One must imagine Sisyphus happy

A friend sent me this meme a few days ago, and my response was to tell them about how much I liked the myth of Sisyphus.

The usual narrative about Sisyphus is very negative. Poor Sisyphus has to push this boulder up a hill over and over again only for it to fruitlessly fall back down, as punishment from the gods. His story has been used in the context of burnt-out office workers, poorly-managed projects, and for contemplating our existence with suffering.

The myth resonates because it touches on two big components of the human experience: work, and purpose. We don't want to be Sisyphus. We want our boulders to get on top of hills, and we want to bring new and bigger boulders up higher hills, and so on.

But I argue (and probably Albert Camus did before me) that whether the boulder rolls down or not doesn't matter. There may be no purpose to our boulder-rolling. There may never be a peak on the mountain we're eventually going to reach, where God / the universe / the next generation of humanity pats us on the head for doing a good job.

Instead, purpose is a tool used by individuals and organizations to enrich work and give meaning to life. Purpose gives reason to toil. And why not?

If Sisyphus closes his eyes every time the boulder rolls down, I imagine that he could almost imagine that it hadn't rolled down, and that he was about to push it to the next level, to where he could be one subsection of an infinite series away from meeting God.

Or that even if he couldn't delude himself into believing he was going up, then he could at least delight in other fantasies of purpose: that one day, the ruts he carved into his mountain from his daily work would serve as a path for the irrigation of flowers, or that he had been given an immortal life to get free resistance training via boulder (with a walk-down break in between!), or that, at the bare minimum, his tale would reach a million ears and inspire generations after him.

Wouldn't that be more than enough for one human being?

More from the blog