On Finding Hope – The Road



A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain

I just finished my third book written by Cormac McCarthy.  The first was Blood Meridian, the second was No Country for Old Men, and the third was The Road.  Reading McCarthy is unlike any other literary journey I’ve taken.  What will I remember from reading The Road?  Bleakness.  Emptiness.  How man can become a monster.  Not that different from the others I suppose, but it led me to a question – where does hope come from?

In all fantasy, science fiction and apocalyptic tales generally a hero emerges.  A man or a being similar to man steps to the fore and as a reader I can pin my hopes upon him (or rarely her as even coming up with female sidekicks was a chore in the series that popped off the top of my mind.  Amy Pond.  Leia.  Gamora.  Uhura.)  Superman.  Wonder Woman.  The Doctor.  Sheriff Rick Grimes.  Tasslehoff Burrfoot (or the more heroic but less fun Tanis Half-Elven.)  Frodo Baggins.  Luke Skywalker.  Rick Deckard.  Groot.  Mr. Spock.

Through these characters and many more like them we can find the possibility of averting crises.  We can see a proverbial light at the end of the darkening and constricting tunnel.  Survival, though bleak, has a chance.

Movie clip The Road

I think McCarthy likes to explore the world where there are no heroes.  There is only survival and to survive, horrendous choices must be made because after the apocalypse, scarcity rules.  A person cannot go back in time.  A person cannot till the earth by himself, trying to bring non-irradiated soil to the surface.  A ring, a starship, a building or an artifact cannot be destroyed through the hero’s quest.  There is only the earth.  There are only Homo sapiens.  If something happens, powerful heroes won’t emerge, instead it will just be the basest urges within us all that come forth.

We as humans have an amazing love of life and want to hold onto it with all our might in most cases.  I don’t want to imagine a situation where I have a can of beans and I come across a person moving in the opposite direction, running on empty like me.  Either of us would die where we stand the next day if we don’t eat the can of beans.  If we share it, we both will die three days from now within three miles of the place we meet, without the energy to keep moving.  If only one of us eats it, we get a week’s worth of walking and the hope to find another source of food.  I’d like to think I’d consider the other choices, but that love of life leads me to believe there is only one real choice.  If I was the person without the can of beans, I would be sad not to eat and I would plead and beg, but deep down, I’d know the can owner to be right.  Would I ever be desperate enough to hurt, maim or kill?  I don’t know.  Could I find rage because of an unjust system that gives this man beans and not me?  Could I look at another person and think because of surface differences, I am superior and therefore I should have the beans?  Could I look at another and say I can defeat him or her in a battle to the death and therefore I should get the beans?  Could I look at another and because I have a baseball bat, a knife, a gun or any weapon and think because I have greater power through this object, I should get the beans?

Those are the questions McCarthy asks.  The unnamed protagonist has to take care of his son.  He has to protect him.  He has to get him to a safe place and move again because death from the other surviving Homo sapiens might be right over the hill or just to the north, traveling along the road, unseen for now.  Does having another being under my protection, one that shares my genes make a difference?  What if I see another trying to protect two kids of his or her genetic offspring?

Cover to McCarthy's The Road

What would you do?  What would a world without heroes, with the postponement of death as the only certainty, be like?  We can say that these choices are make believe and that we don’t have to ever worry about them, but is that true?  Do people abuse power?  Do people suffer because they have the unfortunate luck to be born without parents that own copious amount of capital?  Do people use violence on others?

I think I tend toward the optimistic.  I hope to see the good in others.  I try to be as warm as I can be and help with my time and earnings from my time when I can.  I’m sure we all do.  Unfortunately sometimes we get blind to others on the other side doing the same and because of scarcity and different objectives and goals, we might not care about the other side.  We may not care about the civilians affected by drones.  We may not care about people killed by easy to obtain weapons all over the world.  We may not care about people in the next neighborhood, city or state.

Sadly, that is much easier to imagine than a being willing to die amid hordes of orcs, goblins and ghost knights.  It’s easier to imagine than a teacher that puts away his sword of light to inspire his protégés to find the path of justice.  It’s easier to imagine than a man sacrificing himself to the authorities of the time, dying in the place of us all so that we may live a little longer, if not forever.

Long live the stories of heroes.  Long live the real tales of the real people who sacrifice for others.  If there is no hope to be seen, try to create it within yourself, spread it to those around you and give people a hand in order to watch the strength spread.  But, take a note from McCarthy, don’t count on any of those real or imagined people who spread hope being around.  We’re only human, after all.

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