Sunday’s Wisdom #314: Humbling Gratitude

“I’m sorry I’ve ever complained. I’ll never complain about my leaky roof again.”
– Maya Penelope Hart, Girl Meets World
Season 2, Episode 27, “Girl Meets Money”

Maya Hart is accustomed to being the poor girl, at least, within the limits of her experience in life thus far. Her father left when she was very little, her mother is almost never there because she’s working her butt off as a waitress to provide for Maya, she has relatively little, including a leaky roof and a wall with holes in it, and the best things she gets, like home-cooked dinner, a cell phone, and art supplies, come from the family of her best friend, whose father is also her teacher. So, she’s not had the easiest life, and she is often made aware of what she doesn’t have. In this episode, however, she is reminded of what she does have, and how much more she has than many people throughout the world.

Maya’s mother, we see, isn’t able to give her the soft, luxurious life, but she’s still there, and does all sorts of things to give her everything she can, albeit sometimes in ways which are a bit unconventional. Maya has a roof over her head at all, access to decent medical care, a warm bed, three meals a day, both delicious and nourishing, an abundance of clothes, the chance to explore her skills and express herself… the list goes on. In short, she has all her needs provided for her, and many luxuries as well, and opportunities, too. That’s a lot, when you think about it.

Now, I want to make clear, that I personally think that having a complaint about our circumstances isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Cars were invented because one man refused to accept how literally shitty things were when people had to ride horses everywhere, and he did something about it. That’s the spirit of improvement, for ourselves and others, rather than a spirit of complacence, of universal acceptance of how things are. So, having a complain, and even voicing it, aren’t necessarily bad.

However, there is a surprising distance to be found between “having a complaint” and “complaining.” The one acknowledges that there is something legitimate to be improved, while the other wallows in misery and is often used as an excuse for some poor behavior, dragging everyone down. One leaves room for remembering what you have, which, it never does well to forget, while the other tends to push out any such spirit of gratitude.

Maya doesn’t have much compared to those immediately around her, but she has more than most, and suddenly wants to never complain again, if only because she knows she hasn’t been grateful. Her best friend has a good deal more, thanks to the labors of her parents, but she’s usually humble and grateful anyway. And their highly-intelligent friend, whose father is obscenely rich, feels nothing short of humiliated at having so much and having done so little for anyone else.

It is amazing how humbling it is to remember what you have, instead of what you don’t have. And humility, I would say, is essential to human compassion.

One typically isn’t very compassionate when one is complaining, after all.

It’s just too easy to get caught up in it, in one’s most selfish wants, and completely miss the good in one’s life, and the good that one can do in other people’s lives.

So, I see Maya’s desire to never complain not as some wish to simply accept whatever pains she has in life, but as an earnest expression of her own compassion.

Gratitude, humility, and compassion all go hand in hand.

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Give Thanks

I try not to get preachy about my religion here on my blog. That’s partially because I don’t want to be overbearing about it, but also because, in all honesty, I have trouble seeing my blog, and myself, as a truly worthy messenger of what I hold to be divine truths. However, it is my hope to spread light, even if it’s just a little, into the world around me. As such, I try to be careful and balanced, but I see no harm in passing on invitations from the President of my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, along to you, my wonderful audience. Especially when such invitations, which one is under no obligation to accept, are geared towards just helping us to improve our lives, ourselves, and the world around us in some small way.

Thus, some months ago I shared an invitation for people of all faiths to pray for help with the COVID pandemic. Now, for a second time, I share the words of President Nelson.

The idea is for us to remember what we have, and to share it with each other on social media. It’s Day 2 of this (at time of publishing this post) and already I think we’re improving our lives and uplifting our spirits with this. It is just… well, words rather fail.

So, I am doing this, just getting online when I am feeling grateful for something (like, say, my dogs, for how they brighten my life, and the technology that lets me keep is touch with my family, and my family themselves, who are so good to me, and music, and so on and so forth). It only takes a moment, and I feel better about my life, and more connected to the people in my life, and maybe it will help someone feel better.

No pressure, of course, and no obligation. But I am passing on the invitation to you, my wonderful audience, to join us in remembering what we have, and to give thanks.

Have a wonderful evening!

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Sunday’s Wisdom #313: Veteran Bond

“Those who have journeyed far to fight in foreign lands know that the soldier’s greatest comfort is to have his friends close at hand. In the heat of battle, it ceases to be an idea for which we fight, or a flag. Rather, we fight for the man on our left, and we fight for the man on our right. For when armies are scattered, and when the empires fall away, all that remains is the memory of those precious moments we spent side by side.”
– Jack Durrance, The Four Feathers

When the ancient legions of Rome, or the armies of Greece before them, were facing a vast horde of barbarian warriors, the raw numbers tended to be stacked ridiculously against them. Yet they triumphed, again and again. They were armed, armored, trained, coordinated, disciplined… and they all had a singularly basic mission to protect the man next to them even more than themselves.

Thus has been the bond between soldiers ever since.

I actually meant to post this on the Sunday before Veteran’s Day in my country. Having messed that up, I suppose the Sunday after will just have to do.

Jack Durrance is a soldier who has served the empire of Great Britain. He and his friends signed up for king and country, and together they did as he describes: they journeyed far from home and fought. He speaks from experience, and that experience has taken a toll on him and each of his friends. Jack himself lost his sight, another lost his life, another was condemned to suffer and die if not for some outside intervention on his behalf, yet another had his arrogant pride broken, and still another was transformed through a great journey in which he overcame his own cowardice. All of these things, they endured, and those who survived came together to lay their fallen to rest.

They began as friends, and became steadfast comrades. They passed through many pains, but carried them together, and so those were able to fall away in the end. What remains is the joy, the comfort of that connection, that time together, that bond between men, which drives away doubt and solitude and even sorrow. With that in one’s heart, one, and one’s friends, can stand firm in the face of all the hordes of the abyss.

Such men certainly are to be honored. Not that their flaws are excused, but that their humanity is praised, their sacrifice is accepted, and they are met with gratitude and respect.

For what it is worth, coming from one such as I, a soft, untried man who has spent his entire life safe beneath the shelter built by their sacrifices, I cannot say thank you enough to our veterans. For everything they have risked, and suffered, and sacrificed, and lost, and especially for what they have accomplished, I am truly and utterly grateful.

Thank you, veterans.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #312: Living is More Than Survival

“I don’t want to survive! I want to live!
– Captain B. McCrea, WALL-E

This is one of my most favorite quotes.

Disney’s Wall-E depicts a humanity that would be the envy of many. No one has to work, to do the hard and dirty things involved with surviving. Indeed, no one has to do much of anything at all, it’s all taken care of by robots. Everyone is free to be idle, just relaxing, with all the shiny toys and games. And apparently this prosperity is inexhaustible, or at least it hasn’t run out in so far, in seven centuries. There is absolutely nothing to worry about.

It’s really quite horrible.

It’s like Neverland, where no one ever has to grow up, but that idle bliss comes at a cost far higher than is obvious at first, until one sees it, and then one can’t not see it.

Humanity’s freedom from struggle and hardship has made it stagnant and weak. People don’t think or do or even feel and dream as they used to. They just get born, eat and breathe for awhile, until they don’t do that anymore. They just exist, nothing more, all within a tiny metal shell in the void of space. And even within that tiny space, they are blind to half of the wonders right there next to them, which their ancestors built, like a pool or a running track.

Humanity is surviving, and in comfort, but not really living. And not really in charge of themselves and their own lives. They don’t know it, but they are at the mercy of the machines that take care of them.

It’s an easy life, but not a happy one.

Then the captain of the ship has his eyes opened, and he chooses a different course. He, and humanity, chooses to stand up and take charge. He chooses a more difficult path, filled with hardships and unknowns. He chooses to do more than merely survive, he chooses to live.

There is more to living than just staying alive.

That cuts both ways, of course, including, at one end of the spectrum, those who need not concern themselves with the needs of survival, and, at the other, those who are entirely concerned with such. Some people, most people… in fact, quite nearly all people in the history of the world have fallen into that latter category. They have lived their entire lives locked in the struggle to survive. That has been the great bulk of their existence, simply making it to the next day, the next year, the next week. Yet even when such is driven by necessity, it can still become an all-consuming obsession. In fact, maybe that is how obsessions are made, through what we think is necessary, and thus we go terribly out of balance.

There must be more to one’s existence than merely continuing to exist. There must be balance. There must be joy. Else, what is life worth living for?

Now, exactly how that manifests in anyone’s life is up to them to decide. For some, it’s working hard, and then playing hard. For others, it’s the quiet dignity of hard work itself and job well done. It could be maintaining a hobby that one is passionate about (like, for instance, me and my blog). It could be finding new friends, or falling in love, or having a family. It could be the dream of traveling the world, or the act of doing good, unselfish works. It could be the order of knowing one’s place, and knowing that one has a place, in the world, or the absolute chaos of knowing that one is free to go and do whatever one chooses. It could be making and telling stories around a fire late into the night.

Whatever the shape it takes, there is more to living than just surviving. There is more than “nothing” to do with life.

Something tells me we’re going to need to remember that very soon.

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A Note for My Fellow WordPress Users

Most of my blogs are intended for… well, anyone and everyone in my wide, far-reaching, wonderful audience! 🙂

This one, however, is more of a quick note intended to assist anyone who uses WordPress and wants to create a post in the Classic Editor instead of in the Block Editor. (that’s at the end of the post, if you want to scroll down and skip right to the point)

One of my bigger pet peeves is anytime people take something that works and replace it with something that doesn’t. It keeps happening, though, so I’ve learned to just try and figure it out as I go.

I have figured out how to navigate through at least one such change, and I want to share it.

Anyone who has been using WordPress long enough knows (and probably loathes) that they recently made major changes in how we can create posts. They introduced the Block Editor (monstrosity) that I am fairly certain NO ONE actually likes, enjoys, or anything else positive. If WordPress reads this, I want them to know that we hate the Block Editor.

In the “Classic Editor” (ie, the one I am using right now because it works) we are able to do revolutionary things, including but not limited to saving our work, adding and visibly arranging pictures, and we don’t even need to “open settings” in order to see the categories and tags and publishing options and such, it’s just right there automatically.

It’s wonderful!

But, things are what they are, and idiots keep replacing things that work with things that don’t, so my approach is simply to figure out how to get things done anyway, despite the raging stupidity that currently runs rampant in the world.

Not that I have any strong feelings about this, of course! 😉

I know I am not alone in my frustrations. I recently saw one of my fellow bloggers post about possibly ending their blog because the Block Editor is so inconvenient. So, wanting to be helpful, I shared what I have figured out about posting using the Classic Editor. Another blogger – whose blog you totally should check out – liked it so much that they suggested I share the same in a post of my own, so it could be more widely shared. The idea of doing something to assist more of my fellow bloggers appeals to me, so, here we are!

I have no idea if this works for anyone else anymore. I don’t see why it wouldn’t, but, then again, I don’t see why WordPress sprung the Block Editor on us in the first place, so what do I know? 😉

Oh, right: I know how to create a post in the good old Classic Editor that we all know and love. On that note, and with some much-needed complaining about the situation now out of the way, I hope this is helpful to someone! 🙂

Directions:
Go to your blog site.
Click “My Site”
Click “WP Admin”
Click “Posts”
Do NOT click “create new.” Click the arrow *next* to “create new” and it has the options “Block Editor” and “Classic Editor.”

And to edit a post, click the checkbox next to the post (or, as I’ve found on an iPad, press somewhere on the area around the post without touching the post title itself), and the option of “Classic Editor” will be among the things that pops up.

One must insist *every time* that, yes, this IS what one wants to do.

And that’s pretty much it. Have a good one, fellow bloggers and other WordPress users! Post away! (and share away!)

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Sunday’s Wisdom #311: All That Matters

“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”
– Angel, Angel
Season 2, Episode 16, “Epiphany”

Finishing out the Halloween festivities here, this came to my mind while I was discussing last week’s quote.

When Angel says this, he is saying it in light of a bitter truth he’s been forced to swallow, which drove him into absolute despair, from which he has emerged with another truth, an epiphany. Which, I find, is often the way of such epiphanies. The way to enlightenment often passes through darker valleys… but I digress.

Angel has lived a long while without any real hope, and then he found some and became a real fighter, a warrior. He hoped for redemption from past misdeeds, he hoped for the sort of cosmic reward that follows the grand victory of good over evil, and he hoped to simply beat down the darkness with bloody ruthlessness. All of those hopes have been dashed to pieces and burnt, leaving only ashes behind. He no longer believes that he can see the end of his own suffering and live through it. Indeed, he no longer believes much of anything. There is no grand plan, no last and everlasting victory, no light at the end of the tunnel. So he believes.

Now, I disagree entirely with that, but I must admire the conclusion that Angel reaches, which pulls him out of his despair.

See, if nothing we do matters… if there is no big win, no absolute victory, no reward or recognition… if nihilism is right and there is nothing else… then what we do is everything. In other words, it’s all we have, and all we are. That makes it the most important thing in the world, because it’s all there is, and how can you top “everything” in terms of importance?

So, maybe our deeds count for nothing in the grand scheme, where nothing changes, nothing improves, everything eventually falls to entropy and becomes nothing, and so on and so forth. Maybe we don’t get anything for it, good or bad. Perhaps our efforts are completely doomed to be utterly futile on a cosmic scale.

…so what?

We still have our ability to choose! We still have our choices, our actions, our superpower that even the universe cannot match! In fact, that’s all we have, it’s everything, and thus it automatically matters more than anyone can comprehend.

“The smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world,” Angel says, finishing his explanation. He is absolutely right (and I will delve further into that another time). And it goes even further than that.

Every act of kindness, every choice to be brave, all the little sacrifices we make for those around us, these matter, both to us and to those whom we help.

Every time we choose to be better than we might otherwise be, every temptation we turn down, every sin we cast aside, turn our back to, and walk away from, every change we make for the better, these matter to us and to those around us.

Every time we say something kind instead of something rude, every time instance where we respect someone we disagree with, every time we speak up, and stand up, for what we believe is right, this matters to us and to the world we make together.

…every time we vote, even if we have good reason to think that our vote does not matter. It matters. If only because we have raised our voice.

Every time we defend someone in need, tend to someone sick, protect an innocent life, these matter, and these larger decisions are made up of many, many smaller ones.

Every time we make cookies for someone who’s going through a rough time (for instance), we are helping, in some small way, and making the world that much better.

Even if nothing we do matters in one way, everything we do is still all that matters.

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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Humans?

I would say, all the monsters in the world should definitely be afraid of humans.

Humans, after all, are the ones who become vampires, witches, and werewolves, become (possibly) fairies and goblins, become angels and demons, become ghosts… and become the undoing of all of the above and more.

Humans can become anything, you see. We are the knights in shining armor, the beautiful enchantresses, the mystical wise ones, the brutish warriors, the impish rogues, and the pious clerics. We are the kings and queens, the masons, smiths, innkeepers, hunters, sailors, seamstresses, bakers, butchers, farmers, shepherds, scholars, librarians, inventors, officers, and so much more. We are fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. We are everything humans can be, both good and bad, be it courageous, cowardly, cruel, or cunning. We are smart, and we are stupid. And there are a lot of us, enough to fuel all the torch-and-pitchfork mobs that monsters are always shown to be running from, despite their many advantages and supposed superiority. We breed like the all-loving cockroaches of the universe, as a friend of mine likes to put it. 🙂

Oh, and we’re f****** insane! Absolutely no supernatural creature matches what we limited, fragile, frail humans do for fun, let alone when we’re actually out for blood!

Of course, on the flip side of the coin, we’re also cannon fodder. We are helpless little victims of the things that go bump in the night, things that we don’t believe exist anymore. We get in each others’ way the majority of the time, making things tremendously more difficult than necessary for those who defend us. We often refuse to accept things that don’t fit what we already want to believe, denying that monsters exist right up until they rip us apart. And when the monsters in the dark prey on us in the shadows, we die. We die easily, and (usually) permanently.

In short, there are pros and cons. We have our strengths and weaknesses as surely as any supernatural creature may.

So, how do we measure up in urban fantasy?

Well, going straight to the top, the humans of Supernatural seem to hold their own even against the greatest powers in the universe. Mind you, they don’t just stab and shoot their way through such beings… well, ok, sometimes that is exactly what they do, but there’s usually a bit more to it! They gather knowledge and master all manner of mystical secrets. They forge alliances and find all manner of ways to overcome literally impossible odds, including the use of mystical weapons that can theoretically kill almost anything. And, not to put too fine a point on it, they fight dirty, without apology.

Most interesting to me, though, is when the fate of humanity hinges on those moments of humans simply being… human.

The Archangel Gabriel absolutely hated everything about the Apocalypse, and he sat on the sidelines, hiding, really, for a long time. But when he entered the game, he played a pivotal role, and he chose to fight not for the angels or for the demons, but for humans. This is simply because he, having lived with humans for a very long time, came to realize something: humans try. They try hard, being brave, loyal, and selfless to a fault at times. So he fights for humanity, having come to love it.

Then there’s the time when God reconciles with his sister, the Darkness. Chuck and Amara, as are their human names, have the longest and most painful of histories between them. Eventually, though, they had to forgive each other, because, in spite of everything, they love each other. That lesson, Amara learns as Chuck is on the brink of death (and the universe with him), and she learns it from an elderly human woman as she talks about her relationship with her son.

That’s two events of absolute destruction averted partially, or entirely, by the examples humans set, examples of love.

In Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, humans survive and win because of everything they bring into battle against the powers of Hell. They face demons head-on, and seem to become all the stronger for it, as Angel himself observes. They prepare with ingenuity and fight with their wits as much as swords, guns, stakes, and rocket launchers. They face the worst of themselves over and over and triumph, saving each other from their own inner darkness. They call on holy powers and master countless magics of every kind, and even their ill deeds can bear fruit in the endless war for survival. Angel, after all, was cursed to have his soul again as an act of vengeance against the demon who wore his skin. And Buffy inherits a legacy that originates with the unholy violation of a girl thousands of years ago, which has spawned countless champions of humanity, most especially once that gift was refined, and fully unleashed, by the touch of a woman’s near-divine magic.

Even those who live in the streets, who have no power, are able to take those same streets back from the monsters with little more than their wits, their will, and a lot of improvised weaponry. Even those who don’t fight can get up and keep going, even in the face of existential horror. That is how unstoppable humanity truly is.

As for those who are more powerful, the Watchers Council are keepers of knowledge and masters of bureaucracy, which enables them to fund, equip, and coordinate humanity’s struggle on a global scale. It was only unfortunate that we never really got to see them cut loose before a cunning enemy destroyed them. That power, of mastery within the realm of human civilization, was used by the enemies of humanity as well, as in the case of the Wolfram and Hart, a powerful law firm which operated every bit as internationally and efficiently as the Watchers.

It is that sort of civilized power which makes the humans of the Dresden Files what the hero refers to as the “nuclear option” of the many supernatural factions. Oh, they have their secret orders and fellowships, their wizards and monster hunters, not to mention certain cops and criminal overlords, but it is only through their connections with the normal, mundane humans of the world that all of these are able to thrive. The same holds true for all the courts of vampire, fae, and everything else. When disappearances and catastrophes need to be cleaned up, or covered up, they call their human contacts. When shipments need to go unnoticed, they pay humans to not see it. The human banks keep their money, human hands fly their private planes, and human lands surround their estates. The threat of using human laws, humans officers, human bureaucracy, and human media against each other, that is a way to make everyday life far more inconvenient for everyone involved. Thus, it is the nuclear option: you do it us, and we do it to you. Everybody loses, including the humans.

And that doesn’t even go into what happens when the mortal world actually becomes hostile towards something supernatural, and the entire human race becomes a massive mob. With nukes.

That particular danger of humans is much greater, and stated much more explicitly, in the Mercy Thompson series. In short: every supernatural faction out there really does not want to court open warfare with their human neighbors. No matter how arrogant they are, and some of them are very arrogant, they prefer to not be slaughtered.

Some of the vampires are powerful, all of them are dangerous, and many may long for the days of uncontested superiority, when they could glut themselves on the human population and leave piles of bodies in their wake. But, make no mistake about it, the day they stop contenting themselves with the delusion of being the world’s puppeteers from the darkness, that is the day when humans – numerous and vengeful, clever and capable of operating in daylight – will render them utterly extinct.

The fae and werewolves both revealed their existence to the humans entirely to avoid being exposed and hunted down. They (and the vampires) police their own for that same reason. Mind you, the fae are also engaged in efforts to regain their old power, which effort was actually aided by coming out to the humans. Yet, the wisest and mightiest of the fae realize that, at best, an all-out war with the humans might result in mutual annihilation, and leave the planet as little more than a pile of irradiated ashes. In short, they simply can’t win against the humans.

As for the witches… well, they hide in plain sight, many of them practicing openly and being easily dismissed. They keep their more nefarious activities carefully out of sight, provided they remain sane enough to do so. They don’t even consider fighting the humans in general, though they may forge puppet strings within the halls of human power. Heck, they fought, and still fight, each other often and bitterly enough that their numbers and abilities have been sharply curtailed for centuries.

Probably the most straightforward example of the might of humanity is in the Monster Hunters series. Oh, there’s a great deal of money, knowledge, bureaucracy, supernatural items (and allies), love, valor, and iron will involved, but a surprising number of monsters can be either killed or highly inconvenienced by the simple expedient of overwhelming firepower. It is glorious! 😀

In contrast, humanity probably has its single poorest showing in The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. Seriously, the moment humans start getting a little traction in that franchise, they end up getting wiped out. All the formidable military and hunter types get eviscerated, all the bureaucrats get burnt, and all the people who shine as examples of humanity tend die slowly and painfully. Unless they, too, become something supernatural. Not that they don’t make a good showing, at least in back alleys and the like, when they can be the ones sneaking and ambushing, but, by and large, the little humans mostly just prove how good they are at dying.

So, the general, albeit not universal, consensus seems to be that the biggest advantage humans have is how powerless they are. They have to adapt, use anything and everything they can get their hands on, and this empowers them to match powers that should by all rights, be able to mow straight through them. Indeed, sometimes the enemy does mow straight through them, but the humans still come out on top in the end. Not bad for people who die so easily, eh?

Probably my favorite example of this is actually the anime Shiki. It’s a story about how some vampires come to a remote village with the intent of usurping it from its present human occupants. They are clever and subtle and absolutely devastating, wiping out a huge portion of the population like a plague. But as they grow confident and bold in their inevitable victory, they make a fatal false step at a critical moment. The wrath of the humans is swift, efficient, thorough, brutal… even monstrous. Having gained even the slightest advantage over their murderous enemies, the humans are relentless, and merciless. They, the humans, prove that that they are the ultimate bogeyman.

Let the powers of darkness beware of us!

Happy Halloween!

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Sunday’s Wisdom #310: What We Choose

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
– Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter
series, by J.K. Rowling

It is election season in my country, and what better time to consider the power of choices? And who better to teach us about them than Albus Dumbledore?

Of course the obvious meaning of the quote is fairly simple: it’s not what one can do, but what you choose to do, which defines who and what one truly is.

We fantasize about having superpowers, everything from physical power to superior brains, from magic to mad science, able to be anything or do anything. Yet we see in such stories that these are only what one can do, and stories where that is all there is to the characters tend to be a bit boring. It is the choices they make which define heroes and villains as either heroes or villains, and, as humans, we revel in the power of choice.

It is the one superpower we all have, to make what we will of our lives, of ourselves, and, together, of the world.

That is where we start getting into the deeper meaning of this quote.

Though we don’t know it until the final book, near the end of the series, we learn that Dumbledore made some very serious mistakes in his youth. He once believed much of what the villains do, that those with magic, the people with more power, are greater and more worthy than those who lack it. He cavorted with a young man who became one of the worst villains in history, long before he inadvertently taught a boy who became the worst of all. He was consumed with his own ego, his superiority, his power… his abilities.

Then he suffered a tragic loss, made all the worse for his own personal involvement with it, and he awakened to a great truth: the equality of death. For all his power and wit, he was helpless before death, and sorrow, the same as any other man. This shocked him, horrified him, humbled him, and revealed to him his weakness. He realized that he was not one who could be trusted with power, so he devoted himself to serving others instead, even if he rose to become a leader in such.

In short, his choices, and the consequences that followed, showed him who he truly was, and he acted on that knowledge.

Even in our wildest stories, with our greatest heroes, even what we mortals can imagine tend to pale in comparison to the power of the cosmos: all of space, all of eternity, all the majestic power of everything that shines in the darkness, all the physicality of creation, the balancing of a multitude of forces, some of which we don’t even have any names for yet, let alone any true comprehension of, and, above all, that intricate alignment of everything which paved the way for Life itself.

How much does a few thousand years of a long-lived sorcerer compare to the unending eternities? How much does the power to shatter a planet with a huge laser compare to the unbridled power of all the stars beyond the sky? How does the power to fly faster than light compare to the entire evolutionary history of countless species and countless cycles of reproduction to distill so specific a shape as the one which any of us may see in a mirror?

Answer: not much.

So, when we get to real life, and what real people can do… everything we build our egos on tends to look a little less amazing, doesn’t it? Sure, some of us can do some pretty amazing things, be it in athletics, art, intelligence, or what have you. But we aren’t super-powered, and even if we were, we’d still pale in comparison to the universe. Humanity can do some incredible things, and individual humans can stand out as astounding, but, all in all, none of us is really that far removed from what anyone else can do.

Thus, what we can do, what we are able to do, is not what we should build our… self… on.

You know what the universe can’t do?

It can’t deliberately kick a man when he’s down… or dry a child’s tears.

It can’t betray a best friend… or support that same friend through whatever may come.

It can’t break a family… or build one on a foundation of love, trust, and respect.

It can’t say “I am better than someone else” while standing atop a corpse… or rescue the sick from illness, the impoverished from suffering, the wounded from dying, the orphan from solitude.

The universe cannot hate. And it cannot forgive.

The universe cannot choose what to be, or what not to be.

Humans, tiny and weak and mortal, can do all of that and so much more.

The universe cannot break a nation, any nation, let alone one that once stood for everything good, and it can’t rescue that same nation either.

…soon this will be a post I look back on, and we will know what we chose, and what we did.

The universe can’t pray, either, but I am very much praying right now.

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Ghosts: The Quiet and Unquiet Dead

You cannot have a discussion of Halloween monsters and urban fantasy without talking about ghosts. 😉

Is there anything more timeless, more automatically understood, than ghost stories?

The one thing that all humans have universally in common is death. It only makes sense for us to wonder about what happens after, and to hope that those who leave us aren’t really so far away. With that, however, comes the fear of those who we would prefer be very, very far away, and those who, having suffered some terrible fate, we just feel that they ought to be allowed a peaceful rest. Something of the dead always lingers with the living, but what if that something was a bit more active? What is more dangerous than something you can’t actually hurt, something that isn’t bound by the same rules? What is more threatening than a walking reminder of death itself? Even more, what is more unsettling than to have the tranquil afterlife we are promised be upended by restless spirits?

Especially since such simultaneously assures us that there is an afterlife, offering comfort and creepiness in the same breath.

Now, unlike fairies and goblins, or angels and demons, and much like vampires, witches, and werewolves, there are absolutely ghosts, or spirits of the same ilk, in all of the urban fantasies I’ve been discussing this month. So, let’s get to it!

One thing all of them have in common: the dead are always pictured as generally quiet, but the unquiet ones certainly demand attention!

Supernatural spends most of its first season dealing with ghosts, and they pop up frequently throughout the rest of the series. This version is pretty straightforward: ghosts are the spirits of the dead. Most of the dead go straight to either Heaven, guided by the angels of death, or to Hell, dragged by hellhounds in fulfillment of a bargain made. Some, however, end up lingering. Sometimes the trauma of their death is simply so sudden and shocking that they need time to come to terms with it. Sometimes they simply refuse to go with the angels, for whatever reasons. However, whether they had good or bad intentions, they soon go mad for a variety of reasons, not least of them being the isolation, the loss of memories, the need for revenge, or a penultimate drive deep in their core that overcomes their good sense, that sort of thing.

Dealing with ghosts is fairly simple: they cannot cross lines of salt, their form is momentarily dispersed when it comes into contact with iron, and putting them down for good means salting and burning their remains, purifying the body and soul in two ways at once.

The Vampire Diaries features ghosts which are a bit more mentally intact. Not that they can’t or don’t go crazy, but they don’t simply change from being who and what they were. That is proven well enough, as various characters keep coming back from the dead, to the point that death kind of loses a bit of its sting, if none of its immensity. Most of the ghosts we see are just people who have been caught in some sort of limbo afterlife, even including Hell itself. These were created by witchcraft, and I believe we see all of them undone by the same power. As the boundaries between the mortal life and the various afterlives are weakened, then the many, many ghosts, the dead who have been forced to be silent, are now able to be most unquiet indeed, many of them seeking revenge on those who wronged them… though a few settle for spending a little more time with their loved ones instead. Indeed, when all the other, temporary afterlives are stripped away, the one that is left is, quite simply this: they don’t go too far away, still able to watch over their living loved ones, but to die is ultimately to go home to one’s family. There is something very beautiful about that.

And it needs to be said: in a story where the undead frequently have so much power, the danger of ghosts cannot be understated. They aren’t easily dispensed with, at least not in any permanent way, and they can wield absolutely devastating power from which there is no defense. Heck, a huge swathe of the trouble which arises on The Originals comes from dead people still trying to get their way, to impose their will on the living. Even the strongest and most ancient vampire of all is eventually destroyed by a conflict with a witch’s ghost.

Not this one.

In contrast, the universe of Buffy and Angel has only a relative handful of instances where the living are bothered by the souls of the unquiet dead. They sometimes manifest in a semi-physical form, but clearly are still separate enough that it was practically impossible to physically hurt them. Most could speak and be heard, and those that couldn’t were able to make themselves known in more forcible ways. Responding to them required magic of some sort, either literal witchcraft, or releasing another spirit to overcome the first one, or helping them gain some form of absolution for their misdeeds. By and large, one could make a convincing argument that the physical power of a vampire or vampire slayer was all but useless against them.

So much the worse, then, that they tended to be souls who were trapped within their very worst moments: a poltergeist born from the abuse of children, a couple who self-destructed in murder and suicide, and a warrior who bore hatred for the annihilation of his people. Even the nicest ghost among them was still trapped in the moment his own mother murdered him, Cask of Amontillado style.

The ghosts of the Dresden Files are slightly different. In that series, ghosts are echoes and fragments, not whole or even fractured people. They’re imprints, something left behind to do a job that the dead can no longer do. They’re most prominent in two of the novels, so far.

In the earlier novel, the titular hero has to deal with the ghost of an enemy, one that has been seriously empowered. The dead usually don’t have the power to bother the living, but this one has plenty and to spare. Eventually, the hero manages to bring in backup: he “dies” and has someone on hand to revive him, so he’s still there, and his ghost shows up to help double-team on their foe, just long enough to help before, his purpose fulfilled, he fades away. Ironically, their enemy would have just faded away if he’d succeeded in truly killing them. And then the hero faces down a second terrible evil moments later, and again calls on the dead for reinforcements: he summons the lingering ghosts of their many, many victims, taking a page out of the enemy’s playbook by empowering them to take their vengeance.

The later novel follows the hero himself after he has been killed, or quite nearly so. Unlike other ghosts, he actually is his whole, complete, original self, this here being a little trick his allies are using to keep him alive and active long enough to save his life. He associates very closely with the dead, of course, learning about them, witnessing what they are. Some are crazed psychopaths, barely restrained, while others just float about. Many of them rest when the sun comes up, and that rest, the rest of the dead, is sweet indeed, but not permanent for them. And, as it turns out, the dead, having no means to replenish their energy as the living naturally do, have a very finite amount of power, though more considerable for some than others. This also means that they can consume each other, or be consumed by yet darker, more nefarious forces, because there is only so much of them to go around.

In contrast to the Dresden Files, the Mercy Thompson series starts out with the same basic assumption, that ghosts are incomplete echoes, not the real people, but it does not stick with that. Over the course of events, the protagonist sees things which force her to question her previous understanding. There seems to be something about ghosts that remains true to who they were, and they can even make some choices for themselves. Before long, she decides that when she needs to ask something of the dead, she really does ask it of them, and allows them to choose for themselves. She also protects them from those who would use them against their will. She realizes she doesn’t understand them, so she chooses to err on the side of humane behavior, treating them as well as she can under the circumstances.

Finally, there are the ghosts of the Monster Hunters. And I kind of love how there’s not really a big deal made about them. Oh, there’s some dramatic flare, especially as they’re dealing with a cosmic-level war that is all coming down to the actions of these few people. What I mean is that, with everything going on, it’s not even a question who and what these ghosts are: they are the spirits of those who have gone before. They are the same people they were while alive, whole and complete and with wills of their own. They make themselves known as needed, they relay all the information they can as needed, and they come to protect their still-living comrades, their family, as needed. Those who were brave, determined, and selfless in life, they continue to be so after death.

So, it would seem that, the scars of life and death notwithstanding, our modern ghost stories feature ghosts who are, in fact, the same people as they ever were, just in a new, uniquely trying situation.

There’s something very encouraging, I think, about this undercurrent of hope that we can remain ourselves, who we truly are, even as we pass through death itself. We might… well, I suppose dying is the very epitome of not emerging undamaged, but we’ll still be us. Even if we have pick up a few of our pieces first.

And if the dead can do that much, then why not the living, eh?

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Sunday’s Wisdom #309: Stand Apart from Darkness

“It isn’t enough to stand up and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.”
– Harry Dresden, Fool Moon
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher

Oh, the much-needed and timely wisdom of this quote!

When Harry says this, he is speaking specifically of the situation he and his allies are in at that moment, which involves imminent conflict with people who were once good, but who have been corrupted by a vile power that they accepted with the best of intentions. They’ve done horrible things, at first in the name of doing something good, and lives, innocent and guilty alike, have been lost to the carnage. Harry intends to stop them, and he will not hesitate to do so by whatever means necessary, especially since he intends to survive the experience. If it’s kill or be killed, he favors kill. However, he intends to avoid the slippery slope that his enemies have already fallen down, that of a hero who becomes a villain, becomes exactly what they fight against. As he sees it, his way to accomplish that is to be willing to kill, yes… but not to intend to kill from the start. It’s a subtle, but important, distinction.

Many of the most important distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, are subtle, but every bit as significant as the difference between light and darkness, between being able to see and being blind.

Harry Dresden gains a long and varied career in fighting the darkness of the world, all the things that go bump in the night, and many times he makes the mistake of trying to outsmart the Devil. He tries to outdo the darkness, be the bigger, badder bogeyman in the eyes of the bogeymen, and he calls on forces better left uncalled upon. He makes bargains and compromises and deals. Even in Fool Moon, mere moments after his speech about standing apart from darkness, he tries to use against his enemies that same vile power to which they have fallen. It works, but he very nearly loses himself in an instant.

So, obviously he is not perfect, and he could probably use this advice he gives himself. That is often the way of the world, isn’t it? Our heroes are not perfect, and sometimes they need to hear what they tell others. Sometimes they need to be saved as well. People often make the mistake of stepping into the darkness that they’re fighting, and need a friend to pull them back from it. But, still, Harry and all the other heroes at least keep trying, and pulling each other back from the darkness, and they learn from their mistakes.

Right now, I see a lot of people who are trying to do something good, as they understand what good is. But in the name of good, they are doing very bad things, inexcusable things, destructive things, hateful things. They think that they are fighting everything that is wrong with the world, but the truth is that they’ve just become part of everything that is wrong with the world. They’ve forgotten that how a goal is achieved is every bit as important as the goal itself. More important, they’ve never learned that simply opposing evil does not make you good.

Evil people fight and kill other evil people all the time. That doesn’t qualify either one as “good,” or even as “less evil.” Thus, to be good, one needs to do more than just oppose something bad. One needs to, well, stand apart from evil, be different from evil… be better than evil.

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