Apparently there’s no torture more terrible to the gods’ imagination than pointless, endless, meaningless labour.
For trying to cheat death, the mythical Greek figure Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to a cruel and unusual punishment: he had to push a boulder up a mountain, yet the moment the boulder reached the top it would simply roll straight back down, meaning that he would have to start all over again. Forever…
It was philosopher Albert Camus who pointed out that Sisyphus’ punishment is a fitting (or disturbing) metaphor for everyday life.1 We wake, eat, work, eat, work, exercise, shower, eat, wash up, watch TV, sleep and repeat, over and over, for the rest of our lives.
Are we not all condemned, by the laws of nature and the human condition, to push our own boulder up a mountain each day, only to have our boulder fall back down each night so that we can begin pushing it again the next day… forever?
the paradox of the absurd
I give Camus first prize for the most arresting opening line of all time: “There is but one truly important philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Why don’t we all just kill ourselves?
Think of all the “big questions” of science and history, of political and economic systems, of left vs right, ruler vs ruled, secular vs religious, etc. etc. etc. – none those questions matter until we can first answer Camus’.
On the face of it this may seem simple; we just answer with whatever it is that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning on this good earth, whatever gets us out of bed in the morning. This would be the answer of Jean-Paul Sartre, the Existentialist philosopher who contended that the meaning of life is what we make it.2
Yet Camus pointed out that we have a problem here. On the one hand, we usually base our sense of purpose on the future being better than the past. Why do we get an education? Why do we work hard? Why do we seek love? To make the future better. Yet on the other hand we know, of course, that the future can’t always get better; eventually we are going to die, after all.
Death makes a mockery of our attempts to find meaning in what we do. This is what Camus (influenced by Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche) called the “paradox of the absurd”: our reasonable expectation of purpose and meaning, in the face of the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response.
Ok, you may say, but we can look beyond the narrow scope of our selves and find purpose in something that will outlast our finite life spans: we can work on making the world a better place, for our community, our children.
Granted, this is a far deeper source of purpose than simply thinking about yourself. Philosopher Ernest Becker even theorised that much of human behaviour is motivated by what he called “immortality projects” centred on this kind of purpose.3
This is the idea that we have two selves: a “conventional self” which is simply who we are, and a “conceptual self” which is our idea of who we are. In our unwillingness to accept our inevitable demise, we aspire to “immortality” of a kind through the notion that our “conceptual self” will live forever in the legacy we leave behind for others.
To do so we engage in projects that will immortalise us throughout the ages. Are you an artist? A philanthropist? A white supremacist? Whatever your “immortality project,” you might just be motivated by the promise of purpose and eternal life for your “conceptual self.”
However, all this ultimately does is kick the can down the existential road. Suppose your “immortality project” exalts you to the status of the most influential human who has ever existed, remembered and celebrated for every generation to come. Still, the “immortality” you think you have won will – one day – prove to be an illusion.
After all, one day the world will end. And I don’t just mean that one day civilisation will fall or that the environment will collapse; I mean one day the sun will reach the end of its life cycle, expand and swallow the earth like a grape. On that day, all our efforts to make the world a better place, and all the “immortality projects” on earth combined, will not matter.
Maybe you hold onto the hope that humanity will, by then, have developed the kind of interstellar space-faring technology needed to escape “fireball-earth.” Maybe our descendants will spend billions of years hopping from planet to planet, fleeing each one when its time comes. But even this cannot go on forever, since one day the universe itself is destined to expand so far that nothing, not even atoms, can form.
After that, you have to get truly sci-fi to envision the survival of our descendants; escape into other universes perhaps (if such exist) via some as yet unimagined scientific and technological miracle. But even then, you can be sure, this grand “multiverse” will eventually succumb to a fate of its own.
However you look at it, Camus’ problem remains; everything we do, think and care about, all the noble causes and tragic losses, all the triumphs and defeats, simply will not matter in the end; they are all, ultimately, “absurd.”
So where do we find our sense of purpose in all this, our reason to get out of bed in the morning?
Camus’ answer to the absurdity of the human condition was not despair (much less suicide), but rather a bold acceptance of that absurdity and a revolt against it. You recognise that all the causes and projects that give you purpose now won’t matter at all one day, and yet you strive on regardless; as if to scorn the laws of nature that dictate that you must die.
This is what makes Sisyphus the ideal Existentialist hero; he knows that pushing the boulder up the mountain is ultimately a futile task, yet out of his love of life and his scorn for the gods he embraces that task and carries on anyway. This is why Camus tells us that we must imagine “Sisyphus happy.”
The punishment itself is, after all, not just a physical one but a psychological one; the gods intended to break Sisyphus’ spirit by depriving him of purpose and meaning. And yet ultimately – assuming a psychologically normal and healthy mind – control of your psychological state actually lies with you; not anyone else, not even “the gods.”
It seems to me that mindfulness gives us a way to do just this; a way to “revolt” against the absurdity of our condition and aspire to the Sisyphean ideal.
Mindfulness tells us to look not to the future, but to the present, for meaning. Contentment can only truly be experienced in the here and now, after all. No matter how blissful your fantasies about the future, you’re still thinking about something that is not, craving for something that is not, and so your feeling in the present is dissatisfaction.
Yes, you can still work on making things better for yourself, your family, your community and the world. By all means let’s make life as good as possible before we die (or before the sun explodes, for that matter). But we also have to be able to find contentment while we’re doing it; or else it is all, indeed, “absurd.”
There’s a reason why activities such as walking and washing dishes have become well-known “mindful” practices. The goal is not to reach a destination or to have clean dishes, it’s to find the kind of ultimate contentment that can only come from actually being present with whatever you are doing.
The insight to be gained from such practices is that it’s only with the past and future in mind that you can see yourself as merely performing a monotonous chore for the ten-thousandth time, and happiness as only being possible when you’re finally done.
But when you’re fully immersed in the present moment, with no past to compare to and no future to reach towards, everything is always new. Everything is somehow more fresh, more interesting, more beautiful… and more meaningful.
As for some grand “ultimate meaning of it all,” I can only say that, in my experience of deep mindfulness, all those concerns tend to just evaporate into the air. After all, if the purpose of having an “ultimate” purpose is that you think it will give you some measure of contentment, then what is its purpose if you’re already content – utterly and completely – right now?
So while, yes, we may sometimes feel trapped in our repetitive cycles of wake, eat, work, etc. – each of us pushing our boulders up the mountain of everyday life – we can, through mindfulness, see things a little more deeply, with a little more perspective.
We can all be “Sisyphus happy.”