In no particular order.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L’Engle
You might have read A Wrinkle in Time, or seen the movie, and that was formative for any girl of a certain personality at a certain age. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the fourth (depending on how time works) in the series. It is responsible for teaching me about ananda which is defined as “that joy without which the universe would fall apart and collapse” and is also the name given to a dog. And Gaudior, the name given to a unicorn, meaning “more joyful”. I’d learned about joy as a wordless language that can be transferred between people when Meg and Calvin kythed in A Wrinkle in Time. And about angels, interplanetary travel, and time travel in A Wind in the Door and Many Waters.
But A Swiftly Tilting Planet affected me the most, for some reason. In this one, Meg Murry’s little brother Charles Wallace goes back in time to take over people’s minds and bodies to prevent them from butterfly-effecting mass destruction in the books’ present.
Madeleine L’Engle, it turns out, is a Christian mystic, who goes above (or beneath) the trappings of names and ceremony to realize the message of connection, joy, love, and healing which is worthwhile for everyone to learn, regardless of one’s professed faith. The book also centers on an intensely poetical prayer for protection which has stayed with me for a long time.
The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff
I hadn’t read the Tao before this. I have three translations in my possession and I haven’t gotten around to reading any of them! It’s not even like they’re long or difficult. But anyway, they’ll be easier to read since I’ve read the Tao of Pooh (and its companion, the Te of Piglet).
I think all religious texts should be explained by children’s book characters–or at least, you should be able to explain them as if to children. If you can’t say your spirituality in simple words, you might have to consider that those complex words are empty of actual meaning.
I also think all religious texts should be able to be explained with humor; if they can’t stand up to jokes and gentle prodding, they might not be all that valid.
Revolution for the Hell of It, FREE (Abbie Hoffman)
Subtitle: The Book That Earned Abbie Hoffman a Five-Year Prison Term at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial
I’ll confess, I remember this one least. I have a signed copy, which I’m sure I got at a used bookstore, where I and my parents didn’t know what was in it. I know I was always interested in hippies–the aesthetic, the apparent joy, the idea of counterculture. I suspect a lot of the interests I have, I originally picked up because they were counterculture or otherwise esoteric. I just like knowing things most people don’t know! So I’m counting this as representative of all the hippie literature I read when I was a kid.
This is a series of articles about a hippie (Yippie! in fact) revolutionary, an activist. This is the guy who wrote Steal This Book! which was a manual for how to get things for free, and not in an extreme couponing way. This guy was so devoted to the cause that he changed his name to FREE.
So, if anyone had been paying attention–and if my parents hadn’t had a slight counterculture streak themselves at the time–I shouldn’t have been allowed to read this, and other hippie history texts, at whatever young age I did. But since I read it at the age of learning, of taking in every piece of information and using it all to understand the world, and most of all of learning uncritically, I grew to believe that hacking the system was the only acceptable way to live.
We know now that the generations that came after millennials cannot be disillusioned, because they never had a “normal” world to begin with. They never thought adults really had a handle on things or were doing, in general, the right thing; and so they never had the realization, which used to be part of “growing up,” that everyone is just faking it and a lot of people who have power don’t use it for the collective good, even though that’s what you’d expect from all the Sesame Street we all grew up with. I like to think that I was also taught at a very young age these same lessons, and that’s why I’m now… like this.
The Long Utopia, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
“Apprehend. Be humble in the face of the universe. Do good. There endeth the sermon for today, unless you want to hear a few lame gags…
Apprehend. It doesn’t just mean ‘understand’, although it includes that meaning, fully. It means you should face the truth of the world–not let yourself be fooled by how you’d like it to be. You should try to be fully aware of the richness of reality, of the mixed-up complexity of all the processes going right back to the birth of the stars that have produced you and the world you live in and this very moment….
And you need to apprehend other people, too, as best you can. Even those close to you. Especially those close to you. ‘You cannot love what you do not know’….
Be here now. If you have a god, then consider that every moment you’re alive and aware in this glorious world is a moment of awareness of that god–and to live in the moment is the only way you can be aware of your god….
Be humble in the face of the universe. You got to be aware of your limits, right? We all have meaningful jobs on this thing. But you do what you can do…. The first thing they teach any medic is do no harm. Isn’t that right? Help if you can, but at least don’t make things worse in your ignorance. But to accept that limit you need to know your ignorance… And in a chaotic universe, at least don’t snafu stuff even more than it already is snafued…
Do good…. That sounds a little bland, right? Kind of Mom-and-Pop instructions for when you’re about seven years old. But the question is, how should you do good? After all, the right path isn’t always clear…. Well, if you’re faced with some situation, some dilemma, remember the other rules of thumb. Apprehend. Try to understand the problem, the people involved, as much as you can. Be humble in the face of the universe. Make sure you don’t screw things up further, at least.
But you can do more. Do the good that’s in front of you. If somebody’s hurting, or about to be hurt, try to save them. Figure out who’s vulnerable, in any situation. Who’s got no power, no choice? It’s a good bet that you won’t go wrong if you help them. Even so, there may be situations where that’s not clear. So there’s a much older rule I came across, which some call–or versions of it–the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by….
You’re not going to get it right every time. It’s impossible to get it right every time. We live in a chaotic universe, remember? But I figure it’s worth trying to get it more right than wrong….”
And sure, this speech was delivered by a kid whose motives included political agitation. But FREE already agitated me so let’s roll with it.
The Long Utopia is the last of the Long Earth series, which Terry Pratchett worked on with Steven Baxter. It was published after Pratchett’s death. It seemed to me that Pratchett did the story and philosophy part of the Long Earth series, and Baxter did the sci-fi and math. I could be wrong. But this message is so Pratchett that I read it as basically his last message to humanity.
I have referred to Pratchett’s entire body of work as my bible. Even with his death four years behind us, I am still having trouble articulating how much he has taught me since my high school boyfriend happened to have a copy of The Colour of Magic. He was atheist, humanist. He always wanted you to look past what a person was doing and into what had led them to do it. And then treat them with all the good they deserved. And remember that things were different, not so long ago and not so far away.
When I am stuck and my executive dysfunction and nihilism are not letting me do anything, because nothing matters, I can remember: Do the work that’s in front of you.
If you ever wanted those lessons boiled down into a hard candy you could pop onto a bumper sticker, here you are: Apprehend. Be humble in the face of the universe. Do good.
Myth Adventures, Robert Lynn Asprin
If you want someone even funnier than Pratchett (I’m sorry! Remember, do good!) but teaching a lot of the same lessons, try the Myth series by Robert Lynn Asprin. The first four volumes are collected as Myth Adventures (every title has a myth-based pun, sorry) and the collection was handed down to me from my aunt, who is also very pragmatic and funny and generally the sort of person you’d expect to like Asprin and Pratchett (and come to think of it, a lot of my favs–I remember, when I first found out about Neil Gaiman, my uncle coming home from work and asking, “Honey, why do we need another copy of Preludes and Nocturnes?”) So maybe I learned a lot of this philosophy indirectly from her. Well, anyway.
In the first Myth book, a wizard summons a demon in order to impress his apprentice. Like you do. And then he, as you might also do, promptly dies. The demon (spoilers for, like, the first few chapters) turns out to be street-wise and world-weary–in fact, multiple-world-weary, as he is a dimension-traveler who has seen all there is to see and then some.
The lesson he gives the apprentice, and the reader, is the same as Pratchett’s: never take someone’s actions at face value. Look into what led them to where they are and what they’re doing. Think about what they’re trying to show you and why, and think about what skills they might actually possess. Then treat them with, well… whatever kindness they deserve. Asprin’s a little less emphatic about universal agape love. You could say I learned a sort of humanist cynicism here.
The Principia Discordia, Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst
Yeah! The classic! You saw this coming. And if you didn’t, you need your third eye checked.
If you don’t know this one, you can know it (intimately–biblically!) for free at principiadiscordia.com or several other sites. I found it as one used to online, through a random series of references and a labyrinth of links, at exactly the right age to have my mind blown.
The important things I learned here are: There are other people as weird as you. Religion is just another system to be hacked–and not just the church hierarchy but the architecture of belief itself. And, mostly, it’s not that big a deal. It’s all just the Cosmic Joke.
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