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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Drawing a line to establish the limits of living the dream

Check it.

Today’s craze-phrase is epimelesthai sauto. Have you heard of it? That dude Socrates from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” used to talk about it. Remember him? Toga, beard, bald, etc. Well, one time he hollered at his boy Alcibiades and was all like “Yo, you gotta tend to yourself like a farmer to his fields.” Meaning that, self knowledge and growth aren’t just gained through discovery, but through patient, diligent and ultimately, sweet, tender, lovin’ care. Don’t just poke and prod at those sprouts you call your ‘self,’ but water them, feed them, and respect them, because you’re probably going to want them to grow big and strong, Jack and the Beanstalk style.

Not making sense? Here’s a Grinnell-world example:

You’re in Gates with some of your friends watching some classic episode of “Arrested Development,” and they challenge you to an impromptu soda drinking contest. You accept. Why? Well, to test your limits of course! Not to mention you’re worried about what they’ll think if you decline.

Close to the bottom of your 4th liter of high fructose corn syrupy goodness, you realized you’ve made a huge mistake. You realize that you are indeed an embodied mortal like the rest of us suckers and can’t, in fact, do whatever you want to your body without its consent. At least, not without some unfortunate repercussions.

This example may look a little too PG-13, but it’s a merely a vehicle to allegorize what it looks like when an exploration of one’s endurance and strength of will ventures outside the boundaries of “care” and into the wasteland limbo of a potential ethical Flanders’ Fields. Our courageous young tiger—I’m looking at you kids—has ventured outside the comfortable zone of safe experimentation and has since ghost-rided the whip down to Black Out City. And why? Perhaps for the pleasure of self-conquest and a defeat of natural limitations, or maybe even just out of fear of disapproval. Either way, there seems to be a substitution of the aforementioned Socratic maxim of “self-care” for the more questionable achievement of glory via self-conquest.

Where do we draw the line between challenging ourselves, experimenting with our boundaries and self-destruction for the sake of itself? Why are we each attracted in our own ways to the exciting prospect of crushing our current limitations in order to achieve some higher order of bodily control, some sadomasochistic pleasure of knowing that we did something crazy to our body just for the sake of mastering it? Pushing our limits is an important part of growing up, but so is knowing when to let our limits be static for a hot minute. “Taking care of the self” requires exploring and understanding our boundaries, and then giving them the respect they deserve. Otherwise, trespassers will be duly prosecuted. Maybe not always in some High Court of Law, but at the very least they’ll have to report to the porcelain God.

Ultimately, none of us are necessarily in any position to sit in judgment of others for taking pleasure in the sadomasochistic world of Binge and Purge, Swine and Wine, Wake and Bake or even Frusturbating. Every experience has both lessons and consequences, even here in the wonderfully safe bubble of Grinnell College. But remember when Bono shouted, “in the name of love” in that 1984 jam about MLK Jr.? All I’m saying is that, when Socrates told Alcibiades about epimelesthai sauto, he was talking about how gaining self knowledge and overcoming your limitations should never take a back seat to your overall well being. Carefully examining the ways in which we experiment with ourselves and each other might not always be the worst idea when we’re in the mood for growth and self-discovery, because it might help to keep our heads screwed on for the next seemingly innocuous insanities.

Some might say that self governance is on its way out, with each generation of Grinnell students risking life and limb to prove to the paternalistic powers that be that we are in desperate need of their questionably intentioned intervention. But I have reason to believe that, for as long as people have been looking to push their limits, they have been treading the fine line between self-discovery and self-destruction. Sometimes that experiment goes too far, and we are made painfully aware that every expanded horizon comes at a particular cost.

That doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe it just explains why the maxim of epimelesthai sauto might still be as pertinent today as ever. Socrates might not have had the pleasure of watching “The Wire” off of Netflix or being in the D-Hall for Nachobar, but he certainly might have had a thing or two to say had we asked him what it takes to “live the dream.”

Not satisfied? Deal with it.

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