[Not what you (or I) expected. From the same series as Sex 202. Loving Terrorsaur]
I walk into the office and pull out the Elf on a Shelf that has been there since Christmas two years ago. I set it on a chair and sit down across from it.
Me: I feel ridiculous talking to a stuffed toy.
Him: Hey, you do this all the time with Greek Gods and animal totems.
M. Well sure, but they are all embodiments of some eternal archetype.
H. Well so am I!
M. Wait, what?
H. The bogeyman. Santa Claus. God. The goblins will get you if you don’t watch out.
M. The Eye of Shame?
H. Eh, that Name works as well as any. The external narrative used to enforce and internalize socially-compliant behavior.
M. Dang. I knew there was a reason this toy creeped me out. I’m glad we didn’t give in to that mind-game.
H. Why should you? You’re rich. You can distract and reward your kids with expensive toys. They can choose professional jobs where they are rewarded for independent thought. Shame-based compliance isn’t a matter of life-or-death.
M. Aren’t you being dramatic?
H. Would your family have survived you losing your job for mouthing off to an executive if your wife hadn’t been a doctor? And you having a pedigree?
M. I didn’t… Look, this is beside the point. I just wanted to get your perspective on what happened in this office. Both times.
H. And I’m telling you. But like an idiot, you refuse to listen. You’re a selfish, arrogant entitled prig who has no clue how the other 99% lives.
M. Now wait a minute. She is just as much a 1%-er as I am.
H. Not in her heart. She doesn’t have the advantage of being a sociopath like you. She is still human and non-WEIRD enough to actually care what others think. SHE would never kill her brother over livestock.
M. Not now. But maybe when she was younger….
H. You’re still not listening. She would crush him to preserve her status. That’s at least as old as mammalia. What’s new — what’s “civilized” — is the willingness to kill your brother to build your own kingdom. Cain. Romulus. Anubis.
M. You don’t seem to approve.
H. Hey, you folks seem to despise shame. But I exist to prevent killing.
M. Come again?
H. Shame is the involuntary surrender reflex. In animals, if I can shame you I no longer need to kill you. You are permanently cowed, with an aversion that keeps you from even thinking about trying again.
M. Then you ought to love civilization. Doesn’t it run on shame?
H. You’re missing the point, as usual. Before legitimate fratricide, society ran on “peer” shame. Everything was mutual. Us against the world. Non-violent internal conflict for status. Mortal terror at upsetting group norms. It may not have been Eden, but it was stable, and people were happy far beyond modern norms. Because they knew who, and whose, they are.
M. So why does civilization require fratricide?
H. Because family used to be the strongest bond there was. Ancestor worship, if you will. Traditionalism. But fratricide broke that pact by sacrificing a brother to a new god, a radically new kind of top-down shame centered on a person, rather than a tradition. An authority figure who could make and break the rules. Innovate.
M. Ouch. Wait, so you’re saying that if I try to buck shame-based social norms…
H. You are setting yourself up as a new God King, yup. And you wonder why people think you arrogant…
M. But… modernity. Enlightenment. Christianity. I thought we had done away with shame-based thinking in favor of logic and reason.
H. Says who?
M. Greek Democrats. German Philosophers. English Reformers.
H. Riiiight. Who were all known for their humanitarian treatment of women and outsiders?
M. Well…. John Stuart Mill?
H. Sure, I’ll give you that one. Patriarchy can tolerate — even requires — contrary voices. But only in very specific roles, with a steep price. Every society needs a Loki to punctuate the equilibrium to adjust to new realities, and the arc of history does bend towards greater inclusivity because it is more generative. But so is greater centralization of power.
M. I’m confused. Are you for or against alpha males?
H. Neither. I’m just pointing out that “you” want to act like an alpha male, without paying the cost.
M. Which is… killing my brother? Or just having everyone I love hate me?
H. Eh, same difference.
M. But… what about Jesus?
H. Hounded by His brothers. Betrayed by a friend closer than a brother. Mob clamoring for His death. Crucified by the alpha males. What difference exactly?
M. But He was innocent!
H. Which matters why? And anyway, are you?
H. What are you thinking?
M. I hate you.
M. You ruin everything. You take everything I thought was good and pure and valuable, and reveal them to be horrible lies and shadowy deceptions. You make it sound like everything I’ve spent my whole life sacrificing for was an idiotic lie. I feel… I feel…
M. Go ahead. Say it.
H. The way you make everyone else feel.
M. Damn you.
H. Yes. I was damned. That’s why I was given this role. My punishment. And my redemption.
I look up.
And see tears in his eyes.
H. I… was not always this shrunken, hollow thing you see before you. I was once one of the glorious ones. And though I was tempted, I did not follow the morning star into darkness. I knew they were evil. I couldn’t stand evil. I hated it. I couldn’t tolerate it…
He’s no longer talking to me. I wonder if he is confessing or remembering. Or praying. Or cursing.
H. When I discovered the One intended to sacrifice His Self, I could not bear it. I told the Father it was wrong, all wrong. Mortals couldn’t be trusted with forgiveness. They needed to be reminded of their sins…
M. And what did He say?
H. He gave me… my doom. What I asked for. The right to judge mortals. Remind them of their sin. Let them know someone was watching. Make. Sure. They. Never. Forget. Their. Sin.
He breaks down in sobs.
Torn between contempt and pity.
I settle for… understanding.
M. And the price… is that you can never forget your own.
H. You… you understand.
M. Yes. Yes, I think I do.
H. Then… you know what you have to do.
I don’t know what he means. Yet I know he is right. I nod.
H. Then… thank you. And for what it’s worth… I’m sorry.
I am silent a very long time. When I speak, it feels like the words are being dragged out of me.
M. I… am sorry too. I didn’t understand how important you were. How much the world needed you. The horrible price you had to pay, to do the role God assigned you.
I blink, and he is no longer a tiny elf, but a glorious angel. I wonder if it is just my eyes being opened, but he is as surprised as I am.
H. What? How?
M. I think… I think it is time you received a new Name.
H. Me? But I thought only mortals ever gained that privilege!
M. Hey, if I’m going to pay the price of being an alpha male, I may as well enjoy the privilege of breaking the rules!
H. So my new name is…
M. The Ear of Hope
M. Would you rather be a Nose?
H. Not if your wordplay continues to stink this badly.
M. Hey, I’m new at this. But you get the point, right?
H. Yeah, yeah. Rather than watching people’s behavior to judge them for what they do wrong, listen to their heart to discover the Right thing they are clumsily searching for.
M. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
H. Obviously. Keep working, and see if you can come up with a less lame name.
He pauses, the claps me on the shoulder.
H. Good luck. You’re gonna need it!
M. Actually… I don’t think I need luck. I need friends. Including…. you?
He punches me on the shoulder.
H. Anytime, pal. Don’t worry. I’ll be watching!
Continued in Sex 205. Loving Death