Monday, April 07, 2008

Actions, Consequences, Free Will, and Disneyland

Shanah posted a comment to the last post that I started to reply to, and my reply started to get larger than the comment box as I was composing it, and then it started to dovetail with some other thoughts I'd been thinking of posting about, and the next thing you knew, I was writing this.

Here's as far as I got in my reply to my Sweatshirt Girl:

Shanah: I think you will believe again. I'm pretty sure you believed it when plenty of terrible things had happened already. Terrible things happen because the whole world isn't full of kindness and courtesy and joy and self-confidence. The world isn't that way, and no part of it can be made that way just by believing or wanting it to be so, or even by the mere practice of kindness and courtesy and joy and self-confidence. But I still believe

What do I believe? That it can be done? How?

My family has at various times by various people been criticized for being out of touch with reality, or raising me or my sister out of touch with reality. I grew up "sheltered," which some people see as cause for censure.

It is and it isn't, because sheltered can have two meanings. One is that I don't know about all the bad things in the world, which most people would consider sweet but impractical. The other is that I do know about all the bad things in the world, and I have a retreat (a shelter, if you will) where those things are not.

It is this second kind of shelter that my family has always strived to create. We operate (or we try to) in the real world, which is full of divers terrible things. We experience those things, we're hurt by them, we deal with it. And then there's this metaphorical family space we have, called the Cove, where those things simply are not permitted. Take a trivial example: sibling rivalry. My sister and I did not fight. Ever. This is not because siblings don't fight, or because we happen to have personalities that just would not produce fights. It's because siblings fighting is bullshit, dear readers, and my parents decided that we would not have it in the Cove. And there was an enormous amount of effort expended to ensure that that kind of bullshit, and many others, were not present in the Cove. An enormous amount of effort was necessary because these kinds of enclaves are (the world being full as it is of divers terrible things) under constant attack or threat of erosion.

Of course, lots of parents decide that. People decide similar sorts of things with similar amounts of conviction all the time. Lots of them try with all their might to make it happen. And yet, it ain't always so. So what made it so in my family? Was it just luck? I doubt that. Twenty-four years is a pretty long streak. Was it conviction? I doubt that too; the idea that human decisions can just make things happen strikes me as pretty laughable. Maybe it was just great parenting skill? That's even more laughable than conviction, as all parents know. What gave effect to my parents conviction and all the effort that went with it?

What gives effect to any conviction, or any effort?

In certain Christian circles it's popular to talk about "free will," and to lots of people it's hugely important to believe (or not believe) in "free will." What exactly people mean by that can vary wildly. Permit me briefly to state what I think, with one example, which is necessary to finish the discussion above.

I think that God is potentially in total control of every aspect of existence. Since I am convinced by my own observation that I have a will, it follows that God could completely manipulate my will without my ever suspecting it if he chose to do so. I am of the opinion that, in the main, he does not so choose. Instead I think his normal MO is to take his hand off the stick to a greater or lesser degree and let me operate my will under local control, so to speak. More or less, I think I get to decide what I get to decide.

So I decide something: then what happens? I imagine the decision (my actions and the intent behind them) leaving the little anomalous bubble of local control that surrounds all people most of the time and entering the rest of existence, which God generally keeps under his direct control. It has to pass through this great medium of God-controlled "space" before the decision can reach or affect another person. In short, I think that I decide what I decide, and God decides (or at least gets the option to interfere with) what effects my decisions have.

This isn't to try to remove personal responsibility; I think it's plain that God likes the laws of cause and effect even if the world works the way I think it does and he could override them willy-nilly should he so choose (and even if, on occasion, he does). Let me give an example that's been much on my mind lately.

David is facing Goliath. His opponent a giant of a man, fully armed and armored in a hundred pounds or more of a semi-mythical metal from a bygone age (remember this is the height of the Dark Ages, and the Bronze Age ended in cataclysm two hundred years ago). David has answered the challenge and decides not to use unfamiliar war gear, declining even the loan of a sword. He sticks with what he has and what he knows: a sling, a weapon he is a proficient with, the deadliest missile weapon of the ancient world. He takes five stones.

Why not more? Not because five was all he could find; the army would have had plenty of sling shot. Rather, because if he hadn't downed the Philistine in five shots, he'd be dead. I imagine he picked the five himself rather than accepting another slinger's bag because he wanted to make sure those five were as good as possible. This is a picture of an experienced slinger at work.

So why not only one? Because he was expecting to miss.

David is plainly trusting in God to save him. Anybody facing a fully armored man with nothing but a missile weapon would have to, but he says as much in stirring fashion. And yet he is also trusting in his skill, and his choice of ammunition suggests that he has a fully realistic view of his chances: he knows he can win this fight if he can land a stone in the right spot, and he knows he's a damn good shot, but he also knows that the odds of actually making the critical hit in time against a man armored from head to shin in bronze are quite low, even for him. He trusts in God, but he also takes more than one shot.

There is a chance in this scenario that any crack slinger could win the duel - not a good chance, but a chance. And David is clearly doing his best to maximize his chances. That is what makes his statement noteworthy: that God will bring about David's victory. This would be wishful thinking if David hadn't accurately appraised the situation. But he had; he knew exactly what he was facing, and he was doing his best to skew the odds in his favor. He picked a good stone, he slung it (we may presume) as accurately as he could - expecting to miss, remember, as well he might.

But the stone hits home on the first shot, and does exactly what you would expect a sling shot to do at short range against an unarmored portion of the human body. David shoots, God hits.

David probably wasn't the best slinger in the army. For that matter, a man used to fighting in armor probably would have had better odds, even against a man as well-equipped and experienced as Goliath, than the best slinger in the army. So why didn't they fight the duel? Just because David was the king's shieldbearer? Well, maybe. But if it was so all-fired important that the king's shieldbearer fight the duel, presumably Saul would have either recalled David himself or picked a new shieldbearer for the occasion.

What really sets David apart is that, despite doing his damndest to win that duel the old-fashioned way, he was trusting in God to make his actions and his intentions mean something. This is basically how I think the universe operates.

(I don't mean to say that God helps them that helps themselves. God might not have caused that shot to hit. The response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is always to be kept in mind. What I mean to stress is that for David, doing your damndest was not incompatible with believing that God is the one who makes your damndest accomplish anything at all, and that is the way people best can expect their decisions to bring about what they desire.)

And this is basically why I think it is possible to create a world full of kindness, courtesy, joy, and self-confidence. Notice I don't say where those things reign (which would have been my natural construction). They don't reign; God reigns, because I don't think such enclaves are really possible other than in the context of the Kingdom of God.

The whole Kingdom is not like that, or at any rate the whole of Christendom is not. But despite all the terrible things in the world it can be done. I've seen it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

And Then There Was Disneyland ...

Check out the last post if you haven't already, wherein I share some thoughts about the wedding and being married in general. In this post, I discuss the honeymoon.

Specifically I'm going to discuss Disneyland, because while San Diego was great, and we'd love to go back for vacation in the future, I don't have anything particularly within the purview of this blog to say about it. But Disneyland, now, Disneyland is a different story.

As I've grown older I've realized that there's a trick to Disneyland that some people get and some people don't, and for the most part it predicts whether a person considers Disneyland the closest thing to Eden on God's green Earth or a hackneyed money trap for the naive (the Golden Fleece, my family joked when we visited Disneyworld).

There is, to be sure, lots about Disneyland to be cynical about. As far as I can tell Walt Disney himself was kind of a terrible man, and it is expensive, and they are looking to squeeze every last penny they can out of you. There are more exciting rides to be found. And yes, it's all fake.

Or is it? That is the trick - what do we mean by "it?" What is Disneyland? If Disneyland is a collection of rides, fake buildings and stores, all the vision of an egotistical genius, then it's nothing to write home to Mom about and quite skippable.

Five years ago I put it this way:

Disneyland is not an amusement park in the conventional sense; it's a purveyor of magical lifestyles. Disneyland is about the total package experience of being wide-eyed and child-like and transported to a magical place where everything is good and sparkly and wonderful. Every love story that has ever been told, every prince charming that has ever loved, every beautiful princess that has ever loved, and every child that has ever hoped to wear shining armor on a white steed or a beautiful ballgown on a marble dance floor - this is what Disneyland is about.

If that is the "it" by which we mean Disneyland, then it is quite certainly not skippable. And certainly not skippable by me and Thayet on our honeymoon, of all times.

There were the rides (Finding Nemo is, in fact, worth the wait - so long as that wait is no more than about 60 minutes). There was the food (yum!). There was the atmosphere (swing dancing before dinner!). There was the new Pirate's Lair (yay!). There were the people - the folks who work at Disneyland who really believe in what their park stands for.

And there were, surprisingly, the shows. Not Fantasmic, although I saw that on Rivers of America for the first time and I'm glad I did. I'm talking about the kids shows: the Jedi Academy and the Disney Princess Faire. It's actually the latter that I'm most excited about morally, although the sheer coolness of Disney's new voice conversion technology and their Darth Vader are ... I mean ... DARTH VADER! Why will I never get to fight DARTH VADER in the flesh??!

Because I'm older than the age of eight, of course, which is more or less cutoff for audience participation in these shows. Let me back up. Disney has these audience participation shows for kids, wherein children from the ages of about four to eight are a) given Jedi robes and lightsabers, taught an attack combination, and given the opportunity to fight Darth Vader or Darth Maul (in the one case) or b) taught basic courtly etiquette and a dance suitable for princesses or knights (in the other).

What got me about the latter show was the way it was presented. I forget the exact phrase, but at some point the teaching princess makes the connection to these impressionable young minds that being a princess (or a knight) is about about being kind, courteous, joyful, and believing in yourself. There's a similar message in the Jedi Academy show about what it means to be a real Jedi, but this one struck me more (Lady Lillian also says that dancing is a wonderful way to express the joy in your heart, which is so true).

What got me about this show is that it so perfectly encapsulated the wonder and essential goodness of what Disneyland stands for. What makes the Disney Princess concept (and franchise) so powerful is that it stands for this basic idea, that there really is a world where kindness, courtesy, and joy (and if you think that courtesy and joy are incompatible you don't understand what manners really are) reign, where self-doubt is banished, and all is right. What made this show so touching is that it was basically telling these kids that it's all true, and you can carve out in your life an enclave of kindness, courtesy, joy, and belief in yourself if you are determined to make these things - being a princess, being a knight - your watchword.

Maybe that's a terrible message to give little boys and girls, because maybe it isn't true. But I don't think so.