Whether we choose to move forward or lag behind, life goes on. However, there comes a time, when looking back at the many achievements and failures of our life, we ask: “Have I become redundant or are there more challenges ahead?” The past appears to be a sequence of tasks fulfilled and duties performed. In our youth, it's the pressure of completing our education, acquiring skills, pursuing a profession and dreaming of reaching for the stars. With age, most of us grow leery of dreams and accept that life may just turn out to be a series of routine experiences. Routine, but essential – getting a job, raising a family, shopping for groceries, preparing meals and going to work day after day.
There are a few fortunate ones who live inspirational lives and actually realise their dreams. But most of us continue in an auto pilot mode and stop asking why or what next. Gradually the fast forward motion slackens . . . we reach that rare moment of reckoning with our inner selves and begin to take stock.
My life seems to be entering such a juncture. The children have moved out and seem to be rotating in their own orbits. Having retired from my job, my career ambitions have waned. Unless I am entertaining, I rarely cook a gourmet meal. The day unfolds with the dull prospect of “more of the same.” But, I am grateful for good health and being free from want. I must also admit that so far it has been a fruitful life lived with passion and intensity. Nevertheless, once in a while I do reflect on whether or not, things could have been different. For example, was I too focused on the children's report cards rather than their emotional and mental state? Was I fixated on the things that were likely to make a big impact? Consequently, did I overlook the seemingly insignificant opportunities that could have added to happiness and contentment?
Some people strive to find purpose in life through high achievements – be it acquiring wealth and fame, reaching the peak of academic excellence or discovering a formula that will impact millions. But, for most of us, life is simply about toiling away to complete the small daily tasks. However, in the process, we can perform myriads of insignificant acts that can create an impact. We can simply be doers of everyday good deeds. Visit a sick friend or relative, pick up the phone and call someone whom most people shun. Happiness can be derived from the daily duties of sustenance and the small things that may end up making a big difference. Singing that perfect song or penning that perfect story may not happen. But singing solely to uplift the spirit and writing to relieve oneself of painful experiences are also important. For these serve as antidotes for the crushing burden of solitude that may hit us at certain crossroads.
It may be useful to reinforce these thoughts with the story of Sisyphus from Greek mythology. Sisyphus was a brilliant man who sometimes played tricks on the gods to get what he wanted. Finally, the gods condemned him to eternal hard labour. His punishment? Rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom each time he reached the top – a task intended to be futile, unrewarding and repetitive. The toil of Sisyphus is often used as a metaphor for difficult labour that is frustrating and promises no ostensible reward. Nobel laureate Albert Camus, however, wrote in a brief essay ("The Myth of Sisyphus" – 1940) that Sisyphus' fate and his endless toil is not futile. He said: "If the descent [i.e., Sisyphus' returning to the bottom to start pushing the rock upward all over again] is sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy." And, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
I tend to agree with Camus. Sisyphus' success at reaching the summit with the rock may be temporary, but he can rejoice in each climb because he achieves his goal. The fact that he has to do it all over again need not diminish its value or his happiness, but provide motivation.
Our routine lives are in some ways like Sisyphus' toil. We can find satisfaction in accomplishing our task, no matter how labouriously monotonous the climb may be. And that the boulder does not reside on the peak permanently does not mean that the journey has been futile. Because in the final analysis, life is about the challenges, joys and disappointments that we face along the path. The destination is just an excuse to start the voyage. As long as one is alive, one must continue to push the rock uphill and try to find meaning and happiness in the process.
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org