Suszynski: Close your eyes and choose |

Suszynski: Close your eyes and choose

My senior year of college, I was leading a group of freshmen on their new student orientation trip in Trinidad, Colorado. We were in a nursing home on top of a hill. The nursing home had a few things going for it. A small hike in the back of the building led to an adobe shrine to Saint Mary. The home also had an extensive collection of romantic cowboy novels.

This trip was memorable for several reasons. The most memorable was the moment I stood face to face with a large and angry man. He pushed past me and knocked out one of my freshmen like he was a bowling pin. I pieced together later that my student had stolen a guitar from a nearby pawn shop owned by this large man’s grandmother.

The second memorable moment was later that night. It was the final night of our trip, which meant the freshmen were allowed to ask me whatever they wanted. At the end of the session, a student who had until then stayed quiet, piped up and asked me: “So, Anna, what if I’m an existential nihilist? How do I go about creating my schedule and fulfilling credits?”

I thought of the time, as a kid, you figure out that you can win hangman by making the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” then realizing later that it’s not actually in the dictionary.

My second thought was, “Why don’t I have my copy of ‘The Stranger’ with me?” In the moment, the more I thought about the book, the more Albert Camus’ meditation on the absurd and existentialism seemed like the perfect answer.

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“The Stranger” is one of those fabulous short books written with philosophical questions that last a lifetime. It begins with a famous first line as translated by Matthew Ward: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

After this first line, a simple plot unfolds. The day after the funeral, the narrator Meursault swims in the ocean, then rekindles a relationship, hangs out with his friends, one who beats his dog and another who beats his girlfriend, then goes to a beach and kills a man. With a gun, he shoots the man once, then hesitates, four more shots. Then the trial.

In my head, I say to the student, smiling at me as if he has cornered my ignorance like a bunny in a trap: “In ‘The Stranger,’ Meursault believes that life has very little meaning. He barely cries at his mother’s funeral. A woman asks him to marry her, and he responds, ‘It didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.’ Meursault shoots a man, and in his trial, when finally asked directly why he did it, he responds: ‘Fumbling a little with my words and realizing how ridiculous I sounded, I blurted out that it was because of the sun.’ When confronted with the very real possibility of death, Meursault says: ‘But everybody knows life isn’t worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn’t matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living …’”

I imagine this student looking at me as if I now have the upper hand. And I tell him, look, yes, life is absurd and pointless sometimes. But devoid of meaning?

You see, Meursault is in his cell, waiting to see if his trial will be appealed. He keeps avoiding the chaplain but finally, he engages with him. In the very last pages of the book, Meursault for the first time, shows real emotion. He starts yelling at the chaplain. “I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. … Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future …”

I wanted to tell this student, rewind the day. For when we were allowed to leave after talking to the police, and as we were trudging into the nursing home, heads down — I was stopped suddenly by a pip of a sound. A frog decided to hop right up to me and was sitting by my shoe. I lent down to pick it up in my hand and all the freshman, so fresh faced and eager, at first stepped back in surprise, but then closed in, laughing.

That night, as I pieced together my emotions in response to the events of the day and the student’s proclamation, I could only think of a line in the last paragraph of “The Stranger:” “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with sign and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”

Whether your response to the indifferent world is reeling back in surprise, laughing or yelling at the chaplain, existence, to me at least, is more about chatting with the nursing home residents about the cowboy novels or hiking to the shrine looking over Trinidad. Believing the world is devoid of meaning is actually a statement that says more about one’s notion of meaning than the lack of it.

I told the student, “Well then just close your eyes and choose.”

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