Be forewarned that this is going to be a sentimental read 🙂
Sometimes we discover deep wisdom in the great books by great men and women; such are the blessings of tried-and-true tradition, or the “democracy of the dead” as Chesterton called it. But certain other times, we are lucky enough (and listen well enough) to find it over coffee and berry pancakes with our best friend. Kristin Collins is my best friend, and a few mornings ago, she (unknowingly) reminded me what genuine love means.
I had to put the “genuine” in front of “love” because there is so much muddiness amidst the conflicting narratives we’re told these days. Genuine love does last forever, but only because it is a binding, daily decision (ah did someone say covenant?). Genuine love does inspire you to do great things (I mean look at this), but only because doing great things is a side-effect of wanting to make another person happy. Genuine love does mean becoming thoroughly vulnerable, but only because at the end of the day, you are two friends that see the same truth.
So in everyday life, genuine love looks a lot like being patient. Like holding yourself and those you love to the highest standard, but having mercy 70×7 times because no one is perfect.
It is relentless, when you ask your best friend (almost every night she’s home) if she wants to have a sleepover, even when she has rarely been able to the past seven years. It is embracing a sinner while denouncing a sin. It is sharing our small moments, because the present is the fullest gift we can give.
The bottom line is this: you are loved not because of what you do but because of who you are. Only then can we finally understand mercy– the over-abundant and unconditional form of love. The opposite delusion arises with the help of our falsely individualistic culture that removes us from the one place where we can best know ourselves– within our families. When the circumstances leave us with no answer for who we are, we are left to assign our worth to what we do. Unable to understand our personhood within the context of our family– think about how little brothers may always bring out our adventurous side and mothers, a passionate desire to be more hospitable– we are left jumping from place to place, dizzy since there is so much to do and become distracted by.
This is why is is crucially important not to get caught up on a branch while trying to climb the tree. Work, business, and productivity are important things, but they are not the main thing (boy did I learn that the hard way this past semester). My dear Kristin reminded me that the real question I should be trying to answer is did you love?
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
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:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
With the gentle eyes of hindsight, these past two weeks may very well have been a dream. But as I thumb through my smutty journal and study my crude, daily recordings, I am firmly reminded that they were full of rocky ups and downs. Somewhere in between frigid bucket-showers, raw blisters, and the endless supply of hugs, I was taught something more about myself, hard-work, and friendship. But that is old news; that is to be expected with each new, uncomfortable experience. What remains now is to attempt to share, though in much less a poetic manner than that of Thoreau, an average day in our dear campo:
6:37 am: Wake up gracefully to the sun shinning through the curtain. JUST KIDDING: the roosters have been “heralding the day” since 4:00 am. I untangle my way out of my pink mosquito net, try to journal down some morning thoughts enespañol, braid my hair, and then all that’s left is to throw on my muddy hiking boots (since I was clever/lazy enough to sleep in my work clothes.)
7:30 am: Enter Olga, always with a piping hot cup of mega-sugary coffee and a cozy, back-rubbing hug. Did I mention that my campo mom is an angel?
8:00(ish) am: Gather up the crew and wade through four rivers (yep, you bet we named them all) to get to breakfast. Discuss in depth the events of the night before, i.e. who won at dominos, who got offered the most food, and who bonded with a new friend over our weird American music.
9:00 am: I finish dunking my last piece of bread in the breakfast hot chocolate and hop into the bed of the community truck– the guagua. We try not to bruise our tailbones on the way to one of the worksites: the tank, digging, or tubing. Let the games begin!
11:00 am: After a few hot hours of working on and off, the kiddos come by during their recreo. They insist on singing us a new song that they learned, and I find myself fighting back tears because children are just so beautiful. Especially these ones. Always holding our hands, they fawn “mi hermana” before scampering back to la escuela.
12:15 pm: Lunch break, gracias a Dios! We all traverse back to the meeting place, a small patio surrounded by chickens, dogs, and mud. Before we carry on, we bow our heads to sing “Bendigamos, al Señor…” Never mind that we still don’t know the tune of the third line. 😉
1:00 pm: Although uncomfortably hot in our jeans, we recline and some manage to nod off while leaning back on their plastic chairs. After washing my hands and face in the outside spigot, I daydream and watch the still, bright green montañas.
2:00 pm: And it’s back to work; some sigh and some sing. By this time, much of the community has joined in the fun and we progress quickly despite the lack of palasypicos, our tools. I have a newfound appreciation for loose, light dirt.
3:00 pm: One of the local madres brings out grape and orange soda. Although never a huge pop drinker, I don’t think I’ve had a more refreshing beverage in my life– ¡Ah, muchas gracias! By this time, almost every able-bodied adult is trying to contribute in some way to the construction of their aqueduct. Some even dig with their bare hands.
5:00 pm: And finally, the aqueduct is another day’s work closer to completion! Our sore feet drag us back home over the rivers and through the woods to wash up before dinner.
5:30 pm: I arrive at my front porch to find my family reclining in plastic chairs and chatting up a storm. They gleefully greet me and insist that I sit down to cool off and relax before I take a shower. I always open up with, “Ay Dios! Fue un día glorioso.”
6:00(ish) pm: After another rousing prayer concluding with the beautiful “Oh-h Padre Nuestro,” we dig into the abundance of plantains, salami, yuca, and salad spread before us. I have a new appreciation for ketchup and hot sauce, as they are somehow able to make all the above taste like a gourmet meal (or maybe that’s the hungry tummy talking.) We thank the cooks profusely, and some of us girls get a free cooking lesson from one of the older women. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that those wrinkled, brown hands work nothing short of a miracle when it comes to the challenge of raw food and open flame.
7:00 pm: More members of the community roll around, and we engage in cards and friendly banter while the elders avidly matchmake the eligible young men and women (but c’mon, what a great story that would be!)
8:30(ish) pm: The River Crew gets a ride back home in the guagua and we arrive to find a gaggle of our neighbors hanging at the local colmado. The party starts as the bachata music is turned up and the dominos are brought out. Quieres bailar?
10:00 pm: Although my sister was with me, I decide to scamper home at a decent hour in order to pass some time with the adults in my family. We watch baseball and do our best (necesito practicar español más) to discuss adult things. Somehow, the conversation frequently turns toward the importance of education (surely they knew the kiddos were listening awake in their beds), and I don’t mind at all since I have a lot to say on the subject.
11:30 pm: It has been a long, long day for us all, but I know that my family will patiently keep me company until I explicitly yawn and declare that I would like to sleep soon. We hug, scuffle back under our mosquito nets, and I turn off the light after recording the new Spanish words of the day. While thoughts of home drift to me in the dark, I catch the whispered Ave Marias of my abuela and am reminded to dar gracias a Dios for my day. And now it’s time to rest. Hasta mañana, mi familia de ángeles– si Dios quiere 🙂
I had the decency to read Thoreau’s Walden this summer, while stationed in a canvas hammock under a great white oak and a swamp ash. As you might imagine, the literary experience was narrated by the rush of the bending, breezed pondweed and buzzing dragonflies. God, nature, commerce, technology, time, people, conversation, labor, etc. were all fair game, but I must say that I especially loved his eloquent familiarity with solitude. My busy, tired brain was justly reminded of the enrichment in quiet and isolation. Having been familiar with that, it seems fitting that we study his words on the polar opposite (or is it?), the bond of friends:
By: Henry David Thoreau
I think awhile of Love, and while I think,
Love is to me a world,
Sole meat and sweetest drink,
And close connecting link
Tween heaven and earth.
I only know it is, not how or why,
My greatest happiness;
However hard I try,
Not if I were to die,
Can I explain.
I fain would ask my friend how it can be,
But when the time arrives,
Then Love is more lovely
Than anything to me,
And so I’m dumb.
For if the truth were known, Love cannot speak,
But only thinks and does;
Though surely out ’twill leak
Without the help of Greek,
Or any tongue.
A man may love the truth and practise it,
Beauty he may admire,
And goodness not omit,
As much as may befit
But only when these three together meet,
As they always incline,
And make one soul the seat,
And favorite retreat,
When under kindred shape, like loves and hates
And a kindred nature,
Proclaim us to be mates,
Exposed to equal fates
And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love’s bands more tight,
Service he ne’er shall rue
While one and one make two,
And two are one;
In such case only doth man fully prove
Fully as man can do,
What power there is in Love
His inmost soul to move
Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter’s storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow’s pride,
For both are strong
Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined
I would claim that the only thing more magnificent than nature is man himself. Hopefully you enjoyed that gem of a poem, happy Monday!