Primary education has changed a bit since I last darkened the corridors of a school of that level. The teachers used to foist stuff on us that was so impractical, we were regularly given to pestering them with questions of the form, “When will we ever need this crap in real life?”
Not anymore. Today we specialize in practical education. If it won’t help us contribute to the GNP, why learn it? Barring appearances on Jeopardy, those factoids would probably never budge from their initial resting places, buried forever among our little gray cells. They take up space better filled with useful information such as, “Where did I leave my keys?” Greek mythology, for instance. Back in the day, it was a compulsory topic. What good did it ever do us? Well, let’s put it to good use now, shall we?
There were several characters in those old tales whose predicaments weren’t much different than the ones we find ourselves in today, many centuries later. We do well to remember their stories, if we were fortunate enough to to hear them in the first place.
Remember Sisyphus? He was the guy who was condemned forever to push a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back just before he reached the top. Day after day, he performed the same meaningless, futile task. Pretty much sums up my entire working career.
Tantalus (whence we get the word “tantalize”) stood in a pool of cool water that drained away every time he bent down for a refreshing drink, while above him hung a cluster of plump, juicy fruit that rose out of reach every time he tried to fetch himself a snack. That’s most people’s lives, I’d say.
Then there’s poor old Damocles.
Damocles wasn’t technically a mythical figure. His story, told in the last few centuries before Christ, might be apocryphal and definitely qualifies as myth by my estimation.
Damocles in his vanity wanted to feel what it was like to be a great king. To give him an idea, the king sat him on the throne. One catch: Above the seat hung a massive sword suspended by a single hair of a horse’s tail that threatened to snap at any moment, thus permanently transforming Damocles into a split personality.
This anecdote is meant to demonstrate that with great power comes great risk and danger. But those of us with MS know that it has a far wider application. MS hangs over our heads with more uncertainty and risk than Damocles’ blade. We don’t know where the sword came from, how reliable the string is, or when and how it might fall. We only know it’s there. All the time. Maybe it will never fall. Maybe it will.
This depressing scenario was presented to me by the neurologist who diagnosed me with MS. He told me it was like living with the sword of Damocles dangling above my head. (I’m grateful for a comprehensive education that allowed me to be aware of the reference.) He later retracted his statement, realizing how discouraging it was, but the damage was done.
The comment might make for poor bedside manner, but it’s apt. Those of us with MS have no idea how our bodies might betray us next. Eyes? Hands? Bowels? Legs? Memory? They (and many more) are all potential victims of the suspended scimitar. While Damocles could (and did) relinquish his spurious seat, we don’t have that luxury. We depend on powerful medications that at best might fortify the string that keeps our nemesis at bay.
Not to single out the victims of MS. Doesn’t the allegory apply to all of us? It truly is a thin strand that keeps us from disaster every day.
A cell buried somewhere in an obscure organ mutates and, unbeknownst to its host, cancer has begun its attack. The string snaps.
A young mother looks away from the road for just an instant and doesn’t see the drunk driver heading toward her. The sword falls.
An innocent teenager wanders into the wrong neighborhood and a stray bullet pierces his skull. Another victim of the fate of Damocles.
It’s not within our power to abdicate Damocles’ throne. Life is a risk. We’re gambling with house money, but no one gets out alive. Other than doing what we can to strengthen that string, all any of us can do is be prepared in our hearts, souls, and relationships.
[Sorry if you find this depressing. My calling is to get people to think. Did it work?]