Sisyphus, or the struggle of joy in college

Nov. 3, 2022, 8:44 p.m.

It’s 9:15 a.m., or something like that, and my alarm is ringing. On the desk beside me is a disorganized pile of work, unfinished, from the night before. I roll off the bed and feel heavy; for a moment, the weight of my body is too much for my tired feet to bear. I drag myself to the bathroom to stare at my blurry face in the water-stained mirror — even softened by myopia, I look like a mess.

Good morning, world.

Somewhere in the depths of Hades, at the base of a hill with a tremendous boulder before him, Sisyphus takes a deep breath and begins his ascent.

I go to lecture. I teach section. I sit in meetings. I come back and work on p-sets and projects and grades until suddenly it’s time to go to sleep. Then I wake up and do it all over again. All the while, my list of tasks only grows. Apply to jobs. Prepare for interviews. Finish my homework. Practice violin, as much as I can. Work on a huge project that eats up my time like a hungry leviathan.

I have this dream — just a little scene, really — that I think about when biking from one obligation to another. In it, I’m sitting on the yellow-green grass under a beam of warm, gentle sunlight. A book is in my hand. A soft breeze blows. Every single blue box in my planner has an equally blue checkmark through the middle.

Yeah, no way that dream is coming true. The list of tasks to get done before the weekend ends sits at 14 items, and most of the boxes are empty.

Back in Hades, the rock is heavy. Sisyphus continues to trudge up the hill. Beads of sweat form on his weary brow.

It’s Friday night now, around 2 a.m. I’m trying to sleep, but sleep doesn’t come. I’m tossing and turning and counting to 100 in every language I know — one, two, three; un, deux, trois; yī, èr, sān –  but nothing works. The list of everything I still need to finish is a vengeful spirit haunting my thoughts.

I give up. I can’t sleep, I don’t deserve sleep, until I check off at least one box.

I turn on the light and let my roommate back in from the kitchen. I’m not sleeping, I tell her. I have too much to get done. Tears spill out of my eyes, hot against my cold cheeks, until I’m sobbing in earnest against my will. My face is all tingly and my breath is coming out in hiccups — I’m panicking.

But in a way, the panic is useful. It keeps me up. I get something done. A p-set.

Then I climb into bed and collapse into unconsciousness.

Sisyphus stumbles on a loose rock and slips down the hill. He catches himself, then keeps going.

The weekend comes and goes; of course there are tasks that remain unfinished. But it’s Wednesday night now, and for once my dream of peace and a warm shining sun seems within my reach. My project — the great leviathan, the unchecked box that torments me the most — is almost complete. It’s a scramble to the finish. If I can get this done, then I will be free. An hour of work turns to two, which turns into three, which turns into six.

I’m almost there. I’m almost there. I’m almost there….

Sisyphus can see the top of the hill. He’s straining, pushing the boulder with all his might. Maybe this time will be it. Maybe this time his suffering will end for good. He runs faster.

And then I’m finished. I hit save on the project and close my tabs. I slump back in my chair. I’m done. I’m free.

Except I’m not. Because there are revisions to be done, big ones and small. There are the empty boxes in my planner that I’ve neglected in my scramble to check off this one. There are new tasks looming just out of view.

The relief dies away. All I can feel now is numb.

Just as Sisyphus reaches the crest of the hill, the boulder jerks away and slips out of his grasp, rolling down into the darkness of Hades. He cries out and runs after it, but of course he can’t catch it. He never catches it.

Then Sisyphus is gone, and it’s just me standing on the hill, gazing down at the dark plains below, at the boulder of tasks and obligations and expectations that has once again slipped out of my grasp.

Camus tells us Sisyphus is happy. But how can I be happy like this? How am I supposed to be happy when my life is just a series of uncompleted tasks, and I never live up to my own expectations and I’m stressed out of my mind?

I sit down on the rocky hilltop.

It’s funny. Underneath all the stress and the pressure of deadlines, I’m not unhappy. Not really. In the end, I chose all this for myself.

But not unhappy is not happiness.

So what, then, is joy? How do I find joy amidst all this struggle?

Maybe it’s the belief that one day, someday, I will push my rock over the hill. That all my efforts will pay off — that my project will be a smashing success; that all the studying will lead to a good job; that I’ll meet all the expectations that I’ve set for myself. That my dream of sunlight lies just beyond the horizon.

But this can be so fleeting. Hope is a delicate thing, easily squashed by struggle.

So then, maybe joy is the brief moments of respite during the ascent, when I set my burdens and unfinished tasks aside and allow myself to rest. A call with my mom while she bakes chestnuts, or a few hours spent watching a movie I loved in high school, or five minutes spent sitting in the sunshine between classes.

This happiness is more tangible, the experience heightened by hours of toil. But it’s so hard to avoid the pangs of guilt that come with even a short rest.

Could joy be the struggle itself? The happiness found in difficulty?

Maybe for some perfect person. But not for me.

In the end, I suppose I don’t have it figured out. Perhaps it’s a bit of everything. Perhaps it’s something else entirely. But I will keep striving for joy, seek it out in the haze and remind myself that it exists when I’m plunged in the depths of the blackest night. And maybe one day, I will know what it means to be happy.

For now, though, I stand and walk back down the hill, ready to begin my ascent again.

“Michelle Fu ’24 is the Graphics Managing Editor for Vol. 262. She can be found grinding out p-sets, shredding on the violin, and reminiscing about how she used to be funny.

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