VOL. 129 | NO. 35 | Thursday, February 20, 2014
By Vic Fleming
I read in the paper about some folks who’ve done well with weight loss and fitness resolutions. They attribute their success to posting goals, activities and results on Facebook. “Got up at 4, started running at 4:30, did three miles. Tomorrow, five.” That kind of thing.
One person featured lost 200 pounds in three years! My goals are modest by comparison. Yet and still, I’m reminded of Sisyphus. Remember him? In myth he was king at a place called Ephyra. He excelled in avarice, deceit, craftiness and trickery. Moreover, as you might guess, he was not above murder. A typical soap opera antagonist, he’d owe a fortune in legal fees if he were around today.
We don’t know whether Sisyphus exercised or ever went on a diet. The record is silent on this. For health purposes, though, he’d have done well to jog the other way when he saw Zeus coming. You remember Zeus, the top dog, or god rather, in those days.
Miffed at Sisyphus for betraying a family secret, Zeus ordered that Sisyphus be chained up by the demon Thanatos, the personification of death – this, in the Greek equivalent of hell. Sisyphus turned the tables on Thanatos, and the executioner wound up in chains. Kind of reminds me of my own efforts at weight loss over the years.
Zeus got the final say, though, after Sisyphus’s death. As punishment for his life of deceit, Sisyphus was made to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Zeus had enchanted the massive rock, though, so that it would escape Sisyphus’s grip and roll back down just before reaching the top. This action was to be repeated for an eternity or two.
The idea that “there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor” is not altogether different from how many approach the resolution to lose weight. I lost 10 pounds in January, and it was a lot like pushing a boulder uphill.
In a 1942 essay, Albert Camus called Sisyphus “the absurd hero,” anointing him as the leading character in a “philosophy of the absurd.” Citing Ivan Karamazov’s comment, “Everything is permitted,” Camus said this “smacks of the absurd … (though not) in a vulgar sense.”
Camus posited that the “certainty of a God giving meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. ‘Everything is permitted’ does not mean that nothing is forbidden.” I’d swear that last remark was from a fad-diet guru.
When he wrote “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus was 29 and working for the French Resistance in Paris. He was a young man far from home, caught up in a struggle against a seemingly omnipotent and brutal enemy. Not an inapt metaphor for a New Year’s dieter.
I may keep you posted on my weight loss progress, but don’t look for specifics on Facebook.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.