Why do we do the things we do? What drives and motivates someone to complete tasks, each day, knowing that in the end it doesn’t really matter? Why do we go to work, work excruciatingly long hours, devastate ourselves in pursuit of something or other for an intangible, or even worse, empty sense of accomplishment? You fought unimaginable traffic this morning and made it to work on time, just like everyone else. Congratulations. And now you are at work, doing what you are told, working as hard and fast as you can because there is some sort of prize at the end at some undefinable time in the future. Do you even want that prize? Is it somehow going to affix meaning to and alleviate the fact that you have dedicated numerous of your very much numbered years to hollow work?
I have no answers to these questions. In fact, just asking creates more inquires. Why? Why do we do these things? What do we hope to gain? And even if we do gain, who cares? Some sort of notoriety, or fortune is meaningless once you die. And even if you manage to seemingly immortalize yourself through deeds or accomplishments, those too fade.
Sure we remember Plato and Sophocles, and Homer, and Euripides but how many others were there who were erased from history? And even for those whose names remain, with time, will they matter? Will anyone care? Ten thousand years from now, who will remember or give a damn about Plato?
Some created art, others fought for justice, others still simply wanted to be remembered, while even more were working for wealth or power. And now they are dead, their ancestry for the most part is muddled at best, and even as we speak of them, they reap no benefits.
What does Napoleon get for his ambition? He spend his youth and young adult life rising to power, in the hopes to get noticed. He was, but that wasn’t enough. He wasn’t content with admiration from his peers and immediate superiors. He wanted the throne, and through more labor, obtained that too. His self coronation was the epitome of his power, and his palaces his demonstration of wealth. He had more power than some kings before him (French or otherwise), but that too was not enough. France was not enough. Several more countries were not enough. We can assume that is not what he was thinking when he found himself at Elba, at which point a patch in Burgundy would have probably been preferable. But Elba was figurative death. What if Elba hadn’t happened? What if he had succeeded in usurping power over all of Europe? Surely then he would have moved his empire to other continents as well. He would have been emperor of the world, most likely by an advanced age. He would have had a lifetime of battles, wars, stress even more unimaginable than the 405 freeway at seven in the morning, more than likely a slew of chronic illnesses associated with said anxiety and stress, and instead of at Elba, he would have died on his massive throne. His hunger for more would have relegated him to the same history books where we find him now, given no more space than perhaps lesser kings before him, with school children reciting the palindromic “able was I, ere I saw Elba.”
Camus provided a very good answer to the meaninglessness of life in that he advised on coping with it by finding happiness in the here and now. Napoleon could have added twenty years to his life if he had perhaps just enjoyed the crown of France. Because in the end, regardless of how his story unfolded, he ended up in the same place. For each time anyone strives for more, they are striving for a moment closer to their own death. So as Camus points out, everything is futile, might as well enjoy your accomplishments, real or not, it in the moment.
Except we don’t. We never do. Everything we do is constantly in search for something more. Some sort of reward for our endeavors. Everyone seems to forget that the only reward we are given after a lengthy bout of hard work is death. So… why do we do the things we do?