Sisyphus and You

[This is a model of a letter that could be given to high school students prior to the beginning of the school year. Introduces concepts useful for engaging the need to harness one’s mind.]

You may remember the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus crossed Zeus and Hades, two Grecian gods, and was made to pay for it. Some see the myth as a tale of deceit and retribution, but Phil Cousineau, author of Once and Future Myths has a useful interpretation for students. “Sisyphus was condemned to suffer the seemingly most futile and hopeless of labors. In a shadow world of skyless space and depthless time,. . . Sisyphus was giving the sentence of shouldering a stone . . . for all eternity, up the forlorn mountain slope in Tartarus.” Homer’s Odyssey says:

“With both arms embracing the monstrous stone, struggling with hands and feet alike, he would try to push the stone upward to the crest of the hill, but when it was on the point of going over the top, the force of gravity turned it backward, and the pitiless stone rolled back down to the level. He then tried once more to push it up, straining hard, and sweat ran all down his body, and over his head a cloud of dust rose.”

This was true vengeance of the gods, Cousineau points out, “Sisyphus was condemned for all eternity to shoulder the boulder up the mountain of hell, and all the while Hades would be watching for the look of despair that would mark the defeat of another mere mortal. But Sisyphus resolved never to allow the gods see him defeated by despair. He silently vowed that because his fate was in his hands he could be superior to it.”

Each time Sisyphus watches the boulder fall and turns to walk down the hill again, he is conscious that he is superior to his fate; he is stronger than his rock. He can manage the battle in his mind and with himself.

It is the same battle the football player fights plowing for inches more through the insurmountable burden of tacklers; the same battle the weightlifter fights on his twelfth repetition; the same battle the long-distance runner fights hitting the wall. It is the same battle students fight each night grinding through the reading, writing and thinking of a mountain of homework.

The myth of Sisyphus is a metaphor — a fiction that tells a truth. In his interpretation of Sisyphus, Cousineau reminds us of something every generation has to learn for itself: It is not what happens to us that matters; what matters is our attitude towards what happens. This story doesn’t ennoble suffering, it ennobles struggle. Struggle is inevitable, and those who learn to see it as an obstacle rather than a burden make life a lot easier for themselves.

Cousineau concludes, “the secret of the creative life consists in taking the next step, doing the next thing you have to do, but doing it with all your heart and soul and finding some joy in doing it.”

If you forget all the facts and formulas you learn in this school, you will nevertheless have grown to be an educated person if you shun the self-absorbed, downward spiral of suffering and develop in yourself, instead, the will to apply yourself each time you approach the mountain.

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