Thursday, April 14, 2011

Just is the Wheel of Life

Of all my favorite fictional characters, a large majority share a common profession; that of Intelligence, be it specific intelligence work as a spy or information gatherer, or the similarly skilled pursuit of detection. Think Stephen Maturin and Kimball O'Hara for the former, and Batman, Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell for the latter, though there is clearly some overlap.

What is it about these specific sets of abilities that makes a character so interesting and dynamic? What does their chosen mission in life say about their personalities? How do they find their way into these fields of glorious, dangerous, detail-oriented work?

At least one common factor jumps out at me initially: Morality. All of these people have an ingrained, natural sense of Right and Wrong, Noble and Petty, a view of what the world should be and what it is.

Maturin seeks the end of malicious Tyranny and the right of all people to be independent. Batman fights to protect the innocent and prevent the tragedy and grief that he endured as a child. Holmes and Russell search for truth and justice, in addition to the challenge that people and puzzles pose to their intelligence. Kim, too, lives in part for the joy of the Great Game, but as a man he is loyal, honest, and massively spiritual.

While their morality is a commonality for all these characters, as well as the pure enjoyment of their work, it does not exclusively come from religion, nor from a formative moment in their childhoods. Instead it seems to pour forth unadulterated from their spirit and the presence of a deeply trusted conscience, and the next step, through both logic and bravery, is to test themselves against the people and vicissitudes of the world.

Still, what is it that makes these characters enduring? What separates them from unbelievable paragons of virtue whom one can hardly imagine let alone connect to? What gives us faith in their inevitable triumph, caring how they accomplish it, as opposed to the flat cynicism of rationally expecting their authors to keep the cash cow alive?

Balance. Balance is the reason these characters are immortal and yet completely human. They balance fierce intelligence with compassion, reason with faith, alarming bravery with the ability to be badly injured, and wild hopes for the world with the knowledge of how low a man can sink. They are everything we already are and should try to be; a balancing act, struggling to find the honor and joy and hope in life when surrounded by the opposite.

This is akin to Buddha's Middle Path, the search for balance between indulgence and asceticism, the external and internal presence in more than one place, the road to Enlightenment. For our characters their balanced existence is a conscious pursuit of Harmony, to understand the people and events in one's life, one's nation, one's mission, and find a way to bring stability, rebirth, closure or renewal.

To be sure they acquire merit, their good deeds, however recognized, proving their good hearts. Far from infallible, however, they fail on occasion, miss opportunities, grow self-involved, waver. They are what good fiction can be at its best; the honest portrayal of the human condition. The blows it receives and the heights it aspires to. Balanced between a cerebral and a physical heroism.

Buddha delights in the Middle Way.

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