Monday, January 31, 2011

Sisyphus #9

[Whatever else you may say about Sisyphus, the wily mortal from Greek mythology managed to die an old man. Was he as bad as some say or just extremely clever, or a little bit of both? You'll have to decide that yourself. And did the gods get him in the end—after all he can't escape his punishment? He has to keep pushing that rock, with no end in sight. By the way, the rock he's saddled with is the size of Zeus and he was a big man, er' god. How's that for irony? Here's another question only you can answer: How much of yourself do you see in Sisyphus? In the meantime, let's listen in on another interview our imaginary reporter is conducting with our hero, or is it antihero?]

Reporter: [arriving out of breath as Sisyphus starts to push his rock] Sorry I'm running late. Traffic.

Sisyphus: No big deal, but I've got to get going. I have to wonder what you find so interesting that you keep coming back for more interviews.

R: [He talks as the old man pushes his rock.] I guess I never told you the whole story about how I got here. It was mostly an accident. I was over at my editor's house one night. We were sharing a bottle of wine and both of us were in a reflective mood. She's getting up in years, must be at least seventy-five and she's had a pretty full life, but she was wondering if it has all been worth it. I shared my feeling that, at forty-two, I've been running about a quart low on idealism and energy and it doesn't look like I'm ever going to get that Pulitzer. That's when she remembered your story. We talked about it and after I left her house, I went for a run. I jumped onto the shoulder of the road to avoid a car and stumbled, rolled down the embankment, and passed out. When I woke up I was in the underworld, saw you, and decided to try to interview you. I thought people of all ages would identify with you and I was right. You're a pretty interesting guy. So, here I am. [By this time, Sisyphus has tried, and failed, to push the rock over the hill and they are walking back down.] You're awfully quiet.

S: I was thinking about the first time Sir Edmund Hillary tried to climb Mt. Everest. He didn't make it but he said, “I'll be back; mountains don't grow, men do.” Actually he was wrong about that. Mt. Everest does grow a few inches every year. But that's not the point. Hillary did return and he did climb the mountain. And, of course, he felt good about it. It's not the same thing, of course, but I feel good about pushing my rock even though I know I'll never get it over the hill. The gods didn't understand that one could feel good about such things - but that's their problem. I've learned that there really is joy in the work itself.

R: That makes some kind of sense to me. I think about the racial conflicts in today's world and how every time we think we have solved the problem, it crops up again. One has to find satisfaction, if not joy, in the effort. That may not be what you are talking about but it's enough to keep me going.
S: If you want to build a bridge, you develop a plan, locate the materials, build it, and it's done. When you have people beating up on each other because they're different, you set up programs to help people learn about the other group and you pass and enforce laws to protect the innocent and you think that takes care of that. But it doesn't. Not that you shouldn't do all that, but it's never over. So you learn to stay the course and to persevere. It's not that you don't want the problem to be solved once and for all, but that's just not the way it pans out. So you learn to find satisfaction in giving it your best and let someone else keep score, so to speak.

R: Like pushing a rock.

S: Speaking of which, we're back at the bottom of the hill and my rock's waiting.

R: See you next Monday?

S: I'll be here.

Confessions of a Country Pastor

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sisyphus #8

[Most everyone knows about the man who has to push the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down forever. His name is Sisyphus and once again, our imaginary reporter is there on Monday morning, so to speak, to walk with him while he pushes the rock up and to interview him when Sisyphus can talk as they walk back down. Let's listen in.]

Reporter: brought you a six-pack of bottled water.

Sisyphus: Great. You know this whole rock thing started with water.

R: I read your file. When you were the King of Corinth, the city needed water. So when you saw Zeus taking off with the water god's daughter you swapped your information for an eternal spring. Zeus found out that you ratted him out and Bingo! Here you are.

S: That's the short of it. Good water, by the way. [starts pushing the rock]

R: You remember, this was supposed to be a one-time interview. Well, it's turned into a series and we've had a lot of mail. People are really interested in you.

S: Why's that?

R: Part of it is your colorful history. And part of it is your ability to observe from the underworld what is happening in our world today.

S: That last is your a product of your editor's imagination.

R: Sure. But the real thing is that people really resonate with what they see as endless futile labor. I've talked with people of all ages. Teen-agers, middle-age folks, and older people too.

S: And?

R: Well, they all see it from their perspective, of course. Young folks want life to always be exciting, some middle-agers want a change but don't know how to go about it, and I've talked with more than one older citizens who just wonder if it's all been worth it. A lot of folks just don't know how to change.
S: There was this painter I knew. [By this time they are at the top of the hill and, although Sisyphus has given it his best effort, the rock is on the way back down the hill.] She would see in her mind's eye what she wanted to paint and she painted it. She's a good painter and folks really like it. She could leave it at that. But it's not quite what she wants so she paints another, and another, and another. She becomes so obsessed with getting it perfect that she gets physically ill but keeps on painting. I guess it's a creative obsession. She suffers but can't bring herself to stop.

R: So is she compulsive or hopeful?

S: Both, I suppose. In my case, I don't have the freedom to let go of my rock. I can't even alter the routine. But I can make peace with it. In fact, I feel something new every time. The change is in me, not in my circumstances. I am the master of my rock.

R: So it's a matter of perspective?

S: To a great extent. Ever hear the poem, “Two men looked out from prison bars; One saw mud, the other stars.?” It's not all that neat, of course, but it is a good operating principle, don't you think?

R: Good enough to share with my readers. See you next time.

Harold Franklin integrates Auburn University

Monday, January 17, 2011

I Met Martin Luther King, Jr

Sisyphus #7

[Right on time, the reporter shows up for his interview with Sisyphus. The two have become quite close. It's hard to tell who is the most interested in their regular talks. As usual, the reporter talks while Sisyphus pushes the rock up the hill and Sisyphus, once freed of his burden, gives his take on things as they walk back down to the bottom of the hill.]

Reporter: [arriving just in time as Sisyphus begins his task.] Day in and day out, the rock stays the same size, you have to push it over the same path, and you never get it over the hill and you remain the same. Nothing changes for you does it?

Sisyphus: Nope. I want to talk to you about change, but I'll save that for the trip down.
R: You know, my editor is running these talks as a regular feature and we're getting response from our readers. I've brought some of their letters with me. If it's okay with you, I'll read some of them as we walk.
S: Okay by me.
R: [reading some of the letters] Most of our readers understand your situation in terms of a loss of personal freedom and ceaseless futile labor and many of them identify with that. Several of them see your making peace with your sentence simply as a failure. One woman says the whole idea is absurd.
Here's one. Some high school kid is writing a paper of Zeus and wants to know what he was really like. Several readers want to know what you really look like and we have a few who are looking for secrets for success and happiness. Some really want to change their lives but don't see any hope in doing so. I did interview this one 90-year-old man who told me that just that day he had changed his mind about something that was important. [He finishes reading from the letters just as they reach the summit. Sisyphus gives it his best, but, no surprise, the rock falters and then falls back. Sisyphus speaks as they start back down.]
S: Speaking of change, you should have known Heraclitis
R: He was a Greek philosopher, wasn't he.
S: The world knows him as Greek. I knew him when he was just a poor little rich kid growing up in Ephesus which is now a part of Turkey. I guess Greek philosopher sounds more classy than a Turkish philosopher. He's probably known more for his observation that everything is in a state of change. He's the one who said that no one could ever step in the same river twice because the river was never the same nor is the person.
R: That's a good thing, isn't it?
S: Depends on how you look at it. Heraclitis, himself was cynical about human nature. He thought life was pointless. That's why he is called the Dark Philosopher.
R: So, why should I have know him?
S: Well, you don't have to be as cynical as Heraclitus was to accept that life is always changing, if you realize that you can choose how you change.
R: Are we talking about personal change or changing society?
S: Both. Human beings instinctively fear change. But a lot of your religious, economic and social structures, including your definitions of reality have undergone major upheavals. That's not all bad. Yours is also a time of great opportunity spiritually and materially.
R: What makes the difference anxiety and hope?
S: That would take more time than we have. You can find a good start, however, in your Christian gospel. I'm thinking of that verse in I John about perfect love casting out fear.
R: I'll pass that on, this could be the start of a very useful dialogue. Thanks.
S: You're welcome. See you next week.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sisyphus #6
You know, the guy who has to push the rock up the hill—for eternity.

[Reporter's note: I must admit that I was, at first, reluctant to interview Sisyphus. Physical or political obstacles pose no threat, since this is a fantasy one has only to imagine them nonexistent. Of course, I had no choice since I was also a fantasy figure, subject to the wishes of the one who created me. I
had no idea that Sisyphus would have anything to say that was interesting or significant. Now, I'm not so sure. So, here goes again.]

Reporter: [meeting Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill] I've been talking to a lot of people who read my first interviews with you. Funny thing, while almost no one knew your name, when I mentioned the rock, they knew the story.

Sisyphus: That's not surprising. And I bet that almost of them see work, especially that which has to be done over and over again, as a curse. There's more to it, of course. I can talk more on the way down. Right now, I've got to push the rock.

[The two of them ascend the hill is silence. Pushing the rock takes all of Sisyphus' breath and the silence gives the reporter a chance to form his questions. It is only after the old man has to let go of the rock at the top of the hill that either one has anything to say.]

Reporter: That thing you said about work being a curse. A lot of times, I admit, I see my job as a burden. When I first read your case file and your sentence for defying the gods, I expected to find an embittered, tired, resentful old man.

Sisyphus: And now?

Reporter: Well, I knew you were crafty, who else would think of tricking death, and actually be able to do it? But I now understand you to be both intelligent and positive and I don't think you're faking it. And, of course, I appreciate your unique insights.

Sisyphus: You know, Camus, the existentialist, has helped reinvent me, so to speak. He is the one who labeled me an absurd hero. I memorized the closing words of his essay. He said, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Reporter: I hope you won't be offended, but I had decided, before I met you, that you would be boring and superficial. Now, I don't know. You seem to have an inner peace. Something deeper than just a passive acceptance of your sentence. And I certainly don't see any signs of despair. By the way, what was that tune you were humming while we were coming up the mountain? Sounded like something Enya sings.

Sisyphus: [takes a drink of water the reporter offers him, and clears his throat] Actually, it's an old Christian hymn. Enya sings it and everyone thinks she wrote it, like the folks who think Judy Collins wrote Amazing Grace. But let me sing it for you:
My life goes on in endless song;
above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--
how can I keep from singing?

Reporter: I don't see how you can sing when you know your life will never change.

Sisyphus: That's where you're wrong. Sure, I can't run away from this rock—can't change the circumstances. But I am in control of my attitude—my dispositon. I control the change within myself.

Reporter: You just reminded me of a man I met recently. He told me two interesting things about himself. He said he was ninety years old and that he had just changed his mind about something important.

Sisyphus: There is a man who gets it.

Reporter: Our time is just about up. Before we get back to the bottom of the hill, I have to tell you something. I know you are not a man of faith, so to speak, but I have to tell you, I get a lot from your insights and I really appreciate it.

Sisyphus: Works both ways, my friend. Reminds me of an old Hasidic saying that when two Jews meet and one has a problem, the other one is automatically a rabbi. Storytellers, which is what you are, must learn to be storylisteners also.

Reporter: I'll remember that. And on that note, I'll have to leave you. See you next time.

Sisyphus: I'll be here. It's a sure thing that I'm not going anywhere.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

“On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me 12 youth succeeding, 11 children playing, 10 digesters fermenting, 9 children saving, 8 youth a-sewing, 7 children breakfasting, 6 students a-studying, 5 golden hives, 4 days of life-skills, 3 acres of drip irrigation, 2 sets of paints and a bunny in the dinner pot.”

The goal of the CYEC is to develop the potential of these children & youth so they can lead happy, productive lives.  Your support helps us meet this goal!  Click on the link Children and Youth Empowerment Center  for more info for the Kenyan mission.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sosaku (one who searches) the Clown

Sosaku's Story

Sisyphus #5*
(Since I have no idea how long we're going to be hearing from Sisyphus, I will simply assign a sequential number to each episode.)

[ed. Note: Albert Camus once wrote “Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.” I find the story of Sisyphus interesting in itself but it becomes much more when one's imagination takes hold of the story. If Sisyphus can find any meaning in his eternal task of pushing the rock to the top of the hill, perhaps you and I can find hope in our much less dramatic situations. I encourage you to release your imagination and come along as the reporter talks to the old man.]

Sisyphus is warming up for his task when the reporter shows up.
S: What you got there?
R: I brought a six-pack of Rolling Rock beer. Thought it might make the trip back down more fun.
S: Cute. Still, not a bad idea. What do you have for me to think about while I work on this rock?
R: I've been thinking about this whole hero thing. Camus called you an absurd hero and I'm still working on that. And maybe this is not the same thing, but I remember someone saying one time that heroes are victims of circumstance.
S: Oh? [That's about as much as Sisyphus can say while pushing the rock.]
R: Max told me that he was stationed in Taegu, Korea during the so-called Forgotten War. He was part of the Army's Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). He remembers talking to a young corporal about his age, coming through on his way to a combat unit up near the 38th parallel. The soldier was back at Taegu less than a month later—on his way home. He was now a Master Sergeant and had been awarded the Purple Heart and a medal for heroism. Just about everyone in his unit had been killed. When Max said he told him that he had never met a real hero before, the new Master Sergeant told him
that heroes are victims of circumstance.
S: [grunts] Choice.
R: I know. My mother often told me that there would be times when things happened over which I had no control but that I could always control my reaction to them. The young corporal, now a Master Sergeant could have just given up or run away.
I remember the story of a Norwegian farmer during WWII whose home was occupied by the Nazis. The Officer in Charge told the farmer that he would be his servant, prepare his meals, wash his uniforms, polish his boots, etc.. The farmer did all that without a word. But when the Allies liberated the area and arrested the Nazi Major and as he was being taken away, the farmer walked over to the Nazi, looked him in the eye and said, “No!”

[After one more futile effort to push the rock over the mountain, Sisyphus lets out a long sigh, the reporter opens a couple of beers and as they start back down, Sisyphus has his say.]
S: I would agree that the young Corporal/Master Sergeant and the farmer are good examples of heroism. But so is the conscientious objector whose commitment to non-violence prevents him from fighting but who is willing to serve his country and who is willing to face the consequences of his position. Then there is the 84-year-old widow who has inoperable cancer and has not family to support her but refuses to see herself as a victim. And there is the 17-year-old young woman who has been fighting cancer for years who now faces amputation of her leg. Rather than give up, she has decided to rise above it all and chart a new course for her life. These people are not victims of circumstance.
R: What makes the difference?
S: I'm suspicious of simple answers but I think it's the ability to find purpose, if not in whatever is happening, at least in spite of the situation.
R: You didn't exactly roll over and play dead in your battle with Zeus.
S: I tried everything I could to resist death. I think there's something pathological, in most cases, about someone wanting to die. Unless, of course, they are facing a devastating alternative.
But once it was clear that there is absolutely nothing I could do to escape this rock, I not only passively accepted it, I embraced it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
R: That will give my readers something to think about. That will have to do for the time being, we're back at the bottom and it's time for me to get back to the office and write this up. See you next time.
S: I'll be here. Thanks for the beer.