- We live, it seems, in the eclipsing of a world age. The older stabilities are disrupted more deeply month by month. Big tech openly plans to remake human nature with networked monopolies, wall to wall surveillance, and robotics. Their dorm-room vision is a new kind of planetary unity, but the motives are the same old profit and power. Government is gridlocked and cannot constrain the ravages of unquestioned, ever accelerating, deeply disruptive “progress.” And tribal dissension, fed by nuance-less tweets, grows daily stronger.
These and other challenges threaten our planet, really. So perhaps a couple of the big-world, fantasy epics are relevant. I think, of course, of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but also Christopher Paolini’s more recent Inheritance Cycle. In each of them, it all comes to a head in a final, apocalyptic battle for the survival of light in the face of darkness.
What Tips the Balance?
What might interest us here is an evolution, from one story to the next, in what wins the battle. There are warriors and wizards, courage and quests, and knowledge and weapons acquired and deployed on both sides. But what central element tilts the struggle in favor of light?
Between stories, it seems as if this central element and final weapon has actually evolved from the renunciation of power to simple empathy. What sense does that make for us in our own version of planetary Armageddon?
And what if I can lay this out for you in a few words?
The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien’s tale reflects the early 20th century experience of two world wars. It’s about the acquisition of absolute power and its tendency to addict and corrupt absolutely. Embodied, of course, in the “one ring to rule them all.” In Gandalf, we see the avatar of “good” power. The kind which wants to nurture, heal, and protect those kinds of energies in the world. Able to wield power himself, it’s too dangerous for him to carry the one ring. And even having consigned that ring to Frodo, Gandalf the Gray falls struggling into the bottomless pit battling the Balrog.
Humbled, brought low in this way, he returns later as Gandalf the White. But he still can’t go find Frodo and take the one ring to Mordor himself. He comes back and leads in the outer battle, armies against armies.
But the Ring Must be Destroyed
The more important, inner, moral struggle plays out in the progress of the Hobbit trio. Samwise is loyal and immune to the lure of power. Gollum is consumed, addicted to its symbol, and massively conflicted. He’s someone who can only covet the one ring, and never use it. Meanwhile Frodo is slowly worn down by his loyalties to Sam and his mission, on the one hand, and his sympathy for Gollum. He feels happening in himself what the ring did to Gollum.
But the outer battle cannot be won without victory in this inner one. And renouncing overwhelming power by destroying the ring is the only solution offered in Lord of the Rings. In the end, neither Frodo nor Gollum can do it. They struggle and Gollum falls himself into a hellish sea of molten magma clutching now forever his “precious.”
So Middle Earth is saved by accident, really.
New Century, New Epic
Paolini’s four book, somewhat wordy Inheritance Cycle ushers in a new century. Begun when the author was literally 15 years old, it’s not as fully realized as Lord of the Rings. But still, it’s an impressive fantasy world, with believable races, dragons, characters both noble and demonic, main and sub-plots. There’s also an interesting theory of how magic works. Once again, it all comes together in a final, apocalyptic battle for the survival of light in the face of darkness.
Here too, there is both an outer and an inner battle. And again the outer battle is going badly as the inner confrontation comes to a head. The human, elf, dwarf, and Kull protagonists, with their small dragons, confront the evil Galbatorix in his gigantic throne room. His dragon is immense, and his eons-long study of magic has given him a force that the good guys are powerless to resist.
A Different Solution to the Problem of Power
But Eragon, the central hero, who has always had mixed feelings about all the killing the great struggle has caused—has one last idea. Together with his helpers, they put all their reserves of energy into one great spell and cast it at Galbatorix. What that spell does is--inject him with empathy.
Suddenly, he feels in himself all the vast amounts of pain and suffering his pitiless quest for absolute dominance has caused.
“What have you done to me?!” he screams. Within seconds, he starts to implode. And the resulting explosion begins to shatter the defenses of his citadel.
On the one hand, this is a different and fascinating solution. Amid all the terrible, yang-drenched bloodshed, it’s an injection of pure yin that saves the day. Empathy is weaponized. Power over is destroyed by empathy with. Since each are absolute, the result is a kind of nuclear instability. Obviously, both might rather need to be acquired incrementally and in balance.
As one of my indigenous teachers used to say: “Don’t get power until you get well.”
But Can Empathy Really be “Weaponized”?
On the other hand, isn’t it a pipe dream, even in fantasy, to think that empathy could be force fed—injected as it were? It’s a question perhaps for neurologists of the future. But we don’t need to wait. All we have to do is stop the traumatization of families with young children. Because the hardwired social empathy system is turned on and developing from birth on—way before language or thought or even object permanence get established.
As this century is rapidly rediscovering, we are “born to bond.” And, as is increasingly obvious, we fail to do that at our own peril.
I think Paolini is on target here. Power in human and technological affairs has to exist. It cannot simply be renounced. But it must be checked and balanced by empathy. And that means empathy both for the governed and for those that power is shared with. But it seems like we have to rebuild that in adults before we can ensure its natural development in children. And how do we do that? More on this next blog from Brene Brown’s latest book.