A recent New Yorker had a cartoon caption contest showing Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill. Next to him is this woman pushing a 2-baby stroller, and she is saying to him, It gets easier the second time.
I wonder if it gets easier after the 200th time. I’ve been thinking about what goes through his mind as he is pushing. “Oops, took a moment to look at the pretty woman and there goes my rock, hurtling down the hill.”
This is a job that requires total concentration. And total effort. And even then, for some reason or another, maybe there’s thunder and lightning, maybe there’s a flock of seagulls up above, the rock finds a reason to hurtle down. The reasons are different every time, but the end result is the same.
While Sisyphus is pushing his rock up the mountain, there is nothing for him but toil and struggle. Pushing the rock up, seems to me, is the easy part.
What goes through his mind when he is walking down the hill? The rock is already down there. His work pushing it up the hill has gone to naught, again. As he walks down I can imagine him thinking about what went wrong, what he might have done differently. Perhaps he thinks about how he is going to gather the motivation to begin again? Does he think about the futility of his life? In one way or another, he has to contemplate the absurd situation he is in. If he wasn’t aware of the absurdity of his situation when going up the hill, he is certainly aware of it walking down the hill.
So what exactly does he think about? Is his mindset similar to that of an office drone, same stuff, different day? Perhaps it’s like coming back from the funeral of a loved one, contemplating how he will pick up the pieces and keep going? Or perhaps it’s like his own funeral — as the Buddha might have said — another marker in the endless cycle of life and death and thinking about how he would lead his next life?
The Sisyphus myth is a metaphor for all of these questions. If we can learn how to handle mindless repetitions, continuing cycles of effort and disappointment, we have learned the lesson the Gods wanted us to learn.
Some here might remember my talk from a few years ago. The main point of the talk was discovering your inner self. We go forward from there. Who we are, who we know ourselves to be, is a starting point of today’s journey. How we perfect ourselves and become who we want to be, and how do we deal with setbacks, is the topic for today.
The guiding theme for today’s talk borrows heavily from Albert Camus, the Algerian-French author who was part of the resistance movement in WW-II. I found his essay on Sisyphus enlightening.
There is a fundamental contradiction in the human condition. On the one hand, we live with an inborn desire to find some sort of unity or reason in the universe. This desire to make sense of the universe makes us believe in a meaningful life or in God. On the other hand, the universe gives us no reason to believe that it contains any kind of reason or unity.
This feeling that we associate with Sisyphus walking down the hill is the feeling of absurdity, the awareness of the contradictory universe in which we live. The absurd man is someone who lives with the feeling of absurdity, who consciously maintains his awareness of the senselessness of everything around him.
In those moments where Sisyphus descends the mountain free from his burden, he knows that he will struggle forever and he knows that this struggle will get him nowhere. So long as Sisyphus is mindful of this, his fate is no different and no worse than our lot in life.
Maybe the title of this talk should have been Mindful Mindlessness.
Before Sisyphus was cursed, he had what we could only call an indomitable will to live. According to one myth, he had been punished for imprisoning Death. Another myth says he was punished for ratting on Zeus when Zeus stole someone’s daughter. In return for this information, he got her father to build a fountain for his people. Then, after he was dead, he tricked the lord of the underworld (Pluto) into letting him go back up to take care of some unfinished business — and then wouldn’t come back down. Mercury had to be sent up to grab him by the collar and bring him down again.
I think of him as an innovator. I mean, who would think of imprisoning Death? And not just think of it but do it! Personally, I admire people like that. But the Gods had other ideas, obviously.
We react to his fate with horror because we see its futility and hopelessness. Life itself is a futile struggle devoid of hope. However, this fate is only horrible if we continue to hope, if we think that there is something more that is worth aiming for. Our fate only seems horrible when we place it in contrast with something that would seem preferable. If we accept that there is no preferable alternative, then we can accept our fate without horror. Only then, Camus suggests, can we fully appreciate life, because we are accepting it without reservations. Therefore, Sisyphus is above his fate precisely because he has accepted it. His punishment is only horrible if he can hope or dream for something better. If he does not hope, the gods have nothing to punish him with.
Happiness and absurd awareness are intimately connected. We can only be truly happy when we accept our life and our fate as entirely our own — as the only thing we have and as the only thing we will ever be. The final sentence of Camus’ book reads: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But why must we imagine Sisyphus happy? We have no choice in the matter.
Actually, there is an alternative but it involves a leap into hope or faith. If the leap into hope or faith represents an attempt to escape from the reality of our fate, and if happiness is only possible through such a leap, then happiness would essentially be an escape. Life itself would be inherently unhappy and happiness would be a sham born out of denial.
We must imagine Sisyphus happy if we want to believe in genuine happiness. Though this is the last sentence of the essay, we might see it as the initial premise that starts Camus’s reasoning. Because, like Camus, I essentially believe in the idea that individual human experience is the only thing that is real, if the happiness is to be it has to be based on the experiences, not on their denial of experience. If happiness is real, we must be able to find happiness without relying on hope, faith, or anything else that goes beyond immediate experience. The Myth of Sisyphus is essentially an elaborate attempt to show that this is possible, and it concludes with its starting premise: if genuine happiness is possible, then Sisyphus must be happy.
I don’t want to say that there is no order to the universe, there is no God, etc. Rather, it is to ask, if we could construct a life that did not depend on those assumptions, what kind of a life would it be? Because there is at least the possibility that there is no order to the universe, that the whole thing is random, this way of thinking makes sense to me.
Degrees of Happiness
I’d like to leave the question of happiness and move to a second question: what would make Sisyphus even happier, within the constraints the Gods have imposed on him? We’re moving beyond Camus now, recognizing that happiness is not a binary thing, just like being rich or being thin is not a binary thing. One can never be too rich or too thin.
Starting in the 70′s Marty Seligman has been leading the “Positive Psychology” movement. What a terrible name! It always makes me think of faith healers and the like. Think positive thoughts and everything will turn out OK? Pshaaw! I’m a trained engineer, used to evaluating things as they are, not through rose colored glasses. I believe in facing up to situations, literally staring them down to assess them and act accordingly. What’s this Positive Psychology stuff?
But Dr. Seligman is for real. He went on to become the chair of the APA. I won’t go into psych theory here but the techniques he teaches are essentially about habits. How do you stop at a critical juncture, just as the rock has started to roll down the hill, and decide the best way to respond. That instant, it turns out, is key. The first step of that process is to be totally present, to know all the forces at play. Maybe it will stabilize again, and you can push it a bit further up.
Some people collapse as soon as the rock begins to slip but for Dr. Seligman, it’s partly a matter of who you are, more a matter of training yourself. Pretty soon you have trained yourself to go around the pothole rather than stepping into it.
Out of Dr. Seligman’s work came more recent work on Happiness Theory, by Jonathan Haidt and others. I know some people here who have read Prof. Haidt. If there is a theme to the recent spate of books on Happiness Theory, it’s their recognition that 90% of all human activity is not conscious at all, it is driven by habit, and habits are more malleable than we think. You need to first recognize and then control patterns of thought: the cues, actions, rewards system in the brain. One need only to think about organizations like AA to know it’s not easy to change habits, but it is possible. And the risk of reversion remains high for a long time.
But I have a bigger problem with Happiness Theory: I’m not sure I believe in it. I’m sure it works at some level but I wonder if positive psychology didn’t have a role to play in the sub-prime crisis. Go ahead, take out that home equity loan. Do you doubt it’s a good idea? You’re being driven by your negative attitudes again. Look, the Jones’ are doing it. What could possibly go wrong? Scientific American had a different term for it: Kool-Aid psychology. This was surely not what Dr. Seligman intended when he researched optimism and promoted it as the superior way of life. He meant to help notoriously negative people and, I am sure, he often succeeded.
I do not believe that happiness is synonymous with or dependent on positive feelings. Instead happiness to me is having a good relationship with the whole of life, with the light and the darkness, the good and the bad, the concrete and the indefinable. How could there be lasting happiness if we exclude a part of life that is real and that serves a purpose. This understanding should inoculate everybody against the pressure of having to feel optimistic all the time.
OK, so we’ll leave optimism aside and conclude that we want to look at all aspects and assess things as realistically as possible, embrace it all, assess as objectively as possible and go from there.
In the mid-nineteenth century, work began on a crucial section of the railway line connecting Boston to the Hudson river, from Greenfield to Troy. It required tunneling through Hoosac Mountain, a five-mile thick impediment. All estimates were that the mountain was composed of soft rock and the tunnel would cost at most 2 million dollars. Everyone was wrong. Digging through was a nightmare. The project cost more than 10 times the budgeted estimate. If the people involved had known the true nature of the challenges, they would have never funded the Troy-Greenfield railroad. But had they not, the factories of Massachusetts wouldn’t have been able to ship their goods so easily to the expanding West, the cost of freight would have remained stubbornly high and the state of Massachusetts would have been immeasurably poorer for it.
You might say the mis-estimation of the difficulty was a happy accident.
So what are we left with? Pessimism doesn’t lead to happiness, Optimism can lead to misery, Realism is a bit better maybe but sometimes it is better to leave it aside and do things while being open to accidents – happy or otherwise. This is what I call Mindless Mindfulness: to be mindful at all times, to strive without expectation and keep pushing the rock up the hill.
The Epilog is from my imagination.
Then one day, Pluto and Mercury came down to see how things were going.
He escaped again, Mercury said.
No, no. He’s still there. See, he’s gotten really high this time.
I know, Mercury said. I see him. That’s not what I meant. I meant, he seems to be enjoying himself. We couldn’t take away his freedom. See, he seems happy. And if he keeps pushing even higher, he won’t be in Hades any more.
I guess they call it Nirvana, said Pluto.