Change Matters

The Absurdity of Accomplishing Nothing

This article is dedicated to Cheryl N who use to quote Camus and who helped me free my headspace and come to terms with my own limitations – thank you.

What does the saying ‘putting the cart before the horse’ mean?  Does it mean doing it by your self and getting nowhere? Or can it have a variety of meanings?

The first meaning reminds me of the Greek myth about a man called Sisyphus whose punishment for his crimes was to roll an enormous boulder up a mountain and just when he was nearing the summit the rock would roll down to the bottom so that the whole exercise would have to repeat itself.

 

What were Sisyphus’s crimes? His major crime was that he believed that immortality should be a right, not only of the Greek gods, but for all those who lived on the earth – nobody should be subjected to death. In order to achieve immortality he tricked Hades the god of the underworld (death) into a deal. This deal caused major complications for Ares, the god of war, because when soldiers on the battlefields were being killed they would just get up again and continue fighting. In other words the balance between life and death on earth was upset by Sisyphus’s passion for immortality. It was this passion and his defiance that lead him to be subjected to rolling a rock up a hill for all eternity. Yes, he lived forever, but at a price.

If you look at the images of the cart before the horse and Sisyphus rolling his boulder what comes to mind is that both actions are absurd. The actions are absurd because their outcome or end result is futile and hopeless – they get to go nowhere. Does this mean we should ignore absurdity? In tales of old, such as Sisyphus, actions of absurdity were often illustrated as insurmountable quests such as defying death. Does that mean one should avoid them, or is this a ‘cautionary tale’ that we need to heed? Do we see ourselves as gods who live for eternity or are we humans who are subjected to their time on earth by death? What does being condemned to the bonds of death mean? How do we translate our passion for life when we know that what we do has limited time? Does this mean all our actions are a waste of time? Should we shun hope and live in despair because of our limitations, our lot and our fate? It is in the story of Sisyphus’s punishment that we find the answers to these questions.

Albert Camus, the Nobel laureate, in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus writes about Sisyphus’s punishment in great detail. He describes Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill as being one with the stone, in other words Sisyphus is totally focused. It is in this focus that Camus infers that Sisyphus still has hope for success.

Then at the point in the story when the rock rolls back down the hill and Sisyphus must walk back to repeat his task, Camus provides an interesting observation when he writes about Sisyphus’s descent: ‘That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock’. Camus states that ‘if this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?'

So what is Camus saying? Do we suffer because we are conscious? Does consciousness relegate us to doing nothing because we will never succeed? What success is Camus referring to? What are we conscious of that tortures us?

In my opinion, the answer lies that as humans we have limitations. We are not immortal. We can try and defy death but ultimately we have to succumb to it. Limitation is a human condition. It is this consciousness that we are bound by limitation, that we are born, we live and we die that makes us human. Yet as humans, it is this very knowledge that assists us in the choices we make about coming to terms with living. We can eternally hope for something more or we can despair about being bound by the fact that we are limited.

According to Camus, Sisyphus was an ‘absurd’ hero. He is absurd because his fate is sealed, in other words he is limited. He was limited before he tried to outwit the gods. His punishment is to illustrate to the rest of us that his absurdity in railing against his limitation is grounded in consciousness and that within our consciousness there arises an absurd perception about our human condition, that of – dissatisfaction, defiance/rebellion and powerlessness.

Does this mean that limitation as a human condition must go unchallenged? No, it does not. Then what does it mean? It is our perception that makes life intolerable and it is that attitude that we need to challenge as humans. Camus has the answer for shifting this perception when he quotes another Greek hero – “‘I conclude that all is well,’ says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.”

So the answer lies not in the fact that as humans we are conscious and this therefore challenges our limitations of what it means to be human, but that we shift our perception from challenging to acceptance by acknowledging our powerlessness over our limitations. When we can accept that we are limited, we free ourselves. We are no longer dissatisfied or rebellious and only then can we avoid unnecessary suffering.

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