Sisyphus tried to warn us. Rolling the stone uphill and watching it roll backwards, every day, a repetitive and ceaseless striving for all eternity – a hellish damnation, the natural tax for being born a human. We win and we lose and it all averages out when suddenly or slowly the life force leaves us and hopefully we are free from consciousness. One day, torment and pleasure disappear in equal regard and all we are left with is absolutely nothing.
We call it one final sleep, but do we repeat our biggest stressors in death the way we do in feverish dreams, thinking about what could be if only we’d made one different choice or felt a little more free to do something differently back when we were at the fork in the road? Hopefully it is far more peaceful than our dreams, where we chase the unattainable until we wake, where we enjoy things in REM that we will never know in waking life. Good dreams and bad dreams alike remind us of the endless chase. Perhaps someday we don’t have to run towards or from evermore.
When it is all said and done, we take nothing with us, and the judgments and comforts that keep us stuck on the tracks we’re following all fade away. And the same tracks that make it easier to navigate the complex rules of society may also lead us to ruin, straight off a man made cliff into a pit of avoidable despair.
I wish someone had told me sooner.
The rules and regulations, the judgments and approvals of humanity weigh on us, so heavily that it becomes hard to enjoy the present moment. Our biological impulse towards comfort, that once inspired us to plant crops and build semi-permanent dwellings, now guides us towards watching clips on Instagram and loafing around the apartment until half the day is gone. To get outside and walk a long way requires an exceptional amount of motivation, and yet it is dismissed as lazy or indulgent by the career-driven value system that scores our souls. To sit in silence instead of accepting the first offer for companionship, no matter how ill-fitting it is or how unhealed you are, is a maddening and terrifying choice that leaves way too much space for second-guessing in the quiet evening hours. So most of us avoid silence and solitude at all costs, and often the cost is pretty high.
To become a fully embodied human, at-ease in the minefield of the modern world, requires a million deaths of the soul and ego. Losses so profound that perhaps they could have killed you, if only you were a little less stubborn. It is so hard to imagine living with the warned-against consequences of doing the things we really want to, and so we live in the mournful place of never quite having what we want but being robotically grateful for what we do have.
This can be spun as healthy, to be glad for whatever comes your way. And perhaps it is, or it was, when the stakes were lower and the differences between having and desiring were smaller. Our society is built on growth; if the GDP isn’t constantly increasing, it’s a sign of trouble, not progress.
But what holds us hostage is rarely measurable with earnings and productivity; instead, it’s the judgment and fear of sticking your head too far out of your shell. It’s wishing you’d given the music thing a shot instead of taking that job, compounded over the decades until you’re known for your work and your fingers can scarcely form a D chord anymore.
It’s pushing the wrong stone up the wrong hill, every day, until our aging bodies creak and groan with sore joints and tired eyes, and we are forced to admit that we were wrong all along. Or worse, we refuse to admit it, and we never taste our unspoken desires for even a single day. The fear of being wrong is so real and so strong.
I remember my childhood dog, who used to throw the tennis ball for herself, down the stairs, chase it, sprint back to the top, stare at you and bark, then nose it downward in giddy surprise and chase it all over again. A reverse Sisyphus, content with the chase, everything in its right place, reveling in the repetition rather than dreading it. She did this right til the end, perhaps slower with time, but never stopping.
I try to imagine a to-do list that feels fun rather than dreadful, a mountainside full of screaming marmots to chase but never catch, a shameless and joyful pursuit that leaves you tired and satisfied in a way that Hank models perfectly. I know that this is my goal, and then I sigh when I close my eyes at night and see the digital charts tracing my losses, the wicked words texted to me by people who are long-gone, the blurry yet vivid memories of bullying battering the pureness of my human soul into a fearful pulp. The awareness that the clock is ticking, something so unique to humans. We alone understand the hourglass, and yet we alone waste so much of our time.
We keep going, but we are clever creatures, evolved to avoid pain as a means to survive. We repress, we avoid, we do everything we can to patch over the hurt and plow forward in blissful ignorance. There was a time when forgetting how badly the buffalo wounded our brothers was a necessary part of returning to the hunt. But now, we just bury our wounds and build skyscrapers to stroke our nervous egos and let us pretend we are safe from what’s happening on the sidewalks below.
We believe ourselves so smart that we think a good game of fetch is pointless, because you just wind up where you started, but more tired than you were before. Maybe that’s the point. A cycle, not a straight line forward. Up and down, enjoying one chase and then embarking on the next, delighting in the way the same tennis ball bounces a million slightly different ways.
There are so many expectations of all of us, so many different ways life can go. So many mountains and so many stones to push up them. And for so many people, the grief of grinding away at the wrong stone and the wrong hill is enough to push us over the edge, or drive us to pretend that it was actually the right hill all along, because starting over when you were so close to the top is insulting. But we never reach the top, no matter what.
If someone had told me this a long time ago, then perhaps I would be more like Hank, charging forward with joyous abandon when I want to and limping along unafraid to be exhausted when I feel it. Napping all day because I’m really not worried about what it means for a tomorrow that isn’t promised. Trying dozens of stones, until I find one that is enjoyable to push up a hill and chase as it rolls back down.
It is shockingly hard to sit at a table and write without any payment or reward. We all want to buck the system, but usually the system bucks us. It is hard to be honest and it is hard to go against all the rules, especially when you’ve got so little to show for a lifetime of halfhearted rebellion and yo-yoing back to conformity when your nerves are shot. Admitting weakness gets us crushed, so we bury it down deep and try to follow the narrow and predetermined path to earthly success and the right side of the afterlife.
I stare at the half-written musings, like looking towards an impossibly tall peak above me. Will we ever get there? What is the point of all this climbing?
And then, in the strangest twist of fate, a reminder that there is perhaps some meaningful connectivity in this hellishly disjointed world. An email appears from a fellow job seeker who found my writing via a “job wanted” posting I made on a ranch work site. A fellow seeker of opportunity, of some dusty fate that might tell us where to go next and reward us for having so few earthly possessions to move around.
Their one line to me summed it up all too well:
It seems like the more we lose…the more we really want what was already there.
It is surreal to read a perfect distillation of my own plaintive words shared on this tiny slice of the internet. A summary of the despair that consumes us all. We miss paradise after it’s been paved over by a parking lot. We miss the resources we had before we lost them, the people we had when we didn’t have enough of ourselves to hold on tight to them.
The more we lose, the more we want what was already there. And some days, even though there is enough left to make a change, the grief of all that’s gone is so heavy that we are prepared to disappear with it. The innocence and energy of childhood, squashed to oblivion. The love we had before we lost it. The dreams we had that didn’t pan out, or at least haven’t yet. The days when deer and horned lizards roamed our neighborhoods, before rampant development pushed them another fifty miles further from town. The confusing, nostalgic yearning for things that didn’t ever exist but the feeling that perhaps they did.
I am no different from Sisyphus, blindly plowing uphill in self-denial. I am sad that so many things are in the past, and in my grief, I am just as resistant to change as all the Sysiphi of the world. I’ve come this far, must keep going. Sunk costs, such a human concept. A happy dog never stops playing fetch just because they misjudged a bounce or which way the stream would tug the twig. A human feels the pain of missed opportunities in their bones, and sometimes the ache is too heavy.
And then there is the excruciating catch-22 – now that it’s gone, we want it back so badly, and we find ourselves blindly making reckless bargains to try and reclaim something that is lost.
The mind will turn these bargains over indefinitely, always betraying the self to try to possess the other. Perhaps if I had just cut my losses sooner, or at least tried to use everything that’s left to achieve my dreams, if I’d given myself permission instead of giving up… maybe we really could work things out… at least then I would know if this were really ……….
Perhaps it would be good for us to have these thoughts violently interrupted.
As someone who’s survived their share of blunt force trauma, I can picture the staticky, ringing nanosecond. The splatter. It beckons every time the joy of what is and the pain of what isn’t collide in a vicious head butt, like two rams locking horns on a cliffside.
Perhaps there is relief somewhere that regrets don’t infiltrate our dreams. Or perhaps it really isn’t too late until it actually is, no matter how much it feels like it.
It is so hard to set ourselves free from the comforts and fears we know. Maybe it is only when fear consumes our bodies that we realize a new haircut or a whole new life would’ve been a lot less scary than the elaborate bogeymen our minds conjure up.
The trick is to not assume that anything is a foregone conclusion. You could play by the rules and get struck by lightning, or you could bet it all on red one last time and watch the wheel land on black. The thing that I’ve come to learn is that playing it safe is as much a form of gambling as doubling down on every lost bet. You’re always assuming you will get another chance, always offloading responsibility and regret to the fates. Nobody talks about this because they are desperate for certainty and more motivated by guarantees than the implacable desire for newness.
This is what we have been taught to do. Plan for the future and suppress the present, play by the rules and take comfort in the rumor of heaven. Life is survivable if you think you’ll get a big ol’ prize for suffering or for being someone else’s version of virtuous.
I have a half-wilted bouquet tattooed on my arm because I need the constant reminder that even the most beautiful thing in the world, held tenderly in your hand, doesn’t really last. Nothing does. It is up to us to celebrate the beauty while it’s here, to nurture its delicate pedals, to hold fast to what we love before it all slips away, no matter how hard the wind blows.
And still, I play roulette with my own life, let the shoulds and don’t deserves and what will they thinks steer my subconscious mind more than the simple and sincere commitment to myself. I’m so afraid to fail at what I want to do, so scared to be judged for the fullness of my self-expression, that I piss away my life doing other things instead, so at least the disappointment can be blamed on everything but me. It’s a common survival strategy, but surviving and living are not the same thing.
The more we capitulate, the lonelier we will feel – because people don’t know us, they know the version of us that fear and rules have created. People can be immensely successful at playing the game, but that doesn’t mean that we know anything about their souls. Success has comfortable trappings, and our monkey brains are quite content to be numbed by comfort. The whispers of our true desires can be drowned out by built-in surround sound systems and financial atonements for spiritual betrayals.