February 15, 2007

Lost TV Series: Desmond's Fear and Trembling



I'm no Lost expert, and I doubt the writers were thinking along these lines.  But yesterday's episode got me thinking about how we become who we are.

For non Lost fans: Desmond believes he can sometimes see the future; he can see that Charlie will die.  He also believes he is responsible to push a button; if he does not, the world ends.

He meets an Oracle, who also sees the future-- e.g. she knows the man in the red shoes (Wicked Witch?) will die-- but explains that it is futile to try and save him, because "the universe has a way of course correcting," that is, destiny will find another way to take his life.  Save him from the scaffolds, tomorrow he gets hit by a bus.

So Desmond now knows Charlie is going to die.  He's prevented the death twice, but he's feeling the futility of it all-- destiny is coming, hungry, and it will be satisfied.

Desmond has to choose whether or not to continue trying to delay the inevitable.  Desmond is the Cowardly Lion.  He's afraid, he's confused.

So be it.  But the important question is not whether Desmond will continue to try to delay Charlie's death, or just give up.  The real question is why Desmond actually believes such a choice exists.  How does he think he knows the future?   Anyone else in his shoes would have come to a very different, more logical, conclusion: this is insane.  What, he can predict the future?  Worse: what, he's the only reason Charlie is alive?  He's so-- necessary?  Isn't that narcissism?

You might say, "well, in the logic of the show, Desmond knows he can predict the future, and so he tries to save Charlie."  Wrong, and this is exactly the point.  Remember how he correctly predicted the outcome of the soccer match-- but was wrong about which soccer match he predicted?  Sure, ok, Charlie's going to die.  When?  2014?  

Was Charlie really going to die in the water? Was he really going to get hit by lightning? Is Desmond actually saving him, or is it all-- wishful thinking?

So what makes Desmond's story so powerful is not simply that he chooses to save Charlie again and again; what's more important is that he chooses to believe in a life that where he must make such a choice. 

If Desmond knew he could predict the future-- if it was a fact that he could predict the future-- then saving Charlie would have little moral heroism.  Any fool a step up from absolute evil would have tried to prevent a horrible outcome if he knew for certain what was going to happen.

What made Desmond worthy of admiration was, exactly, that he did not know for sure he could predict the future. He took it on faith that he could, and then proceeded to live his entire life based on this single, faith based, assumption.  He put his money where his mouth was.

Desmond took a leap towards faith, not a leap of faith.  He didn't have faith to leap with.  He went towards it, picked it. He didn't know the button needed pushing, and so, like a soldier, took responsibility to push it.  He took on faith that the button needed pushing and then furthermore decided it was his responsibility to push it, defying logic and sanity and evidence and, well, everyone else.  The action wasn't just heroic; it was heroic and defining.

He decided that he was going to give his life meaning, importance, even if it was the most insane, solitary, depressing meaning available; and at the great risk that he could be wrong, a life wasted.

If you know for certain God exists, there is nothing noble in believing in him.  It's only when you take the great gamble to live your life, your entire life, as if He exists-- at the risk of being wrong, at the expense of an easier, happier life-- that you define yourself as something greater.   And once Desmond so defined himself, arbitrarily, he was able to take the next steps necessary to grow, evolve.

And he does grow.  Almost immediately, he becomes a better man: after accepting the logic in a worldview in which he can predict destiny's path,  he then also accepts a responsibility-- saving Charlie-- that he also knows is futile.  He knows he has to fail, eventually, but he's going to keep doing it anyway, because he thinks he can transcend his own logic.  

And because of this, he will succeed.

That's the Key in the Failsafe.   How can you say that the button absolutely must be pressed, if there is a simple way of bypassing it?  If pushing the button is the only way to save the world, why is there even a failsafe in case you stop pressing it?  It's a tricky answer: it's because while the button was being pressed, the Failsafe did not exist.  The Failsafe represents Desmond not failing, even in the face of reality.  It isn't a pre-existing backup.  Desmond's existence created the failsafe.  Metaphorically, the Failsafe didn't exist until Desmond took the final step: after accepting the futility of his actions, but deciding to do them anyway, he then decided he would not fail.  

No matter what happens-- no matter how certain the reality-- he knows he can not fail, and so he will always will a solution.

It's the religious existentialist position.  Kierkegaard didn't think logic and reason was going to get us to any absolute truth, and it certainly wasn't going to help us understand an Unintelligible God (which is the same thing.)  You just have to go to faith, embrace it, create a life using it as a postulate, and move forward.

It's narcissism done the right way.  And, I suspect, it's the secret to a meaningful life: picking an existence that is of value to more than just yourself, even if that existence defies the logic of reality-- your biology, your environment, and, of course, everyone else.  And once you have chosen who you want to be, once you have defined the parameters of this life, you force it to be true, as real as any gene or social factor. And know that once you have invested your life in this identity, this existence-- all or nothing, even in the face of the doubt and terror that accompanies your "rational" self--- it will be impossible to fail.

...as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.


What if being a psychiatris... (Below threshold)

February 16, 2007 4:50 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

What if being a psychiatrist is my purpose that transcends logic? What if I am willing people to not commit suicide by admitting them and by medicating them? Why should I care about evidence based medicine by this above logic then? I'll just will my job as a psychiatrist to be actually doing something. Doesn't this contradict your previous statements that we must constantly reexamine why we make the decisions we make as psychiatrists?

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People may ask 'Do you beli... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2007 10:41 AM | Posted by Ak: | Reply

People may ask 'Do you believe in a benevolent universe?'

I'd suggest a reply:

'Do you want a universe that is benevolent or not benevolent?'

If you want to live in a universe that is benevolent, consider yourself part of that universe and behave benevolently.'

Having said this, I still have great difficulty putting this into action. But its the only answer that makes sense to me.

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There is also a way to take... (Below threshold)

February 19, 2007 10:33 AM | Posted by AK: | Reply

There is also a way to take action in such a way that one shows faith by acting decisively, but NOT impulsively.

A Unitarian minister who is also a psychotherapist preached a sermon with this haunting story of public policy gone awry:

Muller talked about a concept he called: ‘Doing Good Badly’. This is from his observations working in public health and community non-profits.

"I have sat on dozens of boards and commissions with many fine, compassionate, and generous people who are so tired, overwhelmed, and overworked that they have neither the time nor the capacity to listen to the deeper voices that speak to the essence of the problems before them. Presented with the intricate and delicate issues of poverty, public health, community well-being, and crime, our impulse, born of weariness, is to rush headlong toward doing anything that will make the problem go away. Maybe then we can finally go home and get some rest. But without the essential nutrients of rest, wisdom, and delight embedded in the problem-solving process itself, the solution we patch together is likely to (contain) the seed of a new problem."

- he was talking from experience here - because he was part of the well meaning group of people that pushed for the Latramen, Petris Short act in the 70s - they looked at the state mental hospitals and said this is wrong. The residents were all working there at farming, laundries, cooking - but they weren’t getting paid. So part of the LSP act required that every resident be paid for their work - which sounded reasonable - until the ripple effects happened. Before - state hospitals, like Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge, were for the most part financially self sustaining because everyone who could - did some kind of work.

But the system couldn’t afford to pay the people so most of the state hospitals closed - turning thousands of mentally ill and developmentally disabled out into the streets - where unfortunately many of them still are.

- now there’s no question that there were things that could have used adjustment and change in the system - but Muller talked about being part of the head long rush to FIX it quickly that set in motion even more problems.

"Without rest" (Muller is speaking not of mere sleep but of a deep and spacious attitude, a profound patience in one listens with the third ear, takes the time to face the full depth and dimension of the situation. This is far deeper than mere rational thought)

Muller says "we respond from a survival mode, where everything we meet assumes a terrifying prominence."

(Muller) talks about how we live in a culture driven by high speeds and urgency.

Everything is more dangerous at high speeds. Even a deer. When walking in the woods seeing a deer is a time of joy and wonder. But when driving fast that same deer can become an object of terror and potential harm."


The other thing that may have been omitted from the hasty decision making process Muller describes, was that perhaps the policy makers did not talk with family, friends and relatives of those who lived in the hospitals and institutions.

Why were the people in hospitals and not at home?

The relatives and friends might have been able to tell the policy makers what it was like to have an adult son or daughter roaming the house all day and all night, babbling, ranting, scaring the neighbors, lighting the stove. How can anyone hold down a job, get sleep, when living 24-7 with someone who refuses to take medications?

And, if they could have taken a 'pause-of-faith' Muller and his colleagues could have asked, "How do we ensure that once the hospitals close, that there will be sufficient board and care homes ready and waiting, like the guy with the catcher's mitt at home plate, to receive and care for the persons released from the hospitals?"

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This discussion of faith an... (Below threshold)

March 28, 2008 2:51 PM | Posted by Saleem Siddiqui: | Reply

This discussion of faith and the TV series LOST is very interesting.

I find the fact that there is a divine destiny for each of the characters to be the most substantial point of the show. Everything seems random and coincidental yet there is constantly a reminder that this is fate intervening.

Check out this audio episode talking about religion and faith on the TV show Lost.


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Actually, if Desmond hadn't... (Below threshold)

June 5, 2008 12:49 PM | Posted by LostSailor: | Reply

Actually, if Desmond hadn't repeatedly tried to save Charlie, Charlie wouldn't have been in a position to save everyone else (if, indeed, they are all ultimately saved at all). Desmond had to try to save Charlie until Charlie accepted his destiny and chose to die a meaningful death.

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I think that Lost exposes t... (Below threshold)

May 11, 2009 4:34 PM | Posted by Joseph Bergevin: | Reply

I think that Lost exposes the concept of free will as an act of faith. We can't prove that the thoughts in our mind somehow determine their own physical course, but we can't disprove it. Even if confronted with evidence that our actions are constrained, it would bother us to just throw up our hands and "let fate decide." It's not what we do. It's not even possible for us to do. That's inaccessible to us.

The new season is neat because it shows how both concepts can be true. "Whatever Happened, Happened" is brilliant as it shows that what looks like a predetermined series of events to someone in the future is still experienced as open ended to someone in the past. When you don't know exactly how things will happen, because you haven't experienced them, it's difficult to dismiss the idea that what you do matters. It feels like it does.

In real life, the future is always a mystery, so we have faith that how it unfolds hinges upon what we do. There's no way to prove otherwise. In Lost, the time-traveling characters experience the past as the present. They know roughly what happens, but not exactly how, so they're in the same boat to some degree. Even though their actions are history to future folks, not knowing exactly how it happens leaves room for doubt and concern. They take action. Those actions ultimately add up to "what happened," as the participants couldn't foresee the consequences of their actions.

Did they have free will when they made those actions? They felt like they did. They didn't think that they were fulfilling the same static prophecy. The trick seems to be in saying that we could have done things differently. Since we can never disprove that, we're comfortable with this view.

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TLP - I keep coming back to... (Below threshold)

May 19, 2012 7:29 AM | Posted by The Fat Boy: | Reply

TLP - I keep coming back to this post. I feel that you are touching on something that is of significance to me, esp the last paragraph.
Best wishes.

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This post never gets old. <... (Below threshold)

March 13, 2013 9:12 PM | Posted by Narcissus : | Reply

This post never gets old.

Wherever you are my friend, all I can muster is thank you.

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that post was incredible...... (Below threshold)

May 26, 2013 7:18 AM | Posted by SB: | Reply

that post was incredible...!

I always enjoy your writing!
I wish you would write another post like this one !

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