The Phoenix and the Skroderider

Consider the case of buying one's partner flowers. You can think of each act of flower-buying as an act of caring (and this is typically the right attitude if your partner likes flowers and you want to genuinely relate on that level). Or you can think of installing the flower-buying habit as the act of caring that you hope will be perceived through the mask of mere flowers. The first type of person I call a Phoenix, the second is a Skroderider.

A Phoenix is a magical bird of fire, that burns itself to ash and is reborn. But in particular, I’m talking about the phoenixes of Harry Potter - or, more precisely, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The Phoenix is the ultimate Gryffindor. It will drop everything to seek what’s good, and it perceives the good directly. I have dear friends who are Phoenixes, and I love them for it.

Skroderiders are an intelligent species described in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. They started out as intelligent aquatic plants. Their young are curious and adventuresome, but a mature Skroderider is pretty stationary, and doesn’t really have a short-term memory. It takes a long time for them to learn, but much, much longer for them to forget. They are called Skroderiders because some unknown intelligence from another planet came to them and gave them Skrodes, mobile platforms that provide them not only mobility in their mature state, but short-term memory as well.

Phoenixes have problems like wildfires. If you catch them early, you can put them out or harness them. If you wait, it's soon too late. Phoenixes need, and tend to provide, bursts of help or compassion in response to perceived crises.

The virtue of the Phoenix is that it can turn on a dime, dropping everything else and fully mobilizing its internal resources without long-term planning, responding to emergencies instantly, in the moment. And when the crisis is over, the Phoenix rests.

In Atlas Shrugged, industrialist Ellis Wyatt discovers an extremely low-cost process for extracting shale oil from the ground. At some point, someone sets fire to the shale oil well, and because of the nature of the well, the fire cannot be put out. No one knows how, except Wyatt, who is missing. So the fire keeps burning. They call it Wyatt’s Torch.

Skroderiders have problems like Wyatt's Torch. You've got plenty of time to respond, there's no crisis, it's just damn hard to put out. Skroderiders don’t blow up with obvious salient crises if they can possibly help it, so people who look for those miss the opportunity to help a Skroderider at all. Put another way, you can put out wildfires using the ordinary forest service equipment, you just have to keep using it and responding to each emergency as it comes. If you're facing Wyatt's Torch you should maybe spend the first month after failing to put it out understanding how it works and why it's so damned hard to extinguish and the next month designing the equipment you need. And then you put it out once and it stops. The virtue of a Skroderider is object permanence about people and their needs. This means that they at least have the potential to develop the kind of long-term good will I value in friendships.

When a Skroderider tries to help someone, they may assume that if there is a visible crisis, the other person must have been under immense, sustained pressure. If the other person is important to the Skroderider, they might put other things on hold and spend a few days replanning their next few weeks or months to have time. They might make a note to be on the lookout for things that would help over the next few years. But by the time they've gotten into gear to help, if the other person is a Phoenix, their crisis is already passed, and they perceived the interaction as one where the Skroderider didn’t bother to help at all.

When a Phoenix cares for a Skroderider, they may not be able to recognize opportunities to help. A Skroderider can often talk about their problems calmly, unless there has been an immense accumulation of pressure - and Skroderiders will often wait until asked, to let others offer help at a time convenient to them. A Skroderider friend tells me, "I've had the experience of seeing people around me having crises, noticing I never do, and assuming I have no problems." This is a very common frustration of Skroderiders, especially ones surrounded by Phoenixes.

An example of integrating the Phoenix and Skroderider virtues is Rational!Harry from HPMoR. When Harry finds out that the wizarding prison Azkaban is basically a torture camp, he feels an intense sense of urgency, a desire to free all the prisoners now. He never forgets about the prisoners in Azkaban. It's always an urgent, pressing problem. But he also understands that this is not a problem he can solve now, so he takes his time. He feels the Phoenix's blast of fiery urgency, but he also has object permanence about it. He is able to shut off his Patronus, walk away from Azkaban, and slowly gain power in order to get leverage on the problem later.

I am a Skroderider. It’s hard for me to even perceive my problems as crises. I calmly ask friends for help, once, and then wait for them to pick the right time. I am cultivating my Skroderider virtue - but right now, I also need to learn how to be a Phoenix, if I’m ever going to be able to integrate the two virtues.

6 thoughts on “The Phoenix and the Skroderider

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