Apologies in advance if you’re one of my socially well-adjusted and outgoing friends reading this, because this will be one of my geekier posts and filled with obscure references to things you probably didn’t know existed. I like to think I’ve explained everything sufficiently that anyone can understand, but nevertheless, I felt that a fair warning was in order.
I’ve never been a dungeons and dragons player. I’d say that’s probably because it tends to involve spending long periods of time interacting with several people at once in the same physical space, and that’s generally the sort of thing that I can’t really handle a lot of. Still, when you play as many RPGS and online games as I do, it’s well-nigh impossible not to become familiar with some of the basic concepts. Indeed, turn based attacks and dice rolling to add an element of random chance are still staples of many computer games, sometimes in an obvious way, and sometimes less so. But, I’m not going to write about probabilities in video games (again). There’s another concept I’ve always found fascinating from the D&D (D&D is the geekspeak term for Dungeons and Dragons) world. I speak of the concept of alignment.
Now, if you’re a non-geek, or anyone over the age of about 45, you probably have no idea what that is. Stated simply, one’s alignment is a simplified measure of their personality. Specifically, it has to do with how “good” or “evil” they naturally are, and secondarily, how inclined they are towards “law” or “chaos”. Good and evil are pretty self-explanatory. Good characters rescue people from peril, give generously to charity, escort the elderly across the street, and just generally go out of their way to make the world a better place. Evil characters lie, steal, cheat, and generally do whatever it takes to fulfill their own personal goals and crush those who stand in their way. Calling it “good” and “evil” is a bit more emotionally charged though, so a more objective terminology might be “altruistic” vs. “egotistic”.
The other continuum is a bit more complicated. On the one hand is “law”, which might be described as the extent to which one follows the law, or society’s norms, or whatever standards have been established in the external world. Put simply, the tendency toward law is the tendency to do whatever other people expect one to do in any given situation. “Chaos” on the other hand, is the tendency to do whatever one wants according to one’s own beliefs and values, or one’s feelings, or the position of the stars, or the pattern of rings in trees, or whatever other arbitrary system one might use to make decisions. Lawful characters tend to drive the speed limit, keep off the grass, and follow whatever established rules exist. They respect authority figures and tend to act within established social hierarchies. Chaotic characters tend to ignore all that. They might or might not drive the speed limit or keep off the grass. They might follow the rules when they feel like it, or ignore them entirely, or do the opposite of whatever is expected just because they can. They might follow their own rules, or they might follow none at all. They tend to be mercurial personalities that resist any sort of hierarchy or established order.
Each of these is like a line where you can fall all the way to one side or the other, or somewhere in the middle. The middle ground about halfway between the extremes is called “neutral”. Each combination is considered an alignment, so there are nine combinations: Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil. It’s really just a simplistic personality test measuring two traits. It’s somewhat similar to the MBTI test which rates a person’s personality based on four scales based on traits like extroversion/introversion. It has four traits rather than just two. The nine alignments are just general guidelines. One can fall any place from one end of either spectrum to the other, and where one distinguishes between neutral and lawful or good and evil is largely a subjective thing. Further, one’s alignment is really dictated by the choices one makes, so it can change if one makes different choices. So one might start out good and end up evil, or vice versa. None of it is set in stone, but there are various tests online that ask you to answer hypothetical questions to let you know what your basic tendencies are. You can look up various examples of the various alignments online if you want to, or even take the tests yourself.
“OK, so what” is what you might be saying at this point. Well, the reason I bring up this odd topic is because I’ve found it somewhat useful in understanding people, and myself. To put it perfectly frankly, I spent most of my life trying to be, and convince myself that I was, one of the good guys. Doesn’t everyone instinctively want to be the hero and not the villain? Still, I never could quite commit to it in the real world. The problem with being the good guy is that it never ends. There’s always one more good deed to do, one more crusade to embark upon, one more lost soul to save. Where to draw the line? How much of oneself is one required to give before calling oneself good? Moreover, the really good people of this world often get taken advantage of by everyone else, who exploit the kindness of the nice guys because they can. You’re probably already scoffing, but you all know what I’m talking about. There’s the guy at work who always takes on any additional projects he’s asked to without a word. Then there’s the nice girl next door that keeps dating bad boys thinking she can fix them. There’s the supermom who works 60 hours and still is involved in all the kid’s after school activities. And, of course, there’s the crusader, who’s always trying to save the <insert obscure animal species> or wipe out <horrible disease> or raise awareness for <whatever issue we’re not sufficiently aware of>. Now, I don’t mean to criticize any of these people. They’re all much better people than me, and I don’t mind saying so. After all, that’s what alignments are all about. The point is, I’m not any of these, and I really have no desire to be.
For a long time, this bothered me. If I were to assess the alignments of my parents, and most of my extended family, I’d say they were all ‘good’ aligned. My mother is a perfect example of neutral good. She doesn’t always follow the rules, but she’s unfailingly selfless and one of the kindest people I suspect I will ever know. My father is a classic lawful good. He’s a goody two shoes, good old-fashioned nice guy. He does his job and more. He’s always worked hard and followed the rules his entire life, generally without complaining. Pretty much all my role models were those types of people, and it’s hard to get past the dissonance that occurs when one breaks fundamentally with one’s role models.
There was always something that was simply irksome and unsettling about spending all one’s time and energy trying to make the world better when I didn’t really do anything to make it the way it was in the first place. It will come as surprise to no one that I didn’t really get along well with my classmates, and by the age of twelve or so, the idea of going out of my way to be nice to them was downright distasteful. It didn’t help that I didn’t really enjoy the company of most people in general, and the more I saw of the world, the less inclined I was to involve myself in it more than was necessary. I was also quite perceptive even as a child, and that piercing vision that allowed me to understand things much faster than many adults often tended to reveal that much of people’s’ do-gooding didn’t really do much good. It seems no matter how much money we give to the poor, they’re still poor and somehow there are more of them. Money for research into one disease means less into another. Did we really need to spend all that money on AIDS research as opposed to cancer or heart disease? Do we really need to preserve some species of bird that lives in one acre of forest somewhere in Alaska? Who’s to say it wouldn’t have gone extinct with or without us? One of the things that has defined my life and my thinking is that I question everything. The questions are more important than the answers to me, and it’s nigh impossible to hold onto any form of idealism under such relentless doubt.
I guess by now you may have guessed where I’m going with this. My alignment is…drum roll…. True Neutral. That’s neutral neutral on the scale. I’m not that bad, but not really that good either. I’ll save a kitten in a tree if I happen to come across it and I’m not late for work or what have you, but I don’t go around looking for kittens to save. I respect the rules and the reasons why they exist, but I’m not above breaking a rule if I deem it necessary, or if nobody really cares about it, or if a significant percentage of other people ignore it. I’ll do lots of nice things for people who are close to me, and who I care about, but I tend not to be the type to stick out my neck for complete strangers unless they’re in obvious danger right in front of me. Moreover, I like to mind my own business and prefer not to get involved. Being good or evil both mean getting a lot more involved in other people’s business than I usually care to. There are always calculations of whether the actual good I’ll do or the personal gain for that matter, is worth the effort. It’s NOT the principle of the thing that matters. It’s the actual results. I’ll gladly be the hard ass or the jerk if that will make my life (or someone else’s) easier. For me, it’s about balance, harmony, and peace. Sometimes that means being the good guy, sometimes it means being the heel, and that’s the point.
Being neutral means I believe in non-interference. It’s sort of like taking the prime directive from Star Trek to its further extreme. The doctrine of non-interference with the development of alien worlds can easily be extended however far one wants. It’s simply a matter of drawing the line in a different place. As someone who considers myself neutral, I draw the line much closer to myself than most people would. Some don’t draw a line at all and have no issue whatsoever trying to convert the whole world to their point of view. From the neutral point of view, I see the good people trying to save the world, or at least make it a better place, and the ‘bad’ people determined to rule it, or at least get as much of it as they can to satisfy whatever personal desires they have. There’s a certain balance that exists between these two forces just as there is balance elsewhere in nature, which brings us to another trait of mine that I think reflects my neutralness. I love balance. I’ve always been fascinated by concepts like equilibrium in physics and how the universe itself tends to return to a balanced state. Every reaction creates a reaction, and the forces eventually balance and create a new equilibrium.
That’s not all it means though. It also means I don’t have to be anybody’s enemy, or take sides. As Treebeard once said “I’m not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side”. He’s often cited as an example of true neutral in fantasy. He does end up helping the good guys, because of what Saruman had done to the forest. That’s another lesson about neutrals. We don’t really like evil, but we let it pass as all things must. However, when the threat is near enough, we can be moved to act. We don’t fight until it really gets personal. I like to think I’m a bit like Treebeard, quiet, patient, thoughtful, but capable of a fury that is every bit as powerful as my usual calmness is peaceful. I hate conflict, so I rather hope I never have to find out if I’m right. I don’t like having enemies, or being antagonistic. I’m not highly competitive either. I tend to enjoy finishing in the middle in board games more than winning or losing. It’s about the fun of playing the game, not winning and losing. It’s about enjoying the journey not the destination.
Discovering these things about myself took a while, and accepting them took a bit longer. I like myself the way I am. I like minding my own business. I like being non-judgmental, and I like to avoid confrontations if I can. I try to accept others as they are too. I mostly still tend to like the ‘good’ people of the world better, though I must confess I sometimes find the more ‘evil’ types to be more interesting. I like to think that if God had intended us to all be the same, He would have made it so. I think there must be a need for all the different people in the world, perhaps to maintain balance? Either way, I wouldn’t mind if there were more people in the world like me, who weren’t trying to save the world or trying to run it.
The title is actually a reference to one of my favorite TV shows. Feel free to Google it as it’s pretty funny. It’s a very neutral thing to say and it suits me, because I almost never give definitive answers about anything. Maybe, perhaps, it depends, are all go to phrases for the neutrally inclined. I’m hoping that at least my brother gets the reference. Love you Bro!!