Monday, November 28, 2011

Gilgamesh IV: Gilgamesh at the End of the World

Only two humans have ever been granted eternal life: Utnapishtim and his wife, the only survivors of the Great Deluge. Because they had not been drowned in the flood (thanks to a sneak tip from the kindly god Ea) the gods made them "like unto us gods." But then, to ensure that they wouldn't give any ideas to the newly created second generation of humanity, the gods sent them far away. No one could survive the trials of the journey to their home, called "the mouth of all rivers" and "the ends of the earth." But Gilgamesh never shied away from a challenge – especially now that he had nothing left to lose.

Gilgamesh marches past the Scorpion-Men of the Mashu Mountains; he trudges through twelve leagues of darkness in the Lands of Night; he rides a raft over the treacherous Waters of Death. At last he meets Utnapishtim, who tells him that death is a necessary part of human existence: only the gods are immortal. But when Gilgamesh persists, Utnapishtim tells him that immortality shall be his if he can only stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh agrees to this – then, worn out from his journey, promptly falls asleep.

When Gilgamesh awakens, he bemoans his fate. Taking pity on him, Utnapishtim tells him of a plant which grows at the bottom of the sea: those who eat it will have their youth restored to them. Tying stones to his feet, Gilgamesh sinks into the depths and finds the plant. But yet again sleep overtakes him as he returns to land – and while he slumbers a snake swallows the secret of youth! Disconsolate, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk. But as he sets foot in his city he speaks proudly of its mighty walls and the keystone of lapis which details his exploits.

Exercise 1-4: Acceptance

In your life you have probably suffered many losses: you have experienced deaths, breakups, layoffs, rejections of all sorts. How long did it take you to recover from these events?. What did you do to aid in that recovery, and what did you do that prolonged your suffering? Did you "get over it" or are you still feeling the loss? If the former, how long did it take for your grief to abate? If the latter, what do you do to get through your daily activities? What lessons would you take away from your previous grief in dealing with the present and the future? 

As the story ends, Gilgamesh has lost his chance at eternal life and renewed youth. He laments his defeat, crying out " I have not secured any good deed for myself, but only for the serpent, the lion of the ground'!" The mighty king must return to Uruk in disgrace, his mission a failure. But although he must grow old and die like his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh takes solace in his deeds and accomplishments. Still suffering from his loss, he concentrates on the things which still remain. He may not be immortal, but his city will live on after him and his deeds will be celebrated long after he is gone. At the tale's end, Gilgamesh has attained the final stage of grief, acceptance.

Acceptance does not mean that your pain goes away: rather, it means learning how to live with that pain. Some wounds cannot be healed by affirmations, positive thinking or a can-do attitude. Mia, whose 5-year old son suffers from cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities, gives a poignant account of living with that never-ending sorrow:
I accept that among all the tired days and nights of the endlessness of the hyper vigilance of his care, I know that I will grieve. I know it will come. I know it won’t stop. I have found ways to get by in giving myself the opportunity to do it, by giving myself permission. I have come to accept that I will never truly finish grieving. But I couldn’t be happier to have my special boy.
Setting manageable goals for your recovery can help: make gradual steps toward returning to where you were before tragedy struck. Understand that you will have good days and bad days: the former are not a sign that you have forgotten your loss, nor are the latter a sign that you are being weak or indulging in self-pity. Gilgamesh likely spent many nights mourning his lost friend: as he grew old, he may have ruminated ruefully on how close he came to immortality. But he still managed to rule over his people and pass on his legacy – and his story – to those who came after him.