The Myth of Sisyphus: The Book That Explains Why Life Is Pointless And We Should Be Happy About It
30 de octubre de 2017María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
We're always taught that we must find a meaning in life and follow it to the last consequences, but what if there isn't one? Does that mean our lives are pointless?
I’ve always had the perception that we all believe our life has a purpose and we must find and follow it to the last consequences. We see our individual life goals as our destiny, so there's a sense of void or uselessness if we don't achieve them. However, what if that purpose doesn't really exist? What if that idea is just a futile belief to make us do something? I mean, it’s great to have a clear purpose or goal in life, but is it that terrible if we don’t find it? That’s the question the book we’re going to talk about discusses, the idea of how life is truly pointless, but instead of feeling bad about it, we should really embrace it.
The Myth of Sisyphus, by the acclaimed French author Albert Camus, is considered one of the most difficult and complex texts in literature’s history, but isn’t life just like that? After all, if life weren’t complex enough, wouldn't it be boring? However, this doesn’t really mean it should be that hard, and for that reason, we’re going to explore Camus’s pillar text of literature in a simple and straightforward way.
To start with, it’s important to note that this particular text isn’t a fiction. It’s one of Camus’s philosophical essays, and for that reason, many consider it more complex than his other fictional texts. The essay delves into the “absurd,” a recurring subject in his work, but more than understanding it as nonsense, he sees it as one of the main features of life itself. It’s that conflict we all face when we think of what we want in life, or in other words, what we expect from it.
Remember the questions I mentioned at the beginning? Well, they all have to do with the constant search for meaning in our lives and our stubbornness to find a purpose, even when it's quite possible that we won’t really find it. Camus divides these apparently opposite stands into meaning and chaos. But the key here is how we understand these terms. If you see them as complete opposites and absolutes, as the author states, it’s most likely that you’ll fail in life. However, the question here is simpler: if we don’t find meaning in life (that is, if we realize there's no point in what society expects from us and the standards we're taught to follow), is it no longer worthy?
For him, the answer goes beyond yes and no. For Camus, even when life can be apparently meaningless, we can still be happy if we accept that fact and stop focussing on finding something we won’t ever get. That, for him, is facing the absurd. It’s living with that contradiction of life, but even when this might sound like a negative way of living, it’s in fact, or at least for Camus, the only way we can live our lives to their fullest.
So what does this has to do with the myth of Sisyphus? In the last part of the essay, Camus discusses the myth in terms of the absurd. According to the Ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus was the king and founder of the city of Ephyra, a city that became powerful both in the economy and in politics. However, the king wasn’t actually an example of worthiness and respectability. He was obsessed with being feared and respected as a powerful governor, and thus became a ruthless figure, who didn’t mind killing innocent people. Sisyphus’ actions violated a term called Xenia, which was understood as the concepts of generosity and hospitality. This infuriated the mighty Zeus.
Sisyphus wasn’t content with following the Gods' desires and whims, so he constantly defied them. But when he actually managed to trick Thanatos (or Hades in other versions) and chain him, he crossed the line. As a punishment, he was meant to carry a rock to the top of the mountain, but when he was about to reach it, the rock would fall to the ground and he had to repeat the task again. That for Camus, represented the ultimate absurdity of life, and for that reason, Sisyphus was considered the hero of the absurd. He was a man who lived his life to the fullest, tried to trick Death, and as a consequence was condemned to a meaningless task.
But Camus focuses on the reflections of the mythical character while being trapped in his eternal punishment. His awareness of his role in life make him a tragic character. He keeps pushing, even if he knows it's pointless or that it won’t change his condition, but the understanding of the uselessness of his task is what makes him accept life as it is and, perhaps, be happy with it.
It might sound as if the essay is telling us not to fight for what we want and just be mediocre and content with what we have. But, on the contrary, I think that what he wants to say is that it’s fine if we don’t find a meaning to life that fits what society expects us to do. At the end of the day, we might never match them, and this can make us feel useless. It’s all about finding happiness even when we can’t find meaning to those life expectations.
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Images by @samuel.brunner