If you want to kill imagination, it is an easy process of reduction. Simply hunker down, grab on to what you know, and make more rules. Then convince yourself that your dreams aren’t safe and that change will be deadly. Finally, press your imagination into the service of your fear. That always does the trick.
Sisyphus, that guy who pushes the rock uphill, has a much bigger story than you might have realized. That famous rock-pushing part comes at the end of the story and is actually a metaphor for a life well lived, not a punishment. The fuller story of Sisyphus holds some clues about how to work with complex issues—like diversity and inclusive leadership. And out of his story comes the core tenets of our work.
A great storyteller named Tom McKenzie
said that all stories are really about passages from one way of being to
another, each passage coming down to one moment, one choice. Here’s how it
happened for Sisyphus, that crucial moment when the imagination transcends the
Hades, the great god of the underworld, came to fetch Sisyphus, only to be tricked by him and chained to a post. Because Hades was captive, no one could enter into the underworld. That mean that no one could die; without death, nothing could change—old folks kept living and brutal injuries weren’t fatal. Nothing worked as it should. Summer refused to give way to autumn. The sun stopped moving through the sky. Crops withered. Wells went dry.
Not amused, the gods commanded Sisyphus to let Hades go, putting enormous pressure on him. They cajoled! They threatened! Filled with fear, Sisyphus sat very still and shuddered.
Even though they were living days that had no end and no mystery, people put enormous pressure on Sisyphus to keep Hades padlocked. They were hungry and thirsty, but at least they knew what their tomorrow was going to be. People grew numb to each other. Life was predictable and fundamentally meaningless.
Sisyphus was in a bind. To let Hades go would surely mean the end of his life – at least as he knew it. Yet to perpetuate this meaninglessness was unbearable. He was terrified.
Sitting there on the edge of death, Sisyphus had a moment of clarity. He realized that to open the lock was to choose death, change, and uncertainty. But keeping Hades chained was also to choose death—the death that comes with unending certainty. The first kind of death fired his imagination, made it run wild; it terrified and exhilarated him. The second kind of death killed his imagination, bored him, smothered his desires.
Sisyphus stood up, opened the padlock, and let Hades go.
When faced with change and uncertainty, Sisyphus did as we all do when we believe that life is a win/lose (finite) game. He recoiled. He invested in his fear. He placed himself in a vicious circle by avoiding the engagement that would change him. In fact, he chained change itself to a post and pretended his problem was solved. Then he watched his world become diseased with predictability and sameness.
Vicious circles can only reduce and exclude. You know you are in a vicious circle when you stereotype, when you retreat from difference, go color blind, or believe you see a level playing field. When placing gates around your community looks like a solution, fear is the driver of your actions. You know you are in a vicious circle when you reduce yourself and stifle your own creativity, when there is a great distance between how you want to be seen and who you really believe yourself to be.
Sisyphus’ story, when told in full, is a guide to the virtuous circle. It demonstrates an expansive way of being. He chose growth over stasis, change coming when he embraced the unknown and stepped towards difference, discomfort and uncertainty. He let go of win/lose thinking and entered into an infinite game where the goal isn’t to win, but to learn. He engaged with the gods, relinquished control, and entered a place he’d never been, knowing he would become something beyond his wildest imagining. Sisyphus lived and thrived as a king for many years after opening that padlock precisely because he walked into his discomfort and fear.
- What skills will help you move from the vicious to the virtuous circle?