Progress, Perfection, Rope

I’m deep in copyedits for The Poison Prince. Normally I’d be almost done with them by now, but current world events are slowing me down. I’m a bit upset; I didn’t think everything was affecting me this much. I thought I was doing rather well keeping my balance, but it appears I was borrowing trouble.

I’m trying not to feel too bad about it–these are extraordinary, historical times, and there will be a few bumps on the road of rising to the occasion. Aiming for the person I want to be is sometimes difficult–like this morning, when I arose from my bed in a deeply cranky, stab-everything mood.

Coffee is helping. For a stimulant, it certainly soothes the inner rage-monster. I had decided this year was one for serious inner work anyway, it’s just my luck that I set myself that goal doing a fascist takeover and worldwide pandemic.

I never do things the easy way.

I’ve been watching some trash TV lately, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is being a better person. Plenty of my stories revolve around people making choices under high-stress conditions–Jill Kismet springs to mind, natch.

In an episode I watched yesterday, a character made a comment about fighting an enemy with no honor, and being ready for that. Which led me down a series of interesting mental paths.

Just fighting isn’t the important thing, though there comes a time when one must absolutely make a stand. The older I get, the more I think the important bit is how one fights. Just because an enemy is ruthless, honorless, and fascistic doesn’t absolve one of the burden of behaving well, especially while fighting.

Part of the problem is that human beings can talk themselves into “end justifies the means” with such great ease. It’s a waterslide to hell instead of a primrose path. People know when they’re doing wrong–when they’re being bigoted douchewads, for example. The ones who behave badly simply don’t care. It’s easy to think that if you’re facing people who just don’t care you should borrow from their playbook. Fight fire with fire, right?

Except fire isn’t the best way to fight itself. Water, chemical foam, starving it of oxygen, removing fuel–we have options. We understand the nature of fire, and when we are honest with ourselves about the temptation to use it we’re all safer.

How we fight, especially how we fight fascist dickwads and malignant corporate douchebags, is the important thing. And further, that it’s incumbent upon each person to fight without becoming a dickwad douchebag oneself.

One of the hallmarks of Jill Kismet’s character is that she knows when she’s damned. She’s ruthlessly honest with herself about her motivations, her capabilities, her temptations. I was trying to express, in whatever fumbling fashion, that we all, deep down, know. We cannot be damned by some all-seeing Bronze Age sky fairy. The only one who can send you down the primrose waterslide is you.

The slope is steep and greasy, and hauling yourself back up is difficult. It is not, however, impossible, and it’s well worth the effort, the pain, the risk. (Dum spiro, spero, and all that.) I’m not talking atonement or redemption, though both concepts can overlap and feed into what I am actually talking about–which is the choice, moment to moment, to be a better person.

Even when you’re faced with those who don’t give a shit.

I believe there is deep, unavoidable, endless power in the work to become a better person. Even if we never get there, even if the climb is impossibly steep, it isn’t really the destination that matters. One never gets to the top and gets a prize, one never is finished and arrives at a state of static perfection. What we’re after is progress, is the effort itself.

I like the Equalizer movies with Denzel Washington, partly because of one crucial scene (nobody else might think it’s crucial, but it’s an invisible narrative “hook” that makes the whole story hang correctly) where Robert is coaching a fellow employee who wants to make security guard. “Progress, not perfection,” Washington says, and the way he calmly delivers the line has stuck with me since I watched it.

The point isn’t reaching some mythical state of flawlessness. The point is to keep trying, over and over again, hand over hand up the knotted, endless rope of life.

Even if, especially if the universe is set up so the douchebags win, it matters how we fight. I am reminded of Terry Pratchett’s Death explaining how children must be started out on the little lies–Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the like–so they can believe the big ones like justice and mercy. If there is no atom of justice or mercy in the cosmos, it is even more imperative we behave as if there is and hold ourselves to its standard.

Obedience out of simple fear is poisonous. Being a better person even when you know there’s no reward or punishment is a cure. There is nobody grading this exam, but that just makes it all the more important to take it the right way. I believe this with every fiber in me.

…I started out meaning to moan about copyedits, but I ended up explicating a core part of my personal philosophy. Maybe it’s the coffee.

What we do is important, but how we do it is even more important. There’s no one right way, but we know plenty of the wrong ways; sooner or later, we find inklings of our own individual right ways. Inside each of us is an abyss, thread-thin but infinitely deep. From it comes our worst impulses and also the means to turn them to our advantage, as well as the small, still, whistling voice that tells us how to avoid damnation.

May we all find the strength to listen, and to pull ourselves up the slope.