Nuclear Sisyphus

by juli boggs

Nuclear Sisyphus, or, The Tenets of Absurdism as Applied to my Job as a Nuclear Administrative Clerk.

Closely tied to the philosophical movement of Existentialism in the 1920s, Absurdism centered on the idea that life is irrational, illogical, incongruous and without reason. A lot like my job.

Elusion According to Camus there is a perceived void in our lives that we are constantly trying to fill with invented beliefs or ideas, which is merely avoiding, or eluding, the truth that there is nothing there. At work, the primary elusion to our senseless reality is the idea of “productivity.” It is said to exist and we, as team players, are constantly in pursuit of it despite constantly falling short. The fault is not in us or our management procedures, but that productivity itself  does not exist.

God Kierkegaard believed that there is no humanly-comprehensible meaning in the existence of God, and that faith in God is itself absurd. Just as we cannot fill the void with the pursuit of nonexistent “productivity” neither can we believe that anyone at work is in control or has any idea what they’re doing. While internal memos are filtered down through multitudinous levels of subordination, a twice per shift meeting characterized by chaos, breakdowns and childish demands reveal that our purpose is not cooperation, but to disperse stressful situations via horizontal oppression, also known as “task delegation.”

Suicide When confronted by the futility of our existence, suicide, as discussed in Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” is contrary to the purpose of Absurdism because it equates an ultimate denial of our purposelessness, and is thus an “elusion.” Often times when confronted with seemingly irreconcilable complications in the nuclear workplace one is tempted to commit a work-day suicide by way of quitting or giving in to suspiciously aberrant behaviors. But we must recall that these seemingly real structures of power, control and purpose are no more stable than radioactive plumes, and while perceived emotional damage may seem permanent, it is merely one of many emotional isotopes which will, if embraced, lead to a stabilization, or mutation, of acceptance.

Personal Meaning While an objective meaning may not exist in the realm of the absurd, a personal existential meaning may be created from which to derive private satisfaction. This is effective so long as one maintains an ironic distance from this “meaning” lest it become an objective goal for the individual, and thus another elusion. During a nuclear power outage, management often attempts to couple meaning with the act of schedule adherence. All “productivity” is driven by this “schedule” and the individual is expected to achieve a zen-like harmony from constantly consulting and relying upon this amorphous document. Any harsh words regarding the schedule are discouraged and often punished to dissuade the individual from realizing the truth that the schedule, besides being poorly crafted, doesn’t actually direct anything, let alone matter or exist.

IntegrityWhile morality cannot guide the absurd because it implies the existence of definite right or wrong, the absurd hero in much absurd fiction is characterized by his own integrity, or honesty with himself, which leads to a consistency in motivation and decision making. While the absurd hero may be amoral, he is not intrinsically immoral.  In the workplace, while one may accept the inability of upper management to control or predict any given situation as they claim to be able to, the individual may still take responsibility for their self and work by adhering to appropriate levels of procedural use, exhibiting a questioning attitude, and stopping when unsure.

HopeThe concept of hope as a tool against despair qualifies it as a tool of elusion in denying the absurd. Only by fully embracing the absurd and rejecting the future possibility of a higher meaning can one live fully and passionately in the moment by creating the fulfillment they require day by day. Whether you’re inside or outside of work, hoping that everything goes right or will work itself out leads to an asphyxiating dread that things will not work out or go right. At the end of a 75 hour workweek, one realizes it’s better to take each situation as it comes, rather than losing precious sleep over what no one person, let alone yourself, can control.

FreedomThe idea of freedom may only be attained within the constraints of the absurd, incorporating the idea of thriving without objective meaning as “acceptance without resignation.” The aforementioned absurd hero is one who accepts the purposelessness of his situation and is still able to value his existence even for the sake of “mere” existance. While the levels of security and oversight at a nuclear power plant can be intimidating, the individual is far better off separating what they say and do from how they feel and what they want to do. In separating these selves, one is able to capitulate to what some would classify as massive amounts of senseless bullshit without suffering the consequences of what would be debilitating frustration.

“These guys are lunatics, this is totally out of control.” –Project manager

*Feature image is a portrait of Albert Camus © Henri Cartier-Bresson, circa 1947.