In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a brilliant rascal who sometimes played tricks on the gods to get what he wanted. He even used trickery to avoid death. Finally the gods had enough and condemned Sisyphus to eternal hard labor -- his punishment: rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom each time he finally gets it to the top. It was intended to be not only difficult labor, but frustratingly futile, unrewarding, repetitive labor. The toil of Sisyphus is a metaphor for all difficult and repetitive labor that is frustrating and unrewarding.
The 1957 Nobel laureate for literature Albert Camus wrote in a brief essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1940) that Sisyphus' fate and his endless toil is not futile. He says: "If the descent [i.e., Sisyphus' returning to the bottom of the mountain to start pushing the rock upward all over again] is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy." And "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
In spite of Camus' words, the punishing labor of Sisyphus seems horrendous. That is why it was given, and that is why the myth has such power. Or is Camus right that there can be nobility or redemption, or grounds for satisfaction, even "happiness", in such futile labor?
I believe Camus focused on only part of the characteristics of the labor of Sisyphus. There are at least five characteristics of Sisyphus' task, and I want to distinguish between attributes which might be redemptive, noble, or joyous, and those which are not. Rolling the rock eternally up the hill only to have it return each time you reach the summit for you to do it all over again is 1) repetitive, 2) futile, 3) temporary, and 4) laborious, and 5) worthless in a way that is separate from its being repetitive, futile, laborious, and temporary.
I have written elsewhere that impermanence does not erase value. Making someone happy or providing solace for someone in despair, even if it is only temporary is still a worthwhile act. Creating or saving a life that will someday die is not a worthless or meaningless act. Even if all we do in the lifetime of civilization collapses into a universal blackhole or relative pinpoint of incredibly dense mass, our accomplishments are what they were, even if they do not remain in the memory of an omniscient God but dissolve entirely into the metaphysics of empty time. That something happened and meant anything at all is important, regardless of how long it lasts. All joys in life are temporary, but they are joys nevertheless, and they are most important. A joyous life is better than a joyless one, even though both come to an end. So I have no quarrel with Camus about the fact that Sisyphus' success at reaching the summit with the boulder is merely temporary. Sisyphus can rejoice in that success each time simply because he achieves it, regardless of how long the achievement lasts.
And the fact that he has to do it all over again does not diminish its
value or his happiness, because.............