Being Julius Caesar

Did everyone make it through the Ides of March intact? When I was in high school, I was the only student in the history of my school to study Latin 3 or 4.  Nowadays, schools would delete the offering, but I guess the school administration just forgot about the classes.  I signed up for it and was promptly put in the corner of the Latin 2 class.  There was no curriculum to speak of forcing Ms. Jennings, my Latin teacher, to make it up.  She decided that translation was the way to go.  So, for two years I translated Ovid, Catullus, Cicero, and, my nemesis, Virgil–author of The Aeneid.  I was that kid who sat in the back of the classroom and talked to no one.

In the middle of all this classical, academic conviviality (I do not include Virgil here), we Latin students were forced to re-enact ancient Roman practices from time to time.  During December, for example, we had to run around the halls yelling, “Io Saturnalia!”  You can imagine that this might have caused a ruckus.  Ms. Jennings liked the juxtaposition of ancient life and modern, and she really liked to insert ancient traditions into our modern ones.  I won’t even discuss what she did with Easter.  But, the Ides of March was like giving her center stage.  The Ides of March was a date on the ancient Roman calendar that corresponded to March 15th.  In the ancient Roman imagination, the Ides of March was roughly equivocal to the American April 15th in terms of emotional weight.  You know, tax day.  Except to the Romans, March 15th was the day that you must settle your debts.  It bears a similar weight, doesn’t it? On April 15th, all Americans must settle their debts with Uncle Sam.  The Ides of March then became the perfect day to assassinate Julius Caesar in the Senate.  Sixty senators were seeing to it that Caesar settled his debts with Rome.

Every March 15th, the entirety of the Latin classes had to run around the school pretending to be the sixty senators conspiring to find and assassinate Julius Caesar.  No one wanted to be Julius Caesar.  Where was the fun in being murdered by a pack of overzealous high schoolers while muttering, “Et tu, Brute?” during feigned death throes?  I, of course, had to be Caesar.  I didn’t exactly participate.  I tried to evade capture.  I was scolded by Ms. Jennings for eluding the assassination: “The Ides of March was not an assassination attempt! Now, go out into the halls and die gloriously!” It felt personal.  Being a placeholder for Julius Caesar.  I didn’t want to be assassinated particularly by a bunch of underclassmen who were still figuring out how to conjugate sum (I was a total Latin snob in high school I admit with shame).  Alas, I had to die, and I resented it.  I resented it because the two people playing Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, lorded it over me for weeks in typical teenage fashion.  Their account of how they found me, how I died, and their ultimate victory over high school Rome became bigger, badder, and more ridiculous with each taunt and retelling.

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This is exactly how I felt.

I’m annoyed even now as I retell this story.  What’s even funnier is that when I am presently forced to participate in group activities, I immediately remember being Julius Caesar.  I remember how much I hated it.  I remember how it felt to be stalked in the halls.  I remember how embarrassed I felt to have to wear those ridiculous togas made of bedsheets (yes, we had to do that) to every class.  I went to an urban Texan high school! No one lets you live that down! I didn’t sign up for that nonsense, but we were graded on our participation; and I was Julius Caesar destined to die on the Ides of March–in the hallways during passing time. O the mockery!

Why do we do this? Remember the past when we experience life now or even try to plan an upcoming event? What does a past event like the Ides of March Latin Class Extravaganza have to do with my future participation in a group presentation on ovarian cancer? This has something to do with it:

“Professor of Psychological and Brain Science Kathleen McDermott, of Washington University, cites results of brain scans demonstrating that when subjects imagine potential future events it is the memory processing centers in the brain that light up.

Further, subjects with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. We have to look back in order to look forward. Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter asserts: Memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future.” (Re-story Your Life)

I love this explanation.  When we plan, imagine, and attempt to engage in anything, our brain relies on past events and experiences to support us in terms of expectations and potential futures in order to, in a way, help us erase uncertainties.  Humans don’t do well with uncertainty.  So, our brains, whether we know it or not, do a lot of the heavy lifting for us by connecting past stories together to weave a narrative flow that will help us predict an outcome.

But, what if we don’t have good stories? Or, in a specific case, what if I’ve only had bad experiences with group projects, and I’m now being assigned a group project? What do you suppose my new narrative will be? What feelings will become intertwined within the potential futures my brain brings forth? Realistically, I know that I will not literally be assassinated, but the entire high school endeavor was one of awkward disempowerment and feeling singled-out.  That defines “high school” for many people.  I know people who still struggle with the emotional impact of their high school experiences due to the narrative mark it left upon them.  If their past narratives are never re-examined, then how do you suppose they approach new life experiences when their past narrative identity is still partially rooted in such negative events? If I never re-examined my Julius Caesar experience, would you want to partner with me in a group? For real, would you? I wouldn’t.

This idea is applicable to so many life experiences.  One single event can change our narrative–the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world, in our personal relationships, and even our relationship with ourselves.

So, how do we incorporate this idea and make it work for us?

“Our stories are always shifting, moving and incorporating this moment and the next possible moment. Our stories are fluid.

Psychologist and storytelling researcher Dan McAdams explains that our stories make up our narrative identity. But we don’t live one story or one identity. Instead, this narrative of self is ongoing, always integrating the latest information and developing into something new.

McAdams:

The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplaceethnicityreligiongender, social class, and culture writ large.

So how exactly do we take on the challenge of rewriting our story? We can start by seeing ourselves “in the middle.”

Like all good plots, the middle of our story includes themes that form a coherent narrative. But the unsettling secret is that each of us is both the protagonist and the narrator of a story in which we have no idea what will happen next.” (Re-story Your Life)

There it is again.  That dreaded uncertainty.  What is going to happen to us next? Recall the research.  We can only imagine what will happen to us next by relying on our past memories–that’s the part of your brain being used when you imagine your future.  So, for crying out loud, what then?

I’m going to rely on Willy Wonka for guidance:

“You can’t get out backwards.  You have to go forward to go back.”

“For many of us, the uncertainty that comes with middle age brings an inclination to solidify the story. In the effort to control our anxiety about change, we form a kind of crust over the current. In time the crust hardens. We set the past: this is what happened, these are my regrets and these are my triumphs, no need to look back any further. What’s done is done.

Next we fix the future with our expectations and demands: this is what will happen. We expect to live without further twists or evolutions. While this may calm our anxiety of the moment, we deprive ourselves of creative involvement with our becoming.

Since plot twists are the secret to a great story, we need to get creative with ours.” (Re-story Your Life)

If you want to go back and look at what is hindering you, then you have to begin to move forward.  You can’t go back to go forward.  You have to go forward to go back.  You will only know what you are afraid of, what is paralyzing you, what your greatest struggle is, and from whence they originate when you begin to try to leave your residence.  Looking forward gives us a reason to look back–to gauge our starting point.  Looking back continually is futility because we gauge nothing except where we once were.  It provides us with no present perspective or even trajectory.  It only provides distortion.  You don’t even gain new information.  No one makes a plan with old information.

It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But, what is left? I could remain Julius Caesar in my mind whenever I’m called upon to do a group project dragging my past into my present effectively demoting myself perpetually.  That is very un-Caesar-like.  Or, I could create a better narrative for myself in which I engage the uncertainty while also feeling certain that no one I work with will ever try to hunt me down in a high school hallway again while wearing a bedsheet toga in order to mock stab me.  This I actually can feel certain about.

The idea is absurd, and I deliberately chose an absurd example to better elucidate the idea.  What we so often fear will overtake us will not, or, if it could, it will not affect us in the same way because we are not the same person now developmentally, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  We are very different people in the present than we were in the past, but we recall the past with the perspective of our past selves rather than with our more developed present perspectives.  So, while what we fear could, for the sake of argument, happen again, we would respond very differently because we are far more resilient and capable because we have lived life and matured–we have gained skills.  It is in this exercise that we discover our deficiencies.  If we find that in going forward we truly are hindered by a lack of skills or an inability to recall the past from the present due to pain or trauma, then we have new information.  From here, we can create a new plan of action and implement it.  And, this new plan of action is actually moving forward.

This is a very big idea to be sure.  I sit with it a lot.  It is, however, such a powerful idea.  We have immense say over our potential futures, and our influence comes from choosing to move forward even when it’s hard and scary.

Go forward to go back.  This is a very effective way to keep going.

Resources:

Re-Story Your Life: The ongoingness of being

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