Who Are You, O Prometheus?

My five year-old daughter Selah and I were recently driving to her preschool and listening to Japanese children’s songs as we often do.  One particular song was about a kitten who lost her way and ends up going to a police station to inquire of the police officer dog how to get home.  The police officer dog asked the kitten where she lived.  The kitten replied that she did not know.  The police officer dog then asked her what her name was.  She again replied that she did not know.

At that point my daughter shot up in her booster seat and said, “Wait!  Pause it!”  When I did she asked me, “How come she doesn’t know who she is?  How is it possible for someone not to know who they are?  That doesn’t make any sense.”

Good question, Selah.

Such existential questions have been posed by philosophers throughout antiquity.  Plato wondered about the true nature of man.  Camus pondered the meaning of life and said in his Myth of Sisyphus that this was the ultimate question.  He asked if our only way to make sense of the absurdity of life and to have some modicum of control was suicide, only to find that perspective is ultimately what mattered.

Merton, more like Selah, contemplated the True Self of humankind.  In his book, The New Man, Merton compares the human plight to that of Prometheus.  Stealing the flame from the gods, Prometheus merely takes “his own uncommunicable reality, his own spirit.”  Merton goes on to say that it is “the affirmation and vindication of his own being.  Yet this being is a gift of God, and it does not have to be stolen.  It can only be had by a free gift – the very hope of gaining it by theft is pure illusion.”

For Merton, Prometheus had certain ideas about the nature of things and particularly about the gods.  Prometheus saw the gods as being in competition with himself and something that needed to be bested.  It was a fear-hate relationship that only ended up with Prometheus back where he started: before the gods with fire in hand preparing to accept his self-inflicted torment.  So the question remains: Why steal the fire in the first place?

Had Prometheus had more of a sense of wonder, than such a surety, I feel things would have been very different.  If merely he had the mind of a five year-old that pondered the things of life without a self-induced heard-headedness that prevents one from seeing things as they really are, then he would have had the awareness to not only have the right answers, but more importantly, to ask the right questions.  Prometheus would have been able to not only see the gods differently, but he would have seen himself differently.

I’m quick to both pity and fault Prometheus for his foolish delusion.  But, if I am to have the contemplative spirit that I criticize him for not having, then I have to ask how I and modern humans do the same thing.  I have to consider that the unexamined life may actually not be worth living.

So, back to Merton we go.  The True Self.  The real me.  If only we, as well as Prometheus, could figure out who we really are, then we can live intentionally as the people we were meant to be in our most genuine state of being.  Instead, we devote our lives to becoming someone we are not (our False Self) to protect ourselves from fears and perceived inadequacies.  We think this is the best way to save ourselves with the least amount of pain – existential or otherwise – but mostly what we get is a stolen fire that we some day have to return with all of the guilt and shame that awareness can sometimes bring.  Hopefully, then, at least, we will realize the fire was ours to begin with instead of wasting a life in perpetual futility wasting a life otherwise well lived.

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One Response to “Who Are You, O Prometheus?”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    If memory serves, Joseph Campbell dwelt on the Prometheus mythology in his Hero with a Thousand Faces book, and likened that Greek story (reportedly told a few hundred years before the compilation of the Hebrew Bible) to an example of the resurrection — not his own so much as for all mankind — story prevalent in other cultures/religions/philosophies.

    I really enjoyed Campbell — and what you write above — for extrapolating from these mythic stories to the here and now; for they do appear to be timeless & brilliant attempts to put narrative around the ineffable nature of humanity.

    Rationally we know the mysteries are ultimately inexplicable, and yet … we humans are so drawn (perhaps neurologically wired) to nevertheless explore the depths of the unknowable. Not because we expect to receive actual answers, it occurs to me, but rather due to our utter fascination with exploring the questions.

    I find it amazing that the so-called ancient stories have stood the test of time, and somehow remain relevant, cautionary tales to this day.

    Love, john

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