Heaven Sent

“Heaven Sent” has a complicated story line involving grief, truth, persistence, and patience. The Doctor is still reeling over the death of Clara and he struggles with his own fears about death and the passage of time. While most articles written about this episode have justifiably and understandably focused on the Doctor’s grief or the Doctor’s fear of death, those ideas will be secondary to the themes  of telling the truth, especially in regards to what we tell ourselves and the importance of persistence and patience in the midst of difficult or even soul crushing times.

The Doctor is not only mourning the loss of a close friend, but he is also being forced to confront his own fears and lies that he has tried to keep hidden from other people-even from himself. He gives off the impression of being reckless and dangerous, and as part of a species that can regenerate, his recklessness is a bit understandable. Sometimes, if you think you are invincible, you begin to act like you are. But perhaps his recklessness also harbors a darker fear: that of dying, because Time Lords can still die.

DOCTOR: Well, that was another close one. Or it will have been, once I’ve been and gone and got myself out of it. So, how am I going to do that? Come on, teacher, ask me questions!
BLACKBOARD: Tell no lies.
DOCTOR [tower]: I’m actually scared of dying.pizap.com14584271255671

Not only did his hijinks  provide a way for him to distance himself from the thought of his own death, but Clara’s death, once again reminded him about the fragility of the people with whom he chooses to spend time with and this fragility reminds him of how alone he is. He is no longer the last Time Lord, but he is estranged from his people (for very good reason, we find out).

The organizers of this place created a giant trap to try and force the Doctor to reveal his darkest truths. But in order for the Doctor to figure out that this was the plan of whomever sent him here, he needs to be willing to confront some lies and truths that he has been hiding from himself. Sometimes the lies and truths we battle with aren’t ones that need to be told to others, but ones that we need to confront within ourselves.

I spent spring break in Cuba on a trip organized by two professors at the seminary I attend and while we did go see some touristy spots (remember, while it is difficult for US citizens to visit the island as tourists, other countries do not bar their citizens from doing so) the heart of the trip consisted of talking with various leaders of Historic churches (ie Mainline churches) and their struggles in Cuba. While the leaders talked frankly about the problems and weakness of their government which has caused pain and suffering to the inhabitants of Cuba, they were also frank about how the US embargo wreaked havoc on Cubans. This bought up two uncomfortable truths 1) that the Cuban government, the “evil communist party” was no better or worse, than the corrupt American government that proclaims freedom and liberty while systematically eroding both for its citizens. It is also a government that aligns itself with countries whose human rights records are much worse than Cuba’s (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Batista military dictatorship that was in power before the Cuban revolution etc). Don’t get me wrong, Cuba has had and continues to have human rights issues  but the point is, so does the United States and so do many of our allies.  2) That American foreign policies, which are justified on the basis of a respect for human life and dignity, in fact often disregard human life and cause civilians’ untold suffering.

Now I had an inkling of the first truth before I went on the trip to Cuba by virtue of preliminary research and the second truth is pretty evident for anyone with a thinking brain. Yet no matter how orientated towards social justice a person may be, it is still easy to get wrapped up in American propaganda and political excuses demonizing other countries while deflecting the hard questions that we as a nation need to think about. It is also easy to forget about the impact that our foreign policy can have on oppressing others, even “nonmilitary” options such as embargos and blockades cause a great amount of suffering.

Various Cuban leaders talked about the devastating poverty in Cuba and the government’s inability to help all citizens because the blockade and the fall of the Soviet Union has hamstrung Cuba. Not many countries are willing able to trade with Cuba because they want to avoid the wrath of the United States.  There was mention about the “special period” which occurred in the 90s and bought widespread economic devastation on the populace. People were struggling to get food on the table, sometimes had to skip meals. While some members on the trip pointed out that other Latin American countries “had it worse” (an irony considering that these were spoken by Americans- not exactly the most oppressed group of people), the Cuban people experienced a lot of pain.  While it is important to acknowledge the role that the Cuban government played in the suffering of the Cuban people, the reality is American policy had a major role in the starvation and poverty suffered by the average Cuban. (Remember neo liberal capitalism is no more a guarantee of justice, wealth, and democracy than Communism.)

Even those of us who are critical of American government policy, don’t always get to hear first hand about the impact that our government has on the lives of the marginalized.

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When the Doctor finally begins to understand what is required of him to defeat this trap, he rebels. Why does he always have to “win?” why does he always have to do the “right thing.” Why not just give up and do the easy thing?

For those of us interested in social justice, this can be a tempting line of thought. At least I know it is for me. In fact, I can’t tell you how many people have told me that I needed to learn to compromise some of my most cherished principels. “Compromising is a part of being an adult,” I am told. And in many cases, compromises need to be made. But what principels am I holding onto that others say I should compromise on? American foreign policy and the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. I am supposed to support politicians who are ok with slaughtering others because another politician is “worse.” We live in a society where people make compromises all the time. Many times such compromises are needed in order to get things done and live in harmony, other times, people compromise because it is easier to do so. It is less painful. More people will like you if you learn to censor yourself and not point out how we all contribute to the exploitation and suffering of others.

In Cuba I met with church leaders that knew they needed to compromise on certain issues in order to bring about change, but they were also insistent on maintaining their core values even in the face of poverty and government harassment. Many continued to embrace their Christian identity even during periods when it would be easier to just down play it. Many refused to bow down to the false choice of Communism  and Christianity. It would have been so much easier for them to give up on either aspect of their identity. They could abandon Christianity or they could give up on trying to work with the government to help the poor. But they refused to do either. And as they look towards the normalization of relationships with the US, many church leaders state that regardless of what the two countries decide to do they will continue to uphold the principles of Christianity and their political belief in caring for all.

What many people, including Christians, seem to forget is that Jesus was a radical. Yes there were times Jesus changes his mind, but he also stuck to his principles. He believed that the political and religious systems of his time were corrupt and that he needed to speak out against it. Yes he was killed, but he also inspired countless others to fight for justice. Those who claim to be Christian and compromise, often ended up re-creating systems of death, destruction, and exploitation. The very systems Jesus wanted to abolish.

But standing on one’s principles is painful. We might expose ourselves to government harassment, we might lose friends and family members, we might despair.  In fact those who know me, know that suicide has often been something I grapple with. It would be so easy to just give up-on myself, on life, on humanity, on anything changing.

DOCTOR: But I can remember, Clara, You don’t understand, I can remember it all. Every time. And you’ll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won’t be there..)
CLARA Doctor, you are not the only person who ever lost someone. It’s the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free.  
CLARA: Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your arse, and win!

Clara appears to the Doctor and tells him he has had more than enough time to mourn. He is in pain, she gets it, but he is not the only one to suffer loss. He can’t use her death as an excuse to give up. For many of us, such a message might not come through a vision or dream of a loved one, but this message will come to us. For me, it came during my trip in Cuba. I am not the only one advocating for justice in a society where change seems difficult and hopeless. I am not the only person who feels as if I am crying out and no one is listening to me. I am not the only one frustrated by a society where people, in a need to feel better about themselves and to sleep better at night, encourage others to compromise their most sacred values and then berates those who refuse to do so. In Cuba I saw that there were others going through much tougher circumstances who continued to advocate for the kingdom of God. And they sure had even more reasons than I do, to give up.  But they didn’t.

DOCTOR [room 12]: Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain.
(Faster still.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Nearly a billion years. 
DOCTOR [room 12]: Argh! And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!
(Faster still.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Well over a billion years.
DOCTOR [room 12]: Argh! You must think that’s a hell of a long time, 
(More and more.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Two billion years. 
DOCTOR [room 12]: Personally, I think that’s a hell of a 
(Again.)
DOCTOR: Aaargh! Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.

In “Heaven Sent” the Doctor spends billions of years punching away at the wall made of azbantium, which he describes as being four hundred times harder than diamond. So he has to go through a grueling cycle of dying and being reborn and experiencing the same thing over and over again. Like the bird in the Grimm’s tale he references, the Doctor slowly makes his way through the wall. Justice work often feels the same way. The Cuban Church had to have patience. I’m sure it felt as if they were not getting anywhere with the Cuban or American governments. Yet they continued pushing for normalization of relationships between the two countries and they kept advocating for a greater say in Cuban politics. Their work isn’t done and thy will face more problems and setbacks in the future. But this is the nature of social justice work. Sometimes all we can do, as individuals or as a group is keep punching against the azbantium wall hoping that one day there will be a breakthrough.

 

Listen: Fear Makes Companions of Us All

Fear serves an important evolutionary purpose: namely survival. Fear enables us to mentally and physically discern threats and dangers and our body automatically begins acting in ways that will hopefully increase our chances of survival. As the Doctor explains to Rupert while they are confronted by what may be a monster, hiding under his bed sheet, fear can be good:

DOCTOR: Are you scared? The thing on the bed, whatever it is, look at it. Does it scare you?
RUPERT: Yes.
DOCTOR: Well, that’s good. Want to know why that’s good?
RUPERT: Why?
DOCTOR: Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard, I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you could run faster and you could fight harder, you could jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower.

Yet fear can also become an obsession. Haunting both our nightmares and our waking moments. In this episode, the Doctor becomes gripped by the desire to find what exactly is lurking behind the shadows, preying on our fears and ensuring that we are never alone:

DOCTOR: Yes, you know sometimes when you talk to yourself, what if you’re not?
CLARA: Not what?
DOCTOR: What if it’s not you you’re talking to? Proposition. What if no one is ever really alone? What if every single living being has a companion, a silent passenger, a shadow? What if the prickle on the back of your neck, is the breath of something close behind you?
CLARA: How long have you been travelling alone?
DOCTOR: Perhaps I never have.

What is scarier than a threat that we can’t see, yet which we have an inkling is there, watching our every move? The purpose of fear is to keep us alive and enable us to discern potential threats, but how can we protect ourselves over something that can’t be seen? That can strike at any moment?

The Doctor Who fandom will spend the next few months or years debating whether or not a monster actually existed in this episode. Is it ghost? An alien? Or is the monster simply the figment of the character’s collective imaginations? But regardless of whether or not there actually was a monster in the episode, Listen effectively plays on humanity’s fear of vulnerability. A fear that can be seen in the smallest child. And what renders into sharp focus our vulnerability more than imagining our own deaths or the deaths of those we love? Death is the ultimate boogeyman. We do whatever we can to delay it or to at least push the thought out of our mind, but no matter what we do-no matter how we attempt to soothe our anxiety-we know that death awaits all of us and it is only a matter of time.
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Of course, most of us are able to push aside our anxiety in order to go about our daily lives. But as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, the fear and the allure of death is never far from my mind. One the one hand, death terrifies me. Like the Doctor. Clara, and Orson, who are terrified by the noises that seem to come from outside the spaceship-even though no life exists beyond their doors, death deeply frightens me. It is the great unknown. Death in my mind is a menacing presence waiting to snatch my loved ones away and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it. Death can take so many different shapes and forms that even if one successfully prevents one form-another will inevitable takes its place. Yet like the Doctor, who is determined to find out what exactly is behind the strange noises, death also has a certain allure.

CLARA: That’s you turning it, right?
DOCTOR: No. Get in the Tardis.
CLARA: Why?
DOCTOR: I have to know.
CLARA: Doctor. Doctor
DOCTOR: The Tardis, now!

We all have at least heard of people who perform crazy stunts and who are often accused of trying to cheat death. I am most definitely not one of those people and often view their antics as crazy, yet at the same time I understand the impulse to want to get as close to death as possible-to find out what actually occurs, what happens, without actually dying. Death holds a perverse attraction, and for those of us with insatiable curiosity death is the definitive puzzle to be solved.

But the danger with fearing/obsessing about death, (or any other fear) is that it can hinder one’s ability to fully live and can instead isolate ourselves from one another.   In society, the fear and fascination with death is a central feature in the TV shows we watch, the books we read, as well as the news we consume. There is a reason bloody video games and horror movies garner huge ratings and why the news continues to describe in graphic and sometimes exploitative details various instances of death. Fear can be manipulated and used by those in power as a form of division. Muslims are terrorists, blacks and Hispanics are violent, undocumented workers are trying to steal American jobs and destabilize the economy, the mentally ill are dangerous, etc. Fear has been used to justify going to war, to limiting and dismantling constitutional rights, and as justification for endorsing the complete annihilation of perceived threats.

Unfortunately, some forms of Christianity also rely on fear as a manipulation tactic in order to gain converts. Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior or risk spending an eternity in hell. Preach the gospel to all of your friends and family so that they can avoid burning. The gospel is reduced into a thinly veiled obsession with fear and death.

But what if there was a different way of living that acknowledges fear and the reality of death, yet does not become consumed with it? In the final moments, Clara tells a young Doctor:

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For me, as a Christian, one of the central messages that lies at the heart of my faith is the insistence that fear and death cannot and will not overcome God’s purposes. Jesus Christ is portrayed in the gospels as living his life in such a way that being crucified by the religious authorities and Roman government was the only possible outcome. Jesus consistently called into question the empire’s and religious authorities’ obsession with material wealth, status, and power. In the ancient Roman Empire, in order to survive, it was in a person’s best interest to blend in with the dominant culture. If the dominant culture was heavily hierarchical, then of course, one learned to stay in one’s place. If the dominant political and religious culture viewed the poor, the blind, the sick as unimportant or as sinful, then one did not associate with those condemned by those in power. Yet Jesus refused to fit in. Jesus repeatedly told the ruling authorities that they were wrong. No one, challenges an empire and expects to live. Yet the gospels also depict Jesus as being afraid of dying. In the garden of Gethsemane, he is in agony, begging for a different outcome. Yet unlike his disciples, who’s fear of the Roman authorities and of being killed causes them to react violently or run away, Jesus does not let his fear consume him. He is afraid, but his fear does not separate him from God or God’s purposes. He refuses to become a coward.

Being afraid is ok and in many cases serves an important purpose. But fear can also consume us, especially the fear of death. We can allow our fears to isolate us and cause us to view the world as an inherently dangerous and frightening place, which will then color how we interact with others, or we can harness said fear to make us better people. Fear can bring us together. The fear of losing the one’s we love to death, can in moderation enable us to appreciate them while they are here with us and to cherish them. The fear of terrorism can force us to reflect on the ways that our nation has contributed to its rise. Instead of denouncing all people of a certain religious or ethnic background as terrorists, our concerns and fears can unite us with the direct victims of terrorism and can help us figure out effective ways to lessen terrorism without defaulting to violence. No matter how hard we try we are never going to eradicate the sources of our fears, we are never going to outwit death, but we can at the very least decide how our fears will impact us.