Are people inherently good or evil? It is a question that has puzzled our species for millennia, and likely will continue to do so for a very, very long while. No doubt this question takes such a hold on us because the nature of humans is divided. There is a conscience in us all, but there also is a beast. Which of those two halves do you consider to the more real part, or is each one an equal half of the whole? Are there only these two halves to a person, or is there an entire spectrum in between? If you are able to answer all of these questions for yourself, am I fundamentally the same as you or might my own reality be different?
These are ponderings of the soul, and as such the deepest, most personal musings we can ever engage in. And we certainly do engage in them, every single one of us has an opinion on all these matters. Even if this were the first time you had heard such questions and had never before given them serious thought, you will still have an initial default reaction that accepts some of the notions and rejects the others.
But what’s with all of this philosophizing in a blog about writing anyway? Well, what better way to give expression to our beliefs and ponderings than through story? Writers have considered and influenced philosophical opinion for as long as pen has been to paper. One obvious example is the advice Polonius gives us. “To thine own self be true” he says, but Hamlet, like all the rest of us, wrestles with knowing who exactly is that own self he is to be true to?
Shakespeare was by no means the first author to grapple with these ideas, though. More than 2400 years ago Sophocles wrote of Antigone, the faithful sister that tries to bury her brother in defiance of the king’s command. She asserts that this defiance answers to a higher law, one written into the very human soul, a moral compass that defines her. So powerfully does she feel on the matter, that when she is frustrated in following this inner guide it breaks her and she cannot go on living.
Shifting our focus to somewhere more recent I am reminded of an episode from the original Twilight Zone series entitled The Masks. Here an old and wealthy man plays host to all of the mean and rotten descendants who will soon inherit his fortunes. He requires each of them to wear masks, ones that grotesquely reflect their individual character flaws. In this way, the wearing of the mask is actually the unmasking of the true self within.
In my own way I have tried to incorporate themes of discovering one’s true self in each of my short stories during this last month. Each of these four stories has approached these questions in a different way and with different conclusions.
The Wolf in the Room had as its objective to query what it is that defines a person as such. Here we had a main character that scene by scene lost more and more of his humanity, finally transforming into something new: a wolf. Meanwhile there was a corresponding wolf that incrementally gained in humanity until it took the form of our main character.
My purpose with this strange account was to pose a culturally relevant question, absent any answer. If a man changed into the form a wolf while a wolf changed into the form of that same man, are the two now their original selves or their new selves? I expect the outcome of the story will be dissatisfying to most readers, where it is determined that a person is defined by nothing more than their current physical status. I believe most of us would maintain that as we grow and change in life, there yet remains an inner identity within us that remains constant. What, then, is the essence of that which remains permanent?
In Stars and Stones is something of an outlier in this series, given that it features no central characters, therefore no personality arc, and therefore no questions about the true self. And that is exactly the point. This is a story about what is left of life when it lacks any consideration for one’s own humanity. Everything in this piece is presented in a cold and calculated way, a textbook reading of numbers and events, with no consideration for what any of it actually means. The conclusions that are drawn from this clinical perspective are quite bleak: all things die and no legacy is permanent. Life, as such, is meaningless.
Socrates suggested that the unexamined life was not worth living, and surely he meant examined by the heart. Numbers and statistics are wonderful tools for measuring this world and we have a great need for them. Yet we must not forget that we also have great need for humanity, for thoughtful introspection, and for loving connection to others. Yes there are the cold facts of life, but there also the wonderful warm mysteries within it.
The Basketball in the Water echoes the importance of these humanizing moments, though it was far more forward with its themes. At the outset we have a man meeting with his therapist, a man who has gone to great lengths to avoid just these sorts of introspections. So much of the anxiety and fidgeting he exhibits are a direct result of that unwillingness to look at the man within, and the story suggests that it is most often tragedy and guilt that prevents us from engaging in this otherwise natural and healthy self-reflection.
Because of his mistakes he is burdened with a fundamental belief that at his core he is inherently evil, not good. He feels his past has condemned him, and so sees nothing but pain in rehashing that past. I tried to craft his plight in such a way that the reader would understand why he would naturally feel that way, but in the end want him to accept that he is being too hard on himself. The hope is that if the readers were able to have that sympathy for his situation, then perhaps they could consider whether they are not being too hard on their own situations as well.
Revenger of Blood suggests the presence of not only a self, but also of a higher self. Throughout its length the main character is grappling between a sense of duty and a conscience that refuses to consent to that duty. Ultimately the protagonist is able to come to the epiphany that the only true duty is that of the conscience. Sometimes we try to make the decision between right and wrong so complex, weighing pros and cons and debating both sides of the field. Nine times out of ten, though, our inner compass has already told us what we ought to do, and we’re just not willing to face the unpleasant consequences that can accompany acting on our conscience.
I might go to a grocery, select my items, and purchase them for their full retail value. At this point I have done no wrong. I have not tried to rob the store, I have obeyed every law, and I am completely justified. However the absence of doing wrong is not the same as doing right. The law does not require me to smile and brighten my cashier’s day, but perhaps my conscience does, though my introverted nature is uncomfortable with the prospect. If I do not learn to answer that higher call of my heart, I will lead only a half-complete life. The greatest acts of good we do are those that are demanded only of our own heart.
It has been quite fulfilling writing this more contemplative series of short stories. Obviously when authors publish work with introspective musings a very personal part of them has been opened for all the world to see. You can probably already tell that my answer to the question “are people inherently good or evil” is that I believe them to be good. There are those that would feel obligated to defend that belief by citing all sorts of logical or religious rhetoric. I suppose those have their place, but for me I cannot give any better evidence than that when I do good, I simply feel that I am being by most true self.
This Thursday I will be posting my final story in this current series, and I will be maintaining the theme of characters seeking to discover their true selves. Specifically I will be focusing on the idea of being called to redefine oneself into something greater. I hope to see you then.
This was a great read! I tend to think morally gray characters can bring a lot of interest and complexity to a story, but I struggle with writing them. This gives me a lot to think about.