Tag: Lord of the Rings

Best Self

From the moment we are born, there will be people around us who will try to tell us what we should be doing, how we should be acting, and by what metrics we should be measuring our success. The influences of our families, societies, popular media, and a host of other sources try to inform us of what is “best”: best behavior, best performance, best goals, best cars, best social media platform, so on and so forth. With so much clamor from so many directions, the messages and influences that encourage us to validate ourselves, rather than seek validation from others, can easily get drowned out. It is one of the most subtly dangerous threats to our psyches that exist, and I cannot overstate how important it is to find our sovereignty within ourselves first and foremost.

There’s no universal set of rules or criteria that can be followed to achieve this. Our pasts, and our present, create a set of circumstances unique to every one of us. Regardless of where you’ve come from, where you are, or what you have or have not achieved so far, there is something that I can say I honestly believe is true for you as much as it is for me: you are worth believing in, and you can find that belief within yourself. I’ve dismissed that idea out of hand in the past, be it with a sincere if half-hearted “thank you” to whatever person was saying it, or acting in a sarcastic manner in reaction. Because of how I looked at myself, I neither saw nor internalized the truth of that statement. It was a denial of my best self. That is one of the biggest things that has changed about me, and that I’m dedicated to not losing sight of ever again.

Our best self comes out when we look within ourselves for our sense of validation. It isn’t easy. Those external sources, those structures of control, can be difficult to eject. Some of the influences, especially from parental figures and role models, dig themselves deeply into our psyches. And sometimes, they are directly detrimental to our self-actualization. Even when we can recognize them as toxic, if they have been a part of our lives for an extended period of time, the idea of being apart from them can be daunting. That challenge of making new choices I mentioned previously? This is where it’s at its most prominent, and where forging those new neural pathways can be its most rewarding and empowering.

As much as a lot of popular media is aimed at making one reach for an external sense of validation, be it financial success or reliance upon a relationship or some fleeting moment of fame or recognition, I’d like to cite three examples of stories in our popular culture that exemplify the challenges and empowerment of seeking and seizing validation from within oneself.

“I don’t have anything to prove to you.”

One of the best scenes in Captain Marvel is Carol’s last confrontation with the Kree Supreme Intelligence. For years, the Kree had been influencing Carol’s psyche with both direct and indirect manipulation; there was a device on her neck representing the direct control of the Supreme Intelligence, and her peers sought indirect control through exemplifying the Kree way of life. Even then, however, Carol didn’t quite fit in, wanting to be her own person. Returning to Earth showed Carol who she had been before the events that put her under Kree control. I love the scene where Carol’s best friend from her past, Maria, tells Carol who she is, or at least who Maria always saw her to be: “smart, and funny, and a huge pain in the ass… the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fists.” Maria could see the person that Carol was, and wanted to help her see who she could be — to help Carol grow into her true self.

Carol resolved to forge her own identity, using both who she had been on Earth and what she’d learned from the Kree to become a new, better, stronger version of herself. She doesn’t want to go back to who she was before — she knows that’s impossible. And her identity as a Kree warrior, not to mention the entire Kree way of life, has shown itself to be a lie. She rejects the influence of the Supreme Intelligence; she physically removes the device (something else she’d been lied to about), and says:

“I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back. What happens when I’m finally set free?”

What happens next is a direct manifestation of Carol Danvers as her best self. As Captain Marvel. And it came from within herself, from her own inner sense of validation.

“I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.”

Aragorn, especially in the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, is a man who is fearful of his legacy, the influences of his past. He knows that those who came before him failed, succumbed to their weaknesses and temptations, and he is afraid of doing the same, of not being equal to the task ahead of him. Because of the actions of others, he is inclined to invalidate himself. Even when actively encouraged by others, be they Gandalf or Arwen or Elrond, he secludes himself, more concerned with the possibility of failure than of success.

When he puts that fear aside, and makes the decision to use what has been given to him to its fullest potential, we see a change. He’s been able to lead in the past, when tracking Merry and Pippin or at Helm’s Deep. But when he rides out of Minis Tirith with an army behind him and has to inspire them to stand with him to give the world a chance at peace and freedom, it’s through his own inner sense of validation that he validates others. He knows he might fail, that it might all end in darkness and death. His belief that he can be better, that he chooses to be better, makes all the difference. It allows him to face his fear and, in turn, help those with him to overcome theirs. And that is why they prevail.

“… this spark in you; it’s amazing! Whatever you choose to do with it, you’re gonna be great.”

Miles Morales in Into the Spider-Verse has to find it within himself to “put on the mask”, to be Spider-Man. He’s in a situation where he knows his powers give him responsibility, and he aspires to be like the Spider-Man of his world — Peter Parker, now deceased. (Whups, spoilers.) The Peter Parker from another dimension, who’s come to care for Miles, tells the young man that he’s not ready, that he doesn’t quite have what it takes to tackle the major threat. This is a sentiment backed up by Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Peter Porker. They all care about him and want him to be safe; they feel his inexperience makes the situation too dangerous. His father, coming to his door, tells him that he’s worth believing in. In the end, it’s Miles himself that helps him realize that he does, in fact, have what it takes to be the kind of person, the kind of hero, he wants to be.

Into the Spider-Verse immediately became my favorite Spider-Man film, and favorite Spider-Man story period, because of Miles Morales. I mean, yes, the art style is mind-blowing and the attention to detail is staggering; I adore the worn-out alternate universe Peter Parker, the incredibly confident and empowered Spider-Gwen, the uniqueness of Peni, the wonderful delight of Nicholas Cage just doing the most, and my inner 8-year-old can’t stop giggling at the Spectacular Spider-Ham. But it’s the story of Miles, and how he grows and changes, that is sticking with me. From his father to his uncle, not to mention not one but two Peter Parkers, there are a lot of external influences that could push or pull Miles in one way or another. The focal point of the story, however, is how Miles makes his choices in terms of who it is he wants to be. The most important thing to Miles is not living up to anyone else’s expectations; it’s not earning validation from peers; it’s not seeking attention or affirmation through external shows. The most important thing to Miles is being Miles, the best Miles he can be — for him, that’s to put on the mask and take a leap of faith.

Much like redemption, validation is at its most powerful when it comes from within oneself. The people who truly love us want nothing more than to see us succeed, for our own sake and on our own terms. They want to believe in us. Here’s the thing: if we can’t believe in ourselves, how can we expect others to believe in us? If we don’t respect ourselves, why would anyone else respect us? It begins within ourselves. It’s not something that’s touched on often in the media that permeates our society. There are tons of businesses who will be more than happy to sell you something in the name of fulfilling a need within yourself. It’s an easier solution to reach for. To try and find these things on your own, to eschew the expectations of the world, is considered an abnormality. There’s something about it that can, and often does, feel dangerous.

With everything that’s happened, and everything I’m learning, I’ve come to believe that choosing and working become one’s best self is a difficult thing, sometimes even a frightening thing. Your success and failure is entirely on you. If you’re detached from reliance upon and validation from others, you run the risk of either buying too much of your own hype or focusing overmuch on minor setbacks as evidence that you can’t make your own way. Again, this will vary from person to person, but that seems to me to be the nature of the challenge, the flavor of the danger. And it’s understandable to be afraid. But just like deciding to seek your best self, you can also decide how you handle that fear. I used to let it make the decisions for me; now, I can acknowledge it exists, see it for what it is, and then find it within myself to make my decisions on my own terms.

In other words: being one’s best self is often a matter of stepping out under one’s own power, seeing the challenges ahead, choosing to show the fuck up anyway, and saying:

What’s up, danger?

500 Words on Redemption

The premise for this post began thusly:

“Everybody loves a redemption story.”

This is something that has been said to me, and about me, in the past. And there are a lot of stories on the subject out there. We want to believe that the people we love, and by extension ourselves, are people that are capable of being redeemed, of coming back from dark places in life into better, healthier ways of existing. Darth Vader pitching the Emperor into a pit to save his son. Boromir running to the rescue of Merry and Pippin after almost succumbing to the temptations of the One Ring. Tony Stark using a box of scraps — and later his vast wealth, creativity, and intellect — to solve problems he created and protect the world.

It’s a difficult thing to stare our demons in the face. Some of the mistakes that happen in our lives have catastrophic consequences. Knowingly or not, we can and often do hurt others in pursuit of our goals. Not everyone has the self-awareness or courage to face those mistakes, admit their fault, and accept the consequences. What makes Zuko’s story special is that he does all of those things, and begins making different choices. Nobody saves him; he saves himself. The only reason he takes the steps down a road to redemption is because he chooses to do so.

A lot of turning points in redemption stories come out of life-or-death situations. Anakin Skywalker’s rebirth, Boromir’s sacrifice, the creation of Iron Man — these all come to pass because the situation is dire and there’s no other moral choice. Zuko, while he endured many similar situations, did not have a dramatic “face turn” in the midst of one of them. Instead, each of his many defeats was a brick in a foundation for a new version of himself, one that he built with his own two hands, rather than the one that had been informed by the influences of others. While his uncle did attempt to guide him, in the end, the decisions he made were his own, both when he doggedly pursued the Avatar and when he decided, instead, to help his former quarry.

He began asking hard questions: what does “honor” actually mean to me? How do I want to make a difference in the world? How did my old choices lead me to failure? How can I make new ones that do make a difference? The answers to those questions, the choices he made as a result, are what lead him in a redemptive direction.

Here’s something you might miss: Zuko didn’t do this to prove anything to anyone except himself. He decided that it was worth the risk, for his own sake, to become a better version of himself.

That is how Zuko redeemed himself. That’s what makes his story powerful.

Because if Zuko, who we meet as an arrogant fuck-up, can redeem himself, for his own sake and on his own terms… then so can we.

From The Vault: Little Changes

Slight modification for this post, but it’s still appropriate. I’m still on vacation, so enjoy this post from a couple years ago.


Courtesy DC
Think of a favorite story of yours, or a beloved character. Chances are there are things about that story or character you take for granted. Here are some examples: Superman fights for truth, justice and the American way. Aragorn is proud of his heritage and wishes to reclaim his throne. Buffy learns of her destiny as a Slayer while she’s a cheerleader in high school. Tyr’s hand is devoured by a dire wolf named Fenrir.

Change one thing about any of those stories, and everything changes.

Warren Ellis changed one thing about Superman. If his spaceship had crashed on Earth twelve hours earlier, it would have landed in Sibera, not Kansas. Hence, Red Son, one of the most audacious and comprehensive Elseworlds stories I’ve ever read. No aspect of the DC Universe is unaffected by this one matter of timing, from Kal-El’s relationship with Diana of the Amazons to Hal Jordan’s origin as a Green Lantern. Superman becomes a heroic symbol of Communist Russian under Stalin, all because of the Earth’s rotation.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Aragorn changed in Peter Jackson’s films. Instead of reforging Narsil the red-hot second he reaches Rivendell in his eighty-sixth year, Aragorn shrinks from his destiny. He fears the weakness of men, unconvinced that the blood of Numenor makes him any different from the weak and corrupt people he’s met and will meet. While some die-hard fans of Tolkien’s works threw back their heads and howled at this change (among others), I found this made his character deeper, more realistic and much more interesting and appealing. How many of us are that confident in our own abilities, our own destinies? How many of us entertain doubts about our futures and our capacity to meet the challenges awaiting us? Aragorn, despite his long lifespan and epic destiny, seems much more like us, and thus we are drawn deeper into his story and that of the Fellowship.

Courtesy WB

Imagine if Buffy found out she was a Slayer at a younger age. Let’s say she’s six years old, her daddy’s attacked by a vampire at an amusement park and she stakes it with a popsicle stick. Just pure instinct: she jumps onto the monster and drives the wood home through sheer panic. How would her story change? How shallow would she really be with blood on her hands at such a young age? Or go the other direction. Buffy’s in her twenties, married to some pretty jerk who has no time for her, so she fills her days shopping and gossiping. It could be like any episode of Sex & the City until the vampires get involved. How reluctant would she be to respond to the call? What if her husband tried to turn things around given her drastic change in lifestyle, only to discover she’s had an affair with Angel? Think about it.

I mentioned Tyr because of The Drifter’s Hand, obviously. It was more a change of genre than a change of events, but it was still an interesting exercise. I plan other changes, as well, for most of the works I have on various burners. The downside is, more rewriting is required. But if the end result works better, it will be worth it.

What stories would you change, if you could?

Chuckin’ Dice

Dice

There’s something soothing about the rattle of polyhedrals. As immersive and rewarding as an experience can be when the game in question involves role-playing and character sheers, the tactile feeling of dice rolling around in my hand is just as good in other games. Playing things not based on the computer is a relatively uncommon experience these days, but with so many good memories and a few choice games eagerly awaiting to be played in my closet, I do want to increase the frequency at which I chuck dice.

Old-School Games

My dad introduced me to grand strategy on the tabletop at a young age. We played a lot of old Avalon Hill games together, ranging from historical engagements to one based on Starship Troopers. The scale of our games varied, from the great naval battle of Jutland played out on the living room floor while things got rather personal during Advanced Squad Leader. We’ve tried several variations on Risk, finding the Lord of the Rings version to be, perhaps, the most appealing. We’ve also had long campaigns of War of the Ring, Fortress America, Shogun, and Axis and Allies. We’ve even found ways to play these game via email, and while it’s fun, it just doesn’t quite capture the feeling of dice in your hand.

Miniatures

I’ve dabbled in the world of tabletop miniatures gaming in the past. I still have all of my books for Warhammer 40,000 and WarMachine. Plastic and pewter soldiers do have more presence than cardboard ones, adding dimension to the action taking place. The downside is that even a small, basic force can be massively expensive, and assembly and painting eats up a lot of time. Part of the reason I enjoy the Dawn of War video games is the ability to field massive forces of my favorite grimdark armies without having to shell out for, glue together, and paint up an embarrassing amount of miniatures. While it’s something I could get back into, between my Magic habit, a slew of video games to play, and other tabletop games, I know better than to really delve back into that world.

The New Stuff

Settlers of Catan is a game I was introduced to some time ago, and it remains fascinating to me, bloody struggles for land replaced by trading wood for sheep with my neighbor. Resource management and diplomacy may not sound like very interesting stuff, but games that focus on interpersonal dynamics and frame competition in ways other than direct violence do tickle the intellect in interesting ways. Co-operative games, as well, break away from the usual slugfests. Arkham Horror is a particular favorite, and I have picked up Pandemic to see if the experience is similar. I mean, sure, sometimes you just want to blast your buddy, a niche that Frag and Munchkin fill nicely. But I also seek new takes on old favorites, like introducing my family to Ticket to Ride as a much faster and more friendly type of Rail Baron game. As much as I don’t get to play these games terribly often, there’s still good times to be had chucking dice around, if just for that tactile feeling and spending time with people away from glowing screens and klacking keys.

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