A few months ago I began writing my statements of purpose to be delivered to those graduate schools that I chose to apply to. During this time I also had to make a tentative plan regarding what I want to research in the very near future. I chose a field that many people dislike and that many more people feel is depressing, hopeless, and altogether unappetizing. I chose the field of absurdist literature, that is, authors such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, or in some respects Lewis Carroll. The field includes theorists and philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche or Soren Kierkegaard. I chose this field because these are writers who give me purpose and who make life worth living. And on this day, this historic day, I want to share why they give me purpose, and I want to talk about climbing mountains.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a man of habit during his life. He would wake up at five in the morning and write until midday. At that point, he would then climb the mountains that surrounded his home in Switzerland. Mountains were a common theme in his work, as they are throughout much of absurdist literature. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes:
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
There was a concept here. Nietzsche thought that standing on the mountains, taking in the world and seeing where one started their climb, had the power to overcome all evils, all tragedies, and all sorrows. There’s a peacefulness there, a somberness when one has reached the heights of the earth. But there was something more to this idea, something that lay at the heart of all Nietzschean philosophy, that is, there is a struggle.
There is a book that I consider to be my golden plates and one that I wish for all to read. It was written by Albert Camus and is titled The Myth of Sisyphus. The book, or essay, is focussed on defining an entity called the absurd, exploring the absurd, and understanding the absurd. At the end of the essay Camus turns his attention entirely to the Greek myth of Sisyphus. For those who do not know, Sisyphus is a man condemned by the gods to roll an enormous boulder up a mountain (I told you mountains pop up a lot) and every time that boulder reaches the top, it rolls back down and Sisyphus must begin again. It is a myth that is often tied to despair: an eternity of doing the same thing over and over again. Camus writes:
“[The Gods] had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)
Camus goes on to say that it is not the rolling of the stone that necessarily interests him. Rather, “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. . . That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness” (my italics). I talked about Sisyphus on the morning after the election. I imagined what I was feeling must have been close to what Sisyphus had felt; we have been working so hard as a people to gain respect, and equal rights for the masses, and now, in one night, those who would think themselves better than others, those who in selfishness would willingly throw the disadvantaged by the wayside, they elected a man to power who has vowed to do just that: establish an elite race, and demean, belittle, and destroy all those who are different.
Notice I added the italics around “that pause” to the above quote. When I read that passage from Camus, those are the words that stand out to me. Since election night we’ve been walking back down that mountain. It is okay to pause, it is essential to pause and take it all in and to have that hour of consciousness. But after you have paused it is time to start climbing again.
Which brings me to hope. In previous days I have seen many people talking about hoping or praying that all will work out. Have hope, they say. Nietzsche hated hope. Camus hated hope. I hate hope. Hope is not enough. Hope is passive, it relieves oneself of duty. Nietzsche talked about climbing mountains because he thought the struggle was important.
“In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route thou must have long legs.” ~ Nietzsche
Life is not about taking the easy way. It is not about hoping that things will work out. It is about doing. In the words of Ghandi, life is about being the change you wish to see in the world. Imagine it were possible to take that short path from peak to peak, and imagine it were possible to reach the top of the mountain without having climbed there. It would not be as special. It would not mean as much. Camus concludes his essay by saying “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” It was not the punishment itself that made that happiness, it was the struggle and the purpose that made happiness a possibility. I haven’t long legs, and I have yet to fully station myself atop my own mountains, but I take honor and I find purpose in believing that I can help to make the change that will bring happiness to more people. I take action, purpose, and hope in believing that I can be one of many to not only climb the mountain myself, but to also help push the stone of civilization to the top with me. There will be hardships, and the stone will often roll back down, but that mustn’t stop us from understanding the purpose in the journey; that mustn’t stop us from banding together to rescue the stone and begin pushing again.
President Obama, for all his faults and imperfections, for all his mistakes and failures, is a good man. I have not always agreed with him, and I will not always agree with anyone, but I always knew that he carried the idea of love in his heart. He sought to make life better for as many people as he possibly could. Most importantly, he understand that hope is not enough. His slogans were not simply “hope” but came to include the word change. And he left office the same way he entered:
Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I'm asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours.
— President Obama (@POTUS44) January 11, 2017
In short, life is an act of climbing. It seems likely that we are now about to embark on climbing what, for many of us, will be the Everest of our generation. In these next four years, do please remember to love. Remember that hoping is not enough. Remember to take action and believe in your ability to instill change, and remember that you cannot climb the mountain alone, that you cannot hold your own weight without the help of others. Remember that it is not enough to go alone, for there are others below you who require your help. Fight for equality. Fight for love. Understand that we are all equals; we are all human. Do not judge others for being different. Love others for being who they are. Accept one another. In four years I want to be able to look down the mountain, and I want to see where we paused, and I want to be able to say that we made progress and that we fought the good fight. Hillary Clinton said, “Please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.” She quoted the scriptures which say:
“Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9)
These are the Christian ideals I have so long been told are the cornerstone of American ideals. Show me them. Let us climb the mountain together, for life is an act of climbing.