“ἁμαρτία,” from the Greek, “a”=”not, without” “marti”=”the mark, the goal” (i.e. “missing the mark”)
When I was four, and still a ruffian rascal running wild in the cobble and dirt-filled square of my family’s 2-story apartment building in suburban Athens, one of the neighborhood urchins created a ruckus. A throng of other buzz-cut rascals, their neck creases black in soot and dried sweat, had gathered around him and were jostling, poking, shoving at one another to get to the center of the circle and get a load of his new contraption. In one hand he held a thin piece of wood, maybe 2 inches wide, curved into a half circle with a string stretched taut from one side to the other. In his other hand he held a long, thin piece of aluminum chiseled to a point on one end with the tail feather of a pigeon on the other. “Give me! Let me try! It’s Panagiotis–you can’t grab it! Watch it! Look . . . How do you shoot it?” All these came out at once like a cloud of dust.
As I too was an urchin, wild enough to beat the best of them even if I were a girl, I managed to snatch it away from Giorgio and get a full three seconds of the contraption to myself to try to see what combination of space and motion I could use on the crescent and its bow to make the thing fly. The best I could do was weave the bow through the string and pull the string so the bow would fall to my sandaled feet, encrusted with dirt and ashy from the upturned dust of so many urchin feet fighting to get the the center of a crowd vying for a new toy.
Until–my Pappou (God rest his soul) appeared on the scene and said, “Stasou!” (Wait a minute!), pulled the contraption from within my hands, and with the rims of his gold-plated filling of his front teeth gleaming in the sun, showed us how to shoot a bow the right way.
First, you hold the bow with your left hand (the opposite of your dominant hand) to the center of your body. Then you hold the arrow between the forefinger and middle finger of your dominant hand. You place the arrow point into the arrow rest in the middle of the bow’s body; then you catch the arrow’s butt or the “nock” into the string. You pull the string straight with your arm extending as far back as your elbow will let you go perpendicularly to the ground so that your right elbow makes the leg of an “L” with the arrow against the bow at anchor point. (In proper form they tell you your body showed be in shape of a “T” to the ground.) You measure the distance to your target by closing your left eye and approximating with your right and then just before you let go of the arrow, you creak the entire form 1/8th to a 1/4 inch upwards to allow for the arc of the fall in the arrow’s trajectory to its object. Let go of the bow remembering to release the grip of your fingers both on the front and the back of the arrow shaft at the same time. (If not, you might get “arrow burn.”)
Pheww! And the arrow flies into the cerulean sky–so boldly, so gracefully, so purely like a math equation magically made alive. It eventually dove into the ground and made a small cloud of dust. WoW! I had never seen such mastery of space and time. Like the arrow was a nimble dancer–cutting through the ether to arrive dead center into the heart of its object.
Witnessing the arrow’s first flight has stayed with me all these 35 years of my life. The passion for archery has not faded. Think about it–the rules are so simple yet getting them right is so hard. Align your body with the target, sharpen your eyes, flex your muscles esp. those lower trapezes, measure distance, account for the arrow’s fall and the things that get in its way, and then you get out of its way. Viola! It is gone. You must try to replicate each precise motion and action–all for the one object of desire–to get into the heart of the target, the center of the bull’s eye or the hart’s heart.
The archer’s quest is a fit metaphor for the Christian spiritual struggle. So much concentration, so much precision, so much patience and perseverance, the entire mind, body and soul goes into getting the goal. An archer will attempt to perform the same sequence of steps, isolate the perfect form, the precise angle to get closer and closer to the mark. The same motion, the same movement repeated again and again but with differing results. That’s the ultimate frustration of the archer. You might get the bulls’ eye once every 150 tries. Your aim is to replicate that exact combination of movements that resulted in the hitting of the bulls eye. In essence, the challenge in archery is to repeat the same performance, the perfect performance, again and again, no matter what changes in variable, no matter how many failures, to produce the same result–the arrow piercing through the heart of the object of its desire. It is the futility of perfection; no matter how many times you try it it is nearly impossible to replicate the exact constellation of actions that led to a bulls eye. You might get lucky and be perfect once in a while, or close to perfect, but you cannot be precisely perfect all of the time.
This is the lot of all who seek perfection, who seek to replicate in act, form, and intent, the summum bonum. I can try very very hard to be like God. I can aim all my faculties, gather all my energies, physical, emotional and facultative, take aim, have eyes on the prize, and still fall very far from the mark. Again. and again. The reality is as an archer and as a human being, I will fall short of the mark countless, endless more times than I will hit it.
When I look back to all the times I have tried to meet the mark, my own failure has been made all the more clear by the outcome. Here are some of my failed attempts to meet the mark.
“MARK”: I will remain quiet in the face of others’ contempt or criticism.
“FORM”: “Shut up! Shut up!” I tell myself mentally when my mother complains about the way I put the groceries back on the shelves. “Don’t let me speak,” I coach myself. “Don’t open your mouth. She’s an old woman. She’s been through a lot. She is not going to change.” But the urge to keep quiet is not as strong as the will to assert dominance to prove someone wrong.
“Don’t tell me how to put the things back in my kitchen!” I hear myself bark back at her. “You never in your whole life know how to organize a house. Look at all the damned plastic bags. you keep stuffing behind the radiator. You clutter every amount of free space in the kitchen shelves!” If my mouth could stop there, it would be bad enough. But no, it goes on and on and on. “No wonder Daddy left you! You never knew how to run a house. Your house was filthy and out of control.”
I was trying to be helpful to her by putting groceries (groceries she had bought for me) away esp. in those hard-to-reach spaces where here arthritic hands can’t reach. I tried to keep silent to be patient and loving.
“RESULT”: I fell far from the mark.
MARK: At the beginning of the week, on a Sunday afternoon, having been strengthened by Holy Communion and the sense of combined spiritual endeavor from sharing time and conversation from my church parish, I vow, “Lord, I will pray consistently to You–every morning and every night. I will keep the fast. I promise.”
FORM: Monday afternoon. Pangs of hunger exacerbate the annoyance of not finding available fasting food in the school cafeteria. Fish fillets have processed/imitation American cheese swathed in their middles; salad bar has Parmesan-laden bread crumbs. I cry, “Oh God! Oh God! I can’t! I’m starving! I need sustenance. I have been called all kinds of “b****” from my students and my principal made an infamous ambush-observation on my worse class. I NEEED FOOOD! I’m having a hard day. You will understand, right?”
I take a generous helping of the salad and another generous helping of the fillet-o-fish.
RESULT: I have fallen far from the mark.
MARK: I will be more generous in almsgiving.
FORM: I have kept two envelopes with alms–complete with stamps and signed checks–in the back of my writing desk for close to six months now. I make all kinds of excuses why I don’t have time to drop them into the mailbox at the end of my street corner (the one I pass by twice a day.)
RESULT: I have fallen far from the mark.
MARK: I will be the better person. I will not get angry at my daughter. I will speak to her respectfully.
FORM: “Hi, Christina, how was school today?” I greet her when I come in from work.
“Fine,” she mutters within a bag of Doritos. Without eye contact.
“Do you have a lot of homework tonight?”
“Can you please get out of my room?” she answers.
” I am only here for a few minutes. I just want to know what’s going on in school and how your day was. I care about you.”
“Nothing, nothing is happening is school. It’s the same old routine,” she returns pushing my shoulders into the threshold of her bedroom door. “Everything’s fine.”
“You cannot push me out,” my tone starts to escalate. “I am concerned about you. I am your mother.”
“My life is none of your business,” she retorts.
“Oh really?” I say. “As long as you are in my house under my roof, you are my business. As long as you are in my pocketbook, I am going to be in your business. You are only 14 years old. You come into my room all the time taking my stuff, my pearl ring, my eyeliner, my blush; it’s only common courtesy that you allow me in yours.”
“I DO NOT take your stuff!” she protests.
“Yes, you do,” I return. “Where is my eyeliner?”
“I didn’t take it.”
“Oh yes you did. That’s why you have your eyes outlined with my Lancome that cost me $35! It’s OK that you want to use my things but you are so messy and irresponsible you never return them in their rightful place. God forbid I take anything out of your room! You will have my head!”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m ALWAYS irresponsible and messy. You don’t appreciate all the things I do around here. GET OUT OF MY ROOM NOW~!!” she screams.
“Don’t you dare scream at me like that!” I scream. “I refuse for you to answer me in that tone of voice!!!”
“GET OUT OF MY ROOOM! THIS IS WHY I NEVER WANT YOU IN HERE. All you do is complain how messy and irresponsible I am. Move and leave me alone!!!”
“Oh don’t worry about that. I won’t bother you again. You can stay and rot in your room, you ungrateful wench! With all the things I’ve done for you! You should be ashamed of yourself! You are going to stay in there and not come out until you know how to treat elders with respect! Even God put that in the Ten Commandments: Respect thy mother and thy father. You don’t have to love them but you sure in hell better respect them!!!” I am totally out of control, hysterically slamming her door behind me.
RESULT: I have fallen far from the mark.
MARK: I will be scream or cuss or complain about little things. I will be grateful for things, even difficult things, as God allows them to happen for a reason.
FORM: Why doesn’t this f***ing stove work?” when I go to make the morning coffee and the pilot light refuses to come on even after five repeated counterclockwise attempts at the “Light” arrow and the annoying strings of “tik-tik-tik-tiks” that go along with sparking the flame. “God damn this freakin’ dog!” the first words from my mouth when I step on one of Zhou Zhou’s “accidents” in my bare naked feet on the kitchen linoleum as I prepare to come to life with a cup of coffee. “Gamoto tin ora kai tin mera pou genithika” (Greek, “F*** the hour and the day I was born.”)
RESULT: I have fallen far from the mark.
MARK: I will be charitable. I will do more acts of mercy, esp. for the poor.
FORM: There is a homeless man close to the subway station that I take to work. I will make it a point to give him some money or at least make a sandwich or a bag of food for him on a daily basis. He is of Greek descent. He is part of our community. As one of our own, we have a moral responsibility to take care of him. God knows he is a good-natured bum. He is like the Cynic philosopher around here. People talk to him about their problems. He never comes out directly to ask for cash but his glance and his demeanor let you know he needs it. He wears long hair to complement a long scraggly beard. He wears leather sandals with both hands stuffed in his 3/4 denim overalls replete with the grime of the city street. Sort of like a Greek hippie like Giannis Rousos. He is mild-mannered and talks to the locals about life. He says if we are the ones who are free, how come we take the subway every morning and night wearing faces of disgust and tiredness? He is above and beyond the “rat race” that enslaves our souls. He is the one who is free. He doesn’t want to find a house or job and lose his freedom and the joy in his soul.
RESULT: While descending the steps from the elevated subway, I spot him at his usual place under the spray-painted covered bridge that makes an overpass for the Acela train to Boston and beyond. I start feeling a sense of discomfort–the time has come to make right on my promise. But I feel very shy all of a sudden. I get the willies. How do I give him a hand out without insulting him? Will he start to see me in a different way esp since I am a woman? Will I start getting unwarranted attention from him if I do? On second thought, it is sort of dangerous or at least unseemly for women to be giving bums under bridges money. If only there was a homeless association I can give money to that could take care of these people around here? Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I’ll do instead of giving him money. I will start this sort of civic feed-the-homeless-around-the-block association, specifically to feed bums we are afraid of.
My thoughts fly like arrows as I walk by him demurely, my shoulders haunched, my eyes skirting the cracks in the city’s pavement. My sense of dread subsides with each step as I get farther and farther from my mark.
Once when he was looking across the street to the other side of the painted bridge, I snuck a $10 bill in the folds of his backpack resting on a grey blanket. Even then the words of my spiritual father echoed within my head, “We think we know how to love. We give a homeless man a sandwich and we think we have fulfilled our moral duty. We have no idea how to love.” And again in another confession-session, “Even the righteous man sins a thousand times each day.”
RESULT: I have missed the mark.
It is futile. This endeavor to aim and get to the center of the mark, again and again and again. I am reminded every time I release that arrow that I am doomed to fail. I see it sweep through that infinite distance between the intention and its outcome, and cringe at its falling. I see so many of my failed attempts at my aim, the tell-tale holes in the target paper. It is a wonder I don’t despair. The paper is riddled with holes some in the 200, some 400 some 600 some even 800 zone while some altogether miss the board entirely. There is no getting around the fact that in 99% of the tries, even in my best form, the arrow will fail to reach its mark. The pursuit of perfection is an exercise in failure and futility. It is particularly painful for the perfectionists who so desperately in good faith want to reach their mark.
But–ah!–for that one good shot. That arrow head that makes it to the perfect center of the board. That transversal that penetrates into the heart of the unattainable. It is that perfect shot that makes the perfectionist try and try (and fail and fail) again and again. It is thepossibility of perfection that keeps the archer at his bow for hours (even as poor Orion is fated for eternity to cirumambulate the globe in hunt for the eye of the Bull). When the act of failure becomes the very inspiration for success, maybe then we will have learned the lesson of the Supreme Archer. As humans we are doomed to err, but in our endeavor to emulate the divine, we surpass our short-comings and get that wondrous chance, that miracle of all impossibility that we pierce into the center of the perfect circle and become like God himself, perfect and divine.
We get over our failings and our fear of our failures and strive for excellence in spite of ourselves. This is the lesson from archery. We are wretched and even in our greatest form, we will fall far from the mark. In our imperfection we will never reach perfection. But we have to attempt the impossible in any case. It is the struggle to achieve perfection that gives this sport its meaning, its beauty, its resilience. It is the act of trying even in the inevitability of failure that brings us one step closer to perfection.