Sisyphus (as in The Myth of Sisyphus) was condemned by the gods to push a huge rock uphill, but whenever he managed to reach the top of the mountain, the rock would roll back down and he would have to start his labors all over again.
There is an intentional attempt to drive home the point that Sisyphus’s task is somewhat analogous to our lives. Like Sisyphus, we often end up spending our lives in continual, infinite loop of repetitive tasks only to lose meaning and fulfillment. Just when we think we have attained them we perpetually feel compelled to go back and start pushing the stone uphill again.
But this myth would have portrayed the paradox even better had it continued like this:
What if one day, Sisyphus succeeds in stabilizing the rock at the top of the mountain. He ultimately realizes, to his great surprise, that this time the rock is not rolling back down.
No doubt he is surprised at first, but then becomes jubilant. He had finally made it. Very tired but excited, he lay down next to the rock, happy that his unceasing toil had at last ended.
He sleeps for many hours and then, after waking up, he again looks triumphantly at the rock and the slope of the mountainside. After having rested some more, he looks around for the first time in a very long while at the beautiful view from the top of the mountain.
He continues to rest, savoring this new experience, enjoying the thought that he had finally conquered not only the stone but also the gods. He had finally managed to lift the curse.
He relaxes some more, but oddly, he finds that he is starting to feel a bit of unease. With the passage of time, he is getting restless.
Slowly but surely, he begins to understand that the curse the gods had placed on him was in fact much subtler and more terrible than he had ever imagined. In fact, he had not managed to break the curse at all but only made his position worse.
He stands up, takes a deep breath, goes over to the stone and pushes it off the top of the mountain. He watches it roll down, walks down slowly after it, and then starts pushing it uphill again.
With this spin in the parable, it becomes far more insightful to appreciate the inherent futility embedded in achieving the goal of our choice.
Having said that at the very basic level there are way too many differences between our conditions and that of Sisyphus’s because of which the myth doesn’t serve as an apt parable to represent the paradox of human conditions. Few of these can be listed as follows:
- The outcome of Sisyphus’s effort is always a failure. And as we have seen even if he were to succeed by putting that stone on top of that hill, there isn’t much sense or reward in it. Whereas the outcome of our efforts is always a mixed bag. We always find ourselves somewhere in the middle of the success-failure continuum. The reward and satisfaction of achieving certain predetermined goals keep us motivated for the long journey.
- He doesn’t get to chose what he does. In fact, the activity is a curse for him. Whereas, we do have a choice. Unlike him, we sometimes do succeed in our endeavors, and many of them are not as meaningless and unrewarding as rolling a stone.
- Because of its repetitive nature, pushing a rock to the top of the hill is definitely not a joyful activity. Unlike Sisyphus, we do not perform a single activity repetitively and painfully, and (at least we would like to believe that) often we are doing things out of our own volition.
Therefore, to represent the myth as an accurate depiction of all human life is somewhat misleading.
Paradox Of Getting What You Want through self-control
The paradox of achieving any goal ensures that we are rarely ever satisfied with our present effort & result while pursuing elusive perfection in our life.
As a society, we have talked ourselves into believing that the optimal life is one of smooth, seamless efficiency, and one in which we must exercise continuous control over all aspects of ourselves and the immediate external environment.
For many of us, the pursuit of a seemingly difficult goal means imposing an artificial, rigid, uniform self-discipline in your life.
Extreme of self-control in the name of self-discipline is nothing but self-denial. The preference of our choices colored in all sorts of judgments just reinforce a model of success that has self-denial at its core.
The quantified self is an attempt to publicly demonstrate the number of pleasures we’ve denied ourselves.
We often identify a ‘healthy’ standard to measure ourselves against. Measuring ourselves against this impossible ideal, we end up being prisoner of self-discipline in the name of self-improvement.
A better school to get admission into a better college. Better grades to get a better job. A sculpted body for more Instagram likes. A socially accepted successful life to attract a better life partner. And the story just goes on and on.
The market wants us to compete endlessly for everything. We are expected to be more disciplined so that so we can retain that competitive edge over our peers.
There is a tendency of the free market to gravitate towards monopoly. As a consequence, what we often witness is the monopoly of one body type, one look in the name of fashion, one job profile, one prescription for financial success, one model of good life, one model of the family vacation, and model of an early retired life. It’s so monotonous that it’s plain & boring. It’s an unfortunate sign of lack of imagination.
Self-measurement and the judgment of others are two sides of the same coin. The most obvious questions competition can ever compel you to ask are ——
‘Why did that person manage to have more than me?’ or
‘Why am I stuck in my life?’ or
‘Why there are more people who are luckier than me?’
Here the undemocratic treatment of people is based on the argument that some people are worthy of exclusion and there is proper justification for that exclusion.
To stop measuring yourself is to stop holding other people to your standards. Because whether you accept it or not your preference means nothing to them, as theirs means nothing to you. Just because their life choices are different from yours, you should refrain from making them wear the crown of an imbecile. It’s absolutely fine if they are living a life that doesn’t measure up to your standards.
Since our values, priority, and commitment are constantly shifting, the achievement of our most cherished goal will never be quite as satisfying as we imagine.
Still, we end up spending an enormously disproportionate amount of time in planning & worrying about the future.
Often forgetting that Worrying about the future is as effective as trying to solve a mathematical equation by chewing your favorite bubble gum.
The real troubles in your life requiring undivided attention will always be things that never crossed your worried mind in first place.
No doubt you are bound to have your share of bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to all those good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.
With this tangential perspective, I guess you are now in a better position to appreciate the both momentary pleasure & inherent futility embedded in achieving “the Goal” of your choice.
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