“We fight. We try not to be killed. Sometimes we are. That’s all.” –All Quiet On the Western Front
“Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energy, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something. But I know this isn’t true.” -Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is the chilling portrait of a fallen United States, where fundamentalist religion has become government and people have once again become property. Atwood gives us two powerful figures: a wild, resourceful friend, and a cocky, loud, energetic mother. Reading, we want these people to change things. We want them to turn into heroes. Atwood gives us moments of hope, but moment by moment, page by page, most hope breaks in the America she’s envisioned. Why does she do that?
We like stories about those who beat the odds and “win,” or about those who die on their feet rather than live on their knees; about heroes who turned their suffering into something grand, something important, something shining. Maybe wars don’t look like that. Torture doesn’t work like that. That is a kind of alchemy we cannot do. As much as we like a story about a homeless person who turns their struggle into brilliance and wisdom, the truth is, going hungry is cruel, it’s lessening. It breaks you apart. We can heal afterwards, we can try to make something good with the ashes, but wood burns. No matter how solid it’s grown, no matter how firm its heart, no matter how tall it stands, wood burns. History has proved that bodies do, too. Atwood won’t let us forget the horror of that.
There is something beautiful, even here in Atwood’s horror. There is something to hope for. These days, many of the moments that break us and others are at least in part man made. We engineer them. And if we do that, that means we don’t have to. The trick isn’t to practice courage so that we can face our torturer with a witty quip and an unbreakable will. The fight happens before that. The fight isn’t even a fight: it’s law, it’s practice, is the slow creation day by day of a society that refuses torture. The trick is not to kill and be untouched by killing. The trick is not to battle victoriously. Atwood’s truth comes before that. It comes when we will not let our garden become a place for tanks and drones, cruelty and hate. When we fight, we’re hurt. Sometimes when we’re hurt we heal. But we can fight less. We can.
We should be careful, breathlessly, intensely careful, about what we ask our troops to do. I don’t think I’m a pacifist. I believe there can be just war. I admire those who are willing to fight it. But the fighting itself is not pretty. It is not good. As a culture, I think we need less tales about those who took horror and would not be broken, and more gardeners who give their plants the daily water with which they grow, and let them feel the sun. We need days, not moments; we need lives, not gestures.We can like the unbreakable Man of Steel, but we do not have the many chances he has, and our minds, torn, may not regrow. Perhaps sometimes, instead of hoping for heroism, we can work to be humane.