Don’t Stop Believin’: Avengers Style

Hello everybody. This post comes to you curtesy of my daughter and The Avengers: Infinity War. We left the movie and she was very upset! I would not categorize it as sad per se, but upset.

Time to pause this writing for the spoilers alert!!!!!!

Not big time spoilers but still:  SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

As I was saying, she was more like, “Where’s a ship to take me to Nidavellir so I can get a weapon to help the Avengers fight Thanos” upset! I’m not sure but she might have some Asgardian blood pumping in her veins!

Well, I had no ship to help her on her quest but I did have knowledge. Specifically, I had knowledge of her current favorite song, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. So, as we were driving home, I told her, “I know what the Avengers need” and played her anthem. She smiled and shook her head. As the song ended she asked me to play it again. Before doing so I told her we should write a special version of the song for The Avengers. She thought that a fine idea but told me to just do it. “And you’re a teacher,” she stated. “So you have to do your homework!” We made a pinky promise over the shards of Mjolnir and the deal was sealed!

So, with all apologies and respect to Steve Perry, Neal Schon, and Jonathan Cain, here’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Avengers Style”!!

Here’s a link if you want to hear Journey dong it right!!! 

 

“Don’t Stop Believin'”
Updated for Avengers: The Infinity War

Just a billionaire
Livin’ life without a care
With Nick Fury he formed

the Avengers

Just a mad Titan
With a genocidal bend
He seeks power to kill half of

 the universe

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A doctor with an anger issue
A brave man of years he’s seen a few
They’ll need some help to win the day
The list goes on and on, and on, and on

Heroes gather
Striving to prevent the end
Their powers tested
In the fight

Wizards, soldiers
Taking chances that most would shun
Hoping somehow to bring light.

Natasha has so much skill
Please don’t be too mad at Quill
Can Thor ignite a dying star
Just one more time

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 Thanos came, to the Earth
T’Challa again proved his worth
Wakanda you will never end
You’ll go on and on and on and on

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Banner confused

What happened to my green skin?

Rhodey and Falcon

Take flight

 

Wanda, Vision

Trying to stop the devastation

Heroes fading from sight

 
Don’t stop believin’
Spidey has you grievin’
You know that Cap will not quit!

Don’t stop believin’
Spidey has you grievin’
You know that Cap will not quit!

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Thanks for reading everybody. If you’ve gotten this far you probably already know this but it’s worth saying. Movies may not be true but they can be real, as real as the struggles we all face everyday. Songs may be over the top, but inspiration should be a part of our personal utility belts as we face our challenges. So, let me say, keep fighting the good fight with all thy might!

See you next time!

 

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!

 

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It is less than a week until the release of Avengers: Infinity War and people are pumped!! Ten years…that’s right, ten years of storytelling culminating in round one of the climactic battle with Thanos. Yes!!

This post, however, will not focus on speculation regarding who has what Infinity Stone or who will die. This is not because I don’t feel interested in those intriguing matters because I do! Rather, plenty of sources exist online and offline where those conversations are being held. Rather, as we approach April 27 I wish to pay respects to these characters who meant so much to me as a kid and, thank you Marvel Comics Universe, have been brought to life in my adult years.

 

Marvel Characters and the Call to Character

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When discussing the concept of role models Professor Mark D. White wrote, “Good role models provide not just inspiration to achieve our goals, but also an example of the right way to achieve them” (1). He argued that, despite what some might think, fictional characters can be role models because they model “positive character traits such as honesty, courage, and wisdom – which means more if actions resulting from these virtues have consequences, even if only in their fictional worlds” (2). The beauty of a movie like Captain America: Civil War was the fact that my kids, while captivated by the action, weren’t entirely sure why The Avengers were fighting each other. Are they still friends, dad? They were so interested in the “why” of the fight that we were able to have a real discussion about choices, consequences, and standing up for beliefs. Fiction, be it super heroes or classic literature, can open channels of conversation allowing opportunity to discuss what truly matters most. For those moment with my kids I say, again, thanks Marvel.

 

 A Little help from Confucius (yes, you read that correctly)

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As the Marvel Universe expands it can be easy to lose one’s footing. I must admit, Iron Man 3 was far from my favorite Marvel movies. Far. Like, Asgard far. But there was a concept in it I loved. Of all the Avengers Tony Stark, despite his OUTRAGEOUS confidence, should have had the most difficult time adjusting to this new life. This was never the life he envisioned. Even the other human characters (Cap, Black Widow, and Hawkeye) were far more prepared to face such horrors than Tony. Struggling with anxiety and PTSD made perfect sense. To be honest I wish this issue was explored in a better executed movie, but the whole of the Marvel ride is greater than the sum of its parts.

Looking at the concept of character can feel a bit overwhelming. Where to start and where do we go? How to write it so my ten readers don’t lose interest? Like Tony, I need a little grounding. For my purposes I am turning to the great philosopher Confucius. There are three key concepts from Confucian thought that will prove useful in our look at the Avengers.

Jen – This virtue focuses on the ideal relationship that should exist between people. This astounding commitment to relationships was both beautiful and exceptionally difficult to obtain. A person exhibiting Jen displays a feeling of humanity towards others, respect for oneself, and a deep sense of dignity for human life everywhere. Just a moment of reflection should allow you to see how much time in the Marvel Comic Universe is spent on both relationships between the characters and the needs of the larger community. If you are reading this I doubt you need my help to generate a list.

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Chun Tzu – The individual exhibiting Jen would be said to be an example of Chun Tzu, often translated as the Superior or Higher man. This superiority is not from wealth or title; it is about one’s character. The Chun Tzu is at great ease with themselves and, by extension, brings ease to others. The more people who can become chun tzu who exist the greater the possibility of achieving social harmony and enduring peace. The world can never have enough people who are chun tzu. Sadly, I would say we’ve also never had enough of them in the world…but there’s always Captain America!

 

Li – This complex concept can be presented as the way things ought to be done. Confucius felt that people would not be able to discern Li from other paths completely on their own and therefore tried to provide models for them to emulate. He used maxims (short sayings), anecdotes, and his own life to create these examples. Following the correct path, while maintaining a deep regard for humanity and relationship, help create life as a sacred dance with seamless patterns, awe-inspiring fluidity, and transcendent beauty. (3).  The world The Avengers envision.

 

Following the correct path, while maintaining a deep regard for humanity and relationship, help create life as a sacred dance with seamless patterns, awe-inspiring fluidity, and transcendent beauty. That sounds like a very tall order, perhaps well beyond our grasp. Perhaps it is too daunting or fanciful. A view Abraham Lincoln proposed when looking at the ideals of the Declaration of Independence proves helpful in such times. Lincoln stated the ideals of the Declaration could be, “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated…,” (4). This approach to ideal is exceptionally helpful. It is so easy to look at the idea of becoming chun-tzu and feel disheartened by my shortcomings and weaknesses. Yet, armed with the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, I need not focus on my fragilities so much as the inspirational role models before me. I like to think Confucius would approve of this as he stressed the need to not allow a negative mindset to stop someone found following the difficult path he endorsed (5).

 

The Big Three

 

 

 

As we are stressing character strengths in this post we will focus on three original members of The Avengers (Thor, Ironman, and Captain America), utilizing each as an exemplar of a single character trait. To be sure each one of these heroes could be used to exemplify any number of character traits but those are conversations for another day!

 

Sacrifice

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The willingness to set aside one’s personal interests for the good of the community does no come naturally to most. It can be hard not to fall into the mindset of wondering what’s in it for me. I find Thor to be the best example of the willingness to make sacrifices. That may strike the reader as slightly surprising but consider this list.

Thor (in depowered human form) allowed himself to be killed by the Destroyer (Thor)

Thor shattered the rainbow bridge, choosing protection of others over his heart as he effectively cut himself off from Jane Foster (Thor)

Thor risked damaging his relationship with Odin to seek victory against Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)

Thor risked his death (almost crushed by falling ship) in his final effort to defeat Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)

Thor turns down the throne of Asgard (Thor: The Dark World)

Thor is told by Tony he may not survive the explosion his blow wold cause as he sought to destroy the falling landmass in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Thor sacrifices Asgard itself to ensure the defeat of Hela (Thor: Ragnarok)

Confucius noted that by looking at a person’s intentions, examining their motives, and scrutinizing what brings someone contentment then you can see who a person truly is.  In fact actions make it all but impossible to hide what you truly are (6). In that case, Thor is someone driven to do all he can to guarantee victory for his comrades, even if he should ultimately fall. One wonders how far he will go in the upcoming war with Thanos?

Growth

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Not that kind of growth, sorry Ant-Man. We’re talking about personal growth. The desire to becoming a better person tomorrow than you are today. Tony Stark, despite your unrelenting ego, that’s you. Tony’s run through the Marvel Cinematic Universe started as a misogynistic arms dealer who saw war as the perfect way to make HUGE profits! Damn. There was almost nowhere to go but up! And while it is true Tony’s ego is still a bit much to take. His relationship with women (Pepper Potts in particular), willingness to admit a mistake (his truce with Captain America when tracking down Zemo in Civil War), and capacity to offer guidance to young Peter Parker all are actions that would have been far beyond his ability a decade ago. Confucius informed his students, “Those of the loftiest wisdom and those of the basest ignorance: they alone never change” (7). Living things grow. Stagnation is the death knell of life. Tony has grown as much as any Marvel character over the years and, quite frankly, still has work to do. Maybe some humble pie served up by Shuri will help? Yeah, probably not.

 

Loyalty

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Or perseverance. Or maturity. Or commitment. Or…you get the point. There are so many virtues I could place at feet of Steve Rogers that it was hard to pick just one. I rather doubt that I have. Loyalty, however, seems to be a good place to start. Captain America’s loyalty to friends (I’m thinking Peggy Carter’s deathbed scene from Winter Soldier), the Avengers (recall his “together” speech from Age of Ultron), his ideals, and to people is inspiring. In many ways he has become the moral backbone and inspirational foundation of the MCU. It hasn’t been easy but it has been done with a determined grace that is quite noble. Whether willing to stand by Bucky (Winter Soldier and Civil War), to stand up for his ideals in numerous debates with Tony and Nick Fury, to stand by people in trouble as when he refused to get off the landmass ripped from Sokovia when Ultron was preparing to drop it, heading to New York in The Avengers without any of the “big guns” because, well, someone had to, or his commitment to tear down S.H.I.E.L.D as well as Hydra because both violated the grandeur purpose (Winter Soldier) Captain America remains loyal to his unyielding conviction to follow the right path even if it is difficult.

I would like to take a moment, however, to focus on a simple but powerful act of loyalty Cap performed at the end of Civil War. In a simple but heartfelt note he reached out to his estranged friend Tony Stark promising to be there for him should the moment arise. What a small but wonderful gesture. In that movie Cap stated he stood by Bucky because, “He’s my friend.” Tony’s response was, “So was I.” Wrong tense, Tony. Captain America, more than any other Avenger, doesn’t live in an either/or world. He strives, with great loyalty, to find both/and solutions when possible. Even when dealing with the most difficult of battles…navigating the murky world of human relationships and friendship. That letter…combined with his friendship with James “Bucky” Barnes allows us a cinematic vision of something quite rare, an adult male who not only takes his male friendships quite seriously but his willing to let that be known in no uncertain terms. Confucius once lamented to his student Lu, “Those who understand integrity are rare indeed” (8). The great sage is probably correct, which is why we all could use a little Captain America in each of us.

 

Never the End

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As we close out this post it is so easy to see where it could go. Every member of the Avengers deserved a place in this discussion. The focus on Bruce Banner, the integrity of James Rhodes, the dedication of Black Widow, and the honor of T’Challa. It could go on and on, but I like to think the point is made. Role models are everywhere…even in the MCU. So sit back. Take a moment to appreciate what we can learn from our heroes and the great ride they’ve taken us on. And, if you need to, tremble a little for Thanos is coming and all the character strengths in the world won’t be enough for all of them to see the final victory. Who else, however, would you want fighting such an overpowering and malevolent foe? Yes, Thanos is coming so…Avengers Assemble!

Endnotes

(1) White, Mark D. The Virtues of Captain America. Wiley Blackwell. 2014. p 27.

(2) ibid. p 27.

(3) Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Harper San Francisco. 1991. p 172-177. In summarizing the first of the five key elements of Confucian thinking I condescend professor Smith’s writing to fit the length of this post. Whatever elegance or poetry you found in those three sections work of the great Huston Smith.

(4) From a speech delivered by President Lincoln on June 26, 1857.  It was Lincoln’s public refutation of the Dred Scott decision.

(5) Hinton, David (translator). The Analects of Confucius. CounterPoint. 1998. Chapter 6.11.

(6) Ibid. 2.10

(7) Ibid. 17.3

(8) Ibid. 15.4

 

 

 

  

 

Black Panther: The Challenge of T’Challa

 

Spoilers Ahead!!! Proceed with caution.

I saw Black Panther on Friday with two friends and, like most movie goers, we left the theater thrilled! About twenty-five minutes into the film I leaned to one of my friends and noted, “I could leave now and this has already been worth the price of admission.”  Thankfully I stayed! Afterwards we, naturally, began discussing the movie.  There were many topics covered but we can place them in three broad categories.

  1. Inspirational. As we left the theater I turned to my friends and stated, “I gotta tell ya, I feel like I should be going outside and trying to make the world a better place.” How many movies can make you feel that way? This feeling brings us to category two.
  2. Leadership. At various times during our post-movie chat one of us would exclaim, “T’Challa 2020!” What makes a great leader? How does a leader weigh the best course of action? When should a leader lean on tradition and when must he or she blaze a new trail? To bend a line from T’Challa’s father T’Chaka into a question, why is it hard for a good man to be king? To whom is a leader most responsible?
  3. Balance. This concept was brought up as we had witnessed a powerful blend of technology and spirituality. Powerful and prideful male and female characters seamlessly sharing the films multitude of subplots. Compassion balanced by conviction. The list went well on into the night.

For this post, however, we will focus on an aspect of balance I did not raise with any particular force with my friends. To be honest, I am not sure I mentioned it at all. It was, however, percolating in my mind. It will continue to do so well after this post is complete.

Some years ago I was blessed to encounter Stephen Biko’s essay, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.” This was mentioned in the first post on this website but the time has arisen for a little unpacking of the power of this thought. What might our “True Humanity” look like? What dangers do we face when we allow ourselves to venture far from our greatest potential? Is it an ideal to achieve or a goal we can forever chase, perpetually approximate, and raise us up while never achieving full realization? An, as of this moment, incomplete manuscript considering the implication and power of True Humanity rests in my mind, in a variety of notebooks, and on my desktop. A brief summation of that idea resides in a single word: balance.

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The quest for True Humanity includes the balancing of five human components. Our physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual sensibilities have been on display throughout history and across cultures. These components, in a multitude of forms from harmonious balance to harmful overemphasis, were also on display in Black Panther. Here are examples from each trait for your consideration.

1. Emotional

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T’Challa has profound respect for his father T’Chaka. He sees his him as a great king, loving father, and wise protector of Wakanda. When he learns of his father’s handling of his Uncle, T’Challa is shaken to his emotional core. He only regains his equilibrium when he stands before his father in the spirit realm of the ancestral plane and gut wrenchingly declares his father was wrong (I must confess here that I so want to hear a conversation between T’Challa and Thor about the trials of being raised by kings). The struggle of losing and regaining his emotional center is central to T’Challa’s final victory. The fact this victory transpired in the ancestral plane also reveals how one aspect of our humanity, in this case spirituality, must lend support to another.

2. Psychological

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Psychological maturity is not something we effectively promote in this country. The failure to do so is reaching tragic proportions. In Black Panther a fine example of psychological strength (again supported by love of tradition – an aspect of spirituality) is exhibited by M’Baku, chief of the Jabari. M’Baku, who was defeated in ritual combat by T’Challa, saves his rival’s life after his subsequent defeat at the hands of Erik Stevens aka Killmonger. M’Baku is offered the power of the Black Panther by Queen Ramonda who is desperately attempting to remove Killmonger from the throne of Wakanda. She is unaware her son lives in M’Baku’s lands. She just knows she needs help. M’Baku has his heart’s desire offered to him…and he refuses it! Opting for honesty and the noble (and old fashioned) idea of repaying a debt he brings the Queen to her son.

3. Spiritual

 

According to psychologist James Fowler one of the challenges people of deep faith present is the expansion of our sense of community. Who gets to be included under the protective umbrella of “us” and who must remain a “them.” Spiritual leaders throughout history have attempted to shake people from their parochial worldview so they can adopt a more cosmopolitan perspective. Wakanda, as presented in the film, has a long isolationist tradition. Isolation, be it personal or national, often arises rom the logic of fear. In Wakanda’s case it was fear of vibranium falling into the wrong hands (There was also the Wakandan intentional isolation of the Jabari as presented by M’Baku. This action struck me as a form of regal superiority). T’Challa, who was taught the responsibility of royalty by his father throughout his life, has a traditional isolationist outlook. His sense of community is challenged, quite regularly by Nakia, who declared not only that Wakanda should give aid (as other nations do) but would likely do it better. Nakia also challenges Okoye, general and leader of the Dora Milaje, when the two debate the correct course of action when Agent Ross is injured. Their disagreements continue when briefly debating what matters more serving the throne or saving it. The film’s mid-credit scene, T’Challa vowing to end Wakandan isolation and build bridges instead of walls, speaks to his expanding view of humanity and the inspirational power of Nakia’s moral courage.

4. Physical 

 

All of these human traits have literal and metaphoric interpretations as well as real world manifestations. A prime example of this is witnessed through the physical lens to our humanity. Beyond the striking physical prowess of so many characters we see the physical mindset where might makes right and problems can be rectified by physical conquest. The captivating Erik “Killmonger” Stevens forcefully dismisses all other paths as an expression of his righteous fury (Not unlike another complex and wrathful Erik in Marvel’s pantheon of villains, Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr). Killmonger, in an ironic twist, confronts Wakandan isolation much like Nokia. He, however, does not want to send aid. He wants to conquer and will kill anyone, black or white, who does not agree with his vision. He declares, without remorse, that the families an children of his opponents must also die. While his anger is understandable his path would only produce a cycle of violence that would consume the world.  

5. Intellectual

 

Who other than the scene stealing Shuri would be the finest representative of the intellectual realm of life? Inventor, scientist, physician, and wise cracking younger sibling she brought spirit, humor, and the joy of intellectual pursuits to the screen. I smiled wide when my eleven year old daughter leaned to me in the the theater (my second viewing of the weekend) and said, “I want to be her.” One of Shuri’s greatest traits was a humbler approach to her intellect than some other Marvel geniuses (I’m looking at you Tony Stark). This speaks to the balance she has embraced in her young life. I also found great enjoyment when she referred to Agent Ross as a “colonizer” but did not hesitate to turn to him for help during the final battle (“You were a great pilot.”). This action by Shuri underscored the greatest example of hope presented in the movie. She viewed Ross as a representative of historic misdeeds while recognizing the past need not hold sway over the present. A present day ally need not share our past so we can help each other to a better future. That is the promise of Wakanda and the challenge of T’Challa. Are you ready to heed the king’s call to action?

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Chapter 1: A Meditation on Pain

A different style of post tonight. Here is Chapter 1 of my unpublished manuscript “Out of the Basement” for you to enjoy.

 

Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?

          -Frederick Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom

 

Why is there laughter, why merriment, when the world is on fire?

When you are living in darkness, why don’t you look for light?

          -The Buddha, The Dhammapada, chapter 11

 

Some guys they just give up living

And start dying, little by little, piece by piece

          -Bruce Springsteen, “Racing in the Streets”

 

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     There are no diamonds in the deep places of the Earth. We have all been told that if we search the primordial darkness we will find our precious light. The diamond deep in the earth awaits discovery by the weary traveler. Such a cherished and foolish fantasy. I have learned there is only the darkness of the pit. Yet, I still crawl through the muck. Do I, somehow, cling to the fable of the light? I am more fool than prophet, crawling because I am too stupid to stop. I chew dirt, one mouth full upon another. My teeth shatter on stone. My nails peel from my fingers, a sacrifice to the unforgiving rock. Fool am I as I continue to search for diamonds, having been told by men I call wise that they are hidden in this darkness. Gems are not mine to have. Maggots and lice are the reward of my faith. The holes I dig open not to treasure, but to the abyss. The treacherous precipice calls me, a sweet release from my labors. My death would not matter. Clumsily I resist the Sirens call.

     I do not plummet, but still I fall. Sliding along the jagged stone my skin is ripped and shredded. I am flayed by my efforts to rebuke the abyss. Tumbling uncontrolled I crash onto a slab of rock, dirty and unforgiving. Blood mixes with the dirt. I know, instantly, that my life’s fluid will not regenerate this place. This is no blood rite, it is a bloodletting. Nothing else. These wounds will not heal. Scars run along my body as fault lines in the Earth. As those mighty fissures shake the planet to its core, so my scars rend my very soul. I wonder, do I even have one? Was it lost long ago in the subterranean dark? Did I ever possess such a thing? Could it have been shattered by a mighty quake leaving me a husk, an incomplete man? I would pray for answers, but I have lost that right.

Still I rise. Why? What stubbornness is this? Too stupid to realize hope is dead I stand again on wobbly legs. I do not know why I choose to stumble forward, ever deeper, into the darkness. Into the pit. Yet, it is not impenetrable. As I stagger my eyes develop unnatural nocturnal vision. I am gifted, quite unexpectedly, with the ability to see an arm’s length ahead. Is this some form of mockery? Am I not encountering darkness that cannot be dispelled? Why am I taunted with this…gift…of limited sight?

Is he here? Hunting. Searching. I do not feel his presence, his horror, in this dark place. Why is he in my thoughts? Time for that later. I am not safe here but I am alone. So I wander. Groping. Lurching. Graceless. I have reached it. Not the dragon’s treasure or the rare gem in the cavernous deep. I have not found a blossom in the muck or reached some distant and beautiful shore. No, I have found the Door.

Why am I before you again? Has this not been settled? Did Pandora not teach us well enough? Some portals, like the Box of Set, should remain unopened. Yet the Door taunts me. Calls me, after all this time, to find it here in the darkness. Still here. Always here. Daring me to enter. I run my hands along your rough wooden engravings. I feel images that make little sense to me. The gibberish of lunatics engraved in wood. Confusion reigns where understanding is sought. I feel your arch, carved and ornate. My fingers, bleeding and gnarled, find a doorplate with no name. Lastly my hands come upon your door knocker. I must pull for nothing will grant me entrance save my own courage. Would that I was Arthur before Excalibur or Thor with his magic gloves, ready to hoist Mjolnir and strike down my foes. I am not such a man. There is no mythic strength coursing in my veins. No gods are with me. I am small. I have been called, again, to a place of defeat and humiliation. Why have I been called back? Why do I answer? All I have is the strength to not weep before you. On my knees struggling not to drown in another torrent of meaningless tears. Enough tears have been shed here. I should not have come back.

 

Courage: The key to our Character

There are many strengths and virtues a person can possess but none may be as important as courage. For if fear can immobilize then courage can liberate.

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There are many strengths and virtues a person can possess but none may be as important as courage. For if fear can immobilize then courage can liberate.

In an effort to explore courage this post is divided into two sections. First you will be presented with five quotations that focus on courage. The quotations are followed by questions that can be utilized for personal reflection. This is followed by my brief meditation on the topic. 

Courage

Hence also courage involves pain, and is justly praised; for it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant.

-Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book III.9

To see something you ought to do and not to do it is want of courage.

-Confucius, The Analects, Chapter 2.24

We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear. We want those encounters on our own terms, so that we can control their outcomes, so that they will not threaten our view of world and self.

-Parker J. Palmer (1) 

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

-JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (2)

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He (Abraham Lincoln) calmly and bravely heard the voices of doubt and fear all around him; but he had an oath in heaven, and there was not power enough on earth to make this honest …backwoodsman…violate that sacred oath.

-Frederick Douglass, “Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln” (April 14, 1876)

  1. When have you encountered courage causing pain? How did you navigate those difficult waters?
  2. Read the quote by Confucius. How does it strike you – as a challenge, a reprimand, a fact, etc.? Is he correct in his assessment? How did you come to your conclusion?
  3. In the passage from The Hobbit, Bilbo is proceeding down a tunnel toward the lair of the dragon, Smaug. How can the words of Aristotle, Confucius, and Palmer all be related to Bilbo’s moment or heroism?
  4. What “voices of doubt and fear” surround you? How can you overcome them?
  5. Courage takes many forms. For Bilbo it included taking the next step down the tunnel. What small act of courage have you recently taken? Did you take a moment to appreciate this small victory, even if others would not recognize your efforts as courageous? If you didn’t, why not do so now?

 

Courage

When considering the virtue of courage people often find themselves drawn to examples of physical courage. Truth be told, however, many of us will never be required to dive into raging waters to save someone from drowning or race into a burning building. We may never have to risk our lives for another. This does not mean we lack courage. I would dare say many of the problems facing us will NEVER be overcome until we develop and strengthen our sense of moral courage.

Almost any action we deem difficult requires a certain amount of courage, even those actions that are not dramatic or that come easily to others.  If you have never been bashful, you do not understand the courage a shy student must muster to complete an oral presentation. If you have always been athletic it would be hard to understand the courage required for a player cut from the team one year to shows up next year to try again, risking great disappointment for the possible reward. Stepping into an office for a job interview, listening to an aggrieved friend while withholding judgment, moving to a new city or state in pursuit of a job or simply asking someone on a date all require different amounts of courage for different people. If you look back at this list you note courage does not predict success, merely opportunity.

This frustrating aspect of courage – that it does not guarantee success, it merely guarantees the opportunity – brings us to a sometimes bitter conclusion. Courage is, and we must allow it to be, its own reward. Knowing you did not give in to fear could fill you with a sense of pride or, at the very least, embolden you to try again. Perhaps acting courageously in small ways allows the virtue of courage to be strengthened and easier to access the next time it’s needed. So be courageous! Your future self may thank you! Speaking of gratitude, here are two examples of courage exhibited by former students which I am thankful to have been privy. 

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Stories From School

The first example addresses the common problem of relationships gone awry. Teenagers, like adults, can make a fine mess of their friendships. Many of us have been wrong but never offered an apology to the one we offended because as our pride overcame our courage. We would rather continue pretending we are not to blame and risk a relationship than take the steps necessary to make amends. At such times Confucius’ voice chastising us for our “want of courage” is entirely appropriate. But alas, we heed not his words and the relationship ends. Granted we take comfort in blaming the other person, if only they weren’t so stubborn and saw things our way. Now, I am not saying that the other is blameless, I am just noting that, on occasion, our own shortcomings add to the problem. What relationship in your life right now is under some strain or pressure? Who will find the courage to reach out the open hand instead of the closed fist so healing can begin?

Some years ago a student of mine (we shall call her “Alexis”) exhibited the courage necessary to save a friendship. On this day a class discussions on the ideal of “Carpe Diem” (seize the day) inspired the most extraordinary action. I did not witness the event, but a tearful Alexis came to me and told the tale. Evidently, she and a friend had been quarreling for some time. When she left the “Carpe Diem” class she, naturally, saw the girl walking towards her. The girl looked angrily (in Alexis’ estimation) at her. Alexis responded by embracing her friend in a strong hug. The friend tried to pull away, but ended up bursting into tears and returning the hug.

Some weeks later I asked Alexis how she and her friend were doing. She answered fine; we just need to work on some stuff.  What a fitting answer. Whatever problems Alexis and her friend had to overcome was not solved by the hug, but that courageous moment enabled them to move forward, rather than remain stuck in a perpetual state of animosity. Courage alone did not solve the problem, but it enabled other tools, forgiveness, faith, patience and love to come into play. Just as many tasks require multiple people to complete, so too must we call upon many facets of our character to solve personal problems. Often times, however, courage must be tapped first.

Unfortunately, not all scenarios tie up so neatly. Another student once approached me with a very profound problem. Her father, an alcoholic, was about to be released from prison and wanted to see her again. He had promised in the past to give up drinking for her, but had never successfully done so. She was simultaneously insulted, hurt, resentful and sad. She wanted a relationship with a sober father, not the drunk she had grown to know. I counseled her the best I could, leaving the decision to see him up to her. I hoped she realized by the end of our talk his situation had a lot more to do with his own being than with his love for her (she said more than once during our conversation, “If he loved me he would stop drinking”).

She returned to me a few weeks later, proclaiming she did see him, but it didn’t matter.

“He won’t quit,” she said sadly.

“He hasn’t quit. We don’t know what the future holds,” was my hopeful reply. If memory serves my tone did not support my words.

I don’t know if our conversation actually helped her, but we talked some more and I complimented her for her bravery. If the father exhibited the courage of his daughter he may have a chance. As of that moment the only comfort courage provided was that, despite hurt and fear, a teenage girl reached out even when she doubted her own strength. Whatever road her father’s life takes, her courage is her own.

From School to Society

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Courage, of course, transcends the small stories of individual lives and can infuse groups of people with the energy to move forward. Every great social movement, every step taken against restrictive structures, every stand taken against well intentioned (but wrong headed) opposition requires courage. The dozens of young women (including but in no way limited to Rachel Denhollander, Jamie  Dantzscher, Aly Raismon, and Megan Halicek) who have come forward to end Dr. Larry Nassar’s reign of terror are all courageous. Facing a less heinous, but no less insidious problem, Joyce Rankin, Dan Snowberger, and Shane Voss have decided enabling cell phone and social media addiction is not the province of schools. Due to their courage cell phones are banned in Mountain Middle School in Colorado. The list of courageous people in the modern world is, in fact, quite long. As a history teacher for over twenty years, however, I am going to reach into the past for my final examples.

From Society to History

 

Moral courage is our focus today. This form of courage demands that we look inward for those beliefs in need of redress instead of always demanding others weed their gardens while ours remain quite unkept. Abraham Lincoln is a fine example of this. We often fall into the trap of proclaiming a historic figure to be a solid rather than fluid figure. “Abraham Lincoln was…” is a shallow statement as he, perhaps unlike others changed over time. A word of caution, if you contend “people don’t change” the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the great Malcolm X proclaim from the mists of time the falsity of your words (3).

A careful study of Lincoln exposes a man wrestling with the issue of race and racial prejudices. The attitudes Lincoln held in 1847 had changed by the time 1858 rolled around. The views of 1858 stood in stark contrast to the one present in 1865. Stephen Oates points out in his book Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths:

He had come a long distance from the harassed political candidate of 1858, opposed to emancipation lest his political career be jeopardized, convinced that only the distant future could remove slavery  from his troubled land, certain that only colonization could solve the ensuing problem of racial adjustment. He had also come a long way in the matter of Negro social and political rights,…The Proclamation had indeed liberated Abraham Lincoln, enabling him to act more consistently with his moral convictions (4).

 

For Lincoln to transform his beliefs he had to complete a thorough examination of them; mulling them over and admitting they needed changing. What could be more difficult, for don’t we all wish to believe our views correct? To stand up and admit to oneself a core belief (in Lincoln’s case his view of black men and women) incorrect is painful, but necessary if we wish to grow. Only by admitting, honestly admitting an error, not saying we are wrong just to appear magnanimous, can we truly begin to correct it. By struggling with his beliefs Lincoln not only, as Oates puts it, liberated himself, he earned the respect of the great black leader of the time, Fredrick Douglass. Douglass admitted American blacks had come to admire, and some even love, the complicated man. Unfettered by the bonds of racial prejudice Lincoln would ask Douglass to review his second Inaugural Address, pointing out, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours” (5).

Douglass’ “Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln” (1876) reveals to us a quiet courage that allows patience and compassion to thrive. Douglass proclaimed:

“We (black leaders and the black community) saw him, measured him,…not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations,…; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses,…but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events,…we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln” (6).

I do so love the use of the word “somehow” in this passage. I can hear Douglass’ muted shock at the idea that Lincoln was the driving force of the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery accomplished by the President who sometimes proceeded with what could be described as overly cautious steps. In Douglass’ words I feel a challenge before me to not judge others by “isolated” events but to give way to allowing a broader picture to unfold. This is a fine example of Palmer’s call to give “the other” room to reveal him or herself to us. In so doing we may find ourselves, like Douglass, a bit shocked at who our true allies are. Conversely, if condemnation must arise, let it come from a place of solid standing so my discontent is righteous and not merely egocentric. Compassion sometimes requires the courage to punish the guilty. This must never be forgotten. Hopefully patience allows for more allies than foes to arise. Perhaps such patience, augmented by courage, allows unexpected gifts to arrive.

Douglass’ courage enabled him to keep faith with Lincoln, even when “..faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed” (7). The gift of faith rewarded. What could be greater?  Such strength is inspirational. Such courage is almost otherworldly to me. Douglass stands a giant in my imagination for good reason. He deserves greater acclaim as a titan of our past.

I wonder, was the courage needed to lead the country through the Civil War possibly less than the courage Lincoln needed to alter his beliefs and become the man who could save the nation? As courage redeemed Lincoln so he redeemed a nation. Does it now fall to us to find the courage to keep the great experiment on course?

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Character Challenge: Pick one action you have been wanting to take but have been nervous about facing. Remember – it does not have to be some great feat;  it just has to be something you have been shying away from. Is there someone you should apologize to? Someone you should be thanking? Do you need help but are afraid to ask for it? Decide what to do and do it! Run the experiment and feel the power courage brings to our lives.

 

Endnotes:

(1) Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass. 1997. The exact passage is found on page 37. I strongly recommend Palmer’s book to teachers. If you should read and enjoy it do pick up a copy of Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness.

(2) Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Del Rey. 2012.

(3) While I do not feature Malcolm X in this article students are often shocked to learn about his transformation after visiting Mecca. When teaching about Malcolm I present the three phases of Malcolm X; pre-prison, post-prison (pre-Mecca), and post-Mecca. 

(4) Oates, Stephen. Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths. Harper Perennial. 1994. (p 118).

(5) ibid. (p 119).

(6) Frederick Douglas. “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” Washington D.C. April 14, 1876.

(7) ibid.

 

The Dukkha of Star Wars: Using the Force to let go of the Past

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A simple translation of dukkha would be anything that makes one feel anxious, restless, or distressed. Anytime someone feels their life is out of sync they are experiencing dukkha. The first noble truth of Buddhism states all of life is suffering which means we all experiencing dukkha in one form or another at various times throughout our lives. The second noble truth informs us that the cause of this suffering is attachment. Thankfully the third noble truth assures us there is a way to free ourselves from suffering; by breaking our attachments. The breaking of attachments is a difficult accomplishment but, as The Last Jedi demonstrates it is possible and, when accomplished, allows for a sense of both peace and purpose.

I will pause here to say there are SPOILERS in the post so please do continue with that knowledge.

In The Last Jedi attachments bring a great deal of suffering to various characters. Kylo Ren, Rey, and Luke Skywalker all have attachments that bring them into painful situations, even when the opposite is sought.  There is, of course, hope (there’s always hope in Star Wars) of breaking these attachments, as Master Yoda proves in his cameo appearance.

The Eastern Ego in The Last Jedi

The ego, as understood in western psychology, is a necessary aspect of our psyche. A part of our constitution that needs to be strengthened to enable us to be psychologically sturdy and capable of navigating the storms of our lives with skill, strength, and compassion. The eastern concept of the ego is a part of the psyche to be transcended, not strengthened. The ego in eastern thought (particularly Buddhism but the concept rings true in Taoism as well) is that part of ourselves that seeks separation and dominion over others. While promising power in usually delivers isolation. In The Last Jedi three characters are symbols of isolation. Either through their own words (Kylo Ren and Rey) or living arrangement (Luke Skywalker) we learn of their sense of isolation. All three are isolated by attachments they hold tightly in their hearts despite the ruin their grasping brings into their lives.

Kylo Ren’s Rage

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Kylo Ren represents a fine misunderstanding of the idea of letting go of the past. He rages on multiple occasions that it is necessary to leave the past behind in order to be free of its weight. Freedom, therefore, is found by letting the past go…even killing it, as Ren puts it on occasion. His words, to be honest, carry a hint of truth. He is correct, being chained to a past that hinders growth is terrible. To be free of such chains is spiritually and psychologically liberating (just ask Ebenezer Scrooge!). 

Unfortunately, we communicate with much more than words. Kylo is a engine of rage, and while some of his words ring true the fuel he utilizes to drive himself is akin to drinking poison in an attempt to assassinate someone. He is a man of rage, therefore his desire to break from the past is communicated as nothing more than a desire to destroy and dominate. His anger is not even satiated by replacing Snoke as Supreme Leader. Of course that was not enough. Dethroning Snoke merely opens the door for his own quest for domination.

His anger does not lead to peace but, rather, it feeds his ego. He seeks power. He seeks dominion over the galaxy. He has not freed himself of the past at all. In fact, his anger feeding his ego only deepens his war with his past. His anger has not freed him, it has bound him. He is walking the path of Vader, which ultimately brings him to isolation and frustration. This is apparent as he kneels in the ashes of his failed attempt to crush the rebellion and the pain he experiences when Rey slams her mind shut. Breaking from the past with naught but anger brings only bitter fruit.

Jedi, thy name is Hubris!

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Luke Skywalker is one unhappy fella in The Last Jedi. He expressed his own frustration by denigrating the hubris of the Jedi. Darth Sidious came to power, began the empire, with a meticulous plan that unfolded right under the Jedi council’s collective noses! The Jedi, even Yoda, were blinded by self-righteousness that grew from their successes. Success, as we are taught in Taoism, can bring about great trouble. 

Anger is referenced quite frequently in Star Wars as a key component of the path to the dark side. The Jedi seem cursed with the burden of hubris. Luke, much Kylo Ren’s thoughts of breaking  with the past, speaks words that ring true. The Jedi were blinded by hubris…and so is Luke. He cannot forgive himself for failing Ben Solo (Kylo Ren). Talk about arrogant! Where is it written a teacher will, without fail, reach all their students? Such immature martyrdom often accompanies noble intention unrestrained by humility.  Much like Qui-Gon Jinn (dismissing the Jedi council to train Anakin) and Obi-Wan (“I though I could train him [Anakin} as well as Yoda. I was wrong”) before him, Luke suffers for his hubris. Adding to Luke’s pain is the fact other students die and he let down his beloved sister and brother-in-law. Luke attempts to atone for his sins by turning his past into a weapon with which to bludgeon himself and the memory of the Jedi. Peace is rarely found in self-flagellation, but it is a great way to bind oneself on a wheel of suffering. In both anger and hubris we see dukkha rising. 

Rey, you are a Jedi!

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Supreme Leader Snoke mocks Rey as a true Jedi because of her “spunk” and spirit. She is also a fine mix of Kylo’s rage and Skywalker’s hubris. Her rage goes without saying to anyone who has seen her in the films. When in a battle she facial features and battle snarls are as ferocious as almost any character known for channeling anger into a fight. Rey’s deep well of anger is expertly communicated by Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the character. The hubris is also present.

She is convinced, because Snoke hoodwinked her, that she can turn Kylo Ren away from the dark path. Luke warns her that the path she is choosing “will not end where you think it will.” She dismisses him, because, well…what does he know! I mean he’s Luke Skywalker and she’s been training in the ways of the Force for a solid week. Granted she has profound natural connection and, well, who needs discipline, training, fundamentals, and technique when you’re a natural. With hubris like this Rey is a Jedi or sure! She also, despite saying she is from Jakku, might be from the United States.

Don’t forget Snoke

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Before we move on it is interesting to note that hubris ended the life of Supreme Leader Snoke. Despite (or perhaps due to) his clear mastery of the Force, Snoke does not “see” what Kylo Ren planned. As he mocks Rey for believing she could turn Kylo he praised his pupil for the strong resolve he sensed within his being. How he had cast aside his doubt and was ready to strike his enemy. Smoke was correct about all three: Kylo was full of resolve, had cast aside doubt, and was ready to strike…Snoke just couldn’t see the target. Nothing like a little pride before the fall.

The brilliance of the scene (which cause full audience cheers during my second sitting) was that Kylo was merely paving the way to the throne. He covets power, not peace. The audiences’ cheers turned to boos and my daughter asked, “Wait…but…what side is he on?” I told her, “His own. Keep watching.” Of course he was on his own side, as we have seen, the ego leads to isolation. Be careful where your attachments lie, you only get what you grasp.

Master Yoda and Forgiveness

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When Ray leave Luke on his island he decides to burn a tree that holds the sacred texts of the Jedi. Yoda appears and, despite giving a determined explanation, Luke hesitates. To help his former student Yoda blasts the tree with a lightning bolt, setting it ablaze. Luke is horrified. Yoda is amused.

Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching informs us that a person living from the Tao will seem (depending on your translation) stupid, lost, dimwitted, dull, confused, and ignorant. Or, in Yoda’s case, a fool…laughing as the sacred tree burns. The moment reminds us of Luke’s own words, “The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi” even as he struggles with his words brought to life by Yoda’s actions.

This is a lesson in breaking attachment. Despite his words Luke was still attached to the tree and the texts. He was not ready for this sight. Yoda’s destruction was done, not from anger, but love and wisdom. He clearly loves the force and knows Luke was correct, the Force exists without the consent of the galaxy for the continued harmony of all. It can surely outlive the burning of a tree!  

The lesson is not over. Yoda then confronts Luke’s sense of failure by reassuring him that he did in fact fail. No doubts about it. So have other Jedi. So has Yoda. But failing does  not make one a failure…that’s a false attachment. Failure can be a fierce but worthy teacher if one has the requisite strength to allow that process to unfold. Yoda became the humble teacher found in The Empire Strikes Back specifically because he learned the false path of hubris which humbled him in Revenge of the Sith. When hubris fades, struck down by self-forgiveness not rage, peace rises. Acceptance, of self and others, spreads. Such calm brings strength that anger can’t replicate. 

I wonder if Rey, having confronted her hubris at such a young age, will become a peaceful warrior by the end of episode IX. She is on an excellent path, for she has been felled by hubris but, unlike the isolated Kylo Ren, has friends and allies who have her best interests in their hearts. Friendship trumps isolation. Forgiveness transforms failure. The breaking of false attachments brings peace. Perhaps by burning a sacred tree life itself becomes a sacred dance when we find ourselves in sync with the Force. Wouldn’t that be something?

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Seeking Faith among the (Walking) Dead

Faith and The Walking Dead may not seem like a natural fit but wherever people are they bring their faith with them…even in a zombie apocalypse! Join me in an exploration of faith and what it means to be a flawed but, ultimately, a good man.

When season seven of The Walking Dead came to a close fans heard Negan joyfully proclaim, “We are going to war!” We are now ell into season eight begins and the promised conflict, confusion, and casualties have ensued. The casualties have been and will continue to be listed during the “In Memorium” segment of The Talking Dead.

Not all casualties, however, are created equally. Some are more horrific than others, as in the bludgeoning of Glenn. Some, like the Governor, are more satisfying. None, however, were as upsetting as that of Hershel Greene. The moral anchor of “the group” was murdered by the Governor back in season four and his death sent shockwaves through the fan base. It was Hershel’s faith and his faith journey during the zombie apocalypse that made him captivating and beloved.

Defining Faith

Paul Tillich wrote, “There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions, and questionable definitions than the word ‘faith’. It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men” (1).  Psychologist James Fowler accepted the challenge of healing the word ‘faith’ in his seminal study released in 1981. Fowler’s derived his understanding of faith by researching the work of scholars including Tillich, H. Richard Niebur, Judith Guest, Ernest Becker, and Wilfred Smith as well as interviews with 359 people. Fowler’s elaborate conclusions can be highlighted by the following points.

  1. Faith is an innate human drive to find meaning and purpose in life.
  2. Faith existed in human beings prior to organized religion. People also possessed intellectual curiosity prior to the existence of schools and artistic impulses prior to museums. Institutions reflect human drives  
  3. Faith is placed in an ultimate concern, i.e. something that the individual expects to give them ultimate fulfillment (2). This ultimate concern need not be religious. Faith can be placed in a political party, a team, money, fame, or a nation. There is an almost endless list of targets for our faith.
  4. The United States is, in essence, a henotheistic culture. This means people ultimately choose one ultimate concern (one god) among many options. A person can be a Christian but that need not be where they put their faith. Their faith is on more authentic display on Sunday afternoon when they paint their face various colors in support of their favorite NFL team. The wins and loses resonate deeply, arguments and conversations about the game continue during the week, and next Sunday’s game is longed for deeply.
  5. Faith “involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our costly loyalties” (3).  One of the great tensions of life is caused by seeking ultimate fulfillment in finite places. Pop culture plays with this time and again. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge wagered on wealth as an ultimate concern. The often brooding Oliver Queen in Arrow seeks meaning in the ultimate concern of saving his city. Gatsby’s purpose never strayed too far from Daisy Buchanan. Scar coveted power in The Lion King.

Hershel’s Farm: The Start of his Journey

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When we meet Hershel, he is an older man who has, for the most part, successfully kept his family safe on his farm during the early stages of the zombie apocalypse. He is introduced as a man of faith. He is a Christian, but remembers one can be a Christian and place their faith (their quest for meaning and purpose) elsewhere. Fowler promulgates a six-stage theory of faith development. Hershel’s faith reached a state of arrest in stage three: Synthetic-Conventional Faith.

Commitment to one’s beliefs is very important at stage three. This commitment is often tacit, and attempts to discuss beliefs or deeply held convictions can feel threatening. As stated, Hershel is presented as a religious man but his faith is placed in his family, both those living and dead. His commitment to protecting his family is noble, but the depth of their importance allows Hershel to live in a state of deep denial. Hershel wholeheartedly believes that walkers are living people infected with a disease not deceased people transformed into flesh-eating creatures. Hershel captures walkers that wander onto his farm and stores them in a barn in the hopes that a cure for their condition can be found. His deceased second wife and stepson also reside in a barn.

The nature of walkers aside, Hershel’s commitment is to his family’s well-being is on full display. To be clear, Hershel is a kind man. When Rick rushes onto his farm carrying his wounded son Carl in his arms, Hershel takes action. Utilizing his medical skills, Hershel removes bullets from Carl’s body and saves his life. He is, however, quite adamant that Rick and his group move on when Carl is healthier. The world is very dangerous and Hershel has no difficulty placing his family (the object of his faith) above the others. He is imbedded in an “us and them” mentality and the  “them’s” don’t belong on the farm. The sooner they leave the better!

Maggie’s Challenge

The transition from stage three to stage four of faith can be quite tumultuous. Encounters with perspectives that challenge the tacitly held belief systems and cause critical reflection often acts as the catalyst for the shift. Hershel’s conviction regarding the nature of the walkers is shattered by Shane’s barnyard massacre. This event, due to its dramatic nature, can be seen as the moment where Hershel’s perspective changes. Emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually shattered by being confronted with the depths of his denial, Hershel abandons any sense of leadership on his farm and willingly concedes control to Rick. There is, however, a powerful voice that challenges Hershel as well: his oldest daughter, Maggie Greene.

Prior to Shane’s actions, Maggie argues with Hershel on behalf of Rick’s group. Hershel attempts to brush her off by accusing her of merely being concerned about “the Asian boy” (Glenn). Maggie, as fans of the show know, is an unrelenting force unto herself. She utilizes Christianity (Hershel’s religion) and familial history (where he places his faith) to make her point. “’A new command I give to you: Love one another as I have loved you.’ That’s what you told me, right? I was mad about mom. Mad about you marrying Annette. I was 14 years old and I was awful, to you more than anybody. All I wanted to do was smoke and shoplift. ‘Love one another.’  That’s what you told me.” Hershel attempts to dismiss her by simply stating, “This isn’t that” (4).  Maggie is unmoved by his response.

To be clear, I am not saying Maggie has a deeper sense of faith or is more religious than Hershel. In fact, certain exchanges on the farm suggest she is unmoved by religion at all. She does know the words of her tradition (Christianity) and when to use them to make an emphatic point. She is quoting a stage six exemplar (Jesus) in an effort to have a specific impact. This brief exchange illuminates two important aspects of faith.

The first quality is the overriding power of faith. Hershel’s faith is placed in his family. Like all people there are many facets to his life. He is, as noted, a Christian. He even used his Christian ethics when counseling 14-year-old Maggie to accept her step-mother. His Christian beliefs were strongly adhered to when they supported the object of his faith, his family. Maggie’s challenge was to extend his Christian ethics to people outside the family. Faith is more fundamental to an individual than religion.

Maggie’s use of Jesus’ words opens the door to universalizing faith, the sixth and final stage of Fowler’s theory. Stage six people, dubbed ‘universalizers,’ confront us at a visceral level as they are dedicated to eradicating all vestiges of us/them thinking in their quest for a united human community. Universalizers are, in a very real way, threats to almost everything we hold dear for much human thinking (be it social, political, academic, or economic) involves, even encourages, us/them thinking. Few are ever as inclusive as they claim as exclusivism is a norm of humanity. The “enlarged visions of universal community” presented by universalizers reveals and threatens our parochial standards (5).  Maggie’s demands that her father embody his religious convictions have long-term ramifications.

Deepening Faith through Doubt

Hershel is dismayed after realizing his conception of reality was merely a form of deep denial. A recovering alcoholic, he seeks refuge in a local bar. He denounces some of his previous thinking to Rick, who has tracked him down and seeks to bring him back to the farm. In particular Hershel speaks with derision of hope and miracles, to concepts he held in high regard for quite some time. He claims that, despite saving Carl’s life, he ultimately fell for a “bait and switch.” The final, mournful conclusion is he is a fool and there is “no hope.” He agrees to return with Rick, but not because Rick has convinced him hope exists. Rather, it is an appeal to familial duty that sways Hershel. He returns to the barn, but he is not the same person he once was.

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The fourth stage of faith, individuative-reflective faith, is time of critical reflection. Symbols and concepts once held tacitly but dearly, become the target of critical reflection. It can be a disorienting time as a person finds themselves questioning, even interrogating, long held cognitive, psychological, and spiritual anchors. Reductionist thinking becomes pervasive as the conscious mind claims dominion of the kingdom and either/or thinking dominates most conclusions.

Hershel’s proclamation that there is “no hope” is a fine example of his doubt. The evidence of hope’s value is in the outcome so he concludes, because the hope he held was dashed that there is, therefore, “no hope.”  Hershel fades into the background of the group at this time. He concedes control of the farm to Rick and is not deeply involved in decision making. If Hershel had died at this point, his death would have been little more than a blip in the show’s history. I wonder sometimes if the character that emerged from this broken moment was even greater than the writers’ imagined.

A Little Shakespeare, Please

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (6). The transition from Fowler’s stage four to stage five is both difficult and rare. A majority of participants in his study (61.2%) were either at stage three, transitioning from stage three to stage four, or stage four of his theory. Only 15.4% of participants had their faith develop beyond stage four. In some regards this makes perfect sense. Most organizations (be they political, religious, schools, athletic teams, etc.) function best when members engage in either/or thinking (stage four) or in a state of tacit approval (stage three). 

There are times, however, when limits of the conscious mind are reached. Sometimes a person reaches a point where they must move beyond their own myopia and cease futile attempts to control reality. Either/or designations gives way to the quest for both/and synthesis. A dialectical relationship with reality replaces desires for dominion. When we realize that, despite his indecisiveness, Hamlet was correct about the limits of our own philosophies. Certainty often makes fools of the learned.  

Don’t mistake stage five (Conjunctive Faith) for some wishy-washy, Pollyannaish position. The use of one line does not mean the stage is Hamlet incarnate. It surely is not! Rather there is a radical openness to truth, even if the truth means one is wrong. We intellectually may agree with this idea (we understand full well there are millions of people who are wrong) but few live it (wait a minute? You mean I might be wrong? The millions of others can be wrong but not those in our group). Stage five people forcefully resist enculturation and seek a patient, wise, truth abiding, and open relationship with reality and others.  

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The transition to stage five is often brought about by encounters with paradox. In stage four an individual has the world contained neatly in numerous boxes, containers, and containers. Paradox rends asunder these organizational patterns. We find ourselves dared to find the truth hidden in apparent contradictions and to replace rigidity of thought with permeable lucidity.  

Back to Hershel

Hershel and the group were forced to flee the farm when a swarm of walkers disrupted their semi-tranquil existence. Life on the road was very difficult. First they found each other, having been dispersed in a chaotic scramble to save their lives. The group then survived on the road for months. Stumbling upon a prison they claimed it for themselves, clearing it of zombies and making it a home. Hershel lost a leg during this process. He counsels Rick through his psychotic break after the loss of his wife and was present when the group achieved victory in their first confrontation with the twisted governor. Hope existed without Hershel’s consent. More importantly he allowed it to permeate his life. As his notion of “family” expanded Hershel is an exemplar of the fifth stage of faith and becomes a sage of stage six.

Someone at stage five “suspects that things organically related to each other; {one} “attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting {our} prior mind set” (7). Hershel, as the show progresses, personifies this concept. He offers quiet wisdom and guidance to the group as they make the prison a home. His impact on those around him, particularly Rick, is evident.

When the first battle with the Governor ends, Rick welcomes a bus load of people who had lived under the Governor’s rule into the prison. Rick sees them as victims of the Governor’s cruelty just as much as his group had been. Carl objects but Rick informs his son, “They’re gonna join us.” Carl walks off but Rick is content with his decision. The way of Hershel is taking root in the prison. The roots will run even deeper, in both figurative and literal applications.

After the battle with the Governor, it is evident that Carl has become calloused to the point of psychopathology. Hershel challenges Rick to find another way, for himself and Carl. The war with the Governor over, the prison secure and food now being produced rather than scavenged, Hershel contends Rick must learn to farm. Rick balks at the suggestion. Hershel persists, combining compassion with power. “He needs his father. He needs his father to show him the way. What way are you going to show him? He can shoot, we know that. What’s his life going to be? What’s yours? All this. I’m just saying everything because I owe you. We all owe you. We can make this better now” (8).

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This idea, that there is another way, does not dismiss the realities of life. Rick does argue that the walkers still exists and, in essence, dominate the world. Rather than argue Hershel acknowledges that fact. This does not weaken his resolve as he maintains they do have the power to dictate what transpires inside the prison walls and, by extension, within their minds. As a Christian, Hershel has moved beyond reciting the serenity prayer, he embodies it. The prison flourishes but peace never lasts long and a new threat emerges as an epidemic of swine flu threatens the residents of the prison.

It is in this period that we witness Hershel forcefully reveals his stage six (universalizing faith) disposition. Universalizers are often driven by a unifying, transformative vision that they feel compelled to bring to an untransformed and dualistic world. They will risk much, including their lives, for this vision.

One section of the prison is used to quarantine infected individuals. Members of the group have rushed off to find medicine. Hershel decides to bring an herbal tea to the sick, both to comfort them and to help them hold on. Maggie intercepts him and insists he does not enter the quarantined area, snapping, “I can’t let you do this.” Hershel, as is his way, calmly explains his position. In some ways his reasoning is simplicity in itself as he states, “Maggie dear, there are people in there suffering.”  Rick arrives and sides with Maggie leading Hershel, patience exhausted, to deliver a stirring soliloquy:

Listen dammit! You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe, and you risk your life. Every moment now you don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for. Now I can make these people feel better and hang on a little bit longer. I can save lives. That’s reason enough to risk mine. And you know that (9).

Maggie tearfully opens the door to the quarantine for her father. She is heartbroken. I also think she is proud. She is proud of her father and proud to be his daughter. The symmetry with their argument on the barn is beautiful. She challenged him to live his Christian beliefs and be a better man to the group on the farm. He is, in ways she never imagined living those beliefs.

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He is entering a prison to visit the “inmates.” The Christian imagery is hard to dismiss as he helps the sick and the poor. His faith, which always rested in family, has now extended to the point where all around him are members of his family. He has fully embraced her challenge to expand his concept of community and, in doing so, breaks Maggie’s heart. Paradoxically, as he breaks her heart he is simultaneously filling it with love. She is hurt by his convictions even as she admires his unrelenting compassion. And, even though it wasn’t his goal, where he once dismissed the very existence of hope he has become hope itself.

A Final Goodbye

Unfortunately for Hershel the Governor returns. He captures Hershel and uses him in an attempt to strong arm Rick into relinquishing the prison. Rick, channeling his mentor, offers an alternative. The prison is large enough to be shared. The conflicting groups can unite into a new, larger ‘us.’ While Rick offers this vision Hershel, on his knees and with a sword to his throat, smiles. The smile does not last long as the Governor’s blade beheads him. This horrific scene was made all the more horrible because of the rough waters that viewers watched Hershel navigate with grace and dignity.

I do not know if the writers of The Walking Dead intended Hershel to become the embodiment of a faith journey but he was. Universalizers tend to become inspirational because of their commitment to justice and their expansive vision of community. As they are free of cultural restraints so shall we turn to an unexpected source.

In Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai we are told “nothing is felt quite so deeply as giri.” Giri is a word that encapsulates a person’s sense of duty, justice, obligations, and honor. People may cry upon hearing the life of someone who died in the distant past “because of a sense of giri” (10).

Now, as we approach The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale where death is imminent and suffering will abound let us remember the peaceful warrior Hershel Greene. Your comrades sure could use you. Come to think of it, so could the real world.  

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(1) Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York, Harper Torch Books, 1957), p. ix.

(2) Ibid., pp. 2-4.  Hey…does anyone else read “ibid” and think of Good Will Hunting or is it just me?

(3) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York, HarperOne, 1981), p 4.

(4) This drama unfolded was back in The Walking Dead, episode 2.7.

(5) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, p 200.

(6) Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5).

(7) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, p 185.

(8) The Walking Dead, episode 4.16. 

(9) The Walking Dead, episode 4.3.

(10) William Scott Wilson (translator), Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (new York, Kodansha International, 1979), p. 95.