In 1942 the existential philosopher Albert Camus wrote a lengthy philosophical essay on Existentialism and Absurd-ism based on the Greek Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was founder and king of Corinth/Ephyra. When Hades came to ensnare him, the cunning Sisyphus tricked Hades into submission. Hades was unable to perform his task of escorting beings to the underworld. Since nobody would die, the chain of life was seriously out of whack.
Finally Hades was released and Sisyphus was summoned to the underworld for eternity. In time he was brought before Hades for his crimes against the gods and was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a very steep mountain. As he labored exhaustively to reach the summit, he felt an instant of gratification and accomplishment — only to see the great rock roll to bottom. The euphoria evaporated as he prepared to repeat the task forever and ever and ever.
The devastation and atrocities that rocked Europe following two World Wars cast a dark cloud over the continent. Albert Camus uses the ancient story of Sisyphus to raise a provocative question, one that is as important and relevant today as it was in 1942. His question is, does the life we live have meaning in and of itself. or is it so intrinsically connected to the outside forces that we a doomed to despair, perhaps a longing for death?
On a less dramatic level many struggle with a sense of meaninglessness. News headlines remind us daily of the myriad of forces working against us over which we have no control. Anxiety flourishes. In 2014, the suicide rate was the highest in 25 years. Self-medication, through the abuse of alcohol an drugs of all kinds, seem to on the rise and suggests that we Americans are not as happy and contented as we think we should be. Have we turned to medicating ourselves because we can’t find meaning in the routine of our daily lives? The search can be endless, regardless of class or income, often absurd or filled with monotony.
And if so is there any thing we can do about the malaise or is our only answer a sense of hopelessness? And if so, is it the same for everyone or do each of us have discover it for ourselves? According to Camus, “Without a meaning in life, there is no scale of values and what counts most is not the best living but the most living.” Can the true meaning of life be discovered by everyone? Camus looked to the Sisyphus Myth.
As Camus considers the difficulty and monotony of Sisyphus’ life he comes to the realization that the only way Sisyphus can overcome his circumstances is to discover meaning and worth in his tortuous task. He must fall in love with pushing the stone to very top of the mountain in order to revel in that one majestic moment, raise his arms to the heavens and shout to the gods, “I’ve done it again, you bastards, I have done it again!” In that moment of triumph he is truly free and he can stroll down the mountain at peace with the world and himself.
We must discover what Sisyphus had to discover. The lesson is that being alive involves the ability to discover the exceptional in the most unexceptional, a beauty in the midst of devastation, and to celebrate that awareness. Such practices every day can bring a sense of peace and understanding to the task of living.
The older I get the more I have come to realize that embracing the most absurd and exhausting tasks and doing them with riveted attention… getting lost in the task… no matter how hollow it may seems to others, is what brings the greatest satisfaction. I’ve watched my wife spend nearly a month working mostly by herself on a 15′ by 20′ plot of dirt in our back yard to ready it for planting grass. She dug down nearly a foot deep to take out rocks and gravel, and load a wheel barrow for me to take away — a task I did many times. Then she sifted the dirt though a dirt sifter and moved on to the next section and started the sifting all over again.
At first I was skeptical of what she was doing and wondered if it was worth the time and effort. She finished a few days ago and she looked at me as if to say, “I did it,you bastard even, though you were sure I wouldn’t.. I did it.” Freedom lives!