Could I Do This?

The truth?
I don’t know.
I agree with the sentiments expressed in this short film and admire these people and their courage and their commitment to action and hope and change for the better but I’m not sure I could be as magnanimous if someone took my child.
But I’d really like if I could.
I don’t admire success or fame or accomplishment. I don’t aspire to be like anybody else really – certainly not in regard to what our societies tell me I should want to emulate. But I do aspire to be as open-hearted, as brave and as far-seeing as these people.

Dido and Aeneas

Roman Mosaic (part), found at Low Ham (Somerset)

Roman Mosaic (part), found at Low Ham (Somerset) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The beauty of some stories is that they are telling one story when they seem to be really telling another.

Take the Aeneid for example. Virgil wrote the Aeneid c. 29-19 BCE – in other words over two thousand years ago. He wrote it to glorify Rome and to give the Roman people a pedigree of greatness – to claim them as the descendants of the defeated Trojans. But the Aeneid is not just the story of a defeated – or even glorious – people.  It is the story of people.

Like Dido.

Dido is tricked by the gods into falling in love with Aeneas – but fall in love she does. Against her better judgement – and contrary to her loyalty to the memory of her dead husband – she and Aeneas become lovers.

And then Aeneas leaves.

He can’t stay in Carthage because he is destined to lead his people to Italy to found the Roman nation and so he is commanded by the gods to leave Carthage. Leave Dido.

Dido can’t bear it. Insane with loss of love and loss of self-respect and loss of hope for the future she kills herself with a sword Aeneas has left behind.

Virgil portrays Aeneas not as a cad but as a dutiful man who has to get on with his mission and, therefore, must leave Carthage. As we read the Aeneid we are certain Virgil thinks it would be much worse if Aeneas stayed in Carthage and neglected his duty.  Even so, Virgil describes Dido and her love for Aeneas with tenderness and sadness.  He describes her as a good, and up to this point, dutiful woman and not – as is so common in literature – as a seductive she-devil. It is the sweetness and not the evil of Dido’s love that distracts Aeneas from his mission.

As Book Four of the Aeneid progresses, Virgil describes Dido’s anguish, her growing madness as the Trojans prepare to leave. With Virgil we feel her desperation, her unbearable distress and longing for release and then we feel the pain of Anna, Dido’s sister, who discovers her beloved sister on a pyre with a sword plunged into her body.  Virgil shows us Anna, crying and holding the bleeding body of Dido as she dies.  Even the goddess Juno is moved by Dido’s suffering and sends a messenger to take a lock of Dido’s hair so that her pain can end, though her death is not meant to be.

Virgil elicits our sympathy for Dido and her pain and though he has a two thousand year old view of Dido and Aeneas as pawns of the gods not fully in charge even of their own decisions, he never once characterises them as other than human. Virgil shows us the big picture and all the small pictures that exist inside it.  He describes each part of the picture as a section of reality that doesn’t negate or nullify any other part but rather contributes to the overall truth. Rome was founded on glory but also on sadness and sacrifice and pain. Like a huge mosaic picture made up of individual pictures.  It’s a richer picture.  We could learn from it.

The View From the Top of Death Hill

I cannot guarantee much in life but I can absolutely guarantee that the vast majority of people alive at this moment will be dead before the next century arrives.

Including me.

We all think we understand this but do we? Or do we just put it out of our heads as if it isn’t likely to happen at all?

Ignoring death – for whatever reason – is a mistake –  because knowing – really knowing – that we will most definitely die – gives us perspective on living.

It’s as if death is a vantage point from which we can get the best view of our lives.

None of us know the day or the hour, the how or the why or the way of our death.

But we do know it is inevitable.

So maybe we should take off our blinkers and look around from the top of Death Hill and, seeing the vista of our lives, choose our paths?

This is what I have been thinking about lately.  Life.  Death.  Suffering.  But it’s hard to think about these things in a truly comprehensive way because they are so big.  I’ve always found that a useful thought experiment with the huge and indefinable is to imagine it smaller and easier to see.

So I made a list – not a very exciting list – a pretty boring Five Years and I’m a Memory list, in fact.  But while the items on the list were pretty unspectacular, the fact that the obstacle to every single thing on my list is the same, jumped off the page and mugged me a bit.

It sounds too simplistic to be true – but it is true.

It seems like a coincidence that it reminds me of Brené Brown’s TED talk on shame that I watched – and wrote about – last week – but it does.

According to my list, the single obstacle in the path of my life is what she describes as shame.  The big, fat, blood-sucking parasite of shame, tinged with fear and humiliation.  It turns out that I may well be waiting to be perfect and bullet-proof before acting in many ways. And that I am caught – like a demented insect – in the ‘I’m not good enough’/’Who do you think you are?’ bind.

Which is a bit of a shocker for me as if there’s one thing I would have thought I’d learned, that was to try.   I know that the lack of money or time or expertise or opportunity may influence my chances of success but none of those things can stop me from trying.

If you don’t make it you can’t sell it.

If you don’t try to fix it, it’ll stay broken.

If you don’t try to invent it, it’ll remain uninvented.

If you try, you may or may not succeed but if you don’t even attempt what you want to do/create/fix/dream then success is absolutely impossible.  And that’s a guarantee.  Like death.

Turns out I wasn’t applying that philosophy to everything in my life, which leaves me with lots to think about as I sit here atop Death Hill and survey the terrain.

If you’d like to think about death – and therefore really think about life – you might find this talk interesting –