Thursday, December 16, 2004

Words for those on the road

[Last words for English 3009, Myth and Culture]

The ancient Greek word for “truth,” alēthia, literally means “that which is not forgotten.” As you make your way down the road, don’t forget about where we’ve been this semester:

As you get older, remember Gilgamesh and the great truth that “There is no permanence.” That recognition will begin to add a poignant significance to countless parts of your life. (Just wait ’til you have children!)

When you lose someone to death, remember Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and recognize that the experience of human grief is much the same as it was 3500 years ago. Loss is no less painful now than then.

When you become caught up in the American pastime of needless consumption, remember Charles Foster Kane, whose life is ample evidence that the one who dies with the most toys doesn’t necessarily win.

When you’re overcome by rage, remember Achilles and the compassion and self-discipline that he’s able to draw upon in his treatment of Priam in Iliad 24. In other words, remember to be your best self and not lose that self in permanent anger.

When you feel put upon by all the responsibilities you have to other people, remember Hector and the way in which dedication to others can mean not losing your identity but finding it. And when you recognize that you need to do the right thing, even if (or especially if) it’s in a losing cause, remember Hector. That you won’t succeed isn’t a reason not to act. And when doing the right thing means sacrificing your own happiness and pleasure for something far more important, remember Rick and Ilsa and Victor.

When you’re headed toward a goal and find yourself surrounded by temptations and dangers, remember Odysseus, who finally perseveres and gets back to where he once belonged. I think this advice is useful for any college student, who has all sorts of possibilities competing for his or her attention. Don’t lose your life to the lotus, whatever form it might take—drugs, Playstation, chat rooms, television. Don’t listen to the song of the sirens (“You goin’ out tonight?”) when you know that you shouldn’t. And if you think you can listen and get away with it, as Odysseus does, remember that he’s a fictional character.

As you move away from your parents’ oikos and toward making one of your own, remember the importance of sharing with family and friends the pleasures of meals and conversation. Sharing food and drink and talk is one of the practices that make us human. (Isn’t it sad that we need television commercials to encourage us to eat together at the family table?)

When you’re around people who are really old (like grandparents), remember that they were once as young as you and that they probably have all sorts of interesting things to say to someone who’s willing to ask questions and listen. Don’t pass up the chance to talk (really talk) to people who will someday be around only in memory. (This piece of advice is loosely inspired by The Best Years of Our Lives and the fading away of the generation that fought World War II, and also by hearing a young adult grandchild at a memorial service speak of his regret about never getting around to calling his grandfather to have that sort of conversation.)

If you’re lucky enough to find someone who is homophrôn, remember Odysseus and Penelope. When you stay up late at night talking with that person, remember Odysseus and Penelope. And when you’ve been in a relationship for twenty years (or as Fred Derry says, “Twenty years!”), remember Odysseus and Penelope.

And when you find yourself, maybe twenty years from now, thinking of how life would be perfect if only you had a different husband or wife or partner or job or house or life, remember Odysseus’ choice to give up his fantasy world with Calypso for the commitments of the imperfect, real world. In other words, live in relation to those who are your real life, and not in relation to some fantasy of who or what is perfect. We live in a culture saturated with images of what for almost all of us is unattainable human beauty and perfection. Real life though is a lot more interesting.

And when you make mistakes, remember Eve and Adam. Live the consequences of your choices, and learn from them so that you can make better choices next time. Pretty simple, right? (Not!)

That’s enough to remember and do—enough for a lifetime, really. As you move toward the fulltime responsibility of making a living, don’t forget to make a life. A lifetime is so small—make yours count.

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