I was 18-years-old when I realized that I wasn’t scared to die. It took two separate incidents over a period of three months for it to sink in: the first involving alcohol and a longboard and a quiet intersection; the second, the scarier one, was with a friend and a car and a very icy highway.
I’ll start with the first — it’s the less flattering of the two. The setting is a university town. The subject, me, does two things well: avoid responsibility and drink. On this particular night, I was out on the core downtown strip. The kind you recognize in any city— the kind with the lights and the people and the attitude that invitingly suggests that this, right here, is where things happen. But for me, it wasn’t unlike the night before it, nor the one after it.
When I left around 2 AM, I had three choices: walk home (a poor one), take a taxi back (appealing but not ideal for a broke student), or stop by at an acquaintance’s place. It was someone who lived nearby and who I had seen a few days before and who, because of that, had my longboard in her possession. I did what any idiot would do: I stumbled over to hers, and a while later, I stumbled back out with the conviction that I could ride back to mine and that this wasn’t at all as bad of an idea as the suppressed voice in my mind was telling me it was.
The way to my house was through a long, downhill street. There weren’t many turns, and at that time, I wasn’t expecting any traffic. Anytime an intersection came up, I didn’t stop because I figured it was fine, and I blew by. Fine it was, until it wasn’t. My memory is vague, but I saw the amber flash of the moving headlights first. I remember instinctively turning my body away from them, and I know that as soon as the car hit me, I realized if I had been even a second late, the damage would have been more than a few scratches.
The rest is clearer. The driver came to check on me: we talked, and I was okay, and I apologized. He left. I walked home the rest of the way. But other than that, I felt no fear, no anxiety, and I didn’t at all think about the incident beyond mentioning it to my roommate the next morning.
Then, three months later (as fortune would have it) this same roommate and I were returning back from a brief spring break. It was a Friday. We had been staying at his parents’ house, and despite the caution of his mother who asked us to wait another day as the ice on the roads cleared out, we set off to make the two-hour trip from Toronto back to school.
I want to say that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing on the stereo by the time we made it onto the highway, but I’m not sure. Our spirits were high, though, and we were laughing and talking, and he was driving and I was watching the rain bounce off the window in the passenger seat.
A strange thing occurs as you look death right in the eyes — this happened when I was hit by the car, to an extent, but not quite like when my roommate lost control of the steering wheel on the highway — and it’s the feeling that there is no such thing as time: that moments are minutes or days only as far as your mind needs them to be. We were going at 100 kph, and at most, there couldn’t have been more than 10 actual seconds between his loss of control and the four or five spins we did before the car smashed into the left railing of the highway. I felt like I was there for a brief eternity.
He screamed and screamed, as you would expect a person to do.
“What is going on? I can’t control the car. Somebody is going to hit us. We’re going to fucking die. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
I looked over, and I watched him, and then I turned back to look out of the window beside me. As we were spinning, twice, I saw the lights of a truck-sized vehicle charging towards us. Somehow, both times, the car spun just out of the way, missing them by what must have been a few feet.
This whole time, I didn’t say a word. I didn’t feel my body’s flight response take over, nor was I tense in any way. I knew my future at that moment was out of my hands, but I felt completely in control; at peace, even.
There was just one lingering feeling throughout.
What a shit way to go, I thought.
“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” — that’s how Albert Camus begins his novel The Stranger. It strikingly sums up the philosophical attitude that is explored throughout the rest of it.
In some ways, those first two sentences are misleading because he explains why he isn’t sure after that, but they achieve the desired effect — Camus didn’t put them there by accident. The novel is also about more than a single attitude. It’s a complex philosophical puzzle that touches on morality, meaning, and freedom. It just so happens to be beautifully masqueraded as a simple story about a man who experiences loss, routinely feels indifference as he tries to find his place in the absurdity of everyday life, and then deals with the repercussions of committing a crime.
Absurdity, to Camus, is the awkward gap that the human condition seems to be eternally confined to — the gap between our reasonable and calculated expectations of the world and the unreasonableness of a larger universe that isn’t concerned with the consistency and hopefulness of the abstraction that we impose on it. Every other question in life finds its base in this predicament, and much of Camus’s philosophizing in The Stranger, too, is rooted here. Sometimes, life isn’t just strange; it’s nonsensical.
The protagonist of the novel exists to create a contrast: There is an outer world, full of people, that is designed to ignore this absurdity — treat it like it doesn’t exist: get up every morning, kiss the spouse and the kids goodbye, sit at a desk for 8 hours, drive home through traffic, buy groceries, have a family meal, maybe watch some TV, and then go to bed; rinse and repeat — and then there is him, a man who finds all of this.. dull.
As the novel progresses, the thematic contrast becomes more pronounced. You can take either side of the argument. You can take the position that the man, by shunning the social order, poses harm to the broader harmony that exists in the world, whether imagined or not, and that he is in the wrong, which is the predominant position. You can also, however, make a case that it is actually he, the stranger, who is the victim, ostracized by a society that doesn’t create an authentic space for him to express who he is how he wants. It expects him to respond according to a generalized template, and it leaves him with little freedom to not play the game in front of him.
More than anything else in the novel, though, it is the protagonist’s indifference that makes it fascinating. It’s also what, I suspect, makes him relatable to the many people who have read the book (even though he is very unlike most of them), making the latter argument in Camus’s dichotomy more appealing than it sounds on paper. It’s the freedom of his indifference, the rebellion he expresses in the face of absurdity, that makes you feel like he is waking up a part of you that is in a deep, dreamless sleep, hoping to escape. This indifference reflects the larger indifference of the universe, and yet, a society built on an illusion will treat it as less true, less real.
Arguably the most impressive thing Camus, as an author, accomplishes with The Stranger is how well he successfully shows us the utility of indifference. While much of the novel is centered around the protagonist being socially punished for the ways that he is an outsider, this is also contrasted with how much more effective the indifferent state is at dealing with the absurd relative to something like reason. He adds a new dimension to something that is by default viewed as problematic.
When the absurd is challenged by reason, the latter may squeeze out the odd victory, but over time, it’s a futile exercise. You can’t conform sense into something that has never made sense. Instead, you have to reject the absurd just like it rejects you. You have to push back when it doesn’t want you to push, and you have to harmonize with the inconsistency around you.
Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist is anything but free in the conventional sense, but after coming to terms with his own story as it has unfolded around him, he finds himself in a joyously peaceful state: He may be the stranger, or the outsider (as the book is often translated), but he’s also the only one who has truly accepted the condition of his being.
Some people believe in Heaven. I trust in the first law of thermodynamics: namely, energy (and thus mass) cannot be created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed from one form to another.
What we think of as death is a rearrangement of the matter that makes up the universe — a universe that doesn’t distinguish between what is alive and what is dead; a universe that only transitions. Before I was born, my elements belonged to stars and planets. Once I am gone, they will form something else. There is a poetic unity at the core of existence, one that I have always found comforting. I am both everything and nothing at the same time — I matter, sure, but not all that much, and that’s okay.
At some point in my early life, I internalized this lesson. It didn’t stop me from wanting to live, but it did ensure that I never spent more time than necessary worrying about things outside of my control. I took life less seriously, and as a result, I lived more. The subdued responses I had had in the face of death at 18 were one manifestation of this change. I wasn’t sure what to think of them at first. Now, I am certain they are a gift. I know this mainly because of the effect they have had on the other areas of my life.
Indifference is a loaded word. It has a negative connotation, one that many people instinctively respond to with push-back. And herein lies Camus’s genius: He managed to show us another side to indifference by making us realize that, actually, indifference is the only thing that allows us to function in a world we don’t fully understand. Only by turning our back to some aspects of this reality do we get the chance to really face the other aspects — the freer, the more honest ones.
Growing up, I used to feel a quiet kind of shame. Not just because I had reasoned my way out of not giving a fuck about dying but also because I didn’t give a fuck about most of the day to day things that seemed to absorb the world around me, like who to vote for and what societal game to play. As a result, the questions kept coming up: Does it mean that I don’t care about anything? Am I a sociopath? The fact that I say I value kindness and beauty and all of the other soft and warm things, are those lies?
It took years for me to realize that I actually wasn’t alone. Everybody is indifferent, especially the people who neatly fit into the social contract and the surrounding systems that support it. They are just indifferent to things that don’t really make them stand out. They are consistent as far as their little world goes, but beyond that, the rules don’t apply. And this works for them, and it is (at least in my humble opinion) entirely fair as long as they are not hurting anyone else in a direct way.
Life is far more complex than any ideology promises. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers all over the world have been arguing over the answers to the most enduring questions that plague our existence. Even today, none of them are settled with certainty. We know a lot about things that are two to three levels detached from the foundation, but the foundation itself remains elusive — perhaps it always will. Where, then, do we stand?
We stand in awe at the night-sky that curtains mysteries we can’t even fathom. We stand in a world of senseless suffering and masked misery. We stand to push ourselves forward so we can replace old answers with better questions. We stand to cooperatively fight together so that we can competitively fight against each other. We stand both here and there.
A few years ago, I was camping on the beach of an isolated island with a group of 5 people, among them one of my closest friends. I hadn’t seen him in a year, and when the night fell over us, we snuck away towards the water to sit and talk. At one point, I remember asking him if he’d wished anything had turned out differently over the past few years.
“I don’t think so. I really like where I am right now. You?”
“Yeah, same. I didn’t expect or predict this, but I’m okay with it.”
We stayed silent for a minute or so.
“What are the chances you would have said that no matter where you had ended up?” I asked.
He thought about it for a second before saying, “Pretty high, I think.”
“I figured so. I feel the same way. Sometimes, I think I’m lucky. Other times, I suspect that what is really at play is that I convince myself I’m lucky.”
“And that’s our problem,” he said with a smile. “It has never really mattered.”
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