Sisyphus and Graduation (Don’t Be Like Sisyphus)
Graduation is looming, which means it’s time for seniors to wax philosophical on all subjects pertaining to the college experience.
With one foot out the door and the other stuck inside, we’re positioned in this awkward purgatorial zone, the kind that makes us apt for deep thinking. It’s something most of us have pushed off until now. Now, with our hindsight slowly shifting into focus, we set out to do the dangerous. We look back, piecing together the disparate elements of our time as a YU student. And perhaps too ambitiously, we try to make sense of it all.
There’s a tendency for students to see college as a place of transition, an in-between. We’re not quite adults, but we also aren’t kids. “College is just a bunch of 20-year-olds telling other 20-year-olds what to do,” a friend of mine observed on a YU shabbaton a few years ago. At the time, I laughed and agreed. But I also began to wonder: is college just a necessary preliminary step before the important stages in life? If so, does anything we do here even matter?
It is with this mindset that many students relate their college experience to the Myth of Sisyphus, the philosophical essay by Albert Camus. It deals with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek Mythology, doomed with the eternal task of pushing a stone up a mountain and then watching it roll down again. Through the story of Sisyphus, Camus explores the meaning of life and concludes that accepting and living with the absurdity of life is the only way to find happiness. That’s what Sisyphus does, despite his damnation. And he is happy because of it.
In other words, Sisyphus survives because he recognizes his situation for what it is: absurd and meaningless.
Many compare the challenges of college life to Sisyphus’ punishment. In the moment, the endless cycle of work and projects can feel like our own boulders. And at each semester’s end, after hours of work, we reach the top, only to watch our progress roll down again, wherein we muster what remains of our strength and start again.
But to accept our college experience as such would be to denounce any inherent worth in the journey. The elections, the events, the journalism, the data, the art. It would all be absurd — a filler until real life gets here.
Maybe I’m too idealistic. But I’ve gone through college with the understanding that there has to be a reason for it all. How else can we justify thousands of tuition dollars spent, the hundreds of hours put into essays, projects, tests and events? We have all cared about something during our time at YU. Even in protest, most of us have believed, even once, that there was something worth doing here.
So no, we are not — we cannot be — like Sisyphus.
People often ask me why I care about the way things are at YU, why I spend time calling out what I see as wrong, or defending the things I believe in. After all, once I graduate, it won’t matter anymore, right?
College, as a whole, screams of the Sisyphean. The headlines I’ve edited and written these past few years certainly attest to that. Yeshiva University in particular often seems like a land of make-believe, run by overzealous 20-year-olds who care way too much about the turnout of their events.
Sisyphus didn’t find some hidden significance in his task. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t in ours.
College — Yeshiva University — is more than an absurdist landscape. It is more than a burden we must bear to make our parents happy, more than a place to find a spouse or get a job. The things we do here really matter, within campus life and beyond.
I have loved YU because I found the meaning within it. I wasn’t tempted by a Sisyphean resignation, the apathy that has characterized certain parts of this campus. Here at The Commentator, I laughed at the absurdity with everyone else, but I never accepted it at face value.
I have never once regretted caring, writing and fighting for what matters, even in a place as ostensibly absurd as YU. Now that I’m leaving, I’ll celebrate this accomplishment with the rest of my fellow graduates. But I’ll still be sad to let it all go.
Giving into the absurdity of college life is a quick fix. It’ll get you through graduation and that’s about it. For the Sisyphean student, college is three, maybe four, years of worthless, meaningless toil. At the end, they’ll smile at graduation, perhaps ironically don a bedazzled “carpe diem” on their cap, and leave without looking back.
Soon, they’ll forget about it all: the politics, the frustrations, the injustices. The intense pride in creating something meaningful on campus. The indignation that comes with believing you can do better. The grievances, the happiness. Everything they never got to experience because to them, it never really mattered anyway.
For future students and ourselves, don’t be like Sisyphus. Don’t embrace the absurdity, but try to look beyond it. Do something meaningful, something that will make leaving this place harder than you anticipated. You’ll be the better for it.
I know I am.