Friday began as a normal day. I woke up at my usual time and got ready for work. But as I walked downstairs I immediately noticed that I was wearing a suit. Then a relieving thought struck me – it’s Friday – so I headed back upstairs to shed the suit and put on some jeans.
I didn’t think again about it until later that day when I was outside in downtown Calgary. It was a warm day (which unfortunately is unusual in Mid-May in Cowtown) and there were many people outside.
It was then that an absurdity struck me – why are we all wearing jeans?
Literally – I don’t think I saw a single person who wasn’t wearing jeans. Not that there is anything wrong with jeans – I quite enjoy them. I just thought that it was peculiar – this form of unwritten social code – that on Friday (at least in Calgary) we wear jeans.
This was the first time that such a thought has entered my consciousness. But what was even more peculiar (even absurd) was that our tacit social contract only seemed to apply to the bottom half of our bodies. The top half – for the most part (particularly with men) looked the same as it would from Monday through Thursday in the 8th Avenue business district. A dress shirt and (often) a suit jacket or sport coat – only now (Friday) the bottom half (instead of matching suit pants) was denim.
Even though I have participated in this ritual hundreds of times, without even thinking twice about it, for some reason, this time, it was peculiar to me – even absurd.
The absurdity of it turned quickly into a inner joke that I was having with the world where I was the only one privy to the punchline. I even laughed out loud, right in the middle of the street, at how silly we all looked. There were several individuals who even were wearing ties and handkerchiefs on their top half. But on the bottom – Jeans.
It seemed in a way like an out of body experience for me. A moment where my consciousness transcended the mundane realities of my existence. But it wasn’t distressing – it was funny. Then I pondered more on it, and dared to (privately) ask the question – what purpose does jeans on Friday serve?
I surveyed the possible answers – but none seemed to suffice.
Was it a pre-amble to the weekend? Why would we do this? That doesn’t make sense. We are still at work and expected to work?
Are our respective employers ok with us mailing it in on Friday, and jeans is a signal or license for us to take it easy? No, I don’t think that is the case either.
Was it an employer’s way of saying “we know that we suck your life from you during the week so jeans on Friday is our way of giving back”?
I continued down this rabbit hole…
What is the difference between Friday and Monday, or Tuesday? Why not jeans on Tuesday? What would happen if I wore a suit on Friday and jeans on Tuesday?
Who was the first maverick to establish this tradition? When did it start? Why? How was it initially received?
Really it made no sense to me. I don’t see an efficiency argument or any other argument, other than a weird social ritual for grown-ups. No different than my son Cohen’s second Friday PJ day at his school.
Since I was already down the rabbit hole I decided to widen my analysis – what other absurdities exist in my life that make no rational sense?
The day was nice, and since it was lunch hour I decided to take a walk as I pondered this question. I pulled out my phone and proceeded to make a list (I’m sure I could come up with much more on this subject).
In no particular order:
- Eggs and pancakes in the morning – why are they primarily served in the morning? Who decided this? I prefer to eat eggs and pancakes at night, but this is rarely an option except for a restaurant (usually a diner) that is specifically making a point to let the world know that they serve “all day breakfast”. Why are eggs and pancakes breakfast? I never had any input on this.
- 9-5 work days and the classification of “weekdays” and “weekends”: My best, most creative, most flow inducing, focused work either comes in the morning (if it’s warm outside), or in the early evening (like 6-9). I’m also very focused and creative on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m least creative, focused, productive from 1-3. That is when I like to exercise or take walks. My ideal work week would have breaks from 10-4 on Monday through Thursday but work on the weekend. But I exist in a world I do not understand, and the social contract of the world (at least right now) seems to be that we work on Monday through Friday from 8ish to 5ish and then play on the weekends (except for jeans on Friday, which is a work play day, where we work but dress up like we are playing).
- Most (if not all) new fashion trends: Fashion is absurd to me. I’ve been wearing the same functional clothing styles for the last 20 years. Probably will continue until I die. It’s plain. It’s conservative. It’s simple. I don’t understand how someone comes up with a style (which usually looks silly from an objective perspective) and then other people will buy into it. Exhibit A: the Male Romper.
- Calgary Suburban Real Estate: Squished overpriced houses. Generic design. No character. No trees. No yards. All the while we live in the second largest country in the world (in terms of space). Why couldn’t developers make the streets at least large enough for two cars to pass through at the same time, and heaven forbid we have trees – other than the prescribed centralized fake parks and man made lakes – only designed to trick people into thinking that it’s worth the minimum ticket price (in excess of half a million).
- Treadmills and stationary gym equipment: I use them all the time, but truly they are absurd if you think about it. What is the difference between a human on a treadmill and a mouse on a play wheel? Maybe intention and consciousness? I don’t know enough about mice to opine on that but I know that every time I run on a treadmill I don’t feel the same way I do when I run outside.
- Selfies: Again, like all of the above, I’m guilty of doing them from time to time, but seriously, aren’t selfies ridiculous? Could you imagine walking around in the 1980s blasting yourself with a flash bulb? That would be hilarious. But what is the difference – other than that pseudo rush we receive when someone on social media compliments us or likes our photo. I read recently that most of Instagram is selfies – and that Instagram users are the most narcissistic on the internet – which leads to my next absurdity.
- The Lie that Social Media Is Bringing Us Closer: It’s not. It’s alienating us. The “connectivity” myth is being perpetuated by those who are financially benefited by social media. Social media is making us more self-centred and depressed. The data is coming out, and it will only grow stronger. A social media interaction is a weak substitute for a real connection. You know how you feel when you have a really in-depth conversation with someone, where you look into their eyes, and truly empathize with them. That doesn’t happen on social media. Social media carves deep ideological lines. It facilitates trolling and arguments and passive aggressive behaviour far more than that behaviour would be present (or even tolerated) if humans had to look at each other, face to face, when communicating. It divides more than it connects.
- Our Worldwide Collective Societal Addiction to Smartphones: If aliens exist (how could they not?) perhaps the reason they haven’t graced us with their presence is that we bore them as we look into our little boxes all day. Seriously – look around. Look on the streets, the airport, the restaurant. We are all on tiny boxes all the time (and taking pictures of ourselves constantly). It is insane. I was recently in Vancouver with my daughter for a volleyball tournament and I enforced a “smartphone and social media detox” on her. We went on a used book store scavenger hunt, trolled Chinatown, and went into some hilarious new age and witchcraft stores (sorry if you’re into that, I just find “spell books” objectively funny). It was lovely. You can’t be present when you are on a smartphone.
- Mandatory retirement: The whole concept of mandatory retirement is absurd to me. I want to do what I want to do for as long as I want to do it and for as long as my skills are needed and useful.
- Political Parties and Elected Representatives : I don’t align with any political party. My views on social policy and the environment are left, but my economics are right. I truly don’t care what people do in their bedroom and I am a free speech absolutist. I am fundamentally distrusting of anything “large” that goes for large government and large corporations. As a result, I generally alienate myself from both the left and the right in some way. Also, it is pretty well understood that our elected representatives rarely read the bills they vote on. Case in point. I’m a lawyer. I understand how bills are passed. If the elected individual isn’t even going to read the bills they vote on – why do we need them? Why can’t I vote on the bill directly?
I’m only scratching the surface on the absurdity of the world that we live in.
We live in a world that is full of norms, traditions, habits, trends, and rules that persist – sometimes without reason, sometime to our detriment, and sometimes when society has evolved past the original reason that made the rule necessary (at that time).
So what are we to do when we encounter an absurd world (or at least when we first become conscious of our existence in it).
I like Albert Camus’ approach.
Albert Camus is the French writer and philosopher, as well as Nobel Laureate, who, is credited largely for his contribution to the field of philosophy known as “absurdism”.
Camus’ absurdism is a result of the paradox and contradiction that exists solely in the human mind when our never ending compulsion and need for meaning and understanding in our lives collides with the lack of objective meaning that the world can provide (science provides no answers and religions constantly fight over the right answer).
He seeks an entirely different solution to the age old existential problem: can we find meaning without having to make illogical jumps? In other words is it possible to live (and be happy) if there is no authoritative meaning for our life?
When we become conscious of this conflict we are drawn into what Camus describes as a harrowing passion – and logically we are then encouraged to live, and preserve, the only truth that we are truly aware of: the absurd. Living the absurd means to preserve its truth.
We preserve the truth of the absurd by hating and resisting death and by living life to the absolute fullest. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus prescribes three logical consequences that arise from living the truth of absurdity (that is by preserving the conflict that exists in our mind by seeking meaning, but unable to find one that satisfies, without making illogical jumps): we must revolt, we must live with passion, and we must live so as to preserve our inner freedom.
“The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself” Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Camus uses the Myth of Sisyphus to further make his point. Sisyphus is the “absurd hero” that we should strive to be. As the myth goes the Gods had condemned Sisyphus to a fate worse than death – that of “futile and hopeless labour” – an eternal punishment of ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain only to have the stone fall back to the bottom on its own weigh.
Sisyphus’ crime? According to Homer he was the “wisest and most prudent of mortals”; however, he was accused of “levity in regards to the Gods”, as well as stealing their secrets and using them to his gain (victory over death). His scorn of the Gods, and hatred of death, results in the Gods bestowing the most terrible punishment imaginable – that of constant exertion with no accomplishment.
How does Sisyphus become the absurd hero?
It is in his reaction to this punishment. Camus describes the “hour of consciousness” born when the rock rolls down the hill after the tremendous labour needed to get it there, and Sisyphus looks upon his fate.
“At each of these moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the Gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock….The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn….All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing…..He too, concludes that all is well…Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”
So when I see the absurdity of the world I find comfort by acknowledging its absurdity – not railing against it but rather laughing at it. Revolting where I can (making eggs and pancakes at night, wearing a suit on Friday), and having absolute passion for my “thing” (which for me is teaching and education) – and ensuring that I live my entire life to its fullest.
That is how I preserve my inner freedom when the world seems absurd.