Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sisyphus has a secret

You know the story, right? Sisyphus is a character of Greek mythology, whose punishment in hell (Hades) is to push a giant rock up a mountain to the top. Whenever he reaches the summit, it rolls back down, forcing him to start over and push it back up again, for all eternity.

Camus, in his definition of the “absurd man”, uses this story as a sort of “Exhibit A” and compares it to our jobs - people who work in offices or factories. We realize, he says, only in instants of tragic lucidity, that our lives are pointless.

We all have a Sisyphusean element to our daily grind. Take my dishwasher. I fill it up, run it, and find myself emptying it, over and over. I smooth a kitchen towel on the countertop above it, stack the clean, white dishes on it, and place the silverware back in the appropriate compartment in the drawer.

What about making our beds morning after morning? Fluffing the pillows, lightly spraying linen water on them, making sure the duvet is squared and smooth, that the soft, fitted sheet is wrinkle free?

And, doing the laundry? Sorting dirty clothes by color, pouring detergent into its designated place, taking everything out to put it in the dryer, pulling a pile of warm, fresh smelling clothes out, folding them and placing them into neat stacks?

How many times do we cook the same thing for dinner? In this world brimming full of cookbooks and recipes in every magazine, how often do you see yourself in front of that same luscious pasta dish, using the same bowl, your favorite?

In a world of coffee addicts, where you can freely order a “short, nonfat, half caff, white chocolate mocha, no whip, with sprinkles” without anyone batting an eye, how many of us have a standard order that never changes? (And how many times have you wished it were tomorrow morning so you could hold the hot, yummy smelling cup in your hands?)

Do you find yourself making a concerted effort to do something different, go to another restaurant for dinner, to widen your circle of friends, only to find you can’t help but get your favorite salad, again?

And this is my point – are we not animals of habit? Is that infinite punishment for Sisyphus really that horrific?

I love to swim. Whenever I have access to a pool I dive in, kick my way over to the closest side, lean my elbows against a wall, push my feet against it, and paddle back and forth, back and forth, for about an hour. At first, I try to switch styles, perfect my stroke, stretch. After a while, it all goes on automatic, and I am free to daydream. Ahhhh. Repetition. There is a comfort in doing things over and over again. A familiarity, a rhythm, a cadence, that is precisely what we call life.

Sisyphus has a secret. He has come to appreciate his predictable schedule. He is in great shape by now, strong and proud. He has worn down a side of that huge rock, and fits it snugly between his shoulder and his neck. His tread has created a path, and he enjoys the hike, loves the fiery views. Shhhhhh. He knows it’s not pointless if you are deriving pleasure from it.

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