Most all have heard of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was sentenced by the Gods for being deceitful, and even a murderer of travelers through his country. Sisyphus was punished with the futile work of pushing a boulder up a mountain, whereupon reaching the top, the boulder unfailingly, and instantly tumbled back down to the bottom. As ordained by the powers-to-be, this was to become Sisyphus’s life: fruitless, unrelenting, repetitive, and worse – unimportant labor. At the beginning of each day, Sisyphus’s hourglass, filled with uninspiring work, was simply flipped over; primed for another day.
In Albert Camus’s book, The Myth of Sisyphus, the French writer noted that as Sisyphus walked back down the mountain to retrieve his boulder he would have been afforded the time to contemplate his fate; to consider his situation. The following essay encompasses a number of ideas from various philosophers, notably Richard Taylor, plus a few of my own all melded into a story.
After another arduous trip lugging his rock up the mountain, a forlorn Sisyphus, once again, watched as his rock begin to tumble back down the mountain-side. Hanging his head, and taking a deep breath he dispiritedly began his descent. Sisyphus, on this particular return, began to contemplate, even agonize over the question of how he could ever improve the nature of this unrelenting labor that filled his days. He pondered how this work could be advanced and made, at least a bit more, meaningful.
His first thought led him to the idea that instead of a big boulder, he was actually fated to transport just a small pebble up a hill. As he considered this material improvement, he debated if this would be the key change he was actually seeking in his fateful work. He figured, yes, the pebble would still roll back down the hill, but being just a pebble, it would be easy to retrieve and transport back up the hill. So he asked himself, ‘Would this improve the condition of my work?” After a tittle of thought, Sisyphus confessed that this change would help physically, but sadly, only physically.
Upon further reflection, Sisyphus entertained another idea; and even bigger improvement so he thought. He now imagined that the boulder did not roll back down the mountain at all. As he pushed his boulders to the mountaintop they would begin to accumulate into a pile. A smile slowly crossed his face as he began to visualize that his efforts would now, at least, produce something – even if only a pile of rocks atop his mountain of work. The idea of working to create something, even if only an aimless pile of rocks and pebbles captivated him on his slow retreat down the mountain. But his smile was cut-short as he quickly arrived at the conclusion that this new development would not be the meaningful change he sought.
Sisyphus, in a memory that harked back to his youth, suddenly remembered he had learned that real, honest, and respected work had to be both hard in nature, and long of duration. This type of work was respected by the throngs who constitute quote, ‘Society’. Extrapolating out this line-of-thought he imagined for a moment that the stone he was fated to transport was even bigger, and the mountain’s slope now more severe than ever before. Visualizing this change, he saw himself staggering to hoist the stone to his shoulders, as opposed to mercifully pushing it, which even the condemning gods had allowed. “No!”, he quickly uttered – “this does not make my work more meaningful, at least, not to me”.
Suddenly, Sisyphus had an insight. The gods who had condemned him to this unrelenting work were, no doubt, busy conducting their godlike duties. He wondered if they could really be that vigilant about watching him work. He contemplated for a moment that they might not be keeping track of him at all. And if this were the case, he might be able to abandon his boulder and rest for a bit. Maybe even give up the work for all of eternity and live a life of leisure. Mentally playing this notion out, he realized that such a path would only result in eternal boredom. This would be a curse unto itself, for Sisyphus knew he was immortal, and a bored immortality could possibly rival the damning of this fated labor. Just the thought of it caused his vigor to suddenly fall slack, which was unsettling at best. Eternal rest and a life of leisure were not going to be the answer to his dilemma either.
Having adopted the idea of the rocks not falling back down the mountain, yet still frustrated nonetheless, Sisyphus turned his thoughts to other ways he could improve upon his work. As the weeks passed, the growing pile of rocks had become quite large. One day he stopped to survey his rock pile. After reflecting for a moment, he began rearranging a few stones, configuring them into a pattern he had seen before. Realizing he had to transport his rocks up the mountain, for that he couldn’t change, he began to grasp the idea of actually constructing something. ‘Yes’, he thought, he would build some type of structure. However, he knew he should follow the plans of another designer, or architect, because he was just a lowly hill climber, and what did he know about constructing buildings? This idea morphed into a smile across his countenance, as he suddenly felt that this fated work would now finally be dramatically improved. Exercising this line of thought, Sisyphus would intelligently build a structure born of another’s imagination. It would have use, possibly even beauty.
As the years passed, obediently following the blueprints of an architect Sisyphus didn’t even know, he still yearned for something more. There must be something beyond the daily task of building from the plans of another. This job had now become too small for him. He felt he really couldn’t put his spirit into it. He had tried, but it wouldn’t fit. He had indeed matured, so-to-speak, building from the imagination of an intelligent designer who was one who had demanded, through his shear force of will, that his plans make some noise and actually come into being. Likewise, Sisyphus now wanted to build something that would manifest his own ideas, and not simply regurgitate the designs of one he had never even met. He desired to perform in a manner that spoke to him, while speaking from his core. And even though his hands had calloused from transporting all those rocks, he still longed to feel himself in his daily work.
Sisyphus continued to contemplate this idea on the only respite he enjoyed: on his repeated trek, down his mountain of work to fetch his rocks. As Sisyphus descends, take a moment and psychologically mount yourself on his broad shoulders, from where you can enjoy complete relaxation as you think about his dilemma, possibly your dilemma – a universal dilemma.
As Sisyphus anxiously considered what this next evolution of progress would look like, he suddenly, in a fit of frustration, and perhaps insanity, tore down his hard-won structure. Crying, he asked, “What have I done? I have people who depend on me, and I shouldn’t be so self-centered. I’m irrational. So what if I feel that I’m fated to create something from an impulse that resonates deep within me. Maybe it’s just my fantasies playing tricks on me. Who am I, really?”
Sisyphus, on some level, wished to escape the unsatisfied longings and stifled ambition eating away at the heart of his desire. There was an undercurrent of inauthenticity in his work that would not leave him alone. Feeling that in order to truly live an honest life he had to find a way, once and for all, to act from a sincere impulse emanating from who knows where. Sisyphus, attracted to this idea, had finally arrived at a place where he would, for the first time, listen, and act from an original inner impulse. But, not today. Today he would remain comfortably numb, living among all the sane people pushing insane rocks; among the sincere, living an insincere existence, and with all the critics, smiling hypocritical smiles. After all, it was safe here. Society, in full agreement tacitly nodded.
After many more weeks of deciding his next step, he came to the conclusion that it was not the things you did in life that could psychologically kill you – it was the things you didn’t do. (Maybe even immortals don’t really live forever, but rather for an extremely long time. Because of this they just believe themselves to be immortal. Maybe they’re just like the rest of us.)
At the end of his thinking, where conclusions live, Sisyphus believed he deserved to find his destiny as anyone ever created. He was commanded by a universal impulse never desiring to lead anyone down a wayward path. He arrived at the conclusion that he had no choice but to finally listen – find – and follow.
On an inauspicious, ordinary day, Sisyphus began to work from his own imagination, intellect, and impulse. His work reflects what emanates from within. Ironically, he works as hard as ever before. And on some days, because of his growing enthusiasm, he works harder than ever before. This venture, though far from perfect, speaks to him with sincerity; he feels true to himself. Now working according to his nature, he communicates a bit of himself in his daily tasks, which ironically is still to push rocks, boulders, and pebbles up his mountain of work: For this he could not change. Sisyphus deemed his work to be valuable, and through his shared essence with others, they also valued his work. Nothing had changed as Sisyphus was still condemned to this work for all of eternity, but now he relished his immortality. His youth and vitality never seemed to waver as he worked with great purpose.
Sisyphus’s work speaks to him and communicates – not by words but actions – his essence to the world. On his fated way back down the mountain to fetch, yet another rock, he smiles and suddenly begins to cry; warm tears stream through the dust of his face.
The French philosopher, Albert Camus, concludes in the Myth of Sisyphus, that for Sisyphus, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Sisyphus closes his eyes and reflects on what authentic work is to be. He realizes that his soul and its spirit exude an essence that energizes and animates his will. And when this is sensed by his heart, it spurs his desire and appetite for certain outcomes that he can capably bring about. If he did not have the talent to make this real, the thought would never have ever come into his mind. He realizes that he has become an unobstructed channel between his soul’s energized impulse, his mind’s faculties, and his natural talents. He knows he can perform his work which, in turn, feeds his soul. In this way a virtuous cycle is completed. He is beautiful and good, for a thing is beautiful if it fulfills its purpose, and good if faithful to its nature. The essence of a thing is its spirit, and the spirit of a thing is its essence. One does not exist without the other. Now his essence is displayed in his work. And yes, work that has been fated: it could really be no other way. Finally, his work speaks to both himself and to the world as he creates something of real value.