It’s been a while since anyone asked me what I’m “passionate about,” but I’ve been thinking about the concept a lot. Why is everyone expected to have a passion? For your consideration, the myth of Pathon, maker of sandwiches.
Pathon the Sandwicheur was in his workshop, which was strewn every which way with recipes and fixings. What a creation was his latest sandwich! It was a skyscraper on the finest sourdough replete with everything every maker of a sandwich has dreamed of. From end to end, from asiago to zucchini, from bacon to yams, Pathon’s greatest child pulsed with life. Cheese, meat, pickle, meat, vegetable, cheese, condiment, vegetable was the order he had, by grave and diligent scientific study, determined most ennobling to the tastebuds.
Focused on the fixings, he ignored his kind wife Sophrosyna behind him. She begged him to release himself from the trance. “O, darling Pathon! You will never consume that sandwich! It will consume you! I beg you, my love, eat something! Make yourself a sandwich that can support your belly, for your ego won’t outlive your starvation!”
“Begone, silly woman!” Pathon hushed her with a wave of his arm. “How can I make myself a sandwich, when I am upon the verge of making the perfect sandwich?! Would you have me abandon this dream? This love that has consumed me for all my life? That one day I will become the greatest sandwicheur the world has ever known? You distract me!” Soprosyna would not begone, however, for she loved her husband. Even his young children watched from the door of his laboratory and begged the gods to make their father come to his senses. The sandwich only grew higher and higher and then stretched even up towards the heavens.
“Pathon, my love,” cried Sophrosyna, “do you not see? How could anyone eat such a sandwich, unless he had a jaw as tall as a mountain? What use is this great one then? Who will ever eat it?”
“What a silly question!” Pathon answered her. “One’s dreams, one’s true passions need not be earthly! I do not care who can eat it, only who can marvel at it, and so marvel at me!”
It was true. All the people in the kingdom saw the enormous sandwich grow. A deep guilt and shame gripped them, for they had nothing similar to show. They did not begrudge Pathon his achievement, but they were bitter at their own failure to emulate him. The farmer left her plowing and stacked her yokes and plows up to a small height. She knocked them over when they barely reached her chest. The librarian stacked some books up several feet, but a visitor wanting to read one opened it, and knocked the tower down. The cowherd tried to stack his cows upon each other, but he did not have the strength.
“How can you call your passion true?” Sophrosyna chided Pathon. “Your passion for your sandwich is truer than my passion for you? Than yours for your children?”
“Enough with your nagging! Let me stand on your shoulders. Be a good lover, and support my endeavors.”
The sandwich now grew high and mighty, even passing the abode of the gods. The deathless ones looked over at Pathon climbing his sandwich atop the shoulders of his wife. Zeus scratched his nose. Hera frowned in confusion. Shiva blinked several times. Parvati mumbled a quiet, “huh.” Jehovah gave a great yawn. But they all shrugged and turned back to a 14 billion-piece jigsaw puzzle of Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The sandwich climbed even higher.
“You have not eaten in days!” Sophrosyna called. “On top of that, you are now climbing up to where the air is thin! You are likely to faint from both, and then where will you be?”
“What difference does any of that make? My desire, my passion is not governed by the laws of life! Heroism is not subject to measly constraints! I have usurped the gods! Behold! I will place the final piece of bread upon the top, and so cap this great creation.”
But as he lifted the sacred slice, he saw that he had made a mistake. He? How? How could he have missed it? How could he possibly have stacked cheese, meat, pickle, vegetable, condiment, cheese, vegetable instead of cheese, meat, pickle, vegetable, cheese, condiment, vegetable? Sophrosyna must have distracted him! He hesitated with the bread, and in the moment of his shock, his empty stomach overcame him, and he fainted and fell back down to earth.
Sophrosyna jumped down from the sandwich to catch him, and even his little children rushed forward to save their father. He landed gently in their arms, and they carried him to his bed. Outside, the great sandwich wobbled, wiggled, and toppled down to be eaten by goats and cows and fish in the ocean, so it came to some use, at least.
Pathon’s injuries took a whole year to heal. The year was uneventful. There was the harvest in the summer before the leaves fell in the fall. Then there was winter, and the people drank and cozied up between the bedsheets to keep warm. Spring came and the people planted their crops to harvest in the summer. All throughout everyone was happy that Pathon’s sandwich had fallen. They were also a little bit happy that their own little sandwiches, which fit in their hands and mouths, would never have such a great fall like his. And yet, all of their sandwiches, with just a few slices of meat and cheese and perhaps some mayo, seemed quaint and inadequate. They almost wished them to have such a fall, for at least that would be something. Their little meals no longer tasted quite so nice as they had before.
When he finally awoke from his yearlong sleep, Pathon leapt from his bed. “My sandwich!” he cried out in grief. Sophrosyna was quick, though, and tossed him back down onto the bed.
“I will have no more of your great ambitions! Be seated. Your great tower’s ruins have all been swallowed by the world, and may they stay there. Think wisely and rightly, my husband. Do not jeopardize what good we have by striving for greatness.”
“My passions are not to be swayed, Sophrosyna,” Pathon retorted from his bed. “Especially by you, who distracted me and so ruined my great creation. How dare you keep me here against my will? Is it not your duty to support my endeavors, as I support yours? You say that I may destroy myself in my endeavors, but you destroy me by preventing them! What am I, if not a sandwicheur? If I cannot achieve greatness in that endeavor, then I am nothing; I am no one. Did you not marry this sandwicheur? This is what I am. You cannot have me any other way.”
“Darling,” Sophrosyna replied, “did I only marry a sandwicheur? Are you not also a father, a husband, a man? Pathon the Sandwicheur is a tyrant bent upon the oppression of Pathon the Man. Destroy you? Absurdity. I seek to liberate you. See your house! Feel your bedsheets! Is this not the bed where we have lain together, and where we have had our happiest moments? Why do you consider thy industry to be thyself? You are so much more, but you are blind, for even your vision of yourself in the mirror is nothing like my vision of you.”
“Sweet Sophrosyna,” Pathon answered, his voice softer now. “How poorly you understand me. How can one be a tyrant over his own self? If each one defines himself, how can anyone define himself against himself?”
“You do not define yourself! You define only sandwiches, and they define you! If the sandwich did not exist, how could you be a sandwicheur?”
“And this is untrue of father, husband, man? I am father only in that I have children, husband only in that I have a wife, man only in that I am different from woman. Tell me one aspect of yourself that is not dependent on something else. You cannot, of course. All of these things are arbitrary. All are subject to each one’s choice. How can you demand I cease to be a sandwicheur if you would not cease to be a wife?”
“I may well happen to lose my wifely status, my love, but that will be your decision. If each must choose for himself, how can you claim sandwicheur to be greater than husband? Though I dread the answer I know already, which of these is more important to you? If you were forced to choose, which would you keep, and which would you abandon?”
“I would remain the sandwicheur, my love.”
“For what purpose?”
“What is more important than one’s aspirations? Shall I not follow them to the ends of the earth if I must? What shall I do if not that which I love to do? This is what passion means, is it not? To take that which one loves and turn it into that which one is. You ask me those endless questions facing all people everywhere: what shall we do? How shall we live? Is mine not a valid method? Indeed, mine is the most valid, for it takes my potential and expands it to its greatest extent. Is this not what you wish for all people? For your own children?”
Sophrosyna looked at her husband and sighed. “So be it,” she answered him. “Your heart is hardened to the good in its love for the great. Do as you have determined you are.”
“So I shall,” answered Pathon, who stood and strode from the room past his also-hardened wife and anxious children. Returning to his laboratory, he retrieved his fixings and began again to build his great monument. He began with the bread, and resumed his pattern: cheese, meat, pickle, meat, vegetable, cheese, condiment, vegetable. The column rose up from the platform toward the heavens again. The gods, now playing poker with no chips, did not notice him as he passed by.
Again the people felt shame and failure when they saw Pathon building his sandwich. But this time they hurled down their tools and mediocre sandwiches and marched to the palace of the king. When they entered his court, they expressed their anger in this way:
“Your majesty, how is it that Pathon is allowed to build such a tower, and we all must continue our work like drones? If Pathon can build a towering sandwich, then we should all share in this right. What talent, what passion does Pathon have that we do not? The librarian can stack books, and the farmer can stack hay bales; the carpenter can stack planks of wood, and the goatherd can stack his goats, even if cows are too heavy! How can you force us to work against our true desires in this way?”
The king was kind and magnanimous. He wanted to see each of his subjects become their best self. It was only fair that each be allowed to live as their nature and aptitude dictated. But the king had a problem. If all of his subjects were building such great towers from their things, then who would keep the kingdom going? The kingdom needed crops and tools and soldiers to survive.
The king made a shrewd observation: if all his subjects were climbing up into the heavens, then he did not need to provide any food or tools for them. He could let them build as they wished, for as long as they were climbing their towers, they were out of his kingdom and he had no need to care for them. Even if they fell down from the heavens, there would be no one left on the earth to catch them. None would survive the fall, so there would need to be no doctors to heal them from their wounds.
“So be it!” the king proclaimed happily. “Let each do as he will! Build your towers! May the gods smile on the one who builds highest!”
They all marched away joyfully, and each took to their own land and began to build a great tower like Pathon’s. How great was the number of them that began to close the distance between theirs and the sandwich! Some were more sturdy than others: the carpenter’s wood blocks were more stable than the goatherd’s goats, who were all unhappy except the billy at the bottom, because he could still graze.
From his own tower, Pathon saw the others rocket into the sky to overtake him. He watched in horror as they grew and threatened to reach heights even he had not. He knew he had to go higher. He piled on the fixings even more quickly to keep ahead. Cheese, meat, pickle, meat, vegetable, cheese, condiment, vegetable; cheese, meat, pickle, cheese, vegetable, meat, condiment, vegetable; meat, meat, pickle, condiment, cheese. In his speed, he dropped the slice of bread he was to use to finish the sandwich, and it plummeted back down to earth and landed at the base of his tower, where Sophrosyna and her children were standing.
Striving as much against themselves than against each other, as if trying to prove their own passions to themselves, they all built up endlessly into the sky. Soprosyna decided she had had enough, and she took her children far away until she met a man rolling a boulder up a hill. It rolled back down as soon as it got to the top. She introduced herself as he was walking down to get it. He was charming and kind and not in the least passionate, so she built a house near his. She and her children joined him on boulder duty, and the happy times both up and down the hill eventually made her forget all about Pathon, who would remember her if he had not been so busy fulfilling his dreams.