The ancient Greek myth about Sisyphus, tells us about a man who was sentenced to roll a huge boulder up a mountain until it could lodge at the peak. He spent the rest of his life pushing the heavy rock up the mountain, but whenever he tired the rock would roll back to the bottom. The point of the story is that there are some tasks in life that are insurmountable. They just can’t be resolved. Or, it seems as if there is no end to a task.
The adjective which derives from this story is sisyphean, and it is a word which is used commonly to describe just such a feeling. No matter how hard one tries to accomplish a task, it never ends. The very thought of being burdened for the rest of one’s life by some such task, is like having to roll the rock up the mountain, only to have it careen to the bottom and having to start all over again. The theme of the sisyphean task is that it is useless work, accomplishing nothing. Many times an employee will comment that s/he has been condemned to a sisyphean job which amounts to nothing.
I was reminded of this story over the past few days because of the very nature of the person of Sisyphus. He was no ordinary man, but a king. But his cruel and abusive treatment of his people was the cause of his sentence to the sisyphean task. In reminding us of who Sisyphus was, the chronicler tell us:
King Sisyphus promoted navigation and commerce but was avaricious and deceitful. He also killed travellers and guests, a violation of Xenia which fell under Zeus‘ domain. He took pleasure in these killings because they allowed him to maintain his iron-fisted rule. Sisyphus and Salmoneus were known to hate each other as Sisyphus had consulted with the Oracle of Delphi on just how to kill Salmoneus without incurring any severe consequences for himself. From Homer onwards, Sisyphus was famed as the craftiest of men. He seduced Salmoneus’s daughter Tyro in one of his plots to kill Salmoneus, only for Tyro to slay the children she bore by him when she discovered that Sisyphus was planning on eventually using them to dethrone her father.*
I was reminded of this when reading about Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria. He is reputed to have become ruthless in the treating of the citizens of the troubled nation. In the past few weeks it has been reported that he attacked innocent men, women and children with gasses that led to horrific symptoms prior to their certain death. The world has been horrified by the video clips which have shown these innocent people writhing in pain and suffering, begging for death.
As to whether Assad will be punished by his Judge, Allah, by being sentenced to an eternal task such as Sisyphus…that is not up to me or anyone else. But in this life it is clear that he needs to know of the way in which the world sees him as despicable and ruthless. President Obama has made the point that the world needs to call Assad to task for his crimes. The political demons at work are wont to turn this around to a punishment upon Obama and the United States for being unforgiving and unwilling to work with Assad.
There is no way to know how this matter will turn out, but it, in itself, sometimes feels like a sisyphean task which has no end to it.
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