We’re the protagonists of our own lives, and we each go through times of great joy and success as well as times when just facing the day can be too much to bear. I’m sure many of us would agree, though, that most days are somewhere in between, with an equal measure of enjoyment and difficulty. And most of us can pull ourselves out of a funk by reminding ourselves that millions of people around the world are having a worse day than we are.
I’m about to begin our annual hero-myth study with my students, where we get to wallow for a few weeks with Odysseus, Buddha, Luke Skywalker, and the like — characters whose lives’ narrative arcs have much more dramatic highs and lows than the average person’s. We study the theories of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, learning of the various archetypes that appear in every hero’s story. But tempering the fun is always the awareness of the underlying sadness of the hero’s transformation from innocence to experience, where he or she learns of great loss. To emphasize this element in the warrior’s life, we read many stories of soldiers from more contemporary times – such as from the Vietnam War (“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich), the Iraq War (“Refresh, Refresh” by Ben Percy), and some true accounts by soldiers recently shared in magazines and newspapers.
Always, as we read these mythic tales, we think about the lives of those who love the warriors and how they are a part of the tragedy, too, since a far greater number of us live to play these roles than that of warrior. Penelope and Telemachus suffer in some ways as deeply as does Odysseus; his mother Anticleia commits suicide when her grief over his absence becomes too much to bear. And then there is the horrific illness that until recently had no name but that continues to claim our soldiers years after they’ve returned home, bringing the faraway battlefield into kitchens and bedrooms and work places all across America. The ancients spoke of P.T.S.D. as sadness, madness, an alienating loneliness, or the warrior’s deepest wound; it’s as old as war itself.
I’ve been reading a collection by U. S. Army infantryman Brian Turner called Here, Bullet –poems largely composed in Iraq in the early 2000s. One of his poems became the title of the Oscar-winning film, “Hurt Locker.” I’d heard Turner interviewed on NPR several months ago but waited till now to read these poems, as preparation for teaching the unit on the Hero’s Journey and The Odyssey.
Here is one of Turner’s poems, entitled “Ashbah”:
The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from the rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.
I read these lines and I think, how can poetry about anything else but this have meaning? How can my mundane existence, a Saturday of grocery shopping, laundry, and paper grading, offer any words at all, let alone the power to move a reader?
Sometimes the journeys I need to take are those that will move me outward, to learn about the lives of others – the kinds of stories that take me into the mythic, where the bottom falls out and I’m deep in the chasm and my mind finds the universal thread weaving us together. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon how you view it, the daily news cycle always supplies fresh fodder for my pathos and my pen. But even then, it’s hard to find the words to describe another’s experience. How fortunate that we will always have sages like Homer and Virgil, Remarque, Erdrich, O’Brien and Vonnegut, and now Brian Turner, to help us understand how our fellow humans suffer when the thread leads them to battlefields and back home again.