What if the notion of failure lost its context? What if the seemingly paradoxical pursuit of the unattainable became, in and of itself, the ultimate goal? Welcome to my life.
I’m very excited to be premiering my extended new composition The Rock and the Redemption on April 25 at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts with the Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble. Other excited folks have asked for an explanation of what it’s about. Another time I’ll talk about the personal elements therein, (in fact, those who like the in-person variety can come on down the previous Wednesday to hear my talk about all of it), but in the meantime, here is the philosophical crux behind this new music (and/or you can watch the video above for a more poetic and verbally sparse explanation, with utterly stunning visuals by the lovely and talented Kate Ten Eyck).
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man who tried to one-up the gods. They punished him with an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill; just before he reached the top, the boulder would tumble back to the bottom and he would have to start all over. People now use the term “Sisyphean” to describe repetitive, hopeless situations and endlessly futile tasks. All of us inevitably feel stuck in this way sometimes.
But is Sisyphus really a tragic figure? Historically we have assumed so, but there are other interpretations, one of which is foundational to the core philosophy by which I live.
Maybe through all the days of pushing the boulder, Sisyphus found a sense of inner peace and calm. Maybe his body became strong from the daily workout. Maybe he evolved past the narrow belief that the only reward is to get the boulder all the way to the top of the mountain and have it stay there.
Think about the most meaningful pursuits: growing as a person, nurturing others, changing the world. The top of the mountain is a mirage – the best you might ever hope for in that regard is to get close enough to the top to see the next, higher peak over the horizon. And yet, there’s such value in pushing – indeed, pushing with all our might.
As contemporary humans we, of course, have more free will – the gods aren’t forcing us to push. We can just lean on the rock and lament our circumstances. Or we can just walk away and avoid the risk of failure.
After all, Martin Luther King didn’t reach the mountaintop in his lifetime. Susan B Anthony didn’t live to see all women able to vote. Every time John Coltrane played his saxophone, he strove for something and fell short. So if these giants failed, then why should we bother, right?
But of course that logic is suspect from a human standpoint, even if the case can be made in purely rational terms. Seriously, can we imagine a world in which these people watered down their ideals and their transcendent intentions, governed by a sense that goals statistically likely to reach tangible objectives are the only ones worth pursuing? Can we imagine a world in which we dismiss the lessons and inspiration they gave us? Can we imagine a world in which Van Gogh gives away his brushes, Kafka starts writing limericks instead, Galileo says “never mind” and every athlete on a team unlikely to win the big prize just stays home? Or, maybe even more insidiously, where all people faced with disability, trauma, prejudice or any other adversity they can’t 100% obliterate just stay in bed?
Maybe Sisyphus is actually a role model for perseverance and ambition. What if we look at our own challenges that way? The very act of pushing has its own value – really, it’s central to the human condition and tragic only if we choose to assign that meaning to it. And when we inevitably fall short of the mountaintop, we still achieve things that would be impossible if we opted out. In that paradigm, so-called failure loses its meaning, even in the bleakest situations. We keep striving and every action becomes a celebration of humanity itself. And even if the philosophical end of this is too touchy-feely for you, it also works as pure mathematics. If you get a rock halfway up a 1000 foot mountain before it starts rolling down, you still achieved higher elevation than by reaching the peak of a 300 foot one.
We can’t really know whether Sisyphus felt like a cursed failure or whether he found strength and tranquility and maybe even gratitude. What we do know is that whether we curse the gods or embrace the challenge, we have the choice in our own lives every day.