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Analysis of Albert Camus' Idea of the Absurd in the Context of Physicians' Professional Activity

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Viktor Frankyl, a holocaust survivor recounts his time in Aushwitz in his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He found that while himself and others suffered through one of the greatest tribulations in history, they were still able to find meaning among the suffering and thus were building resilience against ungodly misery. Frankyl believed that by changing one’s attitude of suffering, meaning could be found – “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”. More often than not, changing one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances requires a sophisticated understanding of how meaning can be found in an otherwise meaningless world. Albert Camus, a philosopher in the 19th century had a similar idea about dealing with life and the suffering that comes with it. Camus coined this special kind of suffering – one that everyone deals with – the absurd. In his essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Camus introduces what the absurd is and the different ways one can cope with it while comparing Sisyphus’s fatal punishment to what we experience in our own lives. In this essay I will first extrapolate the notion of the absurd and how it plays out in ‘the Myth of Sisypus’. Then I will analyze what Camus believes to be the three possible responses to the absurd: ending one’s life voluntarily, committing philosophical suicide, or accepting the absurd in an attempt to examine the way medical physicians can find peace and happiness while completing one of the most emotionally draining jobs.

In the medical field it is common for physicians to experience burnout. Their days are packed with emotional intensity, causing them to feel hopelessness and drained. Especially now, with the coronavirus at the forefront of societal worry; it can be exhausting to be constantly working to ensure care yet unable to prevent people from passing away. With every new person who exits the hospital at least three more people follow in after. This cycle of what seems to be futile work parallels with Sisyphus’s punishment of pushing a boulder up a mountain. Through my analysis of Camus’s absurd and exploring different perspectives of medical staff, I hope to extrapolate and draw insight into a way of thought that seeks to avoid hopeless burnout.

‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ attempts to extort the notion that the mundane is just as equal to a punishment as torture in the underworld. In greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who managed to tie up Hades, God of the underworld. As a result, no one was able to die and this greatly angered the gods. For punishment, Zeus condemned Sisyphus to roll a heavy boulder up a mountain and when he would get to the top, the boulder would roll back down. Sisyphus would continue this mundane, strenuous task until the end of eternity. Camus insinuates that we are all like Sisyphus. We live in a world without meaning yet we constantly complete meaningless tasks in an attempt to search for meaning. Much like Sisypus, medical physicians are pushing up a similar boulder. With every patient they save, they know and understand that the patient will eventually come to pass away. With every disease that has been cured, a new one awakens soon. The push and fall of the metaphorical boulder in the medical physician’s life and even our own is what Camus contemplates. As we all push the boulder up, it rolls back down– and yet we continue to live through the mundanity of it all – perpetuating this cycle, fully aware.

Using this myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus introduces the philosophical concept of the absurd and how it interplays in both Sisyphus’s life and our own by asking the ultimate philosophical question, “Is life worth living?”. To look at this question objectively, we must break it down into a few parts. This question isn’t linked to suicidal thoughts or intentions, but rather simply pondering whether life exists for a purpose. There exists two different paths this question could take you; life has purpose or life doesn’t. Suppose that there was a purpose to your life – this would entail that your life would have meaning simply because there is a sole reason for your existence. In other words – you are created for a purpose and possess an intrinsic value. If your life was created with purpose one would assume that it would be worth living to fulfill it. However, looking at the other possibility, the one that Camus believes – if life has no purpose then the question implies that perhaps with no intrinsic or god given purpose; life is meaningless. In Camus’s writings he tries to make sense of this lack of meaning and what options we have when confronting the absurd.

Jean-Paul Sarte, an existentialist philosopher, alluded to the lack of purpose human beings have in his writings. He argued that we are not paper cutters which are created with the intent to cut paper and serve one mission. Instead we are thrust into this world and are forced to find ourselves to create our own purpose. This lack of meaning, the chaotic way in which we must assign purpose to ourselves encourages nihilism. For we are not born as paper-cutters, nor staplers, or erasers. There exists no creator who designates what we are made to do. We shape ourselves in forms of artists and scientists, politicians and anarchists because these roles that we may take on were not assigned by a higher being. For medical physicians, they chose the path to help others – it wasn’t fate nor God which forced them into their role. It came from an intrinsic place. In order to live well we must forge our own path in the meaningless world. The human tendency to search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe is what Camus labels as “the absurd”. There is a tension that exists between continuously searching for meaning, while fully conscious that the meaning one searches for does not exist in the universe. This desolate concept of the absurd further challenges us on how we can continue to live knowing that we will never find meaning. For Camus, he seeks to find a way to grapple with how we can coexist with absurdity and what the best way to cope with it is.

According to Camus there are three ways in which one can confront the absurd – the first being physical suicide. To escape one’s fate of finding meaning where there is none – one could cease to live. The very act of rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity lacks meaning. If Sisypus wanted to escape the prison of his own consciousness and knowledge of that his task holds no meaning he could cease to live. By dying voluntarily, one is recognizing the daily aggravation of recognizing a void they cannot fulfil – an enhancement of one’s suffering. Being aware of the absurd can recognizably feel as though you are stuck in a world to find something that doesn’t exist. And Camus recognizes that the futility of life can push one to the edge. Camus however, disregards this form of escapism from the absurd as an unreasonable way to cope. Camus challenges the notion that we must escape the absurd. He tries to acknowledge that while human nature craves to find pattern and meaning in a chaotic void, this doesn’t necessarily entail a fruitless life. Perhaps there is some beauty in the mundane, and some hope in rolling the boulder up the hill. For if there was none – most people would opt for a way out of suffering from the absurd. And maybe even with the burnout and the recognition that medical physicians have of the absurd – there is still some hope that they can save a life. Voluntarily ending one’s life wouldn’t make sense for the role of the physician.

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The act of philosophical suicide is the second way one can cope with the absurd. Camus argues that philosophical suicide occurs when one finds meaning in God or other forms of transcendence. Countering Kierkagard’s belief that by finding faith one can escape the human condition of attempting to find meaning in a meaningless world, Camus compares it to physical suicide. Much like physical suicide, philosophical suicide acts as an escapist tool. When one finds meaning in forms like God they are escaping and avoiding the absurd instead of attempting to overcome it. For example, if Sisyphus was to escape his punishment by being at peace with himself serving Zeus, he would be actively avoiding the absurd. The very act of pulling meaning from an extrinsic force mimics a crutch that allows one to avoid contemplating the lack of meaning the world has. To Camus, one mustn’t escape the absurd for when you escape it either physically or psychologically the lack of confrontation of the absurd distinguishes your ability to overcome and make peace with it.

Camus argues that the only way to cope with the absurd is to accept it. When one accepts the absurd they are finally able to overcome it. Camus believes that in order to conquer the notion that the universe lacks meaning, that your own life is meaningless– you must embrace the emptiness of not being able to achieve meaning. Only then can you be free. In a world where no meaning exists, there lies much freedom through the possibility of creating one’s own purpose. Criticizing existentialists, Camus deems them as escapists. When Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a hill Camus asserts that he has no other choice but to feel the tension of living in the absurd. One must find peace with living in a world without recognizable meaning and intent. There is no option of escape; instead Sisyphus must accept the lack of meaning in the universe and acknowledge that there exists no meaning in his task. It is at this divergence between accepting that the universe is meaningless and wanting to still find meaning in the world where Sisyphus conquers the absurd and is able to be content with the inevitable. For medical physicians, they too, have to cope and accept their role in the world. The physician must be at peace and find meaning in saving lives that will eventually die. It is the very act of acknowledging that no matter what the medical physicians do to help their patients, the boulder will always roll back down – and they must continue the push to save and watch their own savior complex lack impact.

In ‘The Myth of Sisypus’, Camus goes as far as to suggest that we are all Sisyphus. We are all completing mundane meaningless tasks in a meaningless world. We do it day in and day out and in order to live well and fully – we must accept our fate. When looking at absurdism in the lens of our world – specifically in medicine. It seems difficult to grasp. In the medical field, it’s almost a fruitless attempt to create cures for diseases and viruses. Even if you cure someone, they will still die regardless – paralleling to sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill and watching it fall back down again. Yet even if you create cures for all disease and viruses a new one will always emerge, a new disease to overcome and the boulder you must push up yet again.

However, despite what one might think of our own fate and Sisphus’s being seen as tragic, at the end of his essay Camus writes the curious phrase, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. Although Sisyphus is punished by the gods to complete a meaningless task until the end of eternity, by embracing the mundanity Sisyphus is freeing himself. Finding peace in the desolate, meaningless world allows us to be happy. Much like how Sisyphus finds happiness and peace by pushing the boulder up the mountain everyday only to watch it fall down – this notion of happiness exists in his meaningless purpose.

Just like Sisyphus, medical physicians must embrace and find peace in their meaningless purpose. Yet although it’s meaningless, the act of trying no matter what to save lives and serve others can instill happiness. We will never truly find the meaning we seek because it does not exist. Rather we must embrace and accept a life without purpose to find the peace to continue existing. Without this cognitive framework, we would not be able to find happiness.

In the article, ‘Eluding Meaninglessness: A Note to Self in Regard to Camus, Critical Care, and the Absurd’ by Thomas John Papadimos, he finds comfort within Camus’s notion of the absurd as he continues to work as a medical physician. Thomas writes, “The passion of the moment is very real in critical care medicine. The absurd man or woman will live only in the present, with no concern for the future or the past. The present is the only time of importance”. With 58% of patients dying in hospitals, the only way for a medical physician to not experience moments of doubt or burnout exists in their ability to completely focus on the present and accept the absurd. Just as Sisyphus pushes the boulder up the mountain, his extraneous effort and zeal for the task drives meaning and intention into the otherwise meaningless punishment. Focusing on the current task and finding worlds of meaning within it allows medical physicians and Sisyphus to continue and be happy.

Happiness while not satisfying our own desire to find meaning, at least makes life bearable and livable. For if we are able to be at peace and find some sort of joy in the absurd – we would be able to continue to push our own boulders up the hill. Just like Sisyphus we must find the multitude of worlds, passions, and beauties from within the mundane activities we complete day to day. Our actions are in vain and our metaphorical boulder will always roll back down the mountain but if one can find beauty and happiness in the absurd, to answer Camus’s original question; a meaningless life would be worth living.

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Analysis of Albert Camus’ Idea of the Absurd in the Context of Physicians’ Professional Activity. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-albert-camus-idea-of-the-absurd-in-the-context-of-physicians-professional-activity/
“Analysis of Albert Camus’ Idea of the Absurd in the Context of Physicians’ Professional Activity.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-albert-camus-idea-of-the-absurd-in-the-context-of-physicians-professional-activity/
Analysis of Albert Camus’ Idea of the Absurd in the Context of Physicians’ Professional Activity. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-albert-camus-idea-of-the-absurd-in-the-context-of-physicians-professional-activity/> [Accessed 31 Jan. 2023].
Analysis of Albert Camus’ Idea of the Absurd in the Context of Physicians’ Professional Activity [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Jan 31]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-albert-camus-idea-of-the-absurd-in-the-context-of-physicians-professional-activity/
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