I imagine if Sisyphus were alive today he would be a New Hampshire-ite. (New Hampshirino?) He would at least be a New Englander. Heck, he may already be Bernie Sanders. And I don’t just say this because of the futility that is shoveling in the midst of a New England winter.
Everyone thinks of endless futility when Sisyphus is invoked, but rarely do we remember why he was sentenced to such a fate. In life, King Sisyphus was a practical leader who placed his own judgment and passion above silly customs and superstitions like “the gods”.
Zeus steals the river god’s daughter for his own version of Fifty Shades of a Rape Fantasy and no one dares to speak up? Not Sisyphus – he’s all, “I’ll tell you where your daughter is, river god, if you promise to give my people water.” That’s good leadership. Angry Zeus sends Death to chain Sisyphus up in punishment? Clever boy says, “Hey, Death, you mind showing me how those chains work first, so I’m less nervous?” BAM. Death in chains, King S back on Earth – Live Free or Die, baby. Literally.
Even when he eventually did die, Sisyphus refused to stop living. He talked Persephone into letting him back up “just to haunt the wife a little”, then simply refused to leave until he’d had his fun. Sure, his lust for life and complete disregard for what is “supposed to” happen made his ultimate torment inevitable, but I’m pretty sure Sisyphus would have done it all anyway. You only live twice; what is an eternity of monotonous labor in exchange for greatness?
Great victories are always balanced by great struggle somehow, whether it be before or after. Call it Newton’s Third Law of Emotion. The problem is that in the midst of those darkest moments – as our strength is on the verge of giving out – it is impossible to know if we are about to be victorious over Death or about to watch that damn rock roll back down the hill for the umpteenth time.
There is a moment near the end of The Two Towers that is one of my favorites because it perfectly captures this uncertainty. Frodo, after months of mental torment and in the middle of a seemingly endless upward climb into Mordor, is feeling understandably desperate. To distract his friend from complete surrender, Sam starts talking about adventures:
“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered… Folk seem to have been just landed in them… But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end.”
Sam then asks the magic question: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
“I wonder,” says Frodo, “but I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale…the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
Frodo is convinced at this point that he is pushing a ring up a hill in complete futility, but of course we know that he will end up victorious over death. I like to re-read this part of Tolkien’s masterpiece in the midst of my darker moments. True, Frodo is attempting to destroy the source of pure evil and I am merely trying to bring some respectful and multi-dimensional portrayals of women to our modern mythology, but a struggle doesn’t have to be epic to completely suck sometimes.
Hollywood may not be Mordor, but can come close. The need to write is my ring/rock, and the patriarchal, nepotistic power structure is my uphill battle.
Lately, I have been feeling more like Sisyphus on the hill than Frodo in the midst of a dark tunnel leading eventually to light. If we’re lucky, in these darkest times we find ourselves in the company of a Samwise Gamgee – someone to give a little perspective, or at the very least a distraction for a moment or two. I am thus blessed, and so am prepared to keep pushing this rock no matter how many times it rolls back down the hill.
Life could always be worse, after all. As my own Samwise put it recently, “Sisyphus is better than syphilis.” Truer words have never been spoken.