Sometimes, quotes or sayings can help us redirect our thinking, or pull us out of a mind rut.
And sometimes, a mixed-up quote is even better.
The other day I went to a local drugstore to pick up a few things. The drugstore recently changed its reward card program, mistyping my email address into the new system. That sounds like something that can be fixed fairly easily, eh? But no, that typo means I cannot use my rewards card, and no one seems to know how to fix the problem.
To quote the cashier
Anyway, the clerk asked for my rewards card, and I explained that my card was in some kind of computer limbo that made it unacceptable. She couldn’t understand why this was happening, and why I couldn’t make my card work, and did I want her to call a manager? I answered that I had already been through the process, and that the problem was not something the manager could solve at the moment. I said, “It’s okay. It’s just caught in a whirlpool of technology right now.”
She paused for a moment, thinking. Then she said, “Oh. Okay, I get it. The computer has decided you are nonexistent. It’s kind of like Sisyphus pushing the cat up the hill.”
“You know, Sisyphus. He tried to push a cat up the hill.”
I didn’t know what to say. I nodded. She gave me my change and wished me a good day. I nodded until I got outside the electric doors and after they closed behind me with a soft whoosh.
Then I started laughing.
For those who are not familiar with Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who thought he was clever enough to cheat death. He did – twice. He lied and cheated his way all the way to the end, when he finally died of old age. But it’s not nice to fool the gods, and after his death Sisyphus was condemned to forever roll a boulder to the top of a very steep and unforgiving hill. When he reached the top, the boulder would roll to the bottom. Sisyphus would have to retrieve it and start the process all over again.
The drugstore clerk, however, had combined the Greek myth with a 1935 thought experiment of Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In response to a theory proposed by other scientists involving quantum superpositions, he proposed a scenario where a cat was locked in a sealed chamber with a radioactive atom. Don’t worry – it was a thought experiment, and no cats were harmed in the thinking. Schrödinger said that if the theory was true, the cat would be both alive and dead until it was observed by opening the chamber.
Push, kitty, push
In the clerk’s version, poor Sisyphus didn’t have a boulder to push. It was even worse – or better. He had to push a cat – alive or dead – up that hill, only to have it roll (or run, depending on its condition) back to the bottom. Sisyphus then had to wrangle the cat and push it back up the hill, again and again, for eternity.
After the laughter, it made me ponder the combination of the two stories. Sisyphus’ joy and relief at getting to the top of the hill was temporary. But the boulder at the bottom of the hill was also temporary. You could look at his fate as constant opportunities for joy, or constant opportunities for defeat. You could consider the boredom in between. Add a cat to the story – and wow, what an adventure he has in the pushing! In fact, depending on the cat’s status, the pushing itself became the focus, instead of the joy of reaching the top, or the defeat of the return to the bottom. The task is more important than the outcome.
Joy or defeat, worse or better, dead or alive – it’s our call. We create the story from beginning to end. We can even add cats. And in my mind – it’s all fun.
What are you pushing up the hill? What do you see when you reach the top? Or mix your own marvelous combination of Greek myth and science!