Part 1: Orc Is A Process

There is a lot of speculation out there as to where orcs come from in the Tolkien legendarium. There are a lot of answers to this question. The slimy mud-pits of Peter Jackson’s Isengard come to mind, for example.

Some things we “know”: there seem to be no orc nor goblin women at all. There are no children, adolescents, etc. No orc villages where they grow up and raise crops. We have no idea what they eat in Goblin Town, when they can’t get dwarves and a hobbit. Orcs are, when we meet them, either singing tormentors or war-wearly soldiers who fear the secret police. We know that over time, mountain tunnels re-fill with orcs. They breed, if they breed, in secret, like vermin. They are described as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Letter 210) (I’m not going into the implicit racism here and elsewhere in Tolkien’s works – but there it is) In an unpublished letter to a Mrs. Munsby, he said, “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.” The ambiguity is increased by Tolkien’s method with his own legendarium, which I appreciate – treating it like a set of documents with multiple authors and a lot of uncertainty.

I just re-read The Lord of the Rings for the many-teenth time, and part of what was on my mind was this whole orc question. The text itself does not answer the question, and even reading Tolkien’s other writings and letters gives no clear, definitive answer. One theory found in the Silmarillion is that when Morgoth captured elves he twisted them, by slow torturous arts, into the first orcs. We know that Morgoth, and by extension Sauron and Saruman, cannot create new forms of life but can only twist what already exists. In the context of the Silmarillion, this is presented as a theory among the elves that they don’t know to be true.

So, if that is true, how did Saruman begin to create the half-orcs and goblin-men we see as early as when the hobbits first reach Bree? We can look at the White Wizard because, unlike Morgoth or Sauron, Saruman created orcs and goblins over the course of the story we know, and I think that the way his creations are described gives us insight into where orcs and goblins come from.

There must be some mid-way point between non-orc and orc that Saruman was able to reach while working in secret. Now, one assumption is that he bred half-orcs, meaning he presumably kidnapped humans and forced them to have sex with orcs. So the pits beneath Isengard would have been rape-pits. Now, Tolkien is famously uninterested in where dwarf-children come from – the only implication that dwarf-children even exist is that dwarves who used to live in Dale were highly-skilled toymakers. In this, Tolkien is simply drawing on his source material: Germanic myth and legend, equally uninterested in where dwarf-babies come from. (Come to think of it, all of his elvish characters also enter their particular stories as full-grown adults, and the elf-children tends to refer to elves who lived near the creation of the world rather than literal children.) But Tolkien is no more interested in dwarf-children than the Norse Sagas and Eddas were, and this disinterest is also applied to orcs.

My theory is that orcs are the result of torment. This explains a lot of things in the story, while bringing in the theory (attributed to the elvish creators of the stories Bilbo presumably translated in The Silmarillion as Translations From the Elvish by B. B.) that the first orcs were born of elves, twisted and tormented in the prisons beneath Angband in the First Age.

It Explains Goblin Town

When we first meet orcs, it is in The Hobbit, and they are called goblins. What do we learn about them? They are tricky – they have a clever trap designed to help them capture travelers who take refuge in a particularly desirable cave. Once the goblins have captured the dwarves, they sing a song about how they are going to drag them down underground to work as slaves, presumably until they die. In An Unexpected Journey, the Goblin King goes into greater detail, spelling out the torture as well as slavery that the dwarves have to look forward to.

But what if the reason that the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains slowly fill with goblins and orcs over the years is because they are capturing travelers, like the dwarves, and tormenting them underground until they become orcs themselves?

It reminds me of the short story of a person who is tortured by a devil in hell. Eventually, the devil hands the person the torture implements, because they have become a demon, and then a new person is sent to them in order to be tormented. Hell is self-sustaining.

It Explains Sauron’s Control of the East and South

We are told more than once in the Lord of the Rings that Sauron holds sway over the Haradrim, Corsairs of Umbar, Easterlings, and similar peoples living south and east of Mordor. Then why, one wonders, would he use orcs at all? Why not just bring up human conscripts, as he does during the War of the Ring, all the time? Why are his minions almost invariably orcs?

In my theory, he has control of these regions so that he always has a fresh supply of people to torment and turn into orcs. Additionally, this explains why orcs are racially coded as dark-skinned and/or Asian – just as people living in the East and South of Middle-Earth would be. If all of the living orcs were descendants of the first elves Morgoth captured and twisted to his own purposes, why would they have features reflecting the lands that Sauron controlled? They would all have twisted elvish features, one would assume.

One can speculate, perhaps, that Sauron lacked the power to capture and twist elves the way that Morgoth, most powerful of the Valar, could. Maybe Morgoth’s orcs, some of whom are still clearly around (note the conversations Sam overhears in the tower of Cirith Ungol between orcs who seem to remember the First Age), were superior, and Sauron is only able to round up humans who are easier to corrupt, to create his own orcs. That would fit with the overall theme, in the ancient world and in Middle-Earth, of decline over the centuries on all sides.

It Explains Why Mordor Is So Awful

Mordor, as a stronghold, makes no sense. High walls, literally raised by Sauron’s power and by his orcs after the fact, sometimes manufactured out of slag and industrial waste, encircle this land, keeping foes out and allies in. Within those encircling mountains is a horrific land where almost nothing grows, where the water is almost undrinkable, and the ‘air itself is a poisonous fume’ as Boromir explains in the first Peter Jackson film.

Mordor is precisely the kind of place that orcs would create – wherever we see them, they trample and harm and vandalize – but why would Sauron create it? Mordor makes no sense if orcs are just another species of being, like elf or dwarf or hobbit, but Mordor makes perfect sense if orcs are created by torment. They have to live in a perpetual hell in order to remain sufficiently orcish. The walls have to keep the orcs in as much as keep foes out, because torment is what makes an orc.

It Explains Saruman’s Half-Orcs

This is precisely why Saruman is working with what appear to be half-orcs or goblin-men – he has not had the time to twist his own slaves sufficiently to make them into full orcs. They are larger than normal for orcs, who are described as smaller in stature than most humans, and they are still able to move around freely during daytime, but they are sufficiently orcish to have all of the cruelty he desires in a personal army. This is why he is able to send some of the less-goblin-looking north as spies and, later, as ruffians serving the Boss Lotho. The orc-ing process is not complete. Throughout The Scouring of the Shire, the impression we have of Lotho’s men (really Sharky’s men) is that they are orcish humans. They have the racially-coded features, and the seemingly innate small-mindedness and cruelty, but are not so orcish that the hobbits know to resist them at first they way they would if they were invaded by a small army of goblins. (Ask Golfimbul)

It Connects Orcs to Wraiths

Wraiths are once-great humans, kings of Numenorean descent, twisted and warped so profoundly that they lose their physical bodies and all sense of individual will. They are called wraiths very intentionally, as wraith shares an Old English root word with wreath and writhe – to twist, or to be twisted. Orcs created by ongoing torment would fit the strong theme in Middle-Earth that evil can only corrupt what is and cannot create something new.

Against Authoritarianism

Not only are orcs twisted and cruel, but they are also thoroughly authoritarian, especially in the case of the orcs of Mordor. During the chapters following Shelob’s attack on Frodo, Sam overhears a lot of orc-talk, and it is almost always preoccupied with bosses, punishment, secret police, traitors, and so on – orcs here would fit perfectly well in a dystopian story like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. This is a connection that Tolkien made intentionally – he said once in a letter that his own political leanings were more toward anarchism, as in the ‘abolishion of control.’ The heart of evil, for Tolkien, was the will to dominate other people. But in orcs, we have a people who are dominated and truamatized so thoroughly that they replicate their trauma wherever they go.

We all know of people like that, I think.

Trump Makes Orcs

Tolkien wrote to Christopher in Letter 71:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!

To Tolkien, orcs were realistic, much as they have been panned since as irredeemably evil cannon-fodder. I’m not sure about entirely realistic, but if orc is a process, as I believe, then we can see that process at work wherever we look.  For example, who could possibly work at a concentration camp that served as a detention center for small children stolen from their asylum-seeking parents?

Orcs, that’s who.

And who is currently flourishing? Who is getting their way? We have a whole, large contingent in the United States of people who seem to mainly take pleasure in other’s suffering and discomfort. We have the vapid, nihilistic cruelty of Internet trolls, waves of rape threats aimed at any woman who dares appear in a science fiction film or comment on…anything, and a President who seems to have been elected solely to tear down various institutions. It is easy to see this as an age of orc-behavior, hurting for the sake of hurting, combined with growing comfort with regard to fear and authoritarianism.

In his refections on the Fourth Age, the so-called Age of Men, Tolkien talked about how he saw a rise in “orc-mischief,” that is, non-orcs behaving in orcish ways. A young cult arises in Gondor decades after the death of King Elessar – one can imagine such a cult arising on 4chan or through Breitbart. Hell, it already has. It’s called the alt-right by people who have forgotten what “Nazi” means.

The story of the Fourth Age never got off the ground for Tolkien, so among other things, we don’t know from his work what can be done about orcs, short of fighting them. This is where the presentation of evil in Middle-Earth is limited, as it is in any story. We only have the stories we have.

Perhaps the question is, what is the torment that has created these particular orcs? Because if I’m right, and if this is a meaningful comparison at all, then ending that torment, whatever it is, might be the way to halt the orc-process.

Another question that I’m thinking through, given the idea that orcs are created by torment, is why are almost all of the people engaging in orc-behavior in our day and age white? Even a cursory glance at American history reveals a panoply of torment aimed at non-whites by whites. Genocide and slavery and exploitation and apartheid. So why are all of these Trump-voting orcs white?

Thoughts on this interpretation of orcs? Of our current situation in the US? What do you think is the torment and its source? 

Men Have A Default, But Not A Path

…nor a goal.

I’m inching my way toward constructive work in helping to create and define positive masculinity, which leads me to think about masculinity a lot, which is weird. The reason it is weird is that there is no healthy, established pathway for the thoughts, and many of the pathways being built that I am aware of are going the wrong direction.

A Google glance at discussion around masculinity reveals a few consistent threads, none of which are helpful, and some of which are harmful:

  1. Men are garbage and the source of every imagineable human problem, today and throughout history
  2. Men are the real victims of powerful Feminists and reverse-sexism, and must band together and swallow the Red Pill and double down on toxicity
  3. Men are innately hierarchical and aggressive, and are the victims of feminizing culture and unnatural restraints on their nature (compared to the good ol’ days); this one is related to the above but feels distinct
  4. Men are less and less employable in modern economies (see who has the jobs created in the last 10 years and who lots the jobs that were lost), less and less happy and healty, committing suicide more often and overdosing more often, but no one can figure out why. See above.
    1. At the same time men are utterly in control and have all of the power, all of the wealth, and every possible privilege. We fill the prison cells and the penthouse suites.

Or, you can boil it down to two main threads:

  • There is nothing positive about men, or
  • There is nothing questionable about men

Why is it so hard to say that there are positive things about men and also questionable things about men? Not only is that the only hopeful way forward, but frankly it seems to be the fact of the matter.

In trying to start constructive work here, I’ve been focusing on my Profiles in Positive Masculinity. As I said when I started the series, rather than coming up with a ‘theory of manhood’ or something at the beginning, what I wanted to do is to present what I thought were examples of positive masculinity in the form of living human beings. This is following along with the old Greek idea of the phronemos – the wise one who teaches wisdom by example rather than by formula. (True wisdom cannot be taught with words, but it can be recognized and emulated.) My hope was, and is, that even lacking a clear path to positive masculinity, we could intuit examples of it and hold them up, and then maybe later out of that comes a theory, and then a path.

The big problem is that men who want to be good men do not have a good path to get there. What we learn from our dads and grandpas is questionable – of inconsistent quality, let’s say, since their contexts were ones where men had more unquestioned power (we might have as much power now, but it is not unquesitoned). What we learn from media is created to make us insecure so that we buy shit we don’t need and fear people we should ally ourselves with – that’s the purpose of media, to be blunt, and using media for anything else requires persistent reistsance and careful discernment. What we get from culture overall is what Utah Philips called a “blueprint for self-destruction” and, along the way, a blueprint for the destruction of others. That’s the default – we are time-bombs that, ideally, never go off. Or, failing that, maybe we only hurt ourselves. (See falling white male life expectancy and rising white male suicide rates for example)

For all the privilege that comes with being a man, this is also a horrible situation to be in. We’re given undeserved power by a system that not only hurts everyone else but hurts us as well, and so if we realize what’s going on we want to dismantle this system. We look for alternatives, and what’s articulated is either we need to be forever restrained (nothing about men is good) or that we have been lied to and we are the real victims (nothing about men is questionable). There is a third option, that men are obsolete, or headed toward obsolescence, but I don’t see this one articulated as often as the first two. It’s out there, though, so we can say there are three bad options: a jail cell, a toxic Red Pill, or obsolescence.

We’re in the penthouse of a building, but the building is on fire and there are no doors or windows.

And yet, some men stumble into positive masculinity. It’s stumbling because either a man got lucky and got great advice from the other men in his life, or he abandoned the destructive script and made it up as he went along and it turned out alright. Either someone showed him a fire escape, or he smashed through a wall and jumped.

Most men will do neither, and instead, follow the default laid out before them by  society and other men. And men are not unique in this – it is rare for any given person to break from the mold, so to speak. The problem is that the mold for men is a destructive one, for men and for everyone else.

This is my post laying out the problem. I’m not going to move to a solution here. Rather, I’ll try to continue to do slow constructive work through Profiles in Positive Masculinity, and see what comes of that. I welcome discussion, and ideas, and suggestions, as I go forward.

 

What is “Biblical” at the Border?

Here’s what I wrote for the church newsletter on the topic of what would be “Biblical” at our southern border. If you suddenly see a lot more blog posts in the near future, it’s because they ran me out on a rail, as my church includes plenty of Trump voters. We’ll see.

In our ongoing national argument over our borders and how to maintain them, there is a periodic claim on one side or another that a particular view is “Biblical.” This is often confusing or frustrating for me, because the Bible is a library, and contains dozens of different voices that we know about, spanning at least 1500 years of texts. To simplify a claim down to “Biblical” or “not Biblical” is possible, but difficult, and requires a lot more work than pop culture and cable news programs allow. More work, in fact, than this Perspective article allows, but I wanted to say something – to put my own thoughts in the mix, so to speak.

Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of those who followed after him included a great deal of boundary-crossing. He crossed geographical boundaries and social boundaries as well, naming enemies as neighbors worthy of giving and receiving love, and listening to those who were silenced by the people around them. At the same time, the Hebrew scriptures in particular have a lot to say about boundaries, borders, and their maintenance. In particular throughout Joshua, with references in Exodus and Proverbs and Ezekiel, there is the idea of the Promised Land, a land in which, within certain borders, God’s chosen people would be able to flourish.

I don’t want to focus on the boundaries themselves, however. In the Bible there are a number of texts, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, that seem to say that God ordains and draws boundaries for the various peoples of the time. On the other hand, the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament have a large number of passages calling on people to cross boundaries and knock down walls – sometimes literal walls, usually metaphorical ones. One very consistent message of the Bible, however, from cover to cover, is how we are to treat people who cross our borders.

The Hebrew term that the Bible uses to describe people who cross borders is most often ger, a word that is translated into English as sojourner, alien, resident alien, refugee, immigrant, indigent person, wanderer, migrant, and stranger. The idea, put simply, is that of someone who is not from around here. In my reading, the overwhelming message of the Bible is that we are called by God to treat ger as neighbors, with every consideration we would have for someone we know well, who comes from where we come from. Just a few of many examples to consider:

  • Exodus 22:21 and 23:9 both say “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:21 adds “You know the heart of the sojourner”)
  • Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
  • Deuteronomy 10:18-19: “He (God) executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
  • Psalms 146:9: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
  • Matthew 25:27-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
  • Hebrews 13:1-2: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

These are just the briefest sampling of dozens of passages that have the same message, over and over again. We called to treat ger, sojourners, as we would treat a neighbor, with compassion. The most common reasons given for this call is either that God’s people are sojourners in this world, and have been from the very beginning (Adam and Eve were driven out of their homeland to wander; Abraham wandered; Moses wandered), or that God’s nature is to call sojourners, and watch over them, and when necessary execute justice on their behalf. Frequently the command to respect and care for ger, for sojourners, simply ends with the reminder: I am the Lord your God. In the Gospels, we have Jesus’s insistence that however we treat the least among us is how we treat him, and that we will be judged based on that treatment.

In recent weeks it has been widely reported that thousands of children have been taken from their parents and placed in camps, prisons, and other places like abandoned office buildings. These children range from less than a year old to adolescence, and include children of asylum-seekers who entered our country legally, and others who entered our country illegally (which is a misdemeanor). This policy of family separation is expressly undertaken as a punishment, and there is clearly no sufficient plan in place to reunite these children with their families. In many cases, there is no record or paper trail for these families, and the children have been relocated multiple states away. (One local example: dozens of asylum-seeking fathers, who entered the country legally, are currently incarcerated with their children in Berks County, PA, and have been for a few years now). These children, including infants and toddlers, will now need to go to court alone, without any family, while immigration courts try to determine their status and, we hope, seek to reunite them with their families when this policy ends. Even that will be a monumental task, given the lack of care and documentation. There is no question that some of these families will have lost their children forever, which is an unimaginable heartbreak. There is also no question that some of these children have been trafficked, abused, and mistreated.

I know that among those of you who read this perspective of mine, there will be some who disagree with me about immigration, and refugees, and asylum-seekers, and others who agree, and some in-between. I hope that we can agree, however, that not only is this policy of family separation inhumane, it is also entirely against the message we find in scripture as to how we should treat sojourners. We are forgetting that our ancestors in faith were refugees and asylum-seekers, who crossed borders seeking safety; we are forgetting that our Lord and Savior and his family crossed borders seeking asylum when he was a small child. We certainly don’t have to abolish borders, or make them un-secure, in order to treat people humanely.

Some Things I Like About My Life

Is this really worth writing about? I think so. Will anyone care? Doesn’t really matter. Last week’s post was kind of rough to write, so here’s one that’s on a happier note.

As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I can always provide a deep, thought-out list of all the things that are wrong with me, my life, and the world around me. It is a lot harder to talk about good things, or even think of them and ennumerate them, but I’ve had some consciously-thankful moments lately, and I thought I’d write things out.

Brown-Thumb Garden

We call it a brown-thumb garden because of our method – plant things randomly and toss seeds around and then see what comes up in the spring and summer.

Our brown-thumb garden is in its third year, and it is a legit ecosystem at this point. Butterflies, moths, at least three or four species of bees, dragonflies, ladybugs, sunflowers and a profusion of a dozen other kinds of flowers, strawberries, and occasoinal beans. I like that when we step out the door, or come home, we often pause to excited talk about what the bees are doing, or whether new sunflowers have opened, or whether that wasp is building a nest and do we need to try to discourage it.

I should say her. I also like how we talk about animals. When we see some seed shells scattered on a leaf, we say that “someone” has been eating our sunflower seeds, meaning one of the local birds. I like that we talk about animals as people – how comfortable my daughter is in talking about humans as one kind of animal, not as an insult, but int he sense that animals are beautiful and interesting and wonderful to learn about.

And sometimes scary and dangerous. There’s that too.

D&D Group

This past session, not only did we add a brand-new player to an 8th level campaign (21 sessions in) but we also had the first session where a friend who moved would be present digitally – Max Headroom style on a computer screen via Google Hangout. These are two big challenges, on top of providing an entertaining four-hour gaming session for five other adults – and it went great! We got lucky, and the new player seems very cool, was patient, and then jumped right in. The technical difficulties with our Max Headroom player were minimal. It was a blast. Our weekly game continues to be what keeps me sane.

Dungeon World Group

In one of my few moments of social extroversion, as a college freshman, I kind of invited myself into a character-creation session in our dorm lounge for a Vampire the Masquerade game. At the time I was not a fan of Vampire, but I really wanted to be in a game, and knew I needed to meet people and make friends, and jumped at the opportunity.

20 years later, I am gaming with some of those same people from that college group (which would range through Vampire, Mage, Changeling, LARPs, GUPRS, AD&D 2nd, 3 and 3.5E, and more recently Fate Core and now Dungeon World). Our game is very much the kind of silly, surprising game that Dungeon World seems to point you towards. Vivid, zany things happen, and it’s a ton of fun.

Bodhana Group

Jack Berkenstock, Executive Director of The Bodhana Group, is a wonderful person, and a friend, and I’m getting to know other wonderful Bodhana folks through participation in Save Against Fear, our annual gaming convention and fundraiser. I’m honored to be on the board and able to help with their book and RPG setting and also things like editing and improving fundraising letters and brainstorming ideas.

What’s The Bodhana Group? It is a nonprofit that focues on using games in therapy, especialy with children and adolescents. We’ve had people in tears because of the power of games in therapy – kids opening up who never open up otherwise, having fun while also receiving therapeutic effects and help with serioues challenges like social anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, trauma and grief.

I am so thankful to be able to help with something like this.

Graciousness

My 6yo daughter is signifcantly more gracious than I am. She is paying attention to what Julius Junior and the Octonauts and Daniel Tiger and My Little Pony are trying to teach her, and is become wise about friendship and working together, learning to be resilient. She decided to take Julius Junior’s advice and celebrate someone in her life – in this case, me – with a special party. She did her own Chinese Dragon Dance (forgive the cultural appropriation, she loves dragons and Chinese restaurants) and then we went out for Thai Food, together with her stuffed elephant, who very much enjoyed the elephant-themed decorations. She’s just a thoughtful person, and she reminds me to be more thoughtful.

Writing

I just enjoy writing. The things I want to write about are not focused enough to make much progress, and I can easily name a bunch of writers who are better at it, but it is one of the few things I can just work on, every day, and continually enjoy.

I’m happy with the ideas that are going into my OSR hack, and into my Dragonblade setting. I like Charts of Darkness, and am kind of stymied in terms off getting it ready for the Storyteller’s Vault, but it’ll get there at some point. Occasionally someone even still buys a PDF of Parsec!

As I said talking with a friend recently, writing means twenty thousand hours spent creating things that no one else will ever see. That’s true, but I can’t help but feel it’s been twenty thousand hours well spent, with many more to come.

“He Was Mostly Dadequate”

When we found out my wife was pregnant, I experienced fear like I had never experienced before. This is speaking as someone who has always been wracked by anxiety and has multiple phobias (darkness, heights, water where I can’t see the bottom). This was something different. This was whole-body fear, day in and day out. It was near-suicidal fear, to be honest. One time I had a very strong impulse, and vivid fantasy that actually made me pull over, of just turning the wheel and driving into oncoming traffic. It would end the fear, and my wife and daughter-to-be would get the PCUSA death benefit from the Board of Pensions, which I was pretty sure would be significantly better than having me for a dad. It felt very much like a win-win, but I had the presence of mind to pull to the right instead of the left and stop the car and just sob on the shoulder while cars and semis roared by.

It didn’t help that my wife had a lot of complications with this pregnancy, including trips to the ER and weekly stress tests and all sorts of things. The time is largely a blank from all of the fear crawling through me, but I can’t imagine I was much help. I tried.

When my daughter was born, my first words to her were something very much like, “Hello Poppy. I’m really sorry, but I’m your dad.” My thoughts about her life were all about what I could do to mitigate the damage I was inevitably going to inflict on her. How could I bring her into the world and have her grow up a healthy and well-adjusted human despite me?

(This whole time, there was a part of me in the background saying “Hey some of this is probably your mental illness distorting your perceptions of yourself and the situation” but it was a faint voice easily drowned out by the roar of panic.)

This constant fear didn’t go away when she was born. I think it was just subsumed under exhaustion through three months of colic, and the anxiety and depression of my first ministry job falling apart, and failing to find a new ministry job, and realizing that I was not only going to be the father of a baby but I was going to be the homeless father of a homeless baby. We moved in with our wonderful friends, setting up in their basement. My wife found a job as a preschool teacher, and so I ended up being a stay-at-home dad.

I think this was a life-long low point – one of three or maybe four I can think of. I had failed in the ways that I had to measure myself – as a pastor, as a provider, as a husband, etc., and now I was going to fail as a parent as well. Every single day, all day, the relentless drumbeat of my failure, and this helpless baby the victim. The competent extraordinary parent was going to work, and now the baby was stuck with me.

And my thoughts got way worse than that.

So here’s what happened – I survived. My daughter survived. Every day that ended with her intact, I took as a win. People often laughed when I said that, but I meant it very earnestly and literally. I had to set some kind of standard, and that standard was “the baby did not suffer lasting harm today.” That was it. Everything else was negotiable. Either one of us, or both, could spend the day screaming and crying, but if she didn’t suffer lasting harm, I had to chalk that up as a win.

The interesting thing here is what all of this came together to mean. Wracked by fear, I could easily have avoided most parenting by being a pastor. It’s a job that takes all of the time you give it and more. Years could have gone by that way – I am sure of it. I am actually sure I would have done just that, feeling like it was the only way to survive emotionally. My child could have been essentially a stranger – I’d be the emotionally distant provider that is the bedrock of so many father issues and tragic character arcs.

But this was rendered impossible by my double failure, as a new pastor and also as someone seeking a job as a pastor to replace the one I was failing at. I had to lose what I had worked for years to earn, and had spent two and a half years trying to build and then salvage, and then fail to find something else in time before the money ran out. Then I had to be literally stuck in a house with the original source of this paralyzing fear that had filled me for the past 18 months of my life. There had to be no way out, because if there was, I would have found it.

As a result, I eventually became something approximating a father. Not a good father by any means, but in time I would coin a term for what I was shooting for: “Dadequate.” I was not going to be a great dad, and I was not going to be a good dad, but the line I drew was at being an adequate dad. An advanced version of “the baby did not suffer lasting harm today.” Dadequate.

Is this helpful, fellow shitty dads? You know who you are. Long past the point where you’re supposed to have slipped into a dad-groove, you still feel like an awkward idiot who is barely jumping from island to island floating in a sea of hot lava. You held your newborn in your arms, and far from the rush of warmth and certainty that family members told you you’d feel, you just kept screaming “This is going to end so badly” over and over in your head. I don’t mean good dads with imposter syndrome or false humility – I’m talking to the crappy dads here. Not fishing for compliments, but acknowledging that this is not my strength. It is not my wheel-house. And a lot of things about me make it more difficult – some my fault, and some not.

Maybe it’s helpful to read about someone setting the bar that low and coming to terms with that being the bar. Should I set the bar higher? Of course I should! But my starting point is a shitty dad, so dadequate is actually a serious challenge. It’s like weighing 500lbs and being uncoordinated, and deciding you’re going to be an adequate gymnast – a non-trivial problem to solve. Or like being functionally illiterate, and deciding you are going to be a published novelist. Not a New York Times bestselling author, just published. Somewhere. Again, no small feat, considering your starting-point.

And you know what? The world is full of some seriously messed-up dads. And so I’m working hard not to be one of them. Of course the world is also full of great dads, but I’m not in their category, any more than I am a potential semi-pro ball player or millionaire. That is literally another league, and I am OK with that. If someday I die and my tombstone says “He was mostly dadequate”, I’d be proud of that. That will have been a job well done.

Dadequate.