Futility Refuted

Jeffrey A. Lockwood

There is no such thing as a lasting peace, a tranquility that will persist forever, a final resting place for the lion and the lamb. We yearn for the completion of our task, the fulfillment of our striving, the consummation of our journey. And this longing sows the seeds of our defeat. We aspire to solve conflicts, we ache to be done with the hard work of life, we pine for the day in which an everlasting peace prevails. In believing that the purpose of a peace movement lies in securing an outcome, in reaching an amicable conclusion, in attaining a serene world, we assure our own frustration, our own futility, and ultimately our own failure.

The work of peacemaking will never be done; that is the curse and the blessing of being human. It’s a curse in that there is no utopian culmination of our labors, a blessing in that we will always have meaningful work. The peacemaker is like Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to an eternal life of shoving a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down again in an endless cycle of apparent futility. How could Sisyphus endure such a fate? I’ve asked my students, and their answers were revealing.

Some students supposed that there is always hope, a hope that the gods will relent, that peace will finally come to Sisyphus and perhaps to us. A particularly creative student suggested that over time, the rolling of the boulder would erode the hill so that eventually the labor of Sisyphus would be complete. Maybe as we roll the boulder of peace in every generation, the hill of hate is worn down. But I believe that the most compelling answer came from those students who understood that a sense of futility comes from the belief that we rightfully expect to see the fruit of our labors. We forget that virtue lies in the doing of good works, not in the completing of our task.

Maybe Sisyphus will never recover the graces of the gods; maybe the hill will never be worn down. But if he—if we—can authentically and deeply engage in our labors, if we roll the boulder of peace because it is what we are called to do, if the measure of our work is its capacity to shape who we are, we can go on pushing. And if in the course of our labors the hill of hate is eroded, that will be a beautiful thing, a very beautiful thing.

But as much as we hope that peacemaking will replace warmongering, as much as we hope to live at a critical point in human history, as much as we dream of a glorious conversion of society, we must understand that while epiphanies may change souls, they rarely change the world. To know what we can do, to understand what the world needs of us, we must look into the eyes of the frightened soldier and the terrified child. But to sustain our work, we must look inside ourselves. There we shall find the understanding that the endless labor of life is not about changing the world but about creating ourselves. We cannot make the world peaceful, but neither can the world make us hopeless.