Nemesis was the ancient Greek goddess who punished mortals for hubris–arrogance against the gods. Her name derives from the ancient Greek word for retribution. Today we use the term synonymously with “enemy,” but its origins are so much deeper and more interesting. An enemy could be a rival, a bully, or an evil monologuing villain–regardless, it’s an external threat. A nemesis doesn’t threaten you but rather reacts to you. And given that the original Nemesis enacted retribution, maybe in this case you are the evil monologuing villain.
Or just stupid. Case in point, me. Only a month into marathon training I’ve injured myself, and it’s my own fault, my own hubris that made me think those little twinges in my foot could be brushed aside while I pursued running glory. I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, but I’ve been here before and I know what to do–and, as a mature (but still stupid) runner, I’m completely willing to do it. It’s a setback to my goal, and once I’m back in action I may end up running out of time before the race. So be it.
It’s my Achilles tendon, and just like that we’re back to Greek mythology, Achilles of course being the great Greek warrior who fought against the Trojans. It’s a little sad that he’s most famous for his vulnerability, kind of like the way the name Scrooge is used to refer to a joyless miser even though the whole point of him was his transformation to a joyful giver. Likewise, badass Achilles single-handedly turned the war in the Greeks’ favor with his fighting prowess, but what does he get for his pains? His name is a metaphor for weak spot. To add further insult to injury (ha ha, see what I did there?), the story involving Achilles’s own heel was apparently a much later addition to his mythology. Homer’s Iliad ends with Achilles still very much alive and victorious, with no mention anywhere of his mother’s protective action of dunking her son in the River Styx to make him invincible. Almost.
I confess I had not read the Iliad until this summer. It was the first book I picked up once the school year ended, because that’s the kind of beach book I go for. I enjoyed the read, way more than I would have if I’d been assigned it 30 years ago in a classroom. It’s incredibly violent and gruesome, which isn’t surprising given that it’s a war story; more surprising to me was the part Achilles played. He appears front and center in Chapter 1 line 1, mad as Hades. Why is he so enraged? Not because of the enemy. He’s pissed off at Agamemnon, a fellow Greek–someone on his own side–because Agamemnon insulted him. Achilles proceeds to sulk angrily for several chapters offstage; meanwhile the brutality of the war is relentless. Achilles could end it if he resumed fighting, but he refuses until his best friend is killed by Trojan hero Hector. Then he really gets mad.
This is an extremely condensed version of only a small, if significant, part of the story, but I was struck by how petty these supposedly valiant warriors could be. Nyah nyah nyah, Achilles, I’m taking your woman. Wah, wah, Agamemnon dishonored me. And the gods are just as petty, if not worse (definitely worse–pettiness and power are a disastrous combination, as we in this country well know). The Trojan War happened in the first place because the goddess Eris didn’t get invited to a party. That’s right, a lot of people got disemboweled because of someone else’s FOMO.
You can only indulge in pettiness if you can afford it; people often add the expression “first-world problems” to their complaints with a sheepish grin to show they know this. It is, in a sense, arrogant to be petty, to take the tiniest setback as a deep personal affront. I’m trying not to do this right now, as I wheel around the house in my rolling office chair, sighing heavily when I get to the stairs. This was my own doing, and nobody’s going to be eviscerated because of it; nobody’s going to suffer at all but me, and I’ll be fine. Sure, there’s been some angry sulking, but at a mere mortal’s level. Nemesis, you win the battle again, but hopefully it’s only in the interest of helping me win the war.