Futility and Hopeless Labor

When I saw her two days ago, my primary care physician’s advanced practice nurse ordered four lab tests. I suspect the tests will reveal nothing of consequence. A CT scan—or several different types of CT scans—are more likely to reveal the causes of my neck and joint and shoulder pain. The skeptic in me expects the outcome to be simple: the pain is caused by normal wear and tear and there is nothing to be done to eliminate or minimize it. Irreversible bodily decay is the likely culprit; the inevitable deterioration that accompanies aging probably is the source of my physical unhappiness. My pain is just another experience that I will have to accept and to which I will have to adapt. I could be wrong, of course. The tests could reveal something far less sinister or far more terrifying. Circumstances are what they are; no more, no less. I cannot control the universe, no matter how badly I might want to be master of life as we know it.


Nothing profound is apt to flow from my fingers nor spill from my lips this morning. I cannot imagine summoning more wisdom today than I summon every other day. I am deeply average; unremarkable in every way. That’s a reality we humans tend to reject; we refuse to accept that we are nothing special, hoping beyond hope that we will stumble upon some extraordinary attribute we did not know we had. There is no such extraordinary attribute. There is only deeply, unremarkably plain and fundamentally dull. We’re all like that, but in different ways. Our mediocrity is woven into every shred of skin and each brain cell.  We might as well be amoeba. Yet, on occasion, we shine. We sparkle. We glitter and glow and bathe the world in which we live in brilliant light. But that’s just our imagination, paired with the imaginations of everyone else in close proximity. We collectively persuade ourselves we are something special, indeed, and we cast off our mindlessly dull attributes in favor of being clothed in magic. And so it goes. From dull to luminous to plain and back to delightful, all in the space of less than a microsecond of spectacular experience. Odd, isn’t it? Odd that the world allows us to pretend we matter?


Daylight begins far later than it did just a few months ago. I awake and look outside into a blackness that lasts much longer than it used to last. It’s after 6:30, but the sky looks like the sun was shuttled off to a distant galaxy, where it is being kept hostage while ransom demands are being clarified and polished. Who do we ask to pay the ransom for the sun? And how do we respond if our demands are rejected out of hand? Do we dare threaten to drown the sun if our demands are ignored? And, once we make the threat, do we dare carry it out? Once the sun’s furious fires have been snuffed out, do we have any hope of recovering them from the ashes? I wonder, some days, how helpless we would feel if we were to learn that the sun’s source of fuel would burn off in just two more days’ time? Would be try to prepare for the end? What could we possibly do to prepare for it? Is there anything we might be able to do that would lessen the terror? Could we somehow take preparatory measures that could minimize the horror of watching everything that matters turn to ash?


The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

~ Albert Camus ~

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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