Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Doctor and the Power of Love

It started with I find deep thoughts sometimes do.   I don't know what it is; perhaps it's the open ended visual cues or perhaps the studiedly casual interaction that allows free space for the mind to work.  Whatever it is, I found myself mentally returning over and over again to a Doctor Who image I had re-pinned along the way.  I had retained it because it touched me; its message was one of love, of River's love for the Doctor being great enough to set aside her own feelings to allow him to have his. And somewhere, right in the middle of thinking about that, I realized something.  I realized why I loved Matt Smith's iteration of the Doctor and why I judge the writing of the character so harshly. 

It's because I empathize.

The Doctor is a silly, weird soul.  We all know that. There's a childishness, a joyous naievete about him that makes us, as viewers, fall in love with him.  We love his joy in the small things, his vivacious confidence and willingness to find wonder and hope anywhere.  But that joy is balanced  by the knowledge that the Doctor is a madman with a box, the last of his kind, a being with darker secrets and moral ambiguities than most of us will ever dream.  That's the character, and that's the pull on us as viewers.  We know, every last fan, that the Doctor's unflinching optimism, his determination to win, to save the people and the race he loves, is a conscious, unrelenting choice flavored with more than a little desperation.

Back on Pinterest, staring at that picture of the Doctor weeping over the loss of his friends, falling apart as the woman who loved him held strong to allow that moment of weakness, my chest tightened up.  I understood.  The doctor was devastated because he couldn't save the people he loves. He knows what he is capable of, and knowing that, he holds himself to an impossible standard of perfection.  He has to win; he has to protect his friends because that is how he defines himself. That is who he is.  Every loss of someone he loves, someone he is sworn to protect, is a direct attack on who he is. It is a failure that echoes across his identity, an irreconcilable wrong.  The Doctor does not make mistakes; he has to believe with every fiber of his being that he can succeed. If he admits anything else, he admits it only in the dark shadows of solitude. He cannot's not who he is, who he needs to be. 

I understand that on a deep, visceral level.  For the entirety of my formative years, I was told that I was special, that I needed to adhere to a higher standard, that my parents' expectations of me were high because that was reasonable...for me.  At the same time, I failed over and over, the small failures that come with life and particularly with childhood.  Yet each one was a blow for me because I had failed the people I loved; I had fallen short of the expectations that had been instilled in me.  I had to be the one to be responsible because that's who I was; who I was expected to be.  It wasn't about doing things or accomplishing things for was about maintaining the expectations of the people I loved, the people I was responsible to and protecting them and their image of who I was. 

That standard of perfection and protection has served me well over the years.  People perceive me as capable and responsible. I worked my way into the job I wanted by being willing to defy the odds, take the risks, do the work, and handle everything without help.  People hand off their work and responsibility to me with the assumption that I will do what they want...and make it look easy.  And I usually do, without anyone but those nearest to me ever seeing the tears or the frustration or the late nights.  I have to make it look's who I have to be. 

I understand the Doctor's drive; his need to be "the Doctor."  I resonate with his determination to save the world...every time...his borderline desperation that drives him to take any risk to do what needs to be done, and the agony and self-loathing that overwhelm him when he fails. That's why the silly picture touched me so deeply.  River knew that too...and she loves the Doctor enough to let him collapse, to let him be overwhelmed and to defend him when he cannot defend himself.  And she doesn't condemn him.

I know from my own experience that when you are the strong one, the responsible one, the one who always handles things, falling apart is unacceptable.  When you crumble, when you lash out, at yourself or someone else, people's feelings swing from love to loathing far too easily.  Instead of sympathy, instead of being willing to let that moment pass, that moment becomes another ghost, something that haunts you as a weakness, another unforgivable imperfection, something you'll never live down.  It takes a true friend, someone who loves you for who you really are, to get past that and to accept that the intensity of the cracks are an indication of the strength holding the vessel together. 

River was that person.  She loves the Doctor, not for what he does or how he does it.  She loves him for himself...failures, triumphs and all.  Even when he is overwhelmed, even when he lashes out unfairly, even when he falls, she loves him.  I have only one person in my life like that, and I am married to him.  Seeing that image of River strong enough to let the Doctor fall made me grateful.  It reminded me of something important about who I am, and it reminded me of the difference between a so called "friend" and someone who loves you.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

RIP Moral Responsibility & the US Government Shutdown

As the US government shutdown drags on, it has become utterly unavoidable.  Even as voices of partisan anger harden into internet memes, it seems the American people are split between smiling cynically and spewing vitriol over the ineptitude of the political system.  As understandable as that is, I admit to finding the situation both interesting and disturbing for another reason entirely – the manner in which it highlights our societal shift of responsibility to the government and our reliance upon the faceless bureaucracy rather than each other.

In War against the Weak, his history of eugenics, Edwin Black traces the view of the poor and indigent as a burden on society back to Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands and the charitable services they provided.  The burden of caring for the needy, he suggests, fell upon the government, and rather than a moral obligation, a test of our divinely ordered compassion for our fellow man, the care of those in need became a societal burden relying upon taxes levied by a frequently inept bureaucracy.  That shift, Black suggests, planted the seeds for a “scientific” solution that would breed out the poor and indigent.

Our modern culture may not be quite as na├»ve about a simple genetic solution to poverty, but the continuation of government mandated care for the needy and the abandonment of any personal moral obligation for our fellow man remains painfully obvious, particularly in the harsh spotlight of government cutbacks.  The resentment of the dependent has been cast into stark relief with the debate over the cost of social safety net programs supported by tax dollars and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act with its government subsidies.  Right or wrong, the ideological structure remains the same – those who cannot care for themselves should be helped by the government. If they represent any kind of moral responsibility, it is a “societal” responsibility filtered through a bureaucracy that safely removes any individual from feeling a moral obligation to care for those in need, even those in need through no fault of their own, no consequence of their own actions.  

To me, that is the true tragedy highlighted by the government shutdown.  Yes, there are heart wrenching stories of suffering caused by the closure of government programs, but the thing that wrenches my heart the most is that no one is stepping back and looking at the larger picture.  Our society has become so dependent on the government, so accepting of the idea that a ponderous bureaucracy is responsible for the well being of our fellow man, that when it shuts down we see no option other than outcry against the closure.  

What about stepping up to moral responsibility as individuals?  Are we so steeped in the notion of those in need as the obligation of society that we refuse to see them as our obligation?  Listening to the radio, I heard a commentator recount the sad tale of an injured veteran in danger of losing the $100 a month in food stamps he relies upon. The tale was one of woe, but my question was whether there was a way for souls like me who could afford that $100 could share it with those in need. The destruction of community in our age has limited our knowledge of those in need around us, but does the internet not provide a medium for restoring the connection between need and gift? For restoring faith in the viability of charity and cutting out the bureaucratic potential for misspent generosity?  If the pinch continues, how many will give to local food banks or help working parents with day care?  Sadly, far too few.  Most will rely on sharing memes on their Facebook wall and wait for the government to resume operation because, after all, the problem is really the government’s responsibility, right?