I used to think that resisting temptation was the way to be strong, or a sign of strength. People of strong will could get what they wanted only by mastering their basic drives. Intent only mattered if it could overpower desire. But the problem with resisting temptation is that you don’t get what you’re tempted by. You don’t get what you want. If you’re good enough at resisting temptation, you may not even remember that you want it.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is the bearer of the One Ring, a source of great power that corrupts anyone who tries to use it, which must be destroyed before its maker Sauron finds it and uses it to take over the world. One of its powers is that it grants the wearer invisibility. Near the beginning of his journey, at Weathertop, Frodo is pursued by agents of Sauron, and feels a powerful compulsion to hide by putting on the ring:
Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions; he was quaking as if he was bitter cold, but his terror was swallowed up in a sudden temptation to put on the Ring. The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. He did not forget the Barrow, nor the message of Gandalf; but something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. Not with the hope of escape, or of doing anything, either good or bad: he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger. He could not speak. He felt Sam looking at him, as if he knew that his master was in some great trouble, but he could not turn towards him. He shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.
Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel. Their eyes fell on him and pierced him, as they rushed towards him. Desperate, he drew his own sword, and it seemed to him that it flickered red, as if it was a firebrand. Two of the figures halted. The third was taller than the others: his hair was long and gleaming and on his helm was a crown. In one hand he held a long sword, and in the other a knife; both the knife and the hand that held it glowed with a pale light. He sprang forward and bore down on Frodo.
Later in the journey, he again feels the compulsion to put on the ring, when in the presence of the same servants of Sauron, but he resists:
Even as these thoughts pierced him with dread and held him bound as with a spell, the Rider halted suddenly, right before the entrance of the bridge, and behind him all the host stood still. There was a pause, a dead silence. Maybe it was the Ring that called to the Wraith-lord, and for a moment he was troubled, sensing some other power within his valley. This way and that turned the dark head helmed and crowned with fear, sweeping the shadows with its unseen eyes. Frodo waited, like a bird at the approach of a snake, unable to move. And as he waited, he felt, more urgent than ever before, the command that he should put on the Ring. But great as the pressure was, he felt no inclination now to yield to it. He knew that the Ring would only betray him, and that he had not, even if he put it on, the power to face the Morgul-king - not yet. There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense as if he looked on some old story far away, it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back. and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast. Cold and hard it seemed as his grip closed on it: the phial of Galadriel, so long treasured, and almost forgotten till that hour. As he touched it, for a while all thought of the Ring was banished from his mind. He sighed and bent his head.
What changed in Frodo? It’s not that he learned to resist temptation. It’s not that his will grew stronger like some sort of quantity - he doesn’t just fight the urge and win. Instead, he recognizes that the impulse is foreign to him and does not serve him, and he, instead of going head-to-head with it, simply puts his hand in his pocket.
Grima Wormtongue, or the Vampire of the House Dolorous
I’m struggling with temptation. I worry that one of my drives is evil. It’s the desire to help my friends.
It seems related to the drive to control others, which could be intrinsically corrupting.
I have been recommending Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World to friends a lot lately. It is kind of a horror fantasy world loosely based on the American West, and the plot is something like Atlas Shrugged written backwards. The big background conflict is between the Line, an urbanized, bureaucratized civilization ruled by giant malevolent godlike magical trains, and the Gun, a bunch of basically free agents controlled by godlike anarchic spirits that live in guns and give the guns’ bearers superhuman abilities. There is a hospital called House Dolorous, which takes in people from anywhere, Gun, Line, or neutral. It is protected by a powerful guardian spirit, that also has the power to take pain away from people near it. It probes for and drinks up their pain, and they feel better.
"Nothing's easy," Renato said. "Everything takes its time." He touched his scars with a kind of reverence. "I was angry for a long time, you know? I used to be a handsome man. Why didn't it take these away, too, you know?"
Sichel nodded gravely. Creedmoor maintained his expression of skepticism.
Renato went on. His voice was muffled by his domino and his wounds, but he spoke with passion. "But that's not what it does. It takes away pain. It makes it so you can go on. It makes you at peace. It lets you endure. It's a wonderful thing."
The Kid spoke. "It's a vampire, I heard." He stared intently down at his cards. "It feeds on pain. Don't go to the Doll House, they told us. Better to get killed clean. It takes your manhood, they told us. It needs you to suffer, to be weak, forever, like little dolls. That's what it feeds on."
I derive a lot of enjoyment from being a buffer for others’ pain. This is intensely gratifying to me, to the point that letting me do this for you is an easy way to make it more attracted to you, at least if you are a woman. One hypothesis is that I'm drawn to people who experience their emotions readily, quickly, and intensely, as a way to experience these myself. This isn’t much of a problem with sharing in their happiness, but when I take pleasure from alleviating pain, it feels immoral. It feels wrong to take pleasure in a process that requires the distress of someone else, especially a friend. I have no specific reason to believe I’ve harmed anyone in order to soothe them, but it feels fundamentally parasitic to enjoy alleviating pain.
In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating is a moderately talented architect with a strong ability to give people exactly what they like, and his friend Howard Roark is a great architect, whose artistic integrity makes it impossible for him to compromise the integrity of his designs to accommodate the tastes of others. Several times in the story, Keating is struggling to produce a building design, and Roark helps him with the fundamentals, letting Keating add decorative touches until it matches the client’s tastes and pass off the work as his own. As far as I can tell we’re not supposed to read Roark as deliberately sabotaging Keating, but his help is bad for his friend; Keating gets worse over time, at least relative to the scale of the commissions he is able to attract, instead of learning from his challenges.
In Lord of the Rings, King Théoden, a leader of a group essential for the protagonists' eventual success against Sauron, has accepted a man named Grima Wormtongue as his advisor. Wormtongue gradually persuades Théoden to stay in his throne room instead of going out riding with his cavalry, to lean on a staff instead of standing on his own, to delegate tasks to Grima instead of doing them himself, to disfavor his spirited son Eomer for speaking up to him. All these are couched as assistance to the king, accommodations for his old age, but they box him in over time, and by the time the heroes get to him, he appears to be a feeble, bent-over old man, until the wizard Gandalf persuades him to cast aside his aids and helpers, and rely on his own strength again:
"Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?" said Gandalf. "Do you ask for help?" He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. "Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?... I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings."
Slowly Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again.... with faltering steps the old man came down from the dais and paced softly through the hall.... They came to the doors and Gandalf knocked.
"Open!" he cried. "The Lord of the Mark comes forth!"
The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill. "Send your guards down to the stairs foot," said Gandalf. "And you, lady, leave him a while with me. I will care for him."
"Go, Éowyn sister-daughter!" said the old king. "The time for fear is past."...
"Now, lord," said Gandalf, "look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!"
From the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder.... But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the East was receding.... Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass.
"It is not so dark here," said Théoden.
"No," said Gandalf. "Nor does age lie so heavily on your shoulders as some would have you think. Cast aside your prop!"
From the king's hand the black staff fell clattering on the stones. He drew himself up, slowly, as a man that is stiff from long bending over some dull toil. Now tall and straight he stood, and his eyes were blue as he looked into the opening sky.
"Dark have been my dreams of late," he said, "but I feel as one new-awakened. I would now that you had come before, Gandalf. For I fear that already you have come too late, only to see the last days of my house. Not long now shall stand the high hall which Brego son of Eorl built.... What is to be done?"
"Much," said Gandalf. "But first send for Éomer."
"Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped a sword-hilt," said Gandalf.
Théoden rose and put his hand to his side; but no sword hung at his belt. "Where has Grima stowed it?", he muttered under his breath.
"Take this, dear lord!" said a clear voice. "It was ever at your service." [...] Éomer was there. [I]n his hand he held a drawn sword; and as he knelt he offered the hilt to his master.
Slowly, Théoden stretched forth his hand. As his fingers took the hilt, it seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. Suddenly he lifted the blade and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. Then he gave a great cry. His voice rang clear as he chanted in the tongue of Rohan a call to arms.
The subconscious is powerful. I worry that if I enjoy alleviating pain too much, I’ll start subtly optimizing for producing painful situations where I’m needed instead of making people strong enough not to need it. I worry that so I'll be sad and resentful if I ever manage to heal them and they move on, and will therefore start subconsciously dragging my feet somewhere in the middle. I think this is my core anxiety: that secretly, some part of me wants to be needed so badly that it would sabotage my friends in order to make them dependent on me, at least by offering the kind of help that solves the short-term problem at the expense of future growth. Because of this, I often push down this drive - fight this temptation - and instead try to do the thing that I'd wish someone else to do for me, or the thing I think someone would prefer I do, but this doesn’t use the full power of my soul, just a limited part of it - I’m not being as effective as I would be if I used all my motivations to help my friends.
I worry that I’m only able to suppress this drive because I can see that I don’t yet have the skill to pull off keeping my friends needy without getting caught. Some people are blatant in their attempts to Be Helpers, cast themselves as the only person with the ability to help, and leave their victims feeling worse after their help. Analogously, a sociopath who isn't very smart gets caught quickly, and you might assume from looking at known sociopaths that they are typically not very good at trickery, but there are very high functioning sociopaths at high IQ levels, and the bad ones seem to sometimes get away with hurting people for a very long time.
I also worry that I’m already doing this, and just not noticing consciously. If I were keeping my friends weak, I would be clever about it, because I'm smart. It would always look like I was genuinely helping - and in the moment, maybe I would be. I’d at least manage to make them feel better in the short term. Like Sauron, I’d give them Rings that gave them real power, at the price of dependence on me.
Bombadil, or the Red Queen?
Of course, this isn't entirely about protecting other people from me. It's also about the fact that, if this is true, then I have to hold myself back to protect my friends, which means accepting being alone in some fundamental way, and relinquishing the one firm hold I have on them.
One narrative I have about this is that the only way I have to reliably secure someone’s friendship is by meeting their needs, being the one who strengthens their weak parts. But this can only happen for so long - and then they’ll outgrow my ability to help them. Maybe I can hold off the day of reckoning for a little while by improving my ability to help, but this is a Red Queen’s Race - the more I learn, the more I teach them, and so I keep needing to work on myself just to hold onto the relationship. This might be good for me in some ways, but the prospect of doing this is exhausting, and doesn’t really make me feel safe. So it’s tempting to arrange to have to provide the same kind of help over and over, to find or turn someone into the sort of person who’s stuck and keeps needing the same help.
Friends have pointed out to me that there will always be new people to help if one person outgrows my ability to help, but my problem is not so much "it's fun to be needed" as "being needed soothes some sort of vast intense desire and nothing else comes close". I don't seem to believe that I have any way of building lasting secure connections if I'm not needed, so resigning myself to alleviating the pain and strengthening the weaknesses of an endless stream of new people still seems terribly lonely
Looking at my actual history, I have clearly had close relationships, including romantic ones, built around mutual liking, even though we did sometimes rely on each other for things. We weren’t in a Red Queen’s Race. One of them lasted several years and was very good the whole time. But it ended when ambition pulled us apart - as our ambitions awakened, we started growing in different directions, and our centers of attention drifted farther and farther apart.
In The Lord of the Rings, one person is incorruptible by the One Ring: Tom Bombadil, a very old, very powerful being:
"Could we not still send messages to him and obtain his help?” asked Erestor. “It seems that he has a power even over the Ring.”
“No, I should not put it so, said Gandalf. Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others. And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them.”
“But within those bounds nothing seems to dismay him,” said Erestor. “Would he not take the Ring and keep it there, for ever harmless?”
“No,” said Gandalf, “not willingly. He might do so, if all the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind.”
Bombadil is in no risk of being dominated by the ring - he even puts it on and is unaffected by it - but this - but this is because he has no ambition. He has enough. Bombadil also has a wife, Goldberry. I imagine the way they relate to each other is largely based on mutual liking, because they seem to have no big problems to lean on each other for. They have not chosen challenges larger than their current abilities. Their relationship is stable - but they are incapable of trying to save their world from its most important threat.
My world needs me to tackle challenges that are harder than I know how to deal with yet. I have ambitions and want friends and romantic partners with ambitions, and that means we'll both need to grow, and need people to help us grow. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe as we tackle new and harder challenges, this will expose new weaknesses we’ll need help with. And if we ever win and the world is safe, then we could more naturally transition to a more Bombadil-and-Goldberry style relationship, two incredibly powerful beings who like being around one another enough to stay together. But I worry about uneven progress along the way, about increasingly being unable to meet the right kinds of needs. It could work out well - but it could just as easily not. It could be that this is an unstable equilibrium, and by default in almost all cases one person simply outgrows the other, or they grow apart.
I also struggle with the reciprocal temptation, to rely on others for things I might be able to do myself. Just as the drive to control others is suspect, so is the urge to offload responsibility.
I’m trying to get in touch with wanting things, caring about my own experiences and sensations, becoming more embodied, and engaging more with my sense of aesthetics. This is partly in order to take better care of myself and understand my motivations better, but it will have the additional benefit of giving me the experience of just being me doing what I want, and see how that works, whether that is enough to hold onto my friends without desperately trying to find problems to solve for them. In my gut, I don't expect this to work. I don't see any path towards it working that feels plausible. But it seems worth trying.
Last weekend, as part of this project, I went to Esalen. This turned out to be good, especially the last few hours, where I had some good, connecting conversations. I also met a few people going on pretty much the same type of journey I am right now, which was pretty validating.
One other particularly interesting thing happened at Esalen, which I fictionalized in Firestones. There were a few moments where I hit something like executive function overload. The first was when I arrived barely in time to have dinner, park, go to the orientation, and get to the workshop on time, if everything went perfectly, which of course it didn't, and parking was hard in the dark, and I kind of wanted to turn around and go home. Again, on Halloween evening, it seemed hard to do anything, I didn't want to hang out where people were playing musing and singing, I didn't want to go to the baths, I didn't want to go to sleep early but that seemed maybe the least-bad option. This was the sort of thing where in the past I'd have leaned hard on a partner to help coach me through it.
For example, I've leaned on past partners for dealing with some stressful family stuff, where it takes a tremendous effort not to let my desire to make others happy and fulfill their expectations crowd out my awareness of me own needs, so without someone else to do metacognition I just end up not having the mental space to think
But this time, being out of cell phone range, I decided that being weak was bullshit, and I'd just ... solve the problem. Figure out some plan better than my stupid default of giving up and going home, stick to it if I didn't come up with anything better, and accept the possibility that my plan might not work out, that I might miss out on the optimal thing, that yes, I might not be adequate to the task of making the best decision, but I still have to decide something.
To be willing to solve the problem myself, I had to accept in my heart that no other help was available. For this reason, it felt terribly sad, strengthening that part of me, like I was putting myself on the path to permanently losing that sort of bond with others, where I could lean on them. But I don't actually think that's true. I think that no matter how much I strengthen myself, I will still find challenges that are beyond me, I will still need to lean on people, I don't need to set myself up to fail in order to get support.
Over the next several months, I suppose I'll find out whether that's true.