Myth of Sisyphus
Oh Homer, he told a lot of truths in his time. No, not that Homer. The Homer of The Iliad, that old and much-told tale from ancient times that periodically spills into our lives here and there in pictures and symbols.
There is that one of the man pushing the boulder up a hill. Some of us know it via the book by Albert Camus, French philosopher, as the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a Greek man, “the wisest and most prudent of mortals” according to Homer. He was clever enough to bind Thanos, god of Hades. Once Thanos was all tied up, he could no longer do his job and no mortals died. Aries god of war, was furious because this ruined the sport of war, and Zeus was called in to intervene. He sentenced Sisyphus to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill. On reaching the summit, the boulder would roll down again and Sisyphus would be condemned to bear the same crushing weight every single day. The image sticks in your mind because it is how a lot of people see their daily routine. They cannot put a fine point on why they are here, and what they are trying to accomplish.
Albert Camus was just one of the many French philosophers who have contributed to the annals of nihilism, the idea that nothing means anything. His particular flavour was to call man’s efforts absurd, in an absurd world. In the Myth of Sisyphus, he uses that image of the man pushing the boulder up a hill, to point out the futility of existence. Lump in Foucault, Derrida and Sartre, and you have enough negative information to put a university student off for life. Better stop trying now. All your efforts are worthless.
It is thus one might feel, when you get a bit older and are periodically nudged out of your busy-ness and back to the gym, usually when your pants are getting tight and your wife is getting cranky about it. When you arrive there in the dark hours of morning you will find yourself in good company. The gym will be filled with other men of a certain age, all with skinny frog legs, bingo arms and apple bellies, and all trying to push back the throes of time just like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill.
Why bother indeed? I feel positively eighteen inside. That is until my aches catch up with me. Keeping those achy things moving, is supposed to make it all better, at least for now. What makes the story of Sisyphus so relatable is its physicality, its very tangible nature. You actually feel it in your bones. Anyone on an exercise bike or a treadmill, counts that time by the minutes. How many left? Can I distract myself by listening to a podcast or reading a book? Do I really have to do this all over again tomorrow?
Why do anything? This sentiment was also voiced by the great and wise King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes. It starts out on a cheery note like this: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” It seems that Camus and King Solomon are in total agreement.
What we are fighting is despair, that great enemy of faith. We all do things that will come to naught every single day. They might comprise the greatest part of our efforts. We all try to push back time. Just a walk in downtown Oakville will sometimes jar me with the realization that plastic surgeons must be making pretty good money in this town. Those executive wives who walk by are all trying to turn back the hands of the clock.
But it won’t be forever. The good news for us, and for Sisyphus, is that the situation is actually temporary.
There is an old church I drive past regularly, that has suffered the ultimate indignity. Urban sprawl has brought some peoples’ back yards right up against the tiny church yard that used to have some privacy. The graves used to look out on bucolic vistas of green fields. Now the mere presence of a fence is supposed to separate eternal rest from your loud and present daily life. Newsflash to these new home dwellers by the graveyard. Your residency is but a temporary thing. Sooner than you think, you will be moving next door.
Because of this great truth, it is periodically instructive to ask yourself, what am I doing? What am I doing here? What am I doing, at all? Can we win at life while losing it by degrees? If we can there is good news at the end of all this. We will trade up this temporality, this temporary-ness for something that will last. We are adding value. Not to the visible thing, that is going to be a pile of dust at some point. No, it’s the OTHER things, those intangibles that will still be around when we are not. We are pushing the boulder up the hill for all those others, as hope against hope.
Hope that doesn’t make any sense is called faith. It is why Christians are sometimes called fools for Christ. They will look at what you are doing and call you an idiot. They will insist life is about the here and now. I beg to differ.
I can already see a far country calling for me. I won’t be around forever, but I must meanwhile push that boulder up the hill. I am adding value, proving that things eternal will outlast me, and that I must live for them. As saint Paul said we look in the mirror and see but a glimpse of the big picture, a shadow. One day we shall see face to face and will have to account for what we have made of this thing called life. It is not about the money or the toys. It is about much more.
Camus dismissed life as meaningless because he had the callow air of a much younger man. An older man will tell you that there is much more meaning in every day as you get nearer the end of the race and realize your time has a limit. Everything means something, and some things come to mean everything. Moments matter.
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.” 1 Corinthians 9:24
The prize is Christ. It always was. He is the rock we must carry because he is the cornerstone who will sustain all the others when properly laid as a foundation.
It makes me think of the story of Saint Christopher. Christopher was tall of stature and strong of limb. As such, he made it his business to carry passengers on his back at the dangerous crossing points of rivers. One day a tiny child asked to be borne across. Saint Cristopher started to struggle by the time he reached the middle. There was something odd about this child. On the way across the river, he became a crushing weight. Saint Christopher was forced to beg his mortality. “I am sorry, I cannot carry you across. You are too heavy.” It is then that the child assured him, “he whom you carry is Christ. And carry me you will. You will bear me across this river, and all over the world. You will carry me wherever you go, bearing the good news of the Gospel.”
I am not just a grunt pushing a rock up a hill, I am a torchbearer carrying the light. Bearing Christ. It’s not just me. I suspect that in some way shape or form, we are all writing some kind of foolish sermon with our lives, such as they are. We are getting used up. Hopefully well used up, for the best reasons possible.
We bear hope, up and down that hill every single day. It is called faith, and it can make every burden a little bit lighter. I will push this boulder up the hill every day that I have breath. I am carrying the prize, Christ and at some points it seems that Christ is also carrying me.
The real myth of Sisyphus, is that life has no meaning. There is meaning after all. I know because I am working on it. Hope against hope, sometimes looks like a treadmill.