The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay by French philosopher Albert Camus, perfectly encapsulates the state of humanity. Through the protagonist, Sisyphus, the goal of the essay is to ascertain what the purpose of life is.
Have you ever sat and pondered the truth about life? Is there ever a time when you feel confused, unsure of yourself, as if life has no meaning for you?
If there is one consolation to your predicament, it would be this:
The knowledge that you are not alone in dealing with this issue. This struggle between humanity’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of life has always existed.
The Myth of Sisyphus seeks to resolve this paradox.
According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the King of Ephyra who became infamous for his crafty and wicked ingenuity. Homer called him “the most cunning of men,” and his death-defying antics infuriated Zeus, not once but twice.
As a result, he was relegated to the demeaning task of pushing a massive rock up a steep slope. This huge rock would just almost reach the summit before tumbling downhill.
For all of eternity.
How did Sisyphus come to be subjected to such a dreadful torment?
Well, it all started when he helped the river-god Asopus find his lost daughter, who had been kidnapped by Zeus. Enraged, Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to death.
In the Underworld, Sisyphus managed to deceive Hades and put him in chains. With the Ruler of the Underworld being chained, humans enjoyed a brief age of immortality. And Sisyphus was able to return to his kingdom.
In his second encounter with death, the cunning Sisyphus instructed his wife not to bury his body. In the Underworld, he complained to Persephone (Hades’ wife) about what his wife had done to his body.
So, Persephone granted his request to return to the mortal realm to punish his wife.
This was the final straw for Zeus, who determined to punish Sisyphus. And deter other mortals from thinking they could mislead the gods as well.
That’s how Sisyphus ended up with the pointless and miserable task of dragging a massive rock up a steep hill.
For all of eternity.
Camus employs Sisyphus as a metaphor for the individual’s ongoing struggle with life’s inherent absurdity. He compares our actions as humans to Sisyphus’ burden.
He also addressed the futility of existence:
“We build our lives on the hope for tomorrow, yet tomorrow brings us closer to death and is the ultimate enemy; people live their lives as if they were not aware of the certainty of death.”
Aren’t we all like Sisyphus? Is this any different from the struggles of an ordinary person? Don’t we all push our “rock” up a hill just to have it tumble down again?
How can our life be more than just monotonous, repetitive days strung together and leading to our death?
Is this how we’ll end up as humans? Since we already know how our story will end…
Are we destined to repeat the same meaningless daily chores and toil in vain?
There is more to The Myth of Sisyphus. It’s more than just a story about a man condemned to carry out a repetitive and pointless task for eternity.
Apart from this story, here are three lessons worthy of our attention:
According to Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus represents life’s never-ending effort to accomplish goals and dreams. And because life’s ultimate consequence is death, these goals and dreams are essentially meaningless.
Perhaps the inevitability of the rock rolling downhill symbolizes death as a foregone conclusion. We, like Sisyphus, struggle to make ends meet, collect accolades, and make sense of it all before everything ends.
And, like Sisyphus, we somehow manage to find meaning in pushing our “rock” uphill over and over again. If you’ve not found meaning in your life or in your daily tasks, you will have to look for it.
Was Sisyphus’ rock a metaphor for humanity’s insatiable search for ultimate purpose in life?
Meaning only resides in your mind. You will not find it out there in the universe. It’s only within you that you’ll find it. The The Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, and the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, prescribed that:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
Sisyphus is completely aware of the severity of his punishment. His zeal, freedom, and defiance made him stronger than the punishment that was designed to break him.
Sisyphus may not be able to change his circumstances. However, by “choosing to live,” he was able to triumph over his circumstances. His new outlook and attitude have provided him with “liberation” from his punishment.
This is in line with Frankl’s philosophy on living a meaningful life, which starts with taking responsibility:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
When you accept responsibility, you are able to love, work, and endure suffering in a meaningful way. In Man’s Search for Meaning, taking responsibility appears to be the central theme:
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
As Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the hill to begin moving the rock up the slope all over again, we may presume he is in agony and pain.
Who knows? Maybe he found joy in his task.
Camus proposes that you can only truly be happy once you accept your life and fate as entirely your own. Thus, finding joy in your struggles is the best way to live.
Then pushing the rock uphill will turn from a burden to joy. even if the rock rolls down again and again. If you can find joy and passion in your work, you will find that, as Camus puts it:
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
When Sisyphus acknowledges the inevitability of his situation, he regains a measure of control. The rock has turned into “his thing,” and he now bears responsibility for it.
Every successful ascent up the mountain counts as a victory. Every new start at the foot of the hill represents a new opportunity.
The rock could represent your life’s challenges, such as a divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one.
These terrible events, like Sisyphus’ rock, push you to reevaluate yourself, your goals, and your plan of action. They compel you to confront fundamental life questions that most people never consider.
He might have become more at ease with his climb as time went by. Or perhaps he found joy in the act of moving the rock gracefully upwards. So much so that it has become a work of art in and of itself.
Each step forward, each successful ascension, is a series of successes that add up to his joy.
Because he has found joy and meaning in his task and has decided to dedicate all his time to it. If you have identified your calling, passion, or whatever you choose to call it, then fervently work at it.
Turn your labor into a labor of love. Find passion in what you do or do something you are passionate about.
Pursue it. You are free to choose what you want to do with your time here. Choose wisely.
Consider what inspires you on a regular basis. It has to be something that you will never get tired of.
That’s the rock that you are willing to push up that steep, everlasting slope. And once you have found it, you will never run out of energy to push it upwards.
For all of eternity.
The rock is his responsibility. His calling. There’s no way he’ll abandon it.
No matter the pain and agony, he has taken up the challenge of rolling it uphill again and again.
He has decided to perform his task and stick to it. Sisyphus knows he has little chance of improving his situation, yet he makes the best of what he has.
He understands that if he can separate himself from the misery of having to repeat this pointless duty over and over, he will not suffer. This is radical acceptance in action.
Accepting life for what it is in a self-compassionate and non-judgmental way is the essence of radical acceptance. Carl Rogers, the pioneer of humanistic psychology and one of the most prominent minds in psychology, wrote:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
According to the Rogers psychological paradigm, acceptance and saying “yes” to life are the first steps toward change.
When you practise radical acceptance, you are fully present. You are not preoccupied with things being better or worse than they are at any given time.
In short, you are in a state of non-attachment.
The practice of non-attachment makes you adaptable, able to see situations from multiple perspectives and accept that you cannot control everything.
Non-attachment will lead you to discover a freedom that allows you to grow in whatever direction you want. It all begins when you stop trying to control every aspect of your life and accept things as they are.
Frankl’s insight will make a lot of sense once you can adopt a non-attachment perspective:
“Don’t aim at success— the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.
For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Camus’ 1942 essay on Sisyphus gives some indication that our lives are not merely ones of futile and hopeless labor.
The Myth of Sisyphus has provided us with 3 valuable lessons:
According to Frankl:
“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:
(1) by creating a work or doing a deed;
(2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and
(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Hence, if you’ve discovered significance in your life, you will want to make the most of your time. As Apple‘s founder, Steve Jobs, put it:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
When you take ownership of and take responsibility for your own life, find your purpose, and embrace the situation that you are in, you will find happiness.
I guess what sets you free and brings you happiness is the awareness that, despite having no ability to alter your fate, you will still prevail.
And in the face of adversity, you will triumph and emerge as the hero of your endeavors. No matter how mundane you perceive it to be.
When you are able to accept life for what it is, you will be able to live life on your own terms, just like Sisyphus did.
Accepting your current situation is not easy, but it will lead to more happiness and a brighter future if you can do so.
The Myth of Sisyphus has revealed to you that accepting that your struggles are a way of life. Learning to confront them can help you break free from the invisible chains that make your life miserable.
Live a passionate life, pay attention to every moment, and appreciate the here and now. This is the key to a happy life.
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