On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

Luca_Giordano_-_Christ_Cleansing_the_Temple_-_WGA09000

So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

illustration

 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On neural plasticity.

On neural plasticity.

After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.

A few guys looked down at the table and nodded.  People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.

I gave the same answer as always.

“Drugs do it on their own.  Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again.  Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”

1024px-Crystal_Meth

But it’s not all bleak.  Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too.  Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.

Dopamine_D2_Receptors_in_Addiction.jpg
Repeated exposure to drugs depletes the brain’s dopamine receptors, which are critical for one’s ability to experience pleasure and reward. From Wikimedia Commons.

(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.”  This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say.  If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.

A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do.  He’s now weathered five years of single days.  But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)

I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith.  It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.

800px-Scientology_e_meters_green_black_cropped
An E-meter.

It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true.  There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.

Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests.  In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad.  But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point.  You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.

“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”

Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you.  Do it daily.  Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change.  Your words will become true.

On redemption and Christianity in The Book of Strange New Things.

9780553418842So, I read a couple reviews that didn’t like Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.  The problem was, in the reviewers’ eyes, that the novel as science fiction was bland (e.g. this piece from NPR).  And I’ll admit, I wasn’t having fun for most of the time I spent reading it.  But at the end of the book, Faber pulled a trick that really altered the way I viewed his work, and I haven’t seen any other reviews that engage with this idea.  I do wish that more of the book was spent on this concept, and that there was less of the tepid sci-fi odyssey and orthological tomfoolery and emailed monologues, but so it goes.  There really is a beautiful idea nestled in his story.

To me, the most interesting facet of The Book of Strange New Things was the way it explored the question, is the possibility of redemption necessary for Christianity to work?  And Faber explores the idea of redemption on many levels: physiological, personal, societal, ecological.  It’s that breadth of engagement with the concept of redemption that made the work for me.  Like, yes, the protagonist is an ex-junkie preacher.  He was bad, turned his life around, found Jesus, is Christian.  Which is fine, but I have Dostoyevsky for that; if Faber offered only that same narrative dressed up in tinfoil on a far-off planet where the water makes you piss green, well, I’d pass.  Why not re-read Crime and Punishment instead?

But I really like that Faber took the idea of redemption further.  There’s a scene in the book where his protagonist is bitten by a wild animal, at which point the natives of that planet give him up for dead.  He assumes the animal is poisonous, that there’ll be no healing from the wound.  But then he gets better.  And it turns out that the alien species lacks wound healing of any kind.  If they become injured, they die.  And that may underlie their fascination with Christianity: in the Bible, physiological redemption isn’t just a metaphor for personal redemption.  Physical healing is made possible through the love of God.  The most important miracles are instances of Jesus as medical doctor.

This point is really underscored by the protagonist’s earlier efforts to translate the Bible into something the aliens would better understand.  He spent a long time thinking about the idea of sheep and shepherds, which aren’t present on their world, and of oceans and fish and fishers of men, likewise absent, but never realized that any reference to Jesus’s doctoring would seem magical to them.  When their bodies are hurt, there is no redemption.

And Faber explored ecological and societal situations that would seem to have no possibility for redemption.  The earth of Faber’s novel has passed an ecological tipping point and is spiraling from one natural disaster to another; messages from the earthbound wife make clear that the planet won’t be habitable for long, and (in another shopworn sci-fi touch, the sort of thing that would make me dislike the book if I were engaging with it as science fiction and not as religious meditation) the reason a human colony was established on the alien world is to serve as refuge for a small population of humans that will be saved.

Society also seems to have descended into irreparable chaos.  The world has become violent and cruel, so much so that the protagonist’s wife finally writes to let him know that she is doomed; he should never return to Earth.  She’ll try to join a band of survivalists and scrape out a meager existence during what little time remains.

He decides to return.  To attempt to find her.  He’ll try for redemption where no redemption seems possible.  And the book ends.

Honestly, it’s not a simple message.  Because there’s a contrast; Christianity is hinted to be a poor fit for people who can’t heal, and yet the protagonist returns to a doomed world.  Which you could perhaps interpret as Faber trying to convey that small-scale personal and physical redemption are more important than anything that happens in society, but I don’t think that’s it.  The message I took away was that Christianity would not work in situations where healing was not a possibility, whether that healing means turning your life around, getting better after an injury, the climate restabilizing under habitable conditions, but that, akin to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, a Christian should be unable to accept the idea that healing isn’t possible.

That’s why, after I’d finished the book, I revised my opinion of it.  I think the ending makes a very interesting theological point, and makes it in a way that really did require an alien species to address.  Although…

Many types of injuries that aren’t problematic now used to be fatal.  Bacterial infection would set in, spread through a body, and kill a person.  That’s why amputation was so common; for much of human history, there was no other way to stop infections.

Then antibiotics were discovered.  Antibiotics are like magic.  They are Jesus’s miracles in pill form.  You get sick, you should die, you swallow one pill a day for a few weeks, you are healed.  You live.  Praise the saviors.

But antibiotics are getting worse.  Or, more specifically, we are putting selective pressure on bacteria to evade or degrade those magical molecules.  The idea of feeding subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to huge numbers of densely-housed animals, year in and year out, seems insane to me.  Honestly, that’s a set-up not so dissimilar from what you might employ in a purposeful gain-of-function directed evolution experiment.  That is, if you wanted to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that’s something you might do.

And if antibiotic resistance arises in one line of bacteria, it’s unlikely to remain isolated to that population for long.  Horizontal gene transfer, including from one species to another, is very common amongst bacteria.

The point being that we are bringing ourselvesintentionally, it would seem like — closer and closer to a post-antibiotic era.  The magic in those pills might soon be gone.  And we’ll be much worse-off than we were pre-antibiotics; the world is different now, including much higher population densities in urban areas.  Quite likely, bacterial infections will spread more voraciously than they did in the pre-antibiotic era.

To me, that increases the resonance of Faber’s work.  Those aliens, groping ineffectually through Christianity because, once harmed, they can not heal?  They could be our future selves.