Over the many years of my education, I have found that the most exciting, interesting, and helpful things that I have learned is simply what words mean. We intuit the meaning of many words through context and common usage and avid readers will have a whole storehouse of words in their imagination from a young age whose meaning they can sort of explain based on the context of the book or sentence it came from, but when asked to actually explain the word they will be hard pressed to give a solid, satisfactory definition.
We would do well in schools (at both upper and lower levels) to spend more time simply defining and understanding what words mean, attaching pictures and examples to our words so that they do not remain bloodless, bodiless abstractions.
One delicious word that I’ve been exploring lately is the ancient Greek word “Agon.” This is the root from which we get our English word “agony,” which (at least in my mind) conjures up pictures of torture, a screaming subject stretched out on a rack in a medieval castle. This picture is not misleading, but the older idea of Agon has a wider scope and applicability. The best way to understand this wonderfully descriptive word is to imagine a few pictures.
Imagine a long-distance runner at the end of the race. Sweat drips from his skin; his breath comes in ragged, rasping breaths; his muscles burn and ache and scream in resistance, and everything within him longs to stop, to rest, to give up. But he pushes through the pain, both physical and mental, and forces his limbs to keep pushing. This is Agon.
Imagine two wrestlers, arms locked together and bodies strained with exertion. Every moment stretches into an eternity as mind and body struggle to overcome the resistance. This is Agon.
Imagine a woman in childbirth. This is Agon.
One recent evening one of my sons asked me if I thought that church was fun. After thinking for a minute, I told him that no, I don’t think that it is fun. In fact, I admitted, sometimes it is very hard work (“liturgy” actually means something like “the work of the people”). But it is good work, I told him, work that makes you stronger and healthier and happier. And we talked about how many of the best things in this life only come with much patience and hard work.
My whole life I have run from Agon, and I want my boys to be better than me. I don’t want them to fear or flee the struggle, but rather to embrace it. Whether they are practicing their violins, or learning how to read, or playing a sport, I want them to learn to become the type of people who possess that inner firmness that allows them to push through the pain and suffering into the joy and satisfaction that follows. That way, as they begin to learn how to pray, how to fast, and how to resist temptation, they will be familiar with and prepared for the Agon that follows. That way, they will be prepared to carry a cross and be crucified every day. That way, they will learn to love.