Sisyphus and gratitude

When I was an undergraduate, young, idealistic and optimistic, I had my first encounter with existentialist philosophy. What is the point of being? Where can we find meaning and purpose? What is our motivation to wake up in the morning and live yet another day?
The writings of the giants of existentialism challenged me, humbled me and inspired me: Jean Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber … among others. All these years down the road, that first encounter continues. 
One character I keep returning to is Sisyphus. The gods condemned him to push a boulder to the top of a mountain … day after day … with no possibility of ever pushing the boulder to the other side. Every day would pose the same challenge. He was condemned to stress and strain with all of his energy to push the boulder up, up, up. But at the very instant when at last it would fall to the other side, it rolled back to where he started. Then he would walk down the mountain, go to sleep, wake up and do it again.How did he resign himself to such a fate? How did he keep waking up, morning after morning, knowing what lay ahead?
Years into my rabbinic career, I chose to depart from the conventional path. After serving as a congregational rabbi, I chose to do a Clinical Pastoral Education internship, to gain specialized training of how to offer spiritual, pastoral care. My starting premise? To obtain chaplaincy skills. My ultimate goal? To become a chaplain. 
My yearlong internship was a daily dose of humility. Every time I thought I was getting close to my goal – to become a chaplain – I would experience something completely humbling. I would have an encounter with a patient, a patient’s family or a member of the hospital staff, and I would feel completely out of my comfort zone. I struggled emotionally to connect. I struggled to offer support or solace. I struggled to walk by their side during their nuanced, complicated journey.
But during that intense yearlong internship, I finally learned lesson number one. There is no endpoint to chaplaincy training. There is no ultimate goal, when we at last earn the title of “chaplain” and have all the skills we need to provide pastoral/spiritual care to those in need. 
I wonder what it felt like when Sisyphus had the moment of clarity that he would never, ever push the boulder to the other side. What would be the purpose of waking up in the morning to do it again? I imagine he learned to derive meaning and purpose with every step he took to drive the boulder forward and with the way he balanced the rock on his hands or shoulders. I imagine his stopping periodically, the rock resting on his back, as he wiped the sweat from his forehead, face, neck and arms … when he paused to take in the view. And then I imagine that fleeting second at the top, when the rock neared the tipping point, when he was almost free of the weight of the massive stone. …. But then the rock fell back on his hands and shoulder, and he had no choice but to let go and watch it tumble down the mountain. 
How did he feel then? I imagine that walk down the mountain, free from the massive stone, free from the struggle against gravity, must have felt transcendent. He could take his time, enjoy the view or sit down for a while. Step by step, free from stresses, strains and struggle, he could look forward to a good meal and a refreshing night’s rest. 
I may carry the title of “chaplain,” but I know in my heart that my process of becoming a chaplain will never end. There will always be struggles, doubts and times I could have done better. I will consistently live in a state of self-critique and growth. But every attempt to have an encounter, interaction or conversation can reveal meaning and purpose.
I will soon be leaving Portland to move to Houston to begin the next chapter of my career. I will be Chaplain Manager – The Velva G. and H. Fred Levine Jewish Chaplaincy Program – at the Joan and Stanford Alexander Jewish Family Service. I am grateful for these past 5-plus years in Portland. Unlike Sisyphus, I have not been alone. I interacted with so many people as collaboratively we pushed the boulder up the mountain in pursuit of spiritual/pastoral health and healing. I have done my best to derive meaning and purpose from every step we took. You inspired me, supported me and encouraged me.
So, in a short while, once again, I will wake up in a new city, the boulder awaiting me. My next mountain awaits in Houston, despite the geographical flatness of east Texas. I only hope that my experience there will be as rewarding, fulfilling and meaningful as I have had in the Pacific Northwest.
Following Rabbi Cohen's departure, those needing chaplaincy services should call JoAnn Bezodis with the Oregon Board of Rabbis at 971-248-5465.


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