«You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel.»
Portrait of a Lady, T.S.Eliot
I don’t know what we choose in our lives; and what chooses us.
Things like nationality, religion, social and economic status, the place we were born and perhaps we hold as homeland, the name, the family, just happened to us, no one can dispute this.
The same goes for the phenotype (eye colour, head shape, complexion, hair type and nose size).
Yet there are some things that we’re supposed to have chosen freely: our job, our art, our ideology, our partner, the place where we live.
I’m not sure that freedom exists. I guess we adapt and habituate ourselves to the circumstances, so that we can have something that we can call as our own.
I guess man is like a football player: It’s not up to him if he gets the ball. But there are times, there are some moments when everything depends on you – and it will be humiliating if you fail to score.
At this very moment, when you see the ball coming in your direction, you stop thinking. There is no time for: “Oh, here comes the ball, a lobbed pass. I’ll control it with the chest, bring it down, dribble past the defender and I’ll shoot with my right foot”.
You act automatically, instinctively or else you will look like the football players in the famous Philosophers’ Football Match of Monty Python, where the Greek philosophers face the German ones.
It’s strange. The biggest part of our life is predetermined, yet at the crucial moments we decide and act automatically, instinctively, emotionally.
Where does freedom lie?
Perhaps at the moment of weakness, when you show your mortality to the enemy just like Achilles, who sauntered under the walls of Troy with exposed heels.
When I was in the first flush of my youth, I spent an entire winter reading the poetry of T.S. Elliot.
Despite my poor English, I had bought a book with his poems and with the dictionary by my side I would read a page every day, looking up for almost every single word.
In this book, in one of his first poems I read the phrase: “You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel”.
I loved this line because that was the way I wanted to be, invulnerable; and I believed that I would be able to make it at some point in my life, to become invulnerable.
My guidelines was a superman that nothing can overcome him, something like Tolkien’s Aragorn or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
Later, as the years went by, I realized that not only I couldn’t be invulnerable but – most important – it is inhuman to live, to be, without an Achilles’ heel.
Perhaps what defines us most is our vices.
Homer based his entire epic poem on a man’s flaws, descending by Gods, no less. Were Achilles invulnerable, his effort, his agony, his struggle, would be indifferent to us. Had he taken care of his heel with a mithril-made sock, we would have to do with a mediocre comic story (even superman had his Achilles’ heel, kryptonite).
As Homer (and DC Comics) demonstrate, the highest virtue, the only freedom is not to be invulnerable.
It is to know your Achilles’ heel and parade it unhesitatingly.
There are many people who seem to be always fine. This is what they try to show, that everything in their lives is coming up roses and that they are vice-free.
They are pretty much like a toothpaste commercial, where the whole family beams broadly in their wonderful house, in the wonderful world where they live.
These people are more fake, duller than an ill-devised novel’s (or epic’s or comic’s) hero. They are never ruffled, they never go ballistic, they never overdo it and they don’t make mistakes; and they are, of course, vice-free.
They wear a full-plate mithril armour to protect themselves but when you get close to them, you can smell the antiseptic where they have immersed their life.
The antiseptic smells like ptomaine. Only corpses don’t make mistakes.
The “Human, all too human” is to be vulnerable.
Is to accept your character defects, to learn where your Achilles’ heel is and draw a target there with the indication “Hit here”.
Only if you accept your weaknesses, only if you accept your vices, only then you can act freely.
This is the biggest strength; when you are not afraid to expose how vulnerable you are.