A Greek lesson: The distance between Good and Evil

On the weekend leading to the Greek Lent, I enjoyed several lunches (which lasted the entire afternoon and evening) with Greek friends of my dearest friend, Antonis.

Greece 390 (photo credit: OFIR ADANI)
Greece 390
(photo credit: OFIR ADANI)
MARATHON, Greece – On the weekend leading to the Greek Lent, I enjoyed several lunches (which lasted the entire afternoon and evening) with Greek friends of my dearest friend, Antonis.
All followed the same pattern: We feasted on fish. The stated reason? The delicacies did not have a trace of blood, which is absolutely forbidden during Greek-Orthodox Lent.
In all three gatherings the food was accompanied by Cretan Raki of which one of the hosts, who has a smallboutique vineyard around his weekend home, told me, “We real Greeks prefer Raki to Ouzo. Only tourists think that Zorba’s Ouzo is our only merry-maker.”
After we chatted about “real Greeks” and being at a weekend home in Marathon, the gracious patriotic host felt compelled to brief me, the foreigner, about the significance of the location.
Marathon was the site of the decisive battle in 490 BCE between the Hellenistic Greeks who saw themselves as the defenders of the civilized world – the People of Light and the pinnacle of Good, against the overwhelming power of the Persians who, for them, were the embodiment of wrong and Evil. Against the odds, the Greeks won the war.
This is still celebrated in every modern Olympic Games, because a Greek soldier ran home to Athens, a distance of more than 42 kilometers, and announced, “We won!” Alas, he immediately collapsed and died.
Then, the host asked, “Do you know the actual distance between Good and Evil? It is so short and almost indiscernible.”
He followed with an explanation using an explicit example of female anatomy.
I was somewhat surprised by the use of crude words by this sophisticated, well-mannered fellow.
“What?” I asked.
And he interpreted my question as a need for further clarification.
He replied: “You Hebrews are like us the Greeks. You always prefer highbrow words instead of the simplest ones.”
“What do you mean by ‘Hebrews?’” I asked. “You – Israelis, Jews, Jewish-Americans, European Jews. You are all the same. You stick together and you all stick to the words of your Bible and other words high in the sky.
“Just like us! We are proud of our history, philosophers and ancient language and we like to use the longest words possible, but the world moved since then. What was contemporary then is old now.”
He continued, “Professor Uriel, the distance between Right and Wrong is negligible.
It is slippery. You can put your finger in the slippery middle and it may slide in any direction. You need some control, but do you always have it?” I told that story to friends at the next luncheon. This led to talking about differences among cultures and perceptions, but also about common denominators.
The host, the owner of a chain of pharmacies in his weekday job, looked at his Raki – which is clear as water, and said, “You know, Uriel, H2O is the same all over the world, the same everywhere you go, but the flavor, the taste, is different in every fountain and the well.”
I responded: “This is actually a profound truth about globalization and local cultural diversity.”
He commented: “This is so simple, it is trivial, my friend. You may philosophize about it from now to eternity, but it is not complicated.
The seed of truth is the simplest fact.
“And now, let’s drink to the triumph of Good. You taught us that in your language, you toast with L’Haim – to life. L’Haim, Uriel!” And to life we drank.
The writer is chairman of the WPA Section on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of BioBehavioral Research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright scholar for MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright Program or any other US agency.