Fantastic Friday: It’s Not 42

Excuse me while I wax literary today.

We just finished reading The Stranger in class, and one of our discussions steered itself toward whether Camus should be considered an optimist or a pessimist. Camus wrote as an absurdist (often considered an existentialist), stating that life has no given, universal purpose. There is no set meaning in life.

Some people argue that Camus is a pessimist, that there is a given meaning simply waiting to be discovered, and that Camus just couldn’t see it.

Others don’t like the question altogether. They panic, disgusted by the idea that life has no meaning. Camus would argue that these people accept what others dictate as a meaning in life, or the right way to live, and they become unhappy if they fall short. Some don’t like having the responsibility of finding, creating, or maintaining meaning in life.

In the humorous novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Arthur Dent learns that the answer to life is 42. Literally. Of course, this answer fits the humor of the entire novel, but it does illustrate Camus’ point: it’s absurd to think there is one universal meaning in life. Besides, once discovered, what else would there be to live for?

I prefer to look at Camus’ assertion as optimistic. If there is no definite meaning in life, then we are free to find our own. And if our chosen “meaning” stops pleasing us, then we are free to create another.

I’ve heard many pessimistic outlooks on life:

I work five days for the sake of two days off.

I work fifty weeks for the benefit of a two-week vacation.

The best years of your life are high school.

Or college.

Life is over when your children grow up.

All of these imply that there is a high point in life, and all else is pointless, a denouement. None of these are true. Camus would encourage holders of such viewpoints to “wake up” and take control of their lives. He believed we periodically need a “wake-up call” to remind us that life is finite, to jar us from the daily routines that numb us.

For main character Meursault, a man who committed a senseless murder after living an emotionless life, his wake-up call happens as he is sentenced to death and awaiting his execution. For his father, the wake-up call was witnessing an execution, an event that made him sick but changed his outlook on life. In fact, Camus wrote The Stranger partly as a wake-up call for the readers—for Meursault’s carelessness and consequence to wake us out of our daily lives.

In the end, Meursault realizes only right before death that he had indeed been happy—he just hadn’t realized it. There were so many little things in his life that brought him joy even though he never consciously acknowledged them: the touch of a woman’s skin, watching the world go by on a lazy Sunday afternoon, swimming in the ocean under the burning sun, even the touch of a dry, soft towel. He realized too late that his meaning in life was simply to enjoy it.

The meaning of life is not 42. It’s not to be a good person or climb a career ladder or buy a hundred cars or raise children or change the world. These are all things that may bring happiness and meaning to some. But it’s up to each of us to take responsibility for our own happiness. We need to define that happiness, to find joy in what we can. There is no universal meaning; rather—as Back to the Future’s Doc Brown likes to say, it’s “what you make of it, so make it a good one.”

I started Fantastic Friday posts because I see too many people going through life in a haze, a daze, a repetitive trance. They are given the gift of so many days, but they do not take the time to find meaning or joy. They always seem to be waiting for something else.

It’s the small things that bring joy. The touch of a woman. A lazy Sunday. The kiss of a breeze. There are little things all around us. It is our task only to seek them out—and smile.