I was intrigued by “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus when I first knew about it. It tells of Sisyphus being punished for eternity, repeatedly rolling up a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll down again. Hence the famous line, “One must imagine Sisyphus as happy”:
“One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I was initially comforted by this existential position, because even as one is subjected to a cruel, unredeemable fate, one can decide to experience that fate with happiness.
But I grew increasingly disturbed. I didn’t understand why at first. At this point in time (with the caveat that my existential position will continue to change for the rest of my life), I think this is akin to adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life and it diminishes suffering. There are repercussions when one doesn’t acknowledge our own or people’s suffering wholly as it is. We could use it to justify anything, including deliberate abuse. There can be deep psychological wounds that is not conscious to the person because it is always being “transcended” by an optimistic narrative, and these wounds unconsciously express themselves unhealthily in our behaviour towards ourselves and other people.
We are natural storytellers. We tell ourselves stories. If we say we can find meaning in suffering, we will. Somebody wrote a long-lasting bestseller over it. Yet, is that everyone’s absolute truth?
My position is that one should be as free as possible (debatable whether we have free will) to respond in whichever manner they wish to themselves, and to be as compassionate as possible towards other people’s suffering. If someone wants to see meaning in their own suffering and finds that productive to life, then it should be respected. However, if another person only sees sheer horror in their own suffering, then it should be acknowledged. Can we imagine Viktor Frankl telling every war survivor that their suffering has meaning?
Maybe Sisyphus is not happy. Why must we imagine him to be happy? Is it because that is the only tenable position we can adopt? That this is the only way to make life bearable? Why do we have to depend on happiness to make life bearable?
If Sisyphus is our friend and we witness his suffering, should we imagine him to be happy? When I see people unable to escape their poverty cycles due to structural inequality, should I imagine them to be happy? Or their suffering has meaning?