When we wake up every morning, for the first few minutes we may still feel the optimism and opportunity of a new day. For a brief interlude, the reality we face may not fully enter our consciousness. But before we can relish the possibilities ahead, we have a rude awakening. We are still facing the unforgiving challenges and setbacks of nearly a year battling the pandemic. It reminded me of articles I wrote in the past about the struggles of Sisyphus as it relates to the uphill battle women face trying to advance in the legal profession.
According to the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to push a heavy boulder up a mountain over and over again, only to have the boulder roll back down every time he reached the peak. He was sentenced to repeat this endless cycle of futile effort as a never-ending punishment. Even after nearly four decades in the law, I have witnessed glacial progress and recurring obstacles facing historically disadvantaged groups seeking to reach the pinnacles of our profession. We keep pushing the heavy boulder against resistance only to face setback after setback.
The struggle of Sisyphus is not unique to women lawyers; it is a struggle familiar to any group fighting against an entrenched system that is resistant to change. But now, the myth of Sisyphus is rearing its ugly head for all of us during the pandemic. As we begin the tenth month of mandatory remote work, I wake up each morning knowing my contacts with colleagues, friends, clients and even adversaries will not be face-to-face and will be limited to telephone or video conference. From this stifling experience, I feel a sense of Sisyphus’ fatigue.
This fatigue is different from tiredness after a restless night’s sleep or exhaustion after rigorous physical or mental exertion from which we can recover with a good rest. It is fatigue that comes from being dragged down as you’re pushing forward with all your might, yet still failing to move ahead or staggering backwards from the weight of the heavy boulder of the pandemic. Despite widespread vaccine distribution on the horizon, like Sisyphus, we keep repeating the same routine of isolation and social distancing without an easy out.
The challenges of the monotony of looking at the same four walls in our cobbled together home offices, of attempting to homeschool our children and support our seniors, and most importantly, of keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy, are wearing us down. We are all beyond tired of pushing against the same pressures, month after month, particularly as the restrictions ebb and flow with the surges in confirmed virus cases. We wonder are we condemned to being stuck in the same place without much to look forward to? How can we break out of this futile cycle of Sisyphus pushing the boulder only to have it roll backwards on us with each news broadcast?
In years past, the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Years was filled with frenetic activity from meeting work and school deadlines to attending celebrations and spreading good cheer. This year, many of us are facing a dramatically different landscape and may feel there is little to celebrate and no one with whom to share a holiday hug. Eventually, the health risks of this pandemic will subside. Until then, how do we continue to cope?
Even though we are unable to push the pandemic boulder over the mountain top just yet, there are some steps we can all take to mitigate the fatigue. First and foremost, we can be thankful for the many health caregivers, first responders and essential workers who put themselves at risk every day tending to the rest of us – as well as relieved as front line workers start to receive a vaccine. Second, we can do our best to protect ourselves and others by being unselfish – wearing a mask and social distancing when around those outside of our households. The modest imposition on our usual ability to move around without these constraints is a bargain price to pay for sparing continued suffering and saving lives. Third, we can reach out to those of us who are physically alone; we may not be able to host them at our holiday table, but we can visit with them over the phone or video on holidays or just any day. Reaching out can make a big difference as we all long for more human contact. Finally, we can dream of what we most want to enjoy when our Sisyphean struggle ends, as inevitably it will. One day, we will push the COVID-19 boulder over the peak of the mountain and instead of rolling back at us, it will plunge and be shattered. Until then, remember we all struggle as Sisyphus together; you are not alone.