Monthly Archives: August 2009

Incompatible friends

There’s something I’ve noticed about people in this small town.  They gossip and talk about their friends a lot.  Certainly, talking about people behind their backs is something everyone does occasionally, and it happens everywhere, but it seems to happen a lot more here.  Most notably, people seem to talk a lot about their close friends.

I’ve seen many occasions where people who seem to be the best of friends complain severely about each other behind their backs.  I can’t help thinking, if you have a problem with her, why don’t you say it to her face?  If you think she’s so annoying, why do you spend so much time together?  But that’s it exactly: there are so few people in town that everyone is bound to be good friends with people with whom they wouldn’t be if the population were large enough to have a choice.

And that’s one of the things I like about living here.  As much as I wish there were more geeks in town, as much as I wish pot-smoking wasn’t a regular social occurrence, I find my social situation more challenging and fulfilling, in some ways, than having friends who are all similar to me.  It makes me confront things that I wouldn’t otherwise have to; it makes me consider every aspect of my personality and determine whether it is there because I want it to be, or because it’s familiar and convenient.

That doesn’t really make up for the gossiping and talking behind people’s backs, even if it does explain it.  But I’m guilty of it too.

I was just reminded of an occasion or two when I talked badly about someone who I consider to be a good friend.  Our personalities and interests are so different that I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be friends if we weren’t limited by a small population.  We’re bound to get on each other’s nerves and find each other irritating more often than friends usually do, which is why sometimes I just need to vent, and I’m sure she does too.  But I really do like this person and value our friendship a lot.  I certainly don’t think any less of her.  I suppose the complaining and talking behind friends’ backs is an inevitable part of having such incompatible, but enriching, friendships.

To know or not to know?

Continuing my commentary on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro:

The students at Hailsham always know that they are clones and will grow up to be organ “donors”.  At every stage of their schooling, they are told a little more about what their lives will entail.  But at every stage, the information they are given is just a little more than they can understand– so that by the time they leave Hailsham, they have all the facts of the process of donation that they will go through, but no sense of the significance of their existence.

Near the end of the book, two of the main characters, Kathy and Tommy, find out the full truth– that most people don’t believe that they have souls, that there was never any hope that they could escape their fate, that the education they received at Hailsham was to serve no purpose other than enriching their lives during that time.  Because they didn’t grasp the full truth as students, they had never known how hopeless their futures were, and had spent their time at school dreaming and scheming of a different future.  Kathy and Tommy are shocked that these things were kept from them, and confront their teachers to ask why they didn’t reveal the truth to them while at Hailsham; they should have been told so they could be prepared for the life ahead of them.  Their teachers, meanwhile, believed that they did the best thing in allowing the students to live a carefree, normal, enjoyable life.  They wanted to give clones not just humane treatment but ignorant bliss.

There’s more than one right answer here.  Kathy and Tommy wonder whether their friend Ruth, who had died before knowing the truth, would have wanted to know.  And what would you choose?  Which is the better way to live: preparing for a future you know is doomed, or heading towards doom unknowingly, with serious hope?

Normally I would always choose to know the truth, to be prepared for reality.  But after reading about the students’ journey through understanding and their lives at Hailsham, if I were one of them, I would not have wanted to know at Hailsham.  I would have wanted to know afterwards, when it was time for donation and after the time for hoping has passed.  Because most of the book did read like a normal novel about normal students.  And if I were in a terrible world with such a bleak future, I would want to have that time just to live and hope and not know the truth.

While thinking about this, I wondered if this was a betrayal of my usual commitment to reason.  I’m a little surprised I would choose that way, but in a way it also echoes my attitude towards my experience as a Christian.  Looking back, I know that so much of the comfort that Christianity afforded me was an illusion.  God never had a plan for my life.  It was never an assurance that everything was going to be okay.  It was never an assurance that I wouldn’t be faced with anything I couldn’t handle.  My baptism didn’t “mean” anything in an absolute metaphysical sense.

But within the system where I resided at the time, those beliefs had value.  Even if none of it served any ultimate purpose, I couldn’t imagine not having that time.  Everything I did and learned as a Christian was development, education of a sort, for its own sake.  It certainly enriched my life at the time, and it enriches my life now, as I think the Hailsham students’ time at school enriched the years they later spent in their harsh world of organ farming.

I suppose what it comes down to is that I would always rather have something than not.  Being a Christian is not a bad thing, and I would rather have had the experience than not.  I would rather have the memory of something that felt utterly beautiful and pure to me, than not.  I would rather have my baptism, and all those long conversations with a non-existent God, than not.  And I suspect that if Kathy and Tommy actually had known the truth from the beginning, they would wish they could have had a pure, hopeful time at Hailsham untainted by the truth.

Never Let Me Go

It’s been a long time since I read a book so compelling that I finished it in one sitting.  This week I did that when I read “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.  When I first picked it up and read the back cover, I thought it would be a normal coming-of-age novel about students at a ritzy prep school.  It’s actually about a modern alternate world in which everything is much like our world, except that there is a large population of clones who are bred to be organ donors.  The central characters are students at a secluded boarding school for clones; the novel follows them as they grow up, and first care for clones undergoing organ donation, then become donors themselves.

It would be a great disservice to think of this book as just a cautionary sci-fi novel about cloning.  I don’t consider it such at all, and in fact it’s not classified as science fiction.  The other things that the book is about– innocence, loss, heartbreak, love– are so much harder to pin down.  And it is also a coming-of-age novel about students at a ritzy prep school.  In most of the world of this novel, clones are raised as animals in institutions with horrible conditions.  At Hailsham, they are given an extensive education; they play sports, live in dorms, and are taught to value artistic creativity.  They know that they are clones and “donors”, but they have no idea of the sub-human status of clones in society, or what conditions others outside of Hailsham experience.

The novel’s main thematic message about bioethics is thought-provoking, but nothing that hasn’t been addressed before.  There are two other elements that I found extremely compelling.  One is the attitude of the school’s patrons.  The founders and teachers at Hailsham are all non-clones who have fought for humane treatment of clones.  Some of them are kind and affectionate towards students, but most remain physically distant, and some maintain a clear dislike towards students in general.  The school’s founder, Madame, is cold towards students and physically frightened of them, afraid to touch them or be surrounded by them– but clearly moved by their plight and by their struggle against society, to the point of creating a school where they can thrive and develop as persons before they are condemned to die.

It makes me wonder: how often does that happen?  How often do people support and fight for something that fundamentally repulses them?  I can see this being quite common: slavery, racial equality, poverty, sexual equality– in all these areas it is quite possible to support people intellectually but in reality, in interaction, fear them or regard them with disgust.

How do we deal with that?  Should Madame be hated for her reaction towards clones, or praised for her work on their behalf?  Is there anything she could do about her reaction?  Is there a way to change such ingrained attitudes?  And if the people who fight for the oppressed are so affected, is there any hope of changing the attitudes of the public?

end of summer

Summer is over.  Summer programs at work are finished, field camp has been taken down, the fireweed has bloomed to the top of the stalk.  Two of my friends moved away last week as their seasonal jobs here are done.  In an isolated place like this where you depend on each other a lot, one person leaving makes a big difference.  It feels much lonelier now.

After a summer of living and working in close quarters, I have to re-acclimate myself to a quieter, more solitary life.  Fall will be a busy season too with many good things.  But Fall has not yet come with its delicious winds, and right now the season is dank and cloudy and lonely.  Right now, in solitary moments, I feel keenly the absence of another beating heart nearby.