Sunday, May 24, 2009

Spring Fever

I'm restless, lately. My days are busy, so much so that I've been finding it a bit overwhelming when the weekend, also, is filled with plans: a trip out of town to visit friends, an outing to "Family Camp" to toast marshmallows and watch fireworks while huddling around the fire to escape the freezing-cold temperatures. It's a relief, almost, when plans get cancelled due to the inevitable sickness of one of the children (in the last week and a half, for instance, there have been only two days when all four members of my family were healthy). But that relief is followed, almost instantly, by restlessness. I can smell other people's barbecues, hear their children playing on the lawn, and it feels like I'm missing something, that life is happening somewhere, out there, and I'm stuck inside reading magazines, grading essays, and stroking my children's feverish brows.

I never feel this way during the winter. Winter provides a splendid, blanket permission to do nothing. There is no pressure to seek excitement or fill the days with activity. I may be vaguely aware that other families are out there skiing or tobogganing, but mostly I'm content to shrug my shoulders at such madness. A cup of hot chocolate and a good round of Guitar Hero are all I need to keep me happy.

Spring, on the other hand, seems to transform me into a glum thirteen-year-old, cringing in embarrassment at the dullness of my life, even though there's no one around to see it except my inner audience of imaginary spectators, that group of old high-school frenemies who pop up in my consciousness now and then to pass judgment on the narrow predictability of my life.

Part of the problem, this year, is that we still have no grass. Our builder promised us sod and a paved driveway somewhere around the end of May, but as the end of May approaches with nothing but the occasional breeze to disturb the knee-high weeds surrounding our house, I'm becoming increasingly agitated. I can look out my windows at the outdoor world, but there's a sea of mud and weeds between me and it.

On the other side of that barrier lie the normal people: the ones whose children ride bikes up and down their paved driveways, whose backyards feature things like swingsets and decks. My children seem to share my own ineptitude for outdoor life: they can't quite seem to get the hang of their bicycles, preferring to squabble over whose turn it is to ride the toddler trike. They show up to the first soccer practice of the year, the only kids wearing plain runners instead of soccer cleats and shinpads. But oh wait, that's me again, the one for whom the world beyond my doorstep is a foreign land, one I visit from time to time, but without a map and not speaking the language.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Praise Junkie

"You thrive on praise," my husband accused last night. It's true. There are few things I enjoy more than praise.

That's why I'm so fortunate to have a son who is not afraid to dish out a few wholehearted compliments now and then. After I helped him with something this morning he turned to me and said, "Thanks mom. You're really great."

I must have looked as pleased as I felt because he went on to elaborate: "You're really good at wiping bums!"

Monday, May 11, 2009

Incarnation

My three-year-old daughter doesn't like God.

Thanks to my inept attempts at early-childhood religious education, she seems to regard him as a kind of creepy intruder who hangs around in her bedroom. "I don't want him here!" she scowled when I explained that God is everywhere, even right here in her room. Omnipresence, apparently, is not her favourite doctrine.

Invisibility is also a problem. We've been in the habit of nightly prayer for quite some time now, but only recently has Pie realized that "saying prayers" means "talking to God." She is not pleased.

"But what does God look like?" she demands. I am tempted to foster this instinct of idolatry and reply, "He is pink. And fluffy." Instead I embark upon an explanation of incorporeality. "But," I add, grasping at straws, "did you know that God invented pink? He invented pink knowing that you, Pie, would like it!" We're on stronger ground here, so I add some references to flowers, rainbows, and sunsets, all created by God especially for her. (I'm willing to permit a little egocentrism if it will foster her acceptance of theism.)

But we're moving onto shaky ground. I am impressed, in a way, with Pie's insistence that she will not love or pray to a God she doesn't know. Even peer pressure is of no avail: when all the kids in Sunday School made cards saying, "God loves me," I asked Pie if God loved her. She shook her head adamantly. She can't love God, she explains, because she still doesn't know who he is.

I can't recall having any such reservations as a child. I accepted that God loved me and was extremely useful at times when I was scared of big dogs. I never demanded proof of his nature before inviting him into my heart. Pie is of a much more suspicious nature. This God who creeps around people's rooms uninvited seems a bit of a shady character - someone who seems an awful lot like a stranger, and she knows better than to talk to strangers.

She has anticipated a key question all religious believers must face. Who is this God you worship? And what makes you think that he is worth worshipping?

God, the inventor of rainbows and butterflies, must also inevitably become God, inventor of cancer and tsunamis. The God we infer from the world as we know it is not the same God I worship. The central claim of my faith is that the world around us is a most imperfect reflection of the God who created it, that the touchstone for our knowledge of God must always be Christ's claim that "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

So we pulled out the children's Bible again last night, and I read Pie the story of Mary and Martha (she likes that one because there are women in it), and the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus she will grudgingly accept. He is a man and an adult, as alien to her as the first-century Galilean must in some ways be to us all. Sin and atonement are doctrines far beyond her reach, as are incarnation and immortality. She can begin only with a man who, when approached by an irate Martha, chose not to make Mary run along and do some housework.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Superpowers

If you could read my mind, would you?

If you possessed the power of mind control, would you use it for the good of society, or would you consider such use to violate a fundamental human right?

Screenwriters and novelists seem to be of two minds about these important ethical questions. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien displays a lively awareness of the moral dangers posed by superpowers. In The Hobbit, for instance, Bilbo's ring of invisibility must be handled with care. Almost as soon as it falls into his hands, Bilbo is tempted to take advantage of it. He resists the urge to kill Gollum under cover of invisibility, but he can't quite overcome the temptation to sneak up on his friends the dwarves and then take full credit for his amazing ability to evade detection.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, can be entrusted with an Invisibility Cloak with no real danger to his moral well-being. He uses it to circumvent Hogwarts' rules and regulations, especially those regarding curfew, but he is never seriously tempted to become a bully or a sneak.

Mind-reading must be an even more dangerous superpower, as mind-readers become accustomed to a routine violation of the most fundamental boundaries of personhood and privacy. On Heroes, Matt Parkman seems to have some ability to control his power: in order to get into the minds of his enemies (or girlfriend), he has to do a little squinty glance, jutting his chin out for emphasis. (Facial expressions are extremely important on that show: time-travel, for instance, is linked to squeezing your eyes shut and scrunching your nose.) It is taken for granted that Parkman is entitled to use his power. Certainly when bad guys are chasing him (as they generally are), he has to use whatever means are at his disposal to evade capture. Using mind control to get his ex-wife to remarry him, however, is taboo. There are some limits on the legitimate use of superpowers, but much more emphasis is placed in the show on the moral imperative of tolerance: the true ethical dilemma is not for the Heroes to use their powers responsibly but for the rest of society to accept and tolerate their presence. There is, of course, the standard choice between good guys and bad guys, but so long as you're not slicing people's skulls open, you're good.

If fantasy writers tend, as a group, to reject a wholesale ban on the use of superpowers, they also tend to avoid the opposite ethical position: that those with superpowers have an obligation to use them for the good of humanity. In the Twilight novels, for instance, Edward has both superhuman strength and the capacity to read minds. At one point in his life (or, rather, his undeath), he was a crimefighter, tracking down murderers and sucking their blood. Edward now rejects this uneasy compromise between appetite and conscience and leads a vegetarian lifestyle. Even when Bella is being stalked by would-be rapists, Edward recognizes a moral imperative to restrain his anger but does not consider himself bound to use his abilities to prevent similar crimes from being committed against other victims. In Meyer's Edward's-eye-view version of Twilight she makes it clear that Edward arranges for the would-be rapist to be conveniently arrested, but this brief foray into crimefighting is a sideline rather than a full-time vocation. Indeed, at no time in the original novel are readers asked to consider whether it is right for Edward to spend his time pretending to attend high school and spooning with Bella rather than eliminating the various horrific crimes that he is uniquely equipped to prevent.

That omission - both on Meyer's part and on most readers' - reflects, perhaps, the general principle that our moral obligations are influenced by proximity. My strongest moral duties are to my family; beyond that I have a duty to those with whom I have a relationship either personally or professionally. This circumscription of my moral duties reflects my own limitations of time and resources. But superpowers tilt the scales a bit. What if I have abilities that no one else has? Can I spend my time playing chess and composing piano pieces, acknowledging obligations only to my family? Or do I have a responsibility to do for the rest of humanity the things that only I am equipped to do?

What do you think are the ethical obligations of mind-readers? Would any use of such power be an unjustifiable violation of privacy? Would such a power incur an obligation to prevent crime? Or are mind-readers entitled to live their own lives just like the rest of us?