By Beck Lowe
It was during my second undergraduate year of Drama & Performance Studies over a decade ago – performing a dinner party scene where no one ate, and the characters became increasingly agitated for no apparent reason – that I first discovered my love of absurdism.
The scene belonged to Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna, a play which, on the surface, resembles a familiar kitchen sink drama, but is in fact hilariously uncanny and surreal. Riddled with pointless situations, existentially alienated characters and nonsensical dialogue, the play calls into question the rationale behind social norms in modern society.
“The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world,”(Camus, 2000).
In simple terms, absurdism is a philosophy that argues that life is inherently without clear meaning or purpose, that efforts to find meaning often lead to further confusion and frustration. It embraces paradox, contradiction and reflexivity. Absurdism highlights the tension of making sense and meaning of an unpredictable, irrational, indifferent universe, encouraging us to embrace uncertainty rather than seek to control it. It’s nihilism’s plucky neighbour. It’s open-minded, easy-going, all-inclusive and ever-adaptable… with a sprinkling of self-deprecation and dark humour.
Broadly, absurdism celebrates free thinking and creativity. It challenges established norms, resists totalitarian ideologies, and encourages philosophical exploration, without judgement or restraint. Let’s unpack how each of those advantages apply to critical health psychology:
Free thinking and creativity:
If nothing else, absurdism absolutely loves researchers who try to look at things in new ways. It encourages us to extend our thinking beyond conventions and boundaries, stimulating innovation. For example, an absurdist lens may enable critical health psychology researchers and participants alike to see the tension between status-based preoccupations and political powerlessness (Bierdz, 2021), highlighting the paradoxes around self-help and self-advocacy under the constraints of capitalism.
Challenging established norms:
A perfect companion to critical inquiry and reflexivity, absurdism invites the researcher to question all beliefs, ideologies, and surroundings. It requires us to turn inwards and observe how our own norms may interfere with our perceptions of what constitutes ‘normal’ human behaviour. Regarding reflexivity, absurdism encourages researchers to acknowledge the paradox of analysing subjective experiences that may not even exist without the objective position of the researcher, who in turn views the participants through their own subjective lens (Jung, 2023). Yes, it’s a mind-bender.
Resisting totalitarian ideologies:
Systems that claim absolute meaning or authority have no chance against absurdism. Absurdism peeks behind the curtain of a totalitarian power system and sees a vulnerable creature confronted by their own mortality. In therapeutic terms, absurdism discourages internalizing issues as sinful, pathological or ill-adjusted, instead calling into question the systems and resultant ideologies that made us feel that way in the first place (Belassie, 2016). Neoliberalism, I’m looking at you.
Encouraging philosophical exploration:
Absurdism discourages commitment to a single philosophy, inviting researchers to critically explore those difficult questions about existence, meaning, purpose, and reality, without restraint. In a healthcare context, an absurdist approach particularly helped one psychotherapist navigate a patient’s death anxiety by “facing the paradox between our finitude and finding meaning in our lives” from a “stance of rebellion,” (Yadin, 2022, p.608). The patient was able to confront the paradoxes of their thoughts, of life more generally, and make peace with the constant back-and-forth between resignation and meaning-making.
Crucially, absurdism doesn’t judge. Absurdism sees a vulnerability in all humans, even those society would cast out. Absurdism regards human behavior as a reaction to the “silent indifference of the universe,” (Valkeakari, 2021, p. 60). We are all on this existential struggle bus together, coping with uncertainty as best we can. As such, absurdism enables people from all positions to find common ground.
Of course, we shouldn’t overlook the potential shortcomings of absurdism. Some argue that absurdism’s lack of boundaries is its own undoing, leading to passivity, apathy, dismissal of morality, disconnect and even existential dread (Fleming, 2021). From a health psychology perspective, absurdism may be perceived as lacking the sense of direction or structure necessary for offering ‘real-world’ practical solutions to our more pressing problems.
Primed with a powerful philosophical argument, you may find your proposal met with “great, but what’s the point? How will this help us right now?”
There is also an ethical predicament. In absurdism, nothing is safe from playful critique; all behaviours in modern society may be regarded, to some extent, absurd. But if those engaging in the behaviours regard them as integral to their identity or meaning-making process, they may be affronted by the ‘absurd’ label.
So, discussing absurdism in critical health psychology requires a tremendous amount of care, transparency, and reflexivity. As with all approaches to research, we are tasked with keeping our ‘privilege in check’ when calling out the foibles of others.
Nevertheless, approached with flexibility and reflexivity, absurdism can be a fantastic vantage point from which to observe broad existential struggles that manifest in urgent health-related concerns. I would argue that any study built on strong absurdist foundations has the potential encourage readers and collaborators to view the current state of… well, everything… in a critically novel way – to see the forest for the trees, as it were – and could therefore be an excellent driver of social change.
But, that’s just me, an autistic, non-binary theatre kid who once spoke jibberish at a dinner table, now dipping their toes into the murky waters of academia.
About the Author
Beck Lowe (she/they) is a PhD student at the University of Worcester, UK. Her work focuses on the reciprocal relationship between individual psychological wellbeing and dominant philosophical beliefs, and political issues that are formed in the process. Priding herself on an eclectic career background, Beck graduated with a first in Drama & Performance Studies (University of Worcester) in 2013 and completed her Masters in Psychology with distinction in 2022. In between that, she co-wrote and managed an award-winning educational theatre piece that was showcased to over 50 schools across the UK, managed prestigious corporate events, wrote for a queer arts and culture zine, Unicorn, and performed original, radio-played music under the stage name ‘Becky Rose.’ Beck is now pursuing a long-term academic career while continuing to work full-time to fund it, starting her PhD fresh off the heels of an award-wining presentation at the XIII Biennial ISCHP Conference.
Belassie, J. (2016). A metaphysical rebellion: Camus and psychotherapy. In M. Bazzano & J. Webb (Eds.), Therapy and the counter-tradition: The edge of philosophy. (pp. 98–104). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Bierdz, B. (2021). Reflections on student power: An absurdist viewpoint. Power and Education, 13(1), 1–13.
Camus, A. (2000). The myth of Sisyphus (J. O’Brien, Trans.). Penguin Classics.
Fleming, W. H. (2021). Moral injury and the absurd: The suffering of moral paradox. Journal of Religion and Health, 60(5), 3012–3033. https://doi-org.apollo.worc.ac.uk/10.1007/s10943-021-01227-4
Jung, J. (2023). From the Enigma of Identity to “Becoming a Subject”: The Transitional Double. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 71(1), 9–31
Valkeakari, T. (2021). Updating Camus: The Absurd, Revolt, and Strangerhood in Riikka Pulkkinen’s Vieras. Scandinavian Studies, 93(1), 60–80.
Yadin, Z. S. (2022). Lost in a universe of no inherent meaning: Psychoanalysis and existentialism. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 58(4), 579–611. https://doi-org.apollo.worc.ac.uk/10.1080/00107530.2023.2210489