The Greek legend of Sisyphus comes to mind where Sisyphus, whose behaviour drew the ire of all the gods including Zeus, was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill only to see it slip and tumble back down each time he reached the summit.
French philosopher Albert Camus used the myth to illustrate his theory of the absurd, where life is simply the same old, same old and even searching for meaning is in itself a meaningless pursuit.
I imagine that farmers can often feel like Sisyphus, working until their backs are broken, pushing the stone all the way up the hill and, just when they think they can rest on their laurels, the stone rolls back down again.
I remember spending a winter at home with my father in the late 70s.
There was no production, the cows were dry and in those days before slatted units and automatic scrapers it all felt like an endless and meaningless circle of feeding and sweeping.
You fed the cows and, after they had digested what they wanted, they left you to deal with the waste. The cycle continued, day in and day out.
This winter has been incredibly long and harsh, there is little heat in the ground and there is no warmth in the bones of the stock.
The silage pits are running towards empty and the cost of filling the feed silos is escalating by the hour.
Everyone is tired of the harsh wind that almost peels the skin off the chin. The words of WB Yeats come to mind. “Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”
When your life and livelihood is so much at the mercy of the elements, questions begin to ask themselves, questions about whether it is worth it, whether it involves too much sacrifice for too little return.
In recent weeks I have heard even very successful dairy farmers question themselves about the point of continuing to do what they are doing.
Some are finding that the headlong rush into post-quota expansion has simply left them with more debt and more work. In their version of the myth of Sisyphus, the boulder is getting bigger and the hill is getting higher.
To add to the absurdity there is no one in the immediate family willing to take over the rolling of the boulder.
Thankfully spring makes believers of us all again.
It lifts the darkness that has hung over us since November, it makes us raise our heads and look forward. The sight of daffodils, the stretch in the evenings and the hint of heat in the sun give a foretaste of new things.
The buds breaking through on twig and branch stimulate the senses and the distant scent of summer softens the frost in our winter nostrils.
Spring is like an anaesthetic, it wipes the memory of east wind and gives us the courage to go on in the belief that things will get better. Only for it we would become completely stuck.
But like every anaesthetic it will wear off. By the time it does the pain may have gone and the self-doubt might be cured.
But if the pain is still there and the self-doubt lingers then perhaps deeper questions need to be asked.
Spring is a shallow thing if confined to the birds and the daffodils, there has to be a spring in the heart to make it real.
Going back to the Greeks, the word crisis is from the Greek and it can mean turning point, a point at which an important decision has to be made. This is such a juncture. The current crisis in weather and fodder shortage will hopefully be short-lived, the sun will shine, the land will warm up and the crops will grow.
But for the moment we have to wait. This nervous gap between want and plenty is fertile ground for real evaluation of what we are at, for real decision making around why and whether we want to continue doing it.
Do we want to join Sisyphus for another go at getting that boulder to the top of that hill or is there another way?
To paraphrase the late Jackie Healy Rae, it’s a “wide earthly world” of possibilities out there.
A story comes to mind about priorities and when enough work is enough.
An entrepreneur took a short break from his entrepreneurial endeavours and found himself in Dingle.
In the pub one night he asked the barman why things were so quiet and the barman explained that conditions for fishing were unprecedented and all the fishermen were at sea.
The following morning the entrepreneur was up at cockcrow and down at the pier to see the boats come in.
The sights, sounds and smells of the commerce delighted him as he watched the trawlers disgorge their loads and turn again to sea to catch more.
As he made his way back to his hotel for breakfast he spotted one fisherman stretched out on the prow of his boat.
“Excuse me,” he said to the somnolent fisherman, “should you not be out fishing?”
“I was,” replied the fisherman, “I caught a heap of fish and sold them.”
“And why don’t you go out again,” asked the entrepreneur.
“And what would I do then?” asked the fisherman.
“Well, if you keep doing it perhaps you could buy a second and a third boat and treble your catch,” said the entrepreneur.
“And what would I do then?”
“You could sit back and take it easy.”
“And what do you think I’m doing now?” replied the fisherman.
The fisherman and the entrepreneur
By: Jim O’Brien