the vulnerable ones

Out of the woods emerged a dozen slavering wolves with human faces. Ender recognized them – they were the children from the playground. Only now their teeth could tear; Ender, weaponless, was quickly devoured.
-Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. -W. B. Yeats

The wolves come for Ender Wiggin; later, they will come for Katniss Everdeen. Why? What are they, that they should have human faces? To Ender, they are transformed playmates; to Katniss, they are versions of the other children killed in The Hunger Games.

Both Ender and Katniss are tempted by savagery; both of them have a talent for it. It is a very fine line that separates their acts from those of a vicious killer. We know, watching them, that they risk losing their humanity, a vague phrase that really means losing the ability to empathize.

As a book, much of The Hunger Games is about stoicism and self-denial; the movie, less so. These virtues have their place. New readers are learning from Katniss what previous generations learned from Paul Atreides. At the same time, such discipline places excessively harsh limits on emotion. They are military virtues that, ironically, starve the very sentiments a good soldier fights to defend: love, kinship, and peace. Both Ender and Katniss come to a point where they have to save themselves from their own lethal survival instinct. Katniss has to cleave to Peeta. She has to find a way to save them both, despite the orders from the Capitol. The wolves have human faces because they represent her own bloody possibility, symbolizing the threat she poses to her love and her self.

Nor is this even the first time Katniss struggles with external versions of inner forces. Remember the fire that sweeps across the forest, perpetrated by the “game makers”? It’s more than a little strange to see Katniss menaced by fire so soon after it has exalted her, first when she enters the procession of tributes, covered in literal flames, and then again when Caesar interviews her in her red “fire” dress. Symbolically, it is all one. Besides violence, Katniss can also lose herself by succumbing to vanity, something she has never been self-aware enough to feel before the Games.

Likewise, the cave where Katniss and Peeta take shelter is a refuge from the obligation to be strong. (There is a cave like it in Dune; there is a cave like it in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) It is one place where they can allow themselves to feel, to love, and to care for each other. Their wounds are funny things; they have to heal to survive, but first they have to show each other their wounds to fall in love. The wounds are bone-deep and infected. Love is, literally, a healing balm. (If that sounds sappy, what can I say? This is a book for kids.) The more they kiss, the more medicine parachutes down from the heights of an artificial sky. They are not only comforting each other, but also wringing tears from the peanut gallery. They are vulnerable to each other. Their grandfather, Luke Skywalker, redeemed Darth Vader in the same way, by allowing the Emperor to torture him. Vader’s redemption comes as he watches Luke writhing in helpless agony.

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The first thing I heard about the TED conferences was a YouTube video by Brene Brown, entitled “The Power of Vulnerability.” As you can imagine, I was expecting great things. Vulnerability doesn’t just apply in war fantasies. Most of the worst fights I’ve lived through came to an end when somebody declared, “I am sorry for what I’ve done, I know I am in the wrong, and I don’t know what to do.” In my experience, sincere abjection actually provokes a compassionate response. The power of this kind of vulnerability is also the fundamental hypothesis of all nonviolent resistance, from Thoreau and Gandhi to #OWS. It’s a matter of respect as much as it is an opportunity for mercy. If I see a guy with a stalled car, talking on his cellphone and waving traffic past, I don’t stop because I assume he wouldn’t want me to. He’s signaling that he has things under control, and it would be patronizing of me to assume otherwise.

Brown is clearly a gifted researcher. She is keen to innovate, and she has an easy time converting abstract concepts into everyday language. The first five minutes of her talk are wonderful, especially when she gives her simple, powerful definition of shame. Then, as old Professor Lebowski used to say, the plane crashes into the goddamn mountain. She builds the tension by preparing us for something that wrecked all her preconceived notions. She tells us the answer is vulnerability. Then she says that people who are loved believe themselves to be worthy of love.

Presto! Magically, after a detour through a questionable etymology of courage, vulnerability has suddenly vanished, replaced by a generic prescription for confidence. Believing you are worthy of love does not require putting yourself at risk. It only requires believing others should want something from you. Still, there is some reason to hope. Even if Brown is telling us, idiotically, to feel worthy of love, perhaps she is about to say that we should feel worthy not in spite of our deficiencies and wounds, but because of them. In other words, that we should believe ourselves to be worthy of compassion. It seems like a good sign that the word “compassion” begins popping up on her PowerPoint slides.

Instead, she begins to talk about wholeheartedly making oneself vulnerable by daring to innovate. Yes, innovators must take risks and be vulnerable, but the risks are professional risks; none of this fosters human connection. Her definition of compassion begins with feeling sorry for oneself, and only arrives at real compassion afterward. Brown interjects that, of course, we can only feel sorry for other people after first feeling sorry for ourselves, but she doesn’t cite any research on the subject, nor does she explain why it can never work the other way, with a transition from generosity to self-acceptance. She doesn’t have to. At this point her thesis is so utterly comprehended by Hallmark cards that she can expect nods of approval regardless of whether she corroborates her claims. She and her audience have both become high-octane and fearless.

***

The TED talk is one modern American standard for knowledge work; it is one of our few highly publicized gatherings of intellectuals. It stands for what academics ought to do (or tries to, anyway). The presenters are a who’s-who of bestselling thinkers, from Malcolm Gladwell to Richard Dawkins. And right in the center of it is this colossal emptiness, powerful enough to take Brown’s lifetime of good research on social anxiety and turn it into a valentine for narcissists.

TED has taken up residence in Long Beach, in the antiseptic zone that radiates out from the Conference Center. Hi-rise hotels and chain restaurants clump around it, huddled like courtiers. TED picked the Long Beach Conference Center because it is spotless and cheap. The old neighborhoods and residences were gutted and paved over, so the city itself is now off to one side, away from the water. I lived there when I was married. On any given day, something like this could happen: my wife went off to the nearest bank, simply running an errand, and returned in hysterics. A man had approached her asking for money. He’d shown her a deep, horrible gash in his leg. She gave me $20 and asked me to bring it to him, which I did, guessing he would still be there although it was now several hours later.

I found him, alright. He hobbled over to me, pulled up the edge of his jeans, and revealed a pit of red flesh, seething with dirt and pus. In the center of it, you could see the bone. I gave him the money and tried to tell him how to find a clinic. I have no idea if he understood me, or where he went. The clinic may have been closed. It was late at that point, and dark on the street. The night sky, however, was starless and orange.

If you live in Long Beach, there is nothing very fanciful about the sky in The Hunger Games, or about the injuries that almost kill Peeta and Katniss. The psychological symbolism of the forest fire means less to people there, I’d suspect, than the fact that Katniss and Peeta survive. As a symbol, though, it is the same lesson — the same fire — that James Baldwin described coming “if we do not now dare everything.” Like Brown, Baldwin is talking about vulnerability, but the resemblance ends right there. He is not urging yuppies to believe in themselves. He is saying America has to choose to risk justice, or else go on risking violence.

One month from now makes it 20 years since the riots of April 26, 1992. If you know the Sublime song, it is set two blocks from where I used to live, and not very much has changed. “Everybody likes an underdog,” says the Master of the Games. “I don’t,” replies the President. He has been to the poorest districts, he says. With an edge in his voice, he adds: and they are full of underdogs.

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