Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Joys of Sisyphus

The Joys of Sisyphus

Facing West

The myth of Sisyphus has many interpretations. Most of the sources agree with my college professor: Sisyphus was the fabled son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and his lover, Enarete. He became the founder and first king of Ephyra (Corinth). Most myths agree that Sisyphus was not always a nice guy and as a punishment for his trickery, he was compelled to push a large stone up a steep mountain. As he reached the top, the stone would roll back down the mountain and he would have to begin pushing all over again. Some compare Sisyphus to the sun that rises every morning in the east and then sets every evening into the west. Others compare him to the turbulent waves at sea, rising and falling as the storm passes over. Still others would see him as a hopeful politician who aspires to be president who, even though constantly defeated, continues to run. (And if you old rockers thought Sisyphus was the name of a Pink Floyd instrumental, you’d be right as well)

I remember this story, not because of mythology, but because of a 1942 essay written by Albert Camus. Mr. Camus sees Sisyphus as a personification of the absurdity of human existence but goes on to conclude that Sisyphus was a happy man as he struggled to reach the top of the mountain day after day.

As I face the sunset of my life, the essay still rings true. Think of John McCain as he spoke to his supporters on the evening he lost his last bid for President of the United States. He had been pushing that stone up the mountain for a very long time. Instead of appearing angry and disappointed, he seemed calm and content. I think it’s the view you get as you push that stone that makes the difference. It’s in the “being” not in the “doing”. I don’t think I’ve ever learned too much or read too many books or loved too many people. I suppose some may think it would be easier to never push the stone at all.

The secret message behind the story of Sisyphus could be summed up by Rob Bell, a young, brilliant pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In one lesson, Rob reminds us of what takes place in the Book of Exodus. God tells Moses to go to the top of the mountain. Rob says that the actual translation from Greek was: Moses was to “be” at the top of the mountain. God wanted Moses to experience all of the moment. After reaching the top, God didn’t want Moses to miss the chance to really absorb his surroundings and “be” in the moment. He wanted Moses to stop doing just for that moment. Moses needed to stop thinking and start feeling. I suppose that’s asking a lot. I’d have been trying to remember if I wore clean underwear but Exodus tells us that Moses stood in awe.

At Christmas one year, Santa brought my youngest son just exactly what he had asked for. All his presents were in a giant pile under the tree. I told him to “take a picture” in his mind so that he would remember it forever. I’d remembered that trick behind the bleachers at a football game when I was 17. I knew it would be the last home game of my senior year. I knew that even if I came back after I graduated, it wouldn’t be the same. That night, the air was crisp and it smelled like autumn. I stepped from behind the bleachers and watched the home team run onto the field. As everyone stood and cheered loud enough to be heard for miles, I realized my senior year would soon be over and I would have pushed the stone all the way to the top of that mountain. So, I did what my granddaddy taught me and took a picture that stays with me to this day.

The Joys of Sisyphus
Looking East

I knew it had to be serious when everyone gathered around my grandparent’s dining room table instead of in the kitchen. We ate Sunday dinners in the dining room and it was only Saturday.

At 10, I was accustomed to being the center of attention but no one invited me to the table. I had no choice but to eavesdrop from the kitchen.

“Things don’t look good.” I heard Granddaddy say.

“Maybe it’s time to just stop farming.” That was my Mother.

Granddaddy must have been ignoring her because he just went right on talking. “We have plenty of savings, so money’s not the problem but if it doesn’t rain soon, people are going to lose their crops and that could make for a long winter.”
“What do we need to do, Onnie?” That was my Daddy, the mayor.
They talked for a good while after that; I got bored and wandered outside to play. But later that night, at the kitchen table, I repeated my mother’s question.
“Granddaddy, why don’t you just stop farming, since you have plenty of money?”
He ignored me almost as well as he ignored my mom. “Do you want to get up early and go with me in the morning? I’ll let you help drive the tractor.”
I wasn’t a teenager yet so getting up early sounded great. I especially liked to drive that old red tractor. It was still dark when he woke me up and it didn’t seem like near as much fun. But the smell of bacon from the kitchen helped to open my eyes.
Even though it was late spring, the predawn morning air chilled my cheeks a bright red as we bumped along the dirt road that led to Granddaddy’s newly planted cotton. He stopped his old pickup and we climbed out and headed for his tractor. The sky had lightened just enough to see the outline of the big red machine. He climbed up and pulled me along with him. I waited for him to start the engine.
“Are you wide awake?” he asked me.
“Yes, sir.” It was too cold to sleep but I asked to come so I kept that part to myself.
“Did you know that your eyes work like a camera?” To someone else, that might’ve seemed like an odd question but he asked me stuff like that on a regular basis. I shook my head so he went on talking. “You have to be real still and look at something real hard. Then you blink your eyes and look even harder. Focus on what you’re seeing, and then snap, take a picture with you mind.”
Cool, I could do that.
“Focus there.” He pointed at the horizon. I remember a mixture of colors and the smell of Old Spice Aftershave. “Blink your eyes then look harder.” I squeezed my eyes shut and then opened them wide. The sun peeked across the rows of cotton buds. “Take a picture in your mind!”
Nine years later, I read the fable of Sisyphus. As my college class debated whether or not the king was doomed to a living hell or, as Albert Camus suggested, a happy fate, I remembered the sunrise over a farmer’s cotton patch. I knew the answer.