Theme and Motif, Bopping Me on the Nose

Feb 24, 2013 | Attitude

Frank Herbert quotation: All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.

Power: A Magnet to the Corruptible

My son was looking for examples of motifs in The Great Gatsby. My daughter was delving into the themes in Wordsworth’s “The Thorn.” Meanwhile, this week, I was being attacked by theme and motif. This is what happens when a writer doesn’t write. Life rises up at every turn to smack you in the face with all the stagecraft of a rhetorical farce.

Sometimes we write to change the world; sometimes, it’s  just to get it out of our system.

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This one ethical principle, expressed throughout history by nearly every religion and philosophy, ought to be simple enough to abide. Why, then, isn’t it? It’s easier, sometimes, to assume that the way others treat us is the way they want to be treated. After all, if everyone actually followed the Golden Rule, this ought to be a safe assumption:  If you kick me in the teeth, then my throwing you off a bridge ought to simply delight you. Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem to work this way in practice.

In practice, the scales of Karmic justice are more like a dish, balanced atop a pencil–a horizontal wheel hung with scales like a carnival swing. The reciprocity of the Golden Rule doesn’t play out like two polite kindergartners on a teeter-totter. Try explaining that to a child.

“If George hits me, is it okay to make him eat sand?”

“Well, no – of course not.”

“But why not?”

“Because, Jimmy, some day, someone’s going to make George eat a face-full of sand, but since your behavior’s been exemplary, you’ll be having ice cream with your girlfriend and won’t even remember George’s name.”

Jimmy thinks about this for a second. Reasoning that girls are yucky and having a girlfriend might actually be worse than a face-full of sand, he asks, “Why can’t I be the someone who makes George eat a face-full of sand?”

“Well, because then your turn would come in another ten years. Someone would probably kick your teeth in, or something.”

“I still wanna make George eat sand.” Teeth seem a small price to pay. After all, Jimmy lost one two years ago, and a new one grew in to take its place.

“I know, Sweetie. So do I. But we’re better than that. And dental work’s expensive.”

“I don’t wanna be better than that. And I thought we had insurance.”

Kids are smart. But sometimes they can’t see things on a cosmic, Karmic scale. Future things, anyway. Dinosaurs, they get. After all, dinosaurs roamed the earth when mom and dad were little, right?

“Turn the other cheek” isn’t an admonishment I’m likely to comply with, either, when I’m hurt by others–nor will I pretend to think that offering myself up like a lamb to the slaughter is the right answer to injustice while secretly plotting revenge against anyone who would do me wrong. Though there’s no virtue in revenge, there’s none that I can see in allowing others to be tyrants. How, then, do we restrain anger and the need for retribution in a world where the Golden Rule is all but ignored? The words “life’s not fair” have never struck me as a phrase that ought to be accepted without question or argument. The universe itself is neither “fair” nor “unfair” – but to the extent that “fairness” is within human control, it is collectively our fault that injustice exists in the world.

That said, I refuse to indulge in the cynical, misanthropic, self-loathing, pessimistic snarking about how awful we humans are and how we, for the good of all the plants and animals on earth, ought to stop reproducing and herd ourselves off a cliff. Surely we can do better than that? Besides, voluntary human extinction would never be agreed to by the pathological personalities that seek to dominate and control others; where would be the fun in that? They’d find a way to dodge the bullet – maybe “saving” the meekest among us – and would have a whole world to themselves, with no one to torment but each other.

That said, I’m also not planning to farm my back yard, walk four miles to work and back each day in 100-degree heat, or use gray-water for showers and recycle my potato peelings for energy, no matter how badly the industrial revolution and exploitation of fossil fuels have damaged our fragile ecosystems.

Maybe this life is meant to be a struggle for balance, always. Light and dark, compassion and selfishness, discipline and indulgence, kindness and cruelty, spinach and chocolate…  After all, without light, the darkness would lose its appeal – we’d likely turn into a bunch of depressed mole rats. Without darkness, we’d go mad for lack of a good night’s sleep. Without selfishness, we’d all be on a futile quest to do what others wanted in a world where others had no wants. Without indulgence, there would be no reward for discipline (like chocolate); without discipline (like spinach), we’d be unruly children and never get anything done. Maybe we do need sorrow to fully grasp the heights of happiness. But I don’t think we need cruelty to appreciate kindness. I don’t think that we need evil to appreciate good. Evil controls us through fear; courage, wrapped in love, is an antidote to evil. We don’t need fear, but we do desperately need more courage and love if the world we’ve carved out for ourselves is to be not merely tolerable, but full of joy.

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Dave Michaud

    So…this is me commenting (writing) as a selfish and cathartic, emetic or purgative experience to \”get it out of my system\” and I promise not to write anything about dose, enema or needle.I haven\’t read or commented on your blog in weeks and that\’s like three months in dog years or a few minutes in net-time. I understand about life rising up and slapping one in the face with obligation, responsibility and surprising challenges.I think your example of The Golden rule sounds a touch like revenge but you might be on to something Holly. I disagreed with a fellow manager in a meeting a couple months ago and he \”did unto\” me recently. I chose to turn the other cheek and support the other managers and departments during high season and left that \”doer\” of altruistic phoniness to his own superiority as his facility lost connectivity and productivity through lack of attention. This wasn\’t revenge but a choice and I can prioritize my choices with ample justification.Ignoring petty and thoughtless bullshit from small people is my choice, as long as I do my best and never blow an opportunity to help real people at work or in life. The others can fall behind mired in their own ego while lacking self-honesty–I won\’t lose sleep. Helping and friending others that go through their day humbly, looking for opportunity, hungrily and attentive are the folks that I\’d rather hang with.Dave

    • Holly Jahangiri

      This is me, selfishly enjoying your comment. Yes, it has been eons in dog years (“I thought you were never coming back!”) and the blink of an eye in ‘net time. But whatever it was, I missed you and you missed nothing much, because I really haven’t written much to miss in the past month.

      You’re right – my transition from Golden Rule to the poetic justice inherent in following it could’ve been smoother. (Some days, I swear, there’s just not enough caffeine molecules floating around to smooth out the rough edges.) But you got the point, and I’m sure that as a dad, you’ve struggled to explain to your child why it’s important to do the right thing, even when others around you seem to be rewarded, constantly, by doing the wrong things. It’s hard for US to remember, sometimes – it’s dreadful for a kid. It’s as bad as “Do as I say, not as I do.” It’s like teaching “delayed gratification” without any evidence to back yourself up. The evidence can really only be demonstrated through years and years of life experience.

      It takes some maturity to really internalize the notion that making that choice to do the right thing is as much for us – for our own souls, and our own peace of mind – as it is for anyone else.

  2. Mitch Mitchell

    Since you’ve been out of it a bit you wouldn’t know that I’ve been writing a lot lately about bad behavior of different types that’s been irking me. The thing is that I also have realized how easy it is to get into a pattern like that because the bad stuff is so easy to see, kind of like getting 19 great comments but having that one negative comment make you want to become a lemming.

    I can’t remember where I read it, but there was one of those motivational statements that said “if we were happy all the time we’d never learn what real happiness is”. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to smack whoever came up with it or thank them for it but unfortunately it’s true. Unless we’re limitlessly rich we all have to deal with both sides. Thankfully, there are always those good times eh?


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