Bill Long 12/30/08
If there is a common refrain I have heard from small and great alike over the years it is that they feel they are not adequately appreciated or recognized by the world. For many people, all they would like is an occasional pat on the back; for others a wreath-bedecked shrine or place on Rushmore seems the only way to satisfy their unfulfilled cravings. The bottom line is that the tokens of recognition don't seem to be forthcoming. As a result, people live with various degrees of cynicism, bitterness, silent anger, pessimism or despair. This essay does two things: it probes an ancient text where this lament was spoken of in especially poignant way; and then it gives some (brief) advice on how to live today in the shadow of un(der)appreciation. But first, a personal story.
A Light Personal Story of Un(der)appreciation
My first "recognized" stint of public service was from 1985-90, when I was on the Board of Directors of Portland Community College (OR). I was elected over five other people in 1985, and my name even made it onto the front page of the state's largest-circulating newspaper. For a "kid" of 32, I was feeling pretty good. Then, the work began. I labored hour after hour on community college affairs, learning about budgets and personnel and roofs of buildings and hiring new presidents and so many other things. People came to us mostly for money, and if I received any "attention" or "recognition" it was only because some interest group wanted something from me. Rarely did my name make the papers after my election. I didn't really mind; it was just the way it was.
I had to leave my post in August 1990, when I accepted a teaching position in KS. The President of the College, Dr. Daniel Moriarty, whom I consider to be one of the most perceptive and able college administrators I have seen in 30+ years "in the field," had the communications department put out an "APB" in all the newspapers, saying that I was stepping down and that a replacement for me was needed. I noted wryly to him the next week that I received more publiclity in my "demise" than I had in all the work I had done for the college. He, a sort of philosopher as well as a good sport, smiled and said, "Well, isn't that ironic?"
Moving to A Poetic Ditty from Antiquity
When I was reading Cicero's defense of the poet Archias, I noted a little poetic couplet in the edited text, which mentioned the irony of lack of recognition accorded to the great epic poet Homer. Here is one way to translate that ancient couplet, which first appeared in the Greek Anthology of the 1st cent. BCE Greek poet Antipater of Sidon:
"Seven cities claimed great Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread."
It is often rendered a little different in English. For example, I have seen English translations for the first line as follows: "Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead..." or "Seven cities claimed Homer dead," or "Seven cities warr'd for Homer dead." You get the point. The second line is also rendered, "Where Homer living begged his bread." The thought would be that everyone wanted Homer after he had died, even though while he was living he was a beggar like everyone else. Everyone wanted to claim that "Homer lived here," though no one wanted to celebrate him while alive. Isn't that about the most delicious irony you have seen? The great poet going begging; the one whose name is remembered in every literature class in the West as the founder of our literature--and he had to go "begging bread" during his life from the very cities that wanted him afterwards.
After reading that couplet, I smiled inwardly and said, "I don't think I have any complaints in life now..." Then, just to be complete about it, I decided to look up the Greek text, and I realized that the Greek text doesn't translate as the English renders it--though the English is a fair inference. See what you think. Literally, the Greek runs:
"Seven poleis (city states) contended for the wise race of Homer [i.e., the race or origin of the wise Homer],
Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Ithaca, Pylos, Argus and Athens."
Some ancient writers, who also knew the couplet, substituted Salamis for Ithaca and Rhodes for Pylos. Seems like everyone wanted Homer. The Greek doesn't explicitly say that Homer went "begging" in these towns, but it is a fair inference from whatever little else we know of the poet's life.
Moving to Today
Thus, my point is that great people/poets/writers/thinkers or others often go unnoticed or un(der)appreciated in their lifetimes. I think it is a function of two things: (a) people are just too busy in their lives to accord recognition to any but the ones whom the media "hypes" for whatever reasons the media is interested in "hyping" someone; and (b) when the "dust settles" after a person's death, there are often other interests immediately evident, and so recognition may come. I think of the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died in 1940 at age 44 of a heart attack, and believed at his death that he was a failure in life. However, after WWII, various professors of literature, as well as HS teachers, while searching around for material that would "make alive" the "Roaring 20s" or the "Lost Generation" found his material, especially The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, alluring and even compelling. In fact, when the Modern Library/Random House took a survey of lots of literary types a few years back, asking them about the 100 most significant English-language works of fiction written in the 20th century, The Great Gatsby ranked second on the list--behind James Joyce's semi-penetrable Ulysses-- and Tender is the Night ranked 28th.
Recognition often does't come to us in the right degree or proportion, I believe, so that it might be very clear to us what our true loves are in life. If we were "in it" for the kudos, then we certainly would lose heart after a decade or, at most, two decades of labor if we were unrecognized. But if we labor for the most part unrewarded and unrecognized, we truly learn where our heart is. And, that, now that I think of it, isn't a bad lesson to learn...