Imagining Sisyphus Happy
But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?
This morning, washing dishes, I spied a black squirrel creeping along a fence outside my kitchen window carrying a huge bread roll in its mouth, its light brown burden, almost as big as itself, extending sideways like a tightrope walker’s balancing bar.
The squirrel inched its way across the fences surrounding my backyard before jumping into a neighbor’s tree. Scrambling into the tree, it lost the roll. After a brief pause, looking down at the fallen roll, the squirrel scampered down, recovered the roll, and climbed back up the tree.
Observing this, I thought of Sisyphus. In the Greek myth, the Gods punish Sisyphus for his crime, the specifics of which are debated and rarely mentioned, by forcing him to push a boulder up a hill. The task is arduous and takes all day. As soon as he reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down the mountain and he must descend and repeat the task the following day.
According to Albert Camus, Sisyphus is representative of the human condition, endlessly toiling at repetitive tasks without hope of success. From Camus’ perspective, the torture of being conscious of the futility of the task is nullified by accepting it and continuing, by being stronger than his task, by scorning that it is punishment. At the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus exhorts, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Life is full of tasks that are never-ending, futile to believe will ever be completed, but necessary: washing dishes, doing laundry, emptying the in-box, paying bills. Perhaps not as physically exhausting as rolling a boulder up a hill, but potentially torturous nonetheless. If we resist doing the tasks, they become impediments, obstacles, irritants. But, if we accept them fully and do them willingly, they lose their power to torment us.
Watching the squirrel struggle with the bread, I smiled at the absurdity of it, and at the persistence of the squirrel. The lack of doubt, the perseverance, the acceptance of the situation. And somehow, connecting the squirrel and Sisyphus, I found myself deeply accepting the household tasks that waited for me, even enjoying them.
And in that state, I could imagine Sisyphus happy.