Don’t Despair: Lessons from a Small Municipality
By Oliver Ray, Executive Director of the NCLGA
Corinth was a city that existed for thousands of years before Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddism (roughly 80% of the world’s 7.2 Billion people practice one of these). It is in the epic poem, “The Illiad” (Western literature's oldest existing work), and was once the capital of provincial Greece under the Roman Empire. Today, however, it is a modest municipality and transportation hub.
When I think about the more tragic events of the past twelve months, I think of three specific lessons that Corinth provides to all of us.
I was at work when I saw the image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body, washed ashore on a Mediterranean beach -- an image so powerful it changed the course (some say the actual outcome) of our last federal election. Like everyone else who saw the same photos, my heart broke. And it was literally moments later that I saw Tina Fontaine’s smiling face juxtaposed with a headline telling us her 15 year-old body had been pulled from the Red River, wrapped in a plastic bag. I thought, simultaneously, about the destruction of ancient Syrian communities and the legacy of residential schools here at home. I was a bit stunned, to be honest, and momentarily had that “what’s the point” feeling. And then I remembered Corinth.
In Greek mythology, Corinth once had a king called Sysiphus. To very severely paraphrase the legend, Sysiphus epitomized the worst of mankind’s traits: deceit, violence, hate, etc. His greatest crime, however, was to imprison death, ensuring that the inflicted would never see an end to their suffering. That’s when Zeus intervened. The God of God’s, as he was known, condemned Sysiphus to the worst punishment he could think of: to roll a massive boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it tumble to the bottom and have to repeat the process again…for eternity. This myth reminds us that although devastating and painful, the death and destruction that mankind, as a species, incurs is actually a necessity. It is the inability to move on (to progress) that is our worst fate. And that brings me to modern day Corinth.
The city has been razed several times, with archeological evidence showing it was completely destroyed in 2000 BC and again in 146 BC, when it was left for 100 years before reconstruction. In 1858 it was destroyed by an earthquake, and again in 1933 by fire. Each generation rebuilding with the newest tools and a growing catalogue of lessons learned.
The city that was created so long ago still stands today, with a population of just over 58,000. Over time, Corinthians learned to rebuild themselves around their ruins. Parts of the ancient buildings remain exposed for tourists. And if you go there, Corinthians can show you how they’ve progressed through the ages. This lesson reminds us that we gain from our heartaches, each one an opportunity to progress. It is a real life example of the old adage: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Our communities, to use the term in the broadest sense, are destroyed by one kind of violence or another (hurricanes, economic depression, war, racism). But they are rebuilt each time by something altogether different, the human quality that has carried homo sapiens from the caves of Omo in Ethiopia 200,000 years ago to the present day, which brings me to the last - and perhaps most important - lesson.
The Christian Bible includes an epistle (an elaborate letter) that was written to the citizens of Corinth near the middle of the first century. They weren’t getting along, to put it simply. A particular section of the epistle is commonly read aloud at weddings (both religious and secular) and reminds people of what is most important in life. The last line goes like this, “And now these three remain: Faith, Hope, and Love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13).
The beautiful thing about life is that we arrive armed with faith, hope and love. And this default mode is all around us. Take for example, one of our best known charities. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was founded “to protect human life and health, to ensure respect for all human beings, and to prevent and alleviate human suffering”. It has approximately 97 million volunteers, members and staff (a number that dwarfs, even by most conservative estimates, the combined totals of every single military force of every single country in the world).
I’ll end by encouraging you to counter the incessant, gratuitous examples of suffering that we call headlines. They don’t represent even a fraction of the real world. So, the next time you’re at the water cooler, don’t talk about the news.
Share a quote, or joke, or inspiring anecdote. In this simple way, we will continue, as the Greeks wrote centuries ago, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”.