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I first learned about the tale of Sisyphus reading a book on Greek mythology. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth, known for his knavery and deceit. He was also infamous for constantly cheating death. One time, after dying prematurely, Sisyphus found himself at the doorstep of the Underworld, a hellish landscape designated for the deceased. Sisyphus, resorting to his usual tricks, pleaded with the god of the Underworld, Hades, and his wife Persephone for his release back into the living world. Claiming he had to prepare a ritual for a proper death, Sisyphus was allowed to leave the Underworld on the promise of a timely return. Naturally, Sisyphus never came back, reveling back in his kingdom of Corinth until an old age. 

But when Sisyphus died once more, this time he had drawn the ire of the gods. Zeus, deciding Sisyphus could never escape the Underworld again, concocted a devilish punishment. In the Odyssey by Homer, the hero Odysseus witnesses Sisyphus’ eternal punishment:

“Then I witnessed the torture of Sisyphus, as he wrestled with a huge rock with both hands. Bracing himself and thrusting with hands and feet he pushed the boulder uphill to the top. But every time, as he was about to send it toppling over the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and once again towards the plain the pitiless rock rolled down. So once more he had to wrestle with the thing and push it up, while the sweat poured from his limbs and the dust rose high above his head.” 

As I read more about Sisyphus in my own adventures, I wondered what was worse. Was it the recursive nature of Sisyphus’ punishment, or was it the hardship of heaving a boulder up a hill? In the end, it was the sheer pointlessness, the feeling of senseless repetition, that convinced me the bane of Sisyphus was not the act of pushing a boulder itself, but having to push it again, again, and again without so much as a moment of reprieve.   

Today, the word Sisyphean is an adjective referring to a task that is impossible to complete, and I think it aptly describes our world affairs. While solutions are ephemeral and coalitions dissolve as rapidly as they are formed, the carousel of global discord, civil unrest, and societal injustice never seems to stop. It’s always the boulder that has to painstakingly move; I don’t think for a moment Sisyphus ever thought the hill got any flatter. 

The reason I’m bringing up the tale of Sisyphus is not to be didactic, but rather I think it essentializes a part of the DukeEngage program. We are all, in some fashion, given a boulder and expected to push it up a steep hill. There are differences, of course. The work that I will be doing is not supposed to be a divine punishment, and I am not Sisyphus (please believe me when I say that I’m not trying to cheat death). If anything, the decision to participate in DukeEngage is purely voluntary. There are also differences in the approach. We can push the boulder with both hands, with our backs, or together. We can design an apparatus that pushes the boulder for us; and for the most ambitious, we can try lifting the boulder on our own. 

But by choosing to involve ourselves in pushing the boulders of our partner organizations, there’s something else we must understand on our own—apart from the agenda of the DukeEngage program. We must consider the pauses in between the efforts, the periods of frustration and detour, and above all, we must learn for ourselves what it means to watch the boulder we spend so much time pushing to the top roll inevitably back down.

I’ll be partnering with the Durham Criminal Justice Resource Center as part of DukeEngage Durham. The center is unique, as it’s one of the few criminal justice initiatives in North Carolina that’s a governmental agency. The DCJRC serves justice-involved individuals across Durham capacity, covering the entire gamut: pretrial services, substance abuse treatment, juvenile and misdemeanor-based diversion programs, and mental health services. The DCJRC also provides reentry services for justice-involved individuals through a local reentry council, which takes referrals and assists individuals leaving detention and incarceration with education, employment, and housing. I will be researching these reentry programs at a local, state, and national level with the DCJRC, and my goal is to evaluate and hopefully implement the institutional changes needed to reshape a punitive criminal justice system that prioritizes conviction rates over rehabilitation. 

But as robust as some reentry programs are, like that of the DCJRC, their effectiveness can also feel Sisyphean. North Carolina’s 3-year recidivism rate is 40% as the obstacles and environs preventing individuals from seeking safety and stability remain persistent. The currency of our incarceration and re-incarceration system are a facsimile of Sisyphus: constant repetition and little progress.

Sisyphus' was a mythological figure who had to roll a boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down again.
Sisyphus’ was a mythological figure who had to roll a boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down again.


But here’s where reality departs from myth: Sisyphus was condemned to repeat the task of pushing a boulder up a hill for an eternity, and it’s as if we treat criminal justice and our own definitions of progress the same way. If we exert so much effort to push the boulder of societal improvement only to accept that we have to do it again, there’s no wonder why DukeEngage has to be a yearly program.

Truthfully, there’s always work to be done, but this summer, through my partner organization and program cohort, I hope to better understand how it’s not the act of pushing a boulder up the same the hill that gives progress meaning, but rather act of pushing a boulder—whatever it may be—is not so much as important as changing the terrain.



Hello! Thank you for reading my blog post. My name is Michael Cao, and I’m a rising sophomore participating in DukeEngage Durham this summer.