The Nature of a Reluctant Hero

Nature of a Reluctant Hero. Image used under Creative Commons.A few years ago (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time putting thoughts together here on the nature of a hero. Those conclusions still spring to mind for me occasionally, and, given some recent events in my life coinciding with just finishing a Green Lantern novel that I picked up on vacation last summer, it came to the forefront again.

The novel isn’t the best I’ve read, but O’Neil does, by the end, give us a compelling (though somewhat non-canonical) telling of Kyle Rayner’s beginnings as Green Lantern. The story begins slowly, but the author is giving us a very important point by the end.

In the DC Universe (pre-New 52), Kyle Rayner was the second Green Lantern on earth. He is given the power ring by the last surviving Guardian after the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, goes crazy and retires when he is unable to save his home city from destruction. The Guardians have vanished, and Rayner, a struggling graphic artist with little drive or ambition for anything in particular finds himself, without explanation or instruction, in possession of what is arguably the greatest source of power on the planet. Rayner now wears the mantle of one of the most formidable heroes in the DC Universe.

You can see where this gets interesting.

And, while it moves slowly in places, O’Neil does well at extensively relating Rayner’s internal dialogue as he struggles to first understand his power, and then to decide if he actually wants anything to do with it. The short answer is that he does not. Whatever aspirations he might have held, none of them included placing others’ good before his own, rushing into danger in order to protect others. This just isn’t him, not a position in which he has ever envisioned himself. Yet, now he is confronted with something bigger than himself, something outside of himself.

Quite literally bigger in this story. When the rest of the Justice League vanishes, he is the only one left save reality from destruction. As the story progresses, Rayner makes numerous choices to move beyond himself, to act sacrificially to save others, others who aren’t always even human. He doesn’t begin a hero, but becomes heroic in how he handles the responsibility that is thrust on him.

The author’s moment of brilliance, I think, in this novel comes just before Rayner embarks into the final epic conflict, when he tells the Guardian who gave him the ring:

“I’m a hero because you gave me something heroic to do.”

When I’ve talked before about the nature of a hero, I’ve frequently arrived at the conclusion that there is a decision point in many of these stories. Given a set of circumstances, how a character handles a choice determines whether or not that character becomes a hero or becomes a villain. When Rayner is confronted with a huge responsibility, he doesn’t run away, but chooses to embrace it, despite the fact that he does so clumsily and against his own instincts.

This is one of the most accessible aspects of the nature of a hero because it is something that we all face at some point. While we will likely experience this in a small way, we will be confronted with a responsibility that we didn’t choose and that we don’t want. Our reaction speaks to our choice to become either a hero or a villain in our own story. The reaction is never easy, the choice never without repercussions. It is always, however, necessary.

The inspiration to make the heroic choice is why these characters give us so much.

Image attribution: JD Hancock under Creative Commons.

Data-Driven Mystery

There’s a phrase…I’m certain that you’ve heard it…that says something to the effect that magic is simply science that we don’t yet understand. The underlying premise of this statement is that we can explain everything if we try hard enough, if we think logically enough. This is a premise that leaves no room for the unknown, that makes failure to understand something wrong, perhaps even difficult to forgive.

I’ve been really drawn to the fact that Marvel’s on-screen adventures, both large and small, have began to explore paranormal characters of late, largely because these characters are in such stark (pun only slightly intended) contrast to the technology-driven and scientifically altered characters that have dominated the broader audience’s exposure to these heroes to date. Part of the reason for my affinity toward these paranormal adventurers is that they are a metaphor for something beyond the physical, a deeper part of our existence that is outside of what we can measure, touch and feel, something so far removed from my profession.

As Lewis told us, the physical part of our world is only a part of the whole, and so much less real in so many ways than the spiritual.

When I was young (read: I’m totally still this way), I used to love post-apocalyptic stories in which science and magic co-existed in the world that had emerged from the ruins (think the world of Thundarr the Barbarian, as an off-the-cuff example), because they symbolize the truth that the physical and the spiritual work together, complement one another. Without either, humanity doesn’t work. To abandon one, or to minimize one in favor of the other, is to set the stage for us to be less than intended. As much as I love my toys, I’m reaching the conclusion that technology ultimately leaves us empty, because it focuses exclusively on the realm of the physical. Technology is our own finite creation. We’ve built it, we can know everything about it. Technology leaves us in the role of God, but pre-supposes that we are gods over a tiny kingdom that appears to us so much larger than it actually is.

Working in technology is creative, don’t get me wrong…as creative as any of my other pursuits. I get to write code that builds some really cool things. Technology, however, takes a poor view of mystery, because mystery implies something that we do not understand. Software can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be released with things that we don’t understand, so not understanding is weakness. If mystery remains in a project, then it is removed and replaced with a different approach that does not contain mystery. Technology is physical, and not only can it be quantified and measured, but must be. The spiritual cannot be. It must leave room for mystery.

Mystery, in technology, cannot be permitted to exist. Interestingly, we view technology as an extension of our lives, lives in which we thus have a perceived need to measure and quantify everything. We don’t want to permit mystery anywhere else, then, either.

Yet mystery is beautiful, because it helps us to understand the limits of our own lives. The fact that our control is illusion, that we are not, in fact, gods.

Because when we understand that, we begin to recognize that there is something so much bigger than us, something beyond our physical world, something that we cannot measure. What we don’t know is as beautiful as what we know, because what we don’t know leaves room for belief.

And belief leaves room for faith.

And faith leaves room for us all to be so much more compassionate, understanding, and…human…than we currently seem to be. I’m sure we can find data support that.

 

Quote

Continuing the Christmas Season

“Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for you?”

-Madeleine L’Engle

Analog Holidays

Do you think about New Year’s resolutions in advance? Maybe I’m alone in that. I tend to consider them before Christmas of late, not because I want to craft resolutions that I know I can keep (although the temptation is great there), but more because I want to give some consideration to what I really want to accomplish in the new year.

So, if you’ve been reading here long at all, you know some of this back story, and the back story is that there’s a story…a novel, in fact…that I started before our first daughter was born. That was back when the writer in me took precedence over most everything else in my free time, and this story was something that I really wanted to tell.

I still want to tell it, but life sort of got in the way for a few years. I changed careers, I went to work for myself, we’ve moved too many times to count, we’ve had a second daughter who is now only days away from being a year old. All the while, pacing in the back of my mind like a large cat wanting free from it’s confines, has been this story, desiring to get out. I want to tell it…and other stories, as well…but the only outlet for words that I can seem to find time for is this.

Really, though, this is a symptom of the problem. Writing, at the end of the day, is the result of ideas, and one can’t have ideas if one doesn’t have time to think. Thinking often requires peace and quiet for me, or, at the very least, time to read and reflect and let my thoughts formulate into something that can become coherent. And to have ideas, I need other outlets. Every creative is this way, I think…one creative pursuit feeds another. So, the problem-solving with code that I do in my professional life does, in fact, feed my creativity because it’s a very creative pursuit, but I also need some other things, lest I begin thinking exclusively in arrays and methods with no hope of recovering any prose from the inner workings of my brain.

Knowing this as she knows everything about me, Karen surprised me with something for Christmas that I’ve been wanting for a very long time: a drum kit. It’s an electronic kit, one that I can play with headphones without disturbing children, and perfect to get myself back into practice with something that I loved years ago.

Putting the kit together was contemplative for me in an odd sort of way. In my high-school days, I could put assemble and disassemble a drum kit in my sleep, just as I was proficient in hanging lighting equipment and handling audio gear in the theatre. Lately, because my days seem to revolve around a keyboard, I have lost my patience with manually assembling things. This makes assembling a drum kit a remarkably spiritual experience in that it’s an exercise in patience-building. Who knew?


Something else that Karen and I have been discussing lately, and that sort of require assembly, are traveler’s notebooks. They have a devoted following of users, and we began watching videos from users who invest significant time and attention to customizing their notebooks with inserts and accessories. At first, I thought that this was a novelty for which I wouldn’t really have use. After all, I could count on one hand the number of times in a given week that I actually pick up a pen. The more that we considered it, however, the more attractive an idea it became. I suddenly could picture this permanent repository for my reflections, my ideas, my inspirations.

So, I opened my new traveler’s notebook this Christmas.

Analog holiday gift: a traveller's notebook

What I don’t want this to be is a materialistic thing. I’m not looking for retail therapy. I want this to be something that contributes to our (Karen is planning a traveler’s journal adventure, as well…she’s particularly enamored with bullet journaling) spiritual development.

As I wrote my first collection of ideas in the journal on the same morning that I’m writing this, I found myself slowing down. Hand-writing takes longer, after all, and the action of it seems to force a deeper consideration of the words being recorded.

So, I guess I’m shifting to a more analog way of doing things in my free time. Perhaps this was inevitable as my working life is entirely in the digital sphere. Hopefully, next year, I’ll be writing here about all of the positives that this change has brought about.

Happy New Year to you all.

Reflections from a Sugar Bowl

A little over a year ago, I inadvertently created a Saturday morning tradition of making pancakes with our daughter. It has become something that she looks forward to eagerly each weekend, despite my zombie-like state (which doesn’t break until at least after my first cup of coffee) in which I attempt to assemble what is needed for such an endeavor in the kitchen. I am not a morning person, and I have no business making food. Yet, our daughter loves this time together. So, pancakes it is.

At some point in the last year, we acquired a kitchen cart…sort of a mobile counter space on wheels that can be positioned wherever you need the extra space while cooking. On my rare adventure into the kitchen, I find it extremely useful. As our move back to New England was abrupt, we’re apartment-dwellers again for a while, and this particular piece of furniture is being used for more storage than it had previously in its lower cabinets. The end result of this is that it rolls much more sluggishly. Its wheels also tend to grind to a halt as you’re pushing it, which can result in it tipping forward if you’re not careful.

“Not careful” being synonymous with “not nearly caffeinated enough to function.”

You see where this is going, right?

Just before the crash, there was this sort of slow-motion, surreal moment in which Karen screamed and I lurched forward in an attempt to catch at least one piece of the various items that flew from their now-unstable resting place. Miraculously, we only lost one as it burst into small shards upon contact with the floor. Sadly, it was a sugar bowl that had been given to Karen by my grandmother before her death.

There are times when you feel clumsy, and times when you feel much, much more self-deprecating. Sadness doesn’t quite describe the loss of this item, now irreplaceable.

After a moment of quiet, we attended to the business of sweeping the floor and making certain that small, sharp slivers were not left lying around for children to step on, and our daughter, in her uncertain but beautifully kind-hearted way, was trying to console Karen.

“Dont’worry, Mommy.” she stated matter-of-factly. “We can always get another one on Amazon.”

Besides being disturbed by the commonplace consumerism that is already edging its way into my daughter’s mind, I’m torn a bit here, because, while I want to impress upon her the concept of an irreplaceable, valuable object, I don’t want to encourage more materialism. We are, after all, trying to trim down the toy collection, not embrace a philosophy that would add to it. I want her to appreciate things that she will be given, that she will inherit, things that may serve to remind her of us when we’re gone, as that sugar bowl reminded us of my grandmother. Not the most poignant reminder, but it made a connection. I want her to do this, though, without idealizing the item itself. In short, I want to impress the differentiation between a sign and a symbol, which is likely a bit too ambitious for a five-year-old.

You can’t blame me for trying, though.


Earlier this year, while we still lived in North Carolina, we had the adventure of a weekend power outage caused by an ice storm. While we stayed with friends who had warm living rooms for two nights, I went back home to check in on things during the day.

Our daughter has a beta fish named Charlie (For the record, I thought it was a bad idea). We tried our best to wrap his tank in towels and insulate him against the cold, but on the second day of the house hovering in the low 40’s, Charlie succumbed to the temperature. I found him floating that morning. After discussing this with Karen, we decided that we were in no way prepared to have that conversation with our daughter. So, on our first night with restored power, after we had brought in our overnight bags and the kids were in bed, I went back out to a local pet store. With much searching and assistance from the kind (but slightly bemused) girl minding the store that evening, I located a red beta that looked almost identical to Charlie, and to which Karen and I jokingly referred as “Charlie Mark II.”

Our daughter never knew the difference, and I’m content with that.

As we settled into this new apartment which will be home for a few months, I fed Charlie one night while Karen and the kids were out of town. I talked to him just as I had the first beta named Charlie, and realized that I had just connected to two, that the replacement for that tiny little creature had merged with the original in my head as though it was nothing more than a replacement phone after you’ve dropped and cracked the glass on the first.

A tiny little life, so easily replaced by a simple drive to a place of retail.

And I suddenly wonder if I’ve any place to discuss the merits of a lost sugar bowl at all.