It has been wisely put that “life must be lived forward but that it can only be understood by looking at it backwards.” In this context, myths are among those mirrors to the human soul that provide such revealing and fascinating insights into our character and purpose.
Take, for instance, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus’ classic tale of unimaginable cruelty, superhuman determination, and a patience greater than that of Job. Clearly, the story is a powerful symbol of humanity’s indomitable spirit—and in the modern setting, an unforgettable example of hope amidst despair known to every (freedom-loving) person who had fallen from grace and suffered the indignities of lost power, reputation and liberty in defiant silence. (Think of Nelson Mandela, Ninoy Aquino et al., towering leaders who were thrown in jail for their beliefs, stripped of everything but their dignity and indefatigable spirit.) That’s why Sisyphus is forever seared in our minds.
I am one of those who believe that the myth should be revisited in order to put a more pragmatic slant to it. And a better ending.
In the myth, based on Greek mythology, Sisyphus is condemned by the mighty Zeus to an “eternal” struggle against an outsized rock in a desolate hill because he indiscreetly revealed a number of Zeus’ secrets. As we were taught in school, provoking the ire of Zeus leads to many kinds of cruel punishment. Sisyphus also displayed the unforgivable sin of hubris toward Zeus, believing he could outsmart the great one.
For his transgressions, Sisyphus is sentenced to the barren, craggy hills of Tartarus in the underworld—where his rock is waiting. Chained to it, he is forced to push the rock up the highest hill. It is a daunting, punishing work because upon reaching the top of the hill, the rock slides down, as if it has a will of its own, and the poor man has to go down and repeat the task—a seemingly futile, never-ending, up-down battle. There must be wrenching emotions and thoughts running through Sisyphus’ tortured mind during the great battle with the rock. Will this hellish condition ever cease? Can it get worse? Just as terrifying: Am I actually in dreamland, having a Zeus-ordained nightmare that will never stop? But wait, it’s all real: Maybe the gods are just taunting and testing me?
Atop the hill, on the other, steeper side, Sisyphus can see far below, a dark hole seething with lava-like fire and matter which may tempt him to commit suicide by hurling himself and the rock into it. But only for a fleeting moment. Then, brushing aside the inviting option, he turns his head around and with a vigorous stride resumes the uneven battle.
The cruelty and absurdity of Sisyphus’ plight are not to be dismissed, however, because they hold an important lesson in life: He is condemned by Zeus and the lesser gods to eternal toil yet he remains undaunted and resolute.
Camus’ famous essay underlines the significance of Sisyphus’ epic struggle. To Camus, the character of the man is evident during each and every descent when the brief respite from the agonizing chore gives him a taste of freedom—and the will to go on.
The very struggle itself becomes Sisyphus’ raison d’ etre, enough to fill his heart—and drown his doubts.
He knows that the script of the gods is absurd and that the brutal grind will never end; yet he plods on. And so Sisyphus, by his unflagging spirit, becomes stronger than the rock and his chains.
On hindsight, we can now take some liberties with the myth and add that perhaps Sisyphus is smarter than the gods give him credit for. As a clever man, and an alert observer of his surroundings, he must notice that every descent brings with it hope, as the rock dwindles in size as it rubs against the surface of the rugged hill.
The discovery must buoy him. It will not be a permanent bondage, after all. There will come a time when the big rock will be so reduced in size as to allow Sisyphus to remove the chains around it. That day of liberation is the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.
The myth of Sisyphus and similar myths that so delight us resonate in our contemporary life because of our admiration for brave souls who dared defy very powerful forces and faced their fates and ordeal with their heads unbowed.
Sisyphus, albeit in much lighter forms, thus lives in many of us where the mythical rock may be a natural disaster that uproots and dismembers an entire family, a tyrannical boss with whom employees must put up to cling to their expendable jobs, a troubled marriage that must be endured for the sake of the couple’s young children, a financial crisis that plunges a once prosperous businessman and sole breadwinner to indefinite economic depression, someone’s ill health, with little or no chance of recovery, or just a boring 9-to-5 job most of us have to live with, day in and day out.
Like Sisyphus, we must plod on and overcome the adversity that weighs down heavily on us and seeks to defeat us. Like Sisyphus, the human spirit lives on—and triumphs.
Narciso Reyes Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international book author, speech writer, essayist, and former diplomat.
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