Posted by: krusty505 | December 8, 2011

Sisyphus In Purgatory

If you read my post last week ‘O Mickle is the Powerful Grace that Lies’, you know that I had an impromptu heart to heart with two of my students about taking responsibility for the circumstances of their lives and trying to act in spite of them. Unfortunately, the population I work with often gets mired down in the details of their immediate life circumstances instead of looking at their lives more globally, and they are excellent at playing the victim role regarding their all too frequently tragic childhoods i.e. “Yeah, I beat the shit out of my girlfriend, but the DA fucked me over, so that’s really why I’m here.” Or “Well, I grew up around a lot of violence, so that’s just how I am.” Of course, this is a gross exaggeration, but there is a general truth here. Hence, though technically I teach reading and writing, peripherally I hope to teach some critical thinking skills and maybe even help them to carefully consider their life choices.

On the other hand, I sometimes think my students have placed themselves in a self-inflicted mortal purgatory of sorts. There is a tremendous amount of guilt and shame associated with not only the acts they’ve committed, but also in the awful things that happened to them as children. It’s like they are on a carousel of crime, constantly circling through a life filled with shameful and shocking acts and landing back in jail and/or prison over and over. And this self-fulfilling prophecy goes on and on through generation after generation. 

I’m not certain how my colleagues feel, but this grim reality often forces me to reflect on some of my own life choices and to consider how I’ve attempted to alter my behavior and outlook in spite of some rough circumstances from my childhood. (Those of you who know me more personally will know exactly what I’m talking about on both fronts!) I find these days that I’m loathe to judge other’s actions, and I tend toward a view of life that acknowledges the complexity of factors which make up our inputs and outputs. I’ve always felt like this job, working with people who’ve made terrible choices but who’ve also suffered tragic lives, requires a deep and abiding faith in redemption, and I’d like to believe that I qualify on that front.

With that said, today in class, the same two guys I was talking about last week came rollin’ into my room, chatting it up. The one who I really thought I made an impact on last week was talking about his mother and his childhood, and though I didn’t catch every word, what I did hear was, “Yeah, it was great living with my mom. Everyday I’d wake up to a Dr. Pepper and a bag of weed on the kitchen table.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “Really?! After our discussion of last week, you think it was great to start the day with a sugar and caffeine bomb and drugs provided by your mother!? Good Lord, I feel like Sisyphus!”


“Sisyphus. You know the Greek who angered the Gods by being a greedy and avaricious person, and whose consequence was to eternally push a huge boulder up a hill. Just when he’d get to the top, it would roll back down, and he’d have to start all over again. It’s like a parable for eternally frustrating and futile endeavors in life or I guess in Einstein’s parlance the very definition of insanity.”


“Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

“I’m lost, Pauls.”

“Nevermind. I guess after last week’s conversation I thought you might consider that it might not be the best thing for you to be provided drugs by your parent.”

“Oh, yeah, well I know that, but as a kid, it was great.”

And really how could I argue with him? It probably was great.

But then I got to thinking about how maybe we are all just a bit like Sisyphus, dragging our boulders around in a futile effort to overcome life’s tragedies both big and small. But how? Do we ask God for forgiveness? Do we accept that life is suffering and deal with it? Do we try to trick the god(s) into thinking we’ve done their bidding when we really haven’t? Do we try to create meaning out of life’s seemingly meaningless randomness? Do we delve into our pasts and attempt to confront the inner demons that lock us all into a self-imposed prison of neurosis? Do we try a combination?

I say neither liberation nor redemption comes from playing the victim card. Neither comes from living out this mortal coil in some Sisyphean purgatory. Neither comes from a court mandated punishment, and surely neither comes from the belief that starting the day with a Dr. Pepper and a dime bag is some sort of grace.

Just sayin’.



  1. You are truly on the Hero’s Journey! Currently mired along The Road of Trials, by the sound of it. Hopefully you will get some supernatural aid soon… and soon be in a position to share a few boons with your fellow man…

    At least your wit and perspective seems undaunted. Those guys are quite fortunate to have you in their lives. You can lead a horse to water… Keep up the good attitude and supplying a refreshing resource in what would surely otherwise be a bleak desert.

    • Thanks, Peter. I think the cobbles on the road of trails are currently running up my vertebrae!

  2. Excellent writing and a fantastic post to reflect on. You are bringing so much more to the table as an educator. They (and we) are lucky to have such a genuinely thoughtful and compassionate teacher.

  3. Hi Chris,
    I heard you speak at Tecolote (St. John’s) back in January about your work at the MDC and was deeply moved by your presentation and the stories of your students. Then, a few weeks ago, I came across this book (My Life with Lifers) about a woman who teaches at San Quentin, and I actually read it, which is amazing for me because I am a fiction junkie. (I blame you…) Anyway, I thought you might find it interesting:

    Barbara Gerber

    • Barbara,

      Thanks for the comment. As you can see from my post on today, I have been ignoring my blog, sadly. I will check out this book. I’m in the midst of Moby Dick; needless to say I don’t really have time for anything else besides “Why Read Moby Dick,” which is a great read, too, and is really helping me understand Melville and the context of MB.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the presentation at SJC. Tecolote is one of my favorite things!


      • Ok, this is the truth: I’m reading Moby Dick too right now, for the first time since 11th grade. I recently read an interview of Ken Kesey, in which he identified MB as the best American novel ever written, so I figured that was a good recommendation. I also just read (with my 11th grade English classes) the nonfiction book In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, which is the historical account of the whaleship Essex, the voyage upon which MB is based. It’s a mind-blowing book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
        All right then, happy reading, and be well.


  4. Barbara,

    How ironic! Nathan Philbrick also wrote “Why Read Moby Dick.” I also read “Into the Heart of the Sea” and found it utterly fascinating. Did your students enjoy it? Btw, I think melville’s understanding of the human psyche is truly amazing. I’ve tried several times to read MD, but I never could get into it. However this time I’m really enjoying it. For me it’s a slow read, lots of processing time required.

    • Hi again, Chris.
      My students did like “In the Heart of the Sea.” Philbrick is a genius. I’ve heard his book “Mayflower” is also excellent. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to read “Why Read Moby Dick,” but I’m thinking next to read the novel “Ahab’s Wife,” which I’ve heard is good stuff. Moby Dick can be a bit of a slog at times, but it feels to me like choosing brown rice over white — it takes a while to chew it, but you’re better for it.

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