“We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” says Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, the first intentional philosophical foray into true absurdism, itself an extension of and an argument against Sartre-ian existentialism. This also happens to be one of the most misused and misunderstood quotes by new students of philosophy. Sisyphus was punished by Zeus in mythology to endlessly push a large boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down once he reached the summit of the hill, for eternity. The common meaning attributed to the quote is ‘even in the absence of meaning, we should be happy and continue.’ This misses the point Camus was trying to make The Myth of Sisyphus, and that he continued in works like The Stranger and The Rebel.
We do not imagine Sisyphus as being happy regardless of his unwanted circumstance, but in spite of it. What would anger the gods more than being content with your lot, instead of suffering? This is the same view of activism I believe we should take up now, given the extremity of the work done last year and the continuing decline of participation as it becomes less en vogue. This is, of course, ignoring those that truly fell off the activism train due to it being tiring and the optics shifting from their ‘allyship’ and the associated mental strain with continued activism.
It is tiring. It is hard, generally thankless, and endless. How do you continue to fight, especially for the equality of a group you may not personally belong to or have direct ties to, especially when there does not appear to be an end in sight? How do you find the strength to keep going when half of the voting American populace is myopically and violently opposed to human rights as a concept? Moving by inches, at the most, is not enough motivation for most people, regardless of how well intentioned they may be. As troubling as viewing this fight in this light is, it brings up a few necessary points.
The first, and most obvious to me, being that life is inherently absurd. A concept as simple, as basic and all-encompassing as human rights is still far too out of reach for many people to even fathom, whether informed by bigotry, misogyny, racism, or religion. This is what leads to such violent and unabashed arguments online and at events. Those on one side do not view inequality as a problem due to privilege or moral shortcomings; those on the other side fail to be able to see how anyone could be so misguided. Absurd.
The second, and by far the most glaring point of this piece, is the uphill battle and lack of immediate reward. It is absurd that we must fight for basic human rights. It is absurd that those in power, generally speaking, work so hard to ensure that inequality remains in place (this will be touched on in later posts). But it is in this absurdity that we must embody the imagined happiness of Sisyphus. We cannot focus on keeping our ‘boulder’ at the top of the hill; we will be forever dumbfounded at its inability to stay in place. No; instead, we keep fighting despite results. We fight because we can do nothing but.
I’m a firm believer in a semi-nihilistic and pessimistic view of life and existence. Therefore, absurdism works for me. Life having no inherent meaning tied to it allows us to apply our own meaning to every endeavor we take on and keep pushing, regardless of the outcome. I believe life is an inherent mistake, a ‘gift’ we never asked for, but for reasons all our own, we are stuck with it. This being the case, it is unfathomable to me that not only do we live in and perpetuate a system in which mere existence is made hard and is not a guarantee, but that there exist insane swaths of people to have to fight even harder to just be seen, let alone heard. That is why I fight.
Washington State Representative Jamila Taylor recently commented on the state passing a dozen new police oversight and accountability laws stating, “Everything we did, it felt like, ‘Why didn’t we get this done years ago?’” And that says it all. There is no reason progress has not happened in most of the existence of this country. There is no reason why progress should stop at the sight of a few new laws that address the symptom and not the cause.
This will always be an uphill battle. I do not believe that true, far-reaching change is possible. But still I fight.
We all still fight.
We continue to fight to spite the face of the absurd.
Marcel is a writer and thinker from the Tri-Cities.
Absurdist Rambling blog.
Sisyphus by Antonio Zanchi