There is much about which I disagree with the editors at the website Radix Journal, but I do find myself dropping by there occasionally to peruse the latest pieces by some of their better contributors. Many are well-written, and worth the time to go through, even if, again, I often find myself not entirely onboard with the sentiments expressed therein.
One thing that has always bothered me, however, is Radix’s unofficial slogan: “Become who you are”. I’m reasonably certain that the editors don’t mean it this way, but it’s always seemed to me that this is a sentiment that could all too easily devolve into the sort of lazy, self-indulgent special snowflake-ism which the Baby Boomers pioneered and which their Millennial grandchildren have perfected. How is “Become who you are” really all that different from “Find yourself”? And to what does it call people? What if “what you are” is naturally kind of a schlub who likes sitting on a couch and playing Xbox games on an 80 inch television? Can’t we do better? Can’t we – don’t we really have to – inspire people to more than that?
That’s what got me thinking about my waifu. A waifu, for those who have not heard the term or who may be confused about its meaning, is a favorite female anime character – the one that you’d marry if you could (and no, it doesn’t mean those life-size hug pillows – those are properly called dakimakura, and should ideally have a picture of one’s waifu printed on it). Choice of waifu is a highly personal matter – some guys go for the shy, submissive type, others for the girl next door, and yet others for the nerd-girl (aka the Konata). But as for me, I love fascist chicks, so my waifu is Satsuki Kiryuin, the villain-turned-surprise-hero from Studio Trigger’s 2014 anime series Kill La Kill.
Spoilers below (and above, I suppose) for those who have not seem the show (if you haven’t, stop reading and go watch it immediately): In Kill La Kill, Satsuki, filled with righteous anger at her mother’s murder of her infant sister and plan to sacrifice the entire planet to a race of predatory aliens, spends years, starting from her earliest childhood, forging herself into a living weapon – honing herself physically and intellectually, building a highly-disciplined and fiercely-loyal fascist organization, taming the feral godrobe Junketsu, and waiting in cold, quiet patience for her chance to strike. When finally she does, it is with unhesitating, fearsome, ruthless action.
It is here that we should stop to note that there are three different paths that an individual can take:
1) Become who you are
2) Become who you want to be
3) Become who you need to be
Satsuki doesn’t become who she is. Yes, it’s true that she did (and only could) become what she had the capacity to be, but that isn’t the same as becoming who you are, because what any person ends up becoming is not merely a matter if capacity, but of capacity times will. Nor does Satsuki become who she wants to be. What that is can be seen in the closing credits of the final episode of Kill La Kill – with her enemy vanquished and her goal accomplished, we are shown that she is letting herself become a normal young woman; one who has friends, who goes out for fun days of shopping and girl-talk, who allows herself genuine happiness. That is who she wants to be, and who she wanted to be all along. No, Satsuki ran a cold, rational analysis of what would be required in order to avenge her sister, stop her mother’s plan, and save the world, and then, through the sheer force of an iron will, she became it.
Put a bit more analytically, we can say that first two of these paths, while different from each other, are similar (and different from the third) in one crucial aspect – they are both internally-focused. As such, they are highly subject to being coopted by selfishness, by laziness, by loss of focus, by lack of will, by rationalization, by despair, and by the pull of base desires. “Become who you are” too easily leads to the couch and the Xbox. “Become who you want to be” too easily leads to the sleazy life of the manosphere-trained Pick-Up Artist. It is only the external focus – the necessity to accomplish something for a cause larger then the self and more righteous than personal desire, that can motivate us to become who the world around us needs us to be.
There are many examples of this in mankind’s myths and legends – the journey both of the hero and of the prophet is rich with this theme. There’s Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, for example, who rises from a youth wasted on drinking, foolishness, and the company of low companions to become the Prince who is needed; the one who leads his men at the Battle of Shrewsbury, who kills the villainous Hotspur in single combat, and who eventually takes the throne as Henry V. There are Moses and Jonah – “reluctant prophets” who were called by God to become what His lost and despairing children needed – the ancient Hebrews needed a leader, and Nineveh needed a firebrand to warn them of the consequences of their sins. Through their actions, whole peoples were saved; the Hebrews were delivered from bondage, and Nineveh repented and was spared destruction. And there is Cincinnatus, who had the capacity for greatness in him but was at heart a humble farmer; when Rome was threatened, he did not stay on his beloved lands, but became what he needed to be, which was dictator of Rome, yet when the danger had passed, he gave up power to become what he wanted to be, which was once again a farmer.
This last example shows an important truth; that while one may be temped to think that the ideal is when what one is, what one wants to be, and what one needs to be all line up, this is not necessarily so. Cincinnatus is celebrated as a model of civic virtue precisely because he took power only when it was absolutely necessary and relinquished it as soon as it no longer was, yet this is just another way of saying that, whether due to personal reasons or to a sense of civic duty, what he needed to be was not what he wanted to be. No, the true ideal is a bit more complex than that: it is closer to the idea that during good times, who you are and who you want to be will align, and that during times of trouble, who you are and who you need to be will align.
The problem for us, of course, is that we live in very troubled times. And not only that, but we simultaneously live in times that rob us of any meaningful external focus. It is not merely that the hearts of Modern men long to be called by a leader to fight and sacrifice for a cause by telling us things like:
”Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears…
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”
This stirs the blood of men, but in truth, nothing so dramatic is necessary, though something more than we currently have certainly is. Most men once found external focus in honest work, in healthy families of their own, in establishing and providing for a household, and in the idea that a man’s home was his castle. Yet this way of life is nearly dead; a recent poll by Pew Research has found that just 14% of American children live in a “traditional” household, with two parents in their first marriage, a father who works, and a mother who stays at home. The effects on men have been devastating – as I recently detailed in another piece, death rates for middle aged working class men have risen by 22% in the last 15 years, a trend driven entirely by alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. The men that used to be the backbone of our society are are dying of despair in huge numbers because Modernity has denied them the chance to be who they are and who they want to be, and has no need for them at all. But perhaps these men are wrong that there is no hope. Perhaps the truth is that we are all Cincinnatus; called to fight against a system that has robbed us of everything that gave us meaning. Perhaps we must become who we need to be so that, like that great figure of old, we can someday return to home and hearth, to wives and children, and become who we want to be.
That system is powerful, rich, well-entrenched, and merciless. It will strike at us, wound us, grind us down, and do everything within its power to bring us to heel. The fight will seem endless, and, at times, hopeless. There will be plenty of occasions when the couch and the Xbox seems like a really nice option, and when we will hear a voice inside our heads saying: “Maybe who I am is someone who just wants to live comfortably for as long as I can”. To overcome this, we must focus externally – to remind ourselves that our people, our faith, our traditions, our way of life, and everything that our ancestors built and left to us are now threatened with extinction. To save it, we cannot merely become who we are, and we cannot become who we want to be – we must, to the maximum extent of the natural talents and capabilities within each of us, become who this cause needs us to be.
Just like my waifu.