Thursday, December 26, 2019

Tis the Season

Tis the Season

I meant to post this a few days ago, but life just goes that way sometimes.  Enjoy!

Its Christmas Eve, so that means most of us are buying those last-minute Christmas presents and/or driving to those ever so joyous and eventful holiday get-togethers.  This time of year can be both fun-filled and over-stuffed with stress.  We often forget, and it’s all too easy to do so, why this time of the year means something more than just presents and eggnog.

But don’t worry, I’m not going to lecture everyone on how we are missing the boat and that we are all going to burn and need to “repent.”  (But that does sound fun, doesn’t it?)  All I ask is that even if each of us just take the briefest of moments (and yes, I forget to do this myself from time to time during the holiday season) to just give thanks for the lives we have and the people that are in our lives that make us who we are.  It can be easy to see all that is wrong with the world and to only see that.  But all of us have been given a gift, the gift of life by God, the universe, or whatever else you wish to call it. 

The world today leaves many viewing the world in disgust and feeling jaded.  Much of our art and literature reflects this cynical feeling that many in society have.  From The Handmaiden’s Tale to Game of Thrones, there is no more good vs evil, just shades of grey with each character seeing themselves as the hero of their story.  There is some truth to this.  Rarely are things in life just black and white - neatly cut down the middle.  Real life is messy and often confusing.  I think in so many ways, that was why I gravitated towards Roberts Jordan’s The Wheel of Time Series.

So, let me start at the beginning, well at least the beginning for me.  I will try my best to avoid spoilers that would give away the entire series.  I was one of those nerdy kids in high school who read the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter as well as watched all of the movies in theaters.  But there are only so many times you can reread the same books.  So, through some internet searching and some recommendations from friends, I began reading the Eye of the World, the first book in Roberts Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time (WOT).  18 years later I finally finished book 14, A Memory of Light.  What can I say, after years of procrastination, graduating high school and college, getting married, and building a home, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning to finish the last 200 pages that Brandon Sanderson and the late Robert Jordan co-wrote. 

In terms of fantasy epics, I’d call it a spiritual experience if ever there was one.   It occurred to me the that for 18 years I had been on this journey; it’s amazing how with books, stories that are the pure imagination of the author, we come across characters and places that become real to us.  They become dear friends and we live and grow with them.  Whether its Rand, Mat, Min, Nynaeve, Perrin, Egwene, or Elayne, we follow this group of friends who in turn become our friends.

I think what draws me the most to WOT is not that terrible things happen to the characters and their world, but through it all, goodness is defined and sought as something worth fighting for.  Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, spends almost the entire series discovering who he is and coming to understand the prophecy that guides his life.  It is his destiny to face the Dark One (the devil) and he can either run away from his fate or accept it.  It would be a hard pill for anyone to swallow, and most I feel would collapse and succumb to the pressure.

The WOT is perhaps one of the most philosophical fantasy works I have ever read.  Yet, the story and message are not overbearing.  There is just that feeling - even with impending doom hanging over you - that no matter how bad things might appear, things are worth fighting for if there is just a sliver of hope and goodness left in the world.

The Dragon Reborn is named as such because he is the reincarnation of the Dragon, a title for a man (Lews Therin Telamon) who lived 3,000 years prior to the time of our story.  His story is one of triumph and absolute tragedy.  It makes a good parable for our own time as well.  Even if you are the proclaimed savior of the world – blessed and talented - unbridled pride and hubris are sure to doom you more than anything else.  Through WOT, it is clear that it was not one particular thing that Lews Therin did but rather a steady flow of decisions that one by one built him into something not much different than the evil Dark One he opposed. 

Rand spends much of the series being both hero and tyrant.  There are times when he yearns for love and affection and times when he decides he must be cold as steel and cut himself off from all love and affection.  He learns through trials and tribulations DNA alone does not determine who we are.  We are made by the people we know and love.  The places we’ve lived in a visited have also formed us.  A sense of belonging and love for a place are real things.  Love and belonging, that’s what home is.  It shapes our very essence and how we view the world. 

Our three friends, Rand, Mat, and Perrin, all grew up in a remote area known as the Two Rivers.  Though they each had humble origins, Rand a sheep herder, Mat a horse trader, Perrin a blacksmith, each rises to great wealth and power.  And though their fortunes changed, none of these men could completely forget who they were or where they came from.  Give a Two Rivers man a crown, great wealth, or just fancy cloths, there would always be that backwoodsman who was never quite impressed with the illusions of the world.

I am a huge Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire fan.  If you watch the show or read the books, the cynical nature of that universe becomes very apparent.  There are certain characters and even families that are “good” or “honorable”, but they tend to be trampled and defeated simply because they try to do the right thing.  This same issue occurs in WOT, there are many men and women who try to do the right thing or be just and are destroyed for it.  By the end of the series, there are dozens of lead characters all with the one purpose of resisting and defeating the Dark One.  Plenty of our characters have the opportunity to take or steal power and they don’t.  In the end, they know their fight is not really about them and their petty issues, it is about fighting for the strangers they will never know and the children yet born so all of humanity will have a chance to live free.

For those of you who have not read WOT, I have tried my best to not give away everything about the series.  Truth be told, if you count the prequal novel, there are 15 total WOT books.  But if I was to sum up WOT with one character, it would be Tam al’Thor, Rand’s father.  Why do I choose Tam?  Well, because of love.  Because there was only one man who possessed the strength and love to raise the savior of the world.  Tam allowed the soul of Lews Therrin a second chance to learn how to live and how to fight with love. Hatred and arrogance had condemned the world, and love would see to its salvation. 

As we celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ, I find it fitting to discuss a series of books whose main character is as close to a “messiah” or “chosen one” that you can find in literature.  WOT is different from so many other works because the most powerful force in the world was a father’s love for his son.  And that love gave Rand al’Thor the strength to take on the Dark One himself.

May all who read this rejoice in the joy of good will and love.  May you all have a merry and happy Christmas.


Saturday, December 7, 2019

It's Been a While

It’s Been a While

Let me begin this article with my favorite Bible verse.  Did I scare you?  Still there?  If you are, let me clarify something.  That first sentence is not as scary as it sounds.  In John 18:37-38 we are given a portion of the conversation Jesus has with Pontius Pilate before he is sentenced to death.  37 Pilate asked him, “So, you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”  (Lutheran Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version)

 Setting aside what biblical scholars believe what Pilate meant by those words, I have often wondered what is truth?  Ask 1000 people and you are sure to get 1000 answers.  It seems when we are at a certain age, perhaps it is middle school or high school years, we tend to (or at least I did) place everything in the world into neat boxes and say, this is how everything is and forever shall be and nothing will ever change.  Maybe it’s because we are young and getting our first real taste of the world.  The funny thing is, as you get older, and not even that much older, the realization hits you like a brick wall that you know diddly squat.

As you gain life experiences, you realize that the truth(s) that you thought you knew so well change.    You also realize that what you might consider truth can be radically different from complete strangers, friends at school, and even your immediate family.  It’s that part of human nature that makes us so aware of ourselves that we can lose awareness of those around us.  Our perceptions of the world can be so radically different that it is impossible for people, including spouses, not to see the world completely differently. 

So, what is truth?  Is it actual reality?  Is it perception, since there is the old saying that perception is reality?  I believe in free will and our ability to make and carry out our own decisions.  These choices that we make are shaped by our self-held truths. 

As I said earlier, my understanding of truth has changed dramatically over the years.  Whether it is in the realm of politics, religion, or just life in general, there are so many things that I had deemed important or issues I could never compromise on I find myself saying, “Sure, I’ll listen to what you have to say.”  And lo and behold, I am still that same person I was 15 years ago, but my perception of myself and my personal truths are as different from each other as night and day.

Sci-fi/fantasy has captured my thoughts and imagination for so long because it is in many ways the best way to examine the deepest of questions that we have as a species.  When you write a work of fiction that occurs in the real world, that story comes with all the preconceived notions and prejudices of our age.  Write a story about the Antebellum American South, the 1960s, or the present day and without much detail the audience will form a picture in their mind of the world at that time.  However, if you insert your story in either a sci-fi or fantasy universe, the rules have changed.  The reader can assume only at their risk.  It is up to the author to paint a believable picture to bring that world to life. 

We see examples of this in popular culture with movies and shows like Star Wars and Star Trek.  Hot issues like race, class, war, etc. can be discussed without all the baggage that would accompany it in our reality.   These productions help to frame the question that arise, what if, and why.  But then again, are these movies just expressing truth as the writers and actors see it?

The thing about sci-fi/fantasy is that it allows anyone and everyone to search for and seek their own truth.  The mental barriers we are forced to work within in the real world are gone.  The beautiful thing is, anything a writer wants in their story, they can imagine because it is their world that they have ownership of.  This freedom allows readers and audiences to share in the journey with the creator and search for meaning and truth.

I don’t know if I can give a definitive definition of truth.  Sure, there are some absolute truths I believe in.  In a religious sense, I believe in God but have drifted from a defined religious structure in my mind to more of a spiritual one.  If you look at human history, or as long as we have been writing on clay tablets or painting on cave walls, we have attempted to find meaning and truth in the world around us.  That search has been called several names, from philosophy to religion to spirituality.  I find it funny that when many people say they have no faith (and yes, I know some people genuinely have no faith) they believe or follow certain creeds or systems that resemble in many ways a religion.  Again, I think it is part of human nature that we question not only ourselves, but this great world around us. 

Why are we here?  How did we arrive at this particular point in time?  What is the meaning of it all?  Who or what is God?  What is good?  What is evil?  Just about every human who has lived has asked this question at one point.

I began reading The Wheel of Time Series over 15 years ago.  I was a high school kid who probably felt a little too highly of my literary intellect.  I never finished the series, and now in my mid 30s I have decided it was time to reread (or listen to on audio book) the series before Amazon started airing the show and I faced another Game of Thrones dilemma.  Reading the series back then, there was so much focus on my part getting the characters right, learning the world, and following the 100s of plot points.  (I might be over exaggerating, but there are over 1000 named characters in this series.)  Rereading the books, I am blown away by just how good the story is.  But better yet, there is so much philosophy packed into the books that someone could spend a lot of time and make some money just by teaching WOT courses.   

Robert Jordan, the WOT author, sadly passed away in 2007 and his series had to be finished by Brandon Sanderson.  It is obvious reading the books that Jordan was a student of history. One of the main themes throughout the books are different people of wildly different backgrounds and nations encountering one another and being forced to reconcile their differences or face certain death and destruction.

In WOT, there are the forces of the light fighting a never-ending struggle against the forces of the dark lead by The Dark One.  What does the Dark One want to do?  Well, he wants to destroy all things and creation itself bringing about the end of time.  And the scary thing is, he is winning and progressing towards his ultimate goal throughout much of the series.  It’s interesting, all of humanity and creation faced with the existential threat of total and complete annihilation with only one man, The Dragon Reborn, having the prophesied ability to defeat the Dark One.

In our own world, if we were faced with the same existential threat, what differences could we all put aside for the survival of humanity?  If you looked at the current political climate of the U.S., you might be concerned about the outcome.  What truths or beliefs would we be willing to part with which would still leave us with enough of ourselves and still feel like we have not given up what we hold most dear? 

Truth can be in many ways like the mirage you see when you drive on the interstate on a hot day and in the distance the road looks like its covered in filmy water.   The only thing is, when you reach what you thought was that water, it’s nowhere to be seen.  Part of my faith in God (or whatever you may wish to call the creator of the universe) is that when you are given your homework so to speak, you are not given the answer key.  You must do your own work and figure out the answers for yourself.  Though there is peace, understanding, and yes truth in scripture, that by itself is not enough.  We must put ourselves out there, ask the uncomfortable questions and even the stupid ones at times to find our way in this life.  Sci-Fi/Fantasy has been a great tool for me in exploring life’s mysteries and truths.  It allows us to cut through the noise and distractions of this world and reframe so many of the issues and questions we have.  If we are to be fully alive and be fully human, we must always dare I say, be searching for truth.

When I originally began this blog, it was my intention to post at least 2 articles a month.  Well, it’s been almost 6 months.  Life happens and you can easily lose track of time.  Things have settled down and I plan to start cranking out these at times meandering thoughts of mine.  I hoped you enjoyed this thought experiment and I will talk to you soon!


To Live Forever

Greetings to all!   This post has come a little later than I had planned, but here is my first blog post for 2020! What does it mean...