Coming at It from Both Ways

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My first story in this series was Shade. Here we met a hero who was fighting a losing battle, trying to keep a community safe from an unstoppable horde. Further compounding things was his connection to a former friend, which friend was controlled by the leader of that same unstoppable horde. In the end that hero sacrificed himself to free his friend, which friend then inherited the burden of defending the community.

The idea for this story was directly tied to the duty of fatherhood, and how a man must be willing to do all things for his wayward children, even lay down his life to reclaim them. But then I decided to take that initial thought, and run with in an entirely different way.

In The Last Duty, we met a character that was more explicitly the father of a wayward son. The story found with him having a conversation with a former-ruler, who also thought of himself as the father of a wayward people. The two men commiserate over their shared frustrations, and wonder aloud what a father is to do with a child that becomes a monster. Instead of dying to save them, as in Shade, they instead decide to destroy those children, and thus smother the evil that they have inadvertently sired.

A darker tale to be sure, and one that contradicts the themes of the first. Each story is like a different side in a debate, disputing with one another the proper duty of fathers to wayward children. The fact that I wrote out both sides of these arguments does not mean that I advocate for each. More so I just wanted to build up the entire spectrum of opinion around me, so that I could lay within and consider their virtues and follies.

I didn’t set up this narrative debate just for kicks and giggles, though, I was using it for some very serious contemplation. I am a Christian, and have always been given pause by the dual representation of God in the Holy Bible. In the Old Testament he seems to be a very angry father, one who is quick to punish wayward children. But then in the New Testament Jesus teaches about a God of love, who wants to save the sinner.

Is it possible that the raging and the loving God can exist as the same person? Is there a proper time for one type of fatherly duty, and a proper time for another? The debate goes on in me, but it has been helped by these stories that I have written.

As I wrote these stories, I considered another concept that intersected with this debate. It was that of responsibility, of how power is so easily misused, that at times the greatest use of it is in not using it. It is an idea expressed very eloquently in Schindler’s List. In this film Oskar Schindler tells Amon Goeth the following:

Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t… That’s what the Emperor said. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for mercy, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go… That’s power, Amon. That is power.

Going back to the Holy Bible, one is deeply moved by the account of Jesus hung on the cross, endowed with enough power to zap every Roman soldier to smithereens. But instead, he quietly restrains himself and says “Father forgive them.”

So now I wanted to examine this concept from various angles, too. I wanted to consider the appropriate use of one’s power, of how one chooses between condemnation and pardon.

As I mentioned a week ago, my original intent with The Toymaker was to write about a god that is trapped in a mortal frame. He was supposed to discover the tremendous power locked within him, and would then decide in which way to use it. Either he would condemn the evil he saw all about him, or he would find a way to benevolently forgive them.

That story changed in the course of writing it, though. He ended up only discovering a small sliver of his powers, and is never faced with the choice of destroying his people. He does, however, come to a different choice regarding his powers. He tracks down an old friend, and he wishes to heal her. He wants to make her whole, so that they can return to a dream that he has fervently held to.

But she asks him not to.

She cannot bear to have her scars so flippantly smoothed over, she feels that that would be disingenuous. In the end he respects her wishes, and instead embraces her brokenness. I thought this was a very interesting way to examine the nature of power. It wasn’t him turning down the power of vengeance and choosing to forgive, now it was him turning down the power of healing and choosing to accept someone broken. It was bittersweet, and it resonated very deeply with me. This, too, has very strong biblical themes. So much of the appeal of Jesus Christ is that he endured our pain, and therefore is able to sit with us in our broken places.

So thus far we have considered fathers that save, fathers that condemn, and fathers that empathize. We have looked at duty, responsibility, power, and ownership. Stories have this remarkable ability to let us plumb the depths of our hearts, and really consider a notion from every angle. We write in order to think out loud, to try the words and see if they taste right or not. If a concept confuses you, trying writing a story about it, and see if it starts to make more sense.

There still remains one more facet of these themes that I wish to explore, though. We often say that power corrupts, but with power comes responsibility, and responsibility has the ability to purify. Thus could not power be a vehicle for good, and not just evil? And going back to the idea of fatherhood, does one not become a father via the acceptance of power and responsibility?

Therefore I am going to write one more short story, one that opens with a selfish and petty man, who happens to be granted immense power. I will try to fashion the story into a process of purification for the man, and I will see if the idea is able to stick or not. This will conclude my multi-angled study of power, responsibility, duty, and fatherhood. Come back on Thursday to see the first chapter.

As Long as You’ll Clean up After It

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Doing Your Duty)

I never had a dog growing up. I always wanted one, but the answer was always no. I tried telling my dad that he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding or cleaning up after it, I would be entirely responsible for all of that stuff. He knew, better than I, that that was not the way these sorts of things go.

Now I have a home and family of my own, and we have a cat. What I did not understand as a child was that because I am a provider in my home, and chose to bring the cat into it, I am therefore obligated to him. Even if my own son was old enough to do all of the cat’s chores, I would still feel emotionally responsible.

I am also obligated to the fish that we have. I am obligated to the woman I asked to be my wife, to the son we are raising, and to the baby daughter that we are expecting this winter.

Each one of these responsibilities came about by some sort of creative or additive act. I made, purchased, or requested all of these connections and added them to my life on-by-one. And because I chose to add these to my life, I have a duty to them.

Having that sense of duty matters to me. There are some traditions of “masculinity” that I do not hold with, but one that I think is good is the idea that a real man takes care of his own. A man chooses his responsibilities, and then he commits himself to them. He does not take on dependents lightly, he does so with full intent to provide.

A mature, responsible adult therefore holds to the things that matter and lets go of the things that get in the way. So much of adulthood is simply learning how to divide between these two, and one that manages this balancing act will lead a fulfilling and blameless life…but also one that doesn’t make for a good story!

 

Conflicting Obligations)

Narratives are about tension and drama. Compelling stories have points where the decision between right and wrong is not so straightforward, situations where there are pros and cons to each side and compromises have to be made.

One of my favorite animated films is Wreck-It Ralph, in which the main character rejects his role as a video game villain and goes in quest of a hero’s reward. Along the way he befriends a young girl who is an outcast in her own game. Her dream is to live as a racer, and he helps her to build a car that can compete in an upcoming race.

And then, at that critical point, he is made aware of a terrible conundrum. This young girl has a glitch, and if she performs in the race and players see her glitching, the game might be unplugged and she will die.

Through their adventures Ralph has come to feel responsible for this young girl. Part of that responsibility is to her happiness. To that end, he has built her this racecar. But also he is responsible for her safety, and right now her happiness seems to be putting that safety in jeopardy. He tries to reason with her, to tell her that she shouldn’t race. She rejects that notion. So what does he do? He breaks her car into pieces. He is both the good guy protecting her and the bad guy crushing her dreams.

That is great drama and excellent storytelling! Not only that, it authentically captures the real-life difficulty of making the right choice “in the moment.” When we reflect on our choices, hindsight often makes very clear to us which were right and which were wrong. When making those choices in the moment, though, things seemed much less black-and-white.

 

Making Up For Mistakes)

This means that sometimes we will make a choice that seemed right in the moment, but later we learned was not. One of the most difficult things we have to do in life is admit we were wrong, work backwards, and make an opposite choice to undo our mistake. Because that is something else we are responsible for: what decisions we have already made.

Ralph faced this exact same conundrum. He came to realize that he had been fed some misinformation, and that leads him to make amends with the little girl he broke the heart of.

Victor Frankenstein was another character who had to face responsibility for his actions. In his novel he creates a new life, and is therefore responsible for the individual he has made. But he finds that the creation is hideous, and full of violent intent. The creature tries to coerce him into providing a mate, but Frankenstein refuses, unwilling to be responsible for the propagation of this monstrous species.

Ultimately Frankenstein seeks to destroy his creation, so that he may at last have rest from his responsibilities. Instead he dies in the effort, and so his rest is discontented. He is filled with the disappointment of having failed his duty. That is the last great tragedy of his life.

Last weeks’ story was based around this same idea of a father trying to bring a premature closure to his responsibilities. I also ended it in a place of grim dissatisfaction, because it wouldn’t feel right to have an easy fix to an inherently complex problem.

 

The Responsibility of Power)

The last type of responsibility I wish to examine is that of a character who comes into unexpected power. There are several stories that ask what would happen if a person suddenly gained tremendous strength or influence, and in the moment had to decide what responsibilities were inherent in that? Aladdin uncovers a powerful genie, but has to learn to use it wisely, rather than just satisfy his selfish desires. Edmond Dantès finds great riches, and is empowered to ruin the men who wronged him. To do so, though, will break his responsibilities of love and fidelity to the woman that he loved. Is he to live out his vengeance and lose his soul, or remain true to his core and swallow a defeat?

I would like to craft  a story that further examines these themes of responsibility, and particularly that of the responsibility inherent in great power. At first the main character will be unaware of his tremendous capabilities, during which time he will bind himself to only the common sort of responsibilities: loyalty and protection for another. Come on Thursday to see the forging of those bonds, and then later in the story we will examine how those ties are affected when he discovers his greater nature!