Earlier this winter, I was taking the train to work in the morning, as I usually do. It was during one of the exceptionally cold days—I honestly don’t think I’ve ever experienced negative degrees Fahrenheit before—and I was ruing sitting against the window, as I usually do (the sitting, not the ruing). I take the standard Northern approach to winter clothing, applying layer after layer after layer until you end up a spherical mess of unflattering insulation, but even then, it didn’t seem to work as well as I had hoped that morning. Worse, I had to pee, and I typically try to avoid that on the trains. Yeah, there are bathrooms on the commuter trains, but trying to wiggle out past the person sitting next to me, wobbling down an unsteady train down to the bathroom in the next car, then having to undo layer after layer of unflattering insulation just to take a leak wasn’t worth it. I just held it until I got to the office.
The whole experience recalled to mind a method of excreting bodily waste in abnormally or dangerously low temperatures: the use of insulated diapers. I thought it an amusing technique, both incredibly uncomfortable to sit in my own urine while simultaneously finding the warmth probably very welcome in below-zero temperatures. Of course, I’m not a diaper fetishist, and the idea is far more uncomfortable to me than it is to others; it’d probably have to be truly, awfully cold outside, and I’d need to be out there for quite a long duration before even giving it a serious thought. Still, the technique of it is valid, and if I were someone like a Siberian ice-fisher, I’d probably actually consider it.
Now, I don’t often think about diapers; I leave that to some of my other friends and colleagues for their own reasons. No, I originally heard about the notion of insulated diapers from…well, of all places, a Legend of Zelda fanfic. Yes, dear reader, your beloved/despised polyphanes is a nerd, and while I haven’t really read fanfic or engaged in much fandom in years, it was definitely a major influence on my formative teen life. Between Myst, Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a handful of other anime and manga, I had quite the list going. The Legend of Zelda fandom was probably the first one I started getting involved with, and there was this one site…god, it’s been years, and I can’t remember it, and I have no idea if it’s even online anymore. It was, for the early 2000s, a fantastic fan-maintained resource of Zelda-related content, ranging from game walkthroughs to rumors of finding the Triforce in Ocarina of Time to, of course, fanfiction. The site author maintained his own (as I judged it at the time) pretty epic storyline, and even I helped contribute with some of my own stuff. It was a fascinating timesink for me.
The fanfic the site maintainer himself wrote was pretty involving, I have to admit, or at least for my 12-to-14-year-old self. It had everything I could want: drama, an unexplored dichotomy leftover from the actual mythos of Zelda, exploration, and, of course, angst. (Yes, I still have a soft spot for Linkin Park and Gackt, and my mom still fondly remembers my overuse of “angst!” cried out as an expression of frustration and…well, angst.) There was one part in the fanfics the site author wrote that stuck in my mind, and which this cold train morning brought up after making the leap from insulated diapers: in an earlier part of the story, Link is sent on a quest to defeat the Truly Unspeakable Evil in a place far colder than Antartica (hence the insulation), but which was so evil, Link was warned not to give even an ounce or an inch of thought or credence to it, for to even give it that much would let the Truly Unspeakable Evil get a foothold in Link’s mind, which would inevitably lead to his corruption and ultimate doom. Later on in the series, you can guess what happened; Link, as it turned out, gave a half-second’s thought of considering the merits of what the Truly Unspeakable Evil was proposing to Link as he approached the den of the Truly Unspeakable Evil, and that was just enough to plant the seed of Truly Unspeakable Evil in Link’s head, which eventually began to drive him to depression, to madness, and ultimately, to climb the heights of Death Mountain, watch the sunrise one last time, and fling himself over the edge to end it all so as to give in to the Truly Unspeakable Evil. He didn’t die, of course; that’d be a poor end to a Zelda fanfic, indeed, and the fanfic author had more in mind to write. Link was grievously wounded, to be sure, but he survived, and was rescued by his friends and allies and, together, they worked to (painfully, if I recall correctly) excise and exorcise the Truly Unspeakable Evil from Link’s mind and body. It was a surprisingly sweet, uplifting, empowering story to read for a young teenager.
Now, as a somewhat older person with a little more (but only a little more) experience under my belt in both magic, spiritual works, demonic possession and obsession, and just life in general, I can look back and realize…well, first, how fucked up that story was. I still think fondly of it, but christ, that was a dark story to read. All the same, it does actually have strong parallels to some of the worst case scenarios of demonic affliction, and how, in some cases, demons can drive someone mad or burden them with depression, and ultimately, it is possible for a demon to drive someone to suicide. But…now that I look back on it, there’s something that nags me about the whole thing. I know that I’m evaluating the merits and virtues of a fanfic I read literally 15 years ago and only dimly recall, so please suspend your sense of absurdity for my sake, but…it almost seems like it was too easy for the Truly Unspeakable Evil to be so cleanly excised from Link. Yeah, falling off a cliff a hundred meters tall would probably knock quite a bit out of you more than just wind, but…
Problems like depression and mania and anxiety or dementia, or psychological urges to murder, rape, abuse, and the like are, indeed, problems. They’re human problems, of course, and so many of us suffer from them all the time. We do our best to keep ourselves in good physical and mental health, and hold in our destructive and malefic urges so we can at least maintain a semblance of non-psychopathic decency. While there’s a little bit of the Divine in all of us, a little shard of the Good, a little spark of the Nous, we’re still mortal and material creatures, born to die. Matter, in the Gnostic-influenced Hermetic view, stands apart from God in several ways, and is largely considered evil, or at the very least, incredibly inconvenient. (I’m reminded of the Douglas Adams quote: “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”) Try as we might, there is not one of us who is truly good, because we’re not made to be; while the part of us that is Good can aspire to Goodness, a human being, when considered as a whole, is a mixture of both Good and Evil. We’re both. We have both blessings and curses, benefits and hindrances, positives and negatives.
A human being, any one of us, is a whole entity, and you can’t simply excise evil from a human. You can’t just rip those destructive urges out, nor can you just banish anxiety and be done with it.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that one should have an urge to rape and kill, nor that we should be so “blessed” with depression and suicide; far from it, these are awful things that I wish we could do without, and work towards a day when we don’t have to worry about them and can maintain them so that they don’t pose a problem anymore, if not get rid of them completely. But we all have our afflictions, our vices, our sins, and you can’t just fling yourself off a cliff to be rid of them, nor can you jam a red-hot sword into your flesh to burn it out. Those who have these afflictions are still human, and still have an ounce of Good in them, no matter how covered up or small. We all have our own essential dignity, so to speak. But that dignity and that little bit of Good we have don’t excuse the shit we pull and the evil we make in the world around us or in the world within us; we can’t simply be forgiven for the awful, harmful things we do to ourselves or others, because forgiveness without remediation is wasted breath and energy.
We’re whole creatures. We have good and bad within us, and we can’t really separate the bad out and claim it’s not us. It’s part of us, and in a sense, it is us. We have to own it. We have to take responsibility for ourselves, and we have to actively work to make ourselves as Good as possible. If only it were as simple as just letting the Good be Good, but it’s not; we have to fight, every second of every minute of every day of every month of every year we draw breath, to preserve the Good, protect the Good, enhance the Good, and elevate the Good, while fighting off the Bad, diminishing the Bad, restraining the Bad, and eventually controlling the Bad as best we can until we’re no longer human and no longer have the Bad as part of us. Until then, the Bad is just as much as part of the whole of us as the Good is.
Being whole is inconvenient. It’s not easy, and there’s no straightforward solution, no deus ex machina that can save us as the hero in our individual stories. It’s not a problem to solve, but a predicament we must live with; in this view, then, every moment of every human life is a crisis, where we must constantly take responsibility for ourselves, own our wholeness and all the parts of the whole that constitutes who we are, and actively make the decision to be Good and to enhance the Good. We have to be better than what we are. Not only is that a matter of enhancing the Good all the time, but of diminishing the Bad all the while.
I wish it were easier. But it’s not. That’s just the nature of the Work, which is actual work.
Bravo. I return regularly to the framework of /problem-predicament-crisis/ myself, and find it quite useful.
Wholeness is a common theme in Iamblichus, which my book-group is tackling in fits and starts. The gods are described as undivided and whole, in a way that humans and other denizens of planet earth are not. I have come to understand this as humans having a range of urges and desires, some of which are the stirrings of the higher self, some of which are the stirrings of the animal self, and some of which are the interplay between them. That’s the “human wholeness”, to be in this net of interactions in ways that the gods are not.
One of the challenges, of course, is that what’s Good is nominally a perfect and immutable condition, while what’s Bad is a varying and multifaceted range of terrible things that can seem desirable in the short term while being terrible in the long run. We don’t see a green line and a red line drawn on the ground before us, telling us which way to go and what way to behave, or have a clearly visible menu of conversation options hovering over each person’s head when we start a conversation….
I recently read an article about a burglar who suddenly realized that cutting through a wall with a $10 drywall saw was easier and simpler than defeating a $150 fire-proof metal door with a $400 electronic lock. He talked about his sudden amazed contempt of the illusion of architecture — that this system of hallways and rooms instantly became startlingly transparent to him, because he saw doors and options for movement where before there were only obstacles. A carpenter friend of mine thinks similarly — though with a different end in mind — when he remodels houses: a non-load-bearing wall is an illusion, becoming as easily a door or an open space or a new closet as he desires.
And so it is with being whole, I suspect. We acquire skill and technique throughout our lives, and the technique can serve the Good or the Bad depending on how it’s deployed each time. There’s an underlying ethos and insight and foresight that has to be addressed each time — “what is my end goal? How will this affect others right now? What are the long-range consequences?” And the more magic we do, of course, the more carefully those questions have to get addressed.