In the calm period after Christmas I wanted to quietly catch up on my backlog of unanswered emails that had accumulated during a busy first semester. However, the servers at my university had been hacked since Monday evening December 23rd. This gave me peace of mind on one hand. The cause of this misery was out of my control, just as the solution was. Yet at the same time, unease was mounting: the e-mails that still needed answering continued to pile up without fail.
Maintaining a work mailbox is not necessarily pointless, however it is nonetheless utterly futile work. Once you have finally trawled through your inbox, responses to everything are already pouring in. Any hope of success is mercilessly wiped out. Back to square one time and again. Maintaining a work mailbox, that’s a Sisyphean task.
Albert Camus described Sisyphus as the absurd hero in The Myth of Sisyphus. Our existence is a random coincidence, life has no intrinsic purpose and is above all absurd. For Camus, Sisyphus is the patron saint of the absurd experience. Over and over he is doomed to push that massive boulder up the mountain. Just to see it thunder back down all over again.
Camus was especially interested in the moment when Sisyphus catches his breath while walking down the hill. “At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate,” Camus wrote. “He is stronger than his rock.” As Sisyphus descends, he comes to realize the full extent of his miserable condition and his struggle. But Sisyphus has resigned himself to this ordeal. Consequently, on his own violation he created a sense of purpose out of this absurdity. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus decides.
For the most part, the latter sounds absurd. Yet perhaps there is some wise advice in there somewhere for our daily mailbox torment. That we should no longer focus on the goal – which is almost beyond our reach – but on the journey instead. And that you may even derive something positive and poetic from such a state of torment.
I shall consider every answered mail as an ode to futility.
An earlier version of this article by Katleen Gabriels was published in Dutch in 2017.
About this column:
In a weekly column, written alternately by Tessie Hartjes, Floris Beemster, Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.