Sisyphus' Labour: Remembering Who(se) We Are (a holiday guide)

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The labour of Sisyphus

I’m supposed to be on holiday. And on holiday we (sometimes) relax: we take stock of our lives and ‘where we are right now’. Relaxation and recuperation are implied in this word, ‘holiday’.

But when we start to relax and recuperate things can get a bit messy. We’re no longer submerged in our workaday lives, and some things which seemed like important activities and tasks are unmasked as distractions which conceal truth from us.

Driving down Spain last week I found myself thinking a lot about Sisyphus and his labour. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was King of Ephyra (Corinth) and was punished by the gods for his wrongdoing and forced to roll a boulder up a hill until it would fall down to the bottom and he’d have to do it all over again, for all eternity. In contemporary imaginations Sisyphus is connected with labour that is unrewarding, irrational, and de-humanising. 

Yesterday I was able to connect Sisyphus and my holiday because I received a(nother) journal article rejection. In academia we are told to treat rejections like a wet-weather forecast – nothing out of the ordinary. But the thing is that we’re taught to normalise an awful lot of things in academia which, once we take a step back from the environment, may be better treated as harmful: things such as competition, individualism, elitism, snobbery, exclusivity, overwork, shaming – and the list goes on.

Feeling twisted and confused inside, I texted a friend about my periodic disillusionment with the academic world. A sense of bondage – of being enslaved to someone else’s idea of who I should be – always carries with it the calling card of negative spiritual forces. We come to feel like Sisyphus – condemned to the irrationality of futile labour which serves nobody else but that (and those) which act against Christ. We become the person held upside down by the devil in one of Jędrzej Wowro’s sculptures, being ‘what we know not’. So my friend reminded me that I was on holiday, and to remember not only who I am, but whose I am.

Before I left for my holiday I had to complete an end-of-year report which helps my funders write their annual report showcasing all their students’ achievements. As academics we spend a lot of time writing monitoring reports like these. But how often do we write alternative reports, or at least consider their equivalent in more positive spiritual terms? The ‘world’ (for want of a better word) wants to value us for one set of qualities, whereas our Lover is far more concerned about who and where we are as unique persons, seeing the end from the beginning, yet expectant of the unexpected in between. I don’t think He sees us primarily as ‘academics’. Our professions are only an incidental way of helping us fulfil our vocation(s) in life: they help us to bring forth fruit from the talents God gave us.  

So in an alternative dimension, these might be some of the areas to think about:

  • How would I draw an arc of my life (not just my career) thus far? Are there any pivot points, especially beyond my career?
  • What would the last year of my life look like if I drew it terms of a circle, or in fits and starts, rather than a linear progression (as our monitoring forms require)? 
  • To what extent do I feel a slave to my profession’s ‘expectations’ of me? How might I overcome these or replace them with more profound expectations? 
  • How closely do I align with my profession’s understanding of success? Is there a healthier vision?
  • Are there any areas of my life that I feel are perhaps unnecessarily squeezed out because of my work? Am I identifying personal value with professional esteem?
  • Am I thinking of my academic career in the long-term, or making concessions for short-term security? In other words, have I sufficiently subordinated my day job to my deeper vocational journey, which may take me in unexpected directions?
  • Am I at risk of burying my talents, personal and vocational, in order to be ‘safe’?

Answering questions like these is a hard exercise because the academic world in which we live tends to operate by a compass starkly at odds with the values of the Beatitudes and the seemingly upside-down world of the parables.

I am realising more and more that to be renewed in our minds is a lifelong task, beset by obstacles within and around us, but mostly within. And still the Gospel signals freedom; there is a way out, even though it be long and winding. Writing this on Pentecost, I am further reminded that we have a Helper. Together we can ask Him – free us from the labours of Sisyphus; turn us the right way up!

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com.

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