“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
In an insightful early collection of essays, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus recognizes that when a person confronts the absurd circumstances of life, they can react in one of two ways. Either they fall into despair, which most of us know as existential angst, or they revolt.
The Greek gods condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of hard labor, rolling a boulder up a hill, and he, too, was given this choice.
Imagine living for all of eternity baring a burden so magnanimous. You reach the top of the hill only to discover the boulder rolls back down and you have to start again.
According to Camus, this is where it gets interesting. He finds something peculiar in the moment Sisyphus turns around:
“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a reathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
And if we face meaningless tasks like Sisyphus, we have the same choice that he did. If we focus on the rock, the rock wins.
According to Camus, there is a kind of triumph that we find in the myth of Sisyphus, but in order to recognize it, you have to look closely.
In her book, The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sarah Lewis intuits the possibilities that come from reorienting our thinking toward failure: “Discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often and perhaps even only come from uncommon ground.”
This is precisely how Camus reads this Greek myth: “When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man’s heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself.”
The rock, here, is the weight of despair. It’s what Milan Kundera calls the unbearable lightness of being.
It’s the heaviness that Christ felt when he went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night that Judas betrayed him – the gravity of despair enveloped him to the point that he sweat drops of blood.
Camus writes, “The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane.”
There is power in coming to this point of despair when you recognize that your deepest fears came true.
In the very moment you recognize despair, you confront truth. And Camus says “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”
Jesper Juul, in his 2013 essay, The Art of Failure,: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. discovers that “Much of the positive effect of failure comes from the fact that we can learn to escape from it, feeling more competent than we did before.”
But we don’t escape failure by repressing it because the trauma will eternally return.
We don’t escape failure by running from it, because it will catch us.
We don’t escape failure by forgetting it, because it will remember.
We escape failure by embracing it.
Triumph and transformation take place when we can embrace our darkest moments and deepest failures by remembering they are part of who we are.
Whether in life, or games, work, or play, we remember that failure is the price of participating. Jan Holmevik, in Inter/vention: Free Play in the Age of Electracy, teaches that, “Knowing that there is a goal or destination, but not necessarily knowing exactly what that might be or how to get there is what sets us on the path to discovery.”
Jesper Juuls finds this freedom in games: “The illusive space of games is to be protected, but it must always come with an additional license for us to be just a little angry, and more than a little frustrated. That — not balance, but strange arrangement — is games, the art of failure.”
Sisyphus not only defied death, literally placing Thanatos in chains, he revolted against the despair of his existence. The art of failure is recognizing with Camus that “there is no sun without shadow and it is essential to know the night.”
It is up to us to imagine Sisyphus happy.