We watched in awe as the orb spider leapt into action. With a start, a wasp tried to escape the web but almost instantly it found itself accosted by the spider. Deftly holding its prey in place, the orb—bulbous with a growing egg sac in its abdomen, injected venom. Presently, the wasp’s edginess ebbed away, and the spider wrapped its dinner as though the prey were an infant in a muslin web of swaddling cloth. Here (really everywhere, in all moments in our minds, and in all places virtually in the web of the internet), we at AU we can feel more like prey than predator in many ways: deadlines lurk at the shadowy edges of consciousness, and pressures we apply on ourselves to succeed and excel both jostle to be on the top of the pile of psychological challenges.
A healthy perspective requires a certain ontological promiscuity; we can be anything in almost any moment if we don’t allow dualism to oppress us. Take that prey wasp, for instance. The prey was once a hunter. It was perhaps a parasitic species in the Orius genus, a variety that imbues my orchard ecosystem with entomological balance by means of its hunting practices. This allows us not to spray poisons on our fruit. Whereas much of human philosophy lurches between predator and prey, good and evil, success and failure, and morals and nihilism, the animal world appears more as a loop of living where the tiniest blade of grass becomes prey and things proceed all the way up, or down perhaps, to our dinner plate.
When Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that life, prior to the reign of a government or King, must have been “nasty, brutish, and short” he perhaps had the Sword of Damocles in his mind:
“As Cicero tells it, the king’s dissatisfaction came to a head one day after a court flatterer named Damocles showered him with compliments and remarked how blissful his life must be. “Since this life delights you,” an annoyed Dionysius replied, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” When Damocles agreed, Dionysius seated him on a golden couch and ordered a host of servants wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments. Damocles couldn’t believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, the courtier’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate” (Cicero, online).
Talk To Your Tutors, We’re All in the Same Academic Ecosystem!
University life can seem perilous. Distance education can feel awful if the anxiety and expectations of academics, work, and personal life make us fearful of the occasional slip up. Brick and mortar college kids may face disappointment over low grades but the next day they are up and at ‘em to class again, with professors minding the tiller of further academic explorations. Here at AU, though, we are solitary scholars; although the best advice any student can receive, in my opinion, is to utilize the tutor hour(s) and phone them up. No encouragement has helped me more than hearing the academic compassion of a tutor’s voice.
In behind academic anxiety is the false sense that we are on the verge of potential failure. There can seem to be a sword above us all, and above each moment that may be sliced and diced in terms of full productivity and lost potential, or slothful waste and sheer success.
“For Cicero, the tale of Dionysius and Damocles represented the idea that those in power always labor under the specter of anxiety and death, and that “there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions.” (Cicero, online).
We are the masters of our own web of learning, if we choose to think that way. Much of our life (academic and otherwise) is about being the predator more than the prey, the hammer more than the nail, and of great intellectual significance: knowing the things we control in our fate.
The adage appears on bumper stickers to this day, and can be as secular as we wish it to be, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference” (Niebuhr, online)
This phrase once led clergy to resist the Nazis, so if it worked there, it can only help us in our lowly and lonely travails at AU. When our studies trip us up and lead us to feel that we inhabit a tightening web of struggle, let us remember that in each moment we can be spider, wasp, or innocent blade of grass.
Andrews, E./Cicero. (2018/45 BCE). ‘The Sword of Damocles’. History.com. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-sword-of-damocles
Neibuhr, R. (18th Century). ‘Serenity Prayer’. The Prayer Foundation. https://prayerfoundation.org/dailyoffice/serenity_prayer_full_version.htm