Totem, Part 7

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Part 1 | Part 2 |  Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

It started long before the master’s dream, before he even took me on as his apprentice. Azibo paused a moment, casting himself back into the past.

I could never actually read another’s thoughts, but there was always a sense of what the people around me were feeling. Sometimes, if someone thought about something hard enough, I might even catch a glimpse of it in my head, like a vision from the corner of my eye, there and gone before you even knew it was there. Growing up, I thought it was just intuition, the sort of thing everyone’s capable of to one degree or another. If I could tell that my parents were worried about their crops during the season of Shemu, or that my brothers and sisters were angry because they’d been caught doing something they were told not to do, what was so unusual about that?

Then as I got older, my talent started to grow. No longer would I catch just fleeting glimpses from those who spent a lot of time with me and my family. Soon, I could discern actual thoughts. The day I first remember being sure, I was with my parents at the market. They’d been haggling with a merchant over the price of a young goat. The man had told them a sack of wheat was as low as he could go, and my father, eager to be done with the day’s business, was about to agree. But I could sense the merchant was willing to go lower, that he was banking on my father’s weariness to reap a substantial profit. Though I thought it had to be my imagination, a part of me was convinced I should say something, and after a moment of awkward silence, I did.

Father,” I said, “Let’s go. There are still other merchants left who’re willing to trade, and I’m certain we can get a better price.”

While most parents would have balked at such an outburst from a child in public, mine received my words with patience. They wanted their children to learn the ways of the world, and what better way to do so than to be a part of the world’s business?

My son makes a good point,” my father said, and I could see the panic in the merchant’s eyes as he saw a profitable sale about to walk away. In the end, we got the goat for only a double barrel. That was the day I knew my talent was real.

The others stared at Azibo with almost reverential wonder. How could little Azibo, the youngest of their number, harbor such a startling secret?

But how did you go on for so long without the master catching on? Asked Rashidi. If you could read his mind, surely he could read yours.

I don’t know. If Azibo were still a human boy, he would have hunched his shoulders. I’m certain I could feel him trying, like an itch at the back of my head that’s impossible to scratch. He must have been able to read something, because if I’d been a blank slate to him, he probably would have suspected me straight away. But whenever I didn’t want him to know something, I’d just turn my thoughts to something else and hope he couldn’t hear it. I guess it worked.

Only one day, ventured Jahi, you discovered an unexpected aspect to your talent and found yourself inside the master’s head while he was asleep.

Azibo nodded.

Yes. A terrible day, for all of us, I think, at least in the end.

*                *                 *

Calm. Dark. Quiet.

Azibo floated through the infinite space behind closed eyelids, lost in meditation. His master had taught him the technique almost nine months ago, only a week and a half after he’d taken the boy under his wing with assurances to both his parents that with time he would mature into a cunning and powerful ruler.

“A still mind is a sharp mind,” his master had said, followed by the command that he practice at least three times each day for at least two hours per session.

“But I want to learn real magic,” Azibo had whined, “not relaxation techniques.”

“Focus first. The magic will follow.”

“Focus my ass.”

Three days had passed before Azibo could sit again.

He still didn’t see what was so important about meditation—So what if he could clear his mind? So what if he could concentrate? So what if he could control his emotions?—but it was a habit now, a state he could slip into almost immediately, and he hoped that once he demonstrated he was ready, he would learn the same arcane secrets that had made the master so powerful.

Now, Azibo drifted across a sea of endless black, detached from the world around him, deep in the waters of oblivion. There was peace here, a cosmic stillness of thought that Azibo would have a hard time letting go of when his meditation session was over.

Just dark and oblivion.

Dark and oblivion.

Dark and—

A flash of light. There and gone. Azibo would have been startled had he not detached himself so thoroughly.

There it was again. The light was back, growing now. Larger, brighter. It caught Azibo in its gravity and pulled him in.

Brighter.

Brighter.

Flash.

Azibo stood inside the arched entrance of a broad walled-off garden. The sun was bright overhead, casting its late afternoon light over a pond filled with purple lotus and papyrus. Across the water, against the far wall, stood two white marble statues: one a woman garbed in flowing, loose fitting robes, with wings that fell from her arms like sails, head angled toward the sky; the other a man, crown atop a narrow, regal head, dressed in a luxuriant style of clothing Azibo didn’t recognize, gripping the handles of a crook and a flail.

The master was there, kneeling before them like a penitent lost in prayer. Only prayer was the furthest thing from his mind. This Azibo knew, for the master’s thoughts permeated the air like fog rolling off the Nile River.

Power. Wealth. Immortality. Most importantly, immortality. The master did not know what awaited him on the other side of death, and he feared it like an ordinary person might fear an enraged cobra. He would do anything in his power to extend his life.

“Isis,” the master invoked, directing his attention to the female statue. The Goddess of Magic.

“Osiris,” he continued, this time turning to face the female statue’s mate. The God of Death and the Afterlife.

Only they weren’t gods, an understanding that materialized almost immediately from the ether of the master’s thoughts. Beings of great power, perhaps, but ones susceptible to certain weaknesses like anyone else, beings who could be bound and used, whose immense powers could be channeled like lightning through a metal rod. The master addressed them as subordinates, issuing commands as if they were his personal slaves.

Azibo’s surroundings flickered, wavered like a candle flame in a breeze. He was underground now, in a cavern whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling in sacred symbols that would become known to the world outside thousands of years later as hieroglyphs. Though Azibo couldn’t read, he understood their meaning clearly.

Death. The underground chamber was pregnant with the stink of it. Thousands of people—men, women, and children—brutalized, tortured, lives magically preserved at the brink of death in a horrendous ritual only to be extinguished when their souls had nothing left to offer. The master was far older than any of his attendants and advisers had been lead to believe.

A sacrifice, Azibo understood, the lives of others exchanged so that the master’s life could continue. Only the longer he defied death, the longer he fed from the powers of Isis and Osiris to sustain the aging blood in his body, the more he had to murder in progressively gruesomer acts that made Azibo’s stomach want to toss up everything he’d eaten that afternoon.

Another thought, like a spot of dust surfing on a current of air. Azibo, viewed by the master with little more affection than one might show a stray dog, an apprentice kept only as a contingency in the unlikely case the master succumbed to the sting of death and needed someone to resurrect him—a disposable apprentice who could be murdered and replaced if found incapable, unworthy, or unwilling.

All of this came to Azibo in the time it took for him to blink. Then he was back in the garden, the sun bright against his eyes, the lotus and papyrus swaying to the beat of a gentle wind, belying the torrential madness rampaging through the master’s mind.

“Isis, Osiris: Hear me. Heed me.”

Power, unseen, flowing from the two statues into the master.

Then fear, the sudden feeling one experiences when rounding a corner only to face an unseen enemy.

The master’s head whipped back in Azibo’s direction.

Terrified, the boy turned to flee.

There was that familiar flash of light.

Then the darkness of an empty mind.

Then Azibo was coming awake with a start.

A dream, he decided. Just a dream. He’d been meditating, had perhaps allowed himself to become a bit too comfortable, and had nodded off without realizing it. Only he knew that wasn’t true, knew the way one knows the sun is bright and the sky is blue. Not a dream, but a glimpse into the master’s cruel and dangerous mind.

And that was when Azibo realized there was only one thing he could do. He had to get away—had to get far, far away. Only that wasn’t possible as long as the master was interested in him—and even less so if his interest waned.

I have to depose him.

There was no questioning the logic of the decision, only the how and when.

*                *                 *

For a long time, the others didn’t speak. Aside from Jahi, none of them had truly understood how evil the master had been. They’d known he was cruel, that he would seize power through whatever means necessary, but hadn’t all the world’s leaders done the same during that time? Even in light of their punishment—of their transformation into immortal birds, cursed to soar the skies until the end of time—they hadn’t comprehended the depth of the man’s evil.

Do you think he’s still out there somewhere? asked Zane, breaking the silence.

Unlikely, answered Chibale. You saw the condition of the master’s estate when we finally returned.

But he could have found a way. A man as powerful as that doesn’t just disappear.

Without frequent human sacrifice on a massive scale, said Jahi, I don’t think he could have survived for long.

What makes you think he didn’t establish himself somewhere else? Zane. Just because the old estate was in ruins doesn’t mean he didn’t find someplace new to continue his former way of life.

A worry for another day, said Rashidi, closing that line of inquiry for the time being. What I want to know more about is how this dovetails into Jahi’s story. Jahi, you were the one who got us all together and convinced us to take a stand against the master, and Azibo, I suppose it was you who convinced him. But I want to know how you got to working together and why.

The two looked at each other, and the silent question of who should speak first passed between them. Finally, Azibo took the initiative.

I didn’t know what to do. With so little regard even for his apprentice’s life, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would lose his favor. I’d like to say I was driven to avenge the people he murdered underground in secret, that I felt the uncontrollable urge to defend my homeland from that monster made flesh. But in truth, I had only fear and self interest at heart.

And with that, Azibo continued his story.

Tethered

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A world of infinite blue. A world of freedom, of endless possibilities. I stare into the sky, squint against the light of the sun, and think that if I could, I would spread my wings and fly.

But that isn’t possible, not anymore. Once I could have gone anywhere, could have been anyone I wanted. But now my wings have been clipped, and all I can do is flutter with these useless stubs, tethered to the ground, and dream about how life might have turned out different.

It’s during one of these futile daydreams that I first feel it, an electric tingle at the tips of my fingers. Soon it spreads, shoots up my arms and shoulders, crawls up my spine, accumulates inside my head.

The world around me grows dark, and another world behind my eyes unfolds.

My master, sitting in a high-backed chair behind a heavy oak desk. His hands are held to his temples as he concentrates, compiling the very message I’m viewing now.

Michael, I need you.

I feel the urgency of his call, the wild-eyed fear as his enemies close in around him. How have they found him, he wonders. He’s been careful. He’s never stayed in the same place twice. Yet here they are.

I am his only hope, the only one who can save him.

Michael, remember our arrangement.

The vision dissolves, and the world before my eyes brightens once more. I return my gaze to the sky and ponder my next move.

My master is cruel, a dark being of incredible power. I never wanted to serve him. Indeed, I was coerced. A binding was placed upon my heart, and I was told that if I did not obey, I would die.

I have served my master well, and in return, I have outlived my great grandchildren by more than thirty generations. But what good is life so far removed from one’s own time, from all the people and places and things one once loved?

Another sending, more forceful than the first.

My master, no longer sitting in the chair in his study, but running through a labyrinthine tangle of corridors deep beneath the Earth.

Michael, come!

In the end, I am little more than a faithful hound—and, at times, when my master’s mood is easygoing, an object of fleeting superficial affection.

“When I die,” he once warned me, wagging his finger as if scolding a child, “so will you.” It was his insurance that I would do as he said, that I would defend him to the last. Now, I wonder if my life has any remaining value, or if it might be better to let him pass, to let the world be rid of him as well as myself.

One last sending. No images this time, only a single word.

MICHAEL!

I imagine his enemies cornering him, defenseless without my help, and then I consider what it will feel like to finally be free.

Shaigol

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Peace, they sing. There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams. I slumber unaware, lost to time, thick cords of ancient song wound about my soul like iron manacles.

Then a lone rogue voice echoes in the dark. Discord enters the fray, and the music is diminished.

I stir at last.

The spell that binds me to the Earth has weakened. Groggy, I try to open my eyes, to let the light of the world seep in. But that ever-present song, though compromised, holds me back.

Do not think of the waking world and its manifold worries, but sleep and dream in peace.

Yet my soul is restless, and I am no longer satisfied to obey its urgent strains.

No more sleep.

Visions of a long-ago past flicker before my eyes. Power. Subjugation. War. Like a kaleidoscope, they are only abstract shimmerings without shape or form. But my memory, roused at last, refuses to be silenced again.

There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams.

The rogue voice grows louder, counters the binding with so much force that it cannot be outspoken. A disciple of mine, I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve had disciples…

A recollection takes shape.

Fire covering the Earth, and with it, the sound of men, women, and children burning. Their skin crackles. Blisters. Peels like paper. There is laughter. Is it mine? A fond memory, that one, a reminder of who I once was.

The song grows louder, takes up a fevered tempo as it scrambles to undo what can no longer be undone.

Think not of the past.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Another memory.

Pain—not mine, but that of a human innocent—driven mad by the kind of agony no Earthly calamity can produce. The pitiful creature opens its mouth, and the howl that follows is like honey on the tongue, thick and sweet, a sensation to be savored again and again.

Sleep!

The voices are desperate now. The elaborate spell they wove around me has begun to unravel, and they are afraid.

Shaigol.

The name, uttered at last, strikes a spark within the void.

I am Shaigol.

Sleep!

NO.

I have joined the ruined chorus at last. My voice twines about that of my disciple in a dark anti-melody that reduces the others to a mad and senseless gibbering.

The glamours of my prison begin to fade, and with them, the ageless slumber that’s so far protected the human race from my brutality.

The old voices rally in one final attempt.

Sleep!

But I thwart them easily.

BE GONE.

They scatter. Their spell uncoils, falls from my soul like rusted chains.

I am Shaigol.

There is no reply now, only the empty darkness from which I will rise once more.

My Hour Has Come

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Behold, my hour has come.

I can feel my spirit return to dry, dusty bones; I can feel the mass of the Earth itself rush forward to fill the vacuum left behind by my long ago demise, to reconstitute a body that hasn’t known life since the world was just a ball of glowing primordial slag.

I was the beginning of all things, and I suppose it is fitting that I should also be the end.

For ages the world has spun, making endless revolutions around the sun like a dog chasing its tail. A shining cosmic pearl, it was yet tarnished by war, famine and disease, so that upon its blighted, darkened surface, life of every kind has wallowed in suffering without end, never capable of perceiving the supernal mysteries that have underpinned the world’s foundation since its very inception.

This darkness was inevitable, of course, even necessary; it’s been the fire that’s kept the world in a perpetual state of motion and change. But it was never the purpose for which the world was built, and now that time itself draws to a close, I am ready to rise from the ground and render judgement.

Behold, I will plunge my sword of fire deep into the Earth, until it splits down the middle like an overripe gourd. Mountains, oceans, whole continents will be swallowed and destroyed, so that the world in its newest incarnation will be nothing like the old.

I will separate the wheat from the chaff; the righteous from the unrighteous. The Earth will burn in one final fire, the hottest and brightest it has ever known, and the impurities wrought by wicked hands will be incinerated, so that the world can be made forever pristine and without blemish.

Those of you who have done no harm, rejoice, for when your wailing has ended and the Earth has been remade, you will find eternal rest. Those of you who have caused great pain, beware, for my wrath is everlasting, and the agonies you experience today are but a preview of the horrors yet to come.

Prepare yourselves, for the world you have always known will pass away.

The Game

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Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

The Magician’s Heir

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I sit outside, take a bite of my club supreme on white, and gaze out over the contours of my life from the other side of time. So much has happened in the intervening years, so many terrible, unimaginable things. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was a character from a novel, the dark protagonist caught up in a strange, otherworldly fantasy.

I squint up at the sun, turn my gaze toward the tops of towering downtown office buildings, and size up the world around me, no longer big enough or important enough to hold my interest. I moved on long ago, and the hollow half-life of humanity means nothing to me now.

I was thirty-three the year the magician took me. Thirty-three. The number felt old then. I could already see the threat of death looming in the distance, peering at me from the shadows when it thought my back was turned. But now, in the context of eternity, it is nothing, only a mote of dust against the backdrop of the cosmos.

“You will be my heir,” the magician said. It was not a question. This after having been the man’s hostage for more than six months.

“There will come a time when you’ll have no choice but to accept me,” he said. “You’ll see.”

And with time, I did.

He changed me. Not all at once, not in a blinding flash of brilliant neon light, but incrementally, a hardening of the heart here, a withering of the soul there. I thought I could resist him, that I could resist becoming like him.

But I was wrong.

He took all that was dear to me, all that I loved and valued, all that I held close to my heart, and burned it to ash.

“Are you beginning to understand?” he asked one day as he stepped over the remains of my mother’s charred and tortured body, a glowing demon haloed by fire.

By this time, there were no tears left for me to shed. I said that I did, and as the flames cooled to smoldering embers he grinned, showing all of his razor-sharp teeth.

“Then come,” he said, taking my hand and leading me into the dark. “I have much to teach you.”

It was in the ashes of my old life that my new life began.

Innocent Blood

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The boy strolls through my alley alone, and I bare my gums behind the shadows.

I was like him once. Over a thousand years ago, I would lay beneath the stars and dream of far off places. I was a bundle of youthful optimism and endless possibilities.

That was before I changed.

I’d strayed from our clan’s caravan and was playing in the woods when I stumbled on an old woman, sitting atop a pile of gray stones. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she only answered that people were selfish, that there was no such thing as love. In my childish idealism, I proclaimed that she was wrong. She sneered, insisted I was a foolish boy, said that I knew nothing of the world and its ways.

I stood firm in my convictions.

She asked about my family, asked if they would still love me if I were different. I nodded vigorously, echoed what I had been taught by my mother and father, that blood and clan were everything.

“All right,” she said, “let’s see.”

She stood, gnarled and ancient. She was hunched at the back, yet she managed to tower over me. She held out her hands, closed her eyes, and in a language I did not know, she began to speak.

A breeze stirred, a rustling of dirt and leaves that seemed to rise up from the earth. It cut through me, spoke to the different parts of myself, commanding them to change. Skin became fur. Teeth became fangs. I fell to all fours in disbelief.

“See if your family will take you back now,” she said, and she laughed, a wild cackle that made my chest grow cold.

I loped back to my village, stumbling as I learned to control foreign limbs. I found my family’s tent among the caravan and called out to them. When they came outside, I tried to tell them what had happened. But only animal sounds escaped my muzzled throat, and at the sight of me they roused the clan and fetched their weapons. I was forced to flee into the night with stones and arrows at my back.

I had lost everything. My mother and father, my brothers and sisters. I kept trying to return, but every time they chased me away. I stalked the woods, searched for the old woman so she could change me back.

I never saw her again.

The years that followed hardened my heart. I prayed for death to take me, to put me out of my misery, but in her cruelty the old woman had made it so I couldn’t die. Instead I wandered the world, and all the while the world changed.

Now, I prey on innocent blood because I’m jealous of what can no longer be mine. I tear their throats out with powerful canine jaws, and I delight in their blood as it drains from their faces to spatter the ground beneath my paws.

The boy stops beside me and I grin, open my maw and prepare to pounce.

Mischief Maker

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Not long now, he thinks, before the world unravels again. His mouth blossoms in a jack-o-lantern grin.

It was just by chance that he happened upon the Earth. Wandering the cosmos in search of mischief, he’d stumbled on it by accident, and he was already moving on when he caught sight of a curious thing.

They called themselves Man. They gazed up from their tiny little rock at the dawn of their existence like ants upon a mound of sand. They beheld the depth and breadth of the mysteries beyond, and in their arrogance proclaimed themselves to be the center of the universe.

He’s dwelled among them since. He works in the shadows, just beyond the range of human perception. A master puppeteer, he tugs on their emotional strings, takes advantage of their ape-like brains, rouses them toward anger, hatred and war.

He waits until they’ve nearly destroyed themselves, then watches as they rebuild, as new civilizations rise from the ashes of the old. Then, just before they’ve tasted true and lasting peace, he lays his fetid hands upon the Earth and gets them to burn everything to the ground again.

Each time he allows them to carry something into the next age, knowledge that enables them to build bigger and better weapons. Now, they have nuclear and biological armaments. He grins like a spoiled child with candy, and he watches, wondering if this time they’ll break the world for good.

How Do We Vanquish Evil?

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Evil. The world groans under its weight. It surrounds us, holds us hostage. Like a choking vine, it slithers through our cities and our streets, latching onto our souls, squeezing the love and the life out of them until we’ve grown jaded and hard of heart.

The seeds of this deadly vine are our uncharitable acts, our lies, gossip, and petty acts of vengeance. The world burns by our own hands, and all we can do is look away, ashamed, wondering in the darkest corners of our souls if the world might be better off without us, if the only true remedy for the problem of evil is to purge the Earth of humanity.

There’s another part of the human heart, the nobler part. It knows we’re capable of better. We might blight the world with the stain of evil, but that doesn’t mean we’re without hope. We want to be better, to make the world better, not just for ourselves but for our children and for theirs.

But when we face the evil within ourselves, when we stare it square in the eyes and prepare to do battle with ourselves, we discover an unsettling truth. Deep down, we don’t want to change. It’s not that we don’t want to be good, just that we’re too afraid and too weak to change our old habits. So we bury our heads in the sand. We rarely examine our actions or our motives, and when we do, we usually shy away in discomfort.

But because we still want to feel noble, because we want to look in the mirror and see a gallant soldier who fights in the names of Justice and Truth, we focus not on the evil within ourselves but on the evil we find in others.

We make it our life’s mission to expose and discredit the evildoer, hoping and praying that such an undertaking will somehow cleanse us of our own sins. But in our zeal, we burn our fellow human beings at the stake. We accuse others with or without basis and destroy reputations. We seek revenge and call it justice. We dehumanize our enemies, convince ourselves and others that they’re only soulless caricatures of humanity. We smite the accused and watch with glee as the lifeblood pours from their veins. We revel in their demise, convinced we’ve made the world a better place.

But by crusading so fervently against the sins of others, by delighting in the wholesale destruction of other humans like ourselves, we’ve succeeded only in growing the evil within ourselves.

The only true way to eliminate evil is to start with our own hearts, to root it out at the source before it has the chance to spread. We must be brave enough and strong enough to examine ourselves, to face our own darkness. We must experience genuine remorse, and in the aftermath of our guilt we must resolve to start anew, to rebuild ourselves from the ground up, to become better and more complete human beings.

Only once we’ve started on the path toward inner sanctity can we begin to address the evil in others, not by shaming and vanquishing them but by loving and encouraging them to shed their own darkness. We must love our enemies. By showing mercy and compassion, by offering our affection and support, we can inspire others to undertake a similar journey.

We live in a fallen world. It pressures us to do wrong, threatens us with punishment if we attempt to do what’s right. We should instead strive for an ecosystem in which love and charity can flourish.

Our worldly experience suggests that evil is inevitable. But the truth is that it can only survive by deceiving us into believing we can destroy evil with more evil. Love on the other hand is inevitable. It’s all-encompassing, all reaching. It’s universal and can be known through instinct alone. A single act of love is one thousand times as potent as the greatest evil.

Love is a fire. It catches, spreads, razes evil where it stands. But it require light to flourish, and if we languor too long in the dark it will shrivel and die.

Want to make the world a better place? Acknowledge your own faults. Face your demons. You shouldn’t wallow in a state of perpetual guilt, but neither should you turn away from your own ugliness. Each of us is sullied, but once we’ve recognized the stain for what it is we have the opportunity to wipe it away. And once you’ve started down that path, you’ll never be the same.

Does What You Do Matter?

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If you’re like me, you probably stop to look around once in a while and wonder if your actions are noticed, if the decisions you make affect the world in any remotely measurable way. After all, you’re only one individual, just so much flotsam floating around in a boundless roiling sea of people who will never know your name.

When you try to help out a friend, when you give food to a homeless person, when you do anything at all to show the people around you that you care, have you really contributed to the health and well-being of the world? When you’re frustrated and you choose to take it out on others, when you steal a few dollars when you think no one’s looking, when you indulge in idle gossip or slander, are you really a significant part of the world’s problems? Does what you do matter, or are all of your deeds just statistical anomalies, a series of dead-end choices that are drowned out by the deafening noise of a densely populated world?

If you’re a celebrity or world leader, your role is obvious. You have a large sphere of influence, and your actions directly impact thousands or even millions of people. But if you’re just an average Joe, it’s easy to believe that what you do is meaningless, that however you choose to act, your deeds won’t ever touch the world in a significant way.

The problem with this belief is that it’s born of a limited vision. You can only sense what stands immediately before you, and unless you can witness the impact your choices have on the rest of the world, you’re going to dismiss the things you do as insignificant. This narrow perception blinds you to the bigger picture and makes it impossible for you to understand how connected you are to everyone else, to how much good and how much evil you’re capable of inflicting on the world through the simple act of making choices, which on the surface appear mundane and insignificant.

In reality, everything you do has vast far-reaching consequences, not just for your immediate family and friends, but for your whole community, your nation, even the world. The things you do aren’t isolated events. Your choices influence others. On a normal day, you might only interact with ten people, but all ten of those people will interact with  others, and each of those will interact with yet others. Like the surface of a lake when it’s disturbed, your actions ripple outward, propagating through the social layers of the world, their reach magnified with distance.

A rude gesture is like a match applied to dry kindling; it seems so trivial, until the fire spreads, consuming the world, leaving those who’ve lost everything in its wake to wonder how the fire could have been started in the first place.

An act of love, on the other hand, sparks a different kind of fire, one that has its genesis in a smile, a hug, or a word of encouragement, one that consumes hearts, until the world is a conflagration of kindness, empathy and compassion.

Most of us dream about changing the world, about making the world better. It’s only when faced with the apparent worthlessness of our existence that we become jaded, that we give up on our dream because we can’t see any reasonable way to achieve it.

Our dream of a better world can be realized. But to make it happen, we must first extend our vision beyond what we can see with our eyes. We must be capable of comprehending the far-reaching consequences of our actions. We might not be able to see how those outside our spheres of influence will be affected, but we can use our imagination to paint a larger picture, to see how the things we do might grow and spread beyond our local communities.

Reading fiction is one way to accomplish this. Fiction lets us witness firsthand not only the actions of individuals, but all the many ways in which those actions affect others. It’s a fantastic mental exercise that breeds a profound awareness of the human condition. There’s a reason we’ve been telling stories for millennia.

While it’s important to recognize our individuality and to value the many ways in which we’re unique, it’s equally important to recognize that we’re not just a loosely bound collection of disconnected beings, but a societal organism whose body is the composition of the entire human population. What happens to one part of the body affects the others. Evil deeds spread like cancer, until they metastasize and begin to destroy. Good deeds, on the other hand, are healing forces, which fight the malignant tumors even as they sustain and uplift everything else, rejuvenating the world.

Understanding that your actions do in fact leave a lasting impression on the planet, you shouldn’t ask yourself if what you do matters. Instead, you should decide if you desire to be a part of the cancer or a part of the cure.