Let The Rock Roll: Sisyphus on Parenting in COVID-19
Most of us who are not ill or providing critical services are spending our days (and nights) sheltering for safety in order to flatten the curve of viral infection. We are complying with orders to stay inside our homes and to apply appropriate social distancing whenever we leave the house. Mostly, we are trying not to go crazy from the isolation or, alternatively, from the cabin fever of sharing small spaces with loved ones.
Strategies for maintaining sanity vary widely as they are highly personal. My daughter’s second-grade teacher is making a video diary of a stuffed bear named ‘Old Chap’ who rides a Roomba and has a British accent. Others, gifted with operatic voices, have started serenading neighbors with arias from their balconies. Some prefer mingling with strangers in online chat rooms and serving them virtual pizza. Whatever scratches your itch…I suppose, as long as you can do it safely within the comfort of your own home.
I’ve been reading Albert Camus. Not because I’m a pseudo-intellectual (well, maybe a little), but rather for the reason that he speaks to the current moment and its rampant existential angst. A prophet of the pandemic (See The Plague), Camus is also a philosopher of the absurd and the father of the most contemporary re-interpretation of the Myth of Sisyphus. And, for want of a better reason, there’s also the fact that everyone in print journalism is talking about him these days.
Adrian Chen, in his piece, ‘The Auteur,’ drew on his work to provide a theoretical lens in his review of Hideo Kojima’s post-apocalyptic video game, Death Stranding. Alain de Botton recently published an article in The New York Times entitled, “Camus on the Corona Virus.” Whether due to Camus’s prescience or to his insight into the human condition, what’s old is new again. Including, for me, a return to the mythic figure, Sisyphus.
In his reading of the myth, Camus locates nobility in Sisyphus’s awareness of his absurdity. He’s a roller of rocks that just don’t stop and he knows it. In case you don’t remember your Greek mythology, Sisyphus’s punishment for snitching on Zeus and cheating death is to push a boulder uphill only to see it slide back down again ad infimum. In Sisyphus’s labor, Camus credits him with achieving agency, if not meaning, via insight. He’s conscious of his plight even if he’s powerless to change it.
For Camus, when you’re conscious, you’re strong. Sisyphus, while absurd, has not surrendered. Camus tells us that this fallen king of Corinth is ‘stronger than the rock.’ Maybe, he offers in the guise of an explanation, because Sisyphus ‘grasps the scope of his miserable condition.’ He’s not giving up his un-winnable battle against gravity, not that he could take a pass if he wanted to, because it gives him meaning. His situation is shitty, yes, but it gives him weight, existential heft, in an otherwise meaning-impoverished world.
I keep returning to this archetype of Sisyphus as he pushes the boulder the incline only to have it roll down again. It reminds me a lot of what I’m doing right now as adults work and kids learn at my house cheek to jowl. To be clear, there’s no rock involved. But I still feel like I’m shouldering the burden of providing emotional support while resolving distance-learning problem after problem.
Being point person for my daughters during the homeschool day means that I support their learning as much as their wellbeing. And, for lack of a better analogy, this puts me in the position of toggling from mode to mode — mother to teacher — throughout the day while I try to do my own work too. All the starting and stopping only to stop and to start again puts me in a Sisyphus frame of mind.
Sisyphus’s work is tedious, yes; it could even stand in as the definition of a thankless, repetitive task. Despite the relentlessness of the rock’s roll, up and, then, down again, even Sisyphus has time to catch a breather. There’s a pause, however brief, between the cycles of effortful pushing and effortless sliding. My MSBR (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction) teacher, a trained OB/GYN, would compare it to the wave of a labor contraction. Intensity of pain followed by an interlude of relief and recovery — before the cycle starts again and continues until birth brings it to a close.
In his pause, the rock resets and Sisyphus takes stock of his situation. Camus writes that he ‘grasps his miserable condition’ and soldiers on. In awareness, he finds something close to redemption for a guy condemned for all eternity. It looks like agency in lucidity. Sisyphus shows he’s psychologically rock solid. And, as a result, Camus raises the possibility that he might even experience some pleasure amidst the pain of his plight. He ends the essay with the line, ‘We have to imagine Sisyphus happy.’
If there’s hope for Sisyphus as Camus claims, I suppose I have a fighting chance to reconcile myself to my own rock. We can rarely opt out of hardship, but we can choose how we shoulder its burden. Do we lean into the effort or resist it? Camus raises the existential question of how we respond in struggle. How do we handle ourselves when shit gets real? Do we rage against our fate? Or revel in it, like Sisyphus, the powerless rebel?
These are existential question derived from an essay exploring absurdist philosophy. But, now more than ever, they speak to the challenge of how to be a decent parent in pandemic times when patience is short and days with children in an enclosed space are long. This difficulty is only compounded by the fact we are all dogged by fear of unknown challenges to come, from COVID-19 itself or its cascade of social, economic, political consequences.
Reading Camus comforts me as I find in his absurdist philosophy echoes of mindful practices. He might advise us to recognize that we are all struggling right now and to accept that we are only human, neither Gods nor tricksters like Sisyphus. Being available to and present with our children in these quarantine conditions is rough, I’m sure he’d remind us. He’d encourage us to embrace the messiness of it and to take a breath between cycles of parenting. And, failing that, to find nobility in the absurdity of trying to fight a force stronger than the earth itself, children’s unending questions.
If none of that works for you, there’s another version of Sisyphus out there to whom we can look for parental guidance. He’s the Sisyphus of Andrew Bird, L.A. based singer, songwriter, and amateur philosopher. Bird’s Sisyphus is more man than king. He’s reconciled to his fate. And, what’s more, he’s ready to set down his burden and move on. No more existential angst. No more self-imposed torment. His advice comes via the chorus, ‘Let the rock roll.’
Transposing that to my parenting predicament, I’d say it’s an invitation to find more ease in the co-working/schooling situation. Not to surrender to it, per se, but to bring less resistance to the toggling from daughter to daughter and from my work to theirs. This might look like acceptance rooted an an awareness that we are all trying to figure out how to be in this particular pause in our normal routine. It might afford us just enough time to catch our breath, to take stock of what is most precious to us among our resources and our relationships, before the rock starts rolling again.