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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #99, Summer ’91


My cousins, our pursuit of “the Middle Ages as they should have been” leads us to invite the heroic virtues of our period into our lives. Fresh from the great tales of knights-in-armor, we tell ourselves we should live by unstinting service, truthful and honorable and always too strong to take advantage of anyone else’s weakness. Looking around us, we see officers working without pay, artisans teaching freely and without secrets, fighters refusing to use the better ground against an injured foe. It’s true, it’s wonderful, we can all be heroes.
     Yet we’re all still human. When we try to be larger than life, the social pressure builds up enough heat to start fires in our lives. The heroic model pushes us toward three separate flash points—but, painful as they can be, we’d all be poorer if we tried to revise the Society to eliminate them. Like physical fires, our social fires give us warmth and light and power, and life in the Society would be cold and slow without them. The best we can do is try to control them, put them out quickly when they escape, and soothe the wounds before too much damage gets done.

The first fire is for officers. We need and admire service, and we offer an array of subtle incentives to get it: influence, praise, and the priceless freedom to define a job and do it. We also (and it’s the same thing) dump jobs on people and leave them to get on with them, unless and until they scream for help. Few satisfactions compare to taking an office and making it work as it should, but the costs in time and money and peace of mind are far more tangible than the return. No matter how strong and interested you are, you will burn out eventually if you miss the warning signs, leaving yourself and the branch you serve in deep trouble.
     I’ve been there. After a year or so as Society Treasur­er, I thought I’d never want to give it up. Sure, the tax return was a drag, but I loved the challenge and variety of the rest of the job. Two and a half years later, it was all a drag, and I wanted OUT. I wanted out so badly that I ignored my suspicion that my deputy didn’t really want in, and I never offered to let him off the hook. He was burning when he accepted the job. His last official act (when he left a check for the SCA’s savings under a brick for the Board to collect) was consistent with the rest of his work—the essentials got covered, but the Society was not served nearly so well as it should have been...and the root of the problem was that I let myself burn out before I started training a successor. I’ve grieved about that ever since.
     And terminal burnout is by no means the worst phase. At that point the victim is frankly trying to get out, so it’s possible to help without getting savaged. But before reaching the bitter end, a burnout victim often goes through a period where the job is equally impossible to do and to let go. Every task is a drag, but nobody anywhere is capable of taking over. If anyone offers to help or suggests a break, the victim sees the volunteer as an enemy plotting to steal the job. The group suffers from having the job undone or ill-done, the officer’s self-respect shrivels, and the imagined “enemies” may get hurt so badly they turn into the real thing.
     Burnout can sneak up on you, so be careful. Pace yourself, take breaks between jobs (and make time for other interests no matter how much work a job entails), and find a successor before you get too tired. Pay atten­tion to your friends—let them work to their limits if they’re enjoying it, but help them disengage when you see them smoking at the edges. Be gentle if you find yourself responsible for a burnt-out officer, and try to minimize the damage done either by or to the sufferer. We’re all better off when burnout victims are restrained and forgiven, rather than blamed and driven off. If they stay with the Society, they’ll probably be back at work after they’ve had some rest—I’m still slaving away, after all, and I’m far from the only former cinder on the job!

The second fire is for leaders. Though we’re all playing at being heroes, we need greater heroes among us; heroing isn’t an egalitarian business. So we make them. We take people whose luck or strength or charm or wisdom or beauty of body or soul has given them an edge, and we feed them up on praise and respect until they shine like beacons for us to follow.
     It’s a compelling process. I’ve tasted it a little—right after I got my coronet, a young lord came bouncing over and beamed down at me, saying, “Well, how does it feel to be a Princess?!?” Then his face went all quiet and still; he said slowly, “But then, you always were a Princess....” and he rambled off before I could catch my breath. Oh, my. Couldn’t it be true? A comment like that hits you like a dose of opium mixed with lye; it eats away at your sense of perspective, and it feels far too good to resist. It changes you—I know I cared more for the Mists than I would have believed possible, and it was a wrench to let it go. Our royalty get exposed to this sort of thing a lot, but we do it to artists and barons and others as well. We assure them they are truly great, and then we hold them to a higher standard than we expect of lesser mortals.
     The treatment is very, very pleasant. If you stay cool under it, it isn’t a problem. However, if you let your judgment be consumed by the idea that your skill at arms or your beauty or whatever really does exalt you in and of itself, beyond your specialty and apart from the Society’s need, you’re apt to start defending your position. If you’re a fighter, it gets harder and harder to notice blows or accept the value of new techniques. If you’re an artisan, it gets harder and harder to recognize the merits of anyone else’s work. If you’re an administrator, it gets harder and harder to let anyone else put a hand on the reins of your group. You demand the sort of deference that was first offered freely and playfully, and you burn with frustration when you start to lose it. As you surely will. That’s a feature of the archetype, after all—the New Hero vs the Old Hero is a staple of our genre, and you know who always wins. People may not have a glimmer of what they’re doing, but they’ll eventually move on to someone else.
     There are two ways out of the second fire. With luck and care, you can retire to an advisory role—still satisfying, though not quite so heady as the Hero. However, fighting the transfer is apt to land you smack in the third fire, which isn’t nearly as pleasant.... If you’re being given the hero treatment, keep your sense of humor fresh and try to avoid becoming a legend in your own mind. If you’ve got an old friend who’s getting it, be prepared to help. And everyone—go a little easy on the extravagant praise; it’s vastly satisfying, but it really does put people’s mental health at risk.

The third fire is for the unwise and thoughtless and unlucky in love. It catches quicker if they’ve been toasting their souls at the second fire or burning their hearts out in the first, but it can take anyone if the moment is right. The problem is that heroes need targets as much as they need leaders. We try to play down that aspect of heroic culture, but the Society always has a place open and waiting for a villain; there’s something about seeking the great virtues that seems to make people eager to believe they see the great vices.
     This capacity for outrage adds to the richness and depth of life in the Society. If we didn’t care so much, the hidden logic runs, it wouldn’t be worth caring so much about! Unfortunately, the line between feeling outrage and acting outrageously is a well-primed fuse, and the least spark can start an ugly blaze. Some of the rudest deeds I’ve ever seen were done by people who meant only to defend the Society and its ideals against wicked villains!
     Most of the Society villains I’ve met were well-meaning people at heart. They just got into trouble. They forgot to be kind. They exaggerated, and got caught. They fell out with their mates. They over-reacted when they thought someone was attacking them. They got told they were foul, and the nasty cycle started. Just as praise often improves behavior, blame often makes it worse. The villain treatment can easily inspire someone to think “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”—and to start demonstrating what villainy is all about.
     If you believe you have a villain in your area, avoid the temptation to say so. No good can come of naming someone a villain. If you are dealing with the real thing, it gives notice that you pose a threat that Needs to Be Removed. And if you’re not, it’s worse—either you’ve got some poor puzzled sucker who was wondering how life managed to turn so awful, and who may accept your word and turn into a real villain just for the relief of certainty, or else you’ve got a confident good guy, who may well decide that you must be a villain yourself (obviously deserving to be stamped out) or you wouldn’t have misread the situation so badly.
     No matter what you think, you cannot go wrong by helping someone keep a positive self-image. Besides reducing the level of further attacks, this approach gives you room to find a way (if there is one) to let the appar­ent villain move back to the heroic side of the fold. Be especially careful if you’re reacting to something in your target’s personal life—if your baron and baroness break up, they have enough trouble without you stoking the fire. They’re not your parents; they have their own lives. Nuts—even if they are your parents, they still have their own lives! Be kind to them both, and don’t act on anything either of them tells you or retail it to anyone else unless you need to call the police.

The Society has procedures for evicting people who cause too much pain and trouble, but those procedures should be invoked quietly and as a last resort—not in the midst of frenzied outcry over a designated villain.

I’ve been talking about Society heroes and villains as though they were artifacts of the social context, not quite the real thing. To some extent, the social context applies outside the Society, too—you can’t be a celebrity if nobody knows who you are—and the same forces do work on people everywhere. But I also believe that the safety factors we’ve built into the Society exclude most of the real extremes of human experience, for good or ill.
     You won’t be tested to destruction in the normal course of Society events. We provide a sheltered environ­ment, where you can explore heroic values and live with the consequences of choice...without affecting your ability to keep your job and support your kids. We don’t make or want an absolute commitment. To take just one example, even our top fighters rarely practice more than twice a week; martial artists in older schools often devote their lives to practice. We have no one to match the master who told a friend of mine, “I’m an old man now, so I take life easy. The only exercise I do is a hundred pushups a day...on each finger.” We can be heroes—but there’s a difference!
     And as for villainy, we do have some true power-and-trouble addicts. They’re rare in the Society, because our values make life so dull for most of them that they drift away. And the ones that last long enough to reach positions of influence (or succumb to their ill natures afterwards) tend to be pretty small potatoes—all they can do here is make people unhappy, after all, whereas a diligent villain in the world of business can make them poor or dead. Some of our villains can be reclaimed, some need to be eased out...but none of them are worth losing sleep over.
     Playing with fire is built into the Society; it gives our re-creations the spark of life and human warmth, and I don’t expect or wish anyone to abandon it. Have fun! Just try not to make an ash of yourself in the process, or anyone else, either....

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