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Crossing the river Styx

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NOVEMBER 07, 2014

This week, the life of a woman named Brittany Maynard ended. The stupendous unfairness of this loss is not something that anyone is likely to accurately express. Human beings have been trying for centuries to understand the reasons for the deaths of the young and beautiful, without much success. Read of Demeter and Persephone, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus and Eurydice… The ancients tried innumerable times to illustrate the loss of something precious that their heroes were desperate, and unable, to save.

Consider now the tragic Orpheus, gifted musical son of Apollo. Orpheus could sing a melody so lovely that it brought gods and mortals to their knees. The creatures of the wood would pad softly after his passage of song through their territory, and even the trees would uproot themselves to follow him wherever he went.

Amid all this adoration, Orpheus himself found something he adored. Her name was Eurydice;  a shy and beautiful nymph, she had emerged from the forest to listen to Orpheus’ song. The two fell desperately in love and were blissfully happy in their decision to be married. But soon after their wedding day, Eurydice found herself pursued by an unwanted suitor in the wood. In her haste to escape, she was bitten by a snake. Overwhelmed by the poison of the viper, she soon passed away.

Orpheus, until then a joyous, carefree spirit, went mad with grief. Though no strangers to the miseries of life, both gods and mortals were touched by his indescribable sorrow. At last, in the thicket of his mourning, his father broke through with a light. He told Orpheus he could descend into the underworld and might retrieve his beloved bride.

Hades’ kingdom was unreachable to most, but Orpheus, protected by the gods, was able to enter. The king and queen of the underworld were not often swayed by the laments of left-behind lovers, but the music Orpheus played as he begged them for Eurydice was so lovely that they softened. They agreed that he would have what he had hoped for, with only one condition: Orpheus was not to look back at the wife he had lost as they embarked on the long walk to the gateway of the world of the living.

Delighted, Orpheus began his slow return to the surface. But as the long minutes passed, he began to doubt what the gods had promised him. The footsteps behind him were barely audible, and he feared it was not Eurydice that followed him but a mere specter from the ghostly realm of the underworld. As he was about to break into the light, he could endure his fears no longer; and, turning back in anticipation, he saw it was indeed his wife behind him.  At the touch of his gaze, she was whisked back into the underworld for all eternity. Orpheus, brokenhearted, vowed he would never love again.

The ancients spoke of tragedy not just as a story with an unhappy ending but a story of downfall and good intention — a story in which the hero tries his hardest to do something good, and, inevitably, orchestrates his downfall due to a flaw he cannot help. Orpheus, wanting nothing more than to love his wife on earth, was a tragic hero, without question.

We ask: How could it be that all was lost, with such a simple condition? Orpheus’ fall is often cited as a result of his doubt of the gods, who without batting an eyelid allowed circumstance to whisk him from his bliss.

But perhaps the hamartia of Orpheus was something even more profoundly guiltless. Why seek out the opportunity to have Eurydice, already lost to him once, lost again? Why journey into the underworld to find her, when the odds were against him, when he was all but destroyed already? Orpheus, the faithless, suffered another flaw first. It was his love. It was his inability to accept the loss of it.

And is there a feeling more understandable? Orpheus knew you can feel so intensely that you demand the world be different. You expect a bleaker sunrise, a change in weather, a less-resplendent dusk. You demand the ability to journey into the bowels of the earth itself, to reach out into the unreachable beyond, to get back what you feel you cannot live without. We cannot be so quick to criticize Orpheus’ self-destruction: We have our own flaws. We love profoundly that which may not outlive us. We love that which we must witness fall apart.

The ancient Greeks had their myths, but they did not abandon truth. The gods would grant no mortal passage to the underworld, and they would not even grant Orpheus it twice. The ancients knew the dark vacuous space that tragedy creates, but even Orpheus, in a world of gods, could not have have his simple light again.

He would not so easily have been restored to his bliss. Even in this realm of unrealities, some things lost stayed lost.

Orpheus knew that our hearts are sieves. The greatest agonies, the profoundest loves, enter us in overwhelming tangles and leave us full of sand and soft as water. We get to keep so little.

Brittany Maynard died this week, and be we strangers, gods or lovers, we cannot change that truth. No myth can lessen the fact that someone, somewhere, feels that the sun has fallen. And yet we keep living on her beautiful Earth.

Dear readers: As the ones we love and the ones others love are lost to this baffling world we must inhabit, we need not understand. We need not criticize ourselves for our Orphean shortcomings and our loving downfalls.

We, tragic heroes in our own right, need only feel our hearts swollen with the beauty of the place that we fell from. That love is as vast as the river Styx is wide.

Nina Djukic writes the Friday column on the relevance of stories in life today. You can contact her at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 06, 2014