אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי? – הלל
If I do not stand for myself, then who will stand for me? And when I serve only myself, what have I become? And if not now, when? – Rabbi Hillel
I am in the midst of reading Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States. It’s a revisionist account of how the United States came into being, resonating with heart breaking accounts of the dismantling of the native population and horrific descriptions of the African slave trade. Zinn posits that America’s rise to prominence was the result of pernicious duplicity and heinous immorality. Indeed, to deny that the foreign settlers of North America (from Christopher Columbus to the British colonists) were ruthless in their pursuits of conquests would be sheer illusion. These European men came with intent to conquer and pillage. They wanted gold and slaves, and used vicious tactics to dehumanize and ultimately decimate the native populations of the United States and surrounding islands. When they were no longer able to co-opt the various indigenous tribes, Europeans turned to Africa and imported slave labor (at great expense to the Africans, and nary a worry to the traders).
And yet, this shameful behavior was not deemed so by the perpetrators. In their eyes, all non-Europeans were subject to domination. Natives and Africans were not afforded their humanity because they did not abide by the cultured and civilized mores of Europe (whose customs afforded the top levels of the hierarchy to commit egregious abuses). Thus the European adventurers carried their sense of entitlement across the ocean and inflicted it upon the inhabitants. This was their chosen destiny.
This entitlement is particularly related to the belief that some lives are inherently more important than others. It is erroneous to equate a man’s financial status or social standing with determining his worth. In fact, the people of consequence are those with goals and a means of achieving them through their actions, provided those goals are not predatory and destructive. They are the ones who desire to make a positive mark on the world, and through their effort and sacrifice, contribute to creating a brighter future. It is a man’s belief in himself that leads to a sense of self worth and determination to endure. (This is partly why so many of the native population died under European control. Those who survived the viruses were not able to withstand enslavement. Their volition was compromised, and many of them resisted the imposed rule. Likewise, the slaves who lived through the journey found ways to resist their owners’ directives, though the consequences were just as dire.)
But from whence is this belief derived? Why are some empowered and others not? I would argue that pride and self-actualization differ from a desire to bring down the opposition. A person who feels that he has something of value to contribute and that his contribution is worthy of being recognized is noble. His life matters. His life has purpose. His life is a vehicle for actualizing his desires, limited though they may be. This diverges from someone who exists merely for the sake of stealing what others have wrought, someone intent on pursuing solely avaricious gains, for in that instance any injustice can be justified – like the genocide of the indigenous tribes of North America. This framework is craftily portrayed in Terry Goodkind‘s book Faith of the Fallen (the sixth book in the Sword of Truth series).
Goodkind’s works follow Richard Rahl, Wizard and Seeker, and his beloved Kahlan as they fight against overwhelming forces of evil. In the sixth book, Richard and Kahlan struggle against Jagang and Nicci, two individuals whose version of truth is so thoroughly misguided that they behave with unapologetic depravity toward their fellow men. Like our own history, rife with leaders who seize power without considering the effects on others, so too, Jagang and Nicci pursue their conquistador initiatives.
Neither Richard nor Kahlan relinquishes, however. Both figures stand firm and take action with intent to improve their lives and the lives of their loved ones. They build relationships and create supportive communities that value the freedom of choice and respect the consequences of breaking the code. Richard, singularly talented at leading, impacts a belligerent, lecherous youth named Kamil who insists, “I can’t help what life deals me” (522).
Richard retorts, “You can create your own life…if you care about yourself, you should care about learning – even learning simple things. You come to have pride in yourself only by accomplishing things.” When Kamil claims to have pride, Richard warns him, “You intimidate people and then mistake that for respect” (524). This truth ultimately permeates the recalcitrant Kamil, and the young man becomes one of Richard’s devoted friends.
Past leaders would have done well to act with Richard’s wisdom in mind, though rarely will reality present as clearly as it does in a book about wizards. For now, we must recognize our own individual hardships and pursue our goals in spite of them. We must strive to achieve autonomy in the face of obstacles and pain. We must build communities that value work and determination. Rather than seeking to dismantle the system, we must search for ways to improve it.
If you want to know more about Sword of Truth, check out my ravings here: