Fly on the Wall – Sisyphus’ Punishment, Sisyphus’ Liberation

The weeks following an election remind me of the weeks following completion of AU courses. No matter the outcome, we’re back to ground zero. After a tiny lull, real-world realities flood into our lives. This election, like an especially arduous stack of courses, was a particular letdown in that a lot of hopes did not lead necessarily to a lot of substantive change in terms of issues such as childcare and opposition to Bill C-51. Along with many other progressives who saw a chance for the most left-wing government in our history melt away amidst a mashup of niqabs and fighter jets, I’d been feeling a certain sense of loss and hopeless. Those of us who enjoy, and perhaps also feel spited by, our activist impulses are forced to contend with, and then accept, the fact that the Canadian middle class may not necessarily share our vision of what a better Canada looks like. Or, what amounts to the same thing, the fact that the middle class shares our vision but chose, en masse, to not vote for what they believe in. But enough political devils in the details. In this article I’ll briefly interrogate the philosophies that lead folks like me to believe that we are somehow entitled to get the Canada we believe in and how, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we must achieve serenity in our daily lives without tying our happiness to unrealistic expectations. I will address some causes and consequences to the activist urge and its inherent failings.

The Greek Myth of Sisyphus comes to mind when thinking about that empty feeling following an election that didn’t go one’s way, or a semester that ended only to leave one with a sense that one’s life hasn’t been radically improved. For those who don’t know, Sisyphus was a character in Greek mythology. Having angered the gods, he was sentenced to for all eternity roll a huge boulder up a hill only to watch it slide back down to the bottom. Thus, a Sisyphean task is one that interminably invokes a sense of eternal recurrence. To believe that the world will ever match our dreams is akin to believing that true love will, with every breath and in every moment, carry one forth in bliss ’for as long as ye both shall live’. Nice imagery, but wholly impossible.

Bearing this in mind, Albert Camus devoted his book The Myth of Sisyphus to an inquiry into the “absurd” reality that “the world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart,” (Camus, 1942, P. 16). Nihilistic though this statement reads, its kernels of truth lies in how it mirrors the reality of life itself. We wish for order, an order of our own desires no less, and are perpetually faced with the impossibility of this fantasy. A socialist Canada may occur someday, but that day is not on the horizon.

As Sisyphus watches his rock roll to the valley bottom he, like Ahab lashed to his whale, is compelled to descend in pursuit. Yet here Camus asks us to pause in our minds and reconsider the apparent anguish of the situation. He writes:

“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me … That hour, like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” (Camus, 1942, P. 89).

And so are we, as students who must begin further courses with their struggles and rewards, and certainly as progressives who feel cold as we contend with the prospect of a government who has failed even to promise many things we hold dear. Camus’ words may trail us, and provide solace in their stark-yet-sustaining realism: we must “accommodate (ourselves) to what is” (Camus, 1942, P. 39) and reconcile “that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints” (Camus, 1942, P. 37). We have to accept the distance between our hearts and minds and the world we live in. Only then can we move on and begin our lives anew with the challenges and successes that lie ahead.

As distance students the pressures of productivity uniquely bind us to our sense of self-discipline and assumptions contained therein. We feel we must accomplish our tasks according to schedules of our own design. Deadlines often loom only in our own minds: an essay due on a Friday because we will it so, or a forum posting completed by the end of the morning because we feel we should contribute as soon as possible. Yet, just as our political efforts involve assumptions, so too do our academic goals involve a lot of what the psychologist Albert Ellis termed “musturbatory” beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in (Ellis, 2014, P. 191).

We must interrogate ourselves in light of our assumptions; too often we face adversity and filter it through our belief systems such that consequences come to embody preconceptions. Ellis’ refers to this as the ABC model of psychological intervention: adversity, belief, and consequences (Ellis, 2014, P. 189). It is based on the discovery that “covert hypotheses are illogical, unrealistic, and destructive,” (Ellis, 2014, P. 189). In order to find serenity it is necessary to discover what is real in the world rather than what we believe ought to be real. Elsewhere, David Hume illustrated the need to differentiate between the ’is’ and the ’ought’ when scientifically investigating the world; “no ethical or indeed evaluative conclusion whatsoever may be validly inferred from any set of purely factual premises”. (Cohon, online.) As Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “there are no facts, only interpretations.” (Wicks, online).

A textbook example of Ellis’ discovery of our tendency towards unrealistic hypotheses describes “a male who has the unrealistic premise that he should be the king of the universe, but actually has only mediocre abilities, is shown that he is “logically” concluding that he is an utterly inferior person,” (Ellis, 2014, P. 191). We progressive students may not feel like our core identity includes a need to be king of the universe, yet we may well have invested our identity in an unrealistic assumption that our political beliefs are entitled to a position of power which they are not at all about to achieve. The key is to accept reality; finishing one course with an A doesn’t mean that we are, for all time, an A student. With Sisyphus we may calmly descend the slope as we begin a new course as a student with a grade of 0.

Martin Heidegger, in his own way, addressed the desire for certainty and finality in life. The hope that we are on the right track towards an optimal society, or a successful academic career, contains a certain element of unreality. Just as paths through park woodland only superficially represent a natural forest, so too do our idealizations of the world and our role within it only vaguely map onto actually-existing life. We must not, as it were, lead ourselves down a garden path. Heidegger wrote that:

“Wood” is an old name for forest. In the wood are paths that mostly wind along until they end quite suddenly in an impenetrable thicket. They are called “woodpaths.” Each goes its particular way, but in the same forest. Often it seems as though one were identical to another. Yet it only seems so. Woodcutters and foresters are familiar with these paths. They know what it means to be on a woodpath.” (Heidegger, 1977, P. 34).

We must not fear reality or the unknown it contains; “woodpaths always lead somewhere-but where they lead cannot be predicted or controlled,” (Krell in Heidegger, 1977, P. 34). For our dreams of ourselves as better students and our country as a better Canada to come true we have to be aware of the reality of our surroundings. We cannot afford to allow our hopes and fantasies to charge ahead of the reality of the wilderness we inhabit. Dreams easily swallow one whole, just as a dense lodgepole pine forest swallows up ones sense of direction. In order to accept the Sisyphean reality of the proverbial ’real-world’ it is necessary to remember the adage ’first things first’ (Anonymous, online). First off, we need to retain our sense of direction. And then, after a few deep, slow breaths, we may, like Sisyphus, begin our descent back to the base of the mountain.

References
Anonymous. The Big Book.
Retrieved from: http://www.whytehouse.com/big_book_search/aspbook/ch9p135.asp
Camus, A. (1955, first published 1942). The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books.
Cohon, Rachel, “Hume’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/hume-moral/
Corsini, R.J & Wedding, D. (2014) Current Psychotherapies, 8th Edition. Toronto: Nelson Education.
Heidegger, M. (2008, first published 1977). Basic Writings. Toronto: HarperPerennial.
Wicks, Robert, “Friedrich Nietzsche”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/nietzsche/.

Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

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