Now, Camus made no argument against God, nor would I. If spirituality or faith gives you solace, that’s wonderful. The rest of us have some doubts.
Camus admits hope is a good trick, but it doesn’t quench the desire for a solution that satisfies the mind and that we can judge as true through experience. Maybe God exists, but we can neither confirm nor disprove this, so it’s not satisfying. Where did we come from? God. Cool, where did God from? You see what I’m saying, it doesn’t scratch the itch.
The rational solution to our absurd situation may be suicide. All life ends in death. We know where we are heading we could just get on with it. If the act of living is often painful and has no meaning, why not skip to the end!? It’s a decent argument. Many have made it and most of us have considered it. The big question is, if we concede that life may be meaningless, does that mean it is not worth living?
This is the bit I was interested in when I started the drudgery of this essay. Who amongst us has not occasionally thought, with some hopelessness, “What is the point?” We all sometimes arrive at this point of view, it’s helpful to know some ways to shift away from it. Occasionally, I check in with smarter folks of yore, like Camus, who we will distill and then shortly abandon.
Camus’ solution is to embrace the absurd nature of our lives, “But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.” Be aware that all we can know is that we are here, and our time is brief. The answer is not suicide, to shun life, but rather to drink with both hands, live life to its fullest, this is the “absurd man”. That’s not exactly how Camus words it, but it’s the thread I pulled. He provides several examples of his “absurd man”, but his examples suck, in my opinion, but his conclusion, when he gets to it, works for me.
Everyday Sisyphus is different. Everyday he finds the strength to do it all again, to succeed at the impossible, and it is the struggle that is the thing.
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942).
A better example of an absurd man is Bill Murray, in Harold Ramis’ 1993 classic, Groundhog Day. A film so iconic and ingrained in our collective conscience that I’m positive someone around you has referenced the film to describe the feeling we’re all having, created by this extended quarantine.
Our hero Bill Murray gets stuck in a Sisyphean loop, waking each morning to literally repeat the same day. It all resets every 24 hours, nothing he does makes any difference. On top of that, Bill is the only person that remembers what happened, nobody else is conscious of the loop they are all in, he is truly alone in his struggle. A man in this scenario cannot have hope his existence has meaning.
Bill finds meaning in everyday human experience; he becomes Nietzsche’s “super human”. After trying every indulgence, acting without moral consequence or consideration, exploring the edges of possible human behaviour and action through countless life-times, he chooses to fill his days with personal growth and human connection. What’s critical to Bill’s movie experience, and by extension our literal experience, is that although his day repeats, the stage set with all the props and players at the same queues, Bill is not the same each day! He evolves, he changes, he learns that happiness does not lie in his circumstances, but in his perspective.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl
Push a rock up a hill or report if the groundhog sees his shadow, what’s the difference? Any human day is repetitive. Quarantine doesn’t help.
Yes, the days don’t change in Groundhog Day, but Bill does, and that makes all the difference. He learns a little each day and in tiny increments becomes a talented pianist and sculptor, he learns French, he makes genuine connections with others, he evolves into a man happy with his own existence. He comes to understand that he doesn’t control his situation but he does control his reaction to it. He embraces the day to day experiences and finds joy there.
It’s refreshing and wonderful that after all the digging I did down this rabbit hole, that this funny quirky movie takes a lot of philosophies and great thinkers and ties them up into a nice entertaining package that provides great insight on how to live a happy and meaningful life. This quarantine does feel like Groundhog Day, but it’s ceased to be a complaint in my mind. Now it’s a road map out of that feeling. Each day does seem the same, which is fine, because I’m not the same. I can learn a little bit today that will add up in the long run. I can find joy in the everyday and believe that meaning is found in its pursuit.Feb 02
A global lock-down. That was a plot twist. I read some about the 1918 flu and how it was battled shortly after the viral theory of disease was widely accepted. 100 years later we genome sequenced the thing before it left China and multiple global coordinated research initiatives raced to a vaccine in under 12 months! Although, the same strange war about wearing masks can be seen in b&w photos from 100 years ago, so you know, 2 steps forward, 1 step back, but still, way to go humanity! I grew a “pandemic beard”! Your contributions were also valuable, I’m sure.
I lost weight and got into shape, in the beginning, when the time to shower and go to work suddenly got to become exercise and meditation time, but that eventually became TV and eating time, so I’m finishing the year heavier than I’ve been in decades. We separate our recycling into 4 bins, and carrying the glass bin out one week I dug down and found a single pickle jar to put on top so the neighbours would see something other than wine bottles, then I came in and joked with my wife about our “bin of shame”, which was funny for awhile, but eventually you’re like, dude, we gotta get it together, it’s time to shut down the COVID party. But also, it’s a global pandemic, so if you’re not going to use your crutches now, then when!? It’s been an up and down year and if you find yourself suddenly struggling with unforeseen problems, I get you. Hang in there champ.
Our situation doesn’t change much with the new year. Pandemic is still here. I went into 2020 with grand plans that disappointed, but enter 2021 less burdened, forced to take it a day at a time with everyone else and see how it goes. Things will begin to come back, human contact and socializing among them. Won’t that be nice! No reason not to feel optimistic about the year, we’re on the up-swing.
A worldwide survey says that most people want to see significant changes to our pre-covid world. The question itself implies that a lot of us have realized that the world we build is a choice, and that the arguments for the status quo are fragile. Over-night we can change the world, or at least ourselves, because it turns out, there is no good reason you must do today what you did yesterday. This year has shown us we can just choose to do things differently. I think that’s exciting, and a decent message to take from 2020.Jan 01
I opened a restaurant, then I opened another one. I had never worked in the restaurant business or in a retail setting; I had never been exposed to customer service and the public at large prior to jumping into the deep end with a business built around exactly that. I found that most people are just fine, but 1 in 1000 are entitled irredeemable assholes. Still, those are pretty good odds.
These are not hard statistics I’ve pulled from a research paper, but my opinion based on anecdotal evidence gathered while serving tens of thousands, and I believe it to be a good estimate. Most people, the majority of people, when required to interact with other humans do so without much trouble, even when there are disagreements, misunderstandings, or mistakes, people generally manage to navigate those social waters without resorting to shouting, name calling, or childish rants. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and I’d say those exceptions run about 0.1% of the population.
When you own a restaurant you get to talk to each one of that 0.1%. Most customers leave happy with a full belly, some leave unhappy but appeased with an apology or a free meal, but there are some people that just want to watch the world burn and those people definitely want to talk to the manager.
The term “Karen” as a derogatory label for entitled white women is new, it wasn’t around when I owned restaurants, but I love it’s sudden popularity because you know exactly what I’m talking about, the 1 in 1000 people, those people are “Karens”. To be clear, in my experience entitled assholes come in a rainbow variety, it is a demographic than spans sex, age, and race. So I am referencing a behaviour and attitude towards others, and not any narrowly defined socio-economic racial or sexual bracket, although I acknowledge that white ladies are well represented in the group. (The internet can’t seem to agree if a “male Karen” is a Ken, Kyle, or Chad, but white dudes are definitely pulling their weight here too)
As an interlude, a shout-out to the many wonderful people actually named Karen, of which I know a few lovely examples, I’m sorry the internet turned your name into a meme. Boogie Nights came out when I was in College, so I feel your pain. My advise is to lean into it, take part in the joke. I have a special shirt that says, "I am Dirk Diggler!"
Talking to all those awful people, the 1 in 1000, it gave me a distorted view of what people are like. I began to think every other person had a black heart and was willing to go to war over cold French fries. It was slowly sucking the life out of me and it’s why I started to look at the numbers. I knew my viewpoint was being distorted and so I retreated to my science background and looked at the data. I compared how many people we served to our complaints. After eliminating genuine complaints, the sort that are a routine part of a restaurant’s operation, things that can be fixed, re-heated, re-made, apologized for, or discounted, you’re left with the folks that were determined to use the nuclear option. It’s this look at the data that makes me confident in saying that 99.9% of people are cool, and it made me feel better.
It also allowed me to have a better attitude when dealing with irrationally aggressive people. I picture myself as a primate behavioural scientist. These interactions now have narration in my head, like David Attenborough’s voice over a wilderness documentary, “It appears as if one of the apes has escaped its enclosure. Let’s wait and see how it reacts. Oh how unfortunate, it appears to be throwing its poo at passersby. Common aggressive behaviour when they are confused or upset.”
The internet emboldens people. It’s easier to be irrational, rude, and demanding when you don’t have to look anyone in the eye. The internet also magnifies their existence, technology makes those 1 in a 1000 people seem like they are everywhere. Viral videos rarely feature rational people calmly discussing their differences, it’s mostly morons yelling at each other. You see spite and small mindedness wrapped up like it’s virtue and righteousness. You see delusion and magical thinking masquerading as facts and thoughtful opinion. You see a lack of empathy and disregard for others being sold as an honourable fight for freedom.
Perhaps you’ve seen some “news” about people in your town behaving in shocking ways. What is going on in your life that you are yelling at a minimum wage employee that makes coffee!? How trashy and disrespectful and disgusting do you have to be to purposely cough on a stranger!? How deluded and entitled to berate an “essential worker” for asking you to submit to a minor inconvenience and comply with a government mandate based on universally accepted medical advise designed to save other people’s lives! You’ve seen the videos, you know what I’m talking about.
These things can leave you feeling despondent and depressed about people, at least it does to me. If you feel that way, I want you to know that I’ve done the math and 99.9% of people are cool. I’ve got charts and stuff to prove it, trust me. I bring this up to remind myself, and maybe you, that our view is being distorted. We are locked in our homes experiencing other people through viral videos and personalized feeds programmed to monetize our desire for drama. Those people in the videos don’t represent people, they represent themselves and a small impotent army of jerks. Most people, the vast majority, are pretty great, and we would all do well to remember that.
Karens (combative attention seeking egocentric jerks) feed on the destruction they sow. I found that polite nodding is a good technique. If you ignore them they throw a tantrum and shout themselves out, like a toddler, and then you can move on with your day. We give them far too much press and space in our collective consciousness. Try the internal narration by David Attenborough, I highly recommend it.
Finally, please be nice to your Server. It’s a challenging job under normal circumstances and this is far from normal. A Server’s job is to be polite, helpful, and bring you food and drink. I want to assure you that if you manage to turn that into an unpleasant adversarial experience, that it is definitely your problem, you are absolutely the asshole in that situation. Be kind, be polite, enjoy your experience outside the house, and tip generously. Be one of the cool people.Dec 14
When you start a job, they give you a black box, metaphorically. Manuals, policies, procedures, spreadsheets, and templates. The box defines your job, which is to turn the crank on the box and produce reports, or sales, or widgets, or code, or... whatever.
On the second day at my new job I say, “Super excited to be here. I’ve been thinking about that black box. Have you ever tried it with rounded corners?”
Well, they haven’t, because the box works fine, great even. They’ve been using it for a decade, everyone is familiar with it. Why would you change the box?
That makes sense to me, and I like the job, so I keep turning the crank. But, as every day passes I become more confident, the box will work better with rounded corners. It starts as a curiosity and develops into an obsession, so I keep bringing it up. I can appreciate how that’s annoying.
I understand the argument for the status quo. Companies have momentum, there is value in consistency, changes cost time and money. I also believe that if your business isn’t evolving, it's dying. I’ve become sure that being a catalyst for change is where my value lies, and that I can’t help myself anyway, you can’t fight your nature.
There is a movement around starting a business designed to evolve. You begin with an idea to fly in the face of convention and build a grey rectangle, but you know going in that the plan will change, that the plan is to evolve the plan. You start with a grey rectangle, you build a prototype, put it in front of customers, test it, and you evolve it into a translucent green sphere. It’s a siren’s song luring many an inventive adventurer.
Entrepreneurship is a strange journey to volunteer for. Three of four startups end in failure. It’s a foolish thing to consider, yet it’s an alluring idea. You have to reach a point in your life where you would rather fail doing your own thing than succeed turning the crank on someone else’s black box.Dec 08
Begin. It’s how anything gets done; huge complex things and small simple things. They all have beginnings.
Not all beginnings have nice neat endings. You can quit things. You can stop and begin something else. You can fail.
You know you can fail, of course. It’s the fear of failure that keeps us from beginning. You can think a lot about your screen play, your great business idea, going back to school, getting in shape, taking a class, expressing your love, saying goodbye, but never do any of it, never begin. Most dreams don’t end in failure, we lock them away to protect them where they wither and die from lack of sunlight.
Beginning something that doesn’t end well, or maybe even badly, that should happen a lot. No progress, no movement forward is made without risk. You never get better without failure, it’s the foundation of success.
That’s so pompous. Don’t make such a big deal of it, that’s what I’m saying. Get started and worry about the rest later. Begin.Nov 23