It’s the end of the semester at my university, and I see near-horror on every single one of my students’ faces. Haggard, stressed, they walk the halls with a vacuous look, with nine essays and five exams whipping their minds into near-submission. Every fiber of their existence is as taut as a bow string; and the bow is near-ready to snap.
They’ll get through it. My students are tough. But, they’re exhausted, and ready for a break.
I tell them about my old pal Sisyphus, the Greek guy who, way back when, pissed off the gods (he was a rascally fellow). His punishment was to push a boulder ten times his size up a hill. When it rolled down the other side, he had to push it up again. Then it rolled down again. He had to keep this up for all of eternity.
That’s what a semester is. A student starts out with energy, and a promise to make better grades this time around. By the end of the semester, she’s worn to the bone and in a panic—Will I get all this shit done? She does. She goes home for the break and comes down with the flu. Then, come January, she starts all over again.
That’s depressing. And, that’s life. It’s not just school—think about it; your entire existence is about pushing giant boulders up a mountain, only to watch the goddamn thing roll down again. And, for some reason, you decide to go down there and push it up one more time.
Then one more time. Then another one after that. You do this until your loved ones bury you.
It’s absurd, life. It’s mostly pain. Like any decent myth, Sisyphus is a story that looks at that pain straight-on, trying to figure it out. Why keep lifting the rock? Why not quit? Well, you can’t, really. You’re alive. You’ll always be lifting a rock up a mountain. The only way to escape it is by dying. The philosopher Camus, while writing about Sisyphus, said that the only real philosophical question is whether or not you should commit suicide. Because—and I paraphrase Camus—this life really is a cluster-fuck of chaos.
Camus says, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I’m not sure I agree. That feels too pat, too much like a scripture passage that wants to sum things up.
But, I have known moments of happiness. I have learned the crevices on my rock, the jagged edges that cut into the palm, the smooth patches, where I can press my shoulder against to push with all my body. I know the sweat and the blood of my own life. I have worked to know my rock as best I can. But the mountain’s tricky. It’s got its own crevices and dips. It flips the rock in my hands, the boulder slams against my chest and one of those jagged edges slices into me as though to cleave my heart.
That’s all I can do: know my rock, my mountain; and know that even then, this setup can come crashing down on me. When I get to the top and enjoy a moment of I did it! the rock falls. I must choose whether to push it up again, or not.
I suppose that’s a type of happiness.