Core Decorum: “In media res”

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Sketch courtesy of Angela Giallombardo.

Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase. It is used to describe the concept of great epics starting “in the middle of things.” Maybe freshman year you were a little surprised to crack the old Lattimore “Iliad” and find that, rather than introducing the Trojans and Greeks and retelling the causes of the Trojan war, Homer throws his audience headlong into the “devastation, which put pains thousand-fold upon the Achaeans”.

The spring semester is an epic — beginning in the middle of a year already begun. It is both a beginning and a continuation: a new start and a return to the familiar. It is a new story springing out of a much larger tale, one that starts with a few characters and then grows to embrace a full trove of heroes, villains and those who are somewhere in-between. As we enter into the epic tale that is the second semester at the University of Dallas, let us reflect on certain themes, which, though ancient, appear to be common in tales of heroes like us.

Heroes and villains change. Even the mighty Achilles was eventually persuaded to fight once more for the Achaeans. Sir Gawain was at moments less noble than we originally expected. Maybe we were too quick to judge these characters. Likewise, perhaps we were too quick to judge our roommates, professors or that club …

We should have a goal in sight. There are simple goals, such as making it through midterms, getting an internship or having that girl say yes to a date. But since we are “in medias res,” let us take our cue from Aeneas or Dante and discover some larger end, a goal that is worthwhile and attainable. St. Josemaría Escrivá sums it up well when he advises us: “Make few resolutions. Make specific resolutions. And fulfill them with the help of God.”

Begin with an invocation. While we no longer worship at the Pantheon, we are surrounded by a host of both mortal and immortal helpers, all of whom are willing to offer us assistance. All the greatest poets, from Homer to Virgil to Dante, knew that truly worthwhile work was beyond the scope of their abilities alone. It is not a coincidence that the traditional epics begin with a prayer, a cry for help. Whether we ask for the intercession of our patron saints or help from a professor during office hours, let us make sure we never let our desire for independence become the epic flaw of hubris.

The beauty of an epic is, in part, its ability to show the incredible importance of the present moment. By beginning in the middle, the epic teaches us to think on our feet, to not get so caught up in the worries and regrets of the past that we forget we are in the now, that our seemingly insignificant actions can determine the true tone of the epic. We can only change the here and now. It is only those standing in front of us whom we can influence at this specific time. As we start a new semester, let us treat every moment as a unique and new opportunity, even though it comes to us “in medias res.”

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