In Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a rock up a hill and watching it fall back down, and then rolling it back up and then watching it fall back down—for all eternity. What more futile task! According to Camus, Sisyphus’ fate resembles our own. In the myth, he has no promise of a reward for his toils. There is no “beyond” that would redeem his task, just as, from Camus’ atheistic perspective, there is nothing redemptive that awaits us beyond death. Nonetheless, Camus is optimistic about Sisyphus: “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.” His optimism stems from the idea that Sisyphus is conscious of his fate and has the power to accept it. Indeed, Camus concludes that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Beside the parallel between Sisyphus’ lot and the absence of redemption for us, Camus adds the cyclicality of workers’ lives resembles that of Sisyphus’ labors. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and repeat. And, beyond the workweek, we experience less obvious cycles. There are cycles of craving and satisfaction. There’s a new car on the market. Work and work to get it. Enjoy it for a month. Then work for the next bright and shiny commodity. Furthermore, there are cycles of work and achievement. Become educated, get a job. Get a job, get a better one, and so on. Or so our culture demands. Schopenhauer, ever the pessimist, declares: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.” Doesn’t one become nauseated at some point? How many repetitions can one go through without eventually losing one’s appetite—for life?
I have sought a way out of my worries about repetition by holding on to the belief that life never repeats itself exactly. Although I taught the same courses, Existentialism and Introduction to Philosophy, last year as I did in 2016, I had a new set of students before me. The students this year seem especially enthusiastic about my unit on mortality, where I teach Heidegger’s chapter on death in Being and Time. I suspect it’s because I am more keenly aware of my desire to make something of myself since my two recent health scares. Brought face to face with the prospect that my life might be shorter than I had expected, I questioned whether I was living well. I have become more deeply attuned to Heidegger’s insight that we can live well only when we authentically reckon with our mortality. In the wake of these experiences, I communicated his ideas to my students more passionately than I had before, and I saw this passion reflected in their responses to my lectures.
I doubt that our lives are as thoroughly repetitive as they may appear. But even if this were so, I believe that the key to bearing repetition lies in our mindset. As Camus suggests, in any situation we have the capacity to choose how we view the world. Likewise, Victor Frankl, the famous psychotherapist who survived three years in concentration camps, states: “Everything can be taken from man but…the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” In the inhumane conditions of the concentration camps, Frankl chose courage and steadfastness. He achieved this by remembering his wife or imagining himself lecturing about the psychology of concentration camps if he were liberated. To apply Frankl’s point to something far, far more mundane—namely, the boredom that stems from ordinary repetitions—we can regard our situations as irremediably boring, or we can search for what is meaningful in them.
Marcus Aurelius says, “Dig inside yourself. Inside there is a spring of goodness ready to gush at any moment, if you keep digging.” So I would tell anyone plagued by a sense of ennui: keep digging!