November 26, 2020

The Point is Pointless: Embrace the Absurd

Absurdism allows us to process some of COVID’s senselessness as much needed humor.

As a first-timer to college dorm life this fall, I’ve found I’ve forged an unexpectedly strong dependence on the Campus North elevators. As gateways to food, sun, and general outdoor life, the elevators quickly became part of my daily life. In fact, these last two months with the essentially unchained metal boxes, peppered with COVID social distancing stickers, I’ve come to expect their sacred regularity: a short wait, an open sticker to stand on, and then five dings to my floor. A few weeks ago, though, came something I certainly wasn’t expecting: The stickers started moving.

Of course, they started on the floor. The two white footprints on a maroon circle began a responsible distance apart, one located where you press the buttons and the other in the opposite corner. “Please,” they advised, “stand here.” Then one broke free, finding its way to the lower half of the elevator wall. The next was a little higher, then a bit higher than that. While I can’t confirm it, I swear I once saw one moving, wandering its way onto the elevator door. At some point, I thought one went missing—until I glanced up. There they were: two white feet staring down on me from above, having completed their trek and playfully taunting that, to be COVID-safe, I should really be standing on the ceiling.

At a rational level, I have to condemn whoever was moving the stickers. It is a nuisance for those who must put them back, and they are there for good reason. To move them, at least to some degree, is socially irresponsible. Still, I can’t help but empathize with these footprint-capers. In the pandemic era, where so much has changed so quickly and so bizarrely, embracing the absurd helps fight the psychological drain of COVID's own senselessness.

As a movement, absurdism reached its first point of prominence in postwar Europe, finding its footing in critiques of the idea of sense in life and arguing against the idea that all things happen for a reason. The conflict, it argued, between our desire for purpose and the lack of it around us is what we call “the Absurd.” Living with a pandemic is the ultimate affirmation of this absurdity: There may be nothing more arbitrary than an invisible, indiscriminate, ball of RNA that’s only arguably alive. How, then, do we square the fact that this virus is so purposeless with the undeniable fact that it has so completely changed our lives?

Perhaps one answer is to make there be purpose. We can work on quarantine habits, learn a new language, optimize productivity workflows. These actions rationalize our circumstances, artificially working the virus into the narrative arc of our lives—and by and large, that’s great. Life might not be acting on us with any sense of purpose, but it can give us the material to construct such a sense, letting us find a reason to pursue interests and build skills that we might lack the motivation to do before. Much of this is tied to the idea of control: In situations where it becomes painfully clear that we don’t have any large-scale control over events, exerting it over our personal lives offers a chance to make up for it. This reason-based control is a conduit for purpose.

At some point, though, making purpose breaks down. The necessary restrictions on our social behavior leave especially little room to exercise personal control or create a narrative. For us as students, there’s no hopeful spin to put on why we must wear a mask when outside, and there’s no deeper reason so many of us have been forced to choose between Thanksgiving at home and December on campus. It’s the senseless reality of the virus.

For me at least, this is a hard truth to deal with—but it’s made the slightest bit better through humor. Perhaps we should embrace this absurdity to disarm it, accepting that things don’t make sense and taking ownership by poking fun at it, using what we can control to point out just how much we can’t. The good news is that as UChicago students, we know how to do all of this quite well. “Quirky” humor, with all its unpredictability and subversion of expectation, goes hand-in-hand with the Absurd, and our stereotypically cynical-verging-on-caustic engagement with the powers above us is seemingly built to meet this moment. This is because the desire to create narrative purpose is something of a norm, and like any norm we’re inclined to push at its validity, being likelier to outwardly acknowledge which events actually lack purpose. With this skepticism and quirkiness, it certainly seems that we have the ability and the sense of humor to make the Absurd so welcomed that it loses its sting.

Even still, embracing the Absurd doesn’t have to mean grand gestures of eccentricity. No, it can be a very small affair: to continue doing all the purpose-laden work that keeps us moving forward while also taking a breath to acknowledge that our circumstances don’t share that same sentiment. We can keep engaged during Zoom classes while also making meta, self-deprecating jokes over calls with friends; we can indulge in those weird Gen Z memes; and yes, we can put social distancing floor stickers on the ceiling.

Eventually, the footprints in question made their way down to reality, flipping my elevator back right-side up. I assume that somebody in Housing noticed them being messed with and did the responsible thing of getting them back to their original spots on the ground. While I’m glad that they’re keeping people adequately distanced again, I will miss the surprise I had finding the signs speckled everywhere but the elevator floor, staring down at me in all their absurd glory—and I look forward to a cathartic chuckle at whatever the next absurdity may be.

Nischal Sinha is a first-year in the College.