I’ve been rereading Homer’s Illiad for school. And there seems to be more than just the boring battlefield scenes in it than I remembered from when I was 18. I mean, there are still plenty of those, but there are some other things going on, too. Who knew? But there’s one passage that brought me to tears. And this gets relevant, I promise.
SPOILER ALERT: (Does anyone not know this story?) Achilles has just been told of his best friend Patroclus’ death. And his goddess mother hears him crying and flies down to find out what ails him. She says basically: didn’t Zeus give you everything you wanted? Everything you asked for? And he says:
Mother, yes, the master of high Olympos brought it all about, but how have I benefited? My greatest friend is gone: Patroklos, comrade in arms, whom I held dear above all others–dear as myself–now gone, lost . . . [while] here I sat, my weight a useless burden on the earth.
His self-criticism is fair. His captain, Agamemnon, (who was no match for him in battle) slighted him, so Achilles decided to sulk out the war safe in his ship. And then he called down the God’s wrath to teach his fellow warriors a lesson. But Patroclus took pity on them and went to war. And was killed.
Achilles got the “justice” he asked for, but he lost what was most precious to him in the process. But this isn’t just a “be careful what you wish for” reflection. The real point is what he did next. Which was re-enter the war to avenge his friend’s death and save his fellow countrymen.
He wasn’t just pouting when he decided to sit out the war. He thought he knew what life was, where he stood, what he was fighting for when he went to war: glory. I think he decided to sit out the war after his glory was taken away because he no longer knew what he stood for. He was lost. Like many adolescents navigating a world that is no longer black and white. He had the power all along to help his friends, but he couldn’t because he was lost.
But it was losing the person he loved the most that taught him, I think, that some things are more important than “right” and “wrong” and words like “glory” and “honor”. So he went back to war, even knowing that he would die. Patroclus’ death made him into a man, I’d say.
I think that’s a point worth pausing on. We want certain things that aren’t good for us, ultimately. But we never ever want the things that hurt, do we? And yet, those are the things that teach us about the world and ourselves. Those are the things that ultimately show us what kind of strength we have. Aren’t they? Those are the things that move our souls forward. The happy times are wonderful, but they don’t force us to grow in the same way, do they?
And so here’s the point. I write about poverty, homelessness, rape, domestic abuse, racism, bullying, lots of hard stuff. I want to help kids who have and are suffering out of those situations. I think all of us who work with and write for kids do. But at the end of the day, I don’t think we should hush those hard events away. Because that’s the stuff that builds a life.
Sometimes, if it’s too much or the person isn’t strong enough to stand up under those burdens, then they don’t, and that is a tragedy. But for the kids who suffer and do stand up, those are the experiences that are going to fuel their lives and galvanize their steps. That’s all.