This particular piece has been knocking at the doors of both my heart and mind for quite some time now. I’m admittedly inexperienced and young, so please feel free to grin at the earnest naiveté of my delivery, but today, the understanding flooded over me: who am I to ignore this longing to write?
And so tonight, I find myself in the company of an almond milk latte and many mental puzzle pieces, trying to clarify this picture for myself and perchance for others. The topic that I’ve been turning over in my head is that of glory, specifically, the ageless notion that glory flows from the courageous human effort to undergo a present sacrifice in the anticipation of something greater in store. I invite you to buckle in and join me on the expedition, as my pen (well, keyboard, but that doesn’t sound as nice does it?) records this common thread of glory from the ancient Greeks, to Humans of New York, to Walden, to True Grit, and to the novel Unbroken.
If you emerge from this discourse with one thing, let it be this: glory requires sacrifice. What seems to be a one-time grand display of valor is always the logical fruition of a long-time habit of little courages. I think that’s the piece we forget a lot; that our short term decisions inevitably build the long term outcome. For those who don’t shy away from power and responsibility, this is great news. It means that there is an unseen weight to our everyday actions, a chance to conquer some tiny, new territory.
The ancient Greeks rooted their idea of heroism in the attainment of kleos aphthiton, literally, undying glory. This means that (rightly considered) every hardship encountered presented an opportunity to gain immortal fame, for if such difficulties were overcome by great manliness, the story would be sung for generations to come. This was the only kind of immortality the ancients believed that they had a fighting chance for– so fight they did. In fact, the great classic epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey are simply records of these very songs: through them, the Greek heroes truly did achieve kleos, and their memory lives on even today. Consider this resolution of the Trojan prince Hector, from Homer’s Iliad:
Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.
The blueprint for glory did not allow for a peaceful, comfortable life at home, but rather required that they seize ever opportunity to prove their courage. The prize of immortality was won by remaining in the minds and hearts of their lineage and would hopefully inspire the young men of women of ages to come to do the same. Only then, do the words of Homer’s later epic, The Odyssey, ring true:
Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured.
I remember first encountering kleos aphthiton in my favorite high school class as a freshman, history, like it happened just this morning. It was an interesting concept, but just that, a far-off notion accompanied by monsters, cheating warrior husbands (same thing), and goddesses whose vanity and jealousy put my high school clique and I to shame. It took me some time to realize that kleos was relevant to my life for the very reason the classics themselves are still relevant: they reveal fundamental truths about human nature. Tonight, I’m interested in the way this reminds me of a Humans of New York post that I read on Facebook my freshman year of college:
Wow. I remember reading this for the first time and being hit hard. “And if you’re only true to your short term self, your long term self slowly decays.” So every day and night that I spent screwing around, I could have spent those hours progressing towards the woman that I want to be. Instead, I had been guilty of letting so much time slip away from me, and thoughtlessly becoming a woman that I did not want to be. In fact, what dawned on me was that little economic notion known as opportunity cost; I wasn’t just staying contentedly in place, no, I was forgoing opportunities to grow, opportunities that others had the decency to utilize. The real kicker is that not only does only living for the weekend cheat your future self from someday realizing your full potential, but the world loses a great person, a great mind, and a great example for future generations as well.
Anyone can hit snooze, grab a triple latte, online shop during class, hit up a party and repeat. Now this is not to say that any of these things are necessarily bad, on the contrary, they’re very good, but the key is not to be caught consistently chasing after the little goods at the expense of a bigger great. It’s an unfortunate reality of our human condition, great things will require sacrifices. If I want to save up for that vacation in France, I can’t buy every dress that catches my eye; if I want to run a half marathon, I can’t indulge in ice cream every night of the week; if I want to become a diligent businesswoman, I can’t just stop learning when the classes cease. There is no glory in the path of least resistance. It takes grit to “reawaken and keep ourselves awake” as Thoreau triumphs in his book, Walden. One can imagine that this is what the Greek bards would have advocated for; this life lived in light of the perpetual future rather than the short-term gratification. Life is made of strong stuff, yes, but we must not water it down, as this washes away the good with the bad and replaces it with a cloudy, lukewarm existence. In the same passage, he later expands upon the glorious task of beautifying each day through our vigilant character:
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
Our first obstacle to glory, then, does not lie in a foreign enemy, but rather we encounter it when we are tempted to choose the short-term over the long-term, the good over the great, the path of least resistance over the extra mile. Therefore, we embark from our comfortable homes, our very own Ithacas, to pursue our life’s mission (though our deepest hearts remain at the familiar hearth.) For the Greeks, their glory-reward only came after facing death undaunted. I would argue that a far superior form of glory, that is unseen by the outside world, comes daily by the thought well thought, the word well said, and the deed well done. An uphill battle, the little sacrifices turn to joys as we soon see them building the sure foundation for a great life work, a corporeal form of immortality. It will take true grit (fabulous book, by the way) to become the hero of your life. And we all know that the world desperately needs heroes.
Perhaps you had the pleasure of reading the book Unbroken (movie, anyone?). If older brother Pete Zamperini’s advice was written off as too dramatic to challenge you personally, I’m convinced that you should think twice:
“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain.”