Being a fan of RPGs (Role Playing Games, for all you n00bs), the concept of leveling up is very familiar to me. For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that when solving puzzles, slaying enemies, or using skills in the world (of the game, of course), your character eventually gains enough experience to go from one level to another. With the new level, comes new powers, attributes, and in many cases the ability to access new things.
In real life, we gain new experiences all the time. The quality of the lessons of those experiences depends, greatly, on how difficult the task was. Are you getting really good at remembering to put the trash on the curb on trash day? Are you learning the streets of your new neighborhood? Did that argument with your friend, partner, or family member teach you something about yourself or even them? Did surviving some trauma make you more resilient?
Obviously, in real life there are not quantifiable levels. I don’t gain more “hit points” as I get stronger, but I may have a noticeably improved ability to withstand criticism, manage difficult feelings, or even to allow myself to be increasingly vulnerable (thanks to a friend for recommending this book to me, it has been a good read so far). And after a particularly difficult ordeal, we may feel such a significant difference that we feel like we are, in some ways, new people. The difference after some growth can feel more than merely quantitative, and in some cases it can have a qualitative feeling. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like leveling up.
Recently in my real life, I feel like I’ve leveled up.
But here’s the thing. Experience and growth can go in many different directions. We have many cultural tropes which I could pull from, to make my meaning clearer. Perhaps the most recognizable would be the distinction between Jedi and Sith, as in the Star Wars universe. I could also refer to the game Fable, which has you not only level up, but your actions move you along a continuum from more “good” to “evil.” In this game, if you steal something, kill someone innocent, etc then you lose points, and slide a little (or a lot) towards the “evil” side of the scale. The decisions you make in the story line determine what kind of character you are in the long run (I usually lean strongly towards the good side, in games like this).
Either way, you have the opportunity to become more powerful, effective, and you can win the game. You can win the game as an evil character.
(But at what cost! What about the children!!!)
I find this analogy simplistic, compared to real life, but as an image to use it is at least somewhat helpful so I’ll stick with it. In real life, the decisions we make do determine our character. But unlike the game Fable, turning evil will not make you look demonic nor will making good choices make you look more like a wise sage or saint. As with a saying which we get from Christian mythology (which Fable is obviously dependent upon), the devil may often appear to you in a pleasing shape, but it’s also true that the good may also not be easily recognizable. This is because in real life the experience of leveling up after an ordeal may indeed make you more powerful, but it will not necessarily make you better or healthier.
Power, in some sense, is neutral. Leveling up does not necessarily make us better people. If the attributes you work on making stronger are attributes which make you less compassionate, more defensive, etc, then you may be stronger, more capable of success in many situations, but perhaps your increased power will be more of a detriment, if not for yourself than maybe for other people. Many a sociopath has become very successful and powerful, after all. Also, many a sociopath can blend in to the crowd, getting away with all sorts of shenanigans unseen.
What attributes do you upgrade when you level up?
I’m a big fan of The Elder Scrolls games, especially Skyrim. I started playing again recently (although I simply can’t play more than an hour or so these days without wanting to rejoin reality, which I think is a good thing). In Skyrim, when you level up, you get to add points to one of many possible attributes, whether it is one-handed, speech, or smithing. What attributes you choose to upgrade will have implications for how successful you’ll be in making various decisions throughout the game.
So, if we were to try and stretch this analogy to real life, we could talk about what personal attributes we want to focus on improving, as we find ways to take lessons from events in our lives. Do we want to build a wall around ourselves, like armor? Do we want to improve our ability to communicate, like increasing persuasion? Do we want to add a point to archery, so we can do better damage to our opponents from a distance? (OK, the confusion between analogy and reality here makes me sound like I’m doing target practice in my basement, or something…). Do we want to improve our critical thinking skills, in order to tell the difference between truth and illusion? (This skeptic always says yes to this last one, but that attribute does not really come up in a world of magic, dragons, and gods like Skyrim, or Tamriel in general).
In any case, in real life it is the actual practice of said attributes which leads to the leveling up, I think, than the other way around. My ability to communicate my emotional needs better is a means to my becoming stronger. My ability to look self-critically at my mistakes and to work to learn about myself in order to not make those mistakes again have made me stronger. My ability to resist (for the most part) the desire to simply demonize and blame other people for succumbing to flaws which many of us share is a result of that increased strength.
But I could have gone down a different path. I could have taken the lesson that I should just keep more people at a distance, proclaim my superiority, and blamed everyone else while deflecting all accusations coming my way. I could have strengthened the all-too-human impulse to rationalize and defensively push away all culpability, and attack relentlessly anyone who would threaten the illusory shell that this move requires. I could have made attributes within me stronger which would indeed help me in the world, but they would not help me be a better person. Because sometimes protecting oneself is not one of strength. Sometimes armor makes us weaker. Sometimes maintaining the illusion of strength actually hurts us.
Sometimes, as I have learned over the years, exposing all of our vulnerabilities and standing naked to the world, with all of our scars and imperfections exposed, is the only way to become strong.
And you can’t be vulnerable when you spend so much effort on creating armor and weapons alone. In real life, strength comes from investing in inner strength. The more you hide, defend, and attack, the more you can be hurt. Over-committing to an attack puts you off balance, exposes the holes in your armor, and all that hiding can have only left you atrophied and weak under that armor.
I am stronger, today, than I was a year ago. I am better, today, than I was a year ago. But not all people are better then they were, having traversed the ordeals of time and space. Simply having been through something does not make them better, even if it does make them stronger. A strong sword arm, after all, can only hurt people.
A person can indeed hurt me if I willingly expose my vulnerabilities, but the fact that someone might actually try to do so is what causes me pain. It’s when we forget that we are also scared, vulnerable, and imperfect when we feel justified in attacking others or hurting them even if we don’t want to do so. I’d do better to resist such sets of behavior myself (so would we all), but I am less likely to stop calling out behavior when it is genuinely hurtful to me or people close to me. If anyone wants me, or anyone else, to stop talking about the pain which they have caused other people, then take responsibility for it, do the work to actually grow, and make yourself less likely to do it again. If not, we will have every right to keep calling those people on their shit and being critical of their behavior.
Same goes for me. If I’m not continuing to do the work I need to do, then I welcome compassionate criticism. I will hopefully be stronger in another year, and I will try to put my efforts into strengthening the attributes which will make me more compassionate, less afraid, and more vulnerable. I hope, deeply, that we all do the same to the best of our ability.