In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus, as punishment for his evils, was forced to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down just before it reached the top.
Here’s my boulder: no matter how much I do, there’s more to be done. OK, that’s not really a boulder, because it’s true of everything. We take a shower, and the very next day we have to take one again. We eat breakfast, and the very next day, have to eat one again, as if the day before never happened. So, tasks aren’t boulders. The real boulders in life is the feeling of futility. In my case, that my to-do list trumps my have-done list.
I’ve been pondering this in these first days of the new year, a year that’s going to make all my previous to-do lists pale in comparison, and wondering how to work with this. My close friends counsel me to give myself more recognition. To stop and smell the roses. Essentially, to be here now. I joke that the closest I come to ‘being here now,’ is to ‘be there soon.’
As I was mulling this over, I was coaching a client the other day about giving feedback, and he said to me, “I know I’m supposed to praise and give positive feedback, but I’m not a “slap on the back” kind of person.”
So, what’s the role of recognition, acknowledgment, and praise? Do we need it? If so, how much?
For me, it’s not just an individual concern, but a collective one. There’s so much to be done in the world to make it a more humane and just place. It’s overwhelming when we consider the state of the world, and its massive to-do list. How can we continue to work for things whose eventual manifestation is far off into a future we’ll never see, without hitting a sense of despair?
I wrote about this, almost the same time last year, about my father, never feeling satisfied with what he’s done, only in touch with what else he could have done.
What I asked myself then was:
This is what I ponder now in his absence. Should he have felt at peace with what he had accomplished, or should he have felt at peace with his restless striving? Do we get to feel satisfied with what we have done? Should we pause and breathe, and consider the impact we are making, the ways we are relevant now, before it’s too late? Or should we, as Robert Browning says (sort of), go beyond our reach, strive higher than we can, so we fulfill our potential, but at the cost of never feeling completely satisfied?
Death puts the struggle in perspective, whether it’s a personal boulder you’re pushing up hill, or a social one, with a team of others. When I contemplate my father’s life, and how he felt towards the end of his life, I think, what would he advise me now? What would my great teachers, those who pushed enormous boulders up massive mountains, dying before they got to the top, what would they say?
So, this is what I hear in response, and this is what I’ll work on in the coming year:
- Do stop and smell the roses. Look back every now and then, to appreciate where I am now.
- Recognize the privilege of hard work – that it is work of my own choosing. That it is work I enjoy tremendously. That it is work that allows me to grow and develop. That it is work that (hopefully) helps others in their growth and development.
- Recognize the privilege of stretching the t-shirt! Working hard is also a privilege, a pleasure in fact. I love working hard physically, so why not love working hard mentally with as much passion and pleasure?
- And finally, these words, attributed to the great Emma Goldman, come to me: If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.
So, what gets you up your hill?