10: 6 At the Point of Death

Season 10:, Episode 6: Extremis

Doctor: Memories are so much worse in the dark.

Darkness is often associated with sin, hatred, fear, and danger. This use of darkness is a common trope in music, movies, books, tv shows. It also has societal manifestations-in which dark or black people including kids are regarded as dangerous threats to be eliminated by the state. And at first, this episode of Doctor Who seems to continue with the, “darkness is bad troupe.” The Doctor is blind-a condition that he thinks may be permanent. He does whatever he can to act as if he can see-relying on technology and Nardole to be his eyes. Being blind has plunged the Doctor into a physical world of darkness. But this physical darkness pales in comparison to the darkness that continues to reside in the Doctor. In fact his physical darkness, makes the internal darkness that much more clearer.

The Doctor is a pro at distraction. He finds ways to distract himself-albeit momentarily from all he has experienced in his thousands of years. And part of that distraction involves being able to see the wonders of the physical world and the universe. He still gets excited when he encounters something new, despite all he has already witnessed during his travels. But with that gone, hiding becomes that much more difficult for the Doctor.

Darkness-both physical and metaphorical forms are described in terms of hiding. People fear physical darkness because of what they may find in the dark alley or in that dark house. But of course, what they fear is the fact that they will have to confront whatever awaits them. The light serves as a warning about dangers ahead. You hopefully use the light to navigate treacherous paths. But in the darkness you are vulnerable. In the darkness you have to face whatever it is that scares you. I think that is the real threat that darkness presents.

FIGURE: Greetings, sinner. Only in darkness are we revealed. 

I am both attracted to and repelled by the darker aspects of life and the world. My research constantly forces me to face the ugliness of those in power. Simplistic notions such as patriotism and democracy often give way to the excesses of nationalism and governments’ obsession with national security and power. What is often betrayed as patriotism is nothing more than an excuse to espouse nationalistic and xenophobic narratives. And democracy often gives way to national security concerns where even the US justifies the use of torture and the abandonment of the judiciary in the fight against terrorism. Authoritarian governments have justified the oppression of their people through the narrow lens of national-security.

Many government figures in the US and abroad want to forget about the past or given token recollections for past damages. This is seen most explicitly by how governments deal with the issue of “enforced disappearances” or people who have been abducted and imprisoned by the state, or authorized representatives (such as paramilitary groups) or political organizations that are not involved with the state but are actively fighting against it (such as guerilla groups). It is in essence a form of extrajudicial detainment and the entity responsible for the abductions often refuses to provide the location of the kidnapped or denies having them. This is seen particularly in authoritarian governments (though the US also participated in enforced disappearances to a limited extent via CIA black sites and in military prisons abroad. )While non-state actors also kidnap people-since power rests in the state, the state is able to do harm to a broader section of society for a longer period of time.  Many countries, even those who have transitioned to democracy, often struggle with acknowledging the past. They often want to move ahead with the future while leaving thousands of family members and friends wondering   if there is any possibility of their loved one returning or if they will ever be able to provide their beloved child, son, daughter, spouse, or friend with a proper burial. (For some examples see Argentina under Pinochet or modern day Egypt under SiSi.)

FIGURE: Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.

Many citizens also want to forget about the period where enforced disappearances were a daily threat. It is as if by ignoring the darkness they can make sure that it never occurs again. But of course that isn’t true. Evil doesn’t go away just because you ignore its existence. And this brings me to the part of me that is repelled by the darkness. More specifically my own darkness. On my blog I am pretty open about my emotions and my struggles, but in my everyday life, I often do whatever I can to ignore the darkness within myself and I suppress my emotions. I am disgusted by political violence but I will confront it and study it and advocate against it with all my might, but when it comes to focusing on my own personal life and emotions-I will run the other way but I can never run quite far enough. And while my research sometimes provides a distraction, it just as often also fuels the despair I feel. In an attempt to not feel at all, I end up feeling too much.

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Despair. Hopelessness. I go through phases where those emotions are not quite as intense. They remain stuffed in the background like white noise-always there but simply a minor irritant. (Yes I know some people find white noise relaxing. Not me). Other times, despair and hopelessness have me trapped. And I ask, why do I keep going? Why am I still here? It feels cruel. The Monks in this episode of Doctor Who have basically created an alternative reality that is pure hell. The intelligent people know that the world they are in are fake and they seek to escape it by “committing suicide” but then they become trapped in another fake hell-hole.  I don’t personally believe in a physical hell so if I kill myself I’m not worried about burning in hell. But I’m not sure that death would provide much of an escape. At best (or at worst?) it would simply transfer the hell to other people. So I ask God to “turn me off.” (If I die as a result of actions not of my doing, that somehow seems less selfish and cruel to others than killing myself.)

DOCTOR: I don’t believe much. I’m not sure I believe anything. But right now, belief is all I am. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.

But yet when I do manage to confront my own darkness and not just the darkness in the world, I find that I can’t give up. I can’t give up on God, on me, or on the other people in the world who are fighting to make a better world.  A lot of times, I’m not sure what I believe-do I believe in a loving God or not? Do I believe that there is good in the world or not? Do I believe in hope or not? And intellectually, I’m not sure I believe in any of those things or as the Doctor said, “I’m not sure I believe in anything.” Yet here I am. And when I do get the courage to face my own darkness in conjunction with the shit going on in the world I find that deep within my soul, I do believe…in goodness, in compassion.  And I only recognize that when I run into the darkness rather than away from it.

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Let Me Be Brave

Face the Raven Part 2

DOCTOR: What’s the point of being a Doctor if I can’t cure you? 
CLARA: Heal yourself. You have to. You can’t let this turn you into a monster. So, I’m not asking you for a promise, I’m giving you an order. You will not insult my memory. There will be no revenge. I will die, and no one else, here or anywhere, will suffer. 
DOCTOR: What about me? 
CLARA: If there was something I could do about that, I would. I guess we’re both just going to have to be brave. 

Many people are understandably afraid of physical death. It is hard to comprehend our nonexistence or the nonexistence of a loved one. Even those who believe in some sort of afterlife or in reincarnation acknowledge that death marks an end even if it also marks a beginning. We spend our lives at various times ignoring death as something that happens to other people or we obsesses over it, hoping to ward it off and protect ourselves and our loved ones. But death, will eventually come for all of us. We can try to prolong life by avoiding unnecessary risks, eating healthy, etc but at some point, whether one is reckless or extremely careful, death will mark our end in this life.

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However, there is another type of death that need not be permanent: spiritual death which I equate with despair.  I am not talking about “the blues” nor am I talking about clinical depression or other mental illnesses.* For those involved in any type of job or activism that requires constant exposure to the darker side of humanity and the world, despair can become a constant companion. Despair can take on different forms depending on the person, in my case, despair is tied with anger.  When I am overcome with despair, I want to lash out on everything and everyone. The world is cruel, filled with bloodshed and constant violence, so why not add to it somehow, whether through harsh words or physical actions? If the powers that be want to use violence, then why not beat them at their own game? Even one person dedicated to violence can wreak havoc on the larger system. Or conversely, my despair takes on the form of apathy, which I consider a more subtle form of violence: if exploitation and suffering is just going to continue, why even bother with trying to make the world a better place? Why not just give up? Let the state continue to oppress its own citizens (as long as it’s not me) or drop bombs on children in the Middle East. What can I do?

Clara knows that despair awaits the Doctor after her death. It happened after the Ponds left and it will happen again. And why not? Not giving a damn, either through violence or through apathy can feel freeing…for a moment.  And, many of us don’t want to admit it, but making others  experience even a fraction of our pain feels good, even if that feeling is fleeting.  Despair, is in many ways the easy way out. It is an abdication of our individual and collective responsibility to fight for a better world. This abdication provides a false promise: that if we stopped caring our suffering will end. It promises us a new lease on life, when in reality it gives us death. Only the dead don’t feel pain or suffering.

Clara knows that the Doctor will want to wallow in despair and regardless of how his despair manifests itself: in an extended withdrawal from the world, or in violence, it will mean pain and suffering for others. She rejects that notion: there will be no suffering committed in her name.

When we confront day after day the massive amount of suffering in the world, whether through our research, through hands-on interactions, through our lived experience, despair can blind us and have us believe that we are acting in ways to honor those who are suffering, especially if the despair manifests itself through violence. But in reality we are desecrating the memory or the lived experiences of those whom we feel called to help by contributing to the cycle of destruction and death. We dishonor those whom we claim to care about by ensuring that others experience suffering and exploitation, without contributing to a solution.

Clara asks the Doctor to be brave. What does that mean in this context? It means, being willing to embrace the suffering without lashing out or permanently withdrawing from the world. When despair hits, it is necessary to take a break. But taking a break or moving onto a different area of social justice work is not the same as permanently giving up. But suffering, especially emotional suffering is uncomfortable. Many (though not all) forms of physical pain can be eased by some form of medication and many mental illnesses can be managed (not necessarily cured) through medication, but in many cases despair can only be banished by working through it. This might mean taking a break but still remaining dedicated to one’s responsibility to work towards a more just and equitable society.

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Unlike the man/cyberman we see earlier in the episode, who attempts to run away from death, Clara faces it square on. She is both simultaneously alone and not alone when she faces it. The Doctor watches her die and is with her, even if he is at a distance. But at the same time it is something she must experience alone. No one else can experience it with her. Despair is similar. In the midst of despair we need to reach out to others and we need to articulate our pain with those who have also experienced it. But at the same time, no one’s experiences of despair is exactly like another person’s. And while others can provide much needed physical, mental, and spiritual support, it is also something that is unique to our own individual experiences. No one can take on our despair for us, and no one can work through it for us. Even if one believes in a deity who provides comfort and support, one still needs to be say, “yes I am in the midst of despair right now, but I trust and believe that it will get better.” One still needs to take small actions, not necessarily big ones that display a measure of hope. In some cases that step can be as small as getting up in the morning.

CLARA: Let me be brave. Let me be brave

The way to handle despair is as varied as its manifestations and causes. But I think it starts with the recognition that it is something we need to confront. Ignoring it or channeling it through violence won’t make it go away. It requires to be brave and face it.

 

 

*Though of course despair and depression can go together, and it is often hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. But I am not a mental health expert or doctor, so any questions about depression and despair should be addressed to someone trained to deal with such issues