If there is one consensus among college students during midterm season, it is that we are all total failures.
Generally, we can hang on to our senses. This time of year, though, many of us tend to get a little drama queen-y. As exams approach and worksheets fall like leaves all around us, one has only to cock a half-open ear to hear the resounding chorus of highly exaggerated complaints that ruminate on topics from the disasters that await us to the impending certainty of our own deaths.
It’s not all our fault. The human brain likes to generalize. We inherited this capacity from our ancestors, who relied on quick-judgment memories to not eat the same poison mushroom every generation and kill off the entire human race. At times, our situation seems nearly so dire. Our value judgments of the way things are tend to be not only intense, but immediate. In the drama-filled, action-packed, fast-paced world we bounce around in, we unavoidably feel catapulted between elation and desolation. We’re not the first ones.
Don’t believe me? OK, roller-coaster riders. Let me tell you a story about extremes, straight from the annals of circa-900 BC Greek mythology.
Picture this: Zeus — the real MVP of the Grecian gods’ world — and Demeter — goddess of the harvest — have a daughter: Persephone. As tends to be the case with maidens born of deities, she was heavenly. Quite the smattering of gods cast a wandering eye in her divine direction. The most persistent of these suitors was Hades — the foul, hardened, middle-aged god of the underworld. Perfect match, right?
For obvious reasons, Demeter was unimpressed when Hades asked to make the lovely Persephone his bride. Hades, unfazed, maintained that Persephone would be his.
One beautiful day, as Persephone was gathering flowers in the field, a chasm opened up in the earth beside her feet, and Hades flew out to snatch her. If you’re having trouble imagining how this might feel, picture a nice fat stack of paper with the word “midterm” printed on the front of it surging out of that cavern. Better?
So Persephone was pulled from her wonderland. Not much time for laughter and frolicking when you’re the new queen of the dead. Demeter, furious, ran wild asking the gods for help. But because Hades, the eternal bachelor, had been alone for quite some time, they thought it better to let things be. Wild with grief, Demeter hid herself away, taking everything beautiful and alive in the world with her.
Meanwhile, Persephone was lonely and miserable in the icy darkness of the underworld. When at last the gods decided to intervene, Hades hatched a plot: Knowing that any who taste the fruit of the underworld will forever long to return, he tricked Persephone into taking a bite. Six pomegranate seeds through her tender lips — only six! — and when the time came for Persephone to make her choice, she told the stunned gods that she would prefer to stay.
Demeter, knowing a trick had been played, raised all hell until the argument was settled: for each seed Persephone had eaten, she would remain a month of each year in the underworld. Six months on earth would be spent cold, dark, and infertile; for the other six, Persephone would live on earth, and Demeter would rejoice and make the world whole and lovely again.
Cue modern day. Real life, of course, is not so fiercely polarized — change happens slowly. In fall, we can watch summer gradually become winter in the slow way the warmth leaches from things, the slowness with which the earth swings away from the sun. A lot of days fall between our solstices. We spend little time at either end. And yet, somehow, we still feel like we’re caught between rock bottom and cloud nine.
Unfortunately, unlike Persephone, we are not guaranteed our month of paradise for every month of hell. Life isn’t fair. Things are continually growing better at the same time other things grow worse. Half and half is for coffee, not life.
But somehow, we still relate. We, like Persephone, are given bitter pills to swallow. We, too, are plunged into depths we never cared to see. We frolic, we delight, we fight tooth and nail for things we have lost. We win them back — though not always in the same way.
Some days, we see only the myriad wonders that life has to offer, and some days only the sorrow that awaits us at every turn. The fact that both world and underworld are there with us all the time is hard to grasp. That duality is difficult to accept, especially when the awful things and the boring things and the sweet things keep happening all at once.
What could Persephone do? What can we do? In the summers of our lives, we soak up the sunshine, and when winter comes again, we agree to look it in the face. We eat our six seeds. We commit to the difficult reality of whatever we’re struggling with. And most of all, dear readers, we take heart — for sure as it is that we will see frost and darkness, it is just as sure that we will soon see the sun.