Sunday, January 19, 2014

Albert Camus Saved My Life

Not literally. The French-Algerian Nobel-winning novelist and essayist died seven years  before I was born. But he had a profound influence on me, and was instrumental in my decision not to commit suicide when I was in college.

Let me backtrack. Like many people who suffer from depression (although it’s been years since I was clinically diagnosed), I felt like an outcast. Bullied in school, and emotionally and psychologically abused, my only escapes were writing and reading. It was during my senior year in high school that I discovered Albert Camus. We read the short story, “The Guest,” and I was immediately hooked. I needed to read more by this author.

But my infatuation with Camus had to wait until college, when I took French I, and wrote a paper on The Stranger. During the course of my research, I read The Myth of Sisyphus, a collection of  essays, the first being “Absurdity and Suicide.”

What did this mean for me? As someone who felt disconnected from other people, who struggled to maintain my individuality, no matter how “weird,” I felt fragmented. For Camus, the world was absurd. What mattered was how one approached it, and, for Camus, suicide was not the answer.

Let me digress. This seems like a simplistic answer to a complex question. As a philosopher, he gave it considerable thought, apparently so much so that the first line of “Absurdity and Suicide” is “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

The mantra, to choose life over death, even in the face of incredible odds, has stayed with me all these years. Camus had influenced me so much in college, I even wrote in one of my journals (an English assignment) that I couldn’t kill myself because I respected him too much. I suppose someone would say it was because I respected myself too much, and that’s probably true, but anyone who’s gone through depression knows you can’t go through that personal hell alone without needing help from somebody.

That isn’t to say the specter of suicide is long gone. To believe so would be to take an arrogant point of view that we somehow hold sway over Death. Even Camus, who chose life, was not immune, dying in a car accident.

Our writing paths are wildly divergent, but, like Camus, I’ve touched upon suicide and its impact on people, including myself. And yes, it has threatened to overwhelm me even years later.

But that’s a story for another time.

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