Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Power of a Gentle Heart:
Part II: A Flawed Power?

For some people, the kindness that I illustrated in Nanoha Takamachi from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is nothing but weakness. People that act kind are weak, incapable of using their power to solve problems with violence. People that act kind are suicidal, because helping the enemy only delays or hinders one’s own cause. In the dangerous world of Dungeons and Dragons or on a battlefield of any kind, those emotions are nothing but a luxury that anyone who actually wants to win cannot afford to have.

And I can understand such accusations. I believe that they are rooted in nothing more than misunderstandings of what it means to act in that manner. Kindness, honor, and respect are never luxuries, and can be reconciled with the demands of wartime. The question can then be reversed: are we willing to make the effort to meet both the demands of violent conflict and the demands of gentler ways of life?

To some eyes, acting with kindness or honor means holding back. It means not using either one’s full strength, in an effort to be kind to an opponent, or refraining from the use of certain methods due to the demands of honor. Detractors then point to these values and say that they must be a luxury. With lives at stake, all our force and all our methods must be employed to defend them, regardless of the consequences, because anything else may put those lives at greater risk.

The first is clearly a misunderstanding. Showing respect and honor toward an opposing force never meant holding back. In fact, I would be extremely displeased with someone who intentionally held back and tried to call that respect. Respect and honor to an opponent are shown by treating them as equal and recognizing that by using all of one’s talent to fight.

And that is exactly what Nanoha did. Once she had resolved to fight Fate, she used everything she had. In fact, that was the first thing Fate took note of when she recovered late in the series: that Nanoha had always treated her as an equal. In that case, then, clearly the demands of kindness, honor, and respect are not completely opposed to those of conflict.

But what about limited methods? What about, for example, when a person (or a sylph. Insert shout out to Order of the Stick readers here…) refuses to kill on moral grounds? Or when a person refuses to commit an act that they think is dishonorable? Surely such restrictions are incompatible with the demands of a war. As Haley Starshine in Order of the Stick touched on (in this strip), surely such principles must give way to practicality.

And maybe there are times when that is the case. But then again, maybe the reason why those principles end up giving way is only because people aren't trying hard enough to hold to them. After all, the immediate fighting that Haley was drawn into wasn't ended by the defeat of the villain involved, unlike many D&D combat encounters. Rather, Celia, the sylph in question from Order of the Stick, brought about a solution that ended the warfare without betraying her principles. And starting with this strip, the immediate battle ground to a halt in favor of a more peaceful solution to the situation.

I may not be able to offer a certain statement about whether principles or practicality should give way in all situations; what I can say is that it will always be worth the try. Maybe those principles, such as the power of a gentle heart, will be incompatible with war. But one can never be certain until the attempt is made. If Celia hadn't tried to negotiate, it would have obviously failed to end the conflict; if Hinjo (in this strip, over 200 strips back as I type this) hadn't tried to talk to Miko, a surrender could never have happened. Whether it succeeds as it did for Celia, or fails as it did for Hinjo, surely the benefit of using this power, the possible end to the conflict in question (detailed in last week's post), is worth the risk.

One final problem that some see in reconciling conflict with kindness is the idea of helping even an enemy. Even the Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook that describes the highest level of good in that game, the Book of Exalted Deeds, states that healing is not inherently good because of the possibility that such power can be used for selfish or evil purposes. And it seems obvious: healing or otherwise helping an enemy seems like a foolish act to many, because if you do offer them aid, they will use it to further their ends - those same ends that you’re opposed to.

But then, why? Why would Nanoha go to help Fate knowing full well that unless Fate died there, they would have to fight again? Why would Harry Potter stop Sirius and Lupin from killing Peter Pettigrew in the third book of that series? And didn’t both of those acts backfire? Nanoha did end up having to fight Fate again, and Fate gained more of the power crystals that they were competing for. Had Nanoha not intervened, the plans of the villain would have been heavily set back. As for Harry Potter, it was Pettigrew that helped Voldemort to come back, so isn’t it the case that if he had stood by, they might not have had to deal with him again?

The past, however, is a tricky thing to pick apart. While the plans of the villain may have been set back in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Fate would have been killed had Nanoha not intervened… and it was Fate that saved Nanoha’s life later in the season. Who can say if Nanoha would have survived without showing that kindness to Fate? When you help someone, they usually remember that, and may very well respond in kind at a critical moment.

Similar events came to pass for Harry Potter as well. Much later in the seventh book, Harry was able to call on that past debt. With that example, though, the argument remains that Harry might not have been in that situation in the first place had he not acted as he did in the third book. But that is still only “might” not have. No one can say for sure what the consequences of one specific act are, or whether certain things might have happened anyway.

While that kindness and aid shown even to enemies can thus seem like it is a hindrance, it can end up becoming an important source of aid in the long term. Without the ability to know for certain what will happen in the future, why should it be a weakness to show kindness or respect to anyone? Without the ability to read the future, who can say when that favor might be returned?

Kindness, honor, respect… the power of a gentle heart will never be a weakness and can never be casually tossed aside. None of those require that one has to be stupid; none require that one submit to an enemy. Ultimately, the power of a gentle heart is the ability to remain in control; to preserve the emotions and attitudes that have their primary home in peacetime even when a fight breaks out. And it is that control, that power, that will bring any battle or war to an end faster than any weapon ever will - but only if we're willing to use it. So again I ask: are we willing to try to meet the demands of both superior firepower, necessary for a time of war, and the power of a gentle heart, necessary for a time of peace?

1 comment:

Tommy said...

While I should be working on the ne'er ending stack of Nihongo, I wandered Facebook and saw your blog.

I'm a big fan of character roles. If you're familiar with the Final Fantasies, character classes are, to me, extremely important in the formation of a character's personality. I see no weakness in kindness--rather, people who embody the ideal of kindness and peace often end up presenting the most meaningful experience. In FF, white mages are the archetypical healers. As clerics, they usually exemplify moral purity and grace. However, you make a good point in saying that simply being a healer does not make one a good person. A healer can support the wicked just as easily as the heroes. Ultimately, it is not a question of good or bad, but a desire to protect someone.

Protecting others makes a character very strong in will, if not physically. I'd like to go on, but Japanese pulls me back. I'll read more later.