Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sisyphus Smiles

A few days before this school year started I read a book that my father gave me as a "housewarming" present, Buddha in the Classroom, by Donna Quesada.  It is her memoir of being a burned-out community college professor, returning to her learnings as a Zen practitioner to find a renewed passion for her work.  The book had collected dust for months, and I had simply picked it up as a means to not doing anything to actually prepare for the fast-approaching school year (burned out high school teacher much?).  It is a shame I let the book sit for so long, because there have been many lessons and ideas from it that have brought a renewed passion to my work.  Chief among them was a profoundly simple, yet incredibly powerful, image that has stuck in my head: Sisyphus smiling.

Several years ago I became fascinated by the Greek myth of Sisyphus - the king punished by the gods for his hubris and made to push an enormous rock up a hill only to watch it roll back down and then compelled to repeat the process, for all eternity.  It made me feel smart knowing the story.  I felt even smarter when I would glibly use "Sisyphean" in conversation.  There was nothing positive about Sisyphus's chore.  He was wretched.  The task was pointless.  It never ended and was always repeated.  It sounds a lot like training for an ultra (minus the endorphins and shiny new belt buckle at the end).  Misery comes to mind.  Until you picture him smiling.

The idea is so simple: here is Sisyphus, the wretch, interminably pushing his boulder up the hill, watching it roll down and repeating.  In my mind he was always completely defeated, hopeless.  And then, as I read this short passage, everything about the picture changed.  Imagining Sisyphus smiling, embracing his situation as his reality, not wanting a different past or a different future, but accepting the present, the scene totally changed.  He was no longer hopeless, but happy in his acceptance of the situation.  I discussed this image with my students.  They said things like, "Maybe he's happy because he's getting stronger," or, "It's kinda fun to push rocks down a hill." The point, for me at least, is that there is something to take joy in, to find happiness in, from almost any situation, if we simply accept it and smile. (A little aside here: the idea of imagining Sisyphus smiling originally came from the French absurdist/nihilist,  Albert Camus.  This past weekend I was on a run with some TARC friends and met a guy doing his graduate work in theology, Paul.  I brought up this idea created by, "Al-bert Cam-us," said just like that, with a nice American accent.  Paul was gracious enough to wait until later (when I suggested that I had butchered the name) to tell  me (very politely and with no pretension) that it is actually "Cah-moo."  I went home and also found out that his first name is pronounced, "Al-bear" with a sort of rolling r sound.  Freakin' French.).

Should I ever get a tattoo (no plans to), I think it would be an image of Sisyphus smiling (maybe an emoticon instead?).  I have thought about it nearly ever day since coming across it in the book.  I have used it in my classroom when conferencing with students or trying to explain an assignment (for the 7th time).  I have used it while running when the legs feel leaden and tired (or fleet and spry!).  I have used it when I find myself wishing I were somewhere else than were I am (after-school meetings, stuck behind that insanely slow (I mean 10 mph slow) driver all the way to the Y).  I'm sure that I'm missing much of the nuance of the philosophical reasoning with my simply interpretation, but I'm okay with that because right now it makes sense to me.  It has helped me rethink situations and find deeper joy in tasks and activities that just weeks ago I struggled to get through (running and, to a certain extent, teaching).  Picturing Sisyphus smiling through his labor, I stopped wearing my GPS on every run.  With no watch, all of a sudden runs were not being judged "good" or "bad" based on a time.  Some are faster and at a greater effort because that is what happens at that time.  Some are slower.  Some I try to get lost on.  Some are direct to/from school.  I've come to embrace every step.  No run is good or bad, but it simply is and I am content with that.  It's amazing what a little change in perspective can do.
That's more like it.  Nice shades too!
Yeah, doing this once looks pretty awful.  Don't worry, only all of eternity to go . . . 

1 comment:

  1. Very true in so many ways Josh. Everything has positive value in it, even if it initially can be a negative experience or situation. Great post. Thanks for sharing.