Sisyphus was a mythological Greek king who used trickery and deceit in all his relationships…employing it even to avoid death
The gods could bear him no longer and condemned Sisyphus to eternal hard labor -- his punishment: rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom each time he gets it to the top.
It was designed to be horribly difficult, frustratingly futile, unrewarding, and repetitive labor.
The labor of Sisyphus is now a metaphor for any work that fits this description.
In his 1940 essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus", Albert Camu postulated that Sisyphus' fate and his never ending labor was not futile…saying, : "If the descent is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
As I readied myself on a Sunday evening for yet another week of teaching reading to my now large classes of resentful, angry middle schoolers, I began considering what Camus said…. is there nobility or redemption, grounds for satisfaction, even joy in futile labor?
The boulder of life never stays at the summit…it rolls back down. But, the impermanence of the product does not necessarily erase its value.
There are so many things we do repeatedly that give satisfaction, and we do not necessarily cry about having to do so.
I liked vacuuming because when I was done I could see those lines in the carpet that indicated it was clean. But the lines never lasted.
I maintain my yard…I plant and mow and weed. It looks so nice when done..but the grass and weeds grow back only to be dealt with again.
I do housework…I like the result but eventually the work needs to be repeated.
I loved teaching….for years I started each day anew with a class full of boulders I pushed up hill....but I knew at the end of each day that some of the boulders stayed part way up the mountain.
The effort of teaching is laborious; the rock is, at times, huge and heavy, and, like Sisyphus, I had to work very hard to achieve the summit. But the work was possible.
Much work that is difficult is worthwhile and often success at a difficult task is far sweeter than success at an easy one
But futility is different…. futility is the failure to reach a goal….not just the failure but the realization that no matter the effort the goal can never be achieved.
In Sisyphus is the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over. And at the very end the boulder is pushed to the summit. Then Sisyphus turns and watches it rush down toward that lower world where he will have to push it up again.
He trudges back down. It is during this return that Sisyphus interests me.
My fate as a teacher belongs to me… and it has become my rock.
I know there is no sun without shadow, and that it is essential to know the night.
But my relationship to my rock has changed.
For Sisyphus I see no way to imagine happiness, nobility, or redemption. It has nothing to do with the repetitiveness of the act, its difficulty, the brevity of its achievement. It is the fact that the act of rolling this boulder up hill serves no purpose.
And it is what I have come to feel about teaching.
I think I am now simply changing the position of a rock, a piece of furniture in the universe.
Not all work is noble. What makes it noble is to be striving toward the best we can accomplish, not toward just any accomplishment for its own sake.
It is the total lack of value of what Sisyphus has to work so hard to achieve that makes his punishment so horrific. It is not because his labor is merely arduous and eternal, it is because it is arduous and eternally pointless.
For me, Sisyphus is a metaphor for the current condition of my professional life in the classroom. Change is not necessarily progress and hollow victories do exist. The myth of Sisyphus is a sad commentary. The work of far too many really good teachers has become pushing a rock up a hill merely to change its location.
I encourage you to read the comments on this link. It starts with an open announcement by a teacher in 2006….the commentary goes all the way to this year. You will also see the progression of despair and the sense of loss experienced by teachers all across the country. It has little to do with money or benefits or pensions….
“Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”