Sisyphus is Happy By OLIVER W. KIM October 29, 2013
Wracked by recent debates on the decline of academic integrity and deficiencies in mental health services, Harvard is in a period of soul-searching. At the center of all this existential introspection is Harvard’s overworked student body. Crushed under the weight of demanding course loads and extracurricular activities, most Harvard students would admit that, at least once, they have questioned the meaning of their toil—or wondered whether their efforts are truly worth it all. As a recent Crimson column explains, Harvard students may be more likely to struggle with “certain basic issues of existence: mortality, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.” For a potential answer to our existential woes, we should look to the writings of the absurdist philosopher Albert Camus.
In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus recounts the story of the mortal Sisyphus—condemned by the gods to roll a stone up a mountain for all eternity. Every time Sisyphus reaches the summit, the stone rolls back down, forcing Sisyphus to begin the task again. Faced with a seemingly endless cycle of problem sets, papers, and midterms, many Harvard students can relate to Sisyphus’s plight. The completion of each week’s assignments signals only a brief reprieve until the proverbial stone rolls back down and the assault of the next week’s work begins. And when the work piles up and stress builds, finishing yet another paper can seem as meaningless and frustrating as pushing a stone up a mountain. Indeed, Camus saw the fate of “the workman of today, [who] works every day in his life at the same tasks…[as] no less absurd” than that of Sisyphus.
For the industrious Greeks, Sisyphus’s punishment was the ultimate torment—a meaningless task with no hope of completion (many Harvard students, with their Alexandrian ambitions and Stoic work ethics, might concur with this viewpoint). Sisyphus was a pitiable figure, an object lesson for those who dared defy the gods.
Camus, however, had a different perspective. As an absurdist, Camus believed that human beings seek meaning in existence, yet the universe is inherently meaningless, indifferent to this need. In Camus’s view, Sisyphus was the archetypal absurdist hero—burdened by this meaningless task and facing an uncaring universe, Sisyphus acknowledges and accepts the absurdity of his fate.
For Camus, this acceptance is crucial. At Harvard, many of us feel indignant or resentful when life seems unfair or when the burden we carry—personal, academic, or otherwise—grows too heavy. Yet when Camus’s Sisyphus makes the long walk down the slope to retrieve his stone, he is not sad. On the contrary, Sisyphus is at peace. Left by fate with no other options, Sisyphus revolts in the only way he can—by accepting his absurd situation, joyfully shouldering his burden and making his ascent once again. In Camus’s famous words, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I don’t agree with Camus’s assertion that life is totally meaningless—after all, we are all at Harvard to pursue meaningful personal, intellectual, and professional goals. Nor do I think that the work and toil of our everyday lives, however Sisyphean, is inherently meaningless. Nonetheless, Camus’s conclusion remains rather profound. Sisyphus’s acceptance of his fate has a certain nobility—his eternal struggle against fate gives us inspiration when the universe seems arranged against us. Regardless of whether we choose to accept the absurd, or if we believe that life has inherent meaning, the lesson of Sisyphus is that when we feel as if the universe is indifferent or uncaring, the best response may be to happily accept this injustice and move on.
Indeed, it is inevitable in the hustle and bustle of life at Harvard that we’ll occasionally lose sight of the greater meaning in our lives. It is precisely in these moments of desperation that we should heed Sisyphus’s example. So next time you shoulder that burden and prepare to climb that academic hill, crack a smile. Laugh in the face of a silent universe indifferent to your lack of sleep, your stress level, or the fact that you haven’t left the library all day. Faced with the absurdity of a 15-page paper due the next week, it’s your best means of revolt.