In 2005, country singer Jo Dee Messina musically proclaimed, "My Give-a-Damn's Busted." (I still wince at typing that phrase outside of fictional dialogue, even though it's been eighty years since Rhett Butler shocked audiences by speaking it in the final scene of GONE WITH THE WIND.) At a point when current events may tempt many of us to embrace that attitude, Kameron Hurley meditates in her latest LOCUS column on the value of caring about people and causes:The Power of Giving a Damn
She once believed "it wasn’t cool to care too much about things. Caring about something too hard made you vulnerable. Weak." She attributes this feeling partly to "American cinema and storytelling, much of it geared toward portraying the rugged masculine ideal of the loner hero whose dedication is not to individual humans, but to himself. His world was littered with backstabbing femme fatales and best friends who betrayed him, and the worst parts of humanity were always on display. Don’t care too much about things, these loner-hero stories seemed to say; people will let you down, and humans are just a few steps away from destroying themselves."
This description of the American "loner hero" archetype doesn't sound quite plausible to me. Isn't the classic film image of the solitary, wandering hero more often that of a man who stands alone against injustice, eschewing personal ties to move on to the next town when his task in this place is done? That's the paradigm of the lone gunslinger upon which Stephen King models Roland in the Dark Tower saga (with more complex layers, of course). Or do I have a skewed idea of that figure because I haven't viewed more recent media incarnations of him? (Considering the two examples Hurley offers are FIGHT CLUB and AMERICAN PSYCHO—hardly icons of heroism to be emulated, from what I've read about them—she seems to veer away from her stated emphasis on the lone hero.) She recalls, "I was big on apocalypse movies as a kid, because they advanced this libertarian fantasy that each of us was fully equipped to live a long and productive loner life as long as we kept people away from us."
As an adult, she came to realize the "lie of self-sufficiency." Nobody survives, much less thrives, without depending on the social network, physical infrastructure, and material technology provided by the generations that came before us and the people who work to build and maintain those things. When Thoreau retreated to the woods to live by Walden Pond, he took manufactured tools with him. Even a hermit on a deserted island relies on the products of society; Robinson Crusoe couldn't have gotten far without items he salvaged from the shipwreck. (A gruesome short story by Stephen King imagines the probable fate of a man stuck on a barren island with nothing but his clothes and carry-on bag. The protagonist amputates his own limbs and eats them raw, killing the pain with illegal drugs he happens to be transporting.) In more realistic post-apocalyptic fiction than the type Hurley admired in her teens, the people who survive to rebuild society are those who band together for mutual support.
Discovering, "We are all connected," Hurley summarizes, "I’ve found that it’s not weakness to care about others, or to care about a cause. The true weakness is when we are too afraid to care about anything at all." As romance writers, we create worlds in which caring is of central importance and love conquers. That seems like a worthwhile message to promote anytime—especially in the grim times.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt