You never know where you’re going to find a nugget of crystalline wisdom, something that gives you pause because of its brightness and clarity, that makes you think about how you’re living your life, and how you should be living it.
I found one of these nuggets recently. The unlikely place I found it? The rulebook for a tabletop roleplaying game.
The game is called Spirit of the Century, and its setting is the world of pulp adventure, in the years following World War I. You know, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, that sort of thing.
I loves me some pulp, as anyone who knows me, or has read a bit of my blog, or has gotten hands on my first novel Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom, already knows. So this game is very much my cuppa. And the reviews of it I read were utter raves, best game of the year, best pulp game ever…
So I got my hands on a copy. And I read through it with enthusiasm, enjoying its pulp style, its elegant rules, its possibilities. And I found that nugget of wisdom, there on page 4, that caused a synaptic hiccup and made me think about my life.
First, there was an epigraphic quote:
I could tell you that I get asked a lot of times how I can change the world…The point is very simple. If you care enough, you can have an impact. Because in the long run we’re not sure about a prior life or an afterlife. We’re all hoping for that. But what we can do is maximize what we have in this brief flicker of time in the infinity, and try to milk that. And be hungry in a different kind of way, hungry for experience, hungry for meaning. And you can be terribly, terribly effective if you want to be. – Harry Chapin
That, in itself, is pretty darn inspiring. But the writers of the game (Rob Donoghue, Fred Hicks, & Leonard Balsera) use it as a springboard to offer what they see as the spirit of the pulps, but is far more than that. It’s the spirit of living the life worth living:
Pulp runs on a few simple principles: action, science and optimism.
Of these principles, optimism is the most potent. It is not the shallow, sunny disposition that we so often equate with optimism, nor is there a denial of that which is terrible in the world. Instead, optimism is a tacit understanding that things can be better – that if you give people a chance, they’ll do the right thing, and even if they don’t, enough people will that things can change for the better…
…Because you can make a difference, you should. Taking action can change things, and if you do not change things for the better, there will always be people willing to change them for the worse. Choosing not to act is like sticking your head in the sand and hoping for the best — it’s far more likely to get you shot in the rear…
In the end, the question…is simple. The world can be, should be, a better place. What are you doing about that?
Simple, yes. Obvious, perhaps. Profound, definitely.
Optimism and action.
That’s the sort of formula I’d like my son to imprint on, more than trite “believe in yourself” homilies or the sort of self restrictions people come up with (“This is how a man acts, a man never does that,” and whatnot). That’s the sort of formula I’d like myself to imprint on, fully, so that I can live it. It’s also in line with the philosophy the Wilde family lives by in my book:
Wren banished thoughts she might never get out of here. That sort of thinking created limits in a person’s mind: blocks to imagination, loss of important memory, deadening of awareness. In any situation, her dad advised, don’t dwell on what you can’t do, look for things that you can.
To go back to the original pulps, the writers of Spirit of the Century got it right. In the 1930s, if you joined the Doc Savage fan club, you’d be sent a membership card, on the back of which was the “Doc Savage Code:”
1. Let me strive, every moment of my life, to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.
2. Let me think of the right, and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.
3. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
4. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.
5. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
“Let me think of the right, and…take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.” Optimism.
“Let me strive…to make myself better…and lend my assistance to those who need it.” Action.
None of us can ever fill Doc Savage’s boots. But we can make the world better, at least in little ways, and we should, not just because little ways add up (which they do), but because doing so at the very least makes our own lives worthwhile. Don’t be what the poet John Haines called “a mere lump of sucking matter.”
Get out there and do something. Be a pulp hero in your own world.