While sitting in my new RV, reading Homer’s The Iliad, I stopped for a moment and watched the rain droplets fall from the oak outside. I was almost finished selling my stuff, and this was my third day in my new RV. But, a scene from an old Saturday Night Live skit came to worry my mind. Was I living in a van down by the river?
The answer to my question was right in my hands. I realized that this book, written 2,500 years ago, was telling me something I had already felt, but could not articulate.
At this point in the process, I still had the option to pull the stop on this lifestyle. Every event, big or small, has its moral. This event was no different. We’re told that having too many options can be a bad thing. I don’t think it has to be. Not if we use the opportunity to stop and contemplate our situation. My situation made me reflect on one similar to Achilles, the protagonist of The Iliad: What was all this stuff in my life really for?
It’s interesting how the word “stuff” is used in our language. It can be stuffing—the material used to fill something. Stuff is not bad. In fact, stuff can be useful. A turkey tastes better with stuffing (in my opinion at least!) Without stuffing a pillow is just a sheet. I’m not anti-stuff. Rather, I’m pro-functional stuff. We must select the proper material to fill a thing. Stuff your pillow with scorpions and you’re in for a terrible night. I like stuff. But what stuff did I want to fill my life with?
In The Iliad, there is the moment when Achilles first returns to the fighting after his absence. He had quit fighting due to a disagreement with the Greek give tar general, Agamemnon. It was the stuff Achilles brought with him to fight that struck me.
Achilles ran to the top of a ditch overlooking his enemies, the Trojans; he was naked. He brought nothing but himself. He shouted at the Trojan army. His shout was flame-capped by the gods. His head haloed by the sun. The Trojans were thrown into chaos. An entire army retreated at the mere sight of this screaming, naked warrior.
This scream and the flame-capped naked Achilles has stood as a symbol to ferocious warriors for 2,500 years. During WWI, the British Soldier Patrick Shaw Stewart, while on R&R wrote a poem to this figure. Shaw was about to return to battle. Certainly, he would have loved more stuff to take with him—more weapons and more armor and more reinforcements. In that situation, on the cusp of death, he took with him the image of Achilles:
I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles
Flame-capped, and shout for me
The question, how had Achilles come to be naked on that ditch, shapes The Iliad. It inspires men at war. It brought light to my own question about the stuff in my life.
Several days prior to shouting on that ditch, Achilles had been spurned by Agamemnon, for he had taken his stuff. Back then, 11th Century BC, the people with the most stuff were the best of men (unlike today, right?) They were honored first at festivals; they had first pick of wives and meat; they had the biggest houses and the most slaves; they had all the glory. The more stuff one had the more tîmê (Tee-Mey). This was the ancient greek word for honor. The first among the Gods, Zeus, received the most tîmê and thus should receive the best cuts of meat in sacrifice. Achilles was the greatest fighter of his era. He had sacked many enemy cities for Agamemnon and won many battles. Yet, Agamemnon wanted his stuff. So the Greek leader took away Achilles most prized possession, a beautiful slave girl. She had been awarded to Achilles by all the Greek soldiers, due to his high tîmê. Agamemnon said that he was the best of men and could take any slave girl he wanted. He did.
Achilles shrugged. He told his comrades that no matter what occurs to his fellow Greeks on the battlefield, he will no longer fight for them.
Strange as it seems, this is what was going through my head as I looked out my window at the RV park where I was staying . I realized I still had more room for stuff. Achilles lost his stuff unwillingly, and in a sense I had too. Yet, in losing stuff, we are forced to confront an important question. Toward what end does our possessions serve? A new coffee maker? Why, the one I have works fine. A new car? Why, my home has wheels now! More kitchenware, clothes, TVs, computers, Satellites? Why?
I flipped to an earlier part of The Iliad called “The Embassy to Achilles.” After Achilles quits, the Trojans begin winning battles. Agamemnon feels desperate. He swallows his pride and offers Achilles a ton of great stuff if he will return to the fighting. He offers women, slaves, horses, armor, chariots, land, and on and on.
Agamemnon sends an embassy of Achilles’ friends to offer his proposal. When they approach his camp, they find ‘the sacker of towns,’ ‘breaker of men,’ using his ‘man-killing hands’ to play a musical instrument.
They found him entertaining himself on a tuneful lyre, a beautifully ornate instrument with a silver crossbar, which he had taken from the spoils when he destroyed Eetions town. With this he was entertaining himself singing of the famous deeds of heroes. He was alone but for Patroclus.
His society was built on the accumulation of tîmê. And, when offered more tîmê than any other Greek, Achilles rejects this honor. He had all the stuff he needed. In losing his stuff, in having his status so arbitrarily taken from him, he discovered the truth. Our most intense desire for stuff, tends not to be our desire. He began to question the purpose of all the stuff he was winning. That made him question all his actions in fighting the Trojans. As he put it “for nothing, as I now see it equals the value of life.” Achilles no longer wanted to work to own more stuff. He wanted to live, to love, to make music, to write stories, and to raise a family.
Of course, I am not faced with the immediate danger of death as Achilles had been. He knew, through a prophecy, that to stay in Troy meant death and glory, to leave meant life and anonymity.
Yet, as I sat and watched the rain I thought of death. In Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar, Cesar says “a coward dies a thousand deaths before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” Though I’m a healthy 33 year old, I chose not to die that day.
It’s easy to be seduced into the life of a thousand deaths; choked by more stuff than one needs; choked by a lack of purpose for the stuff one does need. Like the rest of us, Achilles needs stuff. He was to be no minimalist—and neither am I. I could not outlive my books. Achilles needs his lyre and his tools of war. In ridding himself of the need for stuff, Achilles realizes a long held cliche. The stuff we own should serve a purpose of our own choosing, not to be determined in the eyes of another. Otherwise, the stuff we own ends up owning us.
Most men are one why away from ignorance. When Agamemnon dishonored Achilles, it made him ask why. Why did he care how many more golden tripods he had than everyone else? Why did he need another slave? At first, he had no answers. Then, he learned that fighting for stuff meant killing men who had done him no wrong. To leave meant to live on his own terms, finding honor in himself and his own gods.
I have no need of the Greeks’ honor. I believe I am honored because Zeus decrees it so, and this will keep me by my beaked ships as long as breath remains in my body and strength in my limbs.
I put the book down and searched through my remaining stuff. I’m now ensuring it’s the right stuff. More importantly, that I’m the right stuff. I ask question like “does this thing I own fulfill my own chosen function, to move closer toward my own chosen goals? If not, it is not needed. At least not by me. I had decided that this includes my house.
As I start this new adventure, I consider those who came before me. In the classic western movie Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Dean sings a song that perfectly sums up this immortal truth. The stuff we need is determined by the person we choose to be. In Dean’s case, a cowboy.
In the song, this cowboy has been herding cattle all day. The sun turns the clouds as purple as grapes. He hangs up his sombrero on the limb of a tree. He dreams of the woman right around the bend. She’ll be waiting,
“For my rifle, my pony, and me.”
What more does a cowboy need?