Dante’s Divine Comedy is the Ultimate Self-Help Resource

I like to use stories to illustrate what I consider an important point.  Sometimes, the stories are music videos, Dear Abby Columns, or Dr. Seuss.  I recommend that Health teachers try something really crazy — partner up with a high school Literature teacher and start a Dante Club. It has been done before with great success.  Clubs are where people have an opportunity to meet and talk about or do a particular thing.  When people talk with each other, they build relationships.  When they talk and laugh together they built intimacy where they can talk about what they think or what is important to them.    

Dante’s Divine Comedy is the ultimate Self-Help book which is perfect for teens figuring out their now and their future.   Dante wrote “the goal of the Divine Comedy is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of bliss”.  In Dante’s lifetime, his verses was recited by blacksmiths and mule-drivers (regular people) because guess what, they had personal problems / crises too.  High school kids live in a perpetual state of personal crisis.    The poem creates images that cause you to reflect on your own failings, face your life decisions and motivates you to change your attitude and behaviors to live in harmony with God and others.  With guidance, our students can handle verses of Dante.

Inferno: Canto I

Half-way through the journey of my life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost

Anybody can experience a personal crisis where they stopped and wondered, am I’m going the wrong way.  Where did I go off on the wrong path?  Why did I go off my path?

I had a student who came back to see me when she was a senior is High School.  She wanted me to know how she was doing now, because half way through her journey in middle school she went off the straightforward path.  She made a decision to be popular; this was an important character decision for her. She had to shed the old person who’s every word and action earned her respect and admiration from her teachers and put on the new person who’s every word, facial expression and action was aimed to impress the popular people.  She became very popular.

“Oh me!” I said,

Upon seeing the savage, rough, and unforgiving forest.

My sense of fear was renewed

“Mrs. Mccoy do you remember A_________  D__________.  When she was in 10th grade she became pregnant. That scared me.  She wasn’t doing anything different than me.  That could have been me.

I asked her, you were the best kid. And then you were not.   What happened?

Her response was “I wanted to be popular, to be friends with certain kids to be seen in the middle of the cool kids” (Ah, the lure of the inner ring whose power is the exclusion of others). 

 Are you still popular?

 Not really. I’m friendly put I really don’t have time to hang with them anymore.  We want different things.  After A_______ D__________ became pregnant I went back to being the kid you remember.  I’m a nerd now and at the top of my class.  I have a __________ scholarship for college.

Sooner or later everyone experiences an I’m never going to put myself in that position again moment and a decision is made, self-awareness increases and behavior changes..

 Dante’s inferno is all about where people’s choices lead them.  Virgil prepares Dante (for his journey thru hell), you will encounter people, listen to their stories and it will be a challenge to discern the truth.    The reason is, we lie to ourselves to do what we want to do; thinking I’m so smart I can manage the outcome.  Dante’s inferno always suits the punishment to the sin in some sort of poetic way. It makes an impression on the reader.


“I will show you the way to the city of suffering;

I will show you the way to eternal sadness;

I will show you the way of lost people”

You will meet the first group of souls (the neutrals).  “They were humans and angels who were neither for nor against God, who committed to nothing and envied those who did.  They lived only for themselves.  Their eternal punishment was to follow an empty banner here, there, everywhere.    They didn’t follow anything in life, now they chase an empty banner.  They didn’t move, now they’re stung into motion by wasps.” ** 

       What does it mean — they lived only for themselves?  Can you give an example of only living for yourself?

       What does it mean — they didn’t follow anything in life?  What do you follow?

       What does it mean — they now chase an empty banner (for eternity).

Canto III was the hook that activated my imagination. Heaven had no place for those (neutrals) who are neither for nor against God, and it turns out Satan had standards too.  Neutrals are the furthest possible distance from him.   

There is right and there is wrong and you have got to commit. You have to be FOR something.

Application for the Dante Club: — decide what you believe:

      before you get in the steamy backseat of the car.  In fact don’t get in the back seat of the car.

      before you get in the car with people who have been drinking

      before you hang with people who think — “he/she deserves . . . .”  or  “we’ll only do this once”  or “nobody with know”

We have come to the place I told you about

You will see suffering people

who have not used good judgement

In Dante’s journey, he learns that all wrong doing is a function of disordered love.  People either get caught up in loving evil things or loving good things — such as food, drugs, sex, in the wrong way. 

What does it mean to love evil things?  Examples

What does it mean to love good things in the wrong way?

What about — loving food in the wrong way?

What about — loving sex in the wrong way?

What about — loving drugs in the wrong way?

What about — loving self in the wrong way?

Provide examples.

They end up in Dante’s inferno because they used their free will to choose what’s on the should not list.  We all know what is on the should or should not list.  We choose wrong (because we think we can manage outcomes) until experience teaches us we can’t or don’t want to manage outcomes anymore. 

The High School student who visited me loved a good thing — acceptance — wrongly.  And got caught in loving not so good things (I don’t want to say evil).  She had to play to her group, and do all the cool things they did. 

“Mrs. Mccoy, do you know why X, Y and Z got kicked off the football team? (The team was going to State Championship—It became a front page article in the sport section)

They were at the wrong kind of party doing all the predictable wrong things and got caught.”

My reply, you always have to know who loves you.  People who love you:

      won’t do anything to hurt you

      won’t let YOU do anything that will hurt YOU.  (Those particular boys were seniors and being recruited for big time scholarships.  Think of the consequences they experienced.)

Those boys were used and they allowed themselves to be used.  They liked being popular, being the attraction to and center of the best parties.  They were attracted to wrong things and loved doing wrong things with their buddies.

As we walked out the classroom door, I asked this High School Senior, “why were you friends with A                   ___  D_______________?”

“Mrs. Mccoy I really don’t know.  She really wasn’t all that nice to me.”

I bet I know, in that popular group, she was the best girl in the group of girls you had anything in common, with the possible exception of I want to be popular.  You were using each other.

When you are in a group, you have to have a friend.  You both looked around and made your selection No, No, No, — you’ll due — for now.

What kind of friends do you have now?  Do yourself a favor: 

Look for people with character. Find people who appreciate and love you?  You’ll know by how they treat you. They will do what is best for you and they won’t stand there and let you hurt yourself. 


** Larry Arnn hillsdale diologues – Dante’s Inferno

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