On Sisyphus and Teaching

Edmund Sass
First published in 1997
     I first read Camus' essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1956), as an undergraduate student nearly forty years ago. Though I didn't fully understand it then, and probably still don't, I found the piece intriguing enough that I have revisited it whenever I feel overwhelmed by life's travails and the futility of my attempts to overcome them.

     For those unfamiliar with the story of Sisyphus, he is but a minor character, a bit-player if you will, in Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a huge rock up the side of a mountain, only to have it roll back down, whence he would begin the task again. Though there are various accounts as to why Sisyphus incurred the gods' wrath, certainly he must have committed an egregious sin to warrant such a dreadful penalty. In my mind's eye, I see him still out there, his face dripping with grimy sweat, contorted into a fierce grimace. With powerful shoulders and bulging biceps, he winces with pain as his callused hands inch the boulder ever forward and upward. Like the "Energizer Bunny," he keeps going, and going, and going . . . 

    However, Camus does not describe Sisyphus in terms of unending misery. Rather, he is Camus' absurd hero, "powerless yet rebellious" (p. 314), triumphant and even joyous as he toils on. Though Sisyphus is condemned to an endless repetition of a gut-busting, yet incredibly meaningless act, he understands the absurdity of his fate. Therein lies his triumph. "The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn" (p. 314). So, as Sisyphus trudges down the mountain, knowing his burden awaits, his thoughts are his own, not the gods'. "His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing" (p. 316), and despite the gods' best efforts, they cannot beat him. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill his heart.

     In my darkest and most cynical moments, I see Sisyphus' plight as the perfect metaphor for so much of what I do as a college professor involved in the preparation of teachers, and at those times I find it difficult to think of Sisyphus, or me for that matter, as triumphant or heroic. I am particularly plagued by these thoughts in the fall, with the specter of starting anew staring me squarely in the face. Albeit, I am confronted with a different rock, perhaps on another mountain, but nevertheless, it is there, and I wonder if I can overcome the inertia and nudge the burden forward and upward. I contemplate the myriad meetings, the mindless administrivia, the absurd paper work, the futile and meaningless tasks assigned by the bureaucracy and know they will encumber me and slicken my slope. Yet somehow, the inertia is always overcome. The rock rolls, and as I inch my way toward the summit, seeking to unravel the mountain's many mysteries as I go, I lose myself in the journey and discover the slope is neither as steep nor as slippery as it first appeared.

    And now, as the end of still another academic year approaches, the mountain top comes into view; its snow-capped majesty beckons and inspires me, and the victory that is Sisyphus' seeps slowly into my soul. I am buoyed by my thoughts of the rock itself, and as I sense its urgent yearnings to reach the summit, I realize the struggle toward the heights is not all that fills my heart. I take comfort from my conviction that not all my rocks roll back down the mountain. In fact, I choose to believe that most will remain at the top, and many will eventually move up other mountains. Some may even ally themselves with my struggle and move rocks of their own. And the realization sinks in that no matter how many obstacles still lie ahead, nothing can stop me, not bureaucratic bungling, not administrative meddling, not even the gods themselves.

     It is these thoughts and this sense of accomplishment that make my journey worthwhile and sustain and renew me over the summer. And when, inevitably, September brings me to my burden once again, I will be able to look my tormentors directly in the eye and say, "Stand aside; my rock and my mountain await."

Camus, A. (1956). "The Myth of Sisyphus," pp. 312-314. In Kaufmann, W. (ed.) Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Cleveland: Meridian Books.

Sass, E. (1997).On Sisyphus and Teaching. Symposium. Number 15, p. 86.

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