The myth of Sisyphus is an intriguing one. King Sisyphus was the most clever man on earth. When it is his time to go and Death comes to summon him, he plays out his ultimate trick and like a reverse Houdini he manages to bind Death’s hands; for just a moment it seems as if Sisyphus will escape the fate of every human being, and go on living forever.
Going on forever would put Sisyphus in the same league as the Gods, and that of course is something They will not tolerate. The Gods get him in the end, and he is punished gravely. He is ordered to roll a rock to the top of a steep hill, and forever it will roll down again just before Sisyphus can finish his task. Although completion of his task seems to be within reach time and time and time again, never will Sisyphus be able to finish his toiling.
This is a cruel joke the Gods play him, and I guess the Japanese, who have a cultural preference for ‘Schadenfreude’, would laugh heartily at the Sisyphus story. Here is a man who gets what he has wanted, but in a thwarted way. So you wanted to go on forever? the Gods seem to say; Here is something for you to go on with forever. Now you can truly always say that you are not finished yet. Chickens come home to roost, hahaha!
Another interesting aspect is that Sisyphus is given an order, a task. The punishment is not inflicted by some third pary, he is the executioner of his own punishment. He takes on the task. It has a clear goal: get the rock onto the top of the hill. Remember, Sisyphus is probably the cleverest man there ever was, so he must understand his predicament perfectly well. The myth has no mention of Sisyphus complaining or protesting or trying to trick himself out of this one. Has Sisyphys learned his lesson?
You might say: he has no other option, there is no way to escape a verdict by the Gods. But here is the point of the myth: that he started out with denying that there was no other option – he started out by fooling Death himself. So on the next layer, the message seems to be that it is wise to face the inevitable, because inevitable means just that: that there is no escape, not really. Denying the inevitable gets you the hardest work of all, this seems to be the message Sisyphus is telling us.
No matter how smart we are, we cannot outsmart what is inevitable. Like many Greek myths, the story of Sisyphus hinges on hybris – putting ourselves in the same league as the Gods, which is tantamount to failing to accept our limitations.