Carrying One’s Cross

In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, it says:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life? Or what can anyone offer in exchange for his life?”

Carrying one’s cross is a common expression, though it’s often treated as an atypical thing. People talk about something troublesome as “a cross they must bear”. But I think that there are two things to note about the above passage in this regard.

The first is that carrying one’s cross is a prerequisite of discipleship. That is, carrying one’s cross is normal. Or, in other words, suffering, in this fallen world, is normal.

There was a Twitter conversation I was in, recently, where an aquaintance who goes by the nom-de-plume of Brometheus was pointing out that a lot of people are afraid of having children because they’ve been taught that “having children is a miserable experience, a thankless martyrdom of bleak misery and self-denial.”

There is much that can be said about this arising from misguided attempts to get people to avoid fornication, such as by having to “care” for robot babies whose programming is to be a periodic nuisance, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, I just want to point out that having child is actually a miserable experience, an occasionally-thanked martyrdom of joyful misery and self-denial. Or in other words, it’s good work.

All good work involves suffering and self-denial; it involves this because we are imperfect. We do the wrong thing, at the wrong time; quite often for the wrong reasons. And being a parent quite often involves having to do the right thing at the right time, and if at all possible, for the right reasons. To a creature with unhelpful inclinations, that involves suffering.

And that’s OK. Everything worthwhile involves suffering, because worthwhile things make the world better, and that hurts in a world that’s flawed. Or in other words, if you want to be Jesus’ disciple, you have to renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow him.

The problem is not that people think that having children involves suffering and self denial. It’s that they think it’s bad that it involves suffering and self-denial. The problem is that they want to put down their cross and follow the path of least resistance.

The other thing to note about the passage above is that people often talk about it like life gets more comfortable when it’s finally time to put down your cross. Perhaps it’s because execution by crucifixion is no longer practiced in the western world.

Something to remember is that if it’s your cross that you’re carrying, when you finally get to put it down the next thing that happens is that the Romans nail you to it, then hoist you up to die.

It’s not the full story, but there’s a lot of wisdom to those lines, from the Dread Pirate Roberts to Princess Buttercup, in The Princess Bride:

Life is suffering, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Solzhenitsyn: Because Men Forgot God

“Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’

Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval.

But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

You can also watch the video on YouTube:

Thoughts From an Aging Sex Symbol

One of my better videos, now two years old, is Satanic Banality:

In it, I mention that celebrities can only sell the image of the bad life turning out well for a while, and when they wise up they lose their relevance. Which reminded me of this article by Raquel Welch, back in 2010. As the kids would say, here’s the nut graf:

Seriously, folks, if an aging sex symbol like me starts waving the red flag of caution over how low moral standards have plummeted, you know it’s gotta be pretty bad. In fact, it’s precisely because of the sexy image I’ve had that it’s important for me to speak up and say: Come on girls! Time to pull up our socks! We’re capable of so much better.

But in 2010, so far as I can tell, Raquel Welch no longer had any influence, so it didn’t matter. That’s the resilience of an engine which feeds on ignorance and spits out wiser people as spent fuel. When they were ignorant, the machine gave them their power. Once spit out, their knowledge is powerless.

(Except in individual cases; saving souls tends to be a personal business, not done over television screens.)

The First Mary Sue

The first Mary Sue was a character in a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, published in the fanzine Menagerie in 1973. (Fanzines were magazines, often distributed by photocopying them and handing out the results but always made cheaply and without advertiser sponsorship, typically given away for free or a nominal charge to cover the cost of printing.) The parody was called A Trekkie’s Tale. It’s only a few paragraphs long, so I’ll quote it in full:

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?” “Captain! I am not that kind of girl!” “You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.” Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?” “The Captain told me to.” “Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

The story was originally attributed to “Anonymous” but is known to be the word of the editor, Paula Smith. The basic story was a common submission; as such it’s a collection of common features, exaggerated. It’s very interesting to look at those features.

  1. Main character is a teenage girl.
  2. She’s beautiful and wonderful.
  3. Everyone loves her.
  4. She dies and everyone laments her death.

The standard meaning of “Mary Sue,” used as a criticism of a character in a work of fiction, is to impute that a character is an authorial stand-in for the purpose of wish fulfillment. And while the original Mary Sue is an author stand-in, the story is actually more of a Greek tragedy. Mary Sue is initially blessed by the gods, but when she tries to climb Mount Olympus she is cast down and destroyed.

Among the criticisms heaped on the Mary Sue character is that her excellence is always unearned. She appears out of nowhere in fully formed perfection and everyone loves her just for being her. This is generally derided as being horribly unrealistic.

And it is.

For men.

It should not be glossed over that Mary Sue stories are written by teenage girls about themselves. If Mary Sue is realistic to teenage girls, it would be utterly unsurprising that she would be unrealistic to adult men. So, is she realistic to teenage girls?

And here I think that the answer is: yes, actually.

The onset of puberty in a girl does come from nowhere, and transforms her into something beautiful and wonderful, that is, an adult woman capable of bearing children. And everyone loves her, at least if by “everyone”, you mean males, and by “love,” you mean “is interested in”.

A newly adult female is bursting with potential and, as such, everyone is (suddenly) very interested in her and what she does with this potential. It’s not always as benign and comfortable as in the Mary Sue story, of course, but life rarely is as comfortable as fiction.

And if we look further at the inspiration for Mary Sue, we also see why she had to die. Potential cannot last forever in this world. If Mary Sue does not choose a mate, she will eventually hit menopause and cease to have any potential (in the relevant sense; she might still have potential in a thousand other ways, of course, but an allegory only ever describes one aspect of life). If she does choose a mate, she will have children and her potential will be reduced by turning into actuality. But actuality is, in a fallen world, never as interesting as potential; Mary Sue with children does not excite the universal interest which Mary Sue without children did. (In a healthy society she excites respect, instead, but that’s a topic for another day.)

And so it must be that, not long after Mary Sue is blessed by the gods, she is cast down by them, too; Mary Sue cannot remain universally loved for long.

The story of Mary Sue leaves off at the most important part, since after all it was a parody, but it is worth mentioning the fact. That the first flower of youth cannot last is something all people must come to terms with. For some, they will foreswear actuality for some other actuality, as in the case of nuns, who cover themselves to hide their potential so people may forget it. For others, they will give up their potential by trading it for actuality; an actuality which is flawed because we live in a flawed world, but still a real actuality that’s better than the nothingness of pure potentiality.

They both require faith, but all good things require faith. Trying to remain in potentiality is trying to eat one’s cake and still have it afterwards. It promises happiness that it will never deliver.

I think it’s well to remember that the story of Mary Sue is only a bad story if it’s the story of a man, or an adult woman. Though that remains true even if a young woman is cast in the part.

Why Consequentialists See Only Shades of Grey

There’s an infuriating thing which consequentialists do where they say that life is never black and white, it’s all shades of grey. For a long time I thought that this was just because they wanted to be evil without being caught, and were trying to disguise it. This may still be the case, but I realized that this is actually inherent in their position.

Consequentialism means judging an action as good or evil not by principles—i.e. not by what the action is—but only by the consequences of the action. To a consequentialist it doesn’t mean anything to say “it is impermissible to do evil that good may result” since, according to their moral theory, if good results, it wasn’t evil that you did. So rape, treason, murder, etc. are all to be judged on the basis of whatever good or evil comes out of them, not on whether they are intrinsically evil.

There is a problem with consequentialism, which is that one cannot foresee all the consequences to an action. In fact, one cannot foresee most of the consequences to an action. In fact, people often have trouble foreseeing even the very immediate consequences to their actions. This makes consequentialism impossible for a human being to actually evaluate, rendering it completely useless as a moral theory.

(As a side-note, consequentialism and principalism are identical in God, since he both knows all of the effects of all actions and created the world such that the consequences of principled actions are good. Consequentialism is completely un-evaluatable for anyone who is not God, however.)

But, while this is completely useless as a moral theory for making decisions, it can be applied somewhat better historically. Not actually well, of course, but at least better. And this is where the consequentialist sees everything as shades of grey. Every action has both good and bad consequences. This is intrinsic, because every action opens up some possibilities and forecloses others. To marry one woman is to not marry all of the others. To save a man’s life in the hospital is to take money from the undertaker. To save the life of a worm who crawled onto the pavement is to deprive the ants of food who would have ate its corpse. Every action disappoints someone. And this much, the consequentialist can see in hindsight.

And since, to a consequentialist, (naturally) good consequences are identical to an action being (morally) good, and (naturally) evil consequences are identical to an action being (morally) evil, an action having both naturally good and naturally evil consequences makes the action both morally good and morally evil. Since all actions, intrinsically, have both naturally good and naturally evil consequences, all actions must, to the consequentialist, be a mixture of moral good and moral evil.

This disguising the consequentialist’s own evil is just a side-benefit.

Star Wars IX Doesn’t Matter

I wrote a rather lengthy blog post about Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and how astonishingly badly written it is. And with regard to the title of Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker, I’ve reminded people that the force didn’t awaken in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’ll make fun of the Star Wars sequels, but I think it’s worth remembering that they don’t matter.

It’s tempting to worry about the Star Wars sequels, since the original Star Wars movies form, for many of us, anyway, a cultural reference point. All cultures have these; they allow people to concisely describe complex ideas to each other by referencing where these complex ideas appeared in stories that both the speaker and the listener know. And it’s tempting to worry that the sequels will somehow replace the originals, shattering the continuity that permits of this shared cultural reference across generations. But they won’t.

You can see this in the prequel movies. I saw all three, and actually have a video in which I defend the way Lucas wrote the fall of Anakin Skywalker. But, in my experience, no one actively remembers these movies. There are a few references made to them, but not as references to ideas in real life but to bad decisions in movies—Jar Jar Binks and the pod races. Occasionally to Anakin blowing up the trade federation’s main ship by accident. The hero should never win by sheer accident. But apart from those, the movies are mostly forgotten. Here’s me trying to list the titles:

  • The Phantom Menace
  • The Second One
  • The Third One. Something about the Sith, I think. Return of the Sith or Revenge of the Sith. Something like that.

The new movies are going to be like that. The only way I can foresee my children (ages 3, 6, and 9, at the time of writing) ever seeing any of the Star Wars sequels is if Mike Nelson’s children get shot into space by Mary Jo Pehl’s children and are forced to watch bad movies as part of an evil plan to rule the world.

It’s a pity, because the new Star Wars movies didn’t have to suck. But that’s life. Most things with promise don’t deliver on it. It’s a fallen world. You just have to move on and be grateful for the things which did turn out well.

Real Lawyer Reacts to My Cousin Vinny—And Likes It!

I ran across a really curious video on YouTube where a (putatively real) lawyer examined the movie My Cousin Vinny and talked about how accurate it was. To my great surprise he said that—allowing for parts that were obviously just comedic—it was actually very well done and parts of it could be used for teaching lawyers!

If you’ve never seen it, by the way, I highly recommend the movie My Cousin Vinny. It’s a ton of fun and has a lot of quotable lines.

Some Questions About Meaning

A friend, acting out of morbid curiosity, watched a video by Bionic Dance that responded to my video, Life Doesn’t Have the Meaning You Give it, and alerted to me to it having some questions in it which might be interesting to answer. So I watched the video myself, wrote down the interesting questions, and answered them in this video.

I didn’t make a response video to her because—as I said in my video on why I’m not going to respond to her again—she contradicts herself so often that no response is needed; one only needs watch the entirety of her video (and remember what she said in the earlier parts) to see her refute herself. However, I will answer questions which I think can be generally useful regardless of where they came from, and these happened to be fairly well phrased for general use.

You can also watch it on YouTube:

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

The common phrase, that something is like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” is often taken to mean “putting one’s effort where it won’t do good”, but it has another, slightly more subtle meaning: futility. (I’m writing this post because a friend was so used to the first meaning he hadn’t thought about the second, and what one man has done, another might do.)

Once the Titanic has been hit by the iceberg, there are two reasons why it doesn’t matter how the deck chairs are arranged:

  1. No one is going to sit on them while the boat is sinking.
  2. Once the boat sicks, their arrangement will be destroyed by the water washing the deck chairs away from the deck.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic, therefore, suggests an activity is not only secondary to one’s primary concern but moreover one doomed to have no effect whatever.

You can see this by contrasting the Titanic, which sank, to a ship lost at sea where the rations have run out and the crew is starving. Rearranging the deck chairs will not give them food, but they might still take comfort sitting on them in a better arrangement, and whoever eventually finds the empty ship could take advantage of a particularly well thought out arrangement of the deck chairs which has remained after its first crew can no longer use them. (In theory, though admittedly not likely in practice.)

Christ Figures in Fiction

Relating to my recent post about Christ Figures & Heresies, I thought it worth pointing out what I meant by a Christ Figure, since the term is often used narrowly and in suspicious circumstances (English classes where people are trying to seem clever).

Christ figures in literature are—when done well—about characters who relate to the rest of the story as Christ related to the world. At the extremes they are basically a re-presentation of Christ with some of the details changed. Probably the best example of this is Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Far more common, though, is a limited Christ figure.

The salient features of Christ that a limited Christ figure can partake in are:

  1. Saves the world from the effects of the mis-use of free will.
  2. Has a dual-nature where one of these natures is what allows #1.
  3. Bridges the gap, in his person, between the two natures.
  4. Sacrifices himself willingly for the sake of the world
  5. In sacrificing himself, takes the problems of the world into him and conquers them, thus saving the world from them.
  6. Comes back from the sacrifice because of his other nature.

A favorite example of a limited Christ figure is a detective in a mystery story. In a mystery story, the right-ordering of the world is destroyed through the misuse of reason (the crime) and the detective, who is an outsider, comes into the damaged nature in order to, through the right use of reason, restore the right ordering of the world. The detective does not die and come back, but he does take the confusing of the world into himself and then, through his superior reasoning and impartiality from not being immediately impacted, restores it first in himself, and then from him the restored order flows out to others.

As you can see, this isn’t about being a clever ass to notices a few external similarities, in the manner of a desperate English teacher saying, “He offered someone wine then later went on a three day vacation and came back! He’s a Christ figure!”

Good Christ figures are about the nature of the character, the nature of the world, and their relationship to each other.

Another feature of good Christ figures is that you don’t need to identify them as Christ figures in order for the stories they’re in to be good stories. Identifying a character as a Christ figure should deepen one’s understanding of the story and of the real world. If the story is garbage without your secret decoder ring, it’s garbage with it, too.