What the Super Bowl and Greek mythology teach us about Living on the Real World

There’s no escaping the hype, is there? This week, the Super Bowl is on many minds, at least in this hemisphere. But before we turn to football, let’s consider Thetis.

There’s a lot to this sea nymph, the daughter of Nereus and Doris. A goddess and an immortal, she was feared by Zeus himself; the prophecy was that her offspring would become more powerful than he. Zeus therefore saw to it that she was married off to a mortal, Peleus.

Peleus found his courtship a stormy one. Zeus had Thetis bound, so tightly she could not escape, despite her special power to change her shape. And change her shape she did! When Peleus came to her, she became, by turns, a flame, water, an (angry) lioness, a serpent, before finally consenting to marry him. Whew! [Some of you guys out there are doubtless nodding your heads. You know what I’m talking about! For that matter, so do many women. The story can and does cut both ways, doesn’t it?]  

Wondering where this is going? Hang in; we’re almost there. Thetis and Peleus had a son, Achilles, and from the get-go, Thetis obsessively tried to protect him from his mortality. Thetis was the first helicopter parent. She took many precautions, the most famous being that she dipped Achilles into the River Styx.

She came so close! But as she dipped her son, she held him by his heel, and this one, small, seemingly insignificant, untreated part of his body – Achilles’ heel – would eventually prove his undoing.

Football coaches know this. Like Thetis, they toss and turn at night, obsessing about the vulnerabilities of their defensive units. They hunger for immortality and invincibility. But they know that one weakness, one oversight, one misstep, is all it takes to give up a touchdown. They have eleven players to cover all eleven players – so close! But it’s not that simple. The opposing offenses will try to flood one part of the field. And every defensive line-up has its flaw, its Achilles heel.

Living on the real world is like that. To start, as we’ve noted many times, we have to be prepared to deal with the world in all three of its aspects: resource, victim, and threat. Not all that different from flame, water, dangerous beast!

This similarity is no accident. The Greek myths arose from our attempts to explain our reality. We follow football and other competitions because they are microcosms, mirrors, of the real world.

And, just as in football, we must engage the real world in this nuanced and holistic way at all times and at all places. It’s not enough to solve our problems close to home, or for the short term.

Fact is, we haven’t really solved our problems close to home, have we? Rather we’ve exported them abroad, where they are temporarily, for most of us here, out of sight, out of mind. Our air and water[1] may seem or even be cleaner than they were fifty years ago, but this is in part because we have moved much of the resource extraction and heavy (read dirty) industry abroad.

But even as economic growth comes to the rest of the world, environmental damage and exposure to hazards are growing, and blowback may be in the cards.

The Sudan, and the troubles there between south and north, between Muslim and Christian, the squabbles over oil and water, and the attendant environmental degradation? They matter. Egypt, and Tunisia, and Gaza, and all the unrest, frustration, and tension? Can’t be ignored. Rebellion in Nigeria? Destruction of rainforest in Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere? The fertile agricultural land of Africa being bought up by nations seeking to secure food supplies in an uncertain future. That’s going to cause downstream problems. Pakistan, Haiti, and myriad other parts of the world struggling to recover from horrific natural disasters? That counts too. What’s happening to the Arctic pack ice, the Greenland ice shield? We may not be close enough to hear the calving of the glaciers, but that matters too. It would be possible to go on, but we all get the all-too-dreary idea. These challenges, and countless more, are our Achilles heel.

Which brings me to the last piece to the puzzle, one that we mustn’t forget. The Thetis approach? As familiar as it is, as tempting as it may be to protect ourselves, that’s a vain fight. It can end only in disappointment. Achilles’ heel will be exposed.

No, the call to successful living on the real world is to look at things the other way round. Let’s start with the football field. The Super Bowl will make a wreck out of all the partisan fans. Losers will be gnashing their teeth, frustrated and angry, despondent. Winners will have been tied up in knots, anxious for the full sixty minutes. Maybe afterward they’ll trash the streets of their hometown. Where’s the joy in any of that? 

But some people, less emotionally involved will enjoy the game for what it is – a celebration of the human spirit, of values such as teamwork, sportsmanship, discipline, and more. At home and at the game, they’ll savor every aspect, and the glow will last a long time.

As for Thetis – suppose Thetis, instead of regarding conflict as inevitable, and attempting to protect her son from it, had given herself over to love for others, both gods and mortals, to working with them, to making common cause? Perhaps the Trojan War that killed her son would never have occurred. Sound far-fetched? Maybe. But she had a much better shot at that than at making Achilles alone immune from the consequences of the harsh, bitter, contentious climate surrounding him.

So it is living on the real world. Our very best shot at living well, kindly, safely? Likely committing to the idea that we are in this together – all seven billion of us. If we do this, we’ll like ourselves better however the future turns out…and it just might be a brighter day ahead as well.

[1] A caveat with respect to water; it may be free of the pollutants that came from mine tailings and the like, but today it does seem to be an exotic soup of exotic chemicals: fertilizers and pesticides, and more exotic chemicals such hormones, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals.

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