The Desert of Existence
The squat beige one-story building in the crowded office park seemed to huddle underneath a steel gray sky. It was a rather dreary Southern California winter as an El Nino effect this year that was dropping an unusually large amount of rain all across the San Fernando Valley. It had been raining almost without cessation for three days. The cold dreary weather had many people feeling slightly depressed and anxious for the weather to end. There is just something about prolonged storms that seems to make people more anxious and prone to worry. This is especially so in Southern California, where such weather is not the norm. Mudslides, flooding, and coastal erosion were all very real specters.
One such worried person was a particular young woman. She was relatively short and dressed in a black trench coat with an umbrella. Her face mirrored the steadfastness and purpose with which she struggled from the bus stop and through the parking lot as she headed for the building carrying a small box labeled with the words ‘gourmet candy bars.’ The wind toyed cruelly with her long dark hair, depositing large drops of water deep into her tresses as progressed.
Please be there! She thought. Oh please, please, please buy a candy bar! As she walked up onto the sidewalk in front of the door to the building, she slipped. She fell backward with a screech and landed squarely on her back. Unconscious.
A wizened old man heard he and peered out the glass door. Not again, he thought.
* * *
Darkness slowly dissipated from her consciousness. She lifted her groggy head and blinked several times. She was sitting in an old cracked red leather chair. There was a homemade knitted blanket across her legs. She rubbed her eyes and looked around. To her left was a fireplace with an ornate marble mantle and across from her was an elderly man in an identical leather chair. The room was dimly lit, but she could make out bookcases filled with books along all of the walls. She was not able to make out anything else other than a doorway off to her right.
“Where am I?” she inquired. The last thing she remembered was walking up to a door in a bad part of town. She reached for the doorknob, and then there was just blackness until now.
He frowned. “If you don’t know, then I can’t help you.”
There was an uncomfortable silence during which the man glared at her. She shifted anxiously in her chair. “I guess I’d better go.”
“What? Before you even ask the big question?” He was incredulous.
“Um, okay. Do you want to buy a candy bar? I’m selling it as a fundraiser for my school.”
To her disappointment, he reacted with great consternation. “You come here and this is what you ask me?”
“Well, yeah. What else would I want, carrying a box of candy bars around?”
He sat up in his chair, eyes wide. “What do you think I am? It takes a special sort to come to my door.”
Now she was annoyed. “Well, I’m behind on selling.”
“What is your name?”
“Zita. And you?”
“Call me Bob. Zita, you are in over your head.”
“What do you mean? I just want to sell candy and go on a field trip.” She sat up, troubled.
“I mean I’m not the sort who buys candy. I handle very special problems.”
“What do you do?” She was curious about Bob.
“You could say that I’m a professional metaphysician.”
“What is that?”
Bob scowled at her again. “If you don’t already understand, I can’t explain it to you.”
“Try me.” Zita was defiant.
“You won’t get it. How old are you?”
“Well, then you definitely won’t understand.”
Zita was done with Bob, his arrogance, his condescension, his rudeness, and his unhelpful attitude. Youth does not equal an inability to comprehend new things. “Well, I guess I’ll get going. It was nice to meet you.” She got up out of her chair and headed for the door.
“Stop! Do not open that door!” He was genuinely alarmed.
Zita was defiant and rebellious. She was not going to sit here and listen to this arrogant, condescending man. She had to get away. She reached the door, opened it, and stepped through.
The door slammed shut behind her. She had not been really paying attention to her surroundings. If she had been, she would not have stepped over the threshold and outside the room.
What she saw stopped her in her tracks, and caused her to panic. Somehow, she was no longer in the city! She had apparently been transported out into some sort of vast desert. It stretched out in front of her as far as she could see with the sun setting behind it. There was no sign of Bob’s residence or any other building for that matter. Behind her, where there should have been a building, there was only a large boulder. This boulder was at the very bottom of a mountain. Actually, it was more of a rocky hill than a mountain, since it seemed to be only about three or four hundred feet high. However, it did have a rather steep slope.
Unexpectedly, a man came around from the other side of the boulder, startling Zita and causing her to jump backward. He was tall but not overly so, being maybe just a few inches over six feet. He was very muscular, like someone who had worked out with weights for most of his life. He was clothed with only a pair of jeans, raggedly cut off at the knees. He was dirty and sweaty.
He must have sensed her troubled emotional state. “Are you okay Miss? Do you need help?” There was a look of genuine concern on his face.
Zita found herself tongue tied and unable to respond in any way except to stare at his chiseled physique.
Zita finally spoke out. “Um, where am I? Who are you? What’s going on?” Panic was creeping into her voice.
He had compassion on his face and in his voice. “It’s okay Miss. You’re in the ‘Desert of Existence.’ Nothing is going to happen here. Nothing ever happens here. Although this is a lonely place, so if you consider loneliness to be bad, then I suppose this is not a desirable place to be. My name is Sisyphus. What is your name?” He smiled nicely.
She was stricken by his smile and paused an overly long time but managed to come up with an awkward reply. “I’m Zita.” She paused again. “How did I get here? Last thing I knew, I was in someone’s home.”
He had a knowing look on his face. “It must have been a metaphysical doorway. There are lots of them around, but most of the time you can’t see them. Did you open a door and then the door was gone?”
Zita was getting excited. “Yes! Yes! That is exactly what happened to me! Why does something like this happen?”
He shrugged. “It was probably just some random hiccup of the universe. Like everything else.”
She cocked her head as she considered what he was saying. “What does ‘metaphysical’ mean?”
Sisyphus was shocked at the question. “You mean you really don’t know?”
“No, I don’t. Is it unusual for someone not to know?”
“Well, most people don’t know what it means, but so far everyone who has come to see me has known. It’s just very unusual for me to encounter someone who is not acquainted with metaphysics.”
Zita nodded her head in an effort at empathy, although she did not truly understand.
Sisyphus continued. “Metaphysics has to do with the general nature of reality. What exists, what doesn’t exist, or more to the point, what is allowed or disallowed to exist under a particular system of thought.”
Zita was confused. “A particular system of thought?”
“And what is that?” Zita was trying to understand what was being said. She appreciated the patience of Sisyphus as he answered her questions in a non-judgmental manner.
“A worldview is a comprehensive set of beliefs that enables an individual to make sense of the world around them.”
“I’m really sorry, but I’m still not following you.”
“Well, it’s like this. Everyone has two sets of beliefs that they deal with on a daily basis. Control beliefs and data beliefs. Control beliefs are what a person assumes to be true about the universe. A good example is ghosts. If someone come up to us right now and said that they saw a ghost, what would you do?”
A look of puzzlement crossed Zita’s face as she gave this some thought. “I would believe that she saw something, but not a ghost. I would go look into it expecting some other explanation to be true.”
“Exactly! This is because you had already decided that there is no such thing as ghosts!” Zita nodded her head as he continued. “This is what is meant by a ‘control’ belief; it controls how you interpret incoming information from your senses. The information that someone saw a ghost can be called a data belief. The control belief that there are no ghosts rejects the data belief that someone saw a ghost. The data is reinterpreted assuming that there has to be another explanation. Any explanation would be good, even if it was highly improbable, so long as it maintains the non-existence of ghosts.”
Zita’s eyes grew wide with understanding. “Wow! What worldviews are there?”
Sisyphus smiled. He was enjoying the conversation. “There are three main types of worldview, each with some subtypes. There is theism, naturalism, and monism. Theism is the belief that some sort of God or gods exist. A theist can believe that God is personal or impersonal. The main point is that there is a God of some type. Naturalism is the belief that there is no God. There is only the natural world. And monists believe that everything is one; there is no true distinction between what we perceive to be separate parts of the universe. Monism says that logic is an illusion and does not really apply to reality.”
“How can you tell what worldview you have?” Zita was eager to apply what she was learning.
He gave Zita an apologetic look. “I have to get back to work. Walk along side me and we can keep talking. If you would like to, that is.”
“Yeah, that would be nice.” Zita smiled.
Sisyphus positioned himself on the opposite side of the boulder from the mountain. He carefully positioned his hands on the boulder, adjusted his stance, and began to push. At first, nothing happened, and then with a grunt from him, the boulder started to move slowly up the hill. He paused to talk with Zita between each major exertion.
“Well, you asked how a person can know which worldview they truly hold.” Pause. “Well, sometimes a person will say that they hold one worldview but act and speak as if they hold another one.” Pause. “I think that people’s actions are how to tell the difference between what someone claims to believe and what that person may actually believe.”
“So then, you’re saying that if someone doesn’t live the way they say they do then it is how they actually live that counts?”
“Precisely!” Sisyphus was making great progress on rolling the boulder up the hill. “For all intents and purposes, what we do supersedes what we say. Would you believe someone who says, ‘I never lie,’ then proceeds to tell a lie? This person would not be described as honest but as a liar. Same thing if someone said that stealing is wrong who then stole something; that person would be a thief regardless of their belief that stealing is wrong.”
Zita nodded. “Okay.”
He had reached the top of the mountain. “Hang on a minute.” He was steadying the boulder and looking around on either side of it. He had a smile on his face and seemed to be taking great pleasure in his work. “This is the really cool part of what I do. Watch this!” And he let go.
The boulder teetered for a second and started rolling down the hill. It steadily picked up speed, bouncing a little as it went. Dust and small rocks went flying in its wake. “Yee ha! Look at it go!”
“Whoa! That is pretty cool. So, this is what you do?” Zita was perplexed.
“Yup. Pretty cool, huh?” Sisyphus was rather pleased with himself.
“OK, let me get this straight. Your job is to roll a boulder up a hill and then watch it go crashing back down? And then roll the same boulder right back up the hill again?” The two of them started walking together back down the hill.
“Yup, you got it.”
“Why? Doesn’t this seem rather pointless to you?”
“Well, I do this because I found myself stuck here and needed something to do. So, rolling boulders became my ‘job.’”
“Not really. I rather enjoy it. It keeps me busy. Besides, I get to truly know a piece of ground, the details of every pebble on this hill and every nuance of that boulder. I really find it quite fascinating.”
“But isn’t it rather pointless?”
“Yes, but what isn’t? All of life seems rather pointless to me. I enjoy this activity because I choose to do so. Otherwise, I would be miserable and I don’t want to be miserable.” His expression was rather serious. “We all create our own essence. We define ourselves, who we are, and what we want to be and do. If you want the essence of who you are to be happy, then you need to work to make this the case. Otherwise, you will just be a blank slate, wandering through the world without knowing who you are. Becoming can be very hard work, especially if you do not know what you want to become.”
At the bottom of the hill, the boulder came to rest near a rock with a flat top. The top of this rock seemed to be painted as a chess board. There were two rocks on either side of it as well and black and white chess pieces set up on it.
Sisyphus turned to Zita. “Would you like to play The Game?”
“Sure, I love chess. My father taught me how to play, and I sometimes play against the chess club at school.”
“Cool, how do you fare against them?”
“Ok, I don’t win very often but I have fun playing.”
“Well, I would say that if you occasionally beat the members of the chess club, then you are not bad at all at this game!”
Zita blushed. Then the two of them sat down and started to play a game of chess. Sisyphus was a difficult opponent, but Zita thought she was doing well against him. That is, until Sisyphus unexpectedly took her queen in an illegal move.
“Hey!” Zita objected. “Your knight can’t do that!”
“Well, it’s part of the rules. The knight just doesn’t do that.”
“Well, I say it does. This isn’t chess; it’s The Game, and I can make up my own rules for how to play it.” Sisyphus wasn’t making sense to Zita.
“What are you talking about? This is clearly chess. The board, the pieces, everything is chess, so we need to stick to the rules for chess.”
“But who made those rules? Not you or I. How can some authority that is far removed from us in both space and time dictate to us how to play?”
“You can tell by looking that the board and the pieces were made a certain way. We have rules that say the purpose for those pieces and the board. If you alter the rules then it is no longer chess, it is something else.” Zita was hitting her stride and starting to understand.
“But this isn’t chess, this is The Game. This is an allegory for life. Just like in life, there is no real purpose and any rules are merely suggestions for how to play.”
Now the light went on for Zita. “If it is an allegory for life, then how do you explain the shape and meaning attached to the pieces? If this is life, then we aren’t the players, we are the pieces. The purpose for the pieces is only truly realized by playing according to the rules that apply to the pieces and the game as a whole.”
“I disagree. I can make my own rules.” Sisyphus was adamant about this.
“But if you do that, you rob the game of meaning and purpose!”
Sisyphus smiled. “You assume that there is meaning and purpose to it but that is not necessarily the case. The only meaning and purpose that we have comes from how we interpret the Game. It is all about how you look at things.”
Zita frowned at this. “But that is the only possible explanation for everything. The board, the pieces, the rules. Purpose has to be behind it!”
Suddenly, Bob’s voice entered into the conversation. “Teleology. Very good Zita, I clearly underestimated you.” Then he turned to Sisyphus, “Hi Al, how’s the boulder?” Sisyphus shrugged in response.
Zita blushed. “Thanks, but what is teleology?”
Sisyphus chimed in, “Teleology is the study of ends in terms of reason and purpose. Your argument for rules and purpose in the game is often applied to the universe and life in general. Bob argues with me about it all the time.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Al and I have known each other for a long time. Come on Zita, I need to introduce you to Tom.” Bob was wearing a hard hat, the yellow sort worn by construction workers. Bob handed one to Zita.
“What is this for?” She put on her hat.
“We need to go through the Deconstruction Zone to get to him. It can be dangerous, the deconstruction workers are busy tearing down what Tom and others built up over centuries.”
“Who is Tom?”
“A big purple talking ox.”
Bob turned to Sisyphus. “See you later Al.”
“Goodbye Bob. I hope to see you again Zita.”
Zita waved at Sisyphus. “I had fun talking with you Sisyphus.”
As Bob and Zita walked off through the desert, she looked over her shoulder to see Sisyphus stand up from the chess table and start moving the boulder back up the hill.
* * *
Much of the information regarding worldviews comes from attending the Introduction to Philosophy class taught by Dr. Paul M. Cox both as student and Teaching Assistant in the School for Professional Studies at Vanguard University.
The idea to use the Greek myth of Sisyphus as a means for communicating the atheistic existentialist worldview comes from Albert Camus in his book The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Vintage International Press, 1955, 1983, 1991.
Special thanks to Paul Hughes for feedback on a prior draft.