Saturday, October 8, 2011

Got guilt? Kill a Hydra

There are time when something obvious will stare me in the face for a long time until I finally realize what it is that I'm seeing.  Such is the case recently while teaching the story of Hercules to my freshmen.  I've covered the story many times before, as I spend an entire quarter on Greek Mythology alone.  I always like to talk about it because for most of them, their point of reference is the Disney version of the character.  I tell them that they're not going to get the little-kid version of any of these myths, and Hercules is always a dramatic example of just such a thing.

For those who don't know anything about Hercules, he's the son of Zeus, and he's best known for completing the famous 12 Labors, which include such adventures as fighting the Nemean Lion, whose hide was impenetrable; defeating the Hydra, who'd grow back a head every time one was cut off; and cleaning the Augean Stables, which involved a whole lot of horse crap.  I've taught the story to my students for several years, but it always took a backseat in my mind to the story of Perseus, another son of Zeus.  I like the Perseus story so much that I even wrote my own version of it for my students to read.  As for Hercules?  I just tell that one because it's one of the most famous and influential.

Anyway, I always ask my students WHY Hercules performed those labors in the first place.  Most of them, familiar with the cartoon, say that it was to become a hero or to become a God.  Sure, in the actual myth he accomplishes both through the 12 Labors.  But that was just the result, and not the cause.  The real reason?  It was because he killed his wife and children, and performing the labors was a way to atone for what he had done.

Now you might be wondering, how the hell can Hercules be a hero when he's done such a monstrous thing?  See, it wasn't his fault.  The goddess, Hera, upset because Hercules was the result of her husband's philandering ways, drove Hercules into a madness, which resulted in the untimely demise of his family.

Then why the heck does he need to atone for something when it wasn't his fault?  That was the thing that never quite sunk in for me.  I figured it was just some relic of an ancient culture that I did not understand.  Stupid me - the problem is that I understand perfectly.  I even wrote recently that I'm the kind of person who blames himself for everything - including things that really aren't my fault at all.  If anybody can understand that, it should be me.

I have a lot of stories about me feeling guilty when it's not my fault.  Every time I have a student who doesn't do well in my class, I feel like it's my fault - even when it's clear that the kids has other issues far beyond my control.  I feel bad when my pets get sick and/or hurt, even if it was no fault of my own.  One piece of guilt that carries with me is how I didn't take in my cat, Asterix, when my parents split up and I got my own place with Kirsti.  I took in my other cat, Tyson, but I didn't take him in, and he wound up getting old and sick to the point where he just up and disappeared one day.  Never mind the fact that Asterix was only "my" cat in the sense that I was just a ten-year old when we took him in to the house.  It wasn't really my responsibility to take in him or Tyson, but I still feel like it was, and I feel like it's all my fault - even though it isn't.  And as I mentioned in the aforementioned post, now anytime something bad happens to my son, I'm going to carry that with me like a bowling ball necklace.

I finally thought it was time to sit down and write this blog when I read the recent blog post from my friend, Leah.  In it, she writes about Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of atonement.  In it, she writes about how she feels guilty for things - including a miscarriage that she had.  She acknowledges that it wasn't her fault and that it's irrational for her to feel this way, but she STILL feels it nonetheless.

Guilt is a strange thing, and most of us feel it to some degree or another - at least, those of us with some sense of self-awareness do.  When I posted my entry on depression and guilty feelings on Facebook, a number of friends commented that they could easily relate (Leah being one of them).  I suppose it's not so strange that we feel guilt.  Imagine how well humanity would have lasted if we were able to do awful things to each other and not ever feel bad about it.  We'd all be like Richard III and a lot less like Macbeth, reveling in the chaos left in our wake rather than wondering if "all great Neptune's ocean will wash this blood clean" from our hands.  The thing is, as Shakespeare is trying to teach us in "the Scottish play" is that there's a psychological consequence for the bad things that we do.

The unfortunate flip side is that our brains aren't perfect computers that sort everything out into "my fault" and "not my fault".  Our brains misfire, and that wonderful quality of ours - the ability to feel for the harm we cause - oftentimes works against us.  This is why Leah needs Yom Kippur and the atonement that it provides.  This is why Hercules diverted a river to wash all that shit away.

This is why I need to seek out an equivalent that works for me.  So far, just analyzing it rationally usually gets me past these feelings.  Unfortunately, I do have an emotional side to me, and sometimes that overpowers my rational side.  Perhaps that's the battle though.  You'll never completely get over the misfires in your brain.  

After all, even Hercules continued to have problems after the 12 Labors were complete.  Stupid centaurs.

1 comment:

Ingrid said...

What I find interesting is you mentioning something you feel guilty about (Asterix) when you really had no way to take care of him, but the person who did refused to do so. It seems to me that some people feel responsible for everything, thus guilty, while others have no conscience and don't ever feel any guilt, but always blame others. I could mention two people here but I only name one, my oldest sister, who has absolutely no guilt feeling about anything, feels justified with anything she ever did, even if it was wrong or either denies that she ever did anything wrong, and lives happily ever after. You and I are not blessed with that character trade. We have to live with guilt feelings, guilty or not.