SISYPHUS SYNDROME: being compelled to repeat a self-defeating practice continuously

According to ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man who undertook activities that were deemed inappropriate.  He was punished by being forced to roll a huge boulder up the side of a steep mountainside in the attempt to get it to the top.   Every time he came close to the top the boulder would roll backwards to the bottom, forcing poor Sisyphus to have to start all over again.   While numerous people have speculated that he eventually found success and was relieved of his excruciating task, there is no conclusion to the Greek myth.

Consequently, the Sisyphus Syndrome is characterized by the idea that a person is forced to continue to be punished by an impossible task…forever.  In most cases, modern usage of the term indicates that a person forces (him)self to undertake the impossible task, refusing to accept the fact that he will be unsuccessful.

When I think about the Sisyphus Syndrome it exhausts me.  Even looking at the image above causes my gut to shrink into near-spasms.  And when I translate the image into a metaphor I get no less exhausted.   The frustration of ancient Sisyphus is translated into my gut.  I can dress up the feeling by calling it compassion or empathy, but the fact is that it is just as unhealthy for me to be absorbed by the frustration of the person and (his) useless efforts as it is for him to continue to push that damned stone up the hill.

The syndrome also has systemic implications.   An organization, no matter how sophisticated, can choose to repeat a failing process over and over again, refusing to accept the fact that the process is killing them.  I think of Kodak, a magnificent company that delayed and denied the necessity to accept the fact that film and its related photographic equipment was going to become obsolete (for the most part) given the onset of digital photography.   The collapse of the film industry became an inevitability.

Just so I don’t lose my flow of recent postings, I believe that the United States government is playing a Sisyphus theme, refusing to believe that its structure and practices are failing.  The need for a complete overhaul of its systemic components is obvious to everyone except those engaged in an attempt to govern. They have embraced a Sisyphus mindset that is self-defeating.  The result is the persistent production of doubt, lack of confidence, and frustration on the part of the American citizenship.

It has taken campaign finance practices to make this point clear to me.   The action of the Supreme Court was flawed and the way it is being brutalized by Super PACs is disgraceful.   Election law needs complete overhaul to return the capability of the American voter to its rightful place.  Supreme Court procedures need scrutiny, just as the President indicated in last year’s State of the Union address.  The role of the President in establishing “out of session” practices needs revisiting.  These are just the tip of the iceberg.   But the passion for governmental reform is active.

Not to embrace such reform is to condemn this country to a Sisyphus Syndrome fate.  The boulder is getting larger and the patience of the American people is getting thinner.


Photo Credit: coconutheadsets

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  1. Hi Dave. I agree when it comes to initiative measures. And you’re right about California…it was a disaster. But that possibility shouldn’t stop us from embracing the idea of governmental reform. I’m not talking about a Constitutional Convention in which we end up “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” What I advocate is less “instantaneous” and more “progressive.” I just want to see somebody acting on the obvious flaws and failures of our governing system as it has emerged. We talk about them, rail against them, and point fingers (usually inaccurately) at those we think are responsible for abusing the democratic institution. All that furor does nothing except raise the blood pressure. The 60 vote Senate, for instance, is the pet of the minority party until it stands in the way of something they want passed. The appointment process gets stalled by those who have an opposing agenda and agencies labor under inadequate leadership in the interim. Out of session appointment is the darling of the President’s party (or part of it anyway) but serves to further alienate the opposition. What I advocate is the initiation (no pun intended) of reform which actually does something about the flaws, so we don’t keep pushing the rock up the hill. Is there potential for problems in the reform movement? Obviously. But is that potential worse than the stagnancy and abuse we currently experience? Maybe. Maybe not.

  2. I’m not sure I totally agree with you on government reform. It sounds like you are suggesting an opening of the doors to major systemic change. This is potentially a dangerous path to follow especially with the nature of our bipolar political system and the complexity and layers of governance that affect our day to day lives. The example I always think of is the case of those who continually push for the inclusion of the power of initiative into the state constitution in New York. Every time they mention a constitutional convention, the issue pops up again, with the same supporters and detractors touting the benefits and pitfalls of allowing citizens the right to bypass the legislature and bring potential legislation directly to the voters. I STRONGLY do not favor initiative as a citizen right. I feel this way, not because we shouldn’t have the right, but because of the potential for it to go terribly wrong. Just look at California and tell me if citizen initiative is working. Anyone or any organization with deep pockets can vastly influence an unwelcome outcome that is now “surprise” the law of the land. So, while I believe that we do need to make changes, I feel that it should be slow and incremental.

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