[“Vanished”: One of my all-time personal favorites. New York, 1998. Backstory here.]
This is where having studied Latin in school comes in handy:
In Ancient Greece, victors at the Olympic Games were not given a gold medal. They certainly were not given multi-million dollar media deals. They were simply given a wee hat made out of leaves. A “laurel wreath”, to be precise.
The wreath’s raw materials would have cost a handful of spare change, in today’s money. Add- I don’t know- a couple of sheckles to pay somebody to make it- it probably would’ve only taken the person a few minutes. And the athlete would only keep it for a few weeks, tossing it away once the leaves turned brown.
Why did the Greeks choose to do it this way? Because the laurel wreath, unlike a multi-million dollar media deal, symbolized victory’s fleeting nature.
The Roman Emperors wore laurel wreaths for the same reason, as opposed to the gold and diamond-encrusted crowns preferred by Europeans Royalty, 1500 years later. Again, it was meant to symbolize the fleeting nature of their power. They might be the All-Powerful Ruler of The Empire, but hey, everybody goes eventually. Perhaps the later European Royals were in denial?
I remember seeing Mike Mills, a member of the famous rock group, REM being interviewed on the TV one or two years ago. The interviewer asked him, “So, when did you first feel like you were successful?”
Mike answered, to paraphrase, “The only time I felt like we had really crossed a line was when, twenty-odd years ago, we realized that we could do this full-time. That we wouldn’t need to work in a record store or whatever. Any ‘success’ since then was us simply building organically, piece-by-piece on what we already had going on.”
I can certainly relate. I often find fairly minor failures from a decade ago still hit me emotionally far more strongly than certain major successes I had in the last year or two. Perhaps part of it is simply timing. Perhaps by the time the eventual pay-off comes, you’re already far too busy worrying about the next project to waste time basking in former glories.
Failure, on the other hand, seems deeper and more lasting. I’m OK with that; I suspect it’s Nature’s little trick to keep us “driven”. Keeping us striving forward in a world where organic life is for the most part “nasty, brutish and short”.
In the great English poem, “If”, Rudyard Kipling refers to Triumph and Disaster as “those two imposters”. An utterly beautiful and powerful thought, one which I first read aged eleven, when my English teacher, Mr. Coates made me memorize the poem by heart, as punishment for turning in an assignment with sloppy handwriting. Thirty years later and I am only, just only, beginning to even slightly understand…