219: “The Fragility of Mortals” (Madeline Miller)

“The fragility of mortals bred kindness and good grace.”
                -Madeline Miller, Circe

                It’s a beautiful thought, and it isn’t true. And it is.
                Circe retells pieces of Greek mythology from the witch’s point of view. Circe herself is immortal, the daughter of a god, and the first part of the book explores how vain and self-satisfied the gods are. They don’t work, and don’t learn from working. They’re fascinated by pain and their own perfection, and never see past either of them. Humans are different, Circe says. Humans are fragile, they age and hurt and move on, scarred, and in that they learn to help each other and be grateful. But in the pages right after she comments on their kindness, the people she was talking about turn on her. Their vulnerability and pain has made them vicious, not aware. They even use their vulnerability as a trap to catch and hurt her. It isn’t true: the fragility of mortals does not make us kinder.
                Except, sometimes, it does. I’ve seen people who, because they’re hurt, lash out to hurt someone. I’ve done it. I’ve tried to get even, I’ve tried to cause pain because I was in pain, I’ve refused to share because I was worried I didn’t have enough. My fragility can make me so intent on me that I won’t see you. But I’ve also seen people who know what it’s like to be hungry, and so want people to be fed. I know young people who are studying to be counselors and social workers–or just growing up to be supportive–because they are someone who has been hurt, like so many other people, and they’ve felt how someone who has been hurt needs someone to reach out. They’re practicing that reach. You don’t need to take the fact that you’d like to keep your fingers intact as a reason to be careful with the scissors around someone else’s hands, but you could.
                Mythology has magic. This is our kind. Not Helios’ flaming chariot, not Hermes’ winged sandals, but the quiet, human, inward transmutation that stands in what has been hurt, and tries to heal. I wonder how it happens: do I need someone to help me get there? If I’m hurt and hurt and never helped, can I learn to cast this spell? I don’t know. I hope so, but maybe not. Quests have guides, and children have parents. But this, says Madeline Miller, this is our kind of magic, and it’s a magic — a mythology — with which I hope we fall in love.

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