As most of our Rockaway residents probably know, they have been doing significant work on the beach, building rock jetties to try to stop the erosion. A few months ago, during an early morning walk on the boardwalk, I stopped to talk to a few of the construction workers. They were standing together chatting, just before they were about to go to their assignments and begin their day’s work. I had just taken a sunrise photo the morning before with a crane lined up perfectly in the foreground. I was considering sharing the photo with them and hoping that maybe one of them would be the man who was actually sitting in the crane when I took the photo. Sure enough, he was one of this group, and I was happy to text the photo to him. Then I asked them a couple of questions that had been on my mind for weeks, watching them work in different sections on the beach while I walked by. I asked what the final product would look like, how many jetties there would be, what the configuration on 116th Street would be, etc. The one closest to me, who I had sent the photo to said, “We don’t know; we just move the rocks where they tell us to.”
I walked off pondering that response. In my experience as a leader I always believed it was important that everyone knew what the overall mission was, and the importance of their part in it. How could these men feel motivated to work so hard every day on the beach in the bitter cold moving those giant rocks about without knowing what those jetties would look like when the project was completed? I actually felt kind of bad for them. Then I thought of the Greek mythology piece “Myth of Sisyphus.” Sisyphus had cheated death and for that his punishment by the gods was to spend eternity struggling to push a large stone up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and repeat that grueling labor over and over again. I thought of the typical interpretation of that story I’ve heard through the years; life, and all of our efforts are meaningless. I thought of these construction workers in that context.
But as I walked on further I thought of the work of the philosopher Albert Camus, and some things I have read about his interpretations of the Myth of Sisyphus. Camus imagined Sisyphus not only content, but happy in his labor. We can spend too much time wondering what purpose the universe has given us when, our true mission, our greatest gift we can give is living the life we have. Maybe there is no greater purpose than the one we are living now. Maybe it’s just about pushing the rock up the hill, over and over again, enjoying the process. And what is that process? Living life! Loving others. Being loved. Making other people smile while they’re pushing their rock up the hill next to us. Maybe we can even help someone push their rock up the hill when the struggle is too much for them.
Walking on, I stopped feeling sad for my construction worker friends moving the rocks on the beach. I began to picture them all having breakfast together in a nearby diner before I saw them, enjoying each other‘s company and friendship. I imagined them making FaceTime calls with their loved ones throughout the day, while taking a break sitting in the crane. I saw their faces, happy to enter their homes and enjoy a wonderful dinner and evening with their families. And I realized how shortsighted it was of me to think I could know whether these men lived fulfilling lives.
It’s been several months since I took that photo and had that chat the next day on the boardwalk. Now when I walk in the morning I often look out at the jetties that are now in place. I appreciate their beauty. They have been perfectly placed, flat surfaces on top, so we can enjoy walking out on them. I imagine how they will add value to the countless photos people will take of the sun rising over the ocean in the morning, with those jetties in the foreground. And just as important, the work that these men and others have done these past few months in Rockaway will save our beaches.
I will end with a message to each of them, one hopefully they will see. Thank you for the work you have done. You may not have satisfied my curiosity that morning, but you taught me something much more important; whether we know it or not, every job we do brings value and everything we do in life matters.
Thank you for teaching that to me.