(about trash, recurring toil, Sysiphus, Groundhog Day, journey and redemption)
Every day when I drive to work, I see High Street shopkeepers helplessly battling the inevitability of entropy, clearing waste from the sidewalks in front of their stores. The waste will return tomorrow. And the day after that.
The same thing happens with my family trash, hanging in a plastic grocery bag from the knob of the back door. Every day, I carry it to the 300-gallon containers behind our house when I leave to walk with my daughter to her bus stop. The next morning as I prepare again to leave for the bus stop, another full bag is hanging there.
I can think of several examples of this pointlessness. As a student-custodian for my high school, stripping and waxing floors during our holiday breaks and summers seemed silly; students scuffed them up as soon as they returned. Where I currently work, Hector cleans fingerprints from the exterior glass doors, but every day, all day, college students continue to miss the handles, opening doors with their palms and fingers instead. And, pointlessly, Hector cleans the prints off the next day. Shoveling snow is endlessly pointless too; in spite of our toiling to remove it, more snow continues to fall and cover the sidewalk again. Why make our beds in the morning? We’re just going to mess them up again in a few hours. Why put away the washed utensils that I use every morning to make breakfast? I’ll just have to get them back out of the drawer again the next day.
Or, the big question, “Why do anything?” We’re all just going to die anyway.
The ancient Greeks constructed the story of Sisyphus to illustrate the pointlessness of human life, and it helped them to make some sense of it. As you might remember, Sisyphus rolled a large stone up a steep mountain every day. At the end of the day, when he was nearly at the top, the stone would roll down to the bottom, awaiting his next day’s effort. And this went on forever. Just like making my bed.
Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, was thinking in a similar vein when writing:
The wind blows to the south,
And goes around to the north;
Round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express…
In the movie Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors enters a Sisyphus-like cyclical, pointless and wearisome life just like Qoheleth describes. Stuck in an endless one-day loop, he awakens to his stone and mountain each morning; he has no choice, and he struggles against it. But as the movie progresses, we see that he finds his own side of that mountain. As he begins moving toward personal growth and compassion, he realizes that choices exist even within this apparently pointless life. Within these choices he finds purpose, meaning and joy, and this spiritual reorientation ultimately becomes his redemption.
I believe that this same redemption is present in the story of Sisyphus, but that the Greeks ignored it. The side of the mountain where he pushes the stone belongs to his oppressors. But after the stone rolls back to the bottom, his walk down the hill belongs to him. This part of the story is left for us to imagine, and we have broad choices available for our interpretation. Maybe he uses this time to meditate, or to read a book. Maybe he saves children falling from trees and learns to play the flute.
Present with my trash task hanging from the doorknob in my house each morning is an opportunity for conversation and community within the ten-minute walk to my daughter’s bus stop, as well as an opportunity for solitude and meditation during my journey home. Qoheleth acknowledges this “other side” when he writes, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” This same redemption is available to us.