The Myth of Sisyphus Revisited

The Myth of Sisyphus Revisited

When meeting with a client a few weeks ago, the myth of Sisyphus seemed an apt metaphor.  The ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus condemned to roll a huge boulder up a steep mountain every day, only to have the boulder roll back down every night and having to start over again the next morning. 

As a single mom working from home with 3 young children at home for the past year during COVID, Susan felt like she was pushing a big boulder uphill every day, only to fall into bed exhausted each night, waking up to the same boulder and the same mountain the next morning.

The ancient Greek archetype of unending struggles to push boulders up mountains seems very relevant and timely to the modern psyche today. Everything got harder during the pandemic shutdown; even the ordinary tasks of daily living became daunting. As Susan’s beloved 13-year old family dog Tommy finally succumbed to heart failure, Susan felt it was impossible to want to try even one more time.

First, we normalized the extra heartache of the loss of her beloved dog. As my friend Paul shared with me when my first cat died, “Love is love, and loss is loss.” Normalizing and taking time for the extra weight of the extra grief.

Then, as an experiment in using her imagination, I asked Susan to visualize the boulder, getting ready to push it up the mountain again, and then to identify who in her life she could ask for help in pushing the boulder up the mountain. People she and her children knew had also experienced the loss of a beloved pet.  Oh yes, several, even several recently.

Then, to continue the experiments in imagination, I asked Susan if she could imagine breaking the boulder up into little pieces, sledge hammer, power drill, laser, whatever might work. We used the practice of ABC to “chunk down” the boulder and to imagine being able to carry the current struggles and losses in smaller, more manageable pieces.  Yes, many pieces, but small enough she could carry one or two at a time.

Then, as another experiment in her imagination, I asked her to imagine asking other people to help her break up the boulder.  Ah, the first glimmers of – yes, it could be possible to ask people for help and support in mourning the loss of her dog specifically, and even for support in the struggles of the daily push.  

Susan straightened up her back and shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said “I can do this.”

We know from research and from our own experience:

1) reaching out for help…helps. A wonderful study was done at the University of Michigan years ago. Research subjects were asked to estimate the height of a hill they were about to climb (Sisyphus!) Estimate duly recorded. Then a heavy backpack was placed on their shoulders. The estimate of the height of the hill went up.  The backpack was removed, and someone came to stand beside them and climb the hill with them. The estimated height of the hill decreased.

2) chunking things down helps. Breaking any fear, anger, grief into smaller pieces makes them possible to carry even long distances or for a long time. [See The ABC’s of Working with Difficult Emotions.]

3) recruiting other people to help can include sharing our sorrows and struggles in support groups.  We receive encouragement and support from others, even in the most challenging of circumstances. We come to experience our own strengths and wisdom as we encourage and support others.

Reach out for help.  Chunk down the tasks/griefs into manageable pieces. Help your neighbor’s boat get to shore.  Take the time you need to grieve, and take the time you need to claim your own resilience.