Originally published on June 13, 2021
Finding Parallels between Sisyphus and Depression
In Greek mythology, we learn of Sisyphus, a man condemned to forever push a massive boulder up a large, unforgiving hill. Sisyphus’s story is one of caution and despair — it tells us we should appease the gods and behave as they ask, or else we’ll have to toil in misery for eternity.
But is that all it tells us? Or are there alternative interpretations to this daunting myth?
In this post, I’ll present one of those new perspectives and explain how it relates to our mental health at large. But, first, some background is in order. For this one, we’ll need to return to my high school days.
During senior year, I took a class called Advanced Placement (“AP”) English. Our professor was a very interesting dude. He loved literature, philosophy, and living in strict accordance with a sound moral framework.
Every decision he made centered around that framework, including what kind of shirts or bread he’d buy. If the materials in those products harmed the environment or the business practices responsible for them exploited employees, he wouldn’t purchase them — full stop.
Two of the things I remember most about this class were the coursework and our instructor’s outlook on it. In our school’s version of AP English, there were no tests or presentations — only five-page essays to submit. One a week, in fact. Though it was a demanding load, it prepared us well for the AP English exam — an essay-heavy evaluation itself.
After the first two months of the school year — and eight or so essays later — our professor stopped and asked us a profound question. “Isn’t it a little discouraging to hand in essay after essay and never have the work stop?” We pondered that idea as he continued: “It’s almost like you’re all seventeen-year-old versions of Sisyphus, sentenced to endless, weekly assignments. Such is life.”
Though it’s hard to say how deep he was trying to cut with that last statement, or if he was simply being facetious, our professor hinted at one of the common takeaways from the mythological story of the boulder-pushing man — that life is but a series of never-ending struggles.
As it pertains to our mental health, I’m not sure such a perspective helps us all that much. In fact, I’d argue it’s pretty dangerous. That’s why, regardless of what our professor was trying to say, I think we need a new way of looking at this cautionary tale. After all, our teacher was a fair, kind, and intelligent guy, so I’m sure his words that day didn’t totally match his life philosophy.
So, what is that new, uplifting interpretation of Sisyphus’s condemnation, and how does it help us in our lives and battles with mental illness? Though it took me many years after my professor’s original statement to formulate and requires several paragraphs to explain, that new interpretation takes the shape of the following three-part model.
Part 1: Challenge Leads to Growth and Joy
For a moment, let’s think of Sisyphus differently than a mere guinea pig of the gods or criminal condemned to eternal torture. When we do so, we see he’s also a boulder-pushing mortal like the rest of us. Working under that assumption suggests our lives on Earth are also toil-filled missions, just as my professor implied all those years ago.
But, again, is that all it suggests? Or is there some ray of positivity behind this idea as well? I actually think there is, and this is what I mean by that:
To stay connected, strong, and sane, we must continually expose ourselves to new opportunities and challenges. Unlike Sisyphus, however, we don’t need to push actual boulders up hills to appease the gods. We just need to take on new pursuits that help us expand our abilities and grow. For example, we could learn a new language, backpack through a foreign country, or take up the piano.
Each of these pursuits features some amount of negativity or unwanted parts (in the form of hard work or uncertainty), just like Sisyphus’s mission. However, these less favorable legs of the journey are what help us unlock more positive experiences later on. For example, the joy of conversing with someone in Italian or playing our favorite songs on our Yamaha keyboard.
Without the challenge or uncertainty associated with the less desirable parts of our pursuits, we don’t get to those joyful experiences because we haven’t grown or created something we can relish or celebrate.
Part 2: Accomplishment Leads to Pride and Rest
Sisyphus’s story tells us that as soon as he gets his boulder to the top of the hill, he must turn around, watch it fall back to the bottom, and dread yet another strenuous journey to the peak. There’s a rather obvious problem with this outlook, especially if we’re going to relate his plight to ours, and it’s that it’s wildly pessimistic.
Sure, the thought of having to slave away, perpetually, in one fashion or another is an undoubtedly daunting notion, but it’s a distorted one that doesn’t tell the whole story. In reality, when Sisyphus’ rock starts rolling back down the hill, he gets a chance to reset, recover, and quickly enjoy the view from the top. We get that chance, too, assuming we’re willing to stay optimistic about our challenge-filled journeys.
To keep things relatable, let’s assume today’s version of “pushing the boulder up the hill” looks like hitting the gym and fighting through a strenuous workout. Now, if we were to hone in on the fact that we must battle through such an activity every day of the week, we would, just like Sisyphus, fall prey to the despair associated with thinking our work is never-ending.
However, that wouldn’t be the most accurate or uplifting way of looking at our circumstances because it would ignore or overlook the fact that we’re not working out every second of every day. In reality, after our training sessions, we get to pause, take pride in what we’ve accomplished, and enjoy the time off until our next one. This is when we proverbially look out atop the hill and enjoy the view.
Of course, we will soon have to turn around and chase the boulder back to the starting line by getting our gym gear together once more, but even that is a task much less arduous than beginning our rock pushing all over again. These brief periods of post-accomplishment rest fill our tanks with the energy and optimism to keep showing up — both to the gym and in our daily lives.
What we often forget about these tasks and challenges is that it’s fun and gratifying to complete them, even if another one will begin fairly soon. The excitement, accomplishment, and pride we feel when we finish reading a book we’ve been struggling through for months are emotions we crave and need; they keep us going.
If we reconnect to these feelings regularly, we can even condition ourselves into enjoying this boulder pushing process. This is a crucial piece of our updated Sisyphean philosophy, and it’s what leads me into the final part of our new perspective on our stone-driving friend.
Part 3: Not Challenging Ourselves Leads to Despair
In life, we tend to believe that once we’re able to stop working, retire, or rid ourselves of all of our responsibilities, we’ll finally be happy. And yet, once that day does come, most of us find that we’re miserable. Why is that?
The answer is simple, albeit perplexing, and it’s that when we stop growing and striving, we start dying. Okay, maybe not literally walking into our graves, but certainly degrading from a mental and emotional standpoint. Especially for those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression, when we don’t have challenging, fun, or meaningful pursuits to distract us from our mental demons, we openly welcome despair into our lives.
Yes, this means we must always be pushing some kind of boulder up some sort of hill. A little daunting on the surface, I know. But what if the original way of looking at Sisyphus’s story was the wrong one? What if it wasn’t meant to be a story of dread and pessimism but solely an emotion-free, matter-of-fact description of life? What if it was just saying that we must constantly be working on something — otherwise, the gods come calling for us? Despite all those questions, that’s how I interpret it.
That last question reflects why those who retire or shed all their responsibilities sometimes fall apart in life. It’s also the reason many of those same people eventually throw themselves into some new challenge or adventure. Sure, it may sound crazy for a retired, wealthy person to start training for a triathlon out of nowhere. But, I’d argue, to simply sit on his or her butt and keep the despair-filled status quo would be even crazier.
Eventually, folks enduring this kind of pain come to learn (the hard way) that without a vision, people perish. Our challenges and pursuits provide us that vision, so, without them, we, too, fall apart. We lose our purpose and drive, and the gods penalize us for not following their commands.
If we seriously consider this new perspective on Sisyphus’ story, we see that maybe the gods don’t punish us for their amusement or benefit but ours. Perhaps they force us to stay on track so that we don’t drive ourselves directly into the abysses of anxiety and depression.
Taking This New Perspective to Heart
Sometimes all it takes to shift a negative outlook into a positive one is a subtle reframing of the situation. That certainly seems to be the case here, as we took what seemed like a daunting mythological and classroom lesson and turned it into an essential piece of wisdom we can leverage in the boulder-pushing journeys of our lives.
As we look at Sisyphus, we now see that maybe our cyclical toiling isn’t a death sentence but the very thing that keeps the fire going in our lives. For when we stop pushing, we cut off our potential to grow, achieve, take a break, and enjoy our accomplishments. Though we can sometimes catch the gods sleeping for short periods, eventually, our complacency will catch up with us, and the powers that be will punish us in the form of mental despair once more.
Though it’s not yet an outlook accepted by historians or scholars, I think it allows us to see the difficulty of our journeys in a more uplifting fashion and helps us ward off our mental demons more readily. Moreover, I think it’s a message that an old professor of mine would respect, even if it isn’t the one the gods originally intended.
I hope you respect it and take it to heart as well and will use it as a new way of viewing your own life’s adventures and the occasional (or more frequent) appearance of depression in them.
Thanks for Reading. Want Some More Mental Health Insights?
Then check out my book on overcoming anxiety or some of my other recent articles. Here are a few I recommend:
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