One of the many benefits of studying and teaching English pays off when coming across a word or concept that helps explain, define or clarify one’s life. Learning about hubris broadened my horizon and elucidated people who before I thought were merely stuck up.
Not being a classicist in graduate school, I shunned Shakespeare classes, but when “King Lear” came to campus, I thought, “Hey, why not?” Not having read the play, by the third act, I was stunned, awed, aghast. Perhaps the bard’s greatest achievement other than “Hamlet,” the tragedy follows the downfall of an arrogant, belligerent king from having it all – wealth, power and, most important, the love of his daughters – to having nothing.
All because of hubris. Blind, conceited egotism, his narcissism shutting out reason and empathy.
Other famous hubristic literary characters include Ahab, hunter of the white whale who needed a bigger boat; Achilles, the heel who believed himself impervious to death; and Jay Gatsby, who couldn’t let go of his Daisy chain. In real life, think of (usually) men at the top of their game brought low – say, Bill Cosby or Rudy Giuliani.
And me. Yes, include me in that carnival of clowns whose smiles turn to frowns.
However, whereas most legendary men’s descent stems from money, sex or the abuse of power, I suffered mechanical hubris.
Some backstory: You may remember we recently moved from downtown Geneva to Campton Hills, comparatively isolated and woodsy. The house faces a downward slope that, when we moved in, looked like a scene out of “Little House on the Prairie,” with natural prairie grasses and wildflowers growing knee to waist high.
Not cutting the “lawn” fast enough (actually, we considered it prairie, a beautiful refuge for garter snakes, chipmunks and foxes), someone brought it to the attention of the town elders. One afternoon, Officer Friendly visited to encourage a faster cut.
My son suggested I use his large, self-propelled mower with five forward gears, but the beast was so unwieldy, I kept it in first gear, although, when turning, the monster still whirled me around so fast my feet nearly left the ground. Hard to contain when going downhill, and tiring to walk uphill, the creature was tamed with blood, sweat and jeers.
When my daughter visited, she winged the mower back and forth in fourth gear until I saw it standing alone in the middle of the field. Coming in, she announced, “I got stung,” and pointed to her calf. “There’s an underground bee nest out there.”
So I knew. But I went anyway.
Because my son came home with a rider mower whose handles made Fred Astaire’s moves look like the Tin Man’s, I was all in, nest or not.
I began not flying back and forth, but nearly levitating. Even though open to the elements (sun, wind), I knew how farmers must feel in an air-conditioned John Deere cab with speakers piping in Merle Haggard moaning about lost loves.
I was invincible – until a piercing pain punctured my ear. I yelled, “AAAUUUGGGHHH,” and tried to swat away the bee, probably by then grinning and long gone. Instead, I managed to launch that ear’s new Bluetooth earbud wherever a swatted Bluetooth earbud goes. Pushing both handles forward, I retreated full speed back to the garage.
Why do we fools fool ourselves thinking us more than we are? Why don’t humility and compassion outweigh the desire to dominate and control?
All I know is, I need a bigger mower.
• Rick Holinger’s book of poetry, “North of Crivitz,” and his collection of humorous essays about life in the Fox Valley, “Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences,” are available through local bookstores or richardholinger.net. Contact him at email@example.com.