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[Earthsea] You Choose Before the Crisis
Reckoning with the small choices that shape our character
Week four of our Earthsea book club! This week is “The Loosing of the Shadow.”
This is the chapter of crisis for Ged. Acting out of hate and pride, he looses a Shadow, which none of his teachers quite know how to name. One calls it unlife, another says he hesitates to apply a not-quite-right label.
There were a number of moments in this chapter that I was tempted to dog-ear, but I’ll highlight just two.
First, I appreciate the moment of unearned grace that Ged experiences when his friend Vetch makes a gift of his true name to Ged. When Vetch comes, Ged is still scarred, still weak, still miserable. He doesn’t think of how to use the gifts he still has wisely, but of how to retreat from the world to minimize any further harm he may do (and thus sidestep the need for wisdom).
Vetch shows his love and his faith by making himself vulnerable to the vulnerable Ged. He gives him his true name.
Thus to Ged, who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakable trust.
I appreciate that to call Ged back to himself and to the world, Vetch doesn’t offer any further healing, but a charge Ged might need his strength to safeguard.
When Ged is cautiously reengaged, he studies again with the Master Summoner, whose art he misused. The Master Summoner tutors him and offers this reflection:
"You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…”
This is the core question of what our freedom is for. Do we learn in order to expand our options or to know how to choose?
In many ways, my growth as a person has taken the form of cultivating atrophy of bad habits and dredging a deeper, faster channel for my good ones.
Growing up, I thought the most admirable moral choices were the ones you made with greatest effort, when you overrode your heart’s desire for the sake of your duty. (I was a teenaged Kantian).
But the alternative isn’t thoughtlessness but integration. I wouldn’t be better at walking by pulling my leg in both directions at once ,and similarly for my conscience.
But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around us, we will not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.
This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.
Martha had a good note on this theme in the discussion of last week’s chaper:
I think we often look at our internal feelings as trivial or fragile when they actually can be quite powerful, quite dangerous, and grow or deepen into something that is fundamentally altering and not at all fleeting. I've been thinking often about how so much of parenting is little nudges helping a child become one who cherishes kindness (like Vetch! I loved this line too: "a greater unlearned skill he possessed, which was the art of kindness.") and seeks goodness in themselves and those around them.