Sisyphus is the guy condemned by the gods to eternally roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again.
None of us want to be Sisyphus, though sometimes we may wonder if we are:
What’s the point to my work? Nobody tells me.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone notices what I’m doing.
I haven’t got thirty years experience, I only have one year’s experience repeated thirty times.
When the things we’re involved fail to go anywhere, it’s time to find meaning somewhere else. You can only take so much of this, but it’s never too late. Part of the decision to leave the work I’d been involved in for more than thirty years is the organisation’s adeptness when it comes to avoiding going anywhere.
Dan Ariely names this the “Sisyphic condition” – being well paid and having a degree of security don’t compensate for the meaningfulness. Viktor Frankl knew quite a lot about these things, having survived labour and death camps, having to watch people give up; he concluded:
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”*
I’d learnt a lot in my thirty-plus years. When you don’t see an outworking of what you have been involved in for so many years no matter what you try then you know quite a lot of valuable things. It’s what I’m employing in what I am helping people with now.
We have to find our own meaning and our own motivation.
No-one else can provide this for us. Each of us has more than enough to be able to identify what is meaningful and purposeful for us. Ariely points out that when we are clear about this, we’re capable of making incredible journeys:
‘human motivation is actually based on a timescale that is long, sometimes even longer than our lifetimes’.**
Ariely shares this in the context of being called on to encourage someone who’d suffered massive burns, just as he had once experienced. This encounter takes him back in time and he shares with much honesty how difficult it was to get through the years of treatment when he’d helplessly submitted to excruciating procedures. He realises, though:
‘[My] own suffering has not been pointless. […] I could do something to help other human beings – something that I’m uniquely qualified to do.’**
Revisiting his own experience had led to something changing in him. And together with Frankl, Ariely provides us with some hope for turning our experiences into making a difference for others. We can redeem our pointlessness if we choose to.
A good place to begin is to admit, or allow ourselves to see, we haven’t seen our experience entirely accurately, there is much that we don’t know about ourselves and our circumstances, especially in noticing the points of intensity and momentum:
‘Conscious ignorance, if you can practise it, expands your world; it can make things infinite.’^
These words, proffered by Nassim Taleb who’s noticed more than most others about what makes randomness random, sound like Zen’s “beginners mind,” a way of learning throughout our lives.
It’s how we avoid becoming Sisyphus:
“When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no ouder than the beating of your heart, and it’s very easy to miss it.”^^