One must imagine Sisyphus happy

One must imagine Sisyphus happy

Sisyphus, the king of Corinth in Greek mythology, having cheated death twice, was ultimately sentenced by Zeus to an eternal punishment of rolling a boulder up a hill in the depth of Hades, only for the boulder to roll back down again.

What would you say about Sisyphus’ having to roll the boulder up the hill only to start all over again the next day? Do you pity him for his condemned fate?

Albert Camus, the French existentialist, would beg to differ. In Camus’ view, our lives are not much dissimilar to Sisyphus’ boulder-rolling. Is today a copy-and-paste of yesterday? Is tomorrow a repeat of today? Five years down the road, will you be horrified to find yourself at the same spot, only older? Is life intrinsically meaningless and fruitless?

People go through life with a general direction at various stages. We do what our parents ask of us when we are young. We learn to conform at school. We carry a checklist around: a top-ranked school, a decent job, a reliable spouse, a fairy-tale wedding, a cosy apartment, a fancy car, a child or two, and along the list there are also date night every Friday, summer holiday overseas, birthday celebrations, roses on Valentine’s, soccer practices, ballet recitals, graduation ceremony, and repeat. One day, we look at our list, all the boxes ticked, and we wonder, “Is this it?”

We are often rushing to a destination, only to find out upon arrival that the sense of achievement and happiness that has been driving us all along is so short-lived. Like Sisyphus, we struggle to push the boulder to the top of the hill only to see it roll down to the foot of the mountain again, and again. 

How could we imagine Sisyphus happy? Camus writes:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

It is not the destination that bears the meaning and purpose, but the journey. The journey is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

When we run only with a finishing line in our mind, we might overlook the beauty along the way.

When we strive to score the next promotion, we might forget the tremendous joy we used to derive from the task itself.

When we anxiously try to put our little one back to sleep in the middle of the night, we might not realize that we have missed a special moment of bonding and connection.

Are we missing the point? What is the point?

Perhaps, the point lies in the strides a runner takes, faster and stronger; in the process of honing a skill, to manifest mastery and focus; in countless conversations with our partners, not to win an argument, but to care and understand.

Perhaps, for Sisyphus, the point is to endure the pain and suffering voluntarily and summon the courage to charge forward with a defiance against the absurdity of life.