Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rethinking the Cyclops Cave

The Greek sailors who ventured with Odysseus had trusted their commander through thick and thin, through the tortuous years of the Trojan War and beyond. However, nothing could have prepared them for the terror they were about to endure on one ominous island that awaited the landing of their ships. Odysseus had already rescued his men from the perils of the lotus fruit and the narcotic apathy that it offered. Still coming down from the high of the intoxicating plant, the crew grumbled mightily. They argued that Odysseus should have left them to their peace and not dragged them back to sea. They were hungry and feeling mutinous. Odysseus, though not wanting to land on any of the nearby islands, was forced into a position where he had to make landfall or face the consequences of an increasingly unhappy crew. In the foggy blue of the Aegean Sea, a rocky island appeared slowly from the mist. Odysseus and a small company of his men set out to explore the island, searching for food and supplies.

Not long after setting foot on the mountainous island, one of the men spotted what appeared to be a herd of sheep moving across a rocky outcropping. The men ran after this wandering meal with the fervor brought on by intense hunger. Unfortunately for Odysseus, something else watched his men from the shadows of a high cave, waiting with an even more insatiable appetite for the meal that was running his way.

The Greeks pursued the sheep up the rocky clefts in the mountain until they came to a great cave. Hearing the bleating of the sheep from within the vast cavern, the men cautiously entered. As their eyes adjusted to the gloom and darkness, they saw a fire pit with great spits that roasted several goats. The aroma drifting from the open pit was too much for the men to take! They sprinted inside the cave and began stuffing their mouths with the succulent meat and sizzling fat. The feeling that they were but mice in a horrible trap, however, plagued Odysseus.

Without warning, an enormous stone was rolled in front of the entrance to the cave, plunging the Greeks into thick darkness. Only the fire pit cast an orange glow on the walls of the cave, making shadows dance like fearful demons. Then from the darkness emerged a sight so abhorrent and terrible that it reduced the brave Hellenic fighters to yelping children. A huge, monstrous, humanlike figure with gleaming teeth and one huge eye in the middle of its forehead stepped into the center of the cave. A massive hand reached down and lifted two of the sailors into the air with ease and stuffed them into the giant’s crushing mouth. The screaming men were eaten alive, bones and all! Growling and snarling, the monster reveled in the sheer ter ror he generated. The rest of the crew cowered in utter fear before the giant Cyclops.

Odysseus, his nimble mind always scheming, decided to entreat the monster. He called out to the Cyclops, drawing the fearsome giant into a conversation. Odysseus asked for the monster’s name. The Cyclops responded that his name was Polyphemus, and said that he and his brothers owned this island that the Greeks had stumbled upon. At that moment, he reached down and laid hold of another terrified sailor.

Determined not to lose any more of his men to this colossal horror, Odysseus intervened. Bernard Evslin provides an admirable paraphrase of this intercession in The Adventures of Ulysses. “Wait!” he cried. “Why?” asked the Cyclops. “Well,” the king responded, “that man you are about to eat was raised on olives and has an oily taste. You will not enjoy him without the taste of wine.” Confused, Polyphemus retorted that he was not familiar with “wine.” Odysseus continued, “Wine! It is the drink of the gods. Here, it is my gift to you.” With that, Odysseus handed the giant a substantial flask of the cordial. As the giant drank the wine, he asked Odysseus for his name. The clever king of Ithaca responded, “My name . . . is nobody.” “Well Nobody, “replied Polyphemus. “I like you. Therefore, I will eat you last.” As the Cyclops imbibed more and more wine, he became sleepier and sleepier, until finally the great body collapsed upon the cave floor and the sounds of mighty snoring ensued.
Odysseus commanded his sniveling men to go to either side of the giant’s mighty head. The king set the blade of his sword in the embers of the fire until it turned red hot. He then ordered his men to hold tightly to the huge ears of the sleeping giant to steady his head. With one powerful move, Odysseus plunged the glowing blade deep into the Cyclops lone eye! Awakened by the blow, Polyphemus wailed and thrashed about in agony. The Greeks hid among the sheep of the cave in a desperate attempt to avoid the reach of the now blinded monster. As suddenly as the wailing and groaning of the Cyclops began, it stopped, leaving the cave in deafening silence. The Greeks, hidden among the sheep, held their breath, as the giant listened quietly for the sounds that might lead him to the men who had left him so impaired.

Hearing only the bleating of the sheep, Polyphemus rolled the huge boulder away from the cave entrance, knowing that the sheep would instinctively exit the cave, leaving behind the men for whom his great wrath was now burning ferociously. Understanding the giant’s plan, Odysseus quietly ordered his men to cling to the bellies of the sheep as they left the cave, allowing them to flee undetected from the presence of the Cyclops. Looking back as he ran to freedom, Odysseus noticed several other tremendous figures converging on the cave, obviously the other Cyclopes, drawn by the bellowing of their wounded brother. “Who did it?” the other giants roared. “Who has blinded you?” Still in considerable agony, Polyphemus replied, “Nobody has blinded me!” “So you have done it yourself?” the others said. “What a terrible accident!”

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rethinking Giants

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.Edmund Burke

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.Bertrand Russell

I’ve grown certain that the root of all fear is that we’ve been forced to deny who we are.Frances Moore Lappe

Most adolescents have experienced or are currently struggling with the problem of bullying. Bullying is when someone performs certain actions or says certain things to harass or exert power over another. It is about the domination of other souls. Schoolyard bullying has plagued every generation, and most adults have traditionally viewed it as a right of passage, telling the young to simply ignore the bully and he will eventually go away. But bullying can leave scars on hearts that last a lifetime. Over the next few weeks, this blog will address the issue of bullying by exploring Odysseus’s encounter with the horrific Cyclops.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Rethinking the Lotus VI

Innumerable students today are numbing the hurts and pains of their past in a variety of different ways. If you have the opportunity to engage young people on this topic, you can make use of stories and movies. Examples would include the story of the Lotus-Eaters from The Odyssey, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (either the book or the movie), The Family Man, Leaving Las Vegas, When a Man Loves a Woman, or The Matrix.

Discussion Questions:

Which character in the story was turning to something to numb the pain in his or her life?

What did that character turn to? Did it solve anything, or did it cause more problems?

What pain do you think the character was trying to numb or forget?

Do you identify with this character in any way?

Have you ever tried to numb or forget pain in your life? What did you turn to? Video games?TV? Drugs or alcohol? Busyness? Did it solve anything or cause more problems?

What pain were you trying to cover up, forget about, or numb by turning to this diversion?

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Rethinking Intervention II

If a young person you care about becomes involved in a behavior that will ultimately lead to destruction, it would be wise to conduct an intervention. You have the very important opportunity to intercede for the adolescents in your sphere of influence, just as Odysseus stepped into the lives of his crew. What is an intervention? When a person is addicted to their lotus of choice, the other people in her life—siblings, parents, and friends—may be experiencing a wide range of feelings, including anger, guilt, betrayal, fear, or frustration. Maybe things have been tried in the past and have failed. The situation can be chaotic. The goal of an intervention is to focus the siblings, friends, and family into a cohesive group that can introduce change into the destructive cycle of dependence. Most of us can remember when something said or done by someone who was important to us changed our way of thinking and perhaps saved us from a ruinous situation.

The group must have a leader—an Odysseus, so to speak. The leader must make sure that the group has been familiarized with the dysfunction at hand. If the problem is an addiction, treatment options should be investigated. The intervention group should meet prior to the actual intervention for purposes of preparation. What is going to be said to the individual? Who should be involved? Treatment should be arranged ahead of time.

When the time comes for the actual intervention, the leader’s job is to establish a sense of order in the process. Each person in the group gets an opportunity to speak to the person involved and let her know how much she means and how much she is loved. The individual needs to know that her behavior affects everyone in the room and that the problem is no longer hidden. Since treatment has already been arranged, there is no room for debate. Keep the tone loving and full of respect, but be resolute. The person may break down and cry. Perhaps she will become angry. Whatever the reaction, be firm. For the individual and for the group, the problem must be resolved and not allowed to continue.

Interventions of this kind may vary and don’t necessarily hold to a strict set of rules. Sometimes a simple intervention is best, maybe addressing a situation that hasn’t been previously acknowledged or asking a person to stop a behavior that is doing them harm or draining their life energy away. A simple intervention in an addiction to busyness can include requiring a student who is overextended to reduce the number of activities in which they are involved. For a teen that is lost in a fog of video games, television, or the Internet, it may mean taking away the game system, disconnecting the Internet, or removing the television from the bedroom. Regardless of the situation, it is highly recommended that you seek out the advice of a counselor or intervention professional for your particular situation.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Rethinking Intervention

How did Odysseus save his crew from the intoxicating effects of the lotus fruit? What were his options? Did he try to reason with them? Maybe if he had tried to discuss their perilous situation, they would have listened to reason and returned to their ships on their own. What if he attempted to console them? Possibly if he had had pity on his crew and empathized with their situation, they would have been overcome by his understanding and compassion and given up the addictive high of the lotus. Perhaps he might have chosen to feel sorry for them and for the pain that they had endured from their years of battle at Troy and their hazardous journey at sea. The fog of Morpheus could be viewed as merciful, numbing painful memories of the past. If Odysseus had decided to travel any of these roads, he would have ended up enabling the sailors in their own act of self-destruction and ruining any hope he had of ever seeing Ithaca again.

The heroic Odysseus chose a much more intimidating path, a way that would place him in a position of appearing to be the very evil from which he was trying to rescue his men. One by one, the good king dragged his sailors back to the ship against their will. The ship represents a way to freedom, the very thing for which the men were longing. The crew, dizzy from the effects of the lotus, spat and fought against the very person that was carrying them to freedom.

When someone is using a crutch—whether video games, busyness, the Internet, television, chemicals, or anything else—to anesthetize the wounds of their heart, they will resist (sometimes violently) any attempts at distancing them from their particular lotus fruit. Once the lotus fruit is removed, they will find the particular pain they were anesthetizing will usually rise to the surface. But this allows both adult and adolescent to better comprehend the source of the wound and to explore the possibility of healing. If you are a teacher, counselor, or youth worker, you should attempt to work hand in hand with the parents of the adolescent who is self-medicating, whether literally or figuratively. If you are a parent, you will need the support of other adults in your child’s life.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rethinking the Lotus V

As ninth-graders go, Terry was a pretty typical kid. He had average grades, average athletic ability, average looks. For the most part, that is how Terry viewed himself: middle of the road, nothing special. His father had died when Terry was in the fifth grade, and the loss was especially difficult for his mother. While his mother increased her already heavy drinking to relieve the pain she was experiencing, Terry muddled his way through middle school. He had been largely unnoticed by his teachers. After all, he wasn’t exceptionally bad, nor was he exceptionally good. He was, well, somewhere in the middle.

If you had asked him what his interests and hobbies were, he probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you much. His heart was in pain, though on the outside it really wasn’t observable. One day, a new student arrived at his lunch table, bearing news of enticing lotus fruit. His name was Gordon, and he was what the teachers and administrators would refer to as a “problem child.” He was open about the fact that he frequently used marijuana and would share stories of being high with the others at the lunch table. Intrigued, Terry began spending more time around Gordon, eventually riding the bus to his house after school one day. It was there that Terry first experimented with pot. He and Gordon began riding their dirt bikes to the middle of the woods. There they would “light up” after school. His mother, in a haze of alcohol, would rarely say anything to Terry about not coming home from school until hours after it had already ended. He would spray down his clothes with deodorant to cover up the scent of the smoke.

For the greater part of his ninth-grade year, Terry would steal money from his mother’s wallet and buy dope from Gordon to satisfy his ever-growing cravings for the drug. This wasn’t his personality. He wasn’t really a thief. But his demeanor changed, he became apathetic toward his schoolwork, and his grades began to plummet. He cared little about his future and his life, for thought of getting high consumed his thoughts.

The parallel between the mythical lotus and substance abuse is a fairly easy one to draw. When Terry was high, the fact that he was average didn’t matter. The fact that his father was dead didn’t matter. The fact that his mother was an alcoholic didn’t matter. When he was high, the marijuana whispered softly that all was right in the world and that he didn’t need to worry about his cares. The wounds of his heart were still throbbing, but he was, in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb.”

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Rethinking the Lotus IV

Claire was by all measures a very attractive high school senior. Her long brown hair and striking green eyes turned the heads of all the boys as she walked through the cafeteria each day. She was involved in varsity sports and was the captain of the cheerleading squad. Early in the year, she was elected vice president of the student council.

Because Claire held down an after-school job as a waitress that enabled her to purchase her own car, she was able to drive herself to her various afterschool commitments. Since her mother was actively involved in her own social life, she failed to notice that Claire had less and less time to spare and that her schedule was increasingly tight. After cheerleading practice, Claire would drive herself to the restaurant where she worked, and she would wait tables for more than four hours. Because she was friendly and popular, she found herself accepting leadership positions in the Spanish club and the National Honors Society. If there was an activity, Claire was actively involved in it.
Five years earlier, when Claire was in seventh grade, her mother’s boyfriend, who was living with them at the time, sexually abused her over a period of several weeks. She never told anybody about the incident, and when her mother finally ended the relationship, Claire convinced herself that it was in the past and to be forgotten. Deep down, however, she felt dirty, used, and alone.
What would drive a girl like Claire into unrelenting busyness and activity? How did busyness anesthetize her hurt and sense of shame? What did she get from this endless array of activities? For starters, she derived a sense of belonging, a sense that she wasn’t alone. She was essentially running from her fear of being alone, for she had been alone in the house when horrible things
had happened to her before. A young part of her soul feared that if she were alone, it would happen all over again. She made a vow never to allow herself to be in that situation again, so she surrounded herself with activity and people.
Another lotus-like effect this whirlwind of activity had was to offer her a sense of approval. She loved feeling that others respected her and viewed her as a beautiful person. Who wouldn’t? Those are not bad things in and of themselves, but when they are being used to anesthetize a wound that is festering below the surface, they can lead to greater problems down the road. The good can become the enemy of the best.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Rethinking the Lotus III

Brittany was a high school sophomore who excelled in school. Her teachers suggested that if she continued at this level of academic performance, she would eventually become valedictorian of her graduating class. She was used to success in the classroom, but when she looked in the mirror each morning, she questioned her reasons for living. You see, Brittany had bought into the lie that deceives so many teenage girls today—the lie that you must look like the women in the fashion magazines to be considered beautiful. As she looked in the mirror, she berated herself for having a nose that seemed too large. She scoffed at her waist and legs as she turned from one side to the next, trying to see herself from all angles.

In school, Brittany walked with an air of timidity and caution, devoid of the self-confidence that attracts others. Consequently, she found that the boys in her classes didn’t seem to pay attention to her at all. This negative cycle only served to reinforce her poor opinion of herself. Her lotus fruit was soon to be discovered, however. She and her friend Diana, who was struggling with similar issues, both happened to catch an episode of a new reality TV show one night. In the cafeteria the next day, Brittany and Diana discussed at length the intricacies of the televised relationships that were forming so rapidly before their very eyes.
Brittany was hooked. She began spending an increasing amount of time in front of the TV screen, watching every reality show she could find. Sometimes she would literally spend hours flipping through the hundreds of channels offered by her satellite service provider, looking for reality programming. Having a television in her room allowed her to stay up very late at night voyeuristically watching the lives of others. Her father began to worry about her when he noticed a drop in her grades at the midterm.
How did television become the lotus fruit for an intelligent but self-conscious high school girl? What did the reality shows offer that could lead Brittany to waste hours of her life in front of a video screen? For her, it was the opportunity to live life through the eyes of someone else. She could have the feeling of taking risks without actually taking them. All of the emotions were there—being excited and nervous on the first date, being angry at a betrayal of trust, and being happy and tearful when a relationship seemed to work out. Brittany didn’t feel confident enough to chance starting up a conversation with someone new, but it was easy to watch others do this very thing on TV.

It is really the same effect that soap operas have had on people for generations now, except that a new dimension of reality has been stirred into the mix, creating an intoxicating blend. While she was watching them, the reality shows helped her to forget, or perhaps we should say "anesthetize," the agony of her own self-perception. Her blank stare into the expanse of the video screen might have mirrored that of the Greek sailors upon their consumption of the narcotic lotus.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Rethinking the Lotus II

Barry was a high school senior who was well liked by his parents, peers, and teachers. He was a solid basketball player and had already been accepted at George Washington University. His life did have its challenges, however. His father, who was respected in the community, had spent precious little time with Barry as he was growing up. He had come up with any number of excuses throughout the years as to why he was unable to take Barry camping or even play catch in the backyard. Intellectually, Barry had grown to accept this lack of interaction as normal, but his heart refused to go along. Something was missing in all of this.

After basketball practice, Barry would typically go to his room and surf the Internet for hours. He was drawn to the possibilities that the Web offered the endless array of information and stimulation. Often, he would log in to the instant messenger and communicate for hours, sharing intimate details with complete strangers. Here was intimacy without strings attached. Frequently, Barry would search through a variety of Web sites, finding more “eye candy” than the mind could fathom. He began going to sleep later and later at night, as his online activities began to absorb more and more of his time. His basketball coach noticed that he seemed increasingly lethargic on the court, and his grades began to drop. The cyber-lotus fruit of the Internet had done its work well. Barry had numbed the pain of his missing years with his father, and he was now lost in a fog of chat rooms and virtual worlds.

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