“Every man, women, or child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.” ~Cicero
Dionysius, the fifth-century ruler of the Italian city of Syracuse, was a paranoid and miserable tyrant. His cruel, iron-fisted rule gave rise to plenty of enemies, and Dionysius lived in mortal fear of being assassinated. He had a crocodile-infested moat fashioned around his bedchamber and only trusted his daughters to shave him.
Damocles, the obsequious court suck-up, commented often on what a fabulous life Dionysius lived, complimenting Dionysius’ fine clothes and lavish meals. Dionysius was annoyed and offered to trade places with the court brown-noser. He stood and let Damocles sit at the head of the table. The throne was soft and comfortable, the perfect distance from a roaring fire and a goblet of wine. Damocles was hand-fed fruit by one beautiful maiden of the court while another massaged his feet with oil.
“I could really get used to the good life,” Damocles thought with satisfaction, then leaned his head back for a quick nap. That’s when he noticed a glittering, razor-sharp sword hanging above his head, suspended from the ceiling by a single horsehair. Damocles instantly lost his appetite for the lavish life, shaking with fear and begging to return to his subservient position.
What are we to make of this tale? Perhaps the take-away is to not judge others until we have walked in their shoes. Maybe the moral is that anyone living with power also lives under threat of losing that power. I think the implication is simpler.
Death looms over all of us. We ought to try to enjoy our lives anyway.
We all have a sword hanging over our head these days. Even in moments of happiness or peace, there is a vague sense of impending doom, the background thought that our mortal haircut is close by. Like all animals, humans are hardwired towards self-preservation and survival. But unlike other animals, our intellectual capacities make us painfully aware that one day we will die.
When do we get to relax? Where is our salvation? How can we survive this year, month, day?
Those are the wrong questions. The better question is this:
Is the sword a blessing or a curse?
Dionysius let the sword turn him into a bitter, paranoid miser. Damocles also wanted no reminder of his mortality, wanting instead to live in willful ignorance. But there is a third option, and that is to acknowledge that we are always walking a tightrope over the abyss. Death is an absolute given. What we do not know is when it shall come for us. Covid is so scary because it forces us to confront impermanence of all sorts. Everything is changing at break-neck speed and death feels more real than in less threatening times.
Some of us get judgmental and mean, like Dionysius, airing our grievances on social media or yelling at people in the grocery for wearing – or not wearing – a mask. Some of us go the route of Damocles and choose to blatantly ignore reality, defying science or partying at bars with massive groups of people, hoping that an out of sight, out of mind tactic will keep us safe.
What if death isn’t our enemy but our friend? Could the awareness of life’s fragility spur us toward living a bigger life without so many regrets? Medieval theologians and philosophers were known to keep a skull on their desk as a reminder that time is fleeting.We are all going to die and none of us knows when. We should allow that understanding to wake us up, despite the fact that many of our bucket list items are out of reach these days. We’ve all had plans dashed. I’m not going to lead a yoga retreat in Mexico this year. I’m not going to see The Black Crowes live. I won’t be hitting any of my financial goals for my business. But none of this means I should pack it in and call it a life. Maybe we are being asked to cultivate our curiosity to find innovative and inspiring new ways of being in the world.
How we choose to spend our precious time depends on how much of it we perceive to have left. Perhaps our take-away from the global pandemic is to choose wisely.