by Julie Brock
February is the longest month in Minnesota. The snow and cold have settled in. Cold has nestled deep into marrow and snow is a welcomed relief to cover the dirt and sludge covering the roads and—if we’re honest—our hearts.
On the wind in February
It is the same routine. Start the car, scrape the windshield, drive to your destination seeing your breath hang around your head the entire way, and maybe--if you are lucky--the car warmed up by the time you get there. It's a grind, even for the most optimistic.
Add “the beginning of the end” for high school seniors and it is fertile soil for teaching absurdism and existentialism. Welcome, young friends, to the existential crisis season for 12th graders. Although many have pronounced their plans for all their peers to hear, the confidence behind the bravado is small, infinitesimal, in fact. And the questions seep in as they hear the choir around them sing of their collective, positive plans. Some are questioning their early action to college. Others are digging their heels in and fighting against the idea of any more school. Others are looking abroad at a gap year and others are gearing for military. All are trying to have conviction about their choices, but the Ides of March are near, and the tides start to turn in February.
Absurdism results from the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning and the inability to do so with certainty. Albert Camus, a French absurdist philosopher, believed individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence and then gave characters to challenge our inability to do so.
Absurdism? It is a literary genre? Are you serious? All great questions I’d greet with a smirk.
I’d start class with a series of questions:
Small blinks from eyes followed by silent contemplation, then discomfort.
Camus’s The Stranger was the cornerstone to the Existentialism Unit I used to teach. Meursault became the unsettling presence for many students. They were confronted with a character who planned nothing, who was connected to nothing, and had no cares for what others thought about him. He had needs, and he filled them. That’s it. No more, no less. When he shoots the man on the beach the prosecution asks him for his motive, and he says the sun was in his eyes.
This outraged every class. How can that be? No one shoots someone because the sun was in his eyes. There must be more!
But there isn’t.
The acceptance of life as a series of choices is one that is hard for my February friends to grasp during their own crackling façade of identity. Who am I really? What am I really? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?
Pushed in class to consider the idea that there is no one answer to any of these probing questions, and that the truest answer is in the recesses of their DNA, happy in the shadows of self is one thing; contemplating it in the second year of a global pandemic is another.
Transition from high school into what comes next is a big milestone in one’s journey. Doing that under the shifting sands of COVID-19 is exhausting at best and damaging at worst. Conscious or not, these young adults have built up expectations and stories following the close of their high school chapter. To do that without any true knowns pushes them off their axis and the world cannot turn without glitching. It doesn’t feel stable.
Absurdism pushes on the construct of certainty. How can we be certain of anything other than the breath that enters in and out of our lungs? And even that is not a guarantee. Existentialism asks the questions, “What else is there than existence?” and “What else is there to existence than the choice we make now, now, or now?”
Watching eighteen-year-olds grapple with the idea that their life is a series of choices and even the best laid plan may not work brings both anxiety and relief. Collectively, there is nervous laughter as they contemplate how much energy they have poured into the future without a thought to what happens when they walk out the door when the bell rings.
Isn’t it absurd that when you walk out the door you will make a decision, turn right or turn left, and that decision will lead to a series of choices that will ultimately lead you to your next destination?
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