WE ALL ENCOUNTER moments when we’re struck by the absurdity of life, don’t we? Once it happens, everything that once seemed familiar now suddenly strikes us as alien. The big questions start to arise: “What is the point of it all? Is there any meaning to life?”
We all face those questions at one point in our life. But how should we deal with them?
The Myth of Sisyphus
IN HIS 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, French philosopher and charmeur professional Albert Camus tries to answer that very question. In this small yet famous philosophical essay, Camus likens the human condition to the predicament of the ancient king Sisyphus, founder of Corinth. As a punishment for revealing one of Zeus secrets, Thanatos (Death) was ordered to chain Sisyphus in Tartarus, the Underworld.
The King of Corinth, however, was quite cunning and had no intention of dying, so he tricked Death into chaining himself. Chaos ensued, because no one could die as a consequence of Sisyphus’ ruse. Eventually the God of war, Ares (who was quite annoyed because war had lost its fun) freed Death and handed Sisyphus over to the Tartarus once again.
Back in the underworld, Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration. He was ordered by Zeus to roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to see it roll down again just before reaching the top. Drawing inspiration from this particular myth, nowadays we refer to meaningless activities as “sisyphean.”
Nonetheless, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” At least that’s how Camus concludes his famous essay. Why? Because “the struggle is enough to fill an man’s heart.” Sisyphus has acknowledged the absurdity of his situation and, in doing so, reached a state of content acceptance. While pushing the boulder up the hill, he chooses to accept his condition of eternal, pointless struggle; he chooses to live a life of revolt. There he finds his happiness.
Now, is this really true? Can you actually imagine Sisyphus happy? Can you imagine someone being happy in the face of meaningless suffering?
Yet… Is Sisyphus really happy?
AS OF LATE, whenever I think about Sisyphus’ predicament and Camus’ interpretation, I think of my girlfriend’s situation about seven years ago. Her mother had been diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy (MSA): a terminal illness of the brainstem. In the years to follow, all mental and physical faculties would deteriorate. She would lose her capacity to speak. She would lose the capacity to walk. She would lose the capacity to take care of herself. She would even lose the capacity to process her environment.
In those years, my girlfriend took on the sisyphean task of taking care of her dying mother. Why sisyphean? Because both my girlfriend and her mother knew full well that she would die, no matter what she did. Of course, she could make sure that her mother’s last lucid moments would be moments of warmth, provided by her loving daughter. But in the end, even her memories of those moments would fade away – as would she.
Keeping that in mind, I cannot imagine Sisyphus happy. Why? Because I simply cannot imagine my girlfriend happy when she was taking care of her dying mother. I simply cannot imagine my girlfriend happy while struggling to keep off the deteriorating effects of a disease that could only grow worse every day. I simply cannot imagine my girlfriend happy while she was watching her mother slipping away under her caring hands.
Not surprisingly, my girlfriend often referred to this period as the “worst period of her life.” So here both she and I find ourselves disagreeing with Camus.
Finding meaning in small things
THROUGHOUT THE YEARS, my girlfriend has made a habit out of brushing her teeth before going to bed. Over the last months, I’ve reluctantly copied this evening routine, realising it was for the best. Even so, she would often make a big point out of this and get me out of bed whenever I (to my own embarrassment) had forgotten to brush my teeth.
A couple of weeks ago, while riding my bicycle, I found myself wondering why this evening routine was so important to her. At the time, I was preparing a high school lecture on Camus. So, in a sense, my mind was ready to see the link. And then it finally struck me. I finally understood why this evening routine was so important to her.
My girlfriend’s mother was a dentist.
Of course, I immediately felt stupid for not realising this earlier. But when it hit me, it literally moved me to tears, especially because I recognised the link with Camus’ claim. In that moment I realised one of the most important things about both the nature of suffering and meaning. And in the very same way, I realised something of massive importance about my girlfriend too.
I realised that to my girlfriend, brushing her teeth is like a little pebble she pointlessly rolls up the hill, like Sisyphys, every evening again. Why? Because she does this evening routine in loving memory of her mother who, tragically, is no longer there to witness her daughter following her good advice. It won’t make her proud anymore. It won’t bring her back in any way. Tragically, my girlfriend’s evening routine is essentially sisyphean.
Even so, she sticks to this routine, knowing full well her mother would have been proud. And while I watch my girlfriend brushing her teeth dutifully in the evening, I can understand slightly better what Camus might have meant in his closing words of The Myth of Sisyphys, but may have expressed quite imprecisely or hyperbolically.
These routines can be what give life meaning. That is what I take from Sisyphus’ story. Taking care of a dying mother doesn’t necessarily give a person happiness, but it gives life meaning. Brushing your teeth, in memory of a mother lost, can do the same thing. As routines in themselves, those little actions are quite pointless and absurd, but we do them because they help us cope with tragedy – even when tragedy spans life as a whole.
Meaning, not happiness
IN THE FACE of tragedy, we pick up our suffering and take on the sisyphean task of proving our worth as human beings. My girlfriend did exactly that by taking care of her dying mother and making sure her last years weren’t needlessly worse than they could have been. No, I cannot imagine her happy in that situation. But I can absolutely imagine her finding meaning in that situation. And that kind of meaning might serve as a basis for a life we may truthfully call ‘fulfilled’, even though we are not actually happy.
In conclusion I cannot help but admire my girlfriend for what she did. In that respect, Camus is also right. There is something truly heroic about people who take on these sisyphean tasks. Cliché as it might be, I feel blessed that I may call myself her partner.
In memory of her mother, whom she loved more than anyone, I promised her one of the first weeks we fell in love: “I will take care of your mother’s daughter.” I tend to keep that promise. So far, I have found meaning in that, if not exactly happiness.
If you’re interested in my blogs or novels, please also visit my Medium or Facebook account. (Hit those subscribe buttons!) The following novels can be ordered via Paypal or by contacting me personally.
Palmloos Gebed/Massamoord Refrein
Wanneer religiewetenschapper Simon Goldstein een religieus visioen ontvangt, slaan de twijfels toe. Zetten zijn geliefde abrahamitische religies aan tot geweld en zelfmoordterrorisme? En zal hij aan hun lokroep kunnen weerstaan?
Wanneer Isaac Newcomb een hardnekkig theoretisch computerprobleem oplost, wordt zijn kwantumcomputer alwetend. Maar wat als Newcombs geesteskind op de hoogte is van informatie die al zijn geliefden in gevaar brengt? Kan hij nog iets aan het noodlot verhelpen of is iedereen – Newcomb inclusief – gedoemd?