Sunday, March 11, 2018

Just one wish

Sometimes I wonder what the greatest gift/blessing could be. At the same time, I also consider what the worst curse could ever be. I’m still unclear on the former but it is pretty obvious that the worst thing a magical being could ever say to me would be “I’ll grant you one wish.” Even just being asked would be horrible and having to turn down (for what?) that offer would be really sucky.

Many people might think of "one wish" as an incredible opportunity but I’ve thought it through and, trust me, it doesn’t end well. Fortunately, we have a spate of popular culture resources which can shed some light on the issue. I'll rabbit hunt it for the non-believers. What do I ask for? The snarky among you are leaning towards “ask for [more/unlimited] wishes.” But that’s just stupid. If one wish is a curse, then many more would, a fortiori, be an even greater calamity waiting to happen. The later wishes would be constantly used up trying to mitigate the disasters which occurred because of the earlier ones. Wishes are designed to subvert the natural order but that leads to consequences (think Jim Carey’s prequel to “Evan, Almighty”). The more the way things are supposed to happen gets shifted, the more problems ensue. The more responsibility for changing the world, the more one feels the weight of billions of voices, all crying and then suddenly silenced. Deal me out, thankyouverymuch.

Maybe I ask for immortality? No – Highlander (among others) proves that this is not only incredibly sad, watching everyone else age and die, but also extremely inconvenient, having to move around to avoid suspicion, and needing to create new identities. All that just so I can be around when the iPhone 23q is released? That’s not much of a trade off.

Should I ask for something more mundane? Everything has a price. Consider the movie “The Box” but replace it with a movie anyone has actually seen. I’ll wait. Now, think about the Monkey’s Paw. Money leads to death. Life leads to monsters. In the animated parody of that story, Homer Simpson asked for a turkey sandwich, and I now quote the sage: “I’ll make a wish that can’t backfire. I wish for a turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with lettuce and mustard and-and I don’t want any zombie turkeys, I don’t want to turn into a turkey myself, and I don’t want any other weird surprises. You got it? . . . Hey! Hmmm, mmm, not bad, nice hot mustard, good bread, the turkey’s a little dry . . . the turkey’s a little dry! Oh foul accursed thing! What demon from the depths of hell created thee?” Also, think about that whole “house elf” slave thing in the Harry Potter series. Food that magically appears on the table still has to be prepped by someone. That wish for a sleeve of never-ending Oreo cookies means someone is staying up nights, baking for me and the finite wheat harvests will not go to feeding the starving babies of Eritrea (it’s a place, I checked) but instead, to my gluttony. Wishing for something ex nihilo would throw off the balance of matter in the universe, and that is not a good way to start the morning, what with a universal imbalance and all, no siree.

Things never quite work out and the greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment when the turkey, after all that pre-thinking, still ends up not living up to what the dream was for it. Do I ask for health for a relative? Which one? Who deserves to (out)live his divinely ordained time? Who has earned this magic more than another? Should I ask for health for all? Do we have the resources on this planet to sustain a race of significantly larger size? What about the lives of all the doctors, undertakers and grave diggers which will be ruined by this. When Donne pointed out in Meditation 17 (one of my top 17 meditations) that no man is an island he wasn’t just pointing out that our deaths (should) impact each other, but that our lives and their choices do as well! Maybe I’ll get rid of war and violence – which would mean the end of human nature, free will and would cause (inevitably) an invasion by Kang and Kodos (same episode…look it up).

Superhero movies used to be this form of escapism – wouldn’t we all want to have powers like Superman or Spiderman? It took a deeper exploration for us to see that with great power comes the death of your uncle and then a series of miscast reboots. The horror. The most recent set of Superhero movies have done a much better job of showing that having gifts of speed, strength, intellect or anything that puts one so far from the norm in society is fraught with downside (now there’s a superpower…being able to see the downside to every situation. My God, I’m SPECIAL!) Go watch WarGames and see what happens when you get what you ask for, when you get access to what you aren't supposed to have access to. You end up with Dabney Coleman mussing your hair and that's something I would want to avoid. And, oh yeah, arrested by the FBI and almost causing the end of humanity. I want to avoid those things also.

I could wish that my dog could talk but that doesn’t mean he will have anything interesting to say (nor that he would understand me when I spoke back). Should I do something to empower other species or will that lead to an ape revolt? Look how that turned out (spoiler alert, “not good”). Do I just want to be loved? That would get a bit stalker-ish, no doubt. I love Willy Wonka, but his quote about the man who got everything he ever wanted is totally off base as is this guy who admires the quote. The guy who gets whatever he wants ends up with no ambition and probably other problems.

Maybe the fascination with the “one wish” scenario is an expression of our own dissatisfaction with our lives. We are afraid to confront the underlying wish, “what if everything was somehow different; could I be happy then?” To make that one wish is to have to accept that things can’t be any better than they are without there being consequences. Just ask George Bailey and every TV show that invoked that “never been born” trope. Now, sure, some people live in such abject conditions that the price is acceptable. A victim who just wants to not be victimized can probably formulate a wish that, while it might negatively impact the world, would certainly, and in a very local sense, make things a whole lot better. We do this when we pray -- we pray most often to thank God for our existence and to recognize that things really aren't so bad. Sometimes we ask Jim to use the normal laws of the universe but bend them a touch to let things play out in subtly different ways, but only if He thinks that it would be for the best. We don't pray for 2+2 to be 5 (well, I used to, after EVERY. MATH. TEST, but I digress). In fact, Jewish law teaches that we don't pray for the impossible. But for the average guy the hypotheticals, when explored, can be shown to have more disadvantages than advantages. Being forced to make a choice about a wish would make me responsible for the undoing of the universe and that’s a burden I don’t think I could handle, at least not before lunch.

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