Pushing through the Sidewalk.

It’s interesting how exceptional capacities sometimes blossom out of exceptional difficulties.  Perhaps such difficulties are hidden in each of us—unsuspected by others as we strive to appear more normal than we feel.  Some difficulties yield to the support of teachers, family and the march of understanding within our overall society.  Others fester as the unhealed wounds of the era. Then there are a few rare individuals who, in the process of overcoming their own learning differences, breakthrough to a new vision that alters the world for the rest of us.

I’m involved with a local Albuquerque school, Pathways Academy, on whose walls hang posters depicting famous individuals—people like Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw, Alexander Graham Bell, John Lennon, and others—each of whom suffered from some form of learning difficulty.

“Shift into Freedom” by Loch Kelley, a new book that I am reading, adds another name to the group of exceptional people who have surmounted learning obstacles (in his case, dyslexia and ADD) and in the process have created a vision with the power to transform experience for others.  (Perhaps in the future I will write about how timely this book is for me in the way it brings an exploration of “awareness” to the forefront: the awareness without which Time, Space, and Knowledge could not blossom in human life, but which remains relatively undefined in the TSK vision itself).

However today I want to explore how working through our personal difficulties can push each of us into realizations which, while being uniquely our own, allow us to better understand the world in which we live.

It is interesting for me to look at my old Grade School report cards and see all the red numbers under categories that I have since learned to employ successfully in daily life.  And it’s even more interesting to read comments from teachers to my parents to the effect that I only need to pay more attention in class and work harder.  It took me decades to recognize that a willingness to pay attention and apply myself to assigned tasks was not my core difficulty.  I can’t say that I know even now what my core difficulty was, but it seems significant that I won a prize in Grade 10 for participating widely and with some success in a spectrum of school activities.  So maybe I wasn’t loitering on the sidelines after all–just uncertain how to play a game of life that I didn’t quite understand.

As a late reader, I didn’t realize that books can make good companions until I was well into my ‘20’s.  With encouragement from my girlfriend, who noticed that I was writing stories and poems without the benefit of having ever read any, I returned to university to study English Literature.  What a revelation to read Shakespeare, the epic poetry of Homer, Virgil, Milton and Dante, the Ancient Greek plays of Sophocles and Euripides, to dip into western philosophy, and to do so as someone who was hungry for the vision of life they imparted.

A book I read at that time, “The Wound and the Bow” by the literary critic Edmund Wilson, gives many examples of writers and their characters for whom a disability is bound up with a special power.  For instance, Ludwig Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony while he was deaf as a stone.

The theme that unusual strength can develop out of personal difficulties runs deep in our culture (“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”).  However, in a society that pays less and less attention to education and health care for many of its citizens, and in which soldiers return with PTSD and missing limbs from wars declared for the profit of a few, such happy endings are rare.  Opportunity, encouragement, and access to knowledge are still as necessary for human life as earth, rain and sunlight are for plant life.

“The Wound and the Bow” discerns many characters in literature whose strength blossoms in spite of, perhaps out of, some affliction.  For instance, in Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” there is a travelling piano teacher who tours small villages in the Alps and teaches music to the kids who live there.  There is a scene in which the teacher—who has a debilitating stutter—gets stuck on a syllable (“middle-c-c-c-c-c. . .”) and the children are so eager for him to keep playing the piano and talking about the magic of music that with one voice they shout out “C”, thereby urging him along in the passionate outpouring of his love for music.

But the story, after which Wilson’s book is named, “Philoctetes”, is a play by Sophocles.  According to Wilson, many well-known writers have been especially drawn to this play, although it is not nearly as well known as the Oedipus cycle.  In fact, I have yet to personally meet anyone who has read it.  But it is far more than a defining story of how a wound can be linked with a unique capacity (in this case, Philoctetes’ ability to wield the bow of Hercules, which no other archer can even bend).

Should I quickly tell this story?  Very well, I guess I have time.

First, I have to share one interesting codicil: I believe this play must have been the inspiration for “Treasure Island”.  Just as Ben Gunn is marooned on an island because he is such a pain to have on board (and then is needed because he has access to a treasure map), so Philoctetes is set off from a Greek warship on its way to Troy, because his cries of pain are demoralizing the crew (and then is needed in order to comply with the Oracle’s omen).

As the play opens, Odysseus, the captain of the ship that marooned Philoctetes because of his festering foot, has returned to this island determined to get Philoctetes back on board.  Why? Because the Delphic Oracle has announced that Troy will not fall until Achilles and the bow of Hercules are both present beneath its walls.  It’s a weird omen and it’s even weirder that a civilization would be guided by such fatalistic pronouncements.  But this play provides a prescient foreshadowing of our modern view that individuals, in principle if not in fact, are free to follow the dictates of their own hearts.

Odysseus knows enough to keep out of sight—if he showed himself for an instant Philoctetes would string his bow and loose an arrow through his eyeball and out the back of his head.  Philoctetes has spent years marooned on this island, nurturing his hatred for the captain who dumped him there.  But Odysseus, known throughout the ancient world as being as wily as a fox, has hatched a plan.  He sends the reluctant Neoptolemus—son of Achilles—to tell Philoctetes a big lie.

“Tell him we have won the war and that we are on our way home to his beloved Achaean Peninsula,” Odysseus instructs Neoptolemus.

          So the play goes along rather like all the Greek dramas go along: the characters may rail against their fate but the basic structure does not allow them to escape whatever has been foretold: Neoptolemus included.

But then, amazingly—opening the floodgates to a new world that has been waiting in the wings—Neoptolemus stops mid-sentence.  He sees the gulls and cormorants wheeling overhead; he hears the surf running up the beach below; and he tells Philoctetes that none of it is true–that the war has not been won and that the Oracle has said that the Greek army needs to bring him back to Troy in order to prevail.

You can bet that if Odysseus was staying out of sight before, now he really has somewhere else to be.  (Incidentally, whereas Superman has to lift up an ocean liner dripping from the sea in order to be recognized as powerful, Sophocles manages to suggest an incredibly powerful archer without Philoctetes having to even notch an arrow.)

In the wake of Neoptolemus’s confession, Philoctetes’ bow is instantly strung and bent, an arrow vibrating and searching for a particular face.

The game is lost.  Philoctetes is too powerful to capture against his will and he will never willing step on board the ship from which Odysseus marooned him years ago.  So what is to happen?

Enter Deus ex Machina, stage Left.

Hercules, whose bow Philoctetes has inherited, steps out of a big bolder and explains to Philoctetes that he does indeed have to sail to Troy, where the Greeks will presently breach the wall–and that then, at last, he will be able to return to his beloved homeland.

How is this story any different than the plays in which Oedipus is unable to avoid killing his father and having children with his mother—just as predicted by the Oracle?  I see an important difference.

Although in both cases the Oracle’s omen comes true, Neoptolemus’s conscience, and his need to be true to it, arises like a wind blowing away the morning mists.   Even if the Oracle’s prediction prevails, it hasn’t prevented Neoptolemus from becoming the person he wants to be.

Not only did a rock open for Hercules to walk through; more radically, the glass ceiling of predestination cracked open and the human heart was loosed from the shackles of fate.

Now, here in the 21st century, if we could only stop killing our fellow creatures and polluting our home world, this gift of freedom could shine forth like the morning star.

6 comments to “Pushing through the Sidewalk.”
  1. Havin multiple sclerosis has made me much more aware of what children go through who are not like I was, easily able to grasp new concepts things schools tend to value. Once I tried to subtract some numbers for personal finance and found my ability was gone,totally gone. I was so angry at this that I refused to just take it. I got out a sheet of paper and did it long hand enencouting on my fingers. Then checked with a calculator as sort of a reward for my efforts. Still many years later I am improved but fear I will never fully regainthe facility I once had with numbers. If anything MS has humbled me and made me more aware of each persons different “gift” and “shortcomings.” Indeed we all have multiple intelligences.

  2. I had never read about Philoctetes. I am now better prepared for Jeopardy. I am sorry, Michael, I don’t think we will ever stop killing our fellow creatures, until the Kingdom is here in full.

    My brother was dyslexic and had to repeat 2nd grade. But this problem was diagnosed and treated at a special camp in New Jersey and he went on from there to earn a BS & MS in geology at Tulane. We were fortunate in our choice of parents.

  3. Carolyn,
    I really appreciate you sharing issues that you have encountered with MS. I think it is so pertinent to the experience of many people: kids who can’t deal with the emphasis of our educational system on memory and acquiring knowledge through symbols; cognitive issues that arise through age, accidents, and progressive diseases . . . I also think that your stubborn persistence is an inspiration.

    Walter,
    I’m glad you choose your parents well. Did you–like the song suggests–also teach them well? Isn’t it interesting how when you start communicating with people, you often discover that their lives have not been easy. It seems that personal difficulties are an equal-opportunity employer.

    In my case, as I hinted at in my post, I feel grateful that I was a different learner, because it seems to have created an interest in discovering perspectives and knowledge traditions that I would not have been interested in–if I believed that I already knew about them. To paraphrase Socrates (who said that if he knew anything that others didn’t know it was that he didn’t know), it can be a blessing to have empty places in your mind which are not already filled with certainties placed there without your full participation. It gives you an opportunity to look with fresh eyes and to glimpse the eternal mysteries that surround us.

  4. I have tears in my eyes as I write. I was tongue in cheek about my parents, but as you know was married to a woman, who like Carolyn, had MS and had her experiences.. I think it best I keep my responses to your blogs private in future.

  5. My apologies for not taking your life story seriously. I’m not sure where my response came from. Instead of jumping off on your light-hearted remark that “I chose my parents well”, I wish I’d commented on what you said about your brother. I’m full of admiration for anyone who overcomes learning differences that makes education a struggle (I know lot’s of such people and for the past decade I have been involved in a special school created for kids who don’t make it in public school). I’m also full of admiration for the families who make life possible for all of us, no matter our challenges.

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