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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Siegfried’s Double-Yolk

Just as you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, it takes more eggs to make an egg-white omelet if you get a double-yolk.  

Perhaps I’ve lived a sheltered life, but for the first time I can remember, I cracked open an egg last week and found a double-yolk.  This seemed odd to me: I had bought large eggs.  Surely you wouldn’t get a double-yolk unless you purchased extra-large or jumbo-sized eggs?  But I was busy making my omelet, so I forgot the conundrum and got on with the task at hand.

The next day, I recalled a scene from the TV series “All Creatures Great and Small.”  Siegfried Farnon tells a farmer he’d like to purchase a dozen eggs.  After he tends to the man’s sick ducks, he returns to his car, where the farmer has left eggs for him.  Siegfried counts them up, and says, “I’m sorry, but I wanted a dozen eggs.”  When the farmer assures him that he’s fulfilled the veterinarian’s request, Siegfried insists that he’s only received eleven.  The farmer’s reply?  “I’m tellin’ you, mister: one of them eggs is double-yolked.”

Siegfried’s eyebrows raise, but he pays the farmer for a dozen eggs and drives away.

I’ve watched that episode several times over the years, but only now does it strike me as strange.  How could the farmer know that one of his eggs was double-yolked?  Could he tell by the egg’s shape?  Its size?  Had he determined that his hens produced a double-yolk with every eleven eggs?  And why would he count an egg with a double-yolk as two eggs?  On a subsequent visit to the farm, Siegfried found that the ducks’ condition had worsened.  Then he noticed that the bottle of medicine he had sold the farmer contained many more pills than it should have.  

Sometimes we can be too cheap for our good.  This is a recurring theme in the series, as farmers routinely plead poverty and furiously question the charges on the veterinary bills.   And there are other disagreeable qualities that even the most jovial and agreeable farmers display at times.  But one thing shines through each show: Siegfried Farnon and James Herriot love and admire the farmers.  To these country vets, the Dales farmers are some of the best people on Earth.

Awhile back, it struck me that one person I remembered negatively had made quite a positive influence in my life.  During my teen years, I regarded him as a counselor, a guide, and a friend.  True, he did a few things that annoyed me.  His personal journey led him to criticize some of my views and life choices.  At times he judged me harshly, and I resented his punishment.  But overall, his kindnesses outnumbered these minor faults.  All he had done to help me outweighed the injustices he had perpetrated upon me.  Moments of callousness could not obliterate his years of concern and selfless service.

I sent him a card, thanking him for all he had done.  I told him how the seeds he had planted in my life were still growing today.  I let him know that I still remembered him fondly.  And I wished him well.  In due course, I received a reply.  He told me how much helping me had meant to him.  He told me he still looked back on our time together with fondness.  And he mentioned how something would occasionally remind him of one of our many discussions.

Perhaps this particular Dales farmer in this episode was always mean and tight-fisted.  But he was part of a group of people that Siegfried Farnon and James Herriot loved, admired, and tirelessly served.  I imagine even Mr. Double-Yolk had a few good qualities that the episode failed to show.  

Why is it we tend to remember the injustices we’ve suffered more than the kindnesses we’ve received?  How is it that a thousand kindnesses can be blotted out by a single, unthinking act?  Why must we judge others harshly for not reacting to a situation like we would, or adopting viewpoints different from our own?  Finding that double-yolk the other day reminds me that even if I find one aspect of a friend’s character irritating (such as the farmer’s cheapness), more than likely he possesses many admirable qualities.  I should be big enough to overlook the former and focus upon the latter.

Why do I find this so difficult?  How can I change myself, reform my thinking, so that I can better emulate the forgiveness and generosity I admire in others.  The light shines so brightly upon the path I should follow.  Yet walking along it never grows easier.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Your Personal Altar Part 3

In The Stars in Shroud by Gregory Benford, after Ling recovers from the Quarn plague, he travels to Veden, where he serves as commander of the Fleet base.  While he searches for a solution to the psychological disorder that has incapacitated most of humanity, he also searches for a replacement to Sabal, the communal religious experience he formerly found so fulfilling.  When this personal search goes unrewarded, he tells himself he doesn’t need Sabal: religion is nothing more than social glue.  Rhandra comes into his life, and she helps him deal with his pain.  But he knows he is incomplete.  He has grown dependent upon Sabal.  Without it, he is a broken vessel.  

A Christian once told me that he celebrated Lent one year in a rather unorthodox manner.  Instead of giving up a favorite food or activity, he gave up Church.  By the time Easter arrived, he yearned to return to worship services, fellowship, and his various ministries.  Time away reinforced the meaning behind all he did there.  They weren’t superfluous activities, but enriching experiences.

There is a difference between attending a worship service ready to embrace whatever occurs therein, and attending each week with a deep-seated need for inspiration.   There is a difference between attending fellowships needing to sense a real camaraderie with those you speak with, as opposed to being at peace regardless of what such conversations yield.  Those possessing the former attitude can draw inspiration and happiness from what they find.  Those attending with the latter perspective are destined for disappointment and alienation.  After decades of church involvement and ministry, and repeatedly leaving one to search for another community where I might better fit in, I realized that I had somehow gravitated to the second camp.  So, although it was not an easy decision, I finally opted to stop seeking out a new spiritual community for a time, until I could swap the former perspective for the latter.

Does this mean, according to the ideas expressed by Steven Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that I had regressed in my personal development from an Interdependent person to one Dependent upon others?  Much as I respect his teaching, I suspect that human behavior is too complex for any particular model, chart, or philosophy to encompass.  It seems reasonable to me that a person might be Dependent in one or more areas of his life, Independent in others, and Interdependent (or functioning at maximum effectiveness) in still other aspects of his life.  Obviously, Ling has grown dependent upon communal worship for his spiritual fulfillment.  I suspect that Tonji, his second-in-command, who rises high in Fleet after betraying his captain, would sink into far greater depths of despair than Ling, were he to find himself similarly court-martialed.  Humanity itself has grown dependent upon the Empire’s leadership, while the Quarn, that hermit-like alien race, could not see life as worth living if each had to constantly submit to and engage with others.  One thing seems certain: Just like Ling and Tonji, Humanity and the Quarn represent extremes.  An extreme is never a wholesome position to occupy. 

One last time, I refer to the beginning of the novel, in which Ling glimpses his own way forward, but does not recognize the opportunity.  “I looked across the small cabin at my kensdai altar.  I knew I was losing control of myself too often and not directing the conversation the way I wanted.  I focused on the solid, dark finish of the wood that framed the altar, feeling myself merge with the familiarity of it.  Focus down, let the center flow outward.”  Due to his belief that humanity can function best in community, he does not utilize his personal altar, but calls a game of Sabal instead.  Given the measure of strength he senses by looking at his personal altar, I find it ironic that, throughout the remainder of the novel, Ling never spends significant time in personal devotions.  

While I admire how Ling’s puts others’ needs above his own, last year I determined that I needed to spend time away from Church in order to find my spiritual center.  In that regard, I have labored these past twelve months to rebuild my individual relationship with the Divine.  I have sought to envision myself as an individual, separate and apart from any community.  This is not to say that I have abandoned Church: I’ve worshipped in numerous churches this past year, as referenced in previous entries.  I have not become a hermit.  I have simply repressed the desire to belong. 

One day, if I find the right place for me, a community where I can be valued for who I am, and where I can effectively minister to others, I shall return.   I still believe in the ideals of Church and Interdependence.  But for now, I seek merely to stand on my own.  For now, I am content to worship regularly only at my personal altar.  From this position I have found my spiritual and emotional center.  I have learned not to look to others for my completion; I have accepted my strengths and weaknesses, and learned how to view others through that paradigm.  

In the novel, the Quarn never learn how to live in community with others of their race, let alone with humanity and the other intelligent alien species.  Tonji never learns the joy of sublimating his own desires for the good of others.  But at the end of the novel, Ling learns that it is possible to grow too dependent upon others for the completion of his personal identity.  I understand what he has gone through, having traveled down that road this past year.  If you find yourself in a similar position, I wish you all the courage in the world.  For going it alone is never easy.  But sometimes, it is the only way forward.

Related Dragon Cache entries

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Your Personal Altar Part 2

In his novel The Stars in Shroud, Gregory Benford portrays an interstellar empire run by Earth.  The society is stabilized by its caste system, and by a religious practice known as Sabal.  The former serves to ground people: they know where they belong.  Through the latter, a role-playing game that rebukes personal gain and celebrates cooperation, the empire (also known as Fleet) keeps people satisfied with their place in society.  Yet there will always be those who do not easily fit into their defined roles.  One is the starship captain Ling, whose extraordinary aptitude, work ethic, and devotion to Sabal have enabled him to rise far higher than most of his minority racial heritage known as ofkaipan.  Another is his second-in-command, Tonji, who has developed a network of connections within Fleet to ensure that he reaches the very top of the hierarchy.  Within this society, these two very different men--one a patriot of skill and learning, the other driven by personal ambition—do not fit easily into their assigned roles.  Thus, when the Quarn plague incapacitates most of humanity, Ling only suffers from it for a time, while Tonji proves immune to this devastating psychological disease.

Before Ling takes his ship to Regeln, where they will transport the infected colonists back to Earth, he discusses the crew’s state of mind with Tonji.  Fleet has lost many ships, and their own, a transport, has been hastily outfitted with weaponry.  This does nothing to help the crew adjust to the new situation.  As Dr. Benford writes: “Men take longer to adjust.  Most of them were still nervous and edgy about the changes.  They were suddenly oraku, warrior status. “  Or, as Ling argues with Tonji, “These are traditional men.  They can’t take a sudden change of role.”  

Opposed to them are the Quarn race, about which little is known.  “Hermitlike, they offered little and accepted less.  Privacy extended to everything for them; we still had no clear idea of their physical appearance.  Their meetings with us had been conducted with only a few individual negotiators.”  Yet, despite their fierce individualism, the Quarn unite to fight humanity.  Earth’s colonization of space grinds to a halt as Fleet prepares for war, the first it has been forced to fight in three centuries.

Most societies stress the needs of the group over those of the individual.  Governments need patriots, Churches need dedicated lay people, and all the organizations that fit between the two, whether armies or businesses or clubs, need capable people to fulfill all manner of roles.  Yet it is possible to believe too strongly in the good of the group.  Extended obedience to the mantra, “Think not of yourself, but only of others,” can leave one dependent upon the group for one’s well-being.  It is a situation I found myself in, which eventually led me to leave the Anglican Church.  

As I mentioned in “Your Personal Altar Part 1,” Ling’s own state of mind while he traveled to Regeln was anything but ideal.  “I looked across the small cabin at my kensdai altar.  I knew I was losing control of myself too often and not directing the conversation the way I wanted.  I focused on the solid, dark finish of the wood that framed the altar, feeling myself merge with the familiarity of it.  Focus down, let the center flow outward.”  While Tonji, driven by personal ambition, shrugs off Ling’s worries, Ling’s concern for the crew drives him to organize a game of Sabal.  In so doing, he seeks to unite them, and to ease them into their new status as oraku, or warrior.  Yet what about Ling’s own needs?  What about his own lapses of control?

I was always a dedicated churchgoer.  I believed in suppressing my perceived needs for the goal of uplifting those around me.  Yet, as I grew older, I found myself increasingly ill-at-ease in churches.  I went full but left empty.  I sought to contribute to others, yet felt increasingly incomplete.  I found myself ruled by emotions beyond my control, subject to fears inflated beyond all measure, suffering from depression and isolation amid the community that should have provided all my needs.  

Like Ling, I felt myself drifting, searching, and alone.  I left one church for another, and for a while, hope and novelty sustained me.  Eventually, I realized that I could no longer find fulfillment and belonging in Church.  What had caused this change?  How could whatever had broken inside me be mended?

This essay will conclude in Your Personal Altar Part 3.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Your Personal Altar: Part 1

In the beginning of Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, Ling travels toward the planet Regeln.  He does not know yet know that he will find the colonists have been infected with the Quarn plague.  But, as a starship captain, he worries about entering a war zone.  Fleet has already lost many ships.  His crew worries also: their ship has been hastily converted for war, and they have yet to see conflict.  In order to calm them, he orders them together for Sabal, the communal experience that holds their culture together.  Dr. Benford describes Ling’s state of mind:

“I looked across the small cabin at my kensdai altar.  I knew I was losing control of myself too often and not directing the conversation the way I wanted.  I focused on the solid, dark finish of the wood that framed the altar, feeling myself merge with the familiarity of it.  Focus down, let the center flow outward.”

Those familiar with my entries on The Stars in Shroud will remember how the Quarn plague destroys the ability of Sabal to unite humanity in the way it had before.  After Ling recovers from his fight with this devastating psychological disease, he travels to the planet Veden, where amid his duties Fleet Commander, he searches for a way to connect with his spirituality, and regain the link with others that group worship promises.  Because he perseveres, eventually he finds a new cult, the Lengen, whose teachings and practices fill the void inside him.  Sadly, in the waning portion of the novel, Ling discovers that the Master is using him for his own purposes.  He is thus forced to sever his ties with the Lengen for the good of those around him.   

In “Our Need for Interdependence,” I referenced the paradigm hypothesized by Steven R. Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Mr. Covey suggests that the path of personal growth should take one from a position of dependence, through independence, to interdependence.  One who is dependent upon others is limited in what he can achieve, and valued for little more than his abilities.  One who is independent may feel more at peace with himself, but his achievements are limited by his lack of interconnectedness with those around him.  (Worse, as Ian and Barbara discover in the Doctor Who story “The Romans,” few people will fight to protect the rights of the independent).  Only when one achieves Mr. Covey’s proposed state of interdependence can he be valued, and fully engage with the rest of humanity to accomplish great things.  

As I mentioned in “A New Guru”, I traveled down a similar spiritual road to Ling.  When I decided that I could no longer find fulfillment and group-connection in the Nazarene Church, I entered a period of searching that eventually led me to the Anglican Church.  John Wesley, whose teachings were formative to Nazarene doctrine, never left the Anglican Church, but his followers formed the Methodist Church after his death.  This meant that I wasn’t entering entirely foreign territory, but traveling across a bridge that linked the two denominations.  

For several years, I found fulfillment in Anglicanism.  Then, as I had once left the Nazarenes behind, I was now forced to abandon my new Church.  For not only did I fail to connect with the people in any of the parishes I attended, but after the novelty of the new experience had worn off, the priests’ messages no longer resonated with me.  Nor could I sense "The Other" in the communal worship services.

As Ling would discover, the quest for spiritual fulfillment sometimes takes you into completely unanticipated territory.

This blog entry will continue in Your Personal Altar: Part 2.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Doctor Who, Ling, and the No-Win Situation

At the end of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan decides to remain behind in London to marry David Cameron (No, not the present day Prime Minister) and rebuild the city.  In the next story, “The Rescue,” the Doctor, Barbara, and Ian meet Vicki, one of two survivors of an Earth ship that crashed on the planet Dido.  The Doctor invites Vicki to join them, and in the following adventure, the Tardis lands on Roman-era Earth.  

The travelers settle down for a welcome respite in a country villa currently unoccupied by its owners.  But trouble soon disturbs their rest.  While shopping at the local market, Vicki refers to London.  Barbara corrects her: in this time, the city is called Londinium.  The woman working the stall informs a slave trader that the women are not locals, and therefore unlikely to be missed.  The trader’s men attack the villa at night, and capture Ian and Barbara.  Ian is pressed into service working the oars aboard a ship, while Barbara ends up in the slave markets of Rome, where a servant of Nero’s purchases her to work in the palace.  

The Rulers of Londinium
While I have never been stripped of my rights, others have sometimes placed me in a no-win situation: either I must act as they desire, or I will be perceived as irresponsible, rude, and “not a team player.”  If I express my frustration over the situation to them, I will be seen as “unreasonable.”  Thus, in private, I rant about the injustice of the situation, the actions I will be compelled to perform, and the insensitivity of the person(s) who placed me in this no-win situation.  

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, the protagonist Ling tells the story from his perspective.  As a deeply religious man, as one who spends time meditating and seeking insights, the manner in which he relates his adventures often rings in the ear like the teachings of a wise old monk, such as this: 

“The difference between a conviction and a prejudice is that you can explain a conviction without getting angry.  This is a dead give-away in negotiations; if your opponent flares his nostrils unconsciously before speaking, he probably isn’t going to abide by any compromise settlement.”

When I rant and rave over the injustice perpetuated upon me, am I reacting based upon my convictions or my prejudices?  The two words are similar; their differences not easily discerned.  It seems to me that prejudice is irretrievably linked with undesirable aspects of the human condition such as preconceived notions, hostility, and causing damage or injury.  I certainly want to be known for my convictions, not my prejudices.  

Knowing how I feel when I am forced to perform a service I find undesirable makes me wonder how often I place others in a similar situation.  Often this is difficult to know, as others feel a similar reluctance to appear unreasonable or “not a team player.”  Today’s reliance on cell phones, texting, emails, and instant messaging only make it more difficult to discern others’ reactions.  Only through observing others directly can I observe the nonverbal communication the other person voluntarily (or involuntarily) transmits.  And then only if I am looking for it, instead of waiting for the other to finish what he is saying before I can then respond with what I wish to say.
A memorial to a Roman Centurion

While no-win situations are unavoidable, I can seek to control my reactions to them.  Giving way to anger and rage doesn’t help me become the person I wish to be.  Instead, it only builds on any preconceived notions I have about the person who imprisoned me in the situation, and these, of course, can eventually result in hostility, or even inflicting injury upon someone who would never knowingly hurt me.  

Similarly, I must not neglect Ling’s second sentence.  If I find myself in a position where I am asking others to do something on my (or a group’s) behalf, I must make every effort to ensure that I am not placing them in the same no-win situations that I so despise.

Life is difficult enough without enslaving others to our wishes, and compelling them to perform tasks they find undesirable.

The Doctor Who story “The Romans” is available on DVD from the BBC.  Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel, The Stars in Shroud, is available in public libraries, and wherever fine, used science fiction books are sold.  
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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: The New Bond

I fell in love with the character of James Bond through the movie version of “The Spy Who Loved Me.”  Although I went on to read Ian Fleming’s work, as well as that of John Gardner, it was the movie version of Bond that enthralled me.  Broccoli and company portrayed Bond as an uncompromising and incorruptible agent for good.  With the exception of “License to Kill,” he fought for others, never for himself.  In a world full of evil, he served not just Queen and country, but the entire world.

It came as a disappointment, therefore, when Broccoli and Wilson decided to reshape Bond, beginning with their 2006 version of “Casino Royale.”  Gone were all the aspects of Bond that I had so enjoyed: the character of Q, along with his ingenious gadgets; the light-hearted humor that kept the action from growing too intense; and the evil villain whose dreams of megalomania threatened us all.  Instead, influenced by recent action movies such as the Jason Bourne trilogy, Bond grew darker, grittier, more self-involved.  In an effort to portray not the James Bond they had created, but instead the younger man lacking all the qualities he will eventually acquire and hone, this Bond took on smaller villains, thus making the storylines less compelling.  The villain of Casino Royale is not intent upon ruling the world through an organization such as SPECTRE.  He does not plot to destroy the existing order by provoking a nuclear war between two great superpowers.  Instead, he is an independent financier who plays the market and loses, and hence must recoup the money he has lost before his investors come looking for him.

In “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” England and Europe are beset by a series of unexplained murders, bombings, and terrorist acts.  Lacking someone to blame, the nations rage at each other.  Sherlock Holmes analyzes these seemingly unrelated acts of violence and determines that Professor Moriarty is responsible.  He has yet to deduce Moriarty’s motive, or uncover sufficient proof with which the police can arrest the professor.  As he evades attempts on his life, Holmes searches for clues to Moriarty’s overall plans, as well as the means to dismantle the man’s worldwide operation.  No world leaders will believe that Moriarty is a villain: he seems indispensible to each country’s government.  So, aided only by Dr. Watson, a band of gypsies, and his inventiveness and persistence, Holmes must defeat Moriarty before the man can unleash his evil schemes.

His quest takes him to France, Germany, and Switzerland.  Moriarty unleashes his trained killers and ingenious war machines upon Holmes, Watson, and the gypsies.  These two geniuses will stretch their intelligence to the utmost as each seeks to outdo the other.  Moriarty thinks only of himself: he seeks to profit by unleashing mayhem and destruction.  He fears the genius of others, who would take away all that he seeks to acquire.  In comparison, Holmes fights for others: he seeks no personal gain.  He celebrates the genius of others, rather than feeling threatened by their superior intellects.  Such selflessness allows him to put his own life in danger again and again; he would willingly sacrifice his own life to end the threat Moriarty poses. 

This new Sherlock Holmes exhibits all the panache and light-hearted humor that James Bond once exuded.  He possesses Q’s inventiveness, and creates ingenious disguises and gadgets that protect him despite all that the villain threatens him with.  His charm and charisma draw beautiful women to his side.  He needs no research department; with the encyclopedic knowledge he has accumulated, he pieces together the disparate clues.  Years of dedication and practice have honed his muscles and reflexes: he defends himself equally well with any weapon, or just his bare hands.  He exhibits vivacity, grace, and style.  He appreciates mankind’s newest creations and the artistic work of the old masters.  He is uncompromising and incorruptible.  He is Bond.

If Broccoli and Wilson choose to focus upon a less-capable and refined protagonist rather than the hero they created, that is their right.  But I am grateful to director Guy Ritchie, and everyone behind “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” for bringing to the screen a hero who epitomizes the virtues that James Bond once exemplified.  For this world has plenty of detectives who can piece together seemingly random events to solve their puzzles.  This world has enough faceless spies.  We are awash in stories about protagonists who count the cost to themselves as they battle their opponents.  This new Sherlock Holmes fights not for personal glory or revenge, not for money or respectability.  Thus, he represents the hero we all need, and the ideal we yearn to become.  He is order.  He is justice.  Who is he?

“The name’s Holmes.  Sherlock Holmes.”

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Friday, January 6, 2012

A New Guru

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, an exhausted Ling takes a break from his busy schedule to try “yet another cult.”  He still has no answer to the Quarm plague, that debilitating psychological disorder which causes its victims to withdraw from society.  Even though he is one of the few to have suffered its effects and emerged from his isolation to become a productive member of society again, he is not whole.  It has been so long since he has felt fulfilled.  His precious discipline of Sabal, which kept him in harmony with those around him and at peace with himself, is no longer available to him.  He drifts from day to day, lost in work, in sensation, and any comfort he can find on this strange planet of Veden that he has been sent to.  He does his best to ignore the fact that he is no closer to discovering the solution to the plague than he is to discovering a means of banishing the terrible emptiness that gnaws away at his inner being.

Really, he is just…lost.  But he allows his friend and assistant Majumbdahr to take him to the Lengen compound at the edge of the dark, forbidding jungle.  

After being welcomed by a man in cheap robes, Ling walks past poor farmers, across a clearing beaten clean by foot traffic, and into a tent divided into a maze of rooms.  In one such room, he, Majumbdahr, and other pilgrims sit lotus fashion.  Then a man enters clad in green robes: Ling can see nothing of the man’s face; only his eyes and mouth emerge from the hood, and these are cast in shadow.  The Lengen Master orders the ritual to commence.  Food is mixed with ceremony and precision.  Ling relaxes in the rhythm of the service, the comforting odors, even the feel of the napkins.  As Dr. Benford writes:

“Within a breadth of time I focused on the exercises.  My mind stilled.  I did not think of how surprising this was, of how my present state resembled something I had known in the past, but only achieved then by months of contemplation.  I didn’t consider any of these things.  I simply was.”

"I stand where the Wesley brothers once stood.
And Prayed.  And Preached.   And..."

On my recent trip to England, I came across this plaque as I walked away from Hercule Poirot’s apartment in Whitehaven Mansions.  In a country that celebrates so much history, it is hardly remarkable to find plaques denoting that a statesman once lived in this house, that a writer or poet once frequented this tea room or pub, or that two influential religious leaders such as the Wesley brothers once visited a particular church.  Nevertheless, seeing this plague brought a smile to my face.  

I grew up in the Nazarene denomination.  The sermons preached each Sunday owed much to John Wesley’s original teachings.  His brother Charles penned many of the hymns we sang.  Even if, at a certain point in my life, I found I could no longer find my spiritual center in that denomination and style of worship, I still look back on my spiritual heritage with fondness.  Seeing proof that John and Charles Wesley are still remembered and revered makes me glad.  Those whose efforts bring us in harmony with others, and at peace with ourselves, should never be forgotten.

When Ling’s former source of inspiration and fulfillment stopped working for him, he drifted in isolation for a time.  But he kept searching, and eventually found a new guru: the Lengen Master.  When the Nazarene Church stopped working for me, I felt just as empty as Ling.  Yet friends and loved ones encouraged me to seek another source of inspiration, which I eventually found in the Anglican Church.  Perhaps the void you seek to fill is not spiritual.  Maybe the job you once loved has become meaningless work.  Perhaps the types of art or entertainment you once adored now seem juvenile.  Whatever.  That which once served as a source of joy now leaves you feeling empty.  Such a loss is hard to endure.  Unaddressed, the void grows inside like a cancer, consuming you, telling you that life can no longer offer you any purpose or meaning.

If you feel lost, that you are just drifting through life, I hope you find what you need to provide your life with new direction.  Even if it seems the opposite of that which once fulfilled you.  For everyday we grow, change, and adapt to new circumstances.  Such maturation means that our needs likewise evolve.  Like the planet Veden, this world provides infinite possibilities for inspiration and fulfillment.  What you need may not be easily identifiable, but it is out there.  It must be!

Oh, and one last piece of advice.  Once you find a new source of joy, don’t regret the time and energies invested in your former source of fulfillment.  For it is still a part of who you are.  It led you to this place.  Even though it no longer serves as your primary source of inspiration, it still shapes and influences you.  

Every facet of your past adds to the rich makeup of your unique identity, and makes you special. 

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ling’s Faith and Persistence

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, the Quarm virus has reached the planet Veden.  Unlike other human-settled worlds, where the psychological disease has caused the infected to withdraw from society, here it provokes mob violence in the peaceful Hindic culture.  After combating the latest such incident, Ling, as Fleet Commander, discusses the growing problem with his executive officers Majumbdahr and Gharma.  

Ling’s first quandary concerns how much of their current trials he should report to Earth.  Gharma wonders if they should underreport the increasing violence.  Perhaps Veden culture isn’t falling apart as rapidly as they believe.  But Ling opts for honesty, even if this causes his superiors back on Earth to look down on him.  He tells Gharma, “Half-truths are dangerous; sooner or later you might inadvertently tell the wrong half.”

Next, Ling must determine what steps they should take to counteract the growing violence, while at the same time how to best care for those who have contracted the plague.  Gharma has resisted Earth’s recommendation that the new hospitals being built should include areas of close-packed Slots, such as Ling and his family lived in back on Earth when the plague had made them unable to interact with society.  Ling agrees with Gharma.  Such structures suggest capitulation to the inevitable: they would only provoke depression in those fighting the dispiriting plague.  Majumbdahr suggests that they stop building rural retreats to speed the hospitals’ completion.  Ling disagrees.  “Vedens are country folk,” he says.  “Maybe they’ll snap out of it if we get enough out of the cities.”  

Ultimately, they must find a solution to the plague.  A remedy for the people of Veden, with adjustments for societal differences, could heal those suffering back on Earth, as well as on all other human-settled worlds.  The Vedens are very religious, so Gharma and Majumbdahr suggest a religious cure: a new sect is steadily growing in converts and influence.  Ling sighs.  “There are a thousand cultists every square block in this city.  I seem to have met every one of them. “  Gharma believes there’s something special about this group, and Majumbdhar adds that they maintain a compound near the jungle and the farms, where they seem unaffected by the violence in the cities.  

A hero never gives up.

Life throws so many stressors at us: we don’t need alien viruses to grow frustrated, angry, or depressed from all the problems we face.  Sometimes, it can seem as though you’ve exhausted every potential avenue in finding a solution.  It would be so easy for Ling to give up on finding a remedy to the Quarm virus in religion.  But the physical laws of the universe, such as action and reaction, suggest that for every problem, a solution must exist.  In Ling’s case, his personal fate is tied with that of Veden.  His family on Earth still suffers from the plague.  Also, the plague has robbed humanity of the ability to practice the ritual of Sabal.  Perhaps this new cult can offer a solution to the void Ling feels, as well as prove an antidote to the alien virus that has ravaged humanity.

To paraphrase one of the themes from Connie Willis’ favorite Christmas movie, “Miracle on 34th Street,” faith is irrational.  It goes against common sense.  But just as the characters in that movie combat rationality with their belief in the existence of Santa Claus, an exhausted Ling agrees to investigate “yet another cult.”  In doing so, he encourages me to battle against everyday problems, as well as to believe that if I continue working toward the eventual completion of my manuscript, eventually I will sell my novel to a publisher.  Ling acts on his innate faith that a solution to his (and society’s) problem must exist.  I can only seek to emulate his persistence and faith.   Embodying such virtues may not insure success, but I have trouble believing that I will accomplish my goals without them.

Faith and Persistence have their rewards.

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