Moses and Hamlet

Towards the end of Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, Mark Nepo calls on the archetypal images of Moses, who responds to his calling and becomes a great leader of his people, and Hamlet, who is paralyzed by indecision.  All of us, Nepo says, have a Moses side and a Hamlet side.

The Monday Evening Book Group was small last night, but we all agreed that was a powerful image, and one we want to think and talk about more at our next meeting.

We were small because an old friend had recently died; the funeral was Monday morning, but there was a gathering for family and friends on Monday afternoon, and almost all of us were involved with planning, bringing food, setting up, cleaning up, or visiting with the family.  Our old friend was both a literal and a metaphorical builder, long-time owner of a local building-supply company, restorer of old buildings, planner of new, “absolutely a pillar,” as someone said on Sunday, of every community in which he participated.  I’m sure he had a Hamlet side, as everybody does, but when I think of him, I think of the Moses who changed so many people’s lives for the better.

What do you say to family members at the end of a life well lived?  “It’s hard, and we’re here for you, and we’re celebrating his life just as he’d want us to celebrate it.”  That was the message I think we all sent, the message I’m pretty sure they all received.

And then four of us were able to slip away to our regularly scheduled Book Group meeting, and a few more joined us later.  I’m glad we were able to talk about Moses and Hamlet last night, glad that we’d changed our reading schedule just a bit.  If we hadn’t, we might not have reached that section on a day when it was especially fitting.

N, who wasn’t able to be there, had proposed the idea of reading a bit more and finishing a week earlier.  “We can take most of December off,” she suggested, “as we usually do, if we read about ten more pages each of the next two weeks.”  Maybe N was listening to her inner Moses rather than the cautious Hamlet who clings to the page limit we “always” or “usually” use.

As I think back over the past few years, I can see my own struggles between Moses and Hamlet.  Both sides are important; after all, even Moses had his cautious Hamlet-side, the side that claimed to be “slow in speech” and asked for a spokesperson to come with him, and even Hamlet found some courage when he needed it most.  Sometimes the bold leader is needed; sometimes the season is right for the cautious thinker.  And sometimes you need to step back and allow the struggle between your Moses and Hamlet.

Oddly enough, the District Y and District Q Latin Family branches are all reading Tres Columnae Project stories related to that struggle this week.  The beginners at District Y are reading the stories in Lectiō V, where Lollius has to overcome his inner Hamlet, swallow his pride, and seek help from his friend and patron Valerius.  The intermediate group at District Y is finishing the Lectiō XVI sequence with this story and this one where Cnaeus Caelius is torn between his deep desire to read more Roman history and his surface fear of looking foolish to Lucius and Caius.  The advanced group at District Y just finished this story from Lectiō XXV, where Caelius and Vipsania, yielding to their inner Hamlets and fearful of potential conflict, are separated by their common grief over the loss of their older son.  And the District Q Latin Family is in the middle of Lectiō XXX, where Valerius must decide whether to stay or go as Mount Vesuvius threatens to erupt and destroy his home.

Moses and Hamlet.  Sometimes your inner Moses wins the struggle and you set out boldly; sometimes your inner Hamlet carries the day and you wait, hoping for a more auspicious occasion.  Without your Hamlet’s intervention, your Moses might just lead you out into the desert without food, water, a guide, or a clear destination; without your Moses, your Hamlet might very well refuse to move even when it’s clearly time for the play, the sword through the tapestry, or the duel.  Finding the balance is important … but there’s not one right balance, either.  The balance you need is as fluid, as situational, as the particular struggle and as life itself.

On a cold, clear November day, I’m glad to have the image of Moses and Hamlet in my mind and on my heart, and I’m glad that a joyful learning community has room for both Moses and Hamlet.  It’s much easier, much better, much less lonely and painful to struggle with your Moses and Hamlet in a community than in isolation.  I wonder what balance between Moses and Hamlet we’ll find, and I wonder how that balance will change (and what new insights the struggles will bring) in the days and weeks to come.

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Published in: on November 18, 2014 at 4:21 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] side of waiting and acting … the waiting that, to expand on Nepo’s image of Moses and Hamlet, took Moses forty years in Midian and took Hamlet most, but not all, of the play. […]


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