Sneaking in a little more summer reading with an existential classic–Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s been on my to-read list for years and on my shelf for almost as long. I thought I’d move it to the top of the list.

Is my life anything more than a distraction–an endless array of meaningless preoccupations to keep my mind off the reality of nothingness? Beckett might think so. I completed Waiting for Godot about a week back and have been meditating over its message ever since. Is it a dark message he sends? I suppose it’s how you look at it. It does, however, force the careful reader to reconsider how he or she spends time.

Vladimir and his dear friend Estragon throughout the play are looking for diversions to sustain Beckett in a Paris cafe This photo of Samuel Beckett was captured by John Minihan.  Beckett in a Paris Cafe
  Photo Credit: John Minihan
themselves–to take their minds off the waiting and to fend off the terrible possibility of thought itself. Beckett depicts life through his characters as just that–a waiting game, but what we are waiting for never comes (and likely does not even exist). To realize the fact of this nothingness can result in two possible outcomes: 1) a complete liberation whereby we understand that we are free to choose and, thereby, responsible for our own lives, or 2) a complete undoing of all that we’ve put stock in (blind faith)–an unraveling of the idea that something bigger than ourselves exists, something to wait for, something to give our lives meaning. This latter outcome is what drives us in search of a “good bit of rope” with which to hang ourselves; however, it is the not knowing of whether Godot will come to save us or not that keeps us in a constant state of waiting, diversion, distraction–a dynamic balance between thought and decision. It is sheer ambivalence that keeps most of us moving through each day without much of the dreaded thought–day in and day out. Of course we find things to pass the time or, as Estragon says, “We always find something…to give us the impression we exist” (77).

Too much awareness is a crippling disease.

Thought is a scary thing. It can be a real burden–quite the contrary to the bliss of ignorance. In Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from the Underground, the protagonist says, “I am firmly persuaded that a great deal of consciousness, every sort of consciousness, in fact, is a disease.” More concisely interpreted in Gary Walcow’s film version of the novella, our underground man says, “Too much awareness is a crippling disease.” And so it is. But one might equally argue that a lack of thought–a lack of awareness–paralyzes us in this eternal waiting game or, if you prefer, sends us into perpetual, yet meaningless, movement (see Sisyphus) searching for meaning where none can be found. What do we do in the meantime?

Estragon: In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of being silent.
Vladimir: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.
Estragon: It’s so we won’t think.
[…]
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimir: To have lived is not enough for them.
[…]
Vladimir: When you seek you hear.
Estragon: You do.
Vladimir: That prevents you from finding.
Estragon: It does.
Vladimir: That prevents you from thinking. […] What is terrible is to have thought. (Beckett 68–71)
[…]
Vladimir: We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let’s get to work. (He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.) In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness! (Beckett 92)

Beckett’s play left me thinking hard about how I spend my time. In fact, this concern has been a preoccupation of mine for the better part of my life. I don’t believe in wasting time. I also don’t believe in the false hope of urgency–as if anything really matters that much. Am I fundamentally an existentialist? Oh, I don’t know. I can probably answer that as easily as I can answer the question of whether I’m a vegetarian. (I don’t eat red, pink, or white meat except for fish and enjoy my eggs over easy.) “Once you label me, you negate me,” writes Kierkegaard. Do I think Beckett and his contemporaries promote a philosophy of despair? No, I really don’t. I believe Beckett sends a message of hope–a wakeup call that we all better start living our lives responsibly, deliberately, awake and alert, and make something of them, lest we fall prey to that bit of rope or squander all our time waiting by the roadside for someone or something that will never come.


On a related note, let me point you to one of my favorite essays of late by Penn Jillette. It is truly a life affirming essay about belief. Give it a listen/read: “There is No God”.