Sunday, February 21, 2010


I have been around libraries forever. My mother and grandmother read me stories and told me others from memory. By the time I was two, I had many stories memorized and could recite them word for word. If my grandmother retold any of those stories and left out so much as a preposition, I would remind her of it. I started reading on my own at the age of four, and it was then that my mother took me to the library for my first library card. At that time, the County Library still issued cards to municipal residents, and I remembered getting the little blue Gaylord card with the metal tag from Marguerite, a little woman with short dark hair, who was wearing a white outfit, with matching skirt and vest. (Don't ask me why I remember these things.) The card had a number "12" written on it in thin marker. Years later I would work with Marguerite in the Circulation department of the County Library during my last year at university, when I had just returned from school in the UK. She died a number of years ago.

My mother has worked at that same County Library for the last thirty years. She had always worked until 1 or 2 in the afternoon, so that she could be home when we (myself and my siblings) came home from school. Frequently, she would come home with a stack of books for me, as I was the one who liked to read. She worked in the Shelving department, and would pick up things that she thought I might like. Usually they were stories of witches, ghosts, or other supernatural things. This is probably where I got my interest in such subjects. Some authors I remember well, like John Bellairs, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Margaret Mahy. I now own many of the series put out by those authors. If I like an author enough, I will re-read their books from time to time, when I just want to enjoy a well-written story and not slag through a longer novel.

This afternoon, after writing another short story of my own, I took a break and picked up one of those old books. It was a Bellairs book, and I read it in an hour. Perhaps it was because I had been questioning my own use of characters and plot devices that I began to question those used by Bellairs. His protagonists are usually boys around the age of 10 who are brainy, Catholic, and not very strong physically. They usually live with a relative, because their parents are dead, or at war, or some such thing. The plot usually revolves around their interest in magic or magical objects, and they always manage to get themselves into a heap of trouble. Why? Because they are looking for a magical talisman to solve their problems--bullies at school, or whatever. The books are fascinating because Bellairs was a Latin scholar, and was very well versed in ancient history. There is always a bit of ancient history or legend in every story.

My brain went off on a tangent at the mention of talismans. In magical stories, frequently someone is looking for some object that will miraculously solve their problems. I think of the notion of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, and the idea of "the good old days". We always think that somewhere else there is something better, in another time, another place--and if we just got our hands on that one important thing, or completed some ritual, everything would be all right, back to "the way it was," perfect. Back to my mother again--she is the resident bookie at her job. She runs the lottery pool. Whenever we talk about money issues, her own and those in the family, she always says, "When I win the lottery, I'll take care of everyone's money problems." I also find myself thinking about people who want a pill for every ache and pain. Why should we suffer?

At first glance, this sounds like a wonderful thing. Wouldn't it be great to have all the money you need, anything you want, and nothing in your way? However, there is a small problem, and I think the Buddha summed it up best: All human life is suffering. Humans can't really live without a challenge or a purpose. Death claims all of us eventually. And if we did not have days where we were down and depressed, we'd never reflect on any of our actions or think about anyone else. We're selfish enough as it is--the notion that we could sustain that with no consequence is crazy.

In the study of religion, there is a branch of inquiry known as "theodicy". Theodicy deals with the problem of evil. Theodicy is only a problem when you believe in Being called God who is Good. The question posed by philosopher David Hume was (roughly): If God is not able to eliminate evil, then he is not omnipotent. If He is able, but unwilling, then He is malevolent. This was the conundrum given to religious scholars, and has sparked much thought over hundreds of years. How can a good God allow evil? One response to that question was an idea known as "negative theodicy". In short--how will you know good if you don't experience evil? How would you know it was daytime if you didn't experience night?

"Evil" is usually a subjective term. I think of it as a total lack of conscience--the condition where one would only manipulate and prey upon others without regard for their well being, and only with regard for their own. Everyone is selfish and self-preservationist to some degree, but evil is a step beyond selfish. The person who tortures and kills with no feeling or remorse. The person who uses another as a scapegoat for their own criminal activity and is amused by the destruction they cause. However, for many people, evil is an adjective used in disapproval of things they don't like. Smoking, drinking, and sex have all been branded evil at some point or another. Money can be considered evil. And--if everything is going wrong in your life--clearly some evil force must be at work, yes?

Actually, no. Sometimes everything goes wrong in an effort to show you how you need to alter your thinking to make things right. And as for the moral vices, many have the potential to be harmful when used in excess, but none are "evil" in and of themselves. Obstacles and limitations are not evil, either; they are challenges for us to overcome, and what is required to overcome the challenge depends on the situation. One thing is always clear--if you find an easy way out, you probably haven't learned anything, and will be presented with the same challenge again. For instance--if someone always bails you out when you have money trouble, you'll never learn to be responsible with finances, and will soon be in debt again.

People would be happier if they would embrace their suffering rather than trying to escape from it. I know, easier said than done, and no one likes to feel pain. I don't like it any more than anyone else. But in my experience, I have found that the more I have struggled with something, the more I fully understand what needs to be avoided or done in the future. Magic, like anything else, isn't evil. And any magician knows that any talisman that purports to solve everything is suspicious at best. There are no shortcuts, and the lesson of most stories about talismans is that they often create more trouble than they solve. Indeed you will meet the Devil again, as he lives up to his name (diabolos--one who obstructs your path) and presents you with the same challenge again and again until you face it. That isn't evil. That's spiritual growth.

1 comment:

Daniel Hanley said...

I've thought a lot about theodicy lately. As you might expect, I tend towards a neo-Gnostic solution. I suppose that the truest God is wholly beyond comprehension, and did not create the world (at least not as it is now). The Universe is imperfect because it is not (in its current state) the product of that perfect being. At least, the parts that we ordinarily interact with aren't. There exists in the Universe a divine force for good, which we can conveniently call "God". S/He is not quite omnipotent, and did not create the Universe, but works to improve it and restore its matter to a divine state. Personally I like the old myth of Iao Sabao, the former Archon who along with his angels rebelled against the Demiurge and allied himself with the Divine Fullness of the true god. Sabao tries to help those who want to transcend the limits of the apparent world, but he is isn't exactly omnipotent, so evil persists. Of course, this is mythology, so the names and events shouldn't be taken too literally. They describe certain observed characteristics of reality, but in a poetic and non-scientific manner.

It does seem that the easy solution to any problem tends to blow up in your face. Sometimes the quick and dirty solution is needed for the short term, as long as you are also working on the slow, stable solution. Just as often, though, the quick and dirty solution is so dangerous that it's worse than the problem! Once again, evidence of the imperfection of the Universe. Of course, an imperfect Universe isn't the same as an evil Universe - there is undoubtedly good in the world, just as there are some actual easy and painless fixes to certain problems. There just appear not to be easy fixes to most problems. At least, not in my experience!