Saturday, October 14, 2017

Jar of Evils

Deities, as one learns from certain creation stories, can at times be right bastards, to the point where it makes sense to ask "Whose side are these guys on?" But it's also worth pointing out that ancient people were often sexist as all get-out, and the question one might put to them is "What have women ever done to you?

The story of Pandôra illustrates both of these concepts. Created by the Olympian gods at the command of Zeus for no other reason than to carry plagues to humanity (Zeus, like many deities worldwide, being both a bastard and loath to do his own dirty work directly), she was given a pithos (a large jar) and perhaps the world's first screamingly ironic name ("all-gifts," my foot). In any event, Pandôra's primary purpose in life was to open the jar, which contained a multitude of evil spirits. As intended, the evil spirits fled the jar, and proceeded to torment humanity, pretty much forever. Left in the jar was elpis, hope. The standard reading of the Pandôra legend is that elpis was intended as a single blessing for mankind, something slipped into the jar by some or another god who sympathized with Prometheus' notion that the gods were constantly abusing the mortal people they'd created. But there's another take on the story, one that says that hope is a spirit just as evil as pestilence or death.

Personally, I don't have much use for hope, which strikes me as a waiting for some outside factor one can't control to make a positive change in the world for you. Accordingly, I didn't find the slogan of then-candidate Senator Barack Obama, "Hope and Change," compelling. Rather than hope, I reasoned, what people need is the confidence to understand that they can effect the change they want to see in the world for themselves. Now to be sure, this does get me into trouble at times. American society (and others, too, but perhaps more on that later) tends to demand that one approach life with a certain amount of hope. When I was a child, I asked my mother why suicide was a sin. Given that the act of killing oneself conclusively precluded confession (and therefore absolution), it was understood to be a direct ticket to Hell. (A fact that I find a disturbing number of people seem to be perfectly happy with.) This struck me as grossly unfair. A person who murdered and stole their way through life could attain Heaven through a deathbed repentance, but the person who succumbed to despair was consigned to the fires. According to my mother, the sin was the loss of hope that God would make things better, somehow, if one only waited. I was not mollified by this answer. And throughout adulthood, I've found myself being called upon to answer for not taking the commonly accepted way out of certain ethical dilemmas, such as the case in which a warlord says he'll spare a group of captives provided that you shoot one yourself, because I refuse to predicate an action on the hope that someone I already understand to be dangerous and/or criminal will live up to their end of the bargain, once I've done their dirty work for them. Humans can be as duplicitous as Zeus.

But at the same time, I don't begrudge other people their hopes. When a charming pair of young women stopped by, doing missionary work for the Jehova's Witnesses, one told me that her faith gave her hope that the world we be a better place by the time the three-year old that accompanied them grew up. And I'm perfectly okay with this. But for a lot of people, it seems, hope is only a virtue to the degree that it aligns with their own hopes.

The Internet, if one isn't careful, can devolve into a cesspit of people criticizing one another in the name of advancing their own worldviews. And a lot of this seems to, mostly unintentionally (if rather roughly), involve trampling on other people's hopes. The news that the United Nations is relocating staff from two districts in Malawi after five people were killed in a vampire panic has triggered a certain amount of social media finger-waving over the ignorant and backwards people of the nation. But one can also see this as simple a very unfortunate way of people attempting to exercise some control over a world that seems largely beyond the scope of their powers to command. Attacking someone as a vampire is not (or not only) an act of malice, but an expression of a hope that direct action will protect them and/or those they care about from forces in the world that seem malevolent, because they aren't viewed as random. Closer to home, if farther in time, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin famously mocked the Obama campaign's motto. "This was all part of that hope and change and transparency. Now, a year later, I gotta ask the supporters of all that, 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out'?" she sneered, before a cheering crowd at the first National Tea Party Convention. Closer to the present, House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked "President Trump, Where are the Jobs You Promised?" And while this is less directly an attack on people's hopes (and perhaps less openly sneering), the message to the audience that the President's supporters hope in vain is still clear. Shifting the focus away from American politics again, I recently encountered posts referring to traditional Chinese medicine as "not medicine," "quackery" and "superstitious nonsense." And while this narrative can be seen as one of the competition between fold remedies and evidence-based modern medicine, both of these things are extensively based on hope. Reliance on traditional medicine, especially in places were Western pharmaceuticals aren't readily available is just as much based on hope as taking a nondescript pill chocked full of unpronounceable chemical compounds.

But there's more to hope that ideas about the supernatural, politics and medicine. One of the things that allows bad behavior to persist is hope. And there are many different varieties of hope involved. From the outside, they may seem like a combination of self-delusion and wishful thinking, but from the inside, they offer a chance for a change. The person who abuses someone who wants a better life for themselves preys on their hopes and their unwillingness to let them go. I stumbled into a rabbit hole of marginally-attached entertainment industry people who talked about their own experiences on the inside, and how people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Cosby et cetera, are able to go on for as long as they do, and they fairly quickly start to become saddening stories of how people work, and what they sacrifice, to maintain their hopes.

I've vacillated over the years on my stance concerning the elpis at the bottom of Pandôra's pithos. Hope strikes me as one of the evil spirits and the pitiless gods placed in the jar; it appears to cause as much pain and suffering as any plague. And perhaps this is simply a failing on my part, but I can't bring myself to undermine other people's hopes. (Well, not directly and openly, at least.) Maybe being honest with myself requires it. But self-deception has already fled the jar, and it's beyond me to put it back.

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