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Philosophy

Absurdism and Coping: A Follow-Up on "It Is What It Is"

Critically thinking about mental well-being in the 21st century.

Key points

  • Absurdism questions us, on a philosophical level, about what the point of it all is.
  • Absurdism accepts that there is no underlying meaning and empowers the individual to create their own meaning.
  • An "It is what it is" mantra for coping with worry and stress might be useful, but it may not be easy.

In a recent post, I discussed the old saying "It is what it is" as a useful adage that could serve us well as a cognitive frame for how we engage worry. I received a lot of interesting feedback, much of which reminded me of absurdist philosophy. I thought it worthwhile to dive deeper into a consideration of absurdism in this context.

Absurdism

I recall first coming across the concept of absurdism as a genre in literature, during my undergraduate days. In a class on 20th-century drama studies, we covered the "Theatre of the Absurd" (Esslin, 1961) and the approaches many writers took to convey meaning—arguably, lack of meaning. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in particular, stuck with me. In fairness, not much happens in the two-act play, leading some critics back in the 1950s to refer to it as boring—as a play in which nothing happens—twice. For me, the play was—and remains—greatly intriguing. When performed right, there is an underlying vibe of dread, despair, and uncertainty throughout it, as the minimal cast waits in vain for the titular Godot. So, what makes it absurd? We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Upon my budding interest in the genre, I engaged more narratives and read more theory, eventually arriving at the work of Albert Camus. Though I had been previously aware of his literary work, I had never looked at it from a truly philosophical scope. So, I read him again, from an absurdist perspective, and I began to better understand the points being made—in an existence, arguably, where such points don’t matter.

Arguably, Camus’ most famous contribution is his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, in which the titular Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a large hill for all eternity. As Sisyphus gets to the top each time, inevitably, the boulder falls down the other side and he must start over. Sounds like a crummy existence, right? The sad truth is that the analogy is made in reference to our own existences. Every day you get up, eat breakfast, go to work, get stuck in traffic, eat again, sleep, and do more or less the same things until you realise the monotony of it all. Then you evaluate the importance of your daily activities and question the point of it all (e.g., work, romance, hobbies). Shouldn’t there be something more to it? Shouldn’t there be more than simply existing, just waiting—like, for Godot? (See, I told you I’d get back to it.)

It’s kind of absurd, the way we live, isn’t it? Think about it: the uncertainty associated with life—pandemics, terrorist attacks, car accidents, allergic reactions, wars over beliefs about how individuals should live their lives, wars over access to harvesting millions-years-old dead animals that heat our homes and make our cars go—and tinned sardines. All of it is absurd.

Creating Meaning

Sure, absurdism questions us, on a philosophical level, about what’s the point of it all—and sure, it posits that there is no underlying meaning. But it’s not all doom and gloom like many nihilist perspectives. Instead, it accepts that there is no underlying meaning and empowers the individual to stand up against the absurdity of existence and create their own meaning: "We must imagine Sisyphus happy."

I have always found this perspective particularly comforting. That’s why I bring it up—because there’s quite a bit of overlap with what we were recently discussing regarding "It is what it is." We cannot control everything in the world. Again, there are things you can do or control—so, do so. Be proactive. On the other hand, there are things we have no control over—the universe’s indifference toward us, exhibited through the random nature of events occurring around us will yield things we can do nothing about. Why dwell on the things we cannot change? It is what it is.

This notion of absurdism doubles as a reinforcing foundation for a perspective presented on this page a while back, regarding thoughts on legacy and "meanings" of life. Specifically, if we look at Sisyphus not as the victim of a tragic fate, but rather as a man who "enjoys" his work, despite his absurd existence, then perhaps this isn’t such a negative outlook on our existence or potential lack of meaning. Again, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Akin to our previously discussed mantra regarding "It is what it is," we must shift our attention from the negatives we can do nothing about to the attainment or experience of things that we value.

Moreover, we discussed that from an objective, biological position, we must consider that our purpose is simply to exist and propagate as we can, and, once we pass, that purpose has ended. But if we consider the sustainability of our existence—even after we’re gone—and recognise that we have the ability to change things for future generations, just as a result of being here, does that not suffice as meaning?

Philosophy Essential Reads

In conclusion, an "It is what it is" mantra for coping with worry and stress might be a useful approach; but, consistent with many cognitive reframing strategies, it may not be easy. However, what might facilitate this is the consideration of absurdist philosophy and meaning-building. I’m not saying you should subscribe to such an outlook, but consideration of its related perspectives might facilitate a means for more clearly identifying the things we value in an uncertain world and working toward such endeavours, while accepting the things we can do nothing about instead of unnecessarily dwelling on them. Notably, Beckett was never one for explaining his work, but one of his "deeper" descriptions of Waiting for Godot was that all that mattered were "the laughter and the tears."

References

Esslin, M. (1961). The Theatre of the Absurd. NY: Doubleday.

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