“You’re good, so you ain’t got nothing to worry about. Just stay that way. You’re gonna want to give up. You’re gonna want to start drinking, become a shitass. […] So I guess what I’m saying is be good. Fight evil. You do that and you’ll never, ever have to see me again. [Whispered] Be good. ” -Reservation Dogs, Season 1, Episode 5
This quote comes from the masterful FX series Reservation Dogs. In this particular scene, tribal policeman Big revisits an incident in his childhood in which he is provided with guidance by a powerful spiritual presence, Deer Woman. I do not know if this is consciously in communication with Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, but a similar figure (an Elk Woman this time) appears in the book to punish men who broke a taboo in their youth. The responsibility for setting things right falls on the generation that follows. I hope that our young people will forgive us for our failures. And so…
You’ve been dealt a shit hand. From this point on, being a human being, or any other form of biological life, is going to be an unending tragedy for which you bear little responsibility.
Were we living in another era it would still be the case that you had no hand in this. You were plucked from nothing. By your parents, sure, but not without assistance from the rest of the species as well. Someone made a consciousness. They may not have had much of a choice in the matter. Few of us have anything resembling real choice, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Whatever the case, here you are. You will inevitably suffer and die and it is up to you whether it’s worth it.
People around my age were born to a profoundly stupid generation that never grew up or realized any promise or put their foot down to say, ‘Enough!’. A decent portion of that cohort won’t ever stop screaming that it’s not their fault, that none of this is their fault.
This is a pathetic refrain, but it’s also not 100% wrong. You cannot choose if you don’t know that you can choose, and this is an abysmal thing. At the point at which you realize that you do have some little bit of power it could be too late for much besides guilt.
I don’t want this to be the case. I very much need to believe that people can transcend themselves and that, to trot out a dated phrase, another world is possible. And as pleasant as it is to contemplate, I don’t think we can kill our way into that better world. There are plenty of people who have tried this and they are monsters.
None of this is to say that no one has power, or that no one has agency. We do. It’s just that it’s a very limited power. The best most of us can do is to be kind and to cultivate a communism of spirit.
There’s an inverse to this. Our fleeting power can just as easily be in the service of ruining a relatively small circle of lives, and it’s way easier to achieve the latter than the former. You only need moments to destroy someone, while illuminating their world requires consistency.
I have gone through life relatively blind to the choices presented. Some of us set out on a platform of confident ignorance and confuse it for knowledge, and I am one of this type. But confronting ignorance puts us in a bad position. There are plenty of people who will be more than happy to let you know that you’re an idiot, but they mostly just offer some other form of dumbness in exchange.
I will be 40 years old in a number of days. I do not think I realized much of anything about anything until I turned 32.
It is possible that people still encounter the song ‘Row Your Boat’ in their childhood (or maybe it’s just ‘Baby Shark’ from here on out). There is a darkness to this song. It tells us that ‘Life is but a Dream’. Perhaps this is true metaphysically, and perhaps it is correct that we shouldn’t treat life with much seriousness. But depending on how you interpret this, what if you wake up to realize that what you thought was real was not? Or, worse, that it was real?
A dreaming person lacks control. They do not choose. They move through a story filled with symbols that make no sense and situations that appear out of nowhere, fully formed.
I have horrible dreams. People who experience this will know that it is not the nightmare that is the worst, but the moment of awakening. You think, “Did that really happen? What if it really happened?” and then you try not to carry that wrongness into the waking world. If you’re lucky it will fade.
Most of us are living this way. We don’t know much until it is too late. We’re surrounded by those utterly committed to misery, for others as well as for themselves. They are too dangerous to live and too stupid to die. Their lives are a bad joke that they insist is funny.
So for you: Insist on wisdom. Where it is lacking, force it to grow. I hope that you are lucky enough to find a community of responsible adults to guide you through what for many of your elders was a never ending process of error: spasms of ego and shame, rage and entitlement, and profound failure to love oneself or others. It is their fault, but not entirely. Our present rests on a pile of corpses and is mortared with misery. If you are able, do not build any higher. Throw the toxic horrors on the burn pile. The piggish racism, that monstrous treason of sexism and masculinity, and the terminal boredom of conformity. Burn it.
Find your responsible teachers. If you can’t, do your best to insist that the inadequate sleepers that surround you come to consciousness. Watch them rub their eyes. Watch them navigate the life that flows around them, and watch them paddle furiously. They must correct their course. They owe it to you, to the world and to themselves. Hold them there, in adulthood. Don’t let them off the hook. Insist: Their maturity is your birthright. It is their duty to see that you do not repeat their mistakes, or that if you do, it was not ignorance that caused you to do so.
I did not awaken in a span of time that I find acceptable, and I did not find suitable instruction until rather late. This is primarily my fault. I have reasoning. I have a sense of things. Perhaps I am better suited to ignorance than others, and I am very lucky that the presences that taught me were wise and insistent.
So, this: Do not live a nightmare. Do not live a dream. Whatever else is going on in what appears to be reality, know that you do have that tiny, fleeting power to be wise and kind. Though no one has told you that you have a responsibility to be good, you do have a responsibility to be good. To yourself, to the world.