Sisyphean Musings

Picture this: my first semester in college, 18 years old, an idealistic, curious young woman in a wonderful new world. Of my first semester courses, Intro to Literature was my favorite. We were introduced to great works, poetry and short stories and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. They’ve remained in my heart ever since. We also had a crash course in mythology, and no story captured my imagination more than the myth of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was a king, both cruel and incredibly clever. His misdeeds in life are numerous, but his story really picks up when Homer tells us that after tricking and trapping Death in his own chains, all deaths came to a stop in the world. Ares brought Sisyphus to Hades, where he conned Persephone into returning him to the mortal world, promising he’d come back in three days. He didn’t, of course, living out the rest of his years to old age, enraging the gods again. Sisyphus even thought himself smarter than Zeus. For these and other terrible acts, Sisyphus was doomed to an eternity of punishment in the lowest part of the Underworld, forever pushing a boulder up a steep hill; when he was almost at the top, it would roll all the way back down, and he would have to start over again. He’s at it still, if you believe the myth.

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I also began getting what could best be described as migraines in my left eye that year. They would come on suddenly, feeling like someone had stretched my eyeball from its socket before punching me hard. It was like a pulsing bruise, made worse with each eye movement, and the pain was considerable, though I looked “normal.” I saw a number of doctors, an ophthalmologist, even a neuro-ophthalmologist, looking for treatment. After a CT scan and months of bouncing from clinic to clinic, I was finally diagnosed with idiopathic orbital inflammation (IOI) and wished luck with it. No treatment. No relief. After two or three years of that pain coming and going, it finally went away for good.

Or so I thought. It returned out of nowhere last January, about 17 years since I’d last experienced it. I recognized the pain immediately and suffered with it for a few days silently, hoping it would go away once more. Eventually, it did, but so did most of my vision in that eye. And so my MS journey began with a diagnosis of optic neuritis. My neurologist believes that although I probably didn’t have MS in college, the IOI was a harbinger of things to come.

I’ve found myself thinking about Sisyphus more often since MS made itself known in my life. There are certainly times when going through relapses and steroids and treatments, struggles and setbacks, feel Sisyphean in both their futility and never-endingness.

You may be wondering, doomed as Sisyphus was, who among us wouldn’t try to end her suffering by throwing herself under the boulder right before it rolled back down? Albert Camus uses the story of Sisyphus to examine that very question, saying, “There is but only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” To live means inevitably that we will die, so life is absurd, but we can find meaning in that absurdity, and in doing so, beat the system.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus imagines Sisyphus finding purpose and satisfaction in his task: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This is a bit too optimistic an interpretation for me, but if you have to face the impossible and do it forever, it is nice to believe that Sisyphus finds meaning and fulfillment in doing it.

After all, is any effort futile if we can find meaning in it? My own philosophical quest is not whether to live my life or choose to end it, but rather how to find and create meaning in the living. This has come into sharper focus since my diagnosis, and I understand better than ever the beauty found in the obligation of starting all over again once the boulder has fallen.

I’ve been struggling with fatigue since my treatment three weeks ago. The same walk I was able to complete without great effort the day before became a mountain the day after and for many days after that. I was exhausted after exercise, after work, tired and cranky. I think I finally turned the corner yesterday, walking a little farther than I had since my treatment and still going about my day with normal energy. It included a nap because I’d had an early appointment with my PCP, but this was an indulgent nap, a pleasure, not one of necessity.

It’s a rainy day in Nebraska, which is my favorite weather, so soon Maggie and I will hit the trail. A new quarter just started at the college, and I’m appreciating the beginnings it brings as we look forward to spring. It’s the perfect time to further ponder existential questions, but I’ll leave it there. I’ve got this boulder, you see, and it isn’t going to push itself.

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