Gilgamesh and Me

By Kelly Foster

One of the most brilliant moments from any episode of The Office takes place in season four’s opening episode, “Fun Run.” Michael Scott (Steve Carell) has organized a 5K to promote rabies awareness (long story), and decides to prep himself for the race by eschewing water all day and consuming a double order of Fettuccine Alfredo immediately before taking off.

Because of the carbo-loading and dehydration, Michael predictably collapses little over halfway into the race.

When discovered by Jim and Pam, Michael, looking utterly defeated and slumped on the ground, muses on the state of the world: “There are people all over the world with all sorts of problems and afflictions and diseases. They’re deformed, and they’re abnormal, and they’re illiterate and ugly. Symphonies don’t have any money! Public TV is bust! I can’t do anything about it, you know? There’s just one of me, and there’s a thousand of them, and rabies wins.”

Rabies wins. Lately, I could wear a t-shirt with that emblazoned on the front.

In spite of good and even fortuitous events in my recent life, it’s been harder than usual for me not to nourish a similar sense of despair and defeat, not just about myself, but about the state of the world. Some scared, sad, numb creature in me is reeling from the things that have been happening to the people around me, and I don’t know how to move on.

When I teach the Epic of Gilgamesh, my students almost universally respond to Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality in the wake of his friend Enkidu’s death as selfish. Enkidu’s death makes him aware that he too will die, perhaps sooner than later. Gilgamesh’s over-arching quest, in light of that awareness, is not to go the way Enkidu has gone.

On the quest, he happens upon Siduri the barmaid, who gives him her well-known advice to stop seeking after immortality and just live a good life now (I laugh with the kids that this is perhaps the oldest Western literature and even then, people were seeking advice from their bartenders).

He all but ignores Siduri and proceeds down an arduous path to find Utanapishtim, the flood survivor, who has been made immortal. Out of pity, Utanapishtim gives Gilgamesh several tests to attain to immortality.

He fails them all, learns his lesson, and goes back to live his mortal life in chastened wisdom.

I can’t fault Gilgamesh the way my students do.

Awful things have happened lately: a long-anticipated infant of people I care about full-term but stillborn, a childhood friend of my brother unexpectedly dead from sleep apnea before his thirtieth birthday, the national news full of fresh accounts of sexual abuse, touting statistics that one out of every three girls and one out of every six boys under the age of twelve will be molested, more bad news in Africa, another set of heartbroken friends getting a divorce.

The litany of sorrow goes on and on and on.

I suppose it doesn’t necessarily help that I have voluntarily spent the weekend attending lectures on genocide education in preparation for my second trip to Rwanda this coming summer.

So I can’t fault Gilgamesh, because I’m pretty sure that scared, reeling thing in me is simply shouting in response to all this tragedy, “Please not me or any more of those I love or anyone else for that matter! We don’t want to die!”

People tell teenagers all the time that they think they are invincible. I can attest that this is still going on because I’m around teenagers all the time in assembly-type settings, and they are still saying this to them in much the same way they are still teaching them Drivers’ Ed by showing them Scott Baio movies about drunk driving.

Now they support these talks with “recent findings about the adolescent brain and risk-taking activities,” for which adolescents, bless them, still display their dismissive hand gestures.

When I was an adolescent and adults told me that I thought I was invincible, I always scoffed and rolled my eyes.

“I most certainly do not think I am invincible. I’m not an idiot. I’m not going to walk in front of a bus or jump off a roof just because I’m sixteen,” I’d say, scoffing with my scoffing friends.

But an intellectual understanding of the limits of possessing a body and an experiential understanding of the material fact of death and its horrifying and infinite permutations are two wholly different matters.

I don’t know that we who live (however young or old) have truly come to peace with our mortality or the mortality of those we love. Or that we ever do. And it’s not just our mortality, that brutal finality of physical death, but all the suffering and banality and despair and betrayal that seem bent on constant intrusion into our lives.

My friend Reva, who understands what it is to have a hard time climbing out of these states, once sent me Jack Gilbert’s poem, “A Brief for the Defense.” I will close with a portion of that poem, because it helps me when I get like this. Poetry helps me.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.