Sisyphus: Certainty and the hill I die on

April 7, 2024, 10:30 p.m.

Banished, broken — bated breath

Hopeless destination — Hades’ depth

Boulder’s ascent — fate whispers

Thousand climbs — never left

– Ben Gao

The proverbial journey of a thousand miles takes an enigmatic turn in the myth of Sisyphus — it begins with a single step, only to traverse a draining cyclic path lost in perpetuity. The ostensibly straightforward task of rolling a boulder up a hill stands a step above the impressively elaborate and cruel punishments found in other classic tales.

It is a timeless and universal portrayal of the vexing and all-too-common struggle for tangible progress in everyday life: from those seemingly unending p-sets to the legendary battles waged against the persistent snooze button. But, if so many see these dreadful experiences in Sisyphus’ toil, why did Nobel prize-winning philosopher Albert Camus conclude in his famed essay The Myth of Sisyphus that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”? How could Sisyphus possibly be happy? And more importantly, how could we possibly be happy?

Everything worthwhile is uphill. 

– an overachieving motivational speaker (couldn’t be me)

It’s spring 2023 — Lake Lag is full, MTL just resigned, and a rare respiratory illness suddenly took my breath away, literally. For months, every inhale was a struggle. Those sleepless nights spent cowering, locked in the dorm bathroom, gasping for air; those bottomless days spent languishing, boxed in desolate waiting rooms, anxiously awaiting an ever-elusive diagnosis and treatment, etched a sense of dread that tumbled down throughout my life. During that time, my health had distanced me from everything that had once held significance: clubs, classes, friends, teammates and even my family. 

In the span of a few weeks, I went from running around the track to between hospitals, and from learning through classes to through medical reports. I remember feeling so viscerally yet inexplicably lost. So confused. So powerless. So suddenly and violently divorced from a life I so loved and worked so hard to create. I felt hollow.

And, it makes sense — it’s hard to feel full when your breaths aren’t either. In an instant, the mountain I had climbed all of college had thrown me back to its base, shattering me into a thousand broken pieces. And it seemed like everything worthwhile was left uphill. 

Many months later, at the end of summer, I was a lot better. I had finally gotten a diagnosis and the treatment I’d been prescribed, though woefully slow, was working. Coupled with a change in scenery — I spent the summer exploring beautiful Seattle — it finally felt like I had a fresh start. Still, in spite of a genuinely promising outlook for my health, I found myself conflicted about which aspects of my past I could realistically carry into my future.

Many of the activities I so loved were still severely affected by my illness, making it difficult to justify their continuation in any practical sense. Running, for example, has been a cornerstone of who I am for over a decade. But with permanently impaired lungs, a sobering question emerged: why bother? I was never a particularly talented runner, and even attainable goals called for a colossal effort when I was healthy. The time off had also distanced me from friends and teammates, as despite efforts to stay connected, I fell out of stride. It felt like I was dangling off the tail of a group run, going just beyond my pace. 

We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.

– Confucius

Hope, I’ve learned, is a paradoxical thing. Strong enough to persist when nothing else can, yet so easily squashed in any other moment. For me, the hope of one day reclaiming the life I had before my illness was the wind in my sails as I navigated through the turmoil of my diagnosis and treatment. Yet, that same hope was suddenly gone with the wind when I had recovered, and realized that my plans to return had long sailed away.

In the time that I came to grasp the irony of my hope against the reality of my condition, I genuinely struggled to find anything more than a fleeting moment of happiness. And when I did, it felt like an accident or a harbinger of some sick, encroaching reminder of the scope of my current limitations. 

Take, for example, the laughs I shared with teammates during warmups — the kind that you’ll remember a month, quarter, year later and reminisce about. The kind where you’re laughing so hard you forget what you were laughing about. The kind where you laugh until your stomach hurts. Or in my case, the kind where you laugh until your lungs hurt too, and you drop to the ground in pain, hands clasped around your chest, as your teammates surround you in worry and ask if you’re okay.

In times like that, I often found myself wondering, what even is Happiness? And frankly, who knows? Entire careers have been lost grappling with much simpler questions, so who am I to say? But through those moments, I developed a belief about what Happiness means for myself, a belief that is rooted in a personal theory about Sisyphus. 

To me, the canonical telling of Sisyphus feels incomplete, as if a decisive second half were missing. I couldn’t quite pinpoint the void until I experienced my own uphill struggle, which led to a crucial realization: I believe there to be a second story of Sisyphus.

The first, a story of retribution, is familiar to us — an unreasonably clever and merciless king is condemned to an eternity of futile boulder rolling for a lifetime of crimes. The second, a story of finality, is understandably forgotten, and closely mirrors the conclusion of the first.

The subtle difference lies in the second story’s inception: it begins when Sisyphus realizes that there’s no end to the first. Carrying the same stone, along the same path, encountering the same fate as he had a thousand times prior, the king is for the first time, in a sobering moment of defining clarity, hopeless. He’s completely eviscerated of his ego, his hope, his tricks. He realizes for the first time that there is no escape. 

The boulder. The hill. An illusory summit. Forever. This is now his reality. What he does now — that’s the second story.

As for us, our lives harbor inconvenient truths that, like for Sisyphus, we can’t change — a poignant realization made accessible only with time and an ugly legacy of failure. For some, it’s their appearance. For others, a troubled past. Whatever they may be, they haunt us, relentlessly. And so we try to hide, disprove and ignore them. We buy into false narratives, mercenary products and senseless experiences that prey on the vain hope that somehow something somewhere will magically and mercifully solve our problems.

But like any inconvenient truth, things never change, no matter how hard we try. That’s the first story. Only then, when we grasp the finality of our condition after an eternity of futile struggle, do we reach that sobering and defining moment of clarity. What we do thereafter — well, that’s the crux of the second story. 

But if Sisyphus understands that there is no future, that any effort is futile, why does he continue to climb the hill for the rest of eternity? What’s the point? Why bother? It would be, like for me, returning to running knowing however hard I tried, I could never recreate the experiences that made running so meaningful in the first place. Indeed, the second story is a losing game, but the knowledge that Sisyphus will eventually drop the ball shouldn’t forbid him from playing at all.

Take, for example, the greatest losing game of all: life. The certainty of death doesn’t mean we should forfeit life. In fact, it motivates us to live it as much as we can, to the best that we can. As a friend and devoted hospice worker recently told me, even those cornered into the final moments of their lives, when all signs point to the certainty of death, choose to express the most heartfelt gratitude, reflect dearly on their most joyful memories, and surround themselves with those they love most. The game of life isn’t easy; it’s a losing game after all. But we play, no matter the cards that we’re dealt — and that’s no bluff. 

Still, the ever-important question remains: what does this mean, practically? To smile through the pain? To make your own meaning in life? Because I’ve tried, and those impossible p-sets have never solved themselves, however persuasively I’ve tried to smile. And so I’ll be the first to admit — I don’t know. Maybe Camus does, but I’m not him.

Yet, as I grapple with these practical questions on limiting our pain, I somehow feel that I’m missing the bigger picture: we’re so desperate and hurt that we’re doing more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. In the case of running, I know nothing I do will recreate the experiences I once cherished. But that doesn’t mean I should run away from it, and the pain associated with the realization that it will never be the same. After all, my friends, teammates and a future in running still await, even if it’s packaged differently.

Loving something enough to persist despite every reason not to. Maybe that is Happiness. 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot

Clearly, I have unfinished business. I’d call it a negotiation, but really it’s a gamble, and all the chips are on the line. But to write my own story, to have closure no matter the outcome, it’s a gamble I’m willing to take — to climb even if there is no summit. Because in an indifferent world, we are the ones — the only ones — who can write our story. My past isn’t the hill I want to die on. It won’t be — it can’t be. But at your lowest, every direction is uphill; there’s only one way off the beaten path. I take a deep breath because I know. I know today, I must choose to climb. 

I’ll see you at the top. 

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