Sunday’s Wisdom #357: Class Between Classes

“Such idleness, mingled with such insipidity! I should far rather face a volley of rifle-fire than endure many more nights of like company.”
– Captain Elizabeth Bennet, Dragons and Decorum
from Golden Age and Other Stories, by Naomi Novik

To put this entirely in context, Dragons and Decorum is a short story that reimagines Pride and Prejudice if the characters were to be found in the England of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which features dragon riders amid the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a bit of a convoluted premise, but I found it much easier to read than Jane Austen. For one thing, it does not beat around the bush in showing how stinking stupid all the uptight, self-superior classism of the day was, and still is today.

Picture this: you hail from a family of wealth and privilege, with lands and businesses aplenty to your name. As such a prominent, successful figure within your own country, you are able to wield a surprising influence across the entire world, in places filled with people who know very little of you and your culture, yet are eager to do business with you. You have a promising future, with many prospects for pretty much everything you may wish to obtain. All you need do is not louse it up, and you may live in relative ease and comfort for your entire life.

All of this because of the security of your nation, including its military prowess.

So, obviously, one would think that such a figure, who has so much and owes so much of it to the regular serving man in uniform, would be quite appreciative of and respectful towards the common soldier and sailor who daily risk their life providing the security which promotes such prosperity.

Alas, ’tis not so!

In reflection of the attitudes of the time, both Austen’s work and Novik’s homage to such portray the rank stupidity of the self-entitled upper class in their treatment of the military. Indeed, they are severely lacking in the treatment of others in general. They snidely judge and gossip, taking the slightest of evidences and warping it into scandals of epic proportions. They dress so fancily and observe every minutest degree of etiquette while looking down their noses at anything which can be deemed “improper,” which seems to include most anything and everything which can be seen, just so they can congratulate themselves on being so much better. And they take the people who honestly put their lives on the line, who provide them with security, who build their mansions and fashion their jewelry and sew their clothes, and hold themselves as somehow better than such, all behind polite smiles and sweet words.

Compared to spending night after night in the “refined” company of people who contribute very little besides cold cash and vicious mockeries, wearing thin masks of civility as they deride honest people who spend their own blood keeping nations safe, sitting in comfort and complaining about things which they possess no understanding of – since what they “understand” begins and ends with their own importance – I can certainly see the appeal in facing rifle-fire instead.

At least in open warfare there is no convoluted pretense at being civil, or at being anything that one is not. There is only the cold, clear truth of one’s comrades beside you and one’s enemies before you. No one who sits idly will last long on a battlefield, and no one who acts halfheartedly will prosper for very long. One is what one is, and one cannot put on airs of being better, yet one may find the virtues of honor and mercy within oneself as well as within one’s enemies. It is no coincidence, I think, that the single worst sin in war is to be a false comrade, a false friend. It is a brutal, honest competition, hellish in its degree, as it brings out the best and worst of those caught within it.

Against all of that, the refined etiquette of two-faced jackals as they revel in the luxuries and freedoms that better men provide them is certainly the inferior choice.

I will take brutal sincerity over that entitled, egotistical crap any time.

Give me people who see clearly and speak plainly what they mean, people who look past their own noses and not down them, people who are willing to work with their own hands to build something better than we have, rather than tear down the very same structure which supports us all.

That, I believe, is true class: to be sincere and mature, rather than to be refined.

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #356: What Predators Fear

“It’s not what you did, son, that angers me so. It’s who you did it to.”

“Who? The f****** nobody?”

That ‘f****** nobody’… is John Wick.”

– Viggo Tarasov & Iosef Tarasov, John Wick

I have not actually seen this movie, but I am familiar with the story and I have seen this iconic scene enough times on YouTube that I could probably recite the entire exchange by heart. For those who do not know, John was formerly an assassin of particular skill, forged of, as Viggo puts it, focus, commitment, and sheer will. He has done things that Viggo still recalls, things he thought were impossible. Put bluntly, he fears John, because the man has proven unstoppable in the past. And now his young, arrogant, entitled son has ignorantly trespassed against this, the most dangerous of men, in a most terrible and grievous fashion. In short: they’re hosed, and Viggo knows it.

It is interesting to me how Viggo, a crime lord and businessman, has no qualms with whatever crime his son committed, nor whatever harm he has done. Neither does he have any lingering love or loyalty towards John, as such concepts are largely foreign to men such as he. No, he doesn’t care what has been done, and he doesn’t care who it was done to… except that this particular “who” can actually hurt them back.

Look at nature, at the wild beasts within, both predator and prey. What do they care about? Does a pack of hyenas care for whatever a mother rhino might feel when they go after her baby? Does a spider care about the panic of the insects caught in her web, or feel any loyalty to the male spiders she mates with? Does the cannibalistic preying mantis care that what it eats might be the same species? Do baby sharks in the womb care about their kin as they eat each other? Do alligators care for the desperate need which drives the zebra to come close enough to the water to prey upon? Do lions care whether their prey is a baby elephant or a sick, elderly antelope?

Nope. Not one bit, any of them.

But every beast in the world cares when their “prey” can hurt them back.

It’s why lions run from angry elephants and hippos, why wolves are wary of a stag’s antlers, why herds of all sorts gather their young within ranks of large, formidable adults: because predators thrive only so long as they can avoid reprisals.

It’s hilarious to me how Viggo calls John, trying to talk him out the reprisal which Viggo knows is coming, by saying, “Let us not resort to our baser instincts and resolve this like civilized men.” Would those be “baser instincts” like his son displayed when he invaded a man’s home, attacked him, hurt him, and took what was his? Yeah, sure, now he cares about civilized behavior, instead of beastly behavior, when he’s the one on the receiving end.

Personally, I think one can make a very compelling argument that simply destroying such beasts in human skin may be one of the most civilized things we can do: erase the proven danger to good, innocent people, to their children and their pets. If it is savagery to attack and take what they want just because they want it, then what can it be, besides noble and civilized, to stop such savagery by the only means which will actually, truly, permanently stop them?

Of course, even that comes with a danger of savagery, if one permits cruelty or cold malice to make residence within one’s heart, no matter how justified it may be. It does not do well to become a monster like unto the enemy.

And yet the rest of the unrelenting truth remains. Some people, beasts in human skin, will not be stopped by laws or other rules, or by compassion of any kind, including loyalty. Such can only be met with force, because only force will stop them. Only fear for their own well-being will stop them, knowing that they are facing something at least as dangerous as themselves. Only chains and prison walls will stop them.

And sometimes only death will stop them.

Posted in Movies, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #355: What Life Is

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
– Westley/The Dread Pirate Roberts, The Princess Bride

The exact circumstances surrounding this quote are slightly complicated and, I think, actually a little distracting from the point it makes. Suffice to say it is said in a moment of heat, as a couple argues about the past and the pain it holds for each of them. They dig through it and uncover a more hopeful future, like the miner who strikes gold.

Something about that has stayed with me since childhood.

There is a good deal of truth to what Westley says. No one, no matter their circumstances and social standing, experiences pain. Hunger and thirst, sorrow and loss, anxiety and fear, these are part of living. The stress of unrelenting physical agonies, the crushing pressure of financial burdens, the unbearable weight of despair, the screaming emptiness of a life bereft of love and joy, these are each pains which not everyone feels, but we all know that they hurt. Minutes, days, years, and lifetimes can feel so long as we become more and more weary of the world and of our place in it. We probably can’t help, on some level, wanting things to be better, easier, and less painful.

That’s where the dangerous ones come in. They knock on our doors, speak at our gatherings, talk to us through the radio, the TV, the computer screen. They’re all smiles and words, so many words that take so much time, demand so much attention, and mean so very little. They promise us an end to pain if we buy what they sell, if we do what they say, if we give them what they want of us. They get us angry, they get us sad, they get us excited… and then they get us going in the direction they want us to go. They point a finger of blame for all the world’s woes at “the enemy,” which is anyone but themselves, and anyone but us, and anything but the nature of life itself. They tell us that everything can be made better if we just get rid of “the enemy,” the people who surely aren’t real people, because they make different decisions, they have different beliefs, they do, and say, and behave differently. They have to go, we are told. Buy this snake oil, it’ll heal your stomach, and buy this hatred, it’ll heal your life. No more pain.

But life is pain.

Life is skinning your knee as you play with the other kids. Life is soaking each other with water balloons on a hot summer day. Life is burning your tongue because you ate your mother’s cooking too fast. Life is pricking your fingers on the roses in your garden. Life is getting sunburned as you hike on a glacier in Alaska, or getting runny noses as you play on the playground in winter. Life is aching in your bones as hormones kick in and make you grow. Life is working so hard you get blisters, bad backs, and bad knees. Life is the heartbreak of first and second and third loves which all fail. Life is losing a grandparent to Alzheimer’s, a parent to a drunk driver, a sibling to a war, a friend to suicide, a spouse to cancer, a child to a careless accident, a pet to a shorter lifespan.

Life is the scars we collect on our body and on our soul.

There is no escaping that. No fixing it. No blaming everyone else for it. No making it better by buying into a false promise.

But there is another side.

Life is pain… but that’s not all life is.

Life is also the laughter of children in the yard, the awkwardness of teenagers on their first dates, the selfless love of service to our neighbors, the loyalty of comrades and friends, the commitment of marriage, the joy of family, the cherishing of our time together, the wisdom of our experienced elders, the hopes we have for the future, and the legacy we leave behind for future generations.

That, too, is life.

And I don’t think it needs a terrible amount of fixing.

Posted in Movies, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #354: Pain and Love

“A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”
– from “I Am a Rock,” by Simon & Garfunkel

Neither does the rock feel joy, nor does the island ever laugh.

This is one the saddest songs I have ever heard. It’s a classic for a reason, because it speaks to the emotion of loss and loneliness which we are all familiar with. I disagree with it a bit, though, because while it expresses what is felt in the wake of loss, it seems to be told from the perspective of one who has chosen to remain alone after being left alone, and praises that choice. It’s understandable, of course, it being a fairly common psychological response. “Touch the fire, it burns, that hurts, don’t touch the fire again,” that sort of thing. But love and fire are not the same.

Love burns far hotter than any flame, but where healing from a fire’s burn involves never touching it again, healing from love’s burn very much involves feeling it again.

The lyrics of the song talk more about leaving the feeling of love alone to sleep in a distant memory. They don’t want to feel love again because they have lost it, and that hurts. Of course it hurts. The narrator mentions disdaining laughter and love because friendship brings pain, and there is some truth to that, just as every sunrise must inevitably lead towards a sunset. But in this instance, avoiding laughter, love, and friendship because the loss of such hurts makes about as much sense as going underground to hide from the sun because one doesn’t like the cold and darkness that follows some time after every sunrise.

It is not actually love that burns and hurts us. It’s the loss of it, the absence of it, which hurts us so.

Even worse, to go without love, or try to, in order to avoid further pain… well, that doesn’t prevent the pain at all. It just keeps the pain we already have and refuses to let it go. It’s a refusal to heal. How many stories do we have of people who spent so long alone, but were only healed and knew joy when they were able to feel love again?

It is a simple fact of life that there is pain. No one can avoid it. It dominates our existence. That is universal. The question, then, isn’t if we can avoid pain, but if we will obtain joy. Even more, the question goes further: will we keep obtaining joy, even when we know its cost?

Grief is love persevering, yes?

So, are the people we have loved worth that grief or not? Are the people we can still love worth the pain? Is our happiness with them worth the tears we shed when we lose them, or not?

I can personally think of no greater insult to those who have loved me than if I were to effectively say, “Not worth it.”

Of course, when I say that, I don’t mean to diminish the pain of others, and the people who, having felt the pain of loss, need a long time to heal, or don’t know how to deal with it for awhile.

I simply disagree with the choice to refuse to heal, and refuse laugh and love and live again. Yes, there will be pain, as there always has been, but it doesn’t have to outweigh the joy.

Pain does not need to be permanent.

We are meant to know joy, and I hate to see people deprive themselves of joy. That, in and of itself, is just another form of pain, which, I hate to see my fellow creatures locked into any form of suffering.

And that is why I simply cannot agree with the choice to remain alone, and especially to praise it, deluding oneself into believing that solitude is better than love.

I may have to respect that choice when others make it, as their lives are not mine to run, but I will never agree with it.

Posted in Muse-ings, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #353: Know Your God

“He doesn’t want to know anything about his god… It would mean he staked it all on something and was wrong, and some people just don’t deal well with the thought that they tried and failed.”
– Thom, An Inheritance of Ashes, by Leah Bobet

When Thom says this, he is talking specifically about a man named Asphodel Jones. Jones had been called a prophet of a Dark God, and he was the leader of a group of rabid cultists who worshiped this intangible force which was laying waste to the world merely by its presence. However, the “dark god” in question was just a very large creature that had gotten stuck between two worlds and was dying as a result, slowly and painfully. The destruction surrounding its suffering was entirely incidental, not at all deliberate, and certainly not wrought by some kind of dark, divine will. It was just a poor, unfortunate creature that was unable to help itself.

And yet Jones and his followers just can’t accept the truth. Some say the truth is hard and unforgiving, but it’s people who seem more unable to forgive, both others and themselves. They can’t deal with the failure that they put everything they had into what they believed, and were wrong. They sacrificed and suffered and did great harm for the sake of something greater, but they were wrong, and that is a painful thing to admit, let alone accept and live by. So, instead, Jones is rabid in his zealotry and refuses to listen to any evidence that proves him wrong, because it proves that he did wrong.

That is what people get like when they are faced with the possibility that this higher cause, this higher purpose and power, to which we have dedicated ourselves like good people should… is, in fact, imperfect. Or outright wrong. Or even a bare-faced lie that we have swallowed. When faced with that, we tend to entrench ourselves, shutting our eyes and ears and minds against everything that does not match what we already believe.

I have been much frustrated by this in many a discussion, especially in regards to politics. Or, rather, what I wanted to be a discussion, but mostly turned into me stating my perspective and being completely dismissed, ignored, and insulted. After all, I have dared to question the political “god,” so to speak, by which they have lived their lives.

That holds true on all sides of the political aisle. I want to be clear about that: it’s not just one side or the other that needs to pull their collective heads out of their collective butts.

Heck, it holds true for most anything people can be devoted to, from politics, to religion, to sports teams, to fashion, to boy bands, to fandoms anime, comics, Marvel, DC, Superman, Batman, Star Wars, Star Trek, and pretty much everything else. It is insane all the things we are ready to tear each other apart over.

Why? Why are we like this?!

There is something about people that makes us unwilling to acknowledge when we are wrong. It’s like we think we have to be perfect in order for our views to be valid, that if we are wrong once, we are always wrong on everything, and if we are right once, about one thing, then that means we are always right.

That could not be further from the truth.

Everybody is wrong about something. Everybody is right about something. Everybody fails. Everybody sometimes bets on the wrong horse. Everybody is imperfect. And everybody’s perspective is valid.

We may want to always be right, and never be wrong, but that will never happen, not for anyone, ever. What we need, then, is the ability to allow ourselves to be wrong, so we can admit that we have been mistaken and move on with our lives together.

We must always question the validity of what we value, the truth of what we are staking everything on. After all, if we are staking everything, then we have the right to do exactly that, to ask questions and get answers, don’t we?

It is our right and our responsibility to know our “god.”

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #352: People Choose

“I guess we both need to remember that whatever’s happening in our heads, whatever it was that created us, we get to choose. That’s what makes us people, Syl.”
– Kaladin Stormblessed, Rhythm of War
The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson

In the precise context of the story, Kaladin and Syl are characters who are both wrestling with their inner demons, with who they are, who they’ve been, who they might become, and especially the loss and sorrow they have known. They are both touched by higher powers, with Syl herself being apparently made from some fragment of that higher power. They have been driven by purpose, by what they were supposed to do, but now they are learning the difference between being directed and being confined by such purpose. Most of all, they are learning the power they wield with their choices, by the simple act of retaining the power to choose for themselves, instead of losing their own will to that of another.

That power of choice is a key element to what makes a person a person, what makes people… people… instead of, say, robots, animals, or piles of mindless rocks that can somehow walk around.

There are, of course, circumstances in which our options may be so limited that one can be excused for believing that there is no choice at all. Soldiers are expected to obey every order, be it demeaning, distasteful, or outright evil. The desperation to survive can drive many to become thieves or even commit murder. The drive to maintain or increase one’s wealth and status, let alone to protect one’s loved ones, has compelled many a man and woman to do things which are generally not brought up in polite conversation. And, of course, the expectations which are automatically set by one’s upbringing and culture will naturally narrow one’s field of view to see only the options which such present to us.

All of these, however, do not change the fact that a choice is still a choice.

Some soldiers are regarded as heroes for disobeying unjust orders. The desperation to survive has been overcome by remarkably selfless people who chose instead to die for the sake of others. Some of the greatest men and women in history have been those who chose to maintain their integrity and honor even at great personal cost to their wealth, status, and families. And if our very destinies can be shaped by our choices, then how we are raised need not define our options.

Our destinies are our own to make by our own choices. That is the privilege of a person.

Now, I want to emphasize that I do not mean to judge those who make the other choice, to obey, do bad things, etc. when they are driven to it by forces beyond their control. Many, many people throughout history have made the wrong choice, often because they simply did not see or know any other way. We tend to judge such people harshly, especially if that person we are judging is ourselves. But the accountability that comes with our ability to choose is not the same thing as being totally responsible for what we do when someone holds a knife to our throat, so to speak. This is not to say we are totally guiltless, but neither are we entirely to blame.

Where we are responsible is simply in what we do and why we do it.

That is what makes a person who and what they really are.

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #351: Solve the Problem

“If we wait around for the powers that be to solve the problem, we’re all doomed.”
– Stricken, Monster Hunter Bloodlines
Monster Hunters
series, by Larry Correia

Stricken is one of those characters who everyone loves to hate and hates to love. He is absolutely evil, has done incredibly evil things, and he’s done a lot of damage to a lot of good, innocent people. Along the way, however, he has also been annoyingly useful, even essential, and he continually insists that he is on the side of the angels, with every vile thing he’s done being to save humanity’s existence and freedom. In his view, he is simply doing what is necessary, what the straight-laced “good guys” are incapable of doing, and what the powers that be – referring to political leaders with spines as stiff as a boiled spaghetti noodle – will never do. At least, not in time.

There is a good deal of truth and validity to what he says, of course. All good villains and antiheroes have a bit of that. He’s right about having to do some despicable things, things that would leave any good man unable to sleep at night, in order to get things done and protect what is good in this very imperfect world. He’s wrong about what sort of evil things need to be done, or tolerated, and especially the manner of foul creatures which one can really work with. He’s also right about how the powers that be will never manage to save the world, though he’s wrong about simply casting off all form of accountability to the government and the people he’s supposedly protecting. Without such accountability, we would quickly become lost, confused, and corrupted. We need a higher authority, separate and objective, to hold us to an honorable account. That is part of the role of government.

What government is good for, it’s really good for. It just happens that solving all of our problems is not what it’s good for.

When things go wrong, as they often do, this creates problems. Problems need solutions, and solutions need to be practical or they aren’t actually solutions at all. Practicality requires an understanding of the problem and real-world consequences of possible solutions. And in that regard, it may be easier to see an entire city from on high, but the grease and stains, the dirt and blood, can only be seen up close and personal, at ground level.

When a problem is brought to the government, to the ruling powers that be, to solve, the best case – I repeat: the best case – scenario has dozens and dozens of people talking for an eternity about how best to solve a problem they don’t really know anything about. It takes forever, which is far too long, and by the time to enact a solution, it’s usually a perfectly wrong and counter-productive solution. And that’s without the inevitable political posing and scheming for more money and power.

I work indirectly for a huge company. This company wanted to make their bathrooms more handicap accessible. They had someone install the machinery to make a few doors that one can open with the push of a button. This cost money, as does the upkeep of this machinery. That upkeep became more expensive when people opened the doors and put door-stopping wedges under the door, to hold them open, because the machinery made the doors more taxing to push open, and said machinery was apparently fairly delicate. So they removed all the door stops from all the restrooms everywhere, whether they had this machinery or not. And thus, everyone was inconvenienced for very little benefit.

All of this, when they could have just done what theaters do: remove the doors entirely. One-time fee, no upkeep, no inconvenience to everyone, and the restrooms are accessible.

What happens when a disaster hits? Does everyone wait around until the powers that be tell them what to do? Or do they get busy? Police officers on the scene, firemen running into burning buildings, paramedics administering first aid… ah, but it goes even further, doesn’t it? A madman with a gun begins a rampage, and the police can’t arrive in time, but one man in the crown shoots back, and the crisis is over before it claims many lives. A house starts to burn, and parents run to get their children out, or neighbors, or sometimes even house pets (I recall the story of the family dog that got the kids out). Someone is choking in a restaurant, and another customer performs the Heimlich. And all this while huge amounts of relief aid for natural disasters gets tied up in paperwork, while small armies of volunteers are already cleaning up the mess.

There are things which only the government’s resources and authority can accomplish, but a far-distant collection of bureaucrats and politicians is no substitute for boots on the ground.

Even the powers of Heaven are not going to come down and simply solve all of our problems. Why should we expect such from far more fallible mortals who seem more preoccupied with ruling the world than with ruling it well?

There is an abundance of problems in our world today, which ought to be proof enough that our rulers can’t and won’t solve them. We have to solve them ourselves, together. Us, the people on the ground. We have to work together, think together, and create solutions together.

Because our problems will not be solved by waiting around for someone else to solve them.

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #350: Better Than Right

“You need to know, Willard, we’re good folks around here… With all the bother we’ve given you, it’s just the way we’ve been brought up. It’s us trying to do what we think is right.”
– Waterman, The Fighting Preacher

I commented last week about being careful with our judgments, particularly when those judgments run in the direction of death. It got me thinking about people and how often we do the wrong thing, but almost never because we want to do the wrong thing. Almost nobody ever gets up the morning and thinks, “What evil thing can I do today?” We’re not the villains from Power Rangers, ThunderCats, Captain Planet, or a dozen other kids’ shows I could name, who are all knowing and willing participants in the forces of evil and destruction.

Evil exists, and there are evil people, and there are evil people who are knowingly evil, but by and large, as of yet, most people who do wrong are actually trying to do right.

For example, the movie The Fighting Preacher is based heavily on events from the history of my own church, whose early members in almost every region and community have faced severe persecution from their neighbors. Of course, we’re not at all unique in that, and you won’t find me trying to claim some special status on that count. What I mean in bringing it up is that we’ve had a good deal of time to consider the why of it all, especially as some of our most stubborn persecutors eventually joined us and, like that Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle, became beloved brothers. And on the other hand, some of our dearest members turned to become our most bitter enemies. With history like that, one eventually learns that people are not simply good or bad and that is what they will always be. People are much more complex than that, with the teachings of their parents, their culture, their nation, their religion, their stories, and their own lives all ringing in their ears all the time. With all of that, and with our generally flawed understanding, it can be very easy to get it wrong even when people are trying so hard to get it right.

In our stories of World War II, we cast Germany and the Nazis quite squarely as the villains. They did engage in the Holocaust, after all, with millions upon millions of innocent people slaughtered with industrial efficiency. However, that same German army, whose soldiers wore the same uniforms as were worn by the mass-murderers at Auschwitz, also showed mercy at times they didn’t have to. At the beginning of what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, there was a small group of Allied forces which stood directly in the path of an overwhelming German force. They fought like dragons, and killed many German soldiers, but were overrun and captured. Key word: captured. Not killed. Because the Germans behaved with honor towards them, sparing the survivors of these few soldiers who had fought so hard and earned their respect.

As a final example, rather pertinent to my country today, there is the conflict between police officers and the group known as Black Lives Matter. I personally believe that most police officers are good, decent folk who are putting their lives on the line to protect me and my loved ones every single day, and that earns them quite a bit of respect on my part. I also personally believe that BLM has wrought a great deal of harm to a large number of innocent people, and for that they earn very little but disdain from me. However, the people who make up BLM’s ranks do what they do, I think, because they are misguided. They’ve been taught that police are racist towards black people, and they’ve been taught that this is a wrong that needs to be corrected, and they’ve been taught it must be done now, violently. That doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty, of course – Paul the Apostle was forever haunted by what he had done as Saul, because he was responsible for what he had done – but it does mean that they aren’t evil. They, like the people who persecuted my church and like the German soldiers of World War II, are trying to do something right.

In all three cases, the real problem is ignorance, and the solution is the dissemination of knowledge.

I will never forget when a black man came to talk to my classmates and I about the Civil Rights Movement, and he shared an experience where he encountered a young member of the Ku Klux Klan. He responded to the young man’s hatred, which the boy had learned from his family, with a small deluge of knowledge, educating him on how black men had contributed to the society around him, like the development of traffic signals and gas masks that save lives and so forth. It struck this racist young man deeply and profoundly, and in the ensuing years he learned the truth for himself, eventually leaving the KKK and becoming an outspoken advocate against them in general and against racism in general.

Most Germans didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps, but those who did, or had suspicions, or had some other reason to distrust their rulers, did something about it. Some hid Jews, or stole books, or printed a newspaper, or spied, or smuggled, or even tried to kill the Fuhrer. These efforts were not all successful, but they left a legacy of honor even in the midst of horror and tyranny. Today, the Nazis are a black mark on German history, while their dissidents are revered for their heroism.

And as for “the Fighting Preacher,” one Willard Bean, he tried everything he knew to exist peacefully with his neighbors. Eventually, he managed to make friends with them simply by helping and serving them, even if those who didn’t want anything to do with him and his family at first. But as he helped them out, they talked, and the scene surrounding this quote is one where he opens up and shares a lesson he learned most painfully about trying to do better. He let others come to know him as he was helping them, and, bit by bit, the anger and spite and religious judgment died away. People were able to see him for him, to really know him, and his family, and see that they were all good people, just trying to do what they think is right.

I suppose it all comes down to how we have to remember that evil exists, that it is real and must be opposed, but also remember that most people themselves aren’t evil. By and large, we’re all just people, good people, trying to do right as we see it. It gets confusing, and we aren’t perfect. We all collect regrets along the way for things we’ve done wrong, or haven’t done as right as we wanted.

Perhaps the lesson here is that we can’t simply try to do “good.” We have to try and to “better.” Better than we’ve done before, better than the things we don’t like but think are necessary, better than hurting people, and… better than judging people.

Posted in Movies, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #349: Death and Judgment

“Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
– Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

This quote from the movie has been heavily on my mind as of late. It comes at a moment when the wise wizard Gandalf is discussing the fate of an enemy with his young friend, Frodo. Frodo thinks it a pity that his uncle, Bilbo, did not kill this enemy, a wretched, greedy creature, when he had the chance to, some time ago. But Gandalf understands that it was pity which stayed Bilbo’s hand, and, as a humble man, the wizard also understands his own limitations. He can’t see everything, he doesn’t know everything, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen… and he has no right to self-righteously judge and kill his fellow creatures.

This especially comes home to me in at least two ways.

First, of course, is myself. I am fairly mild-mannered by choice, but I could not begin to count the number of times I have been all but lost in my self-righteous wrath. I have wanted to bring serious harm to people who have committed serious offenses and hurt many people. I have wanted to cause them pain, I have wanted to bring them to despair, and I have wanted to end them. It is a darkness that I can keep tightly in check partially because… well, I have no power to act on my more violent urges. Part of me is terrified of who I might become if I ever do have such power.

In moments of passion and rage, even a peaceful soul – which, mine is not – can become monstrous.

The second way is what I see others doing. I see the polarizing of communities throughout my country, as countless individuals make the mistake I am trying to avoid: they deal out death and judgment. They become to set in their ways and too stubborn to tolerate any deviations, any disagreements, anything that contradicts what they already believe. They label each other and refuse to look past those labels to see the person behind them. They scream for blood, and blood they take. In short, they allow themselves to forget that their fellow humans are their fellow humans. And all sorts of monstrous deeds follow thereafter.

One reason I keep my own anger reined in, a reason I am sometimes glad for how powerless I am, is simply because I do not want to be like that. I don’t want to be like them, like the people who are tearing my home nation to pieces around me.

A third way, I suppose, that this has been weighing on me has to do with society in general. I recently read a story about a man who was certain to be found guilty of a crime and sentenced to death. He’d be sentenced, and then he would immediately be taken to the hospital next door, his body taken apart and the parts used to save other people’s lives. This man stood to be judge worthy not simply of death but of dismemberment, his humanity denied in the name of humanity. He was jailed, pending his trial, alongside a group of criminals who murdered people and sold their parts on the black market. And while the latter is surely worthy of their poetic sentence, the man in the cell beside them was guilty only of drunk driving.

There’s a wide gap between murderous organ runners and a drunk driver, right? Well, not if you phrase it a certain way.

How many people have been killed by drunk drivers? How many have suffered horrific trauma and agonizing injury because of a drunk driver? How many have felt the grief of losing a loved one to a drunk driver? So many lives lost, and only the tip of the iceberg compared to the number of lives that alcohol has ruined. There comes a point where drunk driving is the same as actively trying to kill everyone who may happen to cross your path. One can easily say this is every bit as unacceptable, and as deserving of death, as outright murder and organ running.

The slope of righteous wrath is slippery indeed.

To be clear, I fully believe in capital punishment. I believe in putting serial killers in their graves, that they might never threaten anyone else, ever again. I believe some people are simply too dangerous, or have done too much harm to their fellow man, to let them live. But this is not a choice to be made in anger or even in judgment. That is, not in judgment of a man’s character, but of his guilt and the danger he poses to society. It is not to be done lightly, not at all.

But there are people who were sentenced to die, and were innocent. And there are very different standards for the death penalty across various cultures which do not agree with mine. Governments have sentenced entire populations to death, and the world has suffered for such atrocities. But it has always been, on some level, the hatred that people have towards each other which has driven such inhumanity.

Are serial killers worth killing? What about drunk drivers who have kept driving drunk after having destroyed another person’s life? How about the Germans who celebrated when their neighbors were sent into concentration camps, only to discover later what had been done to them? What of the mobs today, who rage against their neighbors in the name of some perverted ideal of peace? How about the people who litter, leaving their mess to damage the environment?

Who is deserving of death?

Who needs to die “for the greater good?”

Do any of us really have the right to make that decision?

To deal out death and judgment isn’t simply to stand in peril of becoming a monster. It’s to already become one.

We must beware any cause that would turn us into monsters, most especially when they tell us we’d become angels instead.

Posted in Movies, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged | 1 Comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #348: Adversity, Blood, and Choice

“Whether or not you had parents, or a home, or any creature comforts, you had the blood of Zeus running through your veins. You could have done anything with your lives. Adversity is a tool. Push against it. Rise above it. You stooped beneath it.”
– Helen Atreidei, Tribe, by Jeremy Robinson

When Helen says this, she is speaking to one of the main protagonists of the story. He grew up on the streets, abandoned, unloved, and never properly understood. It was a rough, hard, lonely life, to be certain, where very little good happened for him. But he never did anything constructive about it. Quite the contrary, he was walking the road towards criminality, and all the devastating consequences that follow. Now he’s learned that it was possible, he could have had a different life. Someone, namely Helen, could have come swooping in and saved him, raised him up from squalor to the heights of wealth, where he’d never have to worry about the bare necessities. In the face of that, he’s a bit angry, but Helen points out that he had all the potential he needed to turn his life around himself, if only he had chosen to do so.

Now, in a story about demigods and such, Helen points to their divine, ancestral parent, Zeus. That is something which I both dislike and appreciate as I think about it.

On the one hand, most of us do not have literal gods in our mortal lineage. Indeed, most of us don’t know our ancestry very well to start with. That said, we might be surprised by our respective pedigrees. Sure, we’re normal, everyday people, but I imagine an astonishing number of us has the blood of kings and generals and heroes and all the other icons of our history, the movers and shakers who did great, notable things. It might not be Zeus, but it’s still amazing, everything we have to live up to.

On the other hand, I somewhat despise the entire notion that we need to have such royal blood in our veins in order to have the potential for great accomplishments. One may inherit legacies and gain the strength of purpose from one’s heritage, but one does not need to already have great things in one’s bloodline in order to do them. I mean, a noble house might be six centuries old, but that just means that it has a beginning, someone who was raised up from a more humble origin. Put another way, not everyone has noble blood in them, but even the greatest of kings is descended from cavemen who hunted and gathered their food. Clearly someone, somewhere along the line, did something greater than their ancestors had already done.

Martin Luther King Jr. learned of faith, leading, and loving from his father, but, Thomas Edison was not the son of inventors, nor was Albert Einstein the son of scientists.

Still, whether we have some sort of noble blood or not, it is among my dearest beliefs that we are all children of God. Each and every one of us has infinite potential, both for good and for evil.

But setting aside the matter of our parentage and how much of a role our DNA has in our potential, it remains incontrovertible that no one who ever did anything great did so easily. Accomplishment has always been preceded by the sweat, blood, and tears of hard work, sacrifice, and loss, but most of all, of perseverance. Bloodlines may be used by humans to try and create free passes, but they can never make one truly exempt from reality.

Hardship does not prevent accomplishment, it is the payment for such.

So, you have a young man who, as a child, was abandoned and unloved, locked in a fight for his survival against the entire world. …so what?

That young man could still, by his own choices, become a fine, upstanding man in his community. He could become a protector, a teacher, or a healer. He could become an artist, a storyteller, or a musician. He could become a builder of homes or of skyscrapers, a shepherd or a farmer, a manager or a corporate leader. Or he could become a liar, a thief, a murderer. It all depends on how he answers the hardships of his life.

He could be a descendant of kings or gods, the people we venerate for the great things they did, or he could be the latest son of a family that never rose above the dirt… and therefore is well-acquainted with enduring such.

Either way.

Posted in Books, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged | Leave a comment