The Friends of Sisyphus: Or, the Meanings Relationships Give Us

by G. M. Trujillo, Jr.

SisyphusAmong the gray crags and russet stalagmites of Hades, Sisyphus heaves a boulder. Zeus, the king god, banished him there after he tricked Thanatos and Persephone, thus making a fool of death and rebirth. He thwarted the gods, so they thwart him. He must endlessly haul the rock up a mountain, but before it reaches the crest, the enchanted boulder crashes back to the base. Sisyphus must retreat, heave again. Toil upward, slump downward. Already in the underworld, not even death may liberate him. So there he trembles and labors. His sinews creak; his lungs gasp. The gods tremble and gasp as well. With laughter.

Homer and Ovid immortalized these poetic images, but why has Sisyphus inspired so much philosophical reflection? Traditionally, philosophers analyze the myth to understand the meaning of life. We see ourselves in Sisyphus and muse about the implications. Here, I continue that tradition by asking: how can Sisyphus endure his struggle yet judge his life worthwhile? I argue that Sisyphus’s life is meaningful because of the relationships he has with others. The myth of Sisyphus affirms that social activity consecrates our lives with significance.

Many interpretations consider Sisyphus only as an individual and thus neglect the fact that he lived with others, just as we do. Theories about meaning in life should reflect the profound and intricate nature of the social interactions we cherish. By exploring the social aspects of life, we stumble upon an insight: a person’s life may be made meaningful when others view it as such, when we enjoy rich relationships with others. Maybe Sisyphus could find his life meaningful through an act of reflective defiance, constructing meaning for and through himself. Maybe his participation in rituals of the Greek afterlife contributes meaning to his existence. However, even when subjective interpretation or objective activities fail, our friends, family, and lovers anoint our lives with meaning.

Imagine Sisyphus’s exertion, heaving the rock without even the satisfaction of time to orient the monotonous drudgery. Watch as his thoughts and resolve pale like his skin in the sunless underworld. Feel the dirt cake around his ankles and in his matted beard. The grime of Tartarus not only shrouds his body but even his deepest memories—olives on his tongue, love on his lips, the floods of passionate reason that welled inside him before his defiance. Now imagine that, in their devotion and love, his friends send him a signal. Maybe they petition Gaia to part her earthen body and guide a single ray of sun to him. Maybe they commission Daedalus to craft a songbird to navigate Hades, find Sisyphus, and sing. Maybe they bribe Hermes to send a message: ‘Charon forbade us journey when we mentioned we wanted to heave the stone to give you solace. So we commemorate your feats each solstice by hurling boulders down Olympus. May you gain fortitude when you hear the rumbles.’ In each case, if Sisyphus, entranced by his exhaustion, feels the sun sear his shoulders or a melody caress his ear, he would remember his actions and his reasons for them. ‘I am fated to heave a rock ceaselessly,’ he may resign. But teeth would glint through beard when he recognizes, ‘The severity of my punishment testifies to the greatness of my schemes, for the gods torment only the exceptional. My friends remember this.’ His mortal cleverness that defied the immortal gods lived on as a symbol to his friends and community. And if his friends sent a sign, he would remember the meaning that belongs to his life. Such a sign given to us by others can make even a Sisyphean life worthwhile.

Others anoint our lives when they value us. Meanings in life emerge from friendships and memberships in communities. An acknowledging smile at a stranger, a wave at a friend from afar, the pursuit of a mutual interest with a partner—all baptize our lives at varying depths in the river of life’s meanings. Social rituals and practices imbue life with significance by reminding us of our personhood and relation to others. The communities affected by us share meaning with us.

Aristotle theorized that social ties and friendship are essential to living well. He was so certain of this he argued that no one would choose a life without friends, even if that life promised wealth, fame, health, and all other possible goods. The Stoics—sages of self-sufficiency and champions of tranquility in the direst circumstances—celebrated friendship and human sympathy during adversity. We were never meant to endure life alone. We do not live by ourselves and should not. Even the most resolute of human beings falter under the stress of life. And during these times our friends are the ones who help us carry on, just as Sisyphus’s closest friends would bear the rock for a moment to give him respite if they could. It is precisely from these relationships that meanings for life emerge.

Negatively, divorce and death attest to the impact of social meanings in lives. Breaking up with a partner signifies not only a loss of time and life with that person, but also the withering of the part of the self that was animated by the beloved. The romantic total greater than the two lovers vanishes with the relationship’s end. Parting with a lover parallels the death of a loved one, though the finality amplifies the effect. People mourn the loss of beloved others not only because their friends are gone, but also because an aspect of themselves—them as they were with their friends—atrophies and decays. The salience of their absence indicates the significance of their presence. Because we play supporting roles in each other’s lives, the story changes significantly when characters exit.

We are at our best when we are around others we care about, especially when we help each other accomplish goals we value mutually. Relationships give meaning to our lives. The myth of Sisyphus disturbs us not because he must repeatedly and futilely heave a boulder up a mountain. The heart of its terror lies in the isolation that smothers Sisyphus. He interacts with nothing that reminds him that he is part of a community. Moreover, if Sisyphus were given a companion who suffered the same fate, maybe Tantalus or Prometheus must also roll boulders nearby, then we would judge Sisyphus’s fate as more tolerable.

Even if we do not find subjective significance, others adorn our lives with meaning when we enter social relationships. Life may corrode meaning, or reduce it to rubble, but our friends retrieve, polish, and present it to us. For example, wearied by war and travel and trapped on Calypso’s island, Odysseus’s life did not lose all meaning. Because his wife Penelope awaited his homecoming, and because his patroness Athena pled to Zeus for his return, Odysseus’s life was meaningful in spite of his own inaction. Argos, his dog, was the first to remind him of this meaning when he again set foot on Ithaca’s shore.

However, others may also play negative roles in our lives. If as individuals we can sanctify the lives of others with meaning, we may also deteriorate lives in apathy or vitriol. If the Fates spin for someone a Sisyphean existence, others may not only help her to recover, but they may also contribute to her torment. Imagine, if instead of Sisyphus’s friends sending a ray of sunshine or a songbird, his enemies summoned a deluge of waste or a vulture to tear at his knuckles each time he grasped the rock. Even the most resolved defiance would evaporate in such torrid cruelty. Just as we can consecrate lives with meaning, we can condemn others if we show they are unloved or unacknowledged.

The potency of our relations with others places a profound responsibility on us. We must consider our social interactions carefully. We should err on the side of sympathy and imbuing lives with meaning, rather than indifference or contempt. Let us hope that when our resolve fails, our friends find us first. We all have toiled as Sisyphus, and none of us saved ourselves. As readers of classics and philosophy in the leisure it takes to do so, we are not heaving boulders. But we know someone who is. We could abandon or ignore them. Or we could send for Gaia, Daedalus, or Hermes.

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Boomer-bwFor the past decade, Glenn “Boomer” Trujillo somehow paid the bills by being a philosopher, which is weird for a kid from the Texas Panhandle. He maintains his sanity by chatting with friends, watching reruns of The Office and Star Trek, and lounging with his dog. You can find his philosophy and fiction at http://boomert.info.
Email: glenn.m.trujillo [at] vanderbilt.edu
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