Friday, January 09, 2009

Hercules, Sisyphus, and Depression

I’ve been trying to decide if living with depression is a Herculean task or a Sisyphean existence. Mythological stories and figures often offer a way to examine our lives through a different lens, and Hercules and Sisyphus are two figures who have frequently struck me as potential fodder for an examination of the vicissitudes of depression.

Hercules, as we know, was a mythological figure of extraordinary physical power, an ancient precursor to the modern Superman, with the strength to shoulder burdens far beyond the measure of ordinary humans. While I cannot remember specific challenges faced by Hercules and recounted in ancient stories that have passed down to us through the ages, I can picture said hero rescuing civilizations, conquering entire armies singlehandedly, and otherwise accomplishing that which mere mortals could only perform in their very dreams.

Sisyphus, on the other hand, was a sorrowful creature condemned (for reasons I don’t recall) to a monotonous life of endless toil in the shadowy realm of Hades, living out a life without end on the side of a cruel and unforgiving mountain. You may remember that the task faced by Sisyphus was to roll a heavy bolder to the top of that mountain each day, an arduous and thankless task without reward. Sadly, Sisyphus was eternally doomed, and the task---which he was compelled to perform for all eternity---would end in maddening disappointment as the boulder rolled back down the mountainside just as dear Sisyphus was about to reach the summit with his burden. Thus, our anti-hero would begin each day with the same daunting and impossible task ahead of him, his voiceless stone companion patiently awaiting his efforts that were assuredly going to end in utter demoralization.

This examination of the Herculean and Sisyphean myths offers us two disparate notions of how the depressed human being faces the challenge of setting his or her feet on the floor with each earthly sunrise. Does the day seem like a heroic task which the modern depressive hero faces, assuredly daunted, yet ever willing to tackle? Or does the day appear as an insurmountable burden, a boulder of enormous proportions that the sufferer is doomed to roll up that forbidding hill, despite the knowledge that his or her efforts will always lead back to the same damning place of burdensome failure?

Hercules and Sisyphus---those mythic figures of old---live inside me (and potentially every sufferer of depression), jostling for position within the psyche like morning commuters on a crowded urban subway car.

Hercules, girdled with a wide leather belt, silver buckle, gold shield, loincloth and sandals, flexes his muscles and readies himself for the fray, prepared for battle, be it of the emotional, psychological or the physical realm. Steady on his feet despite the rolling of the psychic subway car, this eternal hero can survive anything the Universe sends his way, even against a foe as insidiously powerful as the demons of depression. Were depression itself a river, Hercules would himself be a stalwart dam of self-reflective power and emotional control. He would prevail despite the odds, immediately ready for the subsequent onslaught, tireless in his defense of self-righteous emotional equanimity.

Sisyphus, on the other hand, greets the day in a tattered cloth tunic, barefoot, his blistered feet bleeding from the toils of the previous day. Unlike Hercules, who can ride the emotional subway car like a California surfer riding the edge of the Pacific, Sisyphus is thrown hither and thither as the car lurches around corners and arrives shrieking to yet another stop along its torturous track. Emerging from the car into the new day, Sisyphus shoulders his burdens with the full knowledge that, no matter how determined he may be, the day will end as it began: unforgiving and damning, the next day sure to be as painful as this one, any progress made only to be disappointingly reversed once again.

As those of us living with depression face our days, saddled with the emotional yoke that many of us wear throughout our lives, which of these mythic figures do we emulate as we plant our feet on the floor and face the new day? That, my friends, is an important question that we each must answer for ourselves.

(c) 2009 NurseKeith
Post a Comment