On Averting the Apocalypse...
and other benefits of friendship (h2so4 18)
Sometimes, when I encounter a mind that thinks as I think in some way, I want to make it my permanent best friend, in an intimacy (an intimacy of friendshipthe other kind takes more than mind, mind you) that will conquer the distance embodied in writing. I profess admiration; I admire in profusion, approaching the level of unbridled enthusiasm… and then sometimes I learn that that mind is not so much like mine because there it goes, fleeing in the opposite direction. I suppose, however, that I use the occasional unbridledness of my enthusiasm as a test (but not a test of will, since I can’t say I will any of this to happen)to test your mettle, see what you’re made of, whether you’re rough enough for these parts, or soft enough.
Maybe that’s not fair. I mean, who knows these things right away anyway? People need time to get comfortable, suss things out, make sure I’m not a crazy about-to-be-stalker or somesuch. The older we get the more we’ve learned about the dangers of leaping before taking a long good look. In other words, when you leap before you’ve spilled milk you have to sleep in the bread you’ve buttered!
But the wisdom gained as we get older is sometimes cynicism rather than wisdom. Sometimes I do know within a matter of moments or hours that I’ve met someone who is about to be my really good friend, if not other things as well….(I am purposefully not using the phrase “good friend if not more” here, as if friendship alone were always “less” than something else.)
Which leads me to what lies just this side of the paradox of the will. (The paradox of the will is that the will creates things but then those things sometimes have effects the will did not intend, and thus what the will was in control of spirals out of its control. No, that is not ironic.) What lies just this side of the paradox of the will is passion, in its many definitions. Contemporary westernized minds tend to think passion is yet another form of willit is a lusty desire, a conquest of the beddy-bye time, something “I” want and thus will have. (“It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.”) Of course if we are wise we (yeah, I know. Still, WE) also know that when it comes to passion what we want is not entirely within our control to have. We might develop an enthusiasm for someone who sees us and runs in the opposite direction (“right leap taken at wrong time”); or who sees us, is also enthused, but “has issues” and thus must make what ought to be easy difficult (akin to what Halliday Dresser in his brilliance has called “two step forward, one steps back”); or who must deny actual possibility in favor of unrealized impossibility (because what you can’t have is so alluring, and less likely to let you down with its imperfections, etc.). We might fall in loveor merely become enthused, encounter a possible starting point of loveat the wrong time, with the wrong person, and any other of a long list of potential wrongs and inconveniences.
I am not being hyper-romantic or idealist when I say that love is rarely convenient and perhaps even ought to be questioned if it meets up with your plans for it. This is not the same as only wanting a love I can’t have. (In fact, kids, I’m sorry to break the news, but note this: wanting love only when it fits into a story you have laid out for yourself or could have predicted is the same as only wanting a love you can’t have.)
Love is terryifying because it makes you rely on someone outside of yourself. You are no longer fully self-sufficient (as if you ever were). As such, love reminds you of what it really means to be a human being and not a god (nor a vampire or other undead-type)you are not all powerful, and not immortal. There are things beyond your control, and your own life and the lives of those you love are finite and vulnerable to violence.
Sometimes I think all these missed connections and refusals of enthusiasm occur precisely because we have forgotten what “passion” really is. The word “passion” is related to the word “passive”accordingly it means something not acted but acted upon, something one undergoes regardless of what one would have chosen; it means submissiveness or lack of resistance. (That is why Christ’s sufferings are sometimes called “The Passion of Christ.” They are things that happened to him regardless of what he would have willed. “The Passion of Christ” is not meant to indicate that he enjoyed or lusted after his suffering (although Christianity certainly has its moments of masochism. But, while we’re at this, let’s not confuse Christ with Christianity. But I digress.).) That being said (passion means lack of resistance), I’m sure we can all recognize immediately what this passive definition has to do with passion. We love love, and it moves us, and changes us, and frightens and inspires us, in part because we can’t control it, and because it challenges our ideas about what we are capable of controlling. A wonderful and terrifying thing!
But am I only talking about romantic love here? (Am I talking?) Is romantic love love’s only meaningful destination? Can I only have enthusiasm for a potential significant other? (And what does it take for a person or possibility to be “significant” to you?) No, I am talking about a love that enlivens. And terrifieswhat if I had to live without it? What if it moved to another city? A love that inspires. Sometimes enrages. Supports. Makes what is heavy lighter, and what is too light heavy enough. Requires the best of me and tolerates less only on occasion. Is there at dark times when I need its help but mostly, because it’s there, keeps the dark times at bay. None of this is hyper-romantic or idealist. It is possible, every single day. And yet it is something far from mundane. I have it. Because of my friends.
Regardless of what my dating status is at a given moment, my friends form the fabric that makes my daily life meaningful. Of course most of us really would like to find that “significant” other with whom we will be “in love.” (And some of us do so, over and over again, against the more constant background of friendships.) Romantic love is so sought-after precisely because it is a gift or a form of grace for which there is no substitute. I suppose what I’m saying, then, is that a true friend is also a gift, another kind of singular grace. It is good to remember these things. And I’m about to launch into a Buffy the Vampire Slayer metaphor in order to prove it.
So love is not just romantic love, and it is certainly not just sex, or daytime TV’s idea of passion. It is an intense concern for another person. It is an enthusiasm for something or someone.
The world in its everyday-ness so often knocks down our lovesit knocks down romantic loves, but even moreso it downgrades our friendships and enthusiasms from the honored status of love to something commonplace, something to be taken for granted or placed second-best to romantic love, rather than courted and cherished and acknowledged as the life force that it is. Do I say this too often? Well, better than not often enough....
And so I’ll make another, longer, but more related digression. This love thing is, believe it or not, related to what was simultaneously so devastating and so inspiring about last year’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer season. The writers saw fit to make the world fall apart, over and over again, in ways both real (violent death, addiction, insanity, betrayal, the list extends on) and unreal (vampires, song demons, invisibility rays, etc.), and they took this destruction to such sadistic extremes (and it was cruel) as if to test the boundaries of the various friendships Buffy fans have so invested themselves in all these years.
These were trials such that ordinary mortals might bow under the immensity of their burden. But ordinary mortals did not. The “Scoobies” are all human beings. (Buffy’s gang of friends is called “The Scoobies.” Listen. If you can’t suspend your disbelief, you should stop reading right now. I’m using Buffy the Vampire Slayer to talk about love and friendship!) Sure, Buffy’s a slayer, Willow and Tara are witches, Anya’s an ex-vengeance-demon and Dawn is “the key.” (Xander is just Xander, and that is significant, as we shall see.) But at bottom they are all imperfect human beings just trying to make their way in a world that is always acting against them, never cutting them a break. (Sound familiar? It’s your own life!) This is one reason why the metaphor of “vampire slayer” is so good: their enemies are vampires and demons, and as such will never become good. Thus what is required of The Scoobies is that that they deal with the fact that they have enemies who are bad (and undead!) but that despite all that evil, human beings are still capable of living, and loving, and being happy, and being good to each other.
Of course the show always complicates the metaphors it sets up. Angel is a “good” vampire because he has a soul. About the famously evil but now wanting-to-be-good vampire Spike we’re still waiting to hear.1 Also, some of the trials the Scoobies must undergo are not supernatural but are entirely human evils or simple human realities, such as betrayal by those you love, gun violence and natural death.2 These are often the most difficult dangers, because even special powers don’t count for much against death and other losses of love. There is no magic to fix it.
So let’s consider Xander. He’s just a guy. (Men don’t tend to stick around on the Buffy series. Her dad left her alone with her mom. Angel can’t love her without turning evil. Oz, Willow’s first love, is a werewolf who had to leave town in order not to harm anyone he loves. Riley takes off to fight demons in a South American jungle and returns married to someone else. Giles leaves, though he doesn’t want to, because he realizes that he’s, as the song goes, “standing in the way” of Buffy’s development. (It really is a song. From the utterly brilliant musical episode.) The only men who stick around on Buffy are Xander and Spike: bungling good and bungling evil.) So Xander’s just a guy.
At last season’s end, Willowwho is a very powerful witchsees her girlfriend Tara murdered by a stray bullet from a gun aimed at Buffy, and then in her grief goes on a rampage of power, rage and violence. She takes it so far that she kills Tara’s killer, but not before gratuitously removing all his skin. As the season draws to a close, she is about to set into motion a course of events that will issue in the apocalypse. (Anyone who has faced serious grief can probably see how she would let it get this far.) Every one of the Scoobies is trying as they might to find a way to stop Willow, and none succeed.
And who, after all those weeks of trauma and emotional shipwreck... who saves the world from Willow’s crazed and violent vengeance? Xander. Xander is the only one with no special power at all. Indeed he has no special skill or quality other than being a good friend. He fucks up, he’s a slacker, a joker, a construction guy who doesn’t want to go to college or keep enough of a job to move out of his parents’ basement, a well-meaning guy who freaks out and leaves the woman he loves alone at the altar on their wedding day. He’s a guy we all know. But he saves the world.
How? By standing in front of Willow, telling her that he loves her and that the world will have meaning, by refusing to step aside though it might mean his death, and by offering her his hand. As far as I’m concerned, that is the best, most moving and most non-theological metaphor of redemption that has ever played on a television screen (and this show has a rich history of metaphor in its plotting). Here the story is barely metaphor, but rather mostly a concrete demonstration. If you are good to those around you, if you keep your friends safe, the world will never be utterly lost. The world will be saved, even at the darkest moment. •
1. Last season I was really happy when the chip in Spike’s head (a complicated plot development that I’m not going to explain) stopped working because it opened up a way to tell a story wherein a vampire becomes good without having a soulthat would complicate even further the narrative about good and evil. But then Spike went and got be-souled. And we have yet to see this season what that will reap.
2. For an interesting take on the role of natural death in the Buffy series, read Amy H. König’s “What Is a Corpse?” in h2so4 #16.