Life Without Hope?

The question, because it is a question, came to mind when I was mulling over some reader comments about a character, and trying to suss out motivations and what drove him. Something motivates him, otherwise he’d be dead twice over. But I’m not sure he knows, which makes character development tricky. What is his reason for living? Well, his faith takes a dim view of suicide unless it is for very, very specific reasons, but “you’re not allowed to kill yourself” doesn’t fit his personality, at least not at the moment.

Pig-headed determination can be a heck of a motivator, especially when linked with, “I’ll show him/them!” People who live decades after doctors told them to go home and die, military personnel and other warriors who survive terrible odds out of pure spite (often tied in with getting even, or avenging someone else.) Those are both examples, as are the people who keep going out of duty. I’ve met one person like that, and she was . . . different. She could not let herself die, or even step back and rest, until she got four children raised and out into the world on their own feet. They were not her children, but she’d promised to take care of them no matter what, and so she was. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t a believer in any religion. it didn’t matter. She’d given her word, and had taken up the duty, and was raising the children as best she could. I was in awe, and somewhat uncomfortable. I suspect that when the last child became independent, she would follow her late husband and other family members to the grave.

This character, though . . . duty fits, duties that he’s been assigned by his culture, and those he’s taken upon himself. He has faith, strong faith, but that’s not his only motivator, nor will it keep him going through the years. He’s not called to be clergy. He lacks hope, other than hope for a better life in the next world. He plans for survival, but it’s just that – survival. Nothing more, not where he will be in X years, not looking for a wife or making close friends.

People can live without hope, perhaps, if they have a strong enough goal and personality. Some thinkers say that hope is the cruelest thing, because it raises expectations and leads to dreams of better times and happiness that are then destroyed, crushing the spirit. That’s true. We’ve all had hopes dashed, be they hopes for neat Christmas stuff, or hopes that the dream date will be as good as anticipated, or that the cute guy will accept an invitation to the dance, or that a scenario will turn out right and the world will improve. And it doesn’t happen. Prayers are not answered in the way we want, the cute guy turns out to be a cad (or has a family commitment that night), the band cancels the concert, the politician isn’t as advertised, the serpent lied about the taste of the fruit . . . Hopes collapse, leaving bitterness and ashes behind. Been there, felt that, and it hurts. Duty replaces hope, or wrath and the desire for revenge replace hope, and the person pushes through.

That doesn’t work in this instance. The character has to grow, to enjoy life and to look ahead to a future with hope and dreams in it. How to get him there . . . I’m still grappling with, in part because it means looking inside me and asking some questions.

I hate it when characters make me do that. 🙂


Looking Up after Looking Down?

On Wednesday’s post, Louraine P. observed that people will always wonder about “what’s out there,” and will get curious. I’m . . . of two minds on this. First, I agree that yes, someone will always push to learn more, even if they can’t see something. In some cases, especially if they can’t see something. But second, I am observing less and less curiosity among younger people, meaning thirty and below.

I don’t know if it is because younger people have gotten used to “I’ll ask the internet” if they have a question, so they don’t ask questions. Or perhaps because they have been overloaded with “this is the Truth” only to be told a while later “No, no, this is the Truth and that never was true,” or because they are carefully protected from “out there” and they are sincerely worried that the unknown is all danger and hazard. Or a bit of yes. I’ve met a few teenagers who were so sheltered that I almost boggled. One or two of those became curious about “what’s out there?” The others rejected intellectual discomfort.

Many of the younger people (35 and below, give or take) seem to walk with their heads down literally or metaphorically, intent on a device in hand or in pocket, eyes on the ground. Now, older people can be inattentive, and I’m always surprised by the people who never see the hawks, or who are startled when I come huffing and puffing beside them as I walk. The screen has captured their attention, be it selecting music or reading and answering texts or browsing social media or watching a video. Granted, many on-line things are designed to keep people locked onto the screen. That’s a problem for others to sort out. My concern is that “what’s out there” turns into “look online and then move on” more more and more people.

One thing that impressed me when the great conjunction happened in the winter of 2020 was how many people were out in their yards, looking up at the sky, and talking to other people about the stars. It helped that two of our regional weather forecasters are astronomers, and they’d been happily geeking out about the conjunction for a week, so everyone knew it was coming, where to look, and why it was a Big Deal*. But it wasn’t teenagers out looking. It was 30+ for the most part, and younger kids.

I’m pretty sure that LP is right, that some people are always going to be curious about “What’s out there?” even if they never get to see stars before they are older teens. But what’s the effect of so many younger people living head-down for so long? I suspect that older people fussed when printing presses made books inexpensive. And I know that older people fussed that really cheap “penny dreadful” mass-market thrillers hit the newsstands in the late 1800s, because they were morally unsound and were rotting the brains of young people, and encouraged violence, and so on. Some things never change. That the same “corrupting trash” also pulled kids into wanting to learn more about the American West, and encouraged travel and exploration, well, no one could see that in the 1890s.

Are smart-phones and screens the same, and just a temporary blip that we will chuckle about later? Or is there something different that will keep people from wondering about the world and what lies beyond us? I have no idea.

*I know. They happen fairly often but they are not as visible as that one was. I remember several professional astronomers and so on mildly scolding people for getting so excited. Which strikes me as exactly the opposite of what you do if you want to encourage a Sense-o-Wonder!

What is Evil?

It’s one of those questions that every philosophical system and religion has to deal with. What is evil? How do you recognize it? How do you define it? How do you fight it, or do you? The question came up in recent weeks, back-to-back, in otherwise unrelated discussions or lectures. That sort of coincidence usually means I need to pay attention.

Eli Wiesel said that evil is indifference to one’s fellow men. I heard that definition, and thought, “What about suicide bombers, what about . . .” and began sort of listing individual actions and things that seem to be the opposite of indifference. But Wiesel was talking in the context of the Holocaust, about systems of evil. In that case, indifference does apply. The system doesn’t care about suffering, has no pity, or mercy, or interest in understanding people. People of the system are indifferent to what goes on, deaf to objections from victims of the system. Think of bureaucrats with quotas, or who always close the office at three-thirty in the afternoon, no matter how many people are still waiting to get help with paperwork, or in need of something. That’s the mild version. Stalin’s Soviet Union, or the Nazi empire, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward are the more severe version. Individuals disappear.

Then there’s active individual evil, the evil freely chosen, embraced, for a whole host of reasons. Some of them are because the individual’s wiring is skewed, and evil is the easier path. (A lot of people who might go that way don’t, for a number of reasons. But a few do.) The two are not exclusive. Actively evil people often do well in an evil system, or become the head of an evil system.

At an individual level, it’s not just indifference, although I suspect there’s a bit of that, a certain sadism, or even cold calculation that others are less than, well, anything. People are things, are tools, but are also obstacles to be removed, demons to be sent wherever $Deity wants them to go, toys to play with and enjoy watching them suffer.

Judaism and Christianity use the story of the serpent in the garden, where evil is introduced to paradise through temptation and disobedience. But where did the serpent get it from? The “Book of Job” is often nodded to as a book about coping with evils, but if you read it carefully, well, it’s not satisfying, exactly. Evil in the New Testament is personified as the Tempter, Satan, and as actions that go against the will of the Lord. But what is evil? An idea? An action? Where does it come from? Was it created by G-d? That leads into the argument that a perfect and good deity can’t have created evil, unless the deity did it for reasons that are good and that mortals just can’t understand. Or you get into dualism, where you have a good deity and an evil one, and eventually the good side wins (Zoroastrian system, among others.)

Evil is one of those things “I know it when I see it.” Except my definition of evil seems to be rather different from others’ definitions. Being a suicide bomber, to me, is evil. To others, it is a way of getting rid of evil. Lyall Watson’s book Dark Nature, and some of his other works, considers the idea in nature. Is what we call evil something that other animals do? Is it built into life in some way, something that culture checks most of the time, but that leaks out at other times? It’s a creepy book, one that I’m still chewing over even though it’s been a while since I read it. When orcas seem to “play” with seals before finally killing and eating them, is it evil? Or is it just further evidence that Adam’s fall condemned other creatures as well (one idea I’ve seen kicked around)?

Humans have been debating the question of evil for a very, very long time. It’s a question with no easy answer, unless it is to say, “This is evil. This I will not do, this I will avoid thinking about, this idea I reject and will teach/preach/fight against.”

But what is “Evil?”

Runaway Tulips: Free-range, or Feral?

One of the houses in the neighborhood has a, let us say, relaxed yard. It’s not scraggly or weed-filled, but is a bit shaggy compared to the rest of the block. And a miniature, all-white daffodil and solo red tulip are blooming beside the driveway. Something suspiciously like a random iris or two are growing toward the middle of the yard. Continue reading

“I Could Have Saved More”

I was looking through excerpts from Schindler’s List to use for class, and watched the closing scene at the factory again. It’s the scene where Schindler whispers, “I could have saved more. If I’d made more money, I could have saved more.” One of the commenters on one of the videos said, “A false hero: ‘I’ve done so much.’ A true hero: ‘I could have done more.’ “

I’m not certain I would go that far, but the story of Oskar Schindler and other people in history backs into a question that came up in one of the religion classes recently: deeds vs. words. Specifically the topic was the difficulty some theologians have had with the New Testament “Book of James” and the exhortation that “faith without works is dead.” This seems to collide with “By Grace you are saved through faith, and not through works, that none may boast . . .” Setting aside the entire point that the two authors involved were writing to different people at different times and addressing different problems, this seems to be one of those places where Scripture contradicts itself. Martin Luther in particular disagreed with the writer of James, and considered the book to be at the least inferior, if not perhaps noncanonical. Since he was fighting a popular over-emphasis on works vs. faith and spiritual discipline, his difficulty is somewhat understandable. Somewhat.

Which takes us back to Schindler. By all accounts, he was not a “nice” person. His original motives for saving so many Jews were not, perhaps, the most saintly. And yet he was a good person, who did something very good. I suspect he was not the only person over the years who has been more motivated by “Oh yeah? Who are you to tell me what to do?” rather than pure altruism and saintliness. At the end of the movie, he reproaches himself for not doing more, not saving more people but instead spending his money on worldly pleasures. Itzhak Stern assures Schindler that Schindler has done more than many, and that “generations will live because of you.”

“I could have saved more.” It is a cry, a prayer from the heart, whispered to Itzhak. How many times have people whispered that confession, or something like it. “I could have done more. I could have helped more. If only I had . . .”

Faith and works. Works. Facto non Verbum – deeds, not words. How often have all of us gotten irritated with people who make wonderful, grand-sounding pronouncements and then don’t follow through. They don’t show up to help with the neighborhood clean up. They don’t keep a campaign promise. They “forget” to bring something to help with the school bake sale. Or to help cleaning the temple or synagogue or church or mosque. Or fail to make the promised donation to the hospital auxiliary fund raiser. And then come through with more wonderful words but no deeds.

Then you have the people who are not the public paragons of virtue but who do a lot of good. And those in between, ranging from the quiet folks who just seem to know where to be when with what, and who don’t want acknowledgment, to those who manage to follow through most of the time but not always. I certainly fall in the latter category. But I’m the kind who prefers hiding in the kitchen doing dishes, or cleaning the floor after the event, to mixing and mingling and being a good hostess at fundraisers. My warped sense of humor and rather cynical view of certain things makes me somewhat awkward at cocktail parties and fundraising banquets. More than once I’ve been assured that if lightning hits my current place of worship, no one will be surprised to find a smoking pile of ash under the remains of my hat. I don’t think I was supposed to take that as a compliment. (All I did was make a very bad and somewhat irreverent pun. I wasn’t the one who suggested putting club soda in the baptismal font to see if anyone would notice.)

I wonder if Schindler’s line resonates because so many of us have been in that position. We could have done more, although not on the scale or under the circumstances Schindler found himself in. But if you inspire one person, make one weary soul laugh, encourage one person to push past that final barrier and grasp success, helped one kid believe that he really could do it and he does . . .

An Enlightened (Scottish) Revolution

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” So begins the part of the Declaration of Independence that most people know. And until pretty recently (at least outside of the internet and some academic circles), it was pretty self-evident for Americans that people were born equal and had equal rights by virtue of being functional humans. Not equal in skills, or height, or type of intelligence, but of equal value in the eyes of mankind and the Creator. In 1776, this was radical. It was of the Enlightenment, but not that of Rousseau, Voltaire, and co. This was the Scottish Enlightenment, one based on facts, and logic, and social improvement, not Reason and Passion. Continue reading