By Mark Ackerman, PA-C
For those of you who are not familiar with the tale of Sisyphus, it is a Greek myth of a king who cheated death; not once, but twice, in his life. The first time he died he managed to capture and imprison Death so that no one could die and he was able to escape from Hades. Eventually Death was freed from his chains and Sisyphus died again. The second time Sisyphus was able to charm his way out of Hades by making promises to Hades’ wife. Eventually dying a third time Sisyphus was punished by the God Zeus so that he could not con his way out of the nether world again. His punishment was to roll a boulder up to the top of a tall hill. Upon getting to the top however, the precipice of the hill would not hold the boulder and it would roll down the other side. Sisyphus would have to start the project all over from the bottom. It was an eternal punishment, having to repeatedly struggle to get the boulder to the top only to have it roll down the hill yet again.
Now many of you reading this article are already way ahead of me. The point of me reiterating this story is to compare it with our feelings of constantly struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. Every time we start to feel we are getting to the top of the hill, we find out that the boulder is starting to roll down the hill again
Unfortunately, Covid has been spreading in waves. We get a large number of cases followed by a drop in cases, then it starts over again. We now have a vaccine and yet some people tell us the boulder is rolling down the hill again. The one thing that is worse than the goal post constantly moving is that the boulder is constantly rolling down the hill. Even though this pandemic has barely been around for a year, Covid-19 seems to be an eternally recurring problem despite our efforts to roll the boulder up the hill time and again. It makes us all ask the question, when is this thing going to be over?
I wish that I could answer that question in a true non-theoretical way; but unfortunately I don’t have either a crystal ball or a magic lamp. All I have are a few anecdotal stories to tell.
So here is another story; but this one is true. In 1902 there was a French Military officer whose name (translated into English) was George Herbert. It was during WWI and George was stationed in the Caribbean off the island of Martinique. During that time there was a massive volcano that erupted and killed some 70,000 people.
George was on a ship and helped save hundreds of lives that day. In the process, he noted several qualities about the people who he rescued. The survivors had two characteristics: The first was that they were able to escape the island by running, then swimming and the second was that they had the strength to climb aboard a ship allowing them to get to safety.
This insight eventually led George to become a physical educator and develop a training system that became very popular the world over. It became most popular in the French Military where George taught soldiers how to be in shape to perform 3 distinct objectives; to escape, to pursue and to attack. George was also concerned not with just the individual ability to do these things but to do these things as a group. The three pillars of his training system became; Physical Training, Mental Training (courage) and Ethical Training (helping your fellow soldier).
For George, the ability to escape, pursue and attack meant that everyone in the group needed physical strength, mental strength and ethical strength.
So what do you ask, does this have to do with Covid-19 and rolling boulders up a hill? Well, everything. The good news is that the mythical story of Sisyphus is just that, a myth. While it seems like this thing will never go away, we have to be rational about the situation. While Covid seems to be coming in waves, we should note that the waves, while bigger, are resulting in smaller percentages of death rates. We are making progress, even though we can’t see the top of the hill yet.
The other good news is that getting away from an “erupting volcano of a pandemic” and getting off “Covid Island” is possible. We do need some strength and skill in order to do it but it can be done. So the point here is to remind ourselves what strengths and skills we need to escape.
In order to escape we need to recognize who is dying from the disease and fortify ourselves against those weaknesses. People who are at increased risk of developing severe illness from covid are people with: Cancer, Chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down Syndrome, Heart Disease (of certain types), Obesity, Pregnancy, Smoking, Immunocompromised states, people over the age of 80 and Type II Diabetes. If you have any of these problems, you need to get in to see your Doctor and make a plan of how best to modify your risk. Escaping certain disease states could make the difference in escaping the pandemic. While some of these disease states are permanent it does not mean that you can’t modify your situation and improve your risk.
The second principle is to develop mental strength. Mental toughness is characterized by one thing and that is, the ability to deal with adversity. We need to teach ourselves how to approach adversity without complaining, getting angry, blowing a fuse, panicking, giving up or resorting to fear mongering. It is only in this way that we can plan our strategy with a clear and level head.
The third principle is to develop ethical strength. In George Herbert’s training he looked at ethical development as physical strength combined with mental strength (courage) and altruism. It is that physical and mental ability to help others in need- to carry your load and part of someone else’s load too.
So the bottom line is this: In order to cheat covid, what we need is increased physical strength through better health, the mental strength through appropriate mental health and the ethical strength to help those around us who are in need.
Let’s all recognize that rolling the boulder up the hill is not so much a punishment but a calling for our generation of people. We have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our neighbors and our children.