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The Sisyphus Syndrome

Sis’y.phus A legendary king of Corinth, condemned in
Tartarus to perpetually roll up hill a big rock which,
when the top was reached, rolled down again.

                                      Bulfinch’s Mythology


I first read of Sisyphus when I was the mother of young children, and my immediate thought was “Oh my God, that is my life!” It seemed that I barely finish cleaning up after one meal, before the cries of “I’m hungry!” rang out again. I returned the vacuum cleaner to the cupboard and turned to discover a fresh trail of biscuit crumbs. I rejoiced in sighting the bottom of the washing basket, only to find it half full again the next day.


Others have made the link between Sisyphus’ futile task and domestic chores. In Point Counter Point, written by Aldous Huxley in 1928, a character reflects on his mother’s life:


He thought indignantly of that endless dreary labour of housework. Day after day, year after year. Making beds, that they may be unmade. Cooking to fill bellies eternally empty. Washing up what the next meal was to make dirty again. Scrubbing the floor for muddy boots to defile. Darning and patching that yet more holes might be made. It was like the labouring of Sisyphus…hopeless and interminable.


Mothers of young children aren't the only people vulnerable to The Sisyphus Syndrome. Many jobs contain tasks which are repetitive or never-ending, serve no valuable purpose, or seem to be immediately undone. These tasks may not be particularly onerous or difficult in themselves. In fact, we may carry them out in other situations without any great damage to our psyche.The problem occurs when we find these tasks filling the bulk of our time; when it feels like our entire life is given over to these endless, pointless tasks. Being deprived of a sense of achievement or purpose over a prolonged period can seriously mess with our heads, undermining our self esteem and creating feelings of frustration and futility. 

The activities that we undertake in our daily life also have an enormous impact on our sense of identity. The real danger to our mental health lies in identifying ourselves too closely with those menial tasks. It is not a very large jump from thoughts of “I spend my day performing mundane, pointless tasks” to “I am a mundane, pointless person”. It is crucial that we do not make this leap.


Philosopher Albert Camus wrote an essay called The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he explores the relationship between a person and their task. The following passage is an interesting one to ponder:


It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me…I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of these moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.


We, too, are stronger than the rock. We are much more than the repetitive tasks that we undertake. 

Luckily we are in a better position than poor old Sisyphus. His fate was eternal and he had no power to change his situation. We, however, can take steps to ease our burden. There are a range of approaches that we can take to combat the Sisyphus Syndrome – it is just a matter of deciding which will work best for you.


Accept your current fate

Struggling against the inevitable is exhausting. The burden of tedious tasks is enough to carry without adding in loads of frustration, resentment and self-loathing. Accept that at the present time you will be doing the same thing over and over, and focus instead on other positive changes that you can make.


Trust that your fate is not eternal

No situation will remain the same forever. Some challenges, such as caring for young children, will naturally resolve over time. Other situations may require changes on your part. Consider your long-term goals, and start taking small steps in the right direction. If you are not ready or able to make big changes immediately, focus on areas that can broaden your options in the future, such as increasing your physical or mental health, gaining new skills or knowledge, or broadening your social network.


Make the rock smaller

Consider ways to remove unnecessary tasks or complete your tasks more efficiently.


Make the hill less steep

Consider whether the standards that you are setting yourself (or that others are imposing on you) are too high. Identify the tasks that are most important to you and let some of the others slide.


Relish the pause at the top

A brief achievement is still an achievement. Step back and appreciate the result of your efforts before launching into the next task. The challenge is to enjoy the small moments of completion without getting too attached to them.


Rise above the rock

Menial tasks keep your hands busy but leave your mind fairly free. Physically you may be hanging out your thirteenth load of washing for the week, but in your mind you could be composing a poem, drafting a blog post or developing a business concept. The sky’s the limit.


Learn to love your rock

In her book The Mother Trip, Ariel Gore offers this perspective:


There is a difference between housework, which is thankless, and homecare. When we do homecare, it’s because we want to, not because we have to. We take care of our living spaces so that they’ll look wicked and feel like home.


The way we think about our tasks changes the way that we feel about them. If we can think of our household tasks as a gift to ourselves and our children, or as an expression of love for our children, they can take on a deeper meaning that offers some consolation for their tedium. 

Similarly, you may be able to link menial work tasks to a greater cause or personal value. I know a supermarket checkout worker who decided that the most important aspect of her job wasn't the repetitive packing of bags; it was connecting with people. She gains great satisfaction from trying to get a smile out of every customer, using her ever-increasing understanding of people to choose the right method of attack for each person. 


Get time away from the rock

Look for ways to engage in activities that do provide a lasting sense of pleasure or achievement. Sports, cooking, gardening and art and craft activities are good examples. 


Get more hands on the rock

Talk to the people around you about about ways to share the load. Consider whether some tasks can be delegated or out-sourced. When you pay someone to clean your house, mow the lawn or process your business receipts, you not only buy yourself that service, you buy yourself time to do things that bring you more satisfaction. 

Any other ideas? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


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