“You can’t go around building a better world for people”

For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post

This week’s Discworld quote comes from Witches Abroad, which is, among many other thing, a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. In the story, Granny Weatherwax and her companions are pitted against a more conventional fairy godmother, who is intent on scripting a happy ending for the characters.

‘We’re the other kind [of godmother],’ said Granny. ‘We’re the kind that gives people what they know they really need, not what we think they ought to want.’

[…]

‘You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.’

At first glance, this seems like an argument for an entirely hands-off approach to character development [the virtues kind, not the authorial kind].  Resist people imposing roles on you, constraint is intrinsically stifling, be who you want to be, etc, etc.

But Granny clearly doesn’t trust our wants.  The roles we would choose are not the roles we ought to play.  The roles that Granny Weatherwax rejects are the ones that fit too comfortably.

It is Lily, the conventional, storybook godmother who offers to preserve us as we are. The happy endings she promises are perfectly tailored to us and fit like swaddling blankets.  To be treated as complete in ourselves is infantilizing and eliminates the possibility of growth.

Granny can’t build us a better world without building better people to populate it; flawed people cannot and ought not be at peace.  An endless, numbing stasis is the best paradise we could hope for, lulled to sleep by the endless whisper of “you’re perfect just the way you are.”

Instead of a utopia, we require a crucible. 

Granny-as-godmother reminds me of an episode from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (you can read the passage here, but you ought to buy the book, which is excellent).  A man is tormented by a demon but is so used to its presence that he cannot imagine how his self would survive its destruction.  He balks when an angel  offers to throttle it.

Lily the good fairy sees our flaws and offers us roles that will allow us to coexist with them in bearable compromise.  Hard-hearted Granny, in contrast, threatens us with a terrifying freedom.  Like Lewis’s angel, she sees the worst in us, looks us in the eye and asks “May I kill it?”

The Story of Shmuel and Tailoring Support [Guest Post]
Holy Fools Against the Mini-Maxers
Effective Altruism and Caritas [Radio Readings]
Can’t I Love You Into Being Happy?
About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."


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