…A birthday message from the Rookster
As the years roll by, I’ve begun to notice the legends I outlive. It puts things in perspective and has me asking, if I’m gonna join ’em, I better get my shit together! Last year, it was Freddie Mercury. The recent biopic brought back a Live Aid performance that blew my 10-year-old socks off. How do you hold a microphone in one hand and 72,000 people in the other?
This year, I passed three great writers; Orwell, Camus, and Wilde. But it’s the French Algerian that influenced me most. And the only one of the three I’ve read. So, for my 47th birthday, let me share a few things I learned from the legendary Albert Camus (1913-60). Strap in. Things get deep.
Number 1: Make Your Own Rules
Maybe the most profound sentence I ever read came in my twenties. “No event has any meaning other than the meaning we choose to give it.” It seems so obvious to me now. But on the back of a religious upbringing that messed with my autonomy, it was a game-changer. No longer did my reactions need to be determined by the perceptions of others. With no ultimate meaning to life and no divine force watching, judging and guiding us, we are free to make our own rules and reframe life’s events in whichever way serves us best.
That phrase originated with Camus and was my gateway to absurdism. Growing up, I was outnumbered by faith-based thinkers at home and school and felt like an outsider looking in. Getting the green light from the finest philosopher of the 20th century brought this black sheep in from the cold. And gave me the term philosophical suicide to explain why I could never join them.
Camus’ novels put flesh on the bones. Accepting the absurdity of this thing we call life opens up a world of possibilities. With a bit of self-examination, we can define our own values, understand what makes us happy and create a fulfilling life for ourselves. And if The Stranger (1942) inspired a verse in Freddie’s Bo Rhap, well, that just adds to the magic.
Number 2: Be a Rebel
For Camus, being a rebel is about learning to say no to the things we disagree with, taking the unexplored paths that interest us, and having the courage to break social norms and create something new. Put concisely, the path to freedom is authentic self-realisation.
In my younger days, my agreeable personality had me going with the flow and seeking the approval of others. Camus and my non-conformist missus taught me the importance of a rebellious attitude. Things came to a head in my forties. With no dependents to justify the mundanity of the rat race, I jumped ship to explore my creativity, travel, and write stories like this one. The man was right – life is more rewarding when you don’t follow the herd.
It’s a philosophy that’s helpful in these surreal times. As the world slips into pandemic-induced authoritarianism, this quote resonates with me more than ever – “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Number 3: Hold Onto Truth
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries made post-truth their Word of the Year. It describes the circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Brexit and Trump were the tip of the iceberg. Nowadays, everything’s up for grabs, big tech censor factually correct opinions, morning TV debate the reality of biological sex, and politicians turn conspiracy theories into spoiler alerts.
According to Camus, ignoring the truth only causes problems. He puts it like this, “The evil in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened.” It stands to reason. Given enough intelligence and knowledge, we will always choose not to harm others. Because harm comes back. The morality of absurdism is rooted in empathy, fairness and team spirit.
The world is arguably more complex and interconnected now than in Camus’ day. And ignorance poses a bigger risk. If good intentions are harmful in the presence of misinformation and perverse incentives, it don’t bode well in a time of pandemic. Following Camus’ philosophy requires us to think critically, call out bullshit, and disobey unjust laws. That ain’t easy in a post-truth world, but it might just be a moral imperative.
Number 4: Be Here Now
If losing a twin at 41 taught me anything, it’s that making happiness a distant goal is for the birds. You never know what’s around the corner. We have a tendency to imagine that someday in the future, we will have it all figured out. This happy-ever-after thinking is a myth that stops us from living and appreciating the present. Time is our only non-renewable resource. So we should use it wisely. Maybe that’s why lockdowns piss me off so much.
Distant goals almost inevitably lead to a fleeting anti-climax and dissatisfaction. Priorities change along the way, and new aspirations appear. Far better to enjoy the struggle and the journey. By doing so, the goal becomes irrelevant. If we still want it when we get there, happy days. Camus puts it more succinctly, “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present”.
Number 5: Love is the Law
Albert Camus cut a carnal and cerebral figure committed to a quest for happiness. He was a good looking boy who liked his football and was a hit with the ladies – which is probably why I relate. Camus saw love as an act of rebellion and a life force that protects us from being broken by the absurd. He urged us to listen to love and express it more often without worrying about the consequences. And said, “I know of only one duty, and that is to love.”
But Camus was not just talking about romantic love. To be happy, we must do the things we love. Live in the places we love with people that share our values – because it’s love that brings us back from dark moments. It rings true for me. All of my favourite achievements and experiences have felt more worthwhile shared. And when I get sidetracked by things that don’t matter, I try to remember, “Nothing in life is worth turning your back on if you love it.”
On 4th January 1960, the 46 Club received another legend. And checkouts don’t come much more poetic than Camus’. On a trip to Provence with his wife and kids, he bought a return ticket, but instead of returning to Paris with them on the train, he got a lift from his publisher a couple of days later. The car, a Facel Vega HK500 – the fastest 4-seater on earth at the time, crashed into a tree on the road to Sens, killing Albert instantly. As if to illustrate the absurdity of life, the return ticket was found in his top pocket, and sens happens to be the French word for meaning.