Misanthropic Quote about Old Age

Miss Mary had been able to draw a map of the United States from memory, known the entire periodic table by heart, taught school in a one-room schoolhouse, brewed healing teas, and sold what she called fitness powders her entire life. Dime by dime, dollar by dollar, she’d put her sons through college, then put Carter through medical school. Now she wore diapers and couldn’t follow a story about gardening in the Post and Courier.

Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, p. 60

“Things Happened with Horrible Timing”

Hello everyone! To my American readers, I hope your holiday weekend was restful. I hope it went fantastic. (Mine did.)

But perhaps your holiday weekend didn’t “go fantastic.” Perhaps it went horrible.

Thanksgiving has betrayed me just enough times that I get nervous around it. I can think of three or four past Thanksgivings where there emerged, on that very weekend, a crisis of life-and-death proportions. I’m not sure why, but holidays and other non-ordinary times seem to attract these things.

In my upcoming book, The Strange Land, the tribal chief notes ruefully that moving days are subject to the same phenomenon:

Enmer had seen this time and again. If anyone was going to get sick, if anyone was going to get pregnant, if anyone was going to miscarry or commit a petty crime or simply snap under the pressure of survival, they were more likely to do it at the exact moment of transition. These in-between times [when the tribe was getting ready to move] were dangerous.

Enmer had given this a lot of thought and had concluded that though he could — and did — blame his people for their actual actions, he could not blame them for their bad timing. Things happened with horrible timing. That was the way of the world.

The Strange Land, chapter 10

I hope this Thanksgiving was kind to each of you, though. See you next time!

Neanderthals, Again

Here is an article sent to me by a helpful blog reader and friend.

To summarize, there is apparently some kind of genetic link between cuter facial features and domesticity in animals. When foxes, for example, are bred for friendly and compliant personalities, over generations their snouts get shorter, their ears floppier, their tails shorter and curlier.

The linked article suggests there might be a similar kind of genetic linkage in humans. It relies partly on a genetic study of human beings with Williams-Beuren syndrome, “a disorder linked to cognitive impairments, smaller skulls, elfinlike facial features, and extreme friendliness.”

Extrapolating from this, and using studies of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, the suggestion is that humans “domesticated ourselves” by preferring mates who were friendlier and less aggressive. As sexual selection decreased the aggressive tendencies in our species, so too the related genes determining facial features gradually made our features smaller and less coarse.

So, I have some thoughts. Bear with me, because I’m tapping this post out the night before it goes up, so it might not be the best organized or best-written.

  • I’m not going to question that even in humans, there might be some genetic linkage between elfin facial features and lack of natural aggressiveness. W-B syndrome, and Down Syndrome, both seem to suggest this. It may be that this linkage is so subtle and complex that it only becomes obvious in extreme cases, like with these syndromes. It’s similar to how there is evidence that people with fair or red hair are more likely to be “Highly Sensitive People,” highly sensitive to stimuli of all kinds including social stimuli, sound, and pain.
  • Both of these suggestions (I’m not going to call them findings because they are too complex) also dovetail with traditional stereotypes. The quick-tempered redhead, the fine-featured child who cries easily, and the “low-browed” criminal are all types that go way back. Stereotypes do not apply across the board, but they often tell us something about people’s observations of the world.
  • But that is also a danger. People, it turns out, have a strong tendency to judge others by their physical appearance. Ugly or unattractive people are interpreted through a grid that assumes they are stupid, aggressive, or unstable compared to more attractive people. I just finished reading an interview, here, with a person who explains from personal experience how we tend to interpret someone without sex appeal as a menace.
  • So if people did selectively marry in a way that weeded out Neanderthal facial features, it’s just as likely they were selecting for looks as for lack of aggression.
  • And obviously, making judgments about someone’s abilities and character based on their facial features and body shape is not only unjust, it’s usually likely to be mistaken. It would be great if we could tell everything we needed to know about someone just by looking at them, but we can’t. If we try to do so — and resist changing our opinion — we are going to be walking around with a lot of bad information. This strategy will not work well for us.
  • This should tell us that there is something missing from the thesis about smaller facial features being associated with less aggressive behavior.
  • What’s missing is the fact that human beings are human beings, not just two-legged animals. Our behavior is not just determined by whether we have genetic tendencies to aggression.
  • Rather, we are made in the image of God. Thus, we have language, an innate moral sense, and an innate need to be in a family and culture with other human beings. This, not our genetics, is what makes us “domestic.”
  • That’s why, as I have pointed out before, you will often meet people in modern times with features reminiscent of Neanderthals, and these people are neither stupid, nor aggressive, nor even particularly ugly. (I mean, just look at the Neanderthal reconstruction at the top of the linked article. Is he not adorable?)
  • Also, friendliness is not the only desirable trait in a human being. “Extreme friendliness,” particularly when coupled with cognitive impairments, will not equip a person to survive on their own in the world. What we need is natural aggressiveness, appropriately controlled and directed by our mind, moral sense, and culture. So, completely breeding aggressive tendencies out of our population would not be desirable, even if it were possible.
  • Ergo, if the Neanderthals and Denisovans were actually human beings (which I believe they were), we can assume that they were much like us in that they had aggressive tendencies, but they also had all the other standard human equipment that allowed them to control and direct these tendencies. We already know that they enjoyed seafood, intermarried with so-called “modern humans,” and made art.

OK, that’s it from me. I continue my campaign for Neanderthal Human Rights!

Now, go out there, club something, and eat it!

Oh, Absalom

Today I am posting a video of a song by the incomparable Jamie Soles.

A couple of warnings: I recommend you just listen to the audio. Don’t look at the screen, because the words pulse in a way that is likely to give you a seizure. I apologize; this was the only YouTube version of the song I could find.

Secondly: This song will make you bawl, particularly if you are a parent.

The back story goes as follows. The relationship between King David and his adult son Absalom had deteriorated badly. The story of that is also tragic, but too long to tell here. It’s in 2 Samuel 13 – 14. Eventually Absalom, having lost all respect for David, stages a coup (2 Sam. 15). David actually has to flee Jerusalem. Eventually, his men fight Absalom’s in a bloody battle in the forest. 20,000 men die (2 Sam. 18). Absalom, as he rides his mule through the woods, gets his head (possibly his long, luxuriant hair?) caught in the branches of an oak tree. His mule runs off and Absalom is left dangling there. David’s bloodthirsty general, Joab, finds him, stabs him in the heart with three javelins, and buries him unceremoniously in a pit. (2 Sam. 18:6 – 17) This even though David, who at first had wanted to go out himself into the battle, had instructed his generals, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom for my sake.”

Word comes to David that Absalom is dead before his victorious army returns to the city. When they come back, they can hear David in the small room over the city gate (the “judgment seat”), weeply loudly and saying over and over again, “Oh, Absalom, my son, my son, if only I had died instead of you!” The army sneaks into the city in shame, like defeated men.

Joab goes up into the room and berates David for not honoring his soldiers. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that … you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead.” (2 Sam. 19:6)

This is not true, of course. No way this situation could have gone would have made David happy. But Joab just doesn’t get it.

I kind of hate that this story is in the Bible, because I wish the whole thing had never happened. It’s one of those slo-mo tragedies where, just when you think that every single thing has already gone wrong, the situation unspools some dismaying new tentacle of horror.

On the other hand, given that it did happen, I am glad this story is in the Bible. Clearly, this is not some slappy-happy, naive, “everything-will-be-great-if-we-all-just-believe-in-our-hearts” kind of document. This document was written by and for people who live in the actual world, where each of us, by the time we are adults, has witnessed or experienced this very kind of thing: complicated, tragic, stupid, seems like it could have been prevented at any point along the way. God is aware of these situations and of how stupid and futile and tragic they are. He is a God for people who find themselves in those situations.

Ahem. OK, sermon over. I guess I got carried away. Here’s the song.

GKC Quote on Cave People

To-day all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with allusions to a popular character called a Cave-Man. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about …

In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what he did in the cave. What was found in the cave was not the horrible, gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. [It was] drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. [I]t would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist.

When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (orig. ed. published 1925), pp. 27 – 30

I Just Stayed Up Late Reading this Horror Story … Oh, Wait, It’s Real

Many people have trouble loving their bodies. Not everyone struggles with this, but many do. “The outside does not match the inside.” We are given a body, and our body continues to be a stubborn fact that cannot be overlooked, and as we grow our body continues presenting us with a steady stream of stubborn facts about what sort of person we were designed to be.

So naturally, I figured Love Thy Body was going to be a healing, affirming sort of book that helps readers along the road to accepting and even celebrating the set of stubborn facts that is our particular body.

And I guess it could still do that, but you’d have to dig deep. Because mostly what this book is, is a terrifying ride through a dystopian nightmare not terribly different from Brave New World, except this one is true and is happening to us. I started to binge on this book (late at night, appropriately), but finally I couldn’t take it any more and had to start skimming. I really can’t think of a scarier book to present you with, as we approach Hallowe’en.

The two-story divide

The author, Nancy Pearcey, who is described on the jacket (and, apparently, by The Economist) as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual,” dives right in to the philosophical developments that have served to sever human beings from their bodies. This divide goes all the way back to ancient Greek (and also Hindu) contempt for the material world and veneration of the spiritual or intellectual world. The Greeks actually taught that the creation of the physical universe was a huge mistake and was carried out by a lesser, evil, deity.

This philosophy has been with us, waxing and waning, ever since and has led to all kinds of dichotomies that even today dominate most people’s thinking:

  • Values vs. Facts
  • Morality vs. Science
  • Postmodernism vs. Modernism
  • Sacred vs. Secular

Each of these dichotomies can be diagrammed using the same “two-story” image. The immaterial thing is on top. The physical, or “real,” thing is on the bottom. The first “story” of the house (Science, say) is furnished with public, verifiable facts that anyone can access. The second story is home to all the immaterial stuff. In some of these dichotomies, the lower story is considered superior (facts; science). Some people even consider the lower story to be the only one that really exists. Thus, we are encouraged to keep our upper story “private” and not impose it on others. In other dichotomies, the upper story is given more importance. For example, in the evangelical world, “sacred” jobs are considered more spiritual than “secular” ones and this is supposed to be a good thing. Postmodernism, with its suspicion of materialism and reason, was a reaction against Modernism, which considered physical objects and reason to be all that existed; and, not surprisingly, was felt by the Postmodernists to be dehumanizing. The Postmodernists were right to stop devaluing the immaterial, but unfortunately they went in the direction of rejecting the entire lower story, leaving the sharp dividing wall in place.

The problem for human beings with this sharp divide between spirit and matter is that is splits us right in two. We are embodied spirits. But the prevailing philosophy of the last several centuries has tried to tell us that our bodies are not, in fact, really us. They are just a tool we manipulate, a machine that we drive. Our spirits are the “real” us.

I’ve never liked the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” It is supposed to describe what a human being is, but instead of capturing what it feels like to be a human being with a body, it does the opposite. It gives a spooky, lonely feeling. I imagine the poor ghost wandering the circuits of the computer, unable to make it do anything.

And that is the effect of splitting people off from their bodies. You make the spirit a mere ghost and the body a mere machine, and suddenly they can barely even influence each other.

This is “Personhood Theory,” and it is the foundation for all the horrors in the rest of the book. Personhood theory, like a good dichotomy, shows the Person in the upper story and the Body in the lower story (diagram on page 19). The Person has legal and moral standing, but unfortunately, according to personhood theory, just because you have a body doesn’t necessarily mean you are a person.

You must earn the right to live and/or have children

The most obvious example of beings who are inarguably biologically human, but yet are not considered to be persons, in our modern society are unborn babies.

“By sheer logic, in accepting abortion, we implicitly adopt some form of body/person dualism, even if we do not use those terms. Out actions can imply ideas that we have not clearly thought through. Of course, when people are making a decision about whether to have an abortion, their choice is often based on personal reasons … In discussing personhood theory, however, we are not talking about people’s personal reasons but about the logic inherent in supporting abortion.” (page 52)

“The most obvious problem for [personhood] theory is that no one can agree on how to define personhood. If it is not equated with being biologically human, then what is it? And when does it begin? Every bioethicist has a different answer. Fletcher proposes fifteen qualities to determine when human life is worthy of respect and protection (such as intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, concern for others, communication, curiosity, and neocortical function).” (page 53)

It should be obvious that this is a very, very slippery slope. I am sure that, as you read Fletcher’s list, examples sprang to your mind of adults who seem to lack these qualities in greater or lesser measure. It would be funny if this wasn’t a life-and-death topic. Obviously, these qualities are not present (as far as we can tell … and, honestly, how the hell would we know?), in newborns. Thus, bioethicists (and was there ever a more ironic job description?) are already deciding that newborns do not make the cut. Waston & Crick feel that newborns should not be “declared human” for three days after birth because some genetic conditions do not show up until then. So-called bioethicist (and the irony deepens each time I type that word) Peter Singer says “a three-year-old is a grey case.” (page 54)

But the difficulties in earning their humanity presented to babies and toddlers are just the tip of the iceberg. Qualities like self-awareness and a sense of time can be lost to conditions like dementia, brain injury, severe mental illness, and the list goes on. If someone who has previously been acknowledged as a person loses these qualities, does it then become moral to kill them? Personhood theory presents no logical impediment to their being “declared” nonpersons by whatever authority once declared them persons in the first place.

The qualification that is most frightening to me is “intelligence.” What the heck does that mean? Who determines it? When I read excerpts from eugenicist Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), I get the impression that her ideal society would give everyone an IQ test and sterilize, not just the lowest scorers, but everyone who scored average or below. Every time, I can’t help but wonder whether I would meet her criteria for sufficient intelligence to be allowed to reproduce. Probably not … after all, how intelligent could I be when there are several major points on which I disagree with Margaret Sanger?

You don’t get to say what kind of being you are

Once we have thoroughly severed personhood (upper story) from the body (lower story), it follows that our body is not at all a part of who we “really” are (the only “real” things being the upper story — our experience, thoughts, and feelings). This concept is applied consistently by the transgender narrative, which “completely dissociates gender from biological sex” (p. 197).

Because the trans narrative insists that the body does not matter — that it is not the “the real you” — some transgender people do not even bother to change their bodily appearance. A friend introduced me to a local musician who identifies as genderqueer. He appears completely masculine except that he wears eyeliner and sometimes a woman’s blouse or skirt. Yet he insists on being referred to as “she” and her.”

Ibid, p. 200

This man is not pushing the envelope. He is a person who sees clearly the logical implications of the trans world view and is following them (almost) all the way to their conclusion.

(And, by the way, that’s convenient for him, because one of the lousiest things about being a biological woman is female hormones, and I think it’s a little unfair that a person should be able to call himself a woman and not experience the joys of those, but I digress.)

“So,” you say, “What’s the problem? It’s all about personal choice. The individual should not be bound — repressed — oppressed — by his or her body and society’s response to that body.”

Pearcey understands the emotional appeal of this motivation:

The goal is complete freedom to declare oneself a man or a woman or both or neither.

The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — even its own body.

Ibid, p. 210

Of course, having a body, having that body be an important part of your identity, and being among other people who have a certain response to the total package … all of these are important elements of what it means, and has always meant, to be human. But no matter. Individuals may fairly say that they don’t like what it is to be human, that it is a rotten experience, and that they think they have figured out how to fix it by completely denying the reality of their bodies. Onward! How can this be a problem for anyone who values individual autonomy?

The problem arises thusly. By seizing the ability to declare ourselves whatever we may want to be, we have created an awesome new power. And awesome new powers seldom remain diffuse, in the hands of every individual. When an awesome new power arises, so will a supervillain to try and monopolize it.

These legal changes [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws] do not affect only homosexual or transgender people. In the eyes of the law, no one has a natural or biological sex now; all citizens are defined not by their bodies but by their inner states and feelings. Your basic identity … no longer follows metaphysically from your body but must be determined by an act of will.

But whose will? Ultimately, it will come down to who has the most power — which means the state. “It does not matter what you or I mean by the word ‘gender,’ explains Daniel Moody. “The only opinion that counts is that of the state … In law, our gender identity is defined without reference to our body.”

By rejecting the biological basis of gender identity, SOGI laws empower the state to define everyone’s identity.

Ibid, p. 214

If that’s not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.

If the state can legally declare a man to be a woman because he says he is, it could, in theory, legally come to my house and declare me not a woman, even though I’ve borne three children.

“Oh, come on. No one is going to do that.”

It is already happening. Not to me personally, but to much more vulnerable people.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the case in Texas where a father and mother are locked in a custody battle over their school-aged son. The mother insists the son is transgender, though he seems perfectly happy to identify as a boy when he’s with his dad. The courts have, so far, sided with the mother. This is just so tragic I don’t know where to start … but the big question is, In what sense is the little boy in this story making any kind of choice at all?

There are no such things as mothers and fathers

Until now, the family was seen as natural and pre-political, with natural rights. That means it existed prior to the state, and the state merely recognized its rights. But if the law no longer recognizes natural sex, then it no longer recognizes natural families or natural parents, only legal parents. That means parents have no natural rights, only legal rights. You, as a mother or father, have only the rights the state chooses to grant you.

Ibid, p. 213

This, of course, is a tyrant’s dream.

I am sure you have heard people make serious arguments along these lines: “Some people should not be allowed to have children” (by whom?); “There is no such thing as other people’s children”; “It takes a village to raise a child.” (I agree with that last one, but only when the village is an organic social unit, made up of lots of nuclear and extended families. When Hillary Clinton says “a village,” the village she has in mind is the national government.)

The people making these arguments wish to build a society-wide utopia. In other words, they are budding totalitarians.

The ideology of choice [being the only determining factor in forming a family] has ominous political implications. For if children must be chosen, if they do not belong to their biological parents as gifts from God, to whom do they belong? Answer: the state. If you read scholars like Ted Peters carefully, you consistently find statism lurking as an underlying assumption. In one passage, Peters writes, “Society places its children in the care of rearing parents as a trust.”

Stop right there: Society gives us children? Society gives us its children? This view reduces both parents and children to atomistic dependents on the state.

The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century all sought tight state control of education, down to the earliest years, to inculcate unquestioning acceptance of the regime’s ideology.

History shows clearly that when biological bonds are downplayed in favor of choice, individuals end up forfeiting choice to the state. Demanding freedom from natural relationships means losing freedom to the state.

Ibid, p. 231

I would have to call that an unexpected outcome, wouldn’t you?

Yes, some natural families do really stink to grow up in.

All bureaucratic group homes for children would stink to grow up in.

Now that Pearcey has pointed this out, though, I can see this theme of a totalitarian utopian state undermining natural family bonds in all kinds of dystopias. Brave New World is the most obvious, where people are encouraged to sleep around, babies are grown in a lab, and the terms mother and father are considered obscene. But there is also The Giver, the YA book by Lois Lowry, in which babies are assigned handpicked parents after they leave their “birth mother” (which is a low-status role in their society … sound familiar?), and babies who are not thriving are euthanized.

This theme even surfaces in 1984. In that book, Winston’s neighbor is a rather simple-minded man who is enthusiastically in support of the Party. When Winston ends up in the Ministry of Love, there to be re-educated (sound familiar?), he is shocked to see his neighbor also there. The man has been turned in by his children, who claimed that in his sleep he would mutter, “Down with Big Brother.”

So, yeah, I recognize this theme from dystopian literature. I just didn’t realize, until I read this book, that legally and philosophically we were quite so far down that road.

Scary Things: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil

They are distinct and should not all be collapsed into the category of Resistance.

Today, we will be responding to this book: The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.

It’s the one on the left.

I mentioned TWOA in another post on writing-related books. Later, The Orangutan Librarian hilariously dressed the book down in her review. Today, I will get into the book’s flaws (which bothered me but not as much as they bothered her), and that discussion will lead us to talking about some entities that are definitely scary, namely the three baddies of this post’s title.

The War of Art started out swimmingly

Pressfield starts out discussing how, whenever people go to follow their calling, they experience something called Resistance. He mentions endeavors like starting a business, parenting, charitable work, or “taking any principled stand in the face of adversity” as activities that evoke Resistance, but if you read the rest of the book, it’s clear that the main type of calling he has in mind is becoming a writer or an artist. I frankly think this narrow focus is more helpful, because with some activities (such as parenting or fighting evil), the reasons that people run into difficulties are obvious and expected. This is not the case with, say, landscape painting or novel writing. Those look easy until you try to do them, and there is no obvious reason why a person who has talent in these areas should find life grindingly difficult while pursuing them.

Yet, they do.

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work. (p.7)

Resistance is not out to get you personally. It doesn’t know who you are and it doesn’t care. Resistance is a force of nature. It acts objectively. Though it feels malevolent, Resistance in fact operates with the indifference of rain and transits the heavens by the same laws as the stars. (p.11)

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. (p.12)

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. The professional must be alert for this counterattack. Be wary at the end. (p.18)

What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point the vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. (p.31)

Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. (p.42)

quotes from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

All of this is perfectly true and I think it’s a fantastic description. I’ll bet that everyone reading has had these experiences a short way in to a new enterprise. Besides writing, people commonly describe this kind of phenomenon coming midway through a weight-loss regimen, or hitting a few weeks in to their attempt to live in another country. If you haven’t experienced this stuff, I guarantee you’ve read a memoir or watched a documentary about someone who has.

Then it starts to trivialize Resistance … and everything else

It isn’t long, however, before TWOA’s diagnosis of our troubles starts to go a little bit off the rails:

Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. “Peripheral opponents,” as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within. (p.8)

Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and conquer Resistance. (p.16)

Ibid

Well, OK, that is partly true. Resistance as fear, self-sabotage, rationalization and procrastination is a very important part of the picture. That even may be its main characteristic in many cases. (More about this in a sec.) But, for someone who appeared to be taking Resistance so seriously as a real force, I’m a little disappointed that Pressfield is locating it entirely inside ourselves. And this problem is going to get worse, when the book goes way off the rails:

We get ourselves into trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. Ill health is a form of trouble, as are alcoholism and drug addiction, all neurosis including compulsive screwing up, jealousy, chronic lateness … (p.24)

Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record? Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization. If the level of drama drops below a certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets drunk, Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an Oakland Raiders tattoo. It’s more fun than a movie. And it works: nobody gets a damn thing done. (p.25)

Ibid

OK, this is bad enough. Pressfield has just attributed every one of our character flaws, as well as family drama (which, let me note, is other peoples’ behavior) to Resistance. But, surely, this can’t all be the same thing as the psychological phenomenon where we get scared and antsy when we start to succeed in our creative work, can it? Surely, this is too broad?

But then, he really lost me:

Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re self-dramatizing. The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s existence. An illness, a cross to bear … Some people go from condition to condition … The condition becomes a work of art in itself … A victim act is a form of passive aggression.

The War of Art. p.27

OK.

This paragraph was obviously written by someone who has never had a real, serious health problem.

“Doctors” estimate this, do they? First of all … I doubt it. Secondly, “doctors” tend to be fairly healthy themselves (or they wouldn’t have made it through medical school). Yes, they can tend to disbelieve people about their own condition. Many people with rare or hard-to-diagnose conditions, such as Lyme Disease, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, obesity, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic pain, or less-typical forms of any disease, have horror stories of how hard it was to get a diagnosis or even get their complaints taken seriously. I’ll bet you know at least one such person whom you could name right off the top of your head. I’ll bet that with a little thinking, you could come up with more names.

So let’s dispense with this nonsense.

If buckling down to your calling was all it took to cure a host of chronic conditions, I assure you, Mr. Pressfield, people would do it.

So, then, does Resistance mean anything at all?

Pressfield has just completely discredited his own thesis by attributing to Resistance literally every bad thing that happens to anyone, whether or not they caused it. It tempting, at this point, to chuck the book contemptuously over our shoulder and be done with it. That is exactly what The Orangutan Librarian did, and I can’t blame her.

But this created some serious cognitive dissonance in me, because there are passages in this book that I don’t want to chuck out. For the first several pages, it seemed to me that Pressfield was describing a real phenomenon, and describing it better than I’ve heard it described before.

So what’s going on here? How can these two things coexist?

Resistance Means Three Things

The problem, revealed in the second half of the book, is that Pressfield is a Jungian. This means, as far as I can tell, that in his world view, all of the important stuff happens inside the person, in our internal world. In fact, your mind and subconscious might be the location not just of the only important stuff, but of all the stuff. The outside world, basically, doesn’t exist at all.

Any world view that takes this as its postulate is naturally going to lose some explanatory power.

Yes, the mind is real, but it’s not the only real thing. The world exists. Physical stuff exists. Other selves exist. Furthermore, it’s a fallen world, and so, sometimes, bad stuff is going to happen that has its origin in that fallen, hybrid-spiritual-and-physical world, and not on our own almighty psyches.

Christianity, by the way, does a great job of this. Full disclosure, I’m a Christian. One thing that gives the Judeo-Christian world view its awesome explanatory power is that it takes seriously both mind and body. What Pressfield calls Resistance (and is forced, by his world view, to locate entirely inside the sufferer), Christianity breaks out into three things: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil.

The World

You may have noticed that Pressfield starts out by saying that we tend to locate Resistance in our spouses, bosses, etc., but that it’s actually internal. But then later, he mentions that “entire families” will help each other engage in Resistance. Elsewhere he talks about how people will try to sabotage each other’s hard work and success. And he mentions that there are entire industries that make money off distracting people from their duties.

So perhaps other people, and the greater culture, do have some effect on us after all.

Of course they do. This is what theologians call The World. In extreme cases, other people’s sin can stop us in our tracks, completely crushing our ability to focus on anything else, either temporarily or long-term (though not, thankfully, eternally). Examples of this would be an abusive parent, spouse, boss, or (in the ancient world) mistress or master; rape, mobs, warfare, and associated atrocities. All of these things are aspects of the world being fallen. They are not the fault of person they happen to, but they can certainly knock the person off-track from any other calling they might have had, forcing them to deal with the atrocity instead.

Because we live in physical bodies in a physical world, populated by other selves, and because that world is fallen, it is therefore possible (and, indeed, common) that bad things happen to us that do not have their source in us. Go and read the book of Job. It is absolutely not true that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

The Flesh

The phenomenon that Pressfield does such a great job describing, before he gets off-track, is what used to be called The Flesh. This means our own character, with all its temptations, vices, fears, flaws, and weaknesses. Often, we need nothing more than this to cause us to crash after we have started out doing well. I’m not going to spend as much space on this one, because it is described pretty well above and because it’s the challenge that most of us are probably the most familiar with. The Flesh is, indeed, a formidable foe. Conquering it might not be a sufficient condition for success in our calling, but it’s certainly a necessary one.

The Devil

Now we get to the scariest of the troika, and also the most controversial. This post has already turned into a really long rant, so I’m not going to make a bunch of theological arguments that the devil exists. I’ll just explain the relationship that he bears, in my thinking, to Resistance.

Pressfield describes Resistance as a force that is:

  • real
  • malevolent, yet impersonal
  • dedicated to keeping people from “evolving their soul” – i.e. becoming productive, courageous, and virtuous
  • spiritual: invisible, non-physical

Clearly, this is an exact description of Satan as he appears in traditional Christianity.

Unfortunately, Pressfield’s world view doesn’t allow for the existence of an invisible, but real, spiritual entity that is not just the artist’s shadow side or something like that. So, having personified Resistance to such vivid effect, he is then forced to back off and explain that it has no reality outside ourselves, really. Because he’s Jungian, this doesn’t register as a problem, because all of the universe is inside ourselves. But, I find it unsatisfying.

I think Pressfield was describing more than he knew.

Why is Resistance “protean,” deceptive, “always lying and always full of shit”? (p.9) Because the devil is a liar.

Why is Resistance always perfectly timed to interfere with our work? We live in a fallen world, where pipes burst, bacon burns, where people get sick and have family drama. But why do these things seem to happen, not at random, but perfectly timed to interfere with us doing good things (shortly after we begin a new enterprise, or when the finish line is in sight)?

Andrew Klavan says that shortly after he finished the first draft of Another Kingdom, his house suffered an invasion of caterpillars. Every time he hit another milestone with the project, something “dreadful” would happen.

You can’t tell me that caterpillars coming into your house is caused by your subconscious desire to create drama. Neither is your toilet flooding, your car breaking down, your aging parent taking a fall, or, say … a plague hitting the nation.

No, I’m not saying that all of these things are the devil directly trying to sabotage you. At least, I don’t think so. Again, we live in a fallen world and sometimes stuff just happens. But sometimes, I have to say, the timing is extremely suspicious. And I am not just making this stuff up. In the New Testament, Satan is clearly credited with sometimes causing sickness. Ironically, believing that comes out sounding a lot more humane than “70 – 80% of people with symptoms aren’t really sick.”

In the video below, Andrew Klavan talks about Another Kingdom. At 7:03 he tells the caterpillar story.

This, Too, Is the Reader I Write For

People say that food is the good girl’s drug. But now I realize it was just one particularly cheap and sticky strain of my real drug of choice: distraction.

When I was a little kid, it just meant that I was daydreamy, or imaginative, running around performing whole musicals and movie scenes for the cat. When I grew up into a voracious reader, then great! Who would discourage a twelve-year-old from rereading The Catcher in the Rye? In high school, I was a devoted theater student, and in college I was serious about film study.

All that was true. Then there’s the truer version.

I wasn’t just rereading The Catcher in the Rye. I was rereading everything, constantly: in the car on the way to school, at recess, waiting for Karen to pick me up, and then all the way home. … Those teenaged nights I spent alone in my dorm singing along to CDs weren’t just about musical appreciation. They were about not being there, not being me. I was long gone, deep in my head, buried in the drama of “Someone Else’s Story” (from the original Broadway cast recording of Chess).

Kelsey Miller, Big Girl, pp. 210 – 211

So, guys, this was absolutely me when I was a kid as well, minus the musical talent. I can identify with wanting to immerse yourself in someone else’s story … and I don’t think it’s always a bad thing. Especially for kids, it’s a way to quickly learn a lot about the world. And, frankly, I can’t imagine anyone becoming a voracious reader without this hunger. I strive to make my books an immersive experience for the reader. Surely, without that, reading would be boring?

I do understand that reading can be used as form of escapism. In Miller’s case, her distraction addiction was so extreme that she realized it was becoming a major obstacle to her personal growth. After discovering mindful eating, she began to train herself in mindful walking to the subway without a podcast, and in mindful being in her apartment without the TV on every second. I get that.

But I have two things to say about books as a distraction.

One, sometimes we do need to escape from our troubles. This is true especially when we are kids and have few other outlets or coping mechanisms, but also at other times when we need to rest and re-group. I am reminded of a (possibly apocryphal?) Internet quote about how the author has a responsibility to entertain because readers are people sitting on busses and in hospital waiting rooms.

Secondly. The engrossing book that is an escape from reality, can also be a secret tunnel back into reality. You can “escape” into C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, or his Space Trilogy, but you will come out the other side with a renewed desire to face your own fears and responsibilities. And if you don’t actually emerge with the hope that there is an Aslan who could help you in this process, you will certainly, fervently wish there was one … which, as Lewis would say, is the first stage in Joy.

That’s what I hope my books will be. An immersive, entertaining experience that, while you’re not looking, also opens your eyes to aspects of the world that you had not considered before.

What do you guys think? Is it always wrong to use books and other media as escapism? Do kids have more leeway to do this than adults? At what point does voracious reading become pathological? And who gets to say?

A Quote from a “Big Girl”

Life on a diet is linear. You begin, you lose weight, and you’re done. Then it’s on to the mythical “maintenance” mode (which is also dieting, but for eternity. Congratulations?).

We call fat people lazy. They’re not. Fat people are zealous. They will cleave and push and fight harder than anyone. No one works harder on anything than a fat person works on a diet they believe will make them thin. They’re not stupid, either… At eighteen, I could have written a thesis on calorie content and ketones and insoluble fiber, in iambic pentameter if you wanted. They’re not fat for lack of knowledge or effort. Some fat people become fat for a reason (medical, emotional, environmental). Others were simply born to be larger than you might like them to be. But all those chronic fat dieters are fatter for the dieting.

Kelsey, Miller, “Big Girl,” pp. 18, 83

Bearing a Burden: the INFP

Just so you know up front, this post is going to talk about a Meyers-Briggs personality type, and also rely on the reader having some background knowledge of The Lord of the Rings.

Now that I’ve weeded out 90% of readers, let’s proceed.

The Meyers-Briggs Typology

The Meyers-Briggs (MBTI) is a personality typology that describes people’s preferences on how to process information and make decisions. People can be Extraverted or Introverted (E vs. I); Intuitive or Sensing (N vs. S); Thinking or Feeling (T vs. F), and Perceiving vs. Judging (P vs. J). I’ve discussed elsewhere the limitations of these binaries. Some people fall right in the middle between two of the preferences, for example, and the four MBTI preferences don’t tell everything about a person’s personality. That said, I still find the typology interesting and useful. In an earlier post, I discussed the ESTP, who is often the disruptive force in the story. Today, I’m going to discuss a much more passive type, the INFP, who is almost the ESTP’s opposite.

Frodo as an example of the INFP

When I say the INFP is “passive,” that’s not a slam. I’m an INFP myself.

The INFP is Introverted. This means that he or she has a rich inner life, and draws his/her energy from within. Interacting with the outer world drains him. (Extraverts get their energy from the outer world.) Many of the strongest characters in The Lord of the Rings are Introverted, from which we can guess that J.R.R. Tolkien probably was as well. That’s not surprising, given that he was a professor who created, just for fun, several languages and an elaborate world with its own history and mythology. Introverts are less than 50% of the population, but they are overrepresented in literature because so many authors are Introverts.

As an NF (Intuitive and Feeling), the INFP is very sensitive to the feelings of those around him. He or she cares a lot about all relationships being harmonious at all times. Conflict of any kind stresses the INFP out to a greater degree than other types. This can mean the that INFP will unhealthily say or do anything to avoid conflict. The up side is that the INFP wants to have a good relationship with, and believes that he can reach, anyone. Exhibit A is Frodo’s ability to understand and even win the loyalty of Gollum.

INFPs are not quick to thrust themselves forward, take leadership, or take the initiative. They don’t want to do a task until they feel they understand it and can do it well. Mistakes are an unacceptably high cost when you can’t tolerate any damage to any relationship (read: criticism).

As a not very quick, ambitious, or assertive type, the INFP can often appear to be contributing nothing to the group.

This is really apparent when we look at Frodo’s role in the Ring saga. He delays a long time leaving on his quest and needs a push from his friends. Once he does set out, he spends all three books getting into hot water and getting rescued by people who are more powerful, capable, or (in the case of Sam) harder working. Like the other hobbits (but even more so), for about the first half of the adventure Frodo appears to be almost a pure taker. In fact, some of the most famous scenes in LOTR involve someone literally carrying him: the humans carrying the hobbits down out of the snow drifts on Carhadras. Aragorn running out of Moria with Frodo in his arms after Frodo gets speared by an orc. Sam carrying Frodo up Mt. Doom.

What is this guy good for, anyway?

Of course, as we all know, Frodo is weak and passive not just because of his personality but because he is in fact carrying a heavy, but unseen, burden: the Ring. It’s a spiritual burden that occupies his mind, allows him to see what others can’t, and exposes him to terrors. It also, more and more as the story goes on, saps his strength. He may not appear to be contributing anything, but he is doing real work for the group, though that work is hard to quantify.

Tolkien makes it so that the work Frodo does, bearing his burden, is obvious to the reader and is also clear to, and appreciated by, the rest of the Fellowship. Most people don’t read The Lord of the Rings and come away saying, “I don’t see what the big deal was about Frodo. He didn’t do anything.”

Non-Frodo INFPs also bear a burden. They bear the burden of their worry about every single person and relationship they are aware of, and of their ability to take personally everything that happens in the world. Of course, the nature of this burden varies with the maturity of the INFP. When immature, our burden is self-absorbed in nature. We want everyone to like us, we want never to be criticized. But as we mature, this can move on to becoming genuine concern for the well-being of all the people whose existence we know of.

This is a heavy burden indeed. When news travels around the world in seconds, no problem or tragedy can fail to come to the attention of the INFP. An INFP who really takes every human tragedy to heart will be too overwhelmed. Only one Man (who, in my opinion, was the perfect example of all the Meyers-Briggs types) is capable of bearing the sins of the world. As an INFP of a certain age, I have had to master the skill of consciously setting things aside as not my problem to worry about so that I can function.

Still, even if we limit the INFP’s burden to the sins and sorrows of the people in his or her immediate circle, that’s a lot. If you know an INFP (and you are not one), they are probably thinking about all of this stuff a lot more than you are. They are expending a lot of mental energy on it. That may be why they need so much sleep. If they are a Christian INFP, they are no doubt also wrestling in prayer for you and for everyone in their circle.

Bearing a burden.