In many ways, life is a paradox. Men are hard-wired for adventure and for meaningful accomplishments, but we’re also hard wired for self-preservation. And it doesn’t take long to notice that those things are in conflict. There is no adventure without risk, and our nature cautions us to protect ourselves against risk. Historically, the struggle for survival alone satisfied our need for adventure and mean. Each day required us to face the threat of death from the elements, from starvation, from enemies, and from wild animals. We had to purposefully listen to our self-preservation instinct, as there was no shortage of adventure and meaning in the daily struggle to avoid death.
That’s all changed now. We have constructed a vast machinery of technology and specialized labor designed to keep us all safe and comfortable. Self-preservation is more of a figurative concern now, centered on our reputations rather than our actual physical lives. While that means that most of us live long, relatively safe lives, it also means that our desire for adventure is largely unfulfilled. Few of us are satisfied with a safe existence. As a result, we have to intentionally seek out adventure and meaning.
That tension between adventure, meaning, and risk of death runs throughout The Iliad. As I noted in my initial post on the story, found here, the primary character in The Iliad is Achilles. The interesting thing about this is that Achilles is merely a sidenote, a backdrop, for the first 90% of the story. He’s the greatest warrior in the world, but he’s not fighting in this historic battle because he was mad at his king. Still, despite the fact that he doesn’t enter the fight until the end of the story, his presence looms large. Almost every move by both armies and by the gods is done with a view to whether it will entice Achilles to enter the battle.
But, as it turns out, there’s a bit more to whether Achilles will enter the battle than his disagreement with King Agamemnon. Achilles is a demigod, the son of a mortal man, Peleus, and a goddess, Thetis. Early on in the story, Thetis reveals to Achilles that he has a choice of fates. Here’s how Achilles tells it:
“My mother Thetis, the goddess with the silver feet, says that a twofold fate carries me toward my death. If I remain and fight to take the city of the Trojans, then my homecoming is no more, but my fame will be forever. If I return to my home in the land of my fathers, there will be no glorious renown, yet I will live long, and the doom of death will not soon find me.”
Achilles knows that if he stays and enters the battle, he will be remembered forever for his exploits, but will die in battle, never to return home. If he returns home instead of entering the battle, he will live a long life but his legacy will die with him. Complicated by his beef with Agamemnon, this choice of fates stirs in Achilles as the battle rages on each day.
Ultimately, Achilles’ best friend, Patroklos, is convinced to enter the battle. A mighty warrior in his own right, Patroklos wears the armor of Achilles and slays many Trojans. However, he is ultimately killed by Hector, who takes Achilles’ armor. Upon learning of the death of Patroklos, Achilles is enraged and stricken with grief. Upon receiving an apology from Agamemnon, Achilles decides to enter the battle, vowing to kill Hector and avenge the death of his friend. In the end, he kills many Trojans, including some of their best warriors. Then he sets his sights on Hector. Fear overtakes Hector when he sees Achilles, and Achilles has to chase him around the city three times before Hector will even face him. In the climax of the story, Achilles slays Hector by driving a spear into his throat.
As Achilles pondered which fate to pursue, the adventure and legacy of meaningful accomplishment, which promised an early death, or the safe existence and long life in his homeland, he was pushed back and forth by many factors. His fellow soldiers pleaded with him to enter the battle, but his hatred and resentment for Agamemnon pushed him towards leaving and going home. In the end, he was pulled into battle, with the fate that entailed, by his love for his friend and his desire for glory.
While our circumstances no doubt differ, most of us face a choice similar to Achilles. We, too, have a twofold fate: we can either choose the adventurous life, the life of meaningful accomplishments, the life of strength, courage, and honor, which carries risk, or we can choose a life that maximizes our safety.
Most of us play it safe. We are risk averse. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. As husbands, fathers, and employers, we have a responsibility to take care of other people, and that means not taking risks that will leave them vulnerable. However, underlying all of those roles, we are men. And men need adventure. John Eldredge said it like this in his excellent book, Wild at Heart:
“Every man needs a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.”
If we’re going to competently fulfill our roles as fathers, husbands, and employers, we must be alive inside. A man who is sapped of all energy, purpose, and joy is of little use to anyone. So, if we’re going to be husbands who are a strength to our wives, fathers who inspire our children, and employers who create opportunities for our employees, we must first be men who are pursuing an adventure. That’s the only way that we’ll be satisfied inside and of optimal use to others.
The alternative is a life where we divide the chores with our wife, make sure our kids stay out of trouble and don’t die, and bring home a paycheck. We make sure we feel as little discomfort as possible, and make sure no one, including ourselves, gets hurt. We live our 75 years, then we die. At the end of those 75 years, my guess is that we’ll wonder what we actually did and where the time went. As I wrote in Manhood and The Hero’s Journey, that’s not a life that anyone grows up dreaming about.
We grow up dreaming about great things, about an exciting life. And that option, no matter where we are in life at this moment, is still available. That doesn’t mean that we will all spend our days sailing the seas and exploring the world. But it means that we adopt a mindset that we are going to pursue meaningful things. It means that we constantly learn and apply new skills. It means that we inoculate ourselves against discomfort and we refuse to live in fear, of anything.
We grow up dreaming about great things, about an exciting life. And that option, no matter where we are in life at this moment, is still available.
We don’t need to go skydiving or do extreme sports to find adventure. But we do need to push beyond our comfort zones. We might need to start a new business. We might need to write a book, a play, or a movie. We might need to start going camping. We might need to start hunting. We might need to learn to fish. We might need to travel more. We might need to learn a combat sport. The possibilities are endless. But it starts with our mindset; we embrace discomfort and we refuse to cower to fear.
Personally, I’ve committed to spending more time outdoors and to learning to hunt. There is adventure in nature. We can’t control it. It’s hot, cold, and wet. There are bugs and trees and plants and animals and all different types of terrain. Learning to survive and deal with those conditions is an adventure. Add in learning to keep yourself fed without using a supermarket, and that’s a pretty cool ride. It will entail travel, discomfort, learning new skills, acquiring new knowledge, physical rigor, emotional maturity, mental toughness, failure, and the potential for very primal success. That’s my current adventure. Yours may be different. The point is to have an adventure to live.
Your family is not an excuse not to live an adventure. In fact, they’re one of the reasons you need to do it. They need you to lead them on something worth doing, to give a direction that they can join in and play a role. If our lives consist of little more than work, eat, sleep, repeat . . . then I’m not sure we’re fulfilling our duty to them. Figure out what you need to do, then get your family involved on the journey.
Achilles chose the short life of adventure over the long life that was empty. In short, he chose the man’s life. May we all do the same. Godspeed, brothers.
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