Sunday, June 25, 2006

am i my brother's keeper?

whenever i teach world literature, i tend to structure the class not around genre or chronology; rather, i try to make the classics relevant to students that, for the most part, would rather be eating their chicken nuggets, downloading the latest itune, or waiting in breathless anticipation for clerks ii to hit local theaters. one strategy i employ is to ask a central question that will focus the class for the semester. recently, i have been obsessed with the question, “what does it mean to be human?” and how literature from the ancient world, the middle ages, and the renaissance work to provide answers for this question.

part of what it means to be human, i think, is that we constantly strive (when not occupied by fast food and pop culture) to achieve our maximum potential, to be the very best that we can be. but often, it seems, that we forget to measure our potential. what happens when we over-extend? to what lengths will we go and what costs will we endure to achieve our goals?

man’s desire to assert his potential on nature is truly a fascinating struggle. whether white water rafting, harnessing aerodynamics to fly like the birds, or bending the landscape to our ordered imaginations, man’s arrogance in the face of nature’s full force is striking, but often proves illustrative in providing insights that plumb the very depths man’s nature. one such story, or set or stories, involves man’s quest to scale the highest reaches of our world. and the recent account of lincoln hall serves as a modern day good samaritan parable. on may 27-28, 2006, after summiting everest, lincoln began having difficulties during his descent from the dead zone. his own team had to abandon him to save their own lives and left lincoln for dead. some nineteen hours later, dan mazure, a professional guide, and his climbing team of two clients who had paid upwards of $20,000 each were ascending everest and were within sight of the summit when they stumbled upon lincoln hall . . . alive. without hesitation, dan mazure and his two clients abandoned their own goals and worked to organize a rescue for lincoln, a total stranger. others, that very day, faced with the choice to aid lincoln or continue toward the summit weighed the consequences of their actions and opted not to help lincoln hall, but instead, pursue a fleeting moment of glory. although mazur and his clients did not summit the peak, mazur has no regrets. “‘Oh yeah, it was worth it,’ he said shortly after the rescue. ‘You can always go back to the summit but you only have one life to live. If we had left the man to die, that would have always been on my mind . . . How could you live with yourself?’” (

charles dubois once said, “the important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” such moments happen daily. on the mountainside. on the sidewalk. in the classroom. in route. how we struggle to react to such moments bear witness to the internal paradoxes of our humanity.