“It was probably no accident that it was the cripple Hephaestus who made ingenious machines; a normal man didn’t have to hoist or jack himself over hindrances by means of cranks, chains and metal parts.”
-Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
My father likes to say that your greatest demons, the things you struggle with the most, often become your greatest gifts to the world. Bellow points out that it was Hephaestus, struggling to walk, who made the sun’s flying chariot and who formed moving, running animals from gold and silver. His genius seems connected to his inabilities.
Most of my life I’ve worried about struggling. It seemed like a thing I wasn’t supposed to do–a thing that showed I was broken, or less than I was supposed to be. I didn’t want to struggle in class. I didn’t want to struggle in my career. I certainly didn’t want to struggle with my mental health, or with knowing what to say to women, or with knowing what to say to women about my mental health. (Not that there’s anything to say, of course; I’m–uh–completelyfineandhavenoissuesofanykindright?okaymoreicecream).
All of my life I’ve also struggled. I’ve struggled with making friends–not the passing, Oh Hello Yeah Cool friends, but the thoughtful, playful, Let’s Go to the Moonlit Lake and Make Mud Sculptures friends, the Growing Together friends. I’ve struggled (okay, these should all be present tense) I struggle with seeing other people as themselves, rather than as my expectations of them. I struggle with understanding myself and what I’m choosing to do, and why.
The thing is, struggles call for our attention. And where we put our attention, we grow. (I would say that struggling is different from simply being hurt: some hurts just break us, but in a struggle, we at least have the chance to respond). While wondering how to make connections, I’ve met truly wonderful people, and shared some miles or some years or some thoughts with them. While struggling to see people as themselves, I’ve noticed my own projections, and worked to set them aside. While struggling with what I do and why, I read, and write, and teach, and ask people around me, “How can I help?”
I don’t think the bad things that happen to us are good. I don’t think everything happens for a reason. People say that adversity builds character, but I don’t think I should go into class tomorrow and offer my students as much adversity as possible. (Though sometimes it’s tempting). But when a struggle calls for our work, and we answer, we end up making something. Robin Williams, struggling with his own darkness, made generations laugh and smile (and feel and learn). A student I know, struggling with the thoughtless cruelty she’d felt, made the decision to step forward when it might not be needed, just to make sure that she stepped forward when it was needed.
“Struggle” and “demon” both get a bad rap these days. But the Greek daimon means “divine power” or “guiding spirit;” sometimes it’s used to refer to human souls, and sometime’s it’s “one’s genius, lot, or fortune.” When I focus I’m creating something. Pain’s a natural, powerful reminder to focus. There are others, of course. Curiosity. Love. A sense of beauty. It’s wonderful when these inspire joyful creativity and engagement, but sometimes creativity and engagement come from loss, from pain–from a crippled leg. And when I create something to help myself, to soothe my hurt, to make sense of my tears or give life to my laughter, I’m creating something that I can offer someone else.
I struggle a lot, so it’s nice to remember that.
One thought on “82: Hephaestus (Saul Bellow)”
“Sometimes I ask people, ‘How do you choose to suffer?’ These people tilt their heads and look at me like I have twelve noses. But I ask because that tells me far more about you than your desires and fantasies. Because you have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns. And ultimately that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?
“That answer will actually get you somewhere. It’s the question that can change your life. It’s what makes me me and you you. It’s what defines us and separates us and ultimately brings us together.”