Linear Thinking

Catherine Jefferson

April 2009

Sisyphus had eternity to contemplate his fate, and it was only natural that he should contemplate the meaning of those words. As he rolled and pushed his rock, he asked himself what "eternity" and "fate" meant anyway.

He understood that the nature of time was at the center of this question. Did his fate define his life, or were these moments simply fleeting? Was every moment of life fleeting? Or was every moment somehow defining? Were these terms mutually exclusive? Or did they even have any meaning at all? These were the questions Sisyphus asked himself, for he knew that his happiness depended on his answers. By his estimation, he had three options, or three models of the space-time continuum.

The first model was globular. He could view time as a jumble of disconnected events, each independent of the others. In this view, nothing mattered, and thus, he could do anything. Or, Sisyphus thought bitterly, anything except get away from that rock. But nothing else, neither the rock nor his thoughts made any difference. It did not matter that he had liberated Death or that he rolled the rock in punishment. Nothing was connected. There was only the now. In this view, life was wholly devoid of meaning, and each attempt to inject it with meaning was futile in the great cosmic scheme. That was the first option.

The second model was circular. Realists and cynics alike championed this view, for they saw time as one great circle, rotating around on itself. They viewed time as cyclical. Oh, it was a pretty model, yes, in which past, present, and future were intrinsically connected. In fact, there was very little difference between the three. Nothing ever changed for long. Time was fundamentally stagnant. This was very much the fatalist's view, for things remain as they have always been, and will never change. For better or for worse, there was never any progress. Problems remained unsolved. There was nothing that could be done but accept the circle and let the current of the whirlpool pull you along. If time was circular, Sisyphus lost control of his universe. He had had the audacity to think that he could change the human attitude toward life itself. He had thought that he could love his life and live it without fear of the Gods. They proved him wrong and punished them, as they had always done to mortals and lower gods who threatened the status quo. Sisyphus was no different from Prometheus, Orion, or Atlas; he was simply another player in the great Shakespearean tragedy of the universe. That was the second option.

The third model was linear. This was how idealists viewed the world—as a chain of events that were connected through logic and reason—a series of events that were not stagnant but progressive by nature. An idealist realized that the world does not always change for the better, but it does change. Idealists had faith in people and believed that people learn. They rose up and did what they believed to be right. When they realized that something was wrong, that something could be a miserable endless cycle, they broke it. Idealists moved the world forward toward utopia. The past existed only as a guide, and the present was merely the bridge to the future. Those who believed in linear time saw the world as it should be and fought to accomplish that goal. Fate determined nothing; the human spirit determined everything.

Now, if he accepted this model of time, he made a conscious decision to embrace life and evade Death. According to this model, his actions were the logical and reasonable outcroppings of the dual oppression of Zeus on Olympus and Hades in the Underworld. Of course, his actions, too, had consequences. That was why he now found himself rolling the rock down the hill yet again. No action was devoid of consequences, positive or negative. He had made choices, and he was now following through. That was the third option.

At this point, Sisyphus would heave a labored sigh. That was the choice, he knew; decide how he viewed time, and everything else would fall into place, for better or for worse. Yet, having thought it through, it was not so difficult of a decision as he would have thought. Only one of these models made any sense in the context of his life. Only one gave him room to breathe. Only one lifted him above the weight of his rock. He had made choices. This was the consequence. He could accept that. He would set aside past and future, as they no longer served any purpose. He would embrace each moment as it came.

Sisyphus began to push the rock up the hill again. He smiled, as he resolved himself to a life of linear thinking. He found that it wasn't any punishment at all.