I have been thinking lately of an essay I read many years ago, back when I was an undergraduate in college. The relentless cycles of chemotherapy and recovery leading to yet more chemotherapy and yet another recovery followed by…. well, the cycles are relentless.
In the very first sentence of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus asserts (and then defends) the notion that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes after.”
A week before I started chemotherapy, I was reminded of that essay and its fundamental question by my oncologist. I asked him a rather simple question: How long will I be on chemotherapy? His answer: as long as you think you can take it and as long as it’s keeping the mass at or about the same size or shrinking it.
To a very large extent, whether they have read Camus or not, every cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy for indefinite periods of time must come to terms with Camus’s question: to continue the devastating regimen of chemotherapy or to stop the cycles of near death and recovery. They may not consider themselves existentialists, but their doctors offer them a clear choice and (at the risk of being overly dramatic) that choice is to live, with the suffering that implies, or to stop all of the suffering and die.
Let’s, for one moment, revisit the actual myth of Sisyphus: He was indefatigable. He sinned often and joyously against the gods and all of those sins and the accompanying joy are a part of the myth, but his great sin was getting permission to leave the Underworld to return to his old life in order to chastise his wife. Once back on the green earth, he found it good, got lost in contemplation of the beauty of the ocean, of the sun, and refused to return to the Underworld. Pluto, enraged by this Sysiphusian behavior, dispatches Mercury to bring him back to where, as Camus writes, his stone awaits him.
His stone awaits him, my stone awaits me, your stone awaits you. A pretty conjugation, no? It reminds me of that other statement about human suffering: that each of us has his own cross to bear. For Sisyphus is condemned to roll a huge stone to the top of the high hill and, when he reaches the summit, to see the stone roll back down to the valley below. Sisyphus walks back down the hill to begin the task again. Immediately, we can see correlations with our own lives and the lives of those around us, clichés like “the rat race,” “the treadmill” and others come to mind. It is when we become aware that we, too, are pushing that stone up the hill that we become, what?, not tragic, perhaps pathetic, at the very least aware of an existential question concerning whether it is worth it to continue or not. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Camus is concerned not with the rolling of the stone up the hill, though his description of that is brilliant, lyrical, but with those moments when Sisyphus sees the stone rolling back down the hill and begins to walk back down. That is the moment of the “absurd,” that moment when we are not buried in the task, but have time to think about how meaningless it all is. That moment of awareness, of consciousness about who and what we are, is the moment that makes both tragedy and pathos possible. Camus reminds us that for almost all of his life, until the final hours we see acted out on the stage, Oedipus walked blindly through life—happy, content in his wife and children. And then he ripped the veil away and entered the world of the tragic hero. There is a kind of joy in his triumph over fate, his ripping the world apart to enable himself to see at his moment of blindness. He is not defeated; he is triumphant as he is led away by his daughter Antigone, her moment of apotheosis still to come.
I do not want to belabor a much labored over point, but that moment of awareness also leads to what we now call an “existential” decision: is life worth living? Oedipus decides that it is in Oedipus at Colonus and tells Theseus: "Oh Theseus, dear friend, only the gods can never age, the gods can never die. All else in the world almighty Time obliterates, crushes all to nothing..." but that life is worth living: “Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.”
And so, we return to the beginning: how chemotherapy maintenance is similar to that integral question salient to philosophy: the matter of suicide and the story of Sisyphus. The moment of the absurd, the moment of true self-awareness. Let’s come down from the heights to the lower-level existence for a chemotherapy patient: me. Chemotherapy comes in cycles: one day: IVs filled with chemicals designed to kill blood cells are infused into my body. The next day, I feel good but have to go back to the clinic to have a shot designed to help restore white blood cells. The next morning, I am rolling stones up the hill, sick, exhausted, trudging on, falling asleep off and on. Not pain! I have felt no pain except for the insertion of IVs. For a week, I feel almost like answering yes to that essential philosophical question, but I resist.
In the second week, the chemo stone rolls back down hill and I can breathe again or could except for San Antonio’s allergens.
I feel good, enjoy driving around with the top down, go to work every day. It is in the third week that the existential question arises. I feel normal. I play golf. I go to the club and walk on the treadmill, run a little. Goddamn but I am fully human again! But the week moves on and I am walking down a Sisyphusian hill. The huge stone grows larger in my sight. Monday will be chemo day and the whole thing will start again.
Do not get me wrong. I am no kind of hero. I am not Oedipus or Sisyphus, am merely a person, one of billions and one of thousands undergoing this treatment schedule. Ultimately, though, we all have to make the Sisyphusian choice: to go on or not to go on. That is, I think, what Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is all about. Gogo and Didi see no real purpose in their lives except to wait for Mr. Godot who never appears. “Let’s go on,” Didi says, and they do…or they don’t. Not heroes, just people, like you and me.
They go on and I go on. We all have the option to stop. Beckett is positive as are Oedipus and Sisyphus. As am I. I could not have written this last week when I had my most recent chemotherapy treatment; I would not have had the energy. I can’t not write it this week even if it’s not terribly interesting.
As I said at the beginning, I first read Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” back when I was an undergraduate, some decades ago, perhaps a decade after Camus wrote it. I was 18 years old and besotted with the "Theatre of the Absurd" and French intellectuals. Camus's essay has held up under the years much better than I have. It remains, for me, essential reading. Essential? Yes, because it makes people think about things we really do not want to think about.