Sisyphus and Proteus: Lessons from Greek Mythology

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Why is it that some days we wake up and feel like good old mythical Sisyphus?

Remember him?

Sisyphus, punished for all eternity to roll a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom when he reaches the top, is the ideal “absurd hero” as Albert Camus called him, struggling perpetually and without hope of success.

Like Sisyphus, some see no other option than the mountain and the rock. Burdened with obligations, lack of control, hopelessness, low expectations and no alternatives, they continue to toil in dead-end jobs, uninspiring environments or co-dependent and unhealthy relationships.

Sounds familiar?

But juxtaposed to Sisyphus, comes another mythological deity, Proteus: The son of Poseidon, he could foretell the future, but changed his shape to avoid it, answering only to those capable of capturing him. From this feature of Proteus comes the adjective protean, with the general meaning of “versatile”, “mutable”, “capable of assuming many forms”. “Protean” has positive connotations of flexibility, versatility and adaptability. Proteus’ insights were valuable to Greek warriors strategizing before their battles.

While crystal balls tend to be inaccurate plenty of times, our own intuition, awareness, flexibility, creativity and consideration of alternatives and possibilities can help us be more like Proteus. The better we understand the forces that shape our lives, the better we can exercise some control over them. The pain is unavoidable and sometimes necessary. “People change when the pain of the status quo becomes greater than the fear of making the change” says Helen Harkness.

While you may not be caught in the Sisyphus pattern, think of its opposite, the Proteus parable. And if you had to choose one, which would you rather be? Sisyphus or Proteus?

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