Tuesday, December 29, 2020


 A few months ago, I read a book called Blindsight. It's a novel about first contact with aliens, but it was trying to make a point. The argument of the book was that consciousness is a useless thing for humans to have, that we'd all be better off if we blindly did things without being aware of them.

I don't feel it made its argument very well, in part because it fails to narrow consciousness down to a single thing, alternately defining it as self-awareness, empathy, and theory of mind. Those are all very different things!

So it made me want to talk about consciousness. What is it, is it useful, what consequences does it have?

Here are a few things the word "consciousness" is used to describe:

  • Taking in sensory data (awareness)
  • Being aware of oneself as a thinking person (self-concept)
  • Knowing that one's thoughts are one's thoughts and being able to inspect them (introspection)
  • Caring about other people (compassion)
  • Actually feeling what other people feel (empathy)
  • Being able to model what another person might know and feel (theory of mind)
In the book, the hero lacks empathy because of a brain surgery he had as a child, but is still able to model and predict other people's behavior through careful observation. We are told that he's actually better than everyone else, because without that inconvenient "consciousness" he can more clearly see what's going on. At the same time, he actually destroys his own life because he can't react with empathy to his suffering girlfriend.

Another character explains that humanity is the only intelligent species in the galaxy that has consciousness. Everyone else is just blindly doing things and better off for it.  Communication with aliens is like a "Chinese room"--a thought experiment where a person who doesn't know Chinese is able to communicate with Chinese notecards in a room full of them, but understands none of it. Nobody truly understands anything except humans, because we're the only ones with this useless self-awareness.

We're held back by our consciousness. In reality, sociopaths are the most successful and the only flaw is that some people aren't narcissists. We also can't communicate meaningfully with aliens, because only beings without consciousness can properly relate to one another.

This is a whole mess because it's not clear what he's talking about. Some of what he's talking about is self-concept, some is introspection, some is empathy. And all of these have a purpose, even on an evolutionary level! If we are introspective, if we can interrogate our thoughts and recognize them as separate from objective reality, we can arrive closer at a knowledge of reality than we could otherwise. Likewise, if we have empathy, we can cooperate with others and accomplish things we couldn't alone. One sociopath may be temporarily successful, but a species of all sociopaths wouldn't get very far, let alone invent space travel.

Personally, I don't think any of the things described as "consciousness" are true epiphenomena, useless to our practical survival ends. Sensory awareness is pretty vital for acquiring food. Self-concept seems like a necessary prerequisite to introspection, which is important for fine-tuning our perceptions and judgments. For instance, if you don't know that your thoughts are your thoughts, you'll never ask yourself if your thoughts are accurate and seek ways to make them more accurate.

Compassion, empathy, and theory of mind are all necessary for cooperation. Some people lack one or another of these. For instance, many autistic people have impaired theory of mind (they have trouble predicting what other people know or how they'll react), but they are still empathetic and capable of compassion. Conversely, in the TV series Sherlock, Holmes has no empathy but chooses to be compassionate. Still, cooperation works best when we have all of these abilities.

It seems to me that if "consciousness" were truly an epiphenomenon, an internal experience that doesn't help our survival in any way, we would never be able to know if an alien species had it or not. They would have all the capabilities we have, and we'd never know if they were experiencing it in the way we do.

But if consciousness is a thing we can test for, if it's empathy or awareness or introspection, then it's absolutely useful. It gives us abilities as a species that we couldn't have without it. And that's why I think aliens would be conscious too, if they made it into space at all.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Giving thanks in a hard year

 We're not going anywhere for Thanksgiving. That's nothing new; we don't usually travel because both of our families are too far away to conveniently get to in a four-day weekend. But I always want to get together with friends, because turkeys are large and because I feel Thanksgiving is the ultimate day for hospitality. I like hosting and I like having more dishes on the table than one person could conceivably make.

But, sad as it is to admit it, this is not the year for it. Schools and work are, for the most part, open, and that makes additional gatherings that much riskier. If everyone went nowhere but Thanksgiving dinner, one virus case could infect a dozen people. But if everyone at the dinner goes back to school and work on Monday and doesn't stop attending till they actually feel sick, they may start a virus cluster than infects hundreds. Here is a risk assessment tool showing your odds that someone at your feast will be COVID-positive.

But, you know, the real meaning of the holiday isn't guests or turkey or even fictionalized school plays about Native Americans. It's right in the name, thanks giving. You can give thanks at all times, because there is always something to celebrate. The first Thanksgiving holidays were established at difficult times: George Washington proclaimed one soon after the Revolutionary War; Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War. At a time of national crisis, it can be good to look at what we still have; what we are trying to preserve.

To that end, here's a list of things I'm thankful for this year:

1. Our health. We haven't had COVID so far and I'm so glad.

2. Work. John hasn't lost his job, despite economic struggles across the country, and I have gotten a very small part-time job which is exactly the size I can handle right now. And it's writing, which means I'm getting paid to write for the first time in my life. A lifelong dream.

3. Our families are well.

4. The boys have adjusted so well to virtual school.

5. The girls have been able to go to school and I feel it's being handled safely for the most part.

6. Jackie got into Head Start preschool, despite not really meeting any of the qualifications, because a kind school administrator saw that it would be helpful for her.

7. Jackie's doing really well at it too.

8. After a week or two of utter paralysis at the start of the pandemic, I got back my writing mojo, finished one novel, and started the sequel.

9. I have many wonderful friends, whom I'm able to connect with online all the time. Honestly, because of Jackie's social anxiety, I'd felt quarantined for years. Now that nobody else can go out either, people are meeting me in a space that's open to me.

10. I've started exercising daily and my health is much better. I have more energy and fewer headaches.

11. We have never run out of toilet paper ;) or food.

12. Some of our friends walk by our house often and we shout across the lawn.

13. I've done some great crafting lately.

14. I found a sweatshirt to replace my old raggedy sweatshirt, which fits all my extremely picky requirements.

15. Our house is warm as the weather gets colder.


17. Two coronavirus vaccines have proven effective and will probably be available within months.

18. Our school district is providing breakfast and lunch at no cost to every child in the district, in or out of school. Those food deliveries make a big difference for a lot of local families.

19. The three older kids get along really well most of the time. Yesterday they spent an hour pretending to be an opossum family without a quarrel between them. And when I tell them to do things . . . they mostly do it? It's wild.

20. I sleep through the night pretty often. I'd say like four nights a week? Jackie is nightwaking more than her siblings did at almost four, but she's not waking every night, and most nights she does wake, she goes back to sleep within half an hour.


22. I repeat, not pregnant. It's super. It's the best thing. I haven't had my body to myself this long since 2009. I can lift my groceries into the car without hurting my back. I can eat everything without getting sick. I'm not in random, untreatable pain. I can take ibuprofen. I can get off the couch easily. I can tie my shoes. I never appreciated these things before.

23. All of our appliances work. It's like living in a house staffed by robot servants.

24. We get beautiful sunsets in the winter, with the leaves off the trees.

25. I learned how to make homemade noodles for lo mein and we eat that often. I like kneading things.

26. We got our chimneys inspected and can have fires in the fireplace whenever we want.

27. Our mental health is doing pretty well, considering. I love the way all of my friends are aware of it and ask about each other's emotional state. We trade self-care tips.

28. Animal Crossing. It's fun. I have all nice people on my island.

29. Star Trek: Lower Decks. It's hilarious and full of fan inside jokes. Highly recommend.

30. My breath is going in and out, every moment, without my even having to think about it. I'm happy to be alive. I feel a little guilty to be alive when so many haven't survived this year, but me feeling bad doesn't bring anyone back. Rather, I think it gives me a motive to drink life to the lees. I want to exist deeply in each moment when I am lucky enough to be alive.

What are you thankful for, this Thanksgiving?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Should billionaires exist?

I participated in a written debate recently on the question "Resolved: Billionaires Should Not Exist." Unfortunately, the limit was 1000 words. I have a lot more than a thousand words to say about billionaires, and how much I don’t think they should exist. So here’s the uncut version for you guys.

To be clear, I don’t actually want anybody to try to get rid of billionaires right now. Even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom said billionaires should not exist, didn’t propose tax plans that would come close to putting them back in the millionaire bracket. The influence billionaires have on our political life would make this almost impossible to achieve. And it isn’t really necessary, because much (not all) of the good you can do by eliminating billionaires could also be done by taxing them just a wee bit more. But if I could wave a wand and transfer the wealth of America’s 700 billionaires into the bank accounts of the 40 million Americans in poverty, I would do it.

I will start with a caveat: I do not intend to argue that in a future, poverty-free world, billionaires should not exist. I intend to argue that in the world of the present, in which poverty does exist and inequality is constantly increasing, billionaires should not exist.

My argument is that happiness would be increased if the wealth of billionaires were redistributed and they were taxed to prevent them from earning more than one billion dollars, while no serious disadvantages would result.

Utilitarian argument

I will pass over any question of deserving money, since that relies on a sense of justice not everyone can agree on, and consider only utilitarian goals. Would America be a happier place if the money of billionaires were redistributed to the lowest income tiers?

The folk saying that money can’t buy happiness is untrue. Scientists have calculated that money increases happiness, but only to a point. Up to $70,000 a year, every increase in income correlates to an increase in happiness. That’s unsurprising, because much suffering is caused by poverty or anxiety over falling into it. An individual who makes $70,000 can afford a house where he doesn’t have to listen to his neighbors screaming at one another; he can afford to travel to visit family; he can afford a healthy and varied diet and a meal out from time to time; he can afford entertainment and art and time with friends. An individual making the minimum wage of $15,000 a year or less, which includes over 13% of Americans, can afford none of these. Naturally he will be much less happy.

A billionaire, however, enjoys no utility from all that money. A person who possesses $900 million can already purchase anything a person might reasonably want: a mansion with grounds and a beautiful view convenient to a large city; a yacht, a private jet, employees to handle every need. A billionaire has passed, long ago, the point of diminishing returns, where more money can truly increase happiness. The same money will purchase a much greater utility when it is redistributed to the rest of the nation.

The 400 wealthiest Americans have, collectively, 3.6 trillion dollars. Distributed among the 34 million Americans in poverty, it would give each poor American $103,000. That’s enough for a modest house, owned debt-free, or a four-year degree at a public college. The gain in net happiness would be massive.

By distributing this money more carefully, through a long-term basic income or poverty-reducing programs, the increase in happiness could go on for years. As families pull themselves out of poverty, they will increase both production and spending, boosting the economy and reducing social ills like crime and homelessness.

So, once we acknowledge that redistributing money would increase happiness, we can start asking what other consequences such a move could have. Is there good billionaires do that we would miss? Or is there additional harm we could prevent by abolishing billionaires?

Argument from power

Once a person has satisfied all happiness-related desires, the only thing left their money can buy is power. When you have more money than most other people, you can influence society in a direction you choose. Some exercise that desire by giving to charities related to the world they want: whether, like Gates, to vaccination research, or, like Cordelia Scaife May, to causes like restricting immigration and population control because she wanted to preserve America’s open spaces.

Others exercise that desire politically, by donating to candidates, hiring lobbying firms, or bribing politicians directly. They can also fund media favoring their preferred worldview, as the Kochs or Michael Bloomberg do. Even in our court system, the rich always have a massive advantage over the poor, because they have better lawyers. Large companies can trample small ones in patent lawsuits, and rich people avoid jail time for crimes that would lock up a normal person for years.

In 2014, a Princeton study surveyed the effects of money on politics by measuring how often government policy follows the interests either of the economic elites or of the people at large. Their conclusion was that when the majority of economic elites disagree with the majority of average people, the elites were far more likely to get their way--45% of the time, rather than 18% for average people.

It would be nice to say that billionaires having money doesn’t affect the rest of us. But, since we’re all affected by politics, it absolutely does. This also casts a worrying light on our odds of ever changing the uncomfortable status quo.

Argument from charity

We are sometimes told that billionaires do good because they can donate large quantities to charity. But billionaires give a lower percentage of their income to charity than others. Even the biggest givers in the nation, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, give less than 5% of their income annually. If we discount those two, the rest of the richest 20 Americans give about .3% of their combined income--less than the average American.

Even that charitable work isn’t necessarily helpful. Much charitable giving exists for a tax write-off rather than actually doing good. Money given to foundations can stay within the foundation forever. Donations can be used to strongarm nonprofits into whatever a billionaire wants, or to start organizations promoting a political interest. The Kochs, for instance, give to charity, but those charities are largely climate change denialist media.

If we are to spend funds wisely to help the needy in this country, we shouldn’t leave the distribution of it to billionaires. This money is better administered by smaller owners, nonprofits, and government.

Argument from investment

The next defense of billionaires is that they invest capital in the market. But that isn’t specific to billionaires. Wherever money is, it is active in the market. However, investment patterns are different at different income brackets.

The poor primarily spend their money on their needs. This fuels business at the level of demand: whatever businesses best satisfy the needs of people prosper when people have money to spend.

People of middle income invest money in mutual funds, government bonds, and banks. This fuels the market in general, making capital available for business and government.

Billionaires, however, have more money than they can easily spend. Some goes into the stock market, of course, in the same way as smaller fortunes. Some is spent on venture capitalism--investment in prospective businesses. And some goes to investing in real estate.

How much good is this capital doing, compared to the capital that is simply spent? Funding new businesses is good, but billionaires may not be the best placed to decide what ventures are worth investing in. For instance, the ridiculous juice subscription company, Juicero, was fully funded by the Silicon Valley wealthy, while diabetics are forced to hack insulin pumps because of a lack of innovation in the ones available. Assigning capital to causes is an important job, and having it done by a few super-rich eccentrics might not be the best way.

Money invested in real estate may be the worst for the common good. When a person of moderate means flips a house or buys an apartment building to manage, they usually do add some value. Real estate speculation, or buying large tracts on the promise the price will rise, can do harm. The mere fact that people use real estate for investment makes the price go up, causing housing to become less affordable and driving homelessness. Housing bubbles are an example of this.

Properties owned by large investors are 18% more likely to evict tenants than those owned by smaller landlords. This is because they can easily afford the loss of letting a unit stand empty. In some areas, many units remain empty because the market can’t fill them at that price. Large investors will buy up entire neighborhoods and drive up the price as high as they want, because they have no competition.

Another method of expanding wealth is to extract more resources. The urge for constant growth is a driver of environmental destruction: the pumping out of aquifers, burning of rainforests, fracking. Without the political advantages billionaires have, millionaires aren’t often able to exploit the environment on the same scale. But, since these are not necessary activities we need billionaires to do, we’d be better off with smaller investors.

In short: capital exists, and if there were no billionaires, there would still be capital. But that capital would be assigned by a larger number of people, and thus more accurately aligned to what the market needs rather than the quirks of a few people who need nothing.

Argument from innovation

Another argument for billionaires is that they fund great innovations. But in reality, most innovators do whatever they are known for before becoming billionaires. Once they are billionaires, they may appear to innovate, but more often, they use patent law and buyouts to suppress other innovations.

Bill Gates and Tim Allen weren't billionaires when they started Microsoft. Jeff Bezos started Amazon with $250,000. Elon Musk wasn't a billionaire when he started his first company either. It requires basic financial security to make an invention, but not billions of dollars. After becoming billionaires, these men mostly have not invented anything personally, but rather funded other people's research. This research could have been funded by government or jointly-owned associations.

In fact, in many cases, it already has been. GPS, digital assistants, touchscreens, and WiFi come from government research. Elon Musk's companies Solar City, Tesla, and SpaceX have received billions in government funds, and much of his money came from PayPal, which he didn’t invent at all.

We also have to consider how many innovators and inventors never get a chance to make their big breakthrough because of a lack of opportunity. No billionaires are entirely self-made; they generally come from comfortably well-off families and have college degrees. They have the leisure to work on their ideas and the ability to raise funds through impressing investors or getting loans.

One wonders how many Americans have been just as talented, but held back by circumstances. Maybe they were forced to drop out of high school to make a living, or they were too busy struggling as a single parent, or they had their credit destroyed by medical bills, and never had a chance to invent anything or start a business. It is wildly implausible that all the talent just happens to be found among the well-off. Perhaps we would have many more life-changing inventions if every creative person were financially secure and able to access education and necessary funds.

What would happen to the money?

So, imagine a system wherein it become impractical to become a billionaire. High wealth taxes force billionaires to divest their wealth. Where would that wealth go? Would it vanish? Would billionaires stop doing whatever it is that produces so much value?

Most likely, many of them would choose to donate large quantities to charity--better to at least control where your money goes. Many would divest stock, perhaps by offering employees joint ownership or finding family members to hold some of it. Some would continue as they are, passively earning wealth which goes directly to taxes. And more people would choose to stop at the eight-figure level of wealth rather than the nine-figure level--making business choices that produce a steady level of income rather than constant high growth.

Would it have been a bad thing if Amazon had chosen to stick to books instead of trying to devour the market share of every kind of product that can be shipped? Would it have been so awful if Microsoft hadn’t bought XBox, LinkedIn, Skype, and Mojang? Did the market ever benefit from Warren Buffet owning so many properties? Not at all. If billionaires stopped doing what they do, which is increasing their portfolios through the investment of capital, smaller investors would own those assets. We do not need to “motivate” people to innovate and invest with the golden carrot of becoming a billionaire, because there is nothing only billionaires do that has any value. Motivating people to run reasonably-sized businesses with reasonably-sized fortunes has exactly the same benefit.

None of this would end poverty overnight, but the tax revenue brought in could do a great deal of good. The wealth of billionaires could fund universal health care, subsidized college, rent assistance, better elementary schools, and so on. While billionaires’ efforts to divest money would reduce tax revenue, many billionaires simply can’t help continuing to earn money, and the public coffers would benefit.

The result of this would be a nation both economically and politically more equal than what we have today. The gains of the poor would result in widely increased happiness, and the only suffering caused would be the temporary disappointment of billionaires at not being so rich--though, to be clear, with 999 million dollars each, there would still be little they couldn’t afford. There is no reason we need billionaires.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Seven autumn takes

Time for an update, isn't it?


The pandemic stretches on. A lot of people seem to have gotten bored and gone back to usual activities. We mostly have not. Luckily, our state is keeping r<1, which means it's not spiking. Probably due to mask wearing, which people are actually doing pretty faithfully.

The schools gave us two choices, virtual or in person. The in-person classes are socially distanced, and the students are supposed to be wearing masks all day. In order to spread out the amount they need to, different cohorts are there different days: elementary kids four days a week, middle schoolers two (I think), and high schoolers one.

Virtual kids got a loaner chromebook and have two video calls a day. The rest is video lectures they can watch at any time, and assignments they can finish on their own. That's a lot less burdensome than many long video calls, which sounds like a nightmare when I hear other kids are doing that.

It was a huge struggle deciding what to do. On the one hand, I'm home all day, so theoretically I should be able to keep everyone with me. And that would be safer, and save the school resources. But on the other, Jackie is intense enough to make it virtually impossible for me to teach anyone. I struggled last spring because of that. The best case was that she'd watch TV and distract everyone. The worst case was her directly interfering or freaking out when I attempted to help anyone. Even before the pandemic, because of her difficulty in social situations in the past, I really wanted to get her into preschool this year. The school agreed she needed it and let her in, which wasn't a guarantee. The thought of losing that--an actual, extended break from this extremely difficult child, plus maybe help for whatever the heck is going on with her--was one of my major pandemic-related stresses.

So, when it turned out in-person preschool was an option, I signed her up. Even though I know she might not be great at wearing her mask, and there is risk involved. My thought is that, because we have very few contacts of any kind outside of school, it's more of a risk to us than to the teachers. And we really do have a legitimate need.

I also signed up Miriam, because she did very little work in the spring. She'll do anything for her teachers, but when it's me asking, suddenly she resists. She also has a strong need for social interactions with other kids, since her brothers often exclude her and Jackie is too young. I felt that she could be relied on to wear her mask and follow the rules. And this way she will learn to read this year. I really don't know whether she would if it was just me and some video calls.

Michael and Marko are learning virtually. They are old enough to read their assignment lists and get them done fairly independently, and if they do get stuck, I'm there to help. Michael wanted to stay home, because he doesn't like school and didn't miss his friends. Marko would have preferred to go in person, but given his habit of putting everything into his mouth, I felt he would be a worse risk even than Jackie. I also kind of appreciate the chance to separate him from the bullies he dealt with last year, and to supervise what he's doing myself so that I know he actually understands what he's being taught. He's getting very little in special ed assistance now, so having me on hand is probably more useful than getting twenty minutes with a professional once a week.


So how's that going?

Jackie adores school. Just loves every minute. The second she finds out it's a school day, she jumps for joy. I can't say I was expecting that at all; even the days she liked daycare last year, she didn't like actually getting dropped off for it. But preschool is just super fun, apparently. People not getting within six feet of her is a plus.

It does seem to exhaust her. We've had a lot of hard afternoons. Two-hour meltdowns over her favorite towel being in the wash have made a comeback. Her teachers say she's as good as gold while she's there, but when I mention some of her at-home behavior, they seem incredulous. Like .... this is the child who clawed my arm this morning because there were no raisins in her cereal. This is the child who pretty much won't walk anywhere some days. It's really hard for me to deal with this disparity. Like, am I just a garbage parent that she acts so differently there than here? The teacher says it's common for kids to save their worst behavior for home, where they feel safest. But it still makes me feel like I'll never get any kind of diagnosis or help for her, because she's only like this at home.

Miriam loves school and seems to be doing great in it. Like last year, she has one best friend that she is obsessed with and tells us all about. They don't have proper recess, but they have "chat time" at their six-feet-apart desks, and also directed activities outside. She's being a trooper about all the extra safety procedures. Except the one day she had a slight fever at dropoff, and had to come home again. She was furious about it. Luckily, she turned out to have no other symptoms. Maybe she was just warm.

Michael is doing just great with virtual school. His teacher has everything very well organized. And it's nice that I'm home and can look over his work and figure out what he's having trouble with before he turns it in. Last year at school, he'd sometimes come home with whole worksheets marked wrong and have no idea why.

Marko resists some work and dives into other assignments. Everything having to do with ecosystems has been thrilling to him. Math, not so much. If I homeschool him any other year, I think I'll have to put together my own curriculum, because he really needs to be excited about a subject to pay any attention to it at all.


A plan of mine for a long time has been to get an exercise bike so I can improve my health without having to wait till somebody can watch the kids while I go for a walk or something. I finally got one off Craigslist.

It's been great, because I can put my phone up and watch The Late Show or put on some tunes and distract myself from the fact that I'm doing exercise.

I am pretty sure it's helping; I have had less dizziness and shortness of breath lately. Though taking vitamins seems to also be essential.

While the kids are at school, I finally have some time to myself. Most of that is getting taken up on self-care (like exercising and showering) and on chores, but I've had some time to write also. I'm trying to turn last year's book into a trilogy, but it's hard. I usually do one-offs for a reason.

I also have been writing some web content for a friend's business. Which means I have been getting paid to write. It's about finance, which isn't exciting to me, but honestly as long as I'm writing, I'm never bored. And I'm getting PAID. To WRITE. 


The pandemic isn't hindering us from having fun, because this time of year all the fun is outdoors anyway. We've gone to a lot of parks lately, and haven't found them crowded. Playgrounds sometimes are, but not creeks and hiking trails.

I love Virginia this time of year. Winter is bitter and summer is like being slowly steamed and eaten alive, but fall is perfect.


Which makes it a really bad time to think about possibly moving. Not far--the idea is to move closer to John's work, so that he doesn't have to spend over three hours commuting every day. But . . . the DC area is kind of terrible, even if you can afford to live in the nicer suburbs, which we couldn't.

There are a lot of good arguments in favor: greater population density means better odds for each of us to find activities or hobby groups. John could find a gaming group. I could find a writing group. The schools are better rated, and there are more autism groups and resources. We'd have an easier time getting to DC to see museums. There would just be more to do . . . at least, if this dang pandemic ever ends.

Plus, the election going on makes me feel . . . not very welcome around here. This is one of the reddest counties in the state. I've seen a lot of ugliness among the locals lately: threats to run over BLM protesters, carrying weapons to threaten ten people holding a quiet gun-violence vigil, nasty bumper stickers. I'm afraid to put up a Biden sign or sticker. I have a few friends here, but there don't seem to be any other people here I'd get along with.

But I can't shake the feeling that I need to be close to nature to be happy. Right now I can go in my backyard and not see any house but ours. There are trees on every side. I can take walks and see beautiful fall colors. A ten-minute drive brings us to the Shenandoah River, and twenty minutes takes us into a national forest.

Of course suburbs can have nature too. There are parks out there, and playgrounds, and green spaces. But there are also cruddy strip malls and used-car lots and six-lane roads. We'd probably have to live in a townhouse, with barely any yard. No matter how close a park is, a park is a trip. You can't just be in and out of the house all day like we are here.

We don't have to decide now. The plan is to move next summer, if we decide to and John is still at his current job. He very much wants to go, and I don't think he understands at all why I'm hesitant. I think some people can just not look at a tree all day and be fine. I feel I need beauty to live.

Maybe I can train my eyes to find beauty in more places. I sure hope so. I've never been happy living in a city. But maybe a dense suburb I could still do.


Kitty Kitty has finally, three years after moving here, made her peace with the rest of the house. She mostly hangs out in my room, but she is sometimes spotted in the family room, even when kids are around!

Tiger remains perfectly relaxed.


The election is coming up soon. I know hardly anyone is undecided, but if you are, I urge you to vote for Biden. I believe that voting for a major party has the best results, and of the two main candidates, Biden is the one who seems to have a conscience and operate in reality. The pandemic has shown us just how important experience and knowledge are, as our entry-level president delayed and mismanaged us to one of the highest death rates in the world.

I'd really like someone who knows the details about how our country runs and who actually cares about doing a good job. I don't think we've had that for the past four years.

Warren was my first choice, but Biden seems at least to be a decent human being who believes in the norms of democracy and the counsel of wise people. While he isn't going to turn America into everything I'd want in four years, he will restore some of the norms of civilized society, making it easier for future elections to go better than the last one did. People who won't vote for Biden because they're holding out for something better don't seem to recognize the harm Trump can do, not just to the next four years, but for decades to come by encouraging voter suppression. We need to get our country back on some kind of reasonable track before we can steer it anywhere good.

How is October treating all of you?

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Tolkien, because fair's fair

 It is possible that I am a lot readier to pick apart Lewis than I am with writers I like more. Because, while I absolutely adored Lewis when I was about 6-12 years old, it's not meant for adults and I was always going to find something lacking when I went back to them.

So let's talk about Tolkien. I got into Tolkien at maybe 12 years old, because my brother read the first one to me. Then I tried to read the second on my own, but I wasn't ready. Then something happened and I was ready, and I read them all, and The Silmarillion too. I was in love. Few books transport you to another world so thoroughly--a world that extends much farther than the eye can see in every direction, where the ruins are already moss-grown. You feel like a guest there, seeing a tiny shred of all that can be seen. And that's probably why it's such a great place to write fan fiction. There's room for it.

There are plot and style problems, of course, but I won't get into those. The book clearly works even if it's not written the way theoretically books should be. So long as we all understand it's to be enjoyed, not imitated. You couldn't pull off Tom Bombadil. You probably don't even know when to use thee and when to use thou. Tolkien spoke archaic language like a mother tongue. Those of us who don't, shouldn't try.

The books, though, don't just have archaic language. They have archaic concepts which even when he wrote the books were already beginning to be noticed as a problem.

Tolkien was inspired by the Germanic mythos. He felt that the English nation deserved an epic myth like Germany had, in part because he didn't like seeing English people fall in love with Germany's and start calling themselves Aryan. Here's one point to Ravenclaw (you KNOW Tolkien was Ravenclaw) for being anti-Nazi.

However, I feel like he missed the real problem with this. The whole concept of a romanticized ideal of a nation, with a founding mythos and so on, is a counter-Enlightenment concept which has led to fascism more than once, in more than one country. Instead of saying "we love our country because it has a good government and is fair to everyone," these myths teach us to say, "I love my country because I am English and we are special."

For years I puzzled over the idea of creating a founding mythos for America. Elves in America maybe? But in America, we know who was here before us, and it wasn't elves. White Americans know that exactly zero of us are descended from any special prehistoric elf king. We know we don't belong here. Now, the project has been attempted; it's called Mormonism. But Mormonism's mythos is horrible about Native Americans so . . . it fell right in that pitfall.

The fact is, your birth does not in fact make you special. It's actually important for us to recognize this, because obsessing over birth is a common human failing that's resulted in stuff like declining monarchies with increasingly worthless heirs, to say nothing of ethnic cleansing. And "your birth makes you special" is one of the underlying assumptions throughout Tolkien's work.

Consider: Hobbits are like this. Bilbo is a little different from average. Is that because he's chosen to be? Haha nope, it's because he's part Took and Tooks are a special lineage that's maybe a little bit Elf (but probably not). Dwarves, on the other hand, are like that, and all Dwarves without exception are like that. It's really great that Men, Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits all have their strengths and can appreciate one another for who they are.

Till you get to Orcs and then it's just awkward. Are Orcs born evil? Do they have free will? When we kill Orcs (which we do, without compunction, throughout the book) are we punishing them for something they couldn't help? I kind of think the concept of an evil race is a serious problem that we should never do.

There's also the assumption of feudal and monarchic bonds throughout. A lot of people read Sam's relationship to Frodo as a romantic one, or just deep friendship. And it's neither of those. It's feudal. Sam goes to Mordor with Frodo, not because he loves Frodo (though it's clear he does, especially as the books progress) but because he is Frodo's gardener. That's why he constantly supports and uplifts Frodo, while Frodo . . . doesn't really return that in kind, ever. Sam is proud to be Frodo's servant, and that makes us feel okay about it where we might not if it were compelled--though, to be clear, most servant-master relationships in Tolkien's day were compelled.

Merry has a feudal bond as well with Theoden, and Pippin with Denethor. Both of them seem someone confused about what the expectations are, in a milieu so different from the Shire, but they end up with a similar kind of pride in their lords as Sam has.

Monarchy is assumed, everywhere but the Shire. Aragorn is going to be the king of Gondor, we understand, because he was descended from Isildur. Not because he's good at ruling (though he is). Even if Denethor had been an excellent ruler and Aragorn had been incompetent or oppressive, it's clear that authority is not given Denethor to deny the return of the king. Despite the fact that Denethor and his ancestors have ruled Gondor for centuries, while Aragorn's ancestors have been toodling about in the North doing whatever it is they do. It's Aragorn's bloodline that makes him worthy of courting Arwen, of curing illnesses with athelas, and of ruling Gondor. It's all very convenient, that in this monarchy there's no dispute between good people about who has the better claim. The people of the city are pretty willing to accept whatever their betters decide, and once Faramir's in charge, he's happy to yield to Aragorn.

I'm not exactly complaining; it was a long enough book as it was without a civil war over the rule of Gondor, or a referendum on who the Gondorians thought most worthy. As a fantasy, it's nice. Unfortunately, a lot of people (myself included, for a while) get a very romantic notion of kingship from these books. They think lineal monarchy results in badasses like Aragorn, who are both naturally virtuous and trained to rule, rising to the throne. In reality, they tend to result in secession wars every few generations, and even if you avoid that, you might get this:

A portrait of Charles II, whose face is deformed through inbreeding

You just don't know! It could be a total mess. But people who romanticize Tolkien often contrast our real government, which of course is light-years from perfect, with fictional monarchies and think that what we really need is hereditary monarchy. Let me assure you: that is the last thing we need.

So: Tolkien, consciously or not, romanticizes racial and family determinism, feudal bonds, and monarchy. And that's not great. But I bet you thought I was going to talk about women, so here I go.

There are not enough women in The Lord of the Rings. (The Silmarillion is a little better; The Hobbit a lot worse.) If I were rewriting it, I'd make Merry, Pippin, Gimli, and maybe Aragorn all female and it would be a noticeably better story. (Sure, you could pick different people; that's my set. I especially like the idea that nobody knows Gimli is a girl till the very end, because female Dwarves look the same as the men.)

But honestly, I think the women that do make it in are portrayed better than the women in C. S. Lewis. Lewis's women are only allowed to be certain ways; if they're too girly that's bad (Lasaraleen, Susan) but if they're not girly enough that's also bad ("wars are ugly when women fight," right before sending children into a literal pitched battle and making a little girl be a battle medic, what the heck?). Tolkien's women are, at any rate, unique. Arwen has only a minor role, yet we see she's making huge sacrifices for love and going against what was expected of her. Galadriel is immensely powerful, overshadowing her husband (who seems to be supportive as heck and not at all threatened). Eowyn is the most fleshed-out of all, and she chafes against the restrictions she is expected to live with. She does go to war (which, surprise surprise, is ugly all-around and not just for her) and being female turns out to be an unexpected advantage.

I'm not entirely happy with the way she just quietly stops being a shieldmaiden at the end; it's not entirely clear to me whether it's because she feels there was something wrong with being one before, or just that she no longer feels herself caged the way she did in Rohan. But I love how Faramir woos her: "I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten." That's not the kind of random, meaningless chivalry Lewis's men pour out all over the place. It's specifically tailored to her; he is proud of her accomplishments in battle and has no desire to minimize them or gloss them over. We need more supportive dudes like that.

I still think there should be more women in the book. But there's something special about the way the men are supportive of each other, soft, unafraid to cry, deep and lasting friends. I, myself, don't think that would be at all impossible with women around, as some men do and Tolkien might have done. But I'm almost willing to sacrifice having many female characters for this degree of wholesome masculinity. Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain is one of the most beautiful and moving things in all fiction, and it's an example that more men could stand to look to when it comes to supporting their bros. Steal fireworks! Sing in the tub! Cry for your losses! Just so long as, in the end, you carry each other up the mountains you can't climb alone. I like that the emotional-support roles weren't just shoved off onto any available women, if only because there weren't any.

I would give (and have given) these books to my kids to read and love. I don't think they should be the only books kids read, though. I want books where boys and girls team up to beat the baddies, books where evil kings are overthrown and not replaced with nice kings, books where Orcs turn out to be decent family men who hate having to work for dark lords and are happy to be liberated. It's something to keep in mind, if you ever try writing fantasy. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Why I am not an Aslanite

It's been a while since we've had a religious post, hasn't it? (Or any post. Jackie does not like me using my laptop and not letting her push buttons.)

I've been reading a review series on C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, which, much as I love them, clearly had a lot of flaws I didn't pick up on the time. Some of which I'm quite happy to continue overlooking, because Lewis didn't like complicated worldbuilding and to be honest, I don't really care where the Beavers got their potatoes during their hundred years of winter. The story still works and the intended audience is kids, who rarely notice that stuff.

But other things actually are problematic, like the Dufflepuds being kept as slaves or Caspian white-savioring all the Narnians even though being the male descendant of conquerors doesn't actually make him more worthy of kingship than any other Son of Adam. (And what is with the necessity of Narnian rulers being human anyway? Doesn't it make sense that Animals would be the best rulers of Animals?)

Most vital, though, is the theology. The Narnia books are heavy allegories, from which I got a lot of my subconscious impressions of Christianity. I certainly read them long before I read any of the Bible, and long into adulthood I've had theological disagreements settled with, "It's just like in Narnia! It makes sense in Narnia, doesn't it?" So I thought I would go over a few of the key theological lessons from Narnia and ask whether they hold water as a comparison with the real world.

Aslan's Death and Resurrection

That's the part that gets cited the most. When I was struggling with the doctrine of the redemption in Christianity, I considered and discarded an awful lot of theological theories. (Did you know there are many, and that more than one is considered acceptable to Catholics?) And the Narnia theory is one of the most cited and believed. Clearly humanity owed some kind of debt because of the evil that we did, and God was obliged to sacrifice a life because of it. Rather than sacrificing ours, he sacrificed his son's, and that's why everything is okay now.

Let's look at how it works in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Edmund betrays his family--or at least, he sides with the Witch over Aslan, and that makes him bad even though he doesn't know who the good guys are when he eats the Witch's enchanted food. He pretends to himself that he doesn't actually mean any harm to his family, but secretly he knows they're going to be hurt. 

Because he's done such a horrible, traitorous thing, the Witch insists that she has the right to Edmund's blood. Aslan backs her up, saying that this is a rule written on the throne of the Emperor across the sea and that Narnia will be destroyed if she doesn't get what she wants.

That's where I get hung up. Why does the Emperor have such a horrible thing written on his throne? Did he write it there? Why? Is the Emperor just really brutal, to have declared the death penalty even for children who do bad things they don't full understand, under the influence of magic? Why did he pick Jadis as his hangwoman, knowing of course that Jadis is super evil? Wouldn't it make sense, if you want to exercise justice and punishment within your realm, to pick someone who's actually on your side to enforce it, so that you can temper the punishments with mercy as applicable?

The Emperor, of course, is not all-powerful, or he could indeed scrub the words off his throne and have nothing bad happen. Nor does he seem to be omniscient, to predict the rules would backfire in this way. (Unless this whole thing was his plan, of course, but it's a pretty complicated and painful plan compared to "nobody has to die ever, I the Emperor say so.")

But there's a loophole in this law, which is that Jadis is entitled to one person, not necessarily the person who did the crime, so if we can talk her into a switch, Edmund can get off. Again, this is a really weird rule for the Emperor to have. What is the point of punishing someone who isn't the criminal? Why is Jadis the one who gets to decide if she's okay with the swap or not?

In Mere Christianity, there's a whole bit justifying this, in that Jesus was "the perfect penitent" since he didn't do anything wrong. But he's justly able to apologize for all sins because he's the one sinned against in every sin. Or something like that. I don't really buy it. Wouldn't he have to be the one who had sinned in every sin to be able to apologize for every sin?

It's just really odd that one of our intuitions ("bad people should be punished") is in fact a law so strong it binds even God, but the other one ("the punishment should be applied to the bad person, specifically") is not. Again, where do laws that bind God come from? From logic? Who was supposed to have created logic?

The Stone Table scene is beautiful and moving if you are a Christian, but if you're not, it just seems kind of upsetting. None of it makes any real sense. And I don't think it brings us any closer to a reasonable understanding of what redemption could mean.

Not a Tame Lion

This is a line that appears over and over in the books whenever Aslan does things we don't like. After all, he's not tame. He does what he wants and he comes and goes as he pleases, you can't expect any given thing of him. But you are supposed to trust him. Also he may roar at you at random, and most of his appearances involve him being stern and scary.

I remember Aslan being a snuggly, nice lion, because of the romp scenes with Lucy and Susan in the first and second books. But skimming back through, not every character gets such a positive experience. Most of Aslan's appearances, he's no fun at all, and he's often terrifying. Take Jill's first experience of him:

But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason; just on this side of the stream lay the lion.

   It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square. She knew at once that it had seen her, for its eyes looked straight into hers for a moment and then turned away—as if it knew her quite well and didn’t think much of her.

This, by the way, is how for years I pictured God looking at me. As if he knew me quite well and didn't think much of me. And no matter how much I told myself he wasn't like that, I couldn't help seeing that version when I closed my eyes. I kinda want to blame Lewis for that.

“If I run away, it’ll be after me in a moment,” thought Jill. “And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth.” Anyway, she couldn’t have moved if she had tried, and she couldn’t take her eyes off it. How long this lasted, she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first.
   “If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”
   [...She] realized that it was the lion speaking. Anyway, she had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
   “Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
   “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
   “Then drink,” said the Lion.
   “May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
   The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
   The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
   “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
   “I make no promise,” said the Lion.
   Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
   “Do you eat girls?” she said.
   “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
   “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
   “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
   “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
   “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

The poor girl has never heard of Aslan till this morning. She has no reason to know Aslan is good. And Aslan does not seem to care to convince her. He's just . . . I don't know how to describe this but throwing his weight around. Demonstrating to her that she has to trust him because she has no choice.

And I could take this as just happening for plot reasons (though it seems very deliberate to me) if it were not that this is exactly how I've heard being Christian described. Is it horrible a lot of the time? Yeah. Has it historically harmed people? Oh definitely. But you don't have a choice because you will perish if you don't obey.

I'm sorry, that's just a . . . really terrible worldview! One which people believe with complete sincerity. And yet later, we will be told that Puddleglum chooses to believe in Aslan because even if it's false, it's better. It doesn't seem that much better to me! If we can choose to believe in things that are nice, simply because they are nice, I would choose to believe in an Aslan who said, "You poor thing, you must be so traumatized from seeing Eustace topple off a cliff; it wasn't your fault, okay? And I'm sorry about all the terrible bullying you're going through. By the end of this book you won't ever get bullied again."

But Aslan never does what a decent person would do, because he's not "tame." I'm not tame either, but I'm still capable of being compassionate. Having a God who can be predicted to take compassionate actions isn't "taming" God or attempting to "put him in a box." It's predicting his behavior based on his known nature. Why can't we do that?

Of course, for plot reasons it's necessary for Aslan to hold back from pitching in until things are horribly desperate, and to fail to explain things just so we can be kept in suspense. But for theological reasons, it's just as necessary. Because, while there is little we can say about God, we can say with certainty that he doesn't intervene to help when people are in trouble or provide comfort when we're sad, not with any reliable consistency. Just like Aslan.

Puddleglum's Stomp

Next, since I just referred to it, let's talk about that pivotal scene in The Silver Chair, when Puddleglum stomps on the fire and tells the witch that the sun and Aslan are real, and even if not, he'll still believe in them.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

People cite this scene a lot, as what it's really like to almost become an atheist and then turn back to believing again. Because you can get into a state of mind where you almost don't believe, but you can (and should) always turn back and believe again.

The first issue is that enchantment isn't real, so when you almost don't believe in God, it's probably because of reasons that seem true to your mind. (Or perhaps a deep depression--seeing the visible world as a nasty, gray, underground hole is definitely a sign of depression.) So there's no real reason to assume that the thought that God isn't real is less reliable than the thought you previously had that said he was.

The second is that there are any number of possibilities with different levels of optimism. There are much nicer realities we could choose to believe in than Christianity: we could believe in a completely agreeable deity who saves everyone regardless of what they do, who approves of any conceivable action we might want to take. We could believe that aliens are shortly going to come and take us all to a better place. We could choose to believe in fairies! Puddleglum is choosing between a simple binary: cruddy underground kingdom, or the nice world he half-remembers from outside. We are not.

And the third, at most vital, problem with this is that reality actually matters. You can't navigate the world you live in if you're in denial about what world it is. If Puddleglum thinks the Overland exists when it doesn't and spends his life looking for it in vain, he'll waste any number of opportunities to make the real, underground world better. What if his dream of a sun is an inspiration to create a fusion reactor? Sure, that's not as cool or poetic, but it could improve the lives of everyone down there.

It's really hard for me to argue why it's good to believe the truth, because the truth is what believing is for. Our minds are a tool that's principally good for finding the truth about things and making plans for how to navigate that truth. If you refuse to use it that way, it's kind of like using the good sewing scissors making paper dolls. Sure you can, but it's a terrible waste of something that's good for more than that. And yes, I do think willfully believing false things on purpose will ruin your mind in the long run, just like paper does to sewing scissors.

Things People Secretly Know

In Narnia, it's a very common experience for people to claim, even within their private thoughts, to believe one thing, while actually they secretly know or suspect they're wrong.

Digory knows he's not enchanted into ringing the bell that wakes Jadis, but he pretends he is.

Edmund knows the White Witch will be cruel to his siblings, but he pretends to himself that they'll be treated well.

In Prince Caspian, Susan secretly knows Lucy is telling the truth about having seen Aslan showing the path out of the woods, but ignores that because she's in such a hurry to get out of the woods.

Self-deception is a real thing! I'm not going to pretend (even to myself, haha) that it's not. We sometimes simultaneously believe two things, and keep one uppermost in our mind because it's the one that jives best with our self-image. I get that.

But it's not actually easy to tell which one is real, so the amount of blame characters get for doing this is pretty frustrating. It's not like being confused about which thing you believe is a moral fault. It's more that figuring out the truth is hard. I would blame Susan if she explicitly knew Lucy was telling the truth and lied and said she wasn't (you know, like Edmund does about the wardrobe after his first visit) but in this case, she's not even aware she's deceiving herself till afterwards . . . yet it's still considered a fault.

I also call BS on many of these circumstances, because if these characters really secretly believed in what they claim to, they wouldn't act the way they do. For instance, if Susan secretly knows Lucy saw Aslan showing the path out of the forest, and she's in a tremendous hurry to get out of the forest . . . wouldn't she immediately follow Lucy? Her behavior only makes sense if she really, truly does not believe Lucy.

Compare to a Christian who, on some level, knows God isn't real but pretends to herself she does. (This isn't any of you, this is me immediately pre-deconversion, okay?) If you ask her if she expects a miracle to happen, she might say there's a chance of it. But the true belief is visible in the fact that she never acts like she has the slightest expectation that a miracle will  happen. If people actually believed, strongly believed, in hellfire, they would never even be tempted to commit mortal sins. Why not? Well because nothing could be worse than hellfire, certainly not a missed opportunity to commit some good sins. If people really believed that prayer would have vast positive results in their lives, they wouldn't be lazy about it. I'm not lazy about taking my vitamins, because I know they work well and have experienced this! I got lazy about praying sometimes, as everyone does, because I had tried that approach and had no good effects.

If Edmund really thought that the Witch was going to be horribly cruel to his siblings, he wouldn't rush back to her like that because he would be afraid for his own life. If she's like that to them, she could be like that to him. But he doesn't worry a  bit about it, because in fact he doesn't think of her as a cruel person at all. Not explicitly, and not "secretly" either.

But this is part and parcel of Lewis's belief that atheists secretly know God is real and are just pretending they don't. Or that every bad action that we think isn't willful, truly is on some secret level. He wants us to believe we are all much more responsible for our mistakes than we are. And I think that gave me a lot of shame as a kid, worrying that what I thought were mistakes were really something I could have resisted if I'd tried harder. The Narnian kids are never, ever given any leeway for mistakes. Aslan always knows they're lying, even when they don't. That was a pretty scary thing to believe as a kid.

Liar, Lunatic, or True Narnian

When Lucy first comes back from visiting Narnia, the other kids don't believe her. Which seems reasonable, since she's making extraordinary claims and they checked the back of the wardrobe.

We learn, over the course of the story, that believing Lucy on no proof is virtuous. Always. She is always one hundred percent reliable, and she's usually put in positions where she's the only witness of Aslan so you have no choice to believe her. We know, as the reader, that she's telling the truth, but the other characters don't. They're still supposed to believe, because believing on no evidence is Good. (But not, you know, believing the White Witch or Shift the ape or the Green Lady or the Giants, whom we are supposed to figure out are Bad.) This is part of Lewis's moral lesson he's trying to make about faith.

   "We were afraid it mightn't even be lying," said Susan; "we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."
   "Madness, you mean?" said the Professor quite coolly. "Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."
   "But then," said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn't know what to think.
   "Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."

This is a restatement of Lewis's "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" trilemma about Jesus. If a person isn't known for being a liar, and they aren't obviously insane, they must be telling the truth.

It's wrong in Mere Christianity, and it's wrong here too. There are so many other things that could be going on here. Maybe the mothballs are hallucinogenic and Lucy had a wild dream in the wardrobe. Maybe she's traumatized by the separation from her parents and is turning to her imagination so strongly that she can't tell the difference anymore. Mental illness isn't actually diagnosible by "only looking at" someone, and even people who are mentally healthy may occasionally hallucinate, experience mass hysteria, or be deceived. There are so many reasons why people say things that aren't true besides that they are lying or crazy.

But Lewis doesn't seem to believe so. Everyone who is wrong "secretly knows" that they're wrong, in his books. Nobody sees a swatch of tawny leaves in the woods and hopes so much to see Aslan that they think it might be him. Nobody is scared or doubtful of Aslan unless they're secretly bad. I get that it's a kids' book and things are simplified, but I think Lewis actually believed this to some degree. The Apostles couldn't hope that Jesus is somehow still alive and have some spiritual, nonphysical experiences that got magnified by later writers into physical appearances. Nope. They are con men, lunatics (which they can't be, because they can put sentences together), or Jesus is alive. 

The unpleasant corollary of this is that the prophets of other religions are all liars or lunatics, because we take as given that they're not lords. It also seems that Lewis believes atheists are lying too, at least if we take Edmund and Susan as examples. Each claims, at one point, that Narnia was only just a game, but both clearly know that's not the case. 

I don't know how to prove that atheists do not, in fact, secretly know that God is real. Except, I guess, that there's no real benefit in it. If I knew I was going to burn for eternity for lying about believing in God, I can't think why I'd do it. I want to act ethically--it's my primary motivation most of the time--so failing to use the best information available on how to do that would be pretty dumb of me. Just like it's pretty dumb of Susan or Edmund to pretend Narnia isn't real. What do they get out of it? How is Edmund going to tempt his siblings into Narnia so he can get another hit of magic candy if he pretends it's not there? 

Worshiping Aslan All Along

Time to talk about my least favorite Narnia book, The Last Battle. Mostly I hate it because it ends all of Narnia; I would have preferred not to read it and let Narnia continue on indefinitely in my imagination. Second, I hate it because Lewis did Susan dirty. I don't think he hated Susan particularly; I think he just wanted to make a point about how even people who have truly experienced God can wander away from him. But, like I said, Susan actually does believe and is lying, which makes her a very bad example of an atheist.

But let me talk about a bit people really love, which is where Emeth, a follower of the false god Tash, finds out Aslan is the true God of Narnia.

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

I don't entirely hate this. I do think you can worship a better deity than you think you do, if as you pray you imagine something a little different than the texts describe. And there are people who worship a pretty horrific version of the Christian God, as you can tell by what they think that God will do to people they don't like.

But it feels very disrespectful of people's agency to just say, hey, you're one of us now! I like the idea that I could die and pick a deity who best embodied what I sought in my lifetime. I don't like being told by other people that I'm secretly Christian even though I am not. I guess it's because the focus isn't on whether God is acceptable to me, but on whether I will be acceptable to a God I didn't choose. Does that sound horribly egotistical? I just think that people should have the agency to decide for themselves if they really were "worshiping God all along." And maybe that is meant by Emeth falling at Aslan's feet, that Emeth recognizes that Aslan is what he in fact wants. That just isn't the part that people focus on when they cite this verse at me. They think they are reassuring me when they say I might really be one of them. In reality, it feels like they're reassuring themselves--because they believe there is only one right answer, and they want to believe that I'll make it in somehow.

I still like the books, on some level. The scenery is beautiful, the style is charming, and if none of the human characters have that much agency in the plot, I never noticed that while reading them. I've given the books to my kids, and they love them too.

But I don't buy the theological lessons that are in these books. I am not sure I ever could have if I were older and not primed to read them like scripture. Maybe Tolkien was right and allegory is a fool's game. (Want me to write a post nitpicking Tolkien? No, right? I would hate doing it because of course it has flaws, but man, those books were formative.)

Friday, July 24, 2020


I've never really liked going out. I mean, sure, as a kid I enjoyed the park and the beach, but I preferred to sit in the car for an hour than go into the store with my mom. Going to school every day was this whole exhausting thing.

At boarding school it got worse. A lot worse. Our only trips out were to the park, and that wasn't too bad since I like the outdoors. But every once in a while I would accompany an adult to the store (they weren't allowed to be alone, ever) and it was horrible. Ads everywhere. So many brands. Music. Noise. Strangers. I felt like I was braving the devil's territory. Airports were even worse.

I got over that some when I got back. I think what it really was, was a lack of practice. If you haven't been to a grocery store for a year, it's a big overwhelming experience. If you go a lot and know your way around, it's no big thing. I went to community college and had a number of jobs and the leaving the house bit was tiring, but I wasn't scared to.

Kids, of course, changed the equation. There's just so much to remember and so many ways your attention is divided. You've got to have diapers and wipes and spare clothes and keys and a wallet and sunglasses and sunscreen and a sweater and and and ..... And of course you can't come home without the bread or the milk you left to get. I pride myself that I usually make it through without disaster, but the effort of making sure it's not a disaster is real.

Over the past couple of years, I have worked hard at building normal adult routines. Leaving the house every day, dressing up for work, doing the work, maybe even going to work and doing several chores on the same day! Making phone calls the day I think of it instead of months later. Having meetings with teachers at school where I don't forget what day it is and where I show up with my ID so I can get in. I can't say it's been a huge success. I mean, this past year I did hold down a job and even kept records of what the  kids were learning without anybody telling me to. I felt like I was adulting well, but it wiped me out. Jackie too--I mean, that was a big part of it, that two hours at daycare made her need constant attention for an hour or two before and after. Before the pandemic, I'd already decided not to do it a second year. I was going to try to put Jackie in preschool, but while she was there I wanted to stay home. I thought maybe I could take an editing job. Just anything where I didn't have to put on uncomfortable clothes and remember twelve different items.

The pandemic took a big burden off my plate. There's no work, no preschool, and no big kid school. I don't have to remember what day or time it is. I don't have to get dressed at any given hour or find anybody's shoes for them or pack any lunches. At first this felt like a relief.

But the lack of structure is really getting to me. I'm trying to build my own routines, but it's not the same. Whole days seem to just disappear into filling sippy cups and scrolling facebook. Like, where do they even go? Why is it four in the afternoon? When did that happen?

Worse, I'm out of practice going out, and that means every trip out is that much harder. Where are my keys now? Where's my purse? Why aren't my sunglasses in the car? This, of course, isn't helped by the extra stuff I have to do because of the pandemic: wash my hands, forget and touch my face as I'm heading out the door, wash my hands again, find my mask, check if the store is even open at the same hours, worry about what might not be in stock . . .

Then I get there and it's this whole overwhelming thing, just like when I was in boarding school. Noise! Strangers who may or may not be scowling at me! Signs! Remembering not to touch my face! The stress I feel morphs into fear, as I remember that I could catch the coronavirus on this trip, and that it's my job to do all the things to make sure I don't. I can't just decide not to care, like with many of my other fears I can choose to ignore. I'm anxious all the time about whether there's hand sanitizer at the entrance, whether everyone is masked, whether the aisles are one-way now, whether I'm keeping my six feet (or whether I can, in a narrow aisle), whether people are mad at me, whether they think I'm mad at them, whether I'll accidentally try to buy more loaves of bread than the limit, whether someone will spit or cough on me on purpose because they think the virus is a hoax, whether they'll have any tuna . . . on top of all my usual store fears of going over budget, forgetting something important, forgetting the reusable bags, or embarrassing myself.

Some of these fears are rational, and some are not. So far I haven't caught the coronavirus or been spit on. I have tried to buy too much bread, bumped into people, forgotten bags, and embarrassed myself. My emotional reactions to going on out seem to be getting worse. My mask makes me feel like I'm gagging, and while I know there's no physical reason for this, I can't think it away.

I feel really ashamed of this. As long as I can cope with it, it's my problem only, but if I decide I can't do it? If I order groceries or have John do it? Well, then I'm a failure. My fear of going out is making me incapable of doing something that has always been my job--something I want to be doing myself. I'm not even any good at making a list for someone else, because I can't remember the stuff I need to buy till I see it. (Somebody needs to make a VR Instacart.) I feel like I do so little as it is, especially with my job gone. How do I justify my existence if I can't go out? How do I feel like a grownup if I can't go out?

Even deeper than this fear is the fear that, the more I cede ground to my fear, the less I'll be able to face it. What if I give up grocery shopping, and then the library becomes overwhelming? What if I give up the library and then the park is too much? What if I can't see my friends anymore, even when the pandemic is over? I know lack of exposure makes it worse. So is this pandemic going to set off a chain reaction that ends with me being somebody's weird grandma who lives in a single dark room with the curtains drawn, and she'll text but you can't call because the phone is too scary?

For now, I'm keeping up with groceries. I went to the closer store the other day for just a couple items and that was pretty okay. Everyone was masked and I didn't stay long enough for my mask to bother me. Sunday I'm supposed to go to the further, cheaper store, where I usually take a good 45 minutes to get my shopping done. Last time I went, I thought I was going to puke in the parking lot, the stress got to me so much by the end. I am trying not to psych myself out that this time will be the same. Maybe it'll be different. I'm going to make myself a better mask with a nose bridge and elastic on the sides instead of bias tape, and maybe that will help. I need to succeed at this.

John says it doesn't matter if I can't. That not being able to go out in a pandemic is not the same as not being able to go out ever. That when it's over, I can slowly step up where I go, knowing this time that there's less to worry about. That giving up the store trip now doesn't condemn me to being bricked up onside the house for the rest of my life. I know he's right. But I'm scared, all the same.

Am I the only one who is getting like this lately?
Does anybody still read this blog?
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