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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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.