English literature French literature happiness health humor meditation memory wisdom

in medias res doesn’t mean suffering

Hi everybody,

Today’s meditation took me back to my graduate school days again!  As I have let go of my institutional identity more and more, in preparation for leaving Notre Dame and South Bend, I have come to cherish that student self more and more. That girl from Seattle who loves France, has a whole tapestry of friends and memories in France, and who only became a professor as a means to continue that love affair. (And because I could not get a job with the state department or an airline!)

One thing I learned in grad school is a bunch of literary terms, most of which are not that useful in daily life. But sometimes they are. Sometimes they mask profound philosophical truths. One such term is in medias res. In medias res means “in the middle of the thing.” It is a literary device that you’ll see everywhere–in TV shows, films, as well as classic literature. Its power comes from making us feel off-center and a little anxious, the way life really feels sometimes. Consider these three famous opening scenes:

  1. from a famous play*

Barnardo:  Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Barbardo:  Long live the King!

Francisco: Barnardo?

2. from a famous work of non-fiction**

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction–what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”

3. from a famous work of fiction***

“The litigation had seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgment of the divorce court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child.”

You are probably thinking, “What?!  What’s going on? Who are those guards and why do they know each other? Who asked her to give a speech about women and fiction, and why does she seem so defensive about changing the subject?  Who got custody of the child? why was the divorce so complicated and what might that mean for the child?”

As you can see now, each one of these books pulls in the reader by making you feel like you are entering a real world. A world where important things are already happening. And as reader, it is your job to figure out what is going on. We assume that the things going on make sense, even if they are immoral, unjust, foolish or doomed. That’s the writer’s trick.

But life is like that too!  Every day, we step into situations that began long before our arrival, and that we don’t understand, except we usually don’t realize it. We think everything we see around us is normal and that our feelings in response to it all are normal too. But we are highly susceptible to influences good and bad! Beware!

Remember that, although you may feel stuck in a situation, you can choose your response to it. You can choose to limit suffering and focus on love, think about a long-term approach to life. If no one else is kind to you, be kind to yourself. Make plans to get out, if necessary, or limit negative influences around you. Make this day worth remembering, because as you will realize tomorrow, those feelings–good or bad–that you wake up with tomorrow were nurtured today. As mortal, earthbound creatures, we are always living in medias res.


* William Shakespeare, Hamlet

** Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

***Henry James, What Maisie Knew