As we explained in the previous post, my summer stint as a line worker in Bordeaux was far more than a time of physical challenges and cultural insights. The rolling of barrels, lugging of boxes, and scraping of cases coincided with a deeply reflective phase, motivated in large part by my university study. In the end, the combination of working and thinking turned out to be a synergistic one that yielded a number of enduring life lessons.
When I made the initial connection between some of the repetitive tasks we did in the warehouse and Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill, it was intended purely as a moment of lighthearted fun. Upon reflection, though, I saw a more serious notion behind the levity. Indeed, the humorous remarks triggered something in my memory—one of Camus’ most surprising assertions.
Specifically, there is a passage in his remarkable essay where the Nobel laureate makes a direct comparison between his Greek protagonist and the modern employee. As Camus states, “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd.”
When I first read that statement while preparing for a class, I stopped to mull it over. In particular, I wondered to what extent manual laborers, and perhaps office workers as well, did bear a resemblance to Sisyphus.
Shortly thereafter, in Bordeaux, I found myself squarely in the realm of the “workman of today”, as an entry level employee in a winery warehouse. On more than one occasion, I asked myself if I was operating in a setting that Camus might have considered Sisyphean.
Of course, such questioning was mostly a game I played in my mind, an intellectual exercise that added a fascinating element to my work days. In reality, my assignments were far from the type of suffering the gods had wished for Sisyphus. On the contrary, I was having the time of my life, with physical challenges and cultural discoveries on a daily basis. Indeed, I felt fortunate, privileged even, to be in such a lively learning environment.
At the same time, our daily functions did have their trying moments of physical stress and boredom. We need look no further than the aforementioned scraping station to identify a duty that would regularly lead me to identify with the man pushing his boulder uphill in the hot sun.
Perhaps ironically, it was during a long afternoon session of scraping the wooden boxes that I had something of a revelation. Bringing together three concepts—the tedium of the task I was performing, the image of Sisyphus with his boulder, and Camus’ view of absurd work—I could simultaneously feel the Greek’s challenges and the author’s optimism.
Why should we regard Sisyphus as happy? Once again, the answer is in the penultimate sentence of Camus’ essay: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
When pushing his boulder uphill, in the midst of that absurd exercise, Sisyphus is free to live in the moment, to perform the task on his own terms, to derive pleasure and fulfillment from his accomplishments. He can value every step of his journey toward the summit. He can participate wholeheartedly in his quest. And, he has the freedom to give his efforts his own sense of meaning.
If pushing a rock is Sisyphus’ purpose, it is easy to compare that with the modern workers who toil tirelessly day in and day out. At the same time, though, there is something deeper that we can take from his story, and that we can implement in our lives.
In essence, our role is not to surrender to The Absurd, but rather to let it set us free. In Camus’ world, we have the latitude to define ourselves and our attitudes, and to give our own meaning to our lives. Despite the absurd nature of human existence, we can take some joy in pushing our rock, in doing it well, and doing it on our own terms.
We will continue these themes next time.
Image: Flickr user Luz Adriana Villa