Sisyphus and Camus
I don’t remember what he did to get into such trouble, but in ancient Greek legend, Sisyphus got some mythical gods miffed at him. As punishment, they forced him to push a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom every time he reached the top. There, he had to start all over again—in an endless repeat of futility. Unlike Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, Sisyphus never got it right.
The 20th century skeptic-secularist, Albert Camus likened the Sisyphus punishment to our human experience. He said that just like Sisyphus struggled over and over without hope of happiness—so do we. According to Camus (who did not believe in Anyone above the sun), we humans strive in vain for ultimate meaning—and always roll back to the bottom. It probably goes without saying that Mr. Camus was not a very happy man
If deep happiness seems futile, and lasting meaning seems elusive to you, then Sisyphus and Old King Solomon would say “Welcome to our world!” But that isn’t the world in which you have to live. I want you to know that life is not futile and hopeless after all—if you know where to look.
O the Things We Have Seen, but Don’t Understand
But that’s the question: do you know where to look? This was Solomon’s problem: he kept looking for this world to satisfy him. For example, one thing he thought would help was to discover the answers to this world’s Why? questions; only to discover that he never could. Someday you too will walk in Solomon’s shoes. Maybe you already have. If you’ve ever said, “If only I had this then I would be happy” only to receive it and then still not be happy, then I’m sure you’ve wondered Why.
I’ll bet, too, that you’ve been in the Why? spiral if you have a really bad case of acne, or are not as good-looking as the really popular person next door. And I’ll bet you’ve asked Why? if you have seen injustice without remedy; or a teen inexcusably shot down by police; or a heroic man or woman in blue getting gunned down in the line of duty.
If you love Jesus but still feel always alone, if you have seen poverty and oppression not made right, or if your father or mother died while you were still young—you have asked, perhaps even screamed your Whys? to God. If you have heard the cry of a dying child, if you have seen a young mom—now a young widow, if you have seen the wicked gain power, if you have seen the unborn killed, or if you have heard the sound of bombs and guns in your neighborhood—the Whys? keep coming.
If you have noticed that the evil prosper and the righteous suffer, if you have read Anne Frank’s Diary or Elie Weisel’s Night, or if you have simply wondered why it all feels like there is no rhyme or reason, then you have not only walked in Solomon’s shoes, you have passed through Solomon’s door, and may well be living in his house,
Geeks and Gurus
The world is made up of all kinds, with everyone trying to find meaning and happiness is his or her own way. Among them all are those whom I respectfully call Geeks and Gurus. You may be one of these: a Geek who looks for happiness and control in education, in knowledge, and in information; or a Guru who seeks for happiness in philosophy, human wisdom, and answers to the why-questions of life.
Geeks are into accumulating all kinds of information, while gurus are into figuring out all kinds of reasons. Some people think that if they can only get enough of these they will be happy. But in Ecclesiastes 1:16-18, the brilliant and wise Solomon reports that he tried both, and found them vanity; a meaningless vapor that disappears as fast as it appears, a chasing after the wind.
The Trouble with Learning and Whyning
Solomon offers four reasons why there is no ultimate joy in knowledge and human wisdom. These explain why we can never be happy merely by accumulating more information, or by whyning our way into human insight. Let’s slow down and take a look at these in a couple of posts
Reason #1: There is always more to learn. Over in Ecclesiastes 12:12 we read—“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” In other words: there’s always another book to read and more knowledge to gain—and it’s a weariness, an exhausting and depressing pursuit of futility—like rolling a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again.
Imagine if Solomon lived today! He had no idea how many books there would be. Did you know there are over 1,000,000 new books published every year in the USA alone? I published a book this past year. Whoopee! 999,999 others were published, too. And over 13,000,000 more books were re-published! That’s 14,000,000 books that you and I need to digest every year just to keep up. O! And did I mention that there are at least 152 million blog sites? 152 million!
To make matters worse, they say that the total amount of information that the human race knows doubles every 13 months. And some experts estimate that the Internet effect will speed that up soon to a doubling of human knowledge every 12 hours.
There is too much to learn—so that if learning is the key to happiness, it won’t work. Instead, we will always be haunted by the knowledge that there is way more that we do not know than that we do know. Worse, we will all face decisions and issues that require significantly more knowledge than what we have or can ever hope to have.
If happiness is found in knowledge, then full happiness will be as elusive as the next piece of trivia. And to aggravate us even more, we will be irked by the awareness that someone else knows more—and therefore might be happier than we are!
A Brilliant Relic
Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games of Jeopardy, and over $3,000,000 in the process. Mr. Jennings probably knows more trivia than any other human alive, and most of us put together. A while ago, IBM hired Jennings to play the game against “Watson”; their super-computer into which they had poured hundreds of millions of dollars and all their best minds. Not surprisingly, Jennings lost. What is surprising is how this affected him. He says that it made him feel like an “obsolete know-it-all”.
Imagine that. The guy knows more than a thousand Tim Shoreys ever could, and he feels obsolete; like a brilliant knowledge relic; an intellectual has-been. Where does that leave you and me? Friend, if you seek your happiness in knowledge it’ll fail you because there will always be more to learn, and there will always be someone or something that knows more than you. And so you will always feel at least a little bit inferior…a little bit behind…a little bit dated and obsolete.
Is This an Education Diss?
We’re going to come back to this to see three more reasons why learning and whyning—the search for knowledge, and for the reasons behind what happens in life—never satisfies. We’ll see that:
-the more you learn the more you lament
-no matter how much you learn, bad stuff will still happen to you, and
-there are some things you never will learn or even be able to learn.
So what’s the point? You’d be missing it if you concluded that Solomon and I are dissing education and knowledge. We’re not saying that the goal of life is: “Be as dumb as you can be!” No. Learning is good and being wise is even better. But—and that but is important—Solomon is saying that Geeks and Gurus are no happier than anyone else. He’s saying that trivia knowledge and philosophical wisdom are not the secret to joy and meaning. So something or Someone else must be.
We just need to learn where to look. And we need to learn that there is Another and Better World where what we’re looking for may be found.
Reflection and Application
- Have you ever felt “dumber” than someone else; frustrated because the straight “A” student always got a better grade than you? Or have you ever faced a decision knowing that you didn’t have enough information to make the right decision? How do these experiences of ignorance or intelligence-inadequacy affect you?
- Have you ever felt good about yourself for knowing something that someone else did not know? How long did that good feeling last? And if you think about all the people that are smarter than you, how does that make you feel?
- Put the point of this post in your own words. If the author is not saying “Be as dumb as you can be!” then what is he saying?