In my recent travels to Greece I learned of a saying that Athenian teachers and parents recount to their youth as a sort of moral guideline:
“You have to have your Marathon, before you can build your Parthenon”
Now anyone reading the news right now is probably thinking that taking advice from the Greeks regarding running a country or anything of the sort is a bad idea. In some regards, I would tend to agree. The statement above is more a metaphor for your own personal life than a country.
First, as is usually required when discussing metaphors inspired 2000 or so years ago, let’s get to the back story. Has anyone seen the movie 300? Okay so it turns out that Gerard Butler dying in a hailstorm of arrows “blotting out the sun” is actually only an important moment in Greek history because they managed to survive a much more important battle 10 years earlier. This particular event is known as the battle of Marathon (I know what you’re thinking, we will get to that). The battle was fought to the north east of Athens before there was ever a Greco-Roman empire, and when Athens was a mere city state. The Persian empire was growing and this was the first attempt for them to expand into the west through Athens. The Athenians were badly outnumbered but managed to fend off the attack from the Persians. After the Athenians repelled the first attack to the north, the remaining Persians attempted to flank the soldiers by sailing around Athens and attacking from the south port of Piraeus. The majority of the Athenian army was in the battle and the remaining soldiers in the city would be completely taken by surprise. The Persians would succeed in capturing the city despite the glorious victory the Athenians had achieved in Marathon
Now the Athenians knew that allowing Athens to fall would spell certain doom to the rest of Greece, and the reason this battle was so important is that if the Athenians had lost, it would have opened the door for Persia to expand through the west. We now know that this would likely have delayed or even completely stopped the development of the Roman Empire, which despite its faults actually developed and fostered at least the early ideas of nearly all of Western Civilization as we know it.
Now this particular bit of history is up for debate, and is likely exaggerated, but as the lore goes, a messenger within the Athenian ranks at Marathon ran all the way back to Athens to warn the city with his dying breathe. The distance he ran? 42 kilometres. I told you we would get to it. The original versions of the marathons we run today were run from the city of Marathon to Athens to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. Regardless, the messenger succeeded in alerting the city in time and the Athenians were able to hold the city yet again.
The metaphor speaks to the need to make sacrifices to achieve great things, and that major accomplishments often begin from one small event. Construction of the Parthenon began 50 or so years later and was seen as the peak of Athenian and Greek culture, a monument to the empire that would grow from the once small city state. We owe other such things as modern physics, philosophy and democracy to one soldier nearly 2 millennia ago as the basis of all these things were developed in the years to come during the golden age of the Greco-Roman Empire. Talk about your butterfly effect.
Personally I quite agree with this idea. Too often nowadays we see people thrust into good fortune, not having earned it. They do not have the value of what they have attained as it was not their blood, sweat and tears that attained it. More importantly, they do not appreciate it. There is a definitive study in the US showing that by the 3rd generation, most family’s fortunes passed down through inheritance is all but gone. This is a troubling idea as it shows a trend of youth inheriting the world from their parents and grandparents, who worked hard to obtain it, only to waste it. We inherit the Parthenon’s of our fathers and let them crumble while we forget the marathon it took to build it in the first place.
Obviously this is a small sample size, and speaks to certain cultures more than others, but it also emphasizes the importance of recognizing hard work. It is important to me that I retain this thought throughout my life as I am caught up in sort of a living example of the idea of a family benefiting from the work of the generation before them, and using that benefit to push to new limits.
For anyone who doesn’t know me that well, my mother is the owner of a large dance school in Niagara, that is successful in competitions all over North America and fosters an incredible attitude within its students, producing great dancers and even better people. This has not come without sacrifice, and the sacrifice began well before I was born, with the most selfless man I have ever known in my life, my grandfather, Peter MacIntyre.
He was a hardworking man who cared for what he did, whether it be teaching, coaching or raising his children and grandchildren. He obtained a degree from the University of British Columbia to become a teacher, which he paid for working hard jobs in places such as paper mills. In her youth, my mother’s family had a small cottage up in Northern Ontario that my mom and her brothers would spend their summers at with both my grandparents being teachers. My grandfather in particular loved the cottage and spent the summers boating and fishing.
Before the age of ten, my mother’s dream came true as she was accepted to the National School of Ballet in Toronto. Now with three kids, and two teachers salaries, it was not going to be easy. My grandfather made the decision to sell the family cottage, in order to make his daughter’s dream come true. To this day my mother has not heard the end of it from my uncles, but if you spoke to my grandfather before he passed about it, it was clear to see he didn’t have a regret in the world about it.
Fast forward 13 or so years later, my mother at the very young age of 23, freshly out of a short but successful career as a professional ballerina, purchases the dance school she once attended as a young girl. The school was operating at a loss with less than 80 students renting out a small church basement. At great expense to my mother, who was newly married and expecting her first child (yours truly), she worked tirelessly to turn her dream into a reality. She worked during the day as a waitress in order to pay her teacher’s salaries, while her and my father barely kept enough for groceries. My dad was a junior constable at the time which doesn’t exactly pay well either. Over twenty years later, with the hard working attitude instilled by my grandfather, my mother has turned her dream into very much a reality. The joy I see in her every day when she goes to work to teach some of the 500 or so students she has, at the over 4000 square foot studio she now has already outgrown is incredible. I like to think that my grandfather would be proud of what we have done with his gifts. My mother’s success allowed for my brother and I to pursue our own dreams, whether they be education, exploring the world or simply being able to find our own happiness. The emphasis was always on our ability to pursue our own dreams, as long as we did not waste the opportunity.
I had quite a bit of time to think about what not wasting these gifts meant as I travelled for the last two weeks. To me personally, knowing my grandfather, I do not need to leave a fortune in terms of money to the next generation. It would mean more to him to know that we continued to pass on his beliefs of hard work turning dreams into realities, and that everyone has their own happiness. I think that is where we lose it along the line nowadays. The focus is more on passing on a fortune than passing on the morals that are required to keep it. We have a saying in our family inspired by our grandfather’s favourite song, that “Lights will guide you home”. Well grandpa, it may have taken a bit of a history lesson from ancient Greece for me to fully grasp the consequences of your sacrifices and the grace of your lessons, but now and for the rest of our lives, you are the light guiding us home. If someday there is a Parthenon built by our family, it will be a monument to the marathon you gave us the ability to finish.