“A time may come soon,” said he, “when none may return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (p. 784). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
I am taking this quote entirely out of context, because the words valour without renown have been floating around my head a lot in recent years without context, and finding their own context within the world I find myself living in. So don’t expect literary analysis here, nor any take on these words other than my own. Which is both larger and smaller in scope than the original context.
Valour without renown seems on the face of it to be talking about courage — possibly especially battle-courage — without outward recognition, without going down in history, possibly even without a history existing to go down in. And that is one piece of it, one way it can happen. In a broader sense you could talk about courage in general, without praise in general.
But there’s one thing that this keeps distilling itself down to for me, with diamond-like precision and clarity.
It’s doing what is the right thing to do without any reason or incentive other than it being the right thing to do. Not just courage, but any right thing. Not just recognition, but any sort of outward motivation, or any expectation of reward of any kind.
This is both simpler and more complicated than it sounds. The hardest thing you can do but from some perspectives, easier than many of the alternatives. Easy to describe in three words, and impossible to describe even if you had infinite words. Not contradictory at all, yet good at producing sentences like these ones when you try to approach it wielding language.1
It’s also one of the most important things any of us can learn right now.
It’s no secret that the world is extremely messed up at the moment.
And my friends and I, we’ve all been noticing patterns in how it is messed up. Patterns that we have trouble putting into words. My friend’s cat has cancer right now, so maybe it’s for that reason that the word malignant comes to mind so strongly. Or malevolent, or just plain evil. As in, things that feel more like there’s a whole pattern of nasty forms of intent behind them than, say, random forces of nature seem to have, no matter how brutal.
And most of us are at a loss as to not only how to describe such a thing, but what to do about it.
One fortunate thing about the world is how many and varied the things within it are. People alone make up billions of variations on those things, and there’s lots of things in the world besides people. For each one of us, at any given time, there are many good things we can do for the world, and many possible ways to go about doing those things. Some may be better things, and better ways, than others. But which one is the best choice varies based on timing, context, person, and every possible way the situation can vary. Sometimes there are more choices than others, sometimes there seem to be few or no choices, sometimes all the choices have terrible consequences.
But there are always many ways to do the right thing. And each one of us can be a part of doing that. Sometimes it’s something seemingly tiny and insignificant. Sometimes it’s something seemingly huge and obvious. Sometimes it’s both, sometimes neither. And almost always, in any situation, there are many choices.
And telling right from wrong is rarely as easy as stories make it out to be. And very few things are all right or all wrong. And in very few cases do we learn the full consequences of our actions, either at the time or even in hindsight.
But we still should be making the effort. In times like these more than any.
I’ve talked about this before from time to time. Mostly in the context of death. Personal death, death of a culture, death of a species. But death. Destruction. Even the “end of the world,” as most people see it. Situations that seem hopeless. Where it’s tempting to say that trying to do the right thing is pointless.
It’s at those times that doing the right thing may matter more than any other time.
If the way you treat someone right now matters, it matters just as much when you are thinking about the fact that one day both you and the other person will be long dead and nobody living remembers either of you. It may matter even more knowing that. So why is it that when people think of ‘hopeless’ scenarios, they think that what they do doesn’t matter in light of their own death or the extinction of their species or some other large or small catastrophe?
To me, it matters more, it always matters more, knowing we won’t always be around. There’s always a responsibility to other people in the now, even if history as we know it ends tomorrow. There’s always a responsibility to the people and things that come after history as we know it ends.
Because the world is made up of so much more than ourselves alone. And the world functions as all of us acting on each other. Not isolated people or cultures or species floating around as individuals with no effect on the world around us. What we do always matters whether other human beings ever seem to notice or care.
And that’s just one tiny piece of why this ‘valour without renown’ thing matters so much. It’s the part I’ve described the most before, the part I have the easiest time putting into words. And that part isn’t easy to put into words.
One of the most important things we can learn is to be motivated enough that if it ever comes down to it, we can choose to do a very difficult right thing to do, utterly regardless of what reaction the world around us appears to have to it.
Sometimes it’s difficult because it’s something huge and scary. But sometimes it’s difficult because it’s something seemingly small and insignificant when we’d rather make a grand gesture of some kind. Sometimes it’s difficult because there are so many right things to do it’s hard to know which one to choose. Sometimes it’s difficult because it’s hard to tell what the right thing is, or even if there’s anything you can do that’s right enough to do it. Sometimes it’s difficult because it feels like doing nothing, even though refraining from action can be just as significant and important as acting, sometimes. Many things can make it difficult. But everything makes it worthwhile to try.
And trying is the most any of us can promise, I think. We can say we’d do the right thing, but until we’re in the situation, we don’t know what obstacles we’ll be up against, from within and without. We don’t even know if we’ll be aware we’re in that kind of situation at the time.
But we can try.
We can make the effort.
That’s all we can do.
And that’s doing a lot.
But hard times, times that people think of as hopeless, those are the times when we all need to be thinking about how to figure out a right thing we can do, and do it to the best of our ability. Regardless of outward consequences. A lot more depends on that than people sometimes realize.
And that’s actually a good thing.
Believe it or not.
1The Tao Te Ching sums this kind of thing up pretty well:
The bright path seems dim;Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English
Going forward seems like retreat;
The easy way seems hard;
The highest Virtue seems empty;
Great purity seems sullied;
A wealth of Virtue seems inadequate;
The strength of Virtue seems frail,
Real Virtue seems unreal;
The perfect square has no corners;
Great talents ripen late;
The highest notes are hard to hear;
The greatest form has no shape.
To call my grandfather a rat bastard would be an understatement. He was callous, cruel, and didn’t seem to care about the suffering he caused. It’s hard to describe his cruelty without clichés: Molesting children, torturing cats to death, running over dogs on purpose for the hell of it. This was not what you’d call a nice man, or a good man. And he did cause a lot of suffering and death.
I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. But describing his character in detail is necessary to understand what I’m trying to say in this post. Because it would be hard to overstate his cruelty to animals and humans alike. The main danger in describing him is to overlook the fact that even the cruelest human beings are still human beings, not cartoon caricatures of evil.
Anyway, my grandfather repaired and built musical instruments. When I was young, I started learning the violin. I was good at it for my age. I didn’t know how good, which was probably a good thing: I was being bussed to the junior high orchestra at the age of six, when most students started at nine and didn’t join the junior high orchestra until, well, junior high. I was there in first grade.
My grandfather loved music. Lest I paint too rosy a picture of him, he performed blackface. So he could even find ways to make music a bad thing. But he acted most like a decent human being in connection to music, of any time I ever saw him.
There was a violin he’d had for years. It was older than he was, a student violin made in a German factory around 1914. These kind of violins varied a lot in quality. This one was pretty good. He kept it in good condition for decades, and when he learned I played the violin, he sent it to me. No explanation. No conditions on what I needed to do to earn it. Nothing I had to do for him in return. This in itself was unusual for him.
I have short arms. And I was young. So I couldn’t play this full-sized violin when I first got it. I got to know it, instead. I got to know it by the feel of the wood on my face, the smells, the sound of the body as I tapped it. I got to know the blue fuzz inside the case, the little documents of its first sale, the history written in my grandfather’s old-fashioned handwriting, the smell of the old cake of rosin, the glint of mother-of-pearl on the bow, the smell and feel of the horsehair. The violin became my friend.
Eventually I was able to play it. Like always, I practiced all the time. I loved playing, for its own sake. I loved interacting with this friend in every way I could. My arms and hands were small, and I had a neuromuscular condition that made it hard, painful, and tiring to hold it up at all, but I did all these things as long as I could, just to play it.
But then I had to repeat fourth grade in a new school. This school had no music program, despite having a lot more money than the public school I had attended before that. I fell out of practice.
I grew to fear this violin. It was so old, I thought I’d break it. I kept it with me into adulthood though.
And then one day in my mid-twenties I picked it up and started playing. I was astonished.
I was not, and will never again be, good for my age at this point. I’m too weak to put in the practice. My technical skills have slipped.
But something else had grown inside me, with time. Deepened. And so had the violin.
So that when I played… I was no longer playing other people’s songs. Songs were playing me. Songs came out that talked about the redwood forest, my original home. Songs came out that talked about everything that was happening around me and inside of me. There was this resonating depth that I couldn’t shake.
And I could feel my feet.
Feeling my feet is always a good sign. If I can feel my physical presence from head to toe, something is going very right. It happens every time I pick up this violin and play it.
This violin came from my grandfather. This thing that brings me in touch with the deepest parts of myself and the world around me, this lifelong friend and companion, this thing that has deepened me and deepened along with me. Came from the guy who used to imitate the sounds of the cats he tortured, just to horrify me.
If you want to know what gives me hope in the world, it is that.
It is that good things can come from the worst places. That some of the worst people we encounter can’t seem to help doing some things that are good, regardless of their intentions.
I’ve called myself the bleakest optimist you’re likely to meet. It’s because I see the good in the world, but I don’t do it by ignoring the bad or pretending the bad is something other than what it is.
I think bleak optimism is what the world needs right now.
I think we need to understand that the world has people in it who torture cats for fun. And all kinds of other horrifying people and events. But that sometimes they’ll give you a violin that does nothing but good. For no apparent reason.
We need to be able to be realistic, yet to hope and see and create good things at the same time. It’s the only way to handle what the world has in store for everyone right now on so many levels.
And my grandfather’s violin is a good example of how I find that hope.
I’m hearing it a lot lately. A sense that the future is already doomed to be terrible no matter what we do, so why should we do anything, what could we possibly do that would make any difference at all?
I have a lot of thoughts on that. They’re hard to put into words. So I’ll tell you a true story.
A few years ago, I was dying.
Obviously, I’m still here, so something changed. More on that later. But, what’s important is, I knew I was dying. Without anyone intervening, giving myself a year was a little too generous. I was pretty sure I’d never see 34.
I kept coming close enough to death to touch it, close enough that if I had simply stopped trying to be alive, my body would have shut down and nobody would have known I had any say in the matter. It was happening more and more often. I was getting weaker. I started passing out and becoming unable to breathe on my own. I’d wake up at 3 in the morning to the sound of my bipap alarm going off. This alarm was supposed to wake me up if the settings designed to jump-start my breathing again didn’t start me taking breaths on my own. My head would be flopped so heavily on my chest that I couldn’t lift it, and the tissue in my neck was so strained it was excruciatingly painful. I’d try to move my hands to press a button to call for help, but they were so weak I could barely move my fingers. I’d realize that even though I was awake, I wasn’t breathing on my own even a little. The alarm was still blaring. The bipap was shoving a whole breath of air into my lungs, they’d deflate on their own, and then the bipap would shove another breath in. I’d know I could die right then. But I felt no emotion. The alarm kept going. I’d try to stay awake, but I’d get woozy and pass out, only to have this repeat a few times, alarm still going, and then in the morning I’d be able to move again, at least as well as I could move at the time, which wasn’t very.
I knew that eventually this would happen while I was awake and not already hooked up to the bipap. And that if nobody saw me, I would die. I also knew every time I got sick, I got much sicker than I should, and often became so weak that it took willpower to keep my blood pumping and my lungs breathing. Weaker than some people I knew had been on the last days of their lives. It got worse every time, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I got too weak to power through it with effort. I could also feel, on a deep, instinctual level, the knowledge that my body was preparing to shut down for good.
I didn’t tell anyone how bad it was, not even the people closest to me. But I was not in denial. I was grappling with the emotional and moral implications of my impending death. I just didn’t want to deal with other people’s reactions. Later, when my father was dying of cancer, he didn’t tell anyone until he ended up in the hospital so sick that he’d been given a week. (He turned out to have pneumonia, which they treated, but he died a few months later.) I understood why he did that, but I began to realize that if I had died, it would’ve robbed my loved ones of a chance to say goodbye to me. At any rate, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I did think about my own death a lot, and how it affected my life.
Obviously, I’m still here. What happened was two different doctors happened to run two different tests just as time was becoming short. They showed I had a severe hormone deficiency (the amount in my body was too small to measure, and it’s necessary for physical survival), and a neuromuscular disease. Both of which were treatable. So I survived. But this isn’t one of those ~never give up hope for a cure~ stories. One, I’m not cured by a longshot — instead of facing an inevitable slow decline into death like before, I now exist in a precarious state where, if I get the right support and treatment, my health is like a house of cards: It can get very tall indeed, but one thing pulled out at the wrong moment and I could die in hours. And two, I had no reason to think anyone would figure out what was going wrong with my body, and most people in my position would have been diagnosed in autopsy. In fact, it was phenomenal luck many times over that I hadn’t died before the time they actually found what was going on. So the point is, I really had to face my death in the same way that anyone facing imminent death has to. I had no realistic expectation of an out.
So where did this leave me? Well, I lost my fear of death pretty early. In fact, I had beautiful dreams about dying sometimes. I didn’t have a death wish, mind you. If I had, I wouldn’t be here. I just had seen death closely enough to stop fearing it, and to find beauty in aspects of it.
Everyone handles their impending death differently. I had a number of occasions to put it to the test: I would wake up aspirating a large amount of stomach acid, and from then on, I would be taken to the hospital, knowing that from the moment I woke up choking on bile that this could be the aspiration pneumonia that would kill me. I was rapidly too exhausted to put my affairs in order, or to do much in the fight against that pneumonia other than let doctors treat me, so I’d resign myself to uncertainty. This happened over and over again.
I’ve heard people talk about how they’d feel bad if they were dying and had never traveled the world like they always want to. But when I was faced by “My life could be over within hours or days,” that was not the kind of thing I regretted. In fact, I could barely give a shit what I’d done in those regards. But I was very preoccupied with who I’d been. Had I been a person who acted from love to the best of my ability? Had I been a moral person? That was the kind of question that made me nervous. I wasn’t sure I measured up to who I should have been. I wasn’t sure I’d affected enough people’s lives for the better. I’d resolve to do better if I got out of this. With some success. I’m far from perfect, but I think my focus and priorities have shifted.
But the reason I’m telling this story is because I feel like how we deal with our own personal mortality mirrors how we deal with the mortality of our entire species. We are facing the very real prospect that either humans won’t survive a lot longer, or not many of us will survive much longer.
One response I hear a lot is, “We’re doomed anyway, so why does it matter what I do?”
And some people do respond to their own personal death in that way. They start caring only about their own pleasure and stop giving a shit how they affect other people.
But the thing I discovered around my own death is — my end is not the end. That’s an understandable but self-centered way of looking at life. I’m not talking about life after death. I have some guesses about that, but they can only ever be guesses until I experience it. I’m talking about the fact that even if I am no longer in the world (whether death is the end for me, personally, or not), other people still will be.
I was going to die, but the rest of the world wasn’t, at least not right then. And dying may have meant I needed to conserve my energy in ways that made it harder to do certain things, or any obvious thing, for other people. But it didn’t mean I had lost the obligation to behave like a decent human being when it was possible to do so. If anything, that obligation seemed more important than ever the closer I got to death. If my life was going to mean anything, it was going to mean that I’d tried hard to do my best by other people, whether in big ways or small.
And this has really changed things for me. I haven’t become some kind of saint. I’m still saddled with the same confusion and self-centeredness that seems to plague human beings in general, but I make my best effort with what I’ve got. Which is all any of us can do.
And I see a strong parallel here with the way people respond to the thought of human extinction. “We’re screwed anyway, so might as well enjoy ourselves before we go out and forget about what we’re doing to the environment.” It might seem like the end of our species should mean we’re let off the hook, even if our own personal death doesn’t. After all, not only is any one individual person not going to be around, no other human being will be around either. There’s a lot of problems with this, though.
I’m going to start from the idea that total human extinction is soon and inevitable. Which it isn’t. Yet. But just saying it was.
We still have a responsibility to each other in the meantime. The reality is that nobody gets out of life alive. And yet most of us care about how we live in the time we’re still here. Treating each other decently is part of that. Because until we’re not here, we are here. And while we are here, how we treat each other matters. We can’t just throw everything to the winds and do whatever we feel like. For one, that’s actually a recipe for misery and unsatisfaction, even if it doesn’t seem like one. But also, it screws over everyone else we’re sharing the planet with in the meantime. And if screwing people over is bad even though each person you screw over will one day, individually, be dead, that isn’t actually changed by the entire species being dead.
There’s also this slide of inevitability that keeps us passive. One bad thing follows from the next bad thing follows from the next bad thing. We haven’t stopped it, so we won’t likely stop it, so let the next bad thing continue and go about our lives.
But the thing is. Again, even if it’s true we’re all universally doomed as a species (which it isn’t — yet). It doesn’t mean that we have to kill as many of us off as soon as humanly possible. Let’s say we knew that no matter what we did, nobody would be alive in 150 years. Would that make it okay to make a decision to just continue escalating things until it’s 75 years, and a huge bunch of people would die younger, and harder, and another huge bunch would never be born? Killing us off as soon as humanly possible because you didn’t think it would affect you personally whether it’s 75 years or 150 years because ou won’t be here is the kind of mentality that got us into this. If you don’t like it as things are now, how do you think your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will feel when they discover you could’ve at least ensured they’d grow up? How do you think the last people to die will feel when they know they could’ve had more time, could’ve faced a less extreme end?
But also, equally important when talking about human extinction is that humans are not and never have been the only life on the planet, or the only ones that matter. Very powerful people thinking humans are the only ones that matter, and only some humans at that, is a big part of what’s killing us. If we all die off, it still matters how many species we take out with us. It matters what we leave for the species most likely to survive us. We can’t just sit here and pull down the roof over our heads. That’d be like me deciding I’m dying anyway so I might as well blow up the whole hospital or something, who cares about everyone else there and what they might want. There has been life for far longer than humans have been around, and life will doubtless outlast us. Animals, plants, fungus, microscopic life of all kinds, all of these things deserve a chance. Failing to give them the best chance possible is like nuking your entire city because you’ll be dead from cancer tomorrow anyway. It’s selfish, destructive, and irresponsible.
So no matter what’s ahead — for you or for all of us — try like hell to contribute, to make the world better for other people, to stop terrible things from becoming even more terrible. Nothing gets us out of that obligation, ever. Sometimes we can do big things, sometimes we can do small things. But always try to find what you can do to the best effect, and do something. Hope isn’t always about knowing you won’t die right then. Hope is sometimes about knowing you could die, even knowing you will die, and doing the right thing anyway, because it’s still the right thing to do.
[This post was written recently. I kept it as a draft and planned to edit it. But I’m posting as-is.]