My last Skyrim post was also a Diabolical Logic post, and normally I would mix it up, but this is probably the only place in Aemilian’s adventures it’s going to make sense to talk about Sanguine. At first glance, Sanguine seems to disprove my theory that Daedra are beings of pure logic, as opposed to the purely emotional Aedra. Sanguine represents hedonism and temptation, after all. Yet maybe there is a certain logic to indulgence.
A Night to Remember
Drawn to the sound of laughter and raised voices, Aemilian navigated the otherworldly grove, intoxicated by the scent of flowers and wine. Rounding a corner, he came upon a great feast, attended by a dizzying array of revelers.
Apart from the others stood Sam, watching Aemilian with amusement. This was not the same man Aemilian drank with in Falkreath. There was some dark wisdom behind those twinkling eyes that set Aemilian on edge.
What had he gotten himself into now?
The Logic of Emotion
It could be said, perhaps, that Sanguine is the logical embodiment of emotion. It’s a popular misconception that emotions are illogical, and that misconception is true, just not in the way that matters.
Spending much of my life in nerd/gamer/smart person circles, I know a lot of people who tend toward the INTJ side of the Myers Briggs scale. I’ve had conversations with some of these people who claim all of their decisions are based on logic, and they do not value emotional feelings at all. To me, that’s completely illogical; at least the first decision in a chain has to be emotional, even if the rest proceed according to logic.
I want to be a writer. Logically, I should spend my time writing. I might feel tired or bored, or I might be tempted to go hang out with my friends, but I can proceed logically and keep writing. That’s great. But why do I want to be a writer? It’s definitely an emotional decision for me, but let’s pretend it’s not. Maybe I have no emotional attachment to writing, but it’s something I’m naturally good at. It’s therefore the clear path to financial independence. Why do I want to be financially independent? Not because I value freedom or enjoy buying things or because I don’t want to put strain on my loved ones, no, only the purely logical motivation of the biological imperative: survive and replicate. But why should I survive and replicate? Will any of this have any bearing, logically, during the inevitable heat death of the universe?
Turning to logic when your emotions would lead you astray is a great skill to have, but all of our logic must derive from arbitrary emotions, whether they be love, hatred, greed, fear, justice, or simply wanting a drink.
Before you think I’m just crazytown, a lot of moral theory shares my premise. One example is ethical egoism, which I titled this section because I think it’s a really rad name, even if I disapprove of the theory itself (essentially: the only good is your own happiness so literally do whatever). Utilitarianism might be the widest known, and postulates that “good” is what increases pleasure and reduces pain, while “evil” does the opposite. Pleasure and pain is of course subjective, and there are all sorts of divides between utilitarian theories on what pleasures should “count”: are hedonistic pleasures like food and drink really good, or should we only count intellectual pleasures like learning and artistic achievement?
All good questions, but for now let’s focus on what Sanguine can do for you, personally. We all make emotional decisions, and often very poor ones, because we don’t recognize which emotions drive us. Since we insist on being logical actors, when we do succumb to emotion, we lose control. So let’s get over ourselves and embrace our irrational nature.
Meditate, journal, or otherwise think deeply about your dearest irrational values. That is, values you can’t justify logically but would defend to the end. It can help to play the inquisitive child: just ask why until you can’t answer the question anymore.
I want to be a writer. Why? I need to make a living somehow, and I like making up stories. Why? I need to eat and don’t want someone else to have to earn my food for me; I like exploring how different people in different places have the same human experience. Why? I don’t want to die, and I don’t want someone else to suffer because of me; I like the idea that we are all the same at our core. Why? I don’t know why. I have no rational reason for wanting to stay alive, not wanting to make others suffer, or wanting to explore how we are all the same; these are some of my irrational drives. I should keep these in mind, because they are stronger than any logic I could conceive of, and will ultimately guide all of my actions.
Sometimes I think this blog should be titled “Not Practicing What I Preach” and wonder if I shouldn’t talk about self-improvement until I’ve improved myself above a certain threshold. Other times I think maybe seeing somebody in the middle of the struggle instead of at the end of the journey might be valuable. Then I remember that this is a blog 90% dedicated to Skyrim shenanigans and I’m probably overthinking things.
Last week on real talk I highlighted the value of Ridiculous Slowness, which helps you focus on the journey instead of trying to rush to the end. I’m good at doing that sometimes, but it gets harder for me as I get closer to the end. When the finish line is in sight I get impatient with the distance I still have to cover.
Let’s reflect on how I could do better.
Closing the Book
I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was five. Eighteen years later, I’m on the cusp of being a self-published author, which technically fulfills the goal. I’m approaching a final draft of a romance novel I’ve been working on for a while, and am getting people to read it and give feedback. The goal is to publish it next month.
Being this close has gotten me anxious and a little impatient. There’s still work to do, but it’s hard to spend a couple hours going over the dialogue of a single scene when what I really want to do is finalize the book as a whole. Of course, that’s counterproductive, because now more than ever I want to be taking the time to do my best work.
This feeling can be alleviated by taking the long view. Putting my first book out there is a significant moment in my life, but it is still only one moment in my life. Right now I’m hung up on wanting to see if the book well do well or if it will flop, and either result will affect my life in the short-term. In ten or twenty years, though, how this one book does won’t matter as much as the habits I’m building right now. Whether it sells a million copies or not a single one, I still want to keep writing, so I’ll still benefit from being a more disciplined and productive writer. Instead of thinking that I am approaching the end of the journey, I must realize that this is only one leg of a far longer journey. Sprinting the next mile won’t help me walk the thousand after that.
A Change of Place
The other thing coming up in my life is less monumental, but may have a far greater impact on my daily experience. For the year and a half I’ve lived in Mexico City, I have been dwelling in a small room in a shared house. I’m finally secure enough financially that I’m looking for an apartment of my own.
Now that a new place is on the horizon, the little things that annoy me about my current situation have become much harder to deal with. The broken springs in my lopsided mattress seem to dig deeper into my back while I sleep, and the window that doesn’t close seems to let in more noise than ever. I’m impatient to find a new home, but I really should be searching with care and not jumping at the first apartment that comes up.
It’s also a good way for me to practice stoicism and mindfulness. Even once I have a better apartment, there will always be little inconveniences in life. Learning to live with them now will do me a lot of good later on.
Desdenada Is: As Real As It Gets
If the value of Ridiculous Slowness formed the bedrock for Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play posts, the genesis for Real Talk can be found in the value of Unflinching Realness. To put it another way–a way that gets me in trouble whenever I bring it up–this is the value of Anti-Escapism. I prefer to phrase my values in the positive form, rather than the negative, but escapism is rampant today and so worth talking about.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one of my literary heroes, the hatred of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass. Many people turn to fantasy because, rather than a mirror that reflects their own perceived ugliness, they desire a window into some beautiful illusion. They revel in this illusion while their reality continues to degrade. Garok the orc grows stronger and more celebrated with each passing day, while Gary the gamer grows sickly on the other side of the screen.
Yet anyone familiar with Oscar Wilde has probably already caught the error in my logic, because Oscar Wilde also said (paraphrasing once more) that the hatred of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass. I may reject escapism, but obviously I don’t reject fantasy. For me, fantasy has always been a window into what could be. I’m not satisfied by making my avatar strong and accomplished. My play serves as inspiration for me to make myself strong and accomplished.
That’s where the unflinching part comes in. Desdenada is Caliban looking in the glass and seeing two faces: his own, and the face of the person that he could be. While I advocate Unflinching Realness to anyone who wants more out of life, it is not for the faint of heart. Comparing yourself to your fantasy heroes, taking an honest look at where you are and how far you have to go, can be devastating. There have been periods of my life where I struggled with depression because I didn’t live up to my own standards, and envied some of my friends their comfortable, escapist lives.
But if I could go back ten years and tell my 13-year-old self one thing, it would be this:
Yesterday I proposed that the Aedra, or divines, are beings of pure emotion. Their counterpart, the Daedra, are beings of pure logic (although to mortal minds they often don’t seem that way). That’s why people usually consider them to be evil. They are like the famous “paper clip” example of how a robot uprising might occur.
If you haven’t heard it, the idea is that someone might design a very powerful piece of artificial intelligence with the purpose of making paper clips much more efficiently. Being much more intelligent than us, it figures out how to transmute metals in ways we thought impossible, or perhaps builds drones that can mine metal from asteroids. It also, quite logically, deduces it would be much more efficient to manufacture paper clips if there weren’t so many humans in the way. So it wipes us out.
We would be tempted to label this AI evil, but it’s not really. It’s a logical process devoid of emotions or moral judgment. If the Daedra are the same, mortals would perceive them as deliberately malicious, the same way they perceive the Aedra as mysterious and incomprehensible (when they’re actually devoid of reason altogether).
Anyway, let’s talk about my favorite Daedric Prince: Hircine.
The Gift of Hircine
The taste of blood was the first thing he noticed, and the last thing to fade.
His eyes were sharper, yet revealed less than his nose. The city was familiar, yet changed. Not changed, augmented. Sounds and scents came to him on the air, painting pictures he never could have grasped. The world was aflame with life all around him, and the taste of death in his mouth.
What had been added to the world had been taken from him. He had not changed so much–except, of course, physically. He had not become something else. He had been reduced. What was not needed, stripped away. His name, identity, anxiety, ambition, gone.
His thoughts, like his senses, were clear.
The Eternal Hunt
Like Kynareth, Hircine is associated with nature. Instead of growth and cultivation, he represents the other side of the coin. Most life cannot exist without the destruction of other life, be it plant or animal. Brutal conflict is as much a part of nature as tranquil coexistence.
Hunting has distinct emotional connotations to people of different cultures. For early man, the hunt was literally essential to existence. Hunters were heroes and many gods of the hunt were worshiped. A handful of millennia after the agricultural revolution, many people have turned on the hunt, and not just because of the rise of veganism. I know plenty of meat eaters who think hunting is disgusting or barbaric, and prefer to think that meat originates in the supermarket.
Emotions have no place in this discussion, however; Hircine is a being of pure logic. What logical place does hunting have in culture, now that it is no longer necessary (in many cases, not even helpful) to our survival? As with our discussion of Kynareth yesterday, it helps not to think so literally.
“The eternal hunt” is not just a cool catchphrase. The point of the hunt is that it is eternal. You stalk your prey, kill it, and subsist on its meat for a time. When it runs out, you’re back to square one. The process repeats. Compare this to agriculture. You plant seeds, you raise cattle. Crops and livestock multiply, and your resources grow year after year. You have more than you could ever eat, and sell the extra. You use the money to hire farm hands to do your work for you, and your fortune continues to grow while you do nothing. You grow fat, rich, and idle. Meanwhile your cousin, the hunter, hungry, strong, and vital, sets out after his latest prey.
Which is the better life? I know many who would choose the former. In any case, I’m not trying to argue we should return to a hunter-gatherer society–the world couldn’t begin to sustain our current global population that way. The point is that the Hunt which Hircine represents is present in all of our lives. Or, at least, it should be.
Refill Your Quiver
There is perhaps no area of real life where Hircine’s teachings are more relevant than in the rampant practice of provisional living. We’ve all been there: “When I buy a house/publish a book/meet the right man/see Eminem perform live, THEN I’ll be happy.” It’s a double-edged sword: this way of thinking robs us of enjoying the years spent achieving these goals, but, surprisingly, it only gets worse once we do achieve them. After slaving away at a job they hate for 40 years, many retirees are shocked to find the only thing more miserable is NOT slaving away at the job they hate.
It’s the counterintuitive–possibly controversial–reality of mental illness. Depression is most common in people whose lives are too privileged. Anxiety was rare centuries ago, when danger was all around. Only now that we live in an age where safety, or the illusion of safety, seems almost possible, are we afraid of everything. Hircine shows us the path out. When we pursue our goals, we think we are trading current suffering for future happiness. When we Hunt, we are reveling in the pursuit as much as we revel in the kill. Rest is a necessity that comes between each Hunt, rather than the goal. Conflict is the contest by which we become stronger and better, not an obstacle to peace and safety.
In practical terms, you can apply Hircine’s teachings to your life by practicing what I clumsily call the “perfect day mentality” (I’ll think of a better name someday). Instead of thinking of your dream future in terms of results–“I’ll have a huge house and great friends and be famous and healthy”–think of it in terms of hours.
I should probably write a while post on this, but it breaks down like this: no matter how rich, beautiful, and loved you get, you will always face the fundamental human challenge of having to fill roughly sixteen hours everyday. How do you spend time each day in your perfect future? For example, I, like many writers, dream of “making it”. Once I write a great book I’ll be rich and successful and life will be great. Unfortunately, this makes writing an obstacle. If I can just “get through” the writing I can start living. But what does life as a successful writer entail? Well, a lot of writing.
My perfect life probably involves writing 4-6 hours a day. Even if I don’t yet have a big house or the funds to tour the Spanish countryside, if I sit down and write for four hours each day, I am already 25% of the way to living my dream life in one simple step. If you dream of being fit and healthy, you’ll come to hate working out–it’s the gauntlet between you and your dreams. But if your goal is not just to become fit once, but to be healthy throughout your life, then your perfect future probably includes an hour of exercise most days. So go to the gym today and revel in being another 6% closer to your perfect day.
Put some thought into your perfect day, while I try to practice what I preach and actually write for four hours today and Aemilian gets a handle on being a werewolf. And find something nice to wear when we come back next time.
I know, I know, we’ve already devoted a stupid amount of time to talking about Kynareth. My hope is by getting all my ideas about her down in a single post, she’ll stop cropping up a little bit in every post. Specifically, we’ll be returning to an idea I brought up but didn’t fully explore earlier: my assertion that The Gods Are Stupid (paired with the disclaimer I’m talking about video game gods, not any real religion).
This sounds like an insult, but that’s only because we mortals value intelligence. Now I’ll add another supposed barb: the gods are weak. Physically weak. My Elder Scrolls knowledge is limited so I might be entirely wrong, but so far, my impression is that the Divines do not manifest physically in our world and have little power to influence our plane directly.
As I mentioned last time, these beings are powerful not despite but because of these limitations. They represent pure emotional and spiritual power, unhindered by logic or physics. Contrast the divines with the Daedra. Kynareth represents nature, and her edict is nature; her cause is her end. Hircine, for example, represents the hunt, but in a much more granular way. He has plots and rationales, and interferes with the lives of mortals. He is not content to represent the spiritual concept of the hunt; he has specific ideas about which hunter should hunt which prey and how they should go about their task.
So let’s explore the spiritual concepts Kynareth represents. Why now? Well, it turns out the Main Story Quest might be more personal to Aemilian than I ever would have guessed.
The Way of the Voice
Beneath him, the stone floor was cold as death, but Aemilian didn’t mind. It kept him present. Kept him from nodding off as he meditated on what he had learned that evening.
The Graybeards had been about what he expected, preaching about destiny and wisdom and so on. They taught him new words and shared their power with him, which was well enough, although Aemilian still wished they had found another student. Then Arngeir, his de facto mentor, had surprised him: the Graybeards, it turned out, were fellow devotees of Kynareth.
A cold wind howled through the cavernous halls of High Hrothgar, as if the goddess herself was answering his thoughts. The Graybeards had certainly chosen a worthy spot for worship, observing the mysteries of the sky and weathering their mistress’s storms. Apparently, it was Kynareth who had given mortals the power of the thu’um, and the Way of the Voice was a form of her worship.
Aemilian had never believed in destiny. His existence, he’d decided, was due to some pointless work of chance. The power of the last Dragonborn, once freed from his dead body, had spiraled randomly around the universe until it happened to slam into Aemilian, altering for the worse the future of a would-be humble alchemist.
Maybe, now, he could find solace in his fate. He had never asked to be Dragonborn, but when this sorry business with Alduin had been concluded, he would wield the thu’um in Kynareth’s name. His bad luck would be the goddess’s boon.
The Road Less Traveled By
My thesis about the divines is that each represents one basic concept. As mortals struggling to interpret their will, we ascribe a portfolio of interests to these entities. Earlier in our adventure, a priestess of Kynareth sent Aemilian to heal a sacred tree by taking sap from another sacred tree. When he tried to carry the task out, the goddess sent spriggans to kill him for harming her sacred tree. Contradictions like these make our logical minds run in circles, but for a being like Kynareth, she is perfectly in accord with herself.
To find what she really stands for, we can reduce the interests ascribed to her, trying to find a lowest common denominator. Nature is the main one, but she is also associated especially with the sky and storms, as well as with travel and sailing. We could say she represents the Robert Frost concept of taking the path less traveled. Specifically, traveling through wild areas away from civilization. The sky and storm aspects of the goddess represent the elements a traveler must endure.
Perhaps that’s taking things too literally, though. What if we look at what each of the things she represents represents? Nature is a fuzzy word; it technically includes everything, but we generally use it to mean anything less evolved than humans, and things not created by creatures as or more involved than humans. Recent research has found that some birds have learned to set fires to drive prey from hiding. These fires are natural. When a human sets a fire, that fire is not natural. So nature perhaps represents non-humanness. The idea that we as humans (or altmer) should respect and learn from the things that are not of us.
The travel aspect fits with this. Travel exposes us to new ideas, disrupts our status quo and changes how we see the world. Even if you travel from one city to another, rather than traveling into nature, you’re still being exposed to what is not “of you”–not of your cultured or locality or people. The storm encapsulates this idea nicely. Wind doesn’t move toward a destination. During a gale, the air moves around merely for the sake of moving around; merely for the sake of not staying in the same spot. It’s fitting the Graybeards worship through meditation, which largely comes down to awareness of the breath. This simple act of moving air around is the basis of all human life.
It doesn’t make for as cool of a title, but maybe Kynareth is not the Embodiment of Nature or the Mother of Storms, but rather the Concept of Moving Around.
Neither Here Nor There
Concept is a misnomer, but I’m not sure English has a good word for what I’m trying to say. The divines don’t represent logical ideas. Each embodies one feeling, passion, or spiritual…well, concept. Anyway, we can say Kynareth represents movement and growth for their own sake. The feeling of being one place instead of another. A passion for not being the same as before.
That explains why Kynareth resonates with me. I can come up with a lot of solid reasons for my love of travel and growth. Both lead to self-improvement and introduce you to new opportunities. To be honest, these are justifications I made up after the fact. These passions are a priori. If we lived in an unfortunate world where travel and growth were self-destructive and shameful activities, I would still long for them in secret and probably succumb to them in the end.
Want to worship Kynareth in real life (metaphorically, in a way that doesn’t violate your preexisting religion)? Meditation is a great way to start. Even if you’re not in a position to travel or make any major changes in your life, you can observe her teachings while sitting still. Notice how each breath is different. Every single breath is essential to keeping you alive–is the most important thing in your world for a handful of seconds–then passes on without a trace.
Throughout your life, experiment with change for its own sake. Take a different path to work, visit a different cafe, eat breakfast at the other end of the table. Do these things simply to do them, without any expectation other than the thrill of something new (small acts like this often does have a profound and positive effect on the amount of “good luck” in your life, but for the sake of this exercise, see that as a happy bonus, not the point).
Next time, we’ll stick with our nature theme, but through a much more rational lens. What can we learn from the Lord of the Hunt?
I’ve mentioned my weird love for principles expressed through foreign words, and that it’s maybe not as weird as I think: books on hygge have been all over the shelves for a while now, but yesterday I stumbled upon a tome on ikigai, another personal favorite. Maybe I’m not being irrational; maybe I just subconsciously realized that we can apply principles more easily when they’re summed up in a single word–and that we’re more likely to apply them if they seem somehow mystical to us, their meaning made arcane by the sheen of another tongue.
Since Skyrim is heavily based on real Nordic culture, I’ve brought up the Nordic word lagom a few times already. Somehow I did this without realizing what was strikingly obvious: my obsession with these sorts of words parallels one of Skyrim’s core mechanics. Just as the Dragonborn masters the Shouts by learning obscure words of power, we can wield the power of words like lagom and ikigai in our own lives.
Today, while Aemilian meets with the Graybeards and learns about the Way of the Voice, we will return to the concept of lagom and practice a Shout of our own.
The Highest of Hrothgars
The cold was not Aemilian’s worst enemy. He had prepared for it, not only physically but mentally. When he fled the sunkissed sands of Hammerfell for the weatherbeaten stone of Skyrim, he had steeled himself against cold winds he knew awaited him.
He had not expected the air itself to betray him. Even the rolling plains of Skyrim’s central basin were at a somewhat greater altitude than he was used to, and now and then he found himself straining for breath after what should have been an easy fight. Now, as he scaled the however-many-thousands of steps up the Throat of the World toward High Hrothgar, he felt he was slurping air through a reed pipe.
Glancing back at Rayya, Aemilian saw the mirth in her eyes as he paused for a break under the pretense of admiring the view of Lake Ilinalta. She may have been Redguard, but she’d had many years to acclimate to this damned thin air. Aemilian’s pride demanded that he explain to her it were his lungs that were failing him, not his legs, but he kept quiet. What was a housecarl for, he thought with a small grin, if not to keep her thane humble?
Despite his resolve to bear the pain stoically, he couldn’t help but groan when a white shadow dropped down from the cliffs above him. Forst trolls were a worthy adversary under any circumstances, and Aemilian was winded before he even reached for his mace.
Antler’s Bite was not his only weapon, he reminded himself, letting go the mace’s hilt and drinking in as deep a breath as he could muster. Maybe he had never asked to be Dragonborn, maybe it was with great reluctance he made this pilgrimage to prostate himself before some old mountain hermits, but he had to admit, sometimes the arbitrary power bestowed on him did come in handy.
The troll rushed forward. With controlled force, Aemilian uttered a word and set the snow on fire.
Wielding the Thu’um
Words may not have intrinsic power in real life, but when we use them as mnemonics, they offer a way to alter your own reality. Simply learning to pronounce lagom (logum) or even learning its definition (not too little, not too much) won’t change your life. Just as you must slay a dragon and absorb the power of its very soul to unlock each word of a shout, unlocking the power of lagom requires an initial investment of time and energy.
First you must study the meaning of lagom, which we’ve done a little already. Then you must actually practice the principle, associating the benefits of your action with the word itself. Whenever you have a single cookie instead of a whole box, or wake up early just to relax and see the sun rise, repeat the word to yourself.
Once you’ve built this association, you can wield the great and terrible thu’um. I wouldn’t recommend actually shouting the word, at least not in public. I like to whisper it under my breath, but you can even just repeat it in your head if you prefer (this way you can even imagine shouting it at full force and volume).
Again, saying a word won’t actually change the situation you’re in, but it can and will change the way you perceive and act in that situation. Let’s look at the practical use of the word lagom.
Equilibrium and Lagom
As in Skyrim, our shouts are comprised of three words which must be learned individually. I named the first shout Equilibrium because it sounds like the name of a Skyrim shout, but you can think of it as Balance or Moderation if that’s simpler–or you can call it Slow Time.
That’s right, the Skyrim parallel to Equilibrium is the Slow Time shout. Principles like lagom apply to all aspects of life, but you can pretty much trace them all back to a respect for time. In the most obvious sense, living with lagom means working less and taking things more slowly. Lagom also means not owning too much–so you spend less time cleaning up or searching for things–keeping your decorations simple–so you can spend more time appreciating each ornament–and being thrifty–so you devote less time to earning money and more time to enjoying your purchases.
The Equilibrium shout is about time, and lagom is a key aspect of that. Next time you find yourself working late instead of getting a full night’s sleep or feel tempted to rush through a bowl of cereal instead of cooking a healthy breakfast, repeat the word “lagom” and see if you can inspire yourself to make the right decision.
Nature is IN right now. Everything is natural, organic, green, GMO-free, and environmentally responsible–and if something isn’t, it’s worthy of scorn and boycott. As someone who claims that nature is one of my primary values, both in Skyrim and in real life, I’m pretty jazzed about this, right?
Nature has some branding issues, and by that I mean her PR is way too good. We celebrate things we label “green” or “natural” even though these words are subjective at best and utterly devoid of meaning at worst. Nature’s brand has become its own entity, distinct from nature herself. Millions of social media warriors fight on behalf of Nature’s brand, but as often as not they’re waging war against Nature herself.
What in Oblivion am I talking about? Let’s use Skyrim to illustrate.
The Wrath of Kyne
“Please, do not do this thing.”
The pilgrim’s words echoed around Aemilian’s skull as he clutched Nettlebane’s strange, glassy hilt in his fist. Before him rose the Eldergleam, a twisted monstrosity of a tree with bark like iron and a living presence like a beating heart. This was the culmination of a task he had undertaken during his first days in Skyrim: by harvesting the sap of Kynareth’s sacred tree, he could restore life to its seedling, the Gildergreen, cultivated by the priests of Kynareth in Whiterun.
Yet a pilgrim devoted to Kynareth in the sanctum below had begged Aemilian not to harm the tree. To do so would be an affront to Kynareth herself, he claimed, leaving Aemilian confused: his task had been given him by an ordained priestess of the goddess. Which was the right course? To leave nature untrammeled? Or to do harm to one plant for the good of another?
His warring thoughts gave way to a mental image of another pilgrim, Maurice Jondrelle. Aemilian had agreed to escort Maurice to the Eldergleam, but along the way, they had been set upon by bandits holing up in the Valtheim towers. The image in his head was of Maurice as he had last seen him: his body, cold and broken, splayed on the floor of a ruined tower. Aemilian had found the man insufferable at first, but they had bonded, and Aemilian would carry his death on his conscience the rest of his life.
Aemilian took a deep breath. The sulfuric smell of the volcanic hot springs was fainter here, concealed by a cocktail of earth and sap and wildflowers. Opening his eyes and squaring his shoulders, he murmured a prayer before driving the cursed blade into the bark of the sacred tree.
Warm sap flowed over his fingers while all around him, the underground forest exploded in shrieks of wrath.
The Chemical Conspiracy
As Aemilian has recently learned, you can devote yourself to nature and remain unclear on how best to serve it. The situation is just as stick in real life, so let’s try to clarify things with two sample controversies.
I try to be respectful to all sides of an argument, but I can’t help myself when it comes to products marketed as “chemical-free”. The argument that we should avoid chemicals at all costs is hilarious because, well, literally everything is made of chemicals. Oxygen is a chemical, water is a compound composed of two chemicals, fire is energy waste given off by a chemical reaction, and any given sample of earth is just lousy with the stuff. If air, earth, fire, and water aren’t natural, what is?
Okay, okay, I’ll quit beating the strawman. When most people advocate for chemical-free, they’re actually advocating against “added chemicals”–chemicals that didn’t start there. Of course, everything is a chemical, so we can reduce this to anti-additives. Does that mean it’s wrong to put an additive like balsamic vinaigrette on your salad? When pressed, these advocates usually identify preservatives as the main problem. Salt and vinegar are preservatives, so are these out? No, because they’re natural.
This is where we get to the real conflict: it’s not chemicals or even additives that are the problem, it’s anything “unnatural”. Obviously you don’t want to put Unnatural stuff in your body. Fine. Question is, how do you identify the Unnatural?
Many people rely on the linguistic test: if it sounds chemically and scary, it’s probably unnatural. So azalea honey is in, a-Linolenic acid is out. This test breaks down when you realize azalea honey is a deadly toxic compound manufactured by bees which harvest azalea nectar, while a-Linolenic acid is a naturally occurring compound, the consumption of which is linked to cardiovascular health in humans.
Alright, you got me, that was another strawman, but you get the point. Natural vs. Unnatural is largely an aesthetic argument and doesn’t tell you a lot about what’s good for you or for the environment. Let’s forget about toxic azalea honey for a moment and focus on sweet, golden, delicious old regular honey. That stuff is natural, right? I mean, it’s mass-produced by brainwashed slaves in an assembly line that converts nectar into a gooey mush of saliva enzymes, but the factory is run by bees who are themselves a part of nature. That means when they use chemical additives during manufacture, the end product is still natural.
Humans, meanwhile, are no longer a part of nature. When we, like bees, take a naturally-occurring ingredient and mess it up with chemical enzymes, the result is decidedly Unnatural.
That makes it simple: apples are in, applesauce is out. Take that, Mott’s!
But hey, wait a second….
Gently Moderated Organisms
Theoretically, the anti-GMO argument is more clear-cut than the natural vs. unnatural argument. It’s tricky to find the line between mashed potatoes (boiling potatoes and crushing them is okay) and potato chips (frying potatoes and cutting them really thin–seems sketchy), but GMOs are simple. Either an organism is genetically modified or not, right? And if it is, that’s obviously over the line. There’s NO WAY you can argue that playing god with the essence of life is in any way natural.
Speaking of playing god, let’s talk about the Garden of Eden. Most people think of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as an apple, but theologians and historians think it was originally a pomegranate. Why? Because apples weren’t invented until thousands of years later.
Invented? Yep, the apple is an early example of a genetically modified organism, as are carrots, cows, dogs, and horses. These things get a pass, though, because they are created over hundreds of years through grafting and selective breeding. In other words, primitive genetic modification is okay. If you get really good and really fast at it, then it becomes problematic.
The fear of GMO originates from a few specific cases: companies can modify plants to stop reproducing so you have to buy new seeds from them every year, or modify livestock to produce more meat of a lower quality. I won’t deny these things. You can modify in organism to be better or worse, to be more or less healthy. You could even modify kale into something toxic, if you really wanted to.
Genetic modification is a tool, like fire or the internet, which can be used for good or ill. Sure. I accept that some companies abuse it, but we should also accept that GMOs have potential for TREMENDOUS GOOD. Scientists are experimenting with apples that can grow in the arctic regions of Siberia and carrots that produce chemicals to treat depression. I’m proud to report that, right here in Mexico, scientists are working on adapting all kinds of crops to desert environments–potentially turning massive swaths of barren African badlands into abundant farmland.
The stickiest example I know of is the modification of crops to take up less space. Organic is a nature buzzword because pesticides are inherently BAD. What you may not know is that organic crops, by definition less efficient, higher maintenance, and lower yield, require more land to grow. The need for more farmland means more deforestation. In other words, feeding the North American organic vegetable fad means cutting down the rainforests to make room to plant more kale. Is that in keeping with what’s best for nature?
On the other hand, scientists have created crops that are so efficient, you can plant ten times as many of them on the same amount of land. That means digging up 90% less wilderness. Some of these are even modified to be toxic to pests, rendering pesticides moot. But they’re GMOs, which makes them nature’s enemies, no?
As we saw in Aemilian’s adventure, what’s good for nature isn’t always clear cut. My goal here isn’t to make you pro-GMO, although that would be dandy. The goal is to help you differentiate between aesthetic, broad arguments and logical, narrow ones. It isn’t always easy to identify what is for or against Nature, Freedom, Democracy, Capitalism, Globalism, Diversity, or Ethics in Video Game Journalism (too soon?). Rhetoric is exciting, simple, and easy.
The road to truth, on the other hand, is treacherous, boring, and ridiculously slow.
Before we begin: what follows is a discussion of the gods as they appear in Skyrim and other fantasy settings. It is not to be taken as a discussion of any real-world religions or deities.
In fantasy settings like that of the Elder Scrolls, the gods are presented as nearly omnipotent and omniscient forces. Mortals worship these beings because they are not only far more powerful than any mortal, but they are supposedly smarter and wiser.
What if we have this backwards? What if the gods are actually pretty dumb by human standards? What if they deserve our worship not in spite of but because of their limited mental capacity? What if this totally ties into what I’ve been saying about lagom and Aemilian’s current adventure in Skyrim?
So many questions, and way too much time.
The Will of the Goddess
Every time Aemilian visited the Temple of Kynareth in Whiterun, his attention fell on the lavender blooms growing in neat rows between columns and pools of clear water. If someone noticed his gaze, he could make something up about how the delicate purple petals represented the balance of nature and the grace of the goddess, and that was what drew him to them.
Truth was, he saw only alchemical ingredients, and his fingers itched to snatch a flower or two while nobody was looking.
Would Kynareth be displeased by his thoughts? Was he supposed to revere nature as an end in itself, appreciating the beauty of the plant as it grew? Or, by putting the plant to use, taking the gifts of nature and creating something beautiful from them, had he achieved a higher worship than those who only observed the plant?
These would probably be good questions to put to Danica Pure-Spring, the local priestess, but she was occupied. An Imperial man stood before her, hands on his hips, professing himself to be a pilgrim and proclaiming his disappointment at finding the sacred tree dying.
With a sidelong glance at Rayya, who only shrugged, Aemilian cleared his throat and approached the haggard priestess and her indignant supplicant.
“I was actually hoping to do something about that.”
Since we’re already talking religion, I might as well throw some politics on this ideological tinderbox. I’ve never known how to feel about single-issue voters–say, someone who will vote for the candidate that is for gay marriage, or the one who wants to lower taxes, regardless of how they fall on any other issue. On the one hand I can respect that: they know what’s really important to them and they take a stand for it. On the other hand, how much evil can you justify a politician doing as long as he gives you what you want?
In fantasy settings, including Skyrim, the gods are claimed to be super-intelligent and complex, yet what they represent can be summed up in a handful of words: nature, or protecting the weak, or logic and magic, or whatever the hell Talos actually represents depending on who you ask. The point is, the gods come off as having the logical capacity of a hungry five-year-old. “I want food!” “But we’re eating with friends in an hour.” “I want food.” “You should learn to be patient.” “I want food!”
A discussion with Kynareth might go the same way. “What is your will, Goddess?” “SERVE NATURE.” “Okay, but we need to cut down some trees to make you a temple, is that okay?” “SERVE NATURE.” “Do I have to serve nature all the time, or can I take weekends off?” “SERVE NATURE.”
Though some people might disagree–my apologies–I think it’s generally accepted that nature itself does not have a grand plan or destiny. Nature simply does nature. As the embodiment of nature, it follows that Kynareth simply does nature too. Moral quandaries and rational arguments are beyond her. The point of nature is nature, and you should nature because nature. What we would call stupidity in one of our own is what makes Kynareth the most pure representative of nature. Because of our intelligence, we cannot escape questions about what nature really means or really should mean, or how we should weigh what’s best for nature against what’s best for humanity.
Due to our genius, we are incapable of comprehending the simplest truths. That’s what makes the gods, figurative or literal, valuable to us. I will never understand nature the way Kynareth does, but by reflecting on Kynareth, I can borrow some of her understanding when it comes time to make decisions.
The Lagom Identity
Lagom applies to a lot of practical situations, like shopping and work-life balance, but it can also apply to how you see yourself. We’ve talked before about finding your real-world tribe or “faction” by identifying your most core values.
Let’s throw the principle of lagom into the mix. What does it look like to have not too few and not too many core values? Start be looking for the lowest common denominators among your values. Earlier, I talked about how I value both travel and diversity, and I could boil those down to a general value of difference.
I also found I could reduce my loves of gaming and fitness to a love of self-improvement. Can I reduce further? I suppose I could. Self-improvement implies change, which is becoming different than you already are, so I could say both self-improvement and difference stem from the fact I value change. Change doesn’t resonate with me the same way either self-improvement or difference do, however.
Breaking these values down into more distinct values makes them less useful, and so does reducing them further. These are lagom values. Once you identify these values, reflect on them without binding yourself to them. Like Kynareth, you might revere nature, but if there’s a wildfire–an expression of nature–you would still fight it if it threatened your community. Yet day-to-day, making nature a priority keeps you aligned with your purpose.
I like diversity of both people and experience, and keeping that in the forefront of my mind keeps me from getting stuck in a rut. Still, it’s okay for me to go through a period of sameness every now and then, as long as I’m conscious of the fact I’m doing it and why.
Speaking of core values….
There’s a reason I’ve been thinking so much about tribes and values. When I started Desdenada, it was because I recognized that I belong to a very, very small tribe, and if I want to find other people like me, I’ll have to be proactive about it. Since the beginning I’ve had a handful of “Desdenada Core Values” in mind, though they, like Desdenada itself, are a work in progress. The first one, at least, is pretty set in my mind. It’s the value that spawned the Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play to begin with.
So come back next time as we discuss why Desdenada is ridiculously slow.