Lessons from Myths, Legends and Fairy TalesMusings

Lessons from Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales: Part 6 Atlas

We are probably all aware of the expression “to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders”. This originates from the Greek myth where Atlas was punished by Zeus to bear the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Irrespective of whether Atlas carried the heavens or the earth on his shoulders, the effect is the same: he carried the fate of the world on his shoulders. This is a lot of responsibility to take on. It is no surprise then that he tried to trick Hercules to take his place, although Hercules didn’t fall for that for long!
We may not be Atlas but we have all felt the world our shoulders at some point and so my reflections on this are two-fold:

1. Do we need to bear the weight of the world on our own?
2. What would happen if Atlas shrugged?

Oftentimes we feel that the burden is ours alone to hold. We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders not because we have to, but because we believe we have to.That subtle difference between belief and necessity is illustrated in Jeanette Winterton’s novel “Weight”, where she muses whether Atlas, like all of us, have a choice about which burdens we need to carry in our lives. Do we need to shoulder all of this by ourselves and without help? The weight of the world is heavy and it is always going to be heavy. But rather than try and carry it all by ourselves, perhaps we should disperse the weight and ask for help when we need it?
Secondly, what would happen if Atlas shrugged. Unlike the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand which is a pro-liberty work of literature positively depicting individualism and capitalism; my stance is more on the collective, the influence that each of us has on the world around us.

Atlas is us.

We carry the responsibility of our community, our world. We are all interconnected, each one of us having the capacity to affect families, friends and communities. Like it or not, our actions have a ripple effect on everyone we encounter.

Our actions matter.

Yes, Atlas could have shrugged and rejected his responsibility of holding up the wellbeing of the world, but to do so would be foolish since the world on his shoulders is the same world in which he exists. If he let the world fall, he would fall too. Similarly, we aren’t obliged to carry the world on our shoulders but if we don’t take personal responsibility for the wellbeing of our world, it is analogous to letting it fall. We all have the ability to uphold goodness, to strive against oppression and injustice, pain and suffering; chaos and conflict.

The world falls when enough people shrug.

If we don’t hold up the world, then who will?

Jean-Paul Sartre stated: “Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, in other respect is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Like Atlas we are condemned to live with the consequences of our actions, not just for ourselves but for the world in which we live.

The fate of the world rests on our shoulders.

Together we can hold it high.