Heroic Labors

On this Labor Day weekend, I am thinking about work and about what elevates some work to the level of the heroic, the mythic, the stuff of art, legend, and inspiration for us all.    Usually, my days are filled with work and information.  It’s not all unpleasant but there is an endless but unmemorable quality to the tasks that can leave me a particular feeling of sorrow at the end of the day, as if my life is vanishing like water into the sand, leaving no trace.  Do you know this feeling?  It usually comes with a kind of questioning or longing for life to make more of an impression, to penetrate more deeply, to make a mark.   For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how Buddhism and other spiritual traditions teach through stories–even though the aim of Buddhist practice is liberation from stories.   I’m realizing that there is something about the way certain kinds of stories unfold that satisfies that deep need that feels hardwired in to us humans to live a deeper life–to have life be a journey that leads straight out of ourselves to something greater.   The best kinds of stories have an unlikely hero, someone who is called out of a grinding, humdrum life to face adversity, to take on great risks or labors,  a story where an seemingly ordinary man (and all too rarely a woman) is called by circumstances to go beyond the rest of us, to be like Milarepa or David, going up against Goliath.

About 35 years ago, in the founding issue of Parabola,  P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, wrote that the raw material of these mythic stories could be found in The New York Times.  It just took a certain kind of mind to see through the mere facts to the deeper truths. The New York Times and other news outlets are currently reporting that bribery accusations are being made against a judge overseeing the $27 billion dollar contamination lawsuit against Chevron in Equador. In the current issue of Parabola, I interviewed Joe Berlinger, the director of Crude, a powerful documentary about this on going legal battle, in which the remarkable 35-year-old lawyer Pablo Fajardo is representing some 30,000 rainforest dwellers and indigenous people against Chevron for being responsible for an alleged “death zone” of a land that was a fertile paradise even during the Ice Age.   Among other deeper truths that come through in this messy, seemingly endless case, is that every life–including Indian and poor peoples’ lives–matter.  Clean water, land, and food matters.  And it isn’t in spite of our hardships and hindrances but through them that something creative and deeply true can come into being. Plunging into the jungle and into the heart of this crucial case, Crude fulfills what Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers called in that long ago essay, “the essential mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world.”

2 thoughts on “Heroic Labors

  1. I understand this longing for impressions. I know it best in the midst of routines, the series of never-ending chores like washing clothes only to find more clothes to wash. But then when I am catapulted into a “mini-heroic drama” that requires decisive action, courage, and perseverance, I wonder: “How can this be happening? What happened to my ordinary routines?” Longing is a strange thing. In the midst of crisis, longing is for no crisis. In the midst of no crisis, longing is for passion. Well, at least, for me.

    But poverty and injustice are entirely different matters. As a long ago lover once said to me, there is nothing romantic about poverty and injustice. Ultimately, the Amazonian Indians would have preferred if the big oil companies had never come to town. They would have preferred not having to fight this heroic David and Goliath fight.

    Yes, stories can make us long for the hero’s journey. But maybe a true hero is reluctantly thrown into the abyss and courageously finds his way to the light. Maybe a true hero would have preferred to never have been thrown down the hole in the first place. Like Gandhi being thrown of a South African train and catapulted into a hero’s journey.

    And maybe the most heroic action that any of us can take is to do no harm because in its inherent altruism is the realization that though we can, we won’t because others, including all sentient beings and the earth, are just as important.

  2. I live on a farm where my young nieces often come to visit their grandmother, my sister, who’s house is on the other side of the old barns from me. This morning J, the ten year old walked over to visit with me. We sat on the porch and in a while she asked “Uncle if all people come from the same place – I think she had in mind the theory of evolution or Adam and Eve – why don’t all people treat each other like family, like friends?”

    I was immediately touched to tears by her question.

    To experience the power of questions which contrast so sharply with our usual way of living our day is to be blessed by a moment of another kind of breath entirely.

    In my childhood stories told to me by my grandmother were teaching experiences and I regret that today this sort of story telling is not possible for the younger people.
    To fully experience a story the right environment is needed. The story about a mountain lion chasing my grandmother when she was a bit tardy getting home on her horse just at the edge of night needed to be told in the late evening.

    But the story of a pet deer was told any time.

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