We’re pairing 8-bit music thematically, rather than based entirely on series. You can find this track and more Tater-Tot Tunes on YouTube! Stop by and jam to some great tunes.
Normal Happenings is proud to present The Characters That Define Us, a year long collaboration of 52+ incredible bloggers!
This will be the final guest post for The Characters That Define Us, but Nikki and Matt’s pieces remain.
Today we have the great Chris Durston, aka OverthinkerY. I don’t think I can not talk about the fact that Chris wrote a book, called Each Little Universe. Please be sure to check it our and support this accomplished author.
Speaking of writing a book, brace yourself. This piece is 7,500 words of pure contemplation. Please enjoy — we know you will.
I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately. Like, is any of this for real, or not?
A discussion of metaphysics is in order, I’m afraid.
Yeah, that’s probably not an opening sentence you were expecting to see, but there we are. Things don’t always turn out quite as we expect them to; otherwise, that sandwich I had for lunch the other day would have been way nicer. Besides, if everything always ends up being precisely what you thought it would be and no more, what’s the point of experiencing it at all? You don’t add anything to your knowledge or your experience; you don’t really gain anything at all. Doctor Manhattan gets terribly bored.
Fortunately, this won’t require too much in-depth ontological knowledge, or ‘ontowledge’ if you’re a fan of portmanteaus that make relatively little sense and sound rather clumsy but do at least have the word ‘owl’ in them so that’s something; I won’t be quizzing you on the difference between the identity of indiscernibles and the indiscernibility of identicals, so fear not. (I had a terrible professor for most of the metaphysics content during my philosophy degree, and I don’t think I shall ever quite be over it.) We’re talking about the way a fictional universe operates here, which means we only need to grasp a few key concepts before gettin’ to the good stuff.
In the world of the Kingdom Hearts franchise – well, worlds, so let’s use the term universe instead in service of clarity – there are a few fundamental elements which make up a being. All sentient creatures have bodies, souls, and hearts.
A body in KH is pretty much the same as it is in the real world, unless otherwise specified, so that’s all good.
A soul is… well, I’m using the term loosely. It could just as easily be mind. It’s what contains the being’s will, drives them to live, and allows them to effect their intentions on the world.
The heart is a mysterious and ubiquitous entity. It seems to be the most fundamental essence of being, something that gives being and is essential to it. People’s hearts consist of light and darkness, and having a strong heart allows a person to do all sorts of spectacular things. Hearts also form bonds, connections between people, and in the KH universe these connections aren’t just concepts (or notions, or just linguistic descriptors for relationships that don’t actually have an existence of their own as such), but real entities with real power.
There’s a lot more to it than that, as you might expect (and hoo boy, over the past seventeen years it’s got reeeaaal complex), but that’s about all we should need to cover on the ontological specifications of the KH universe for the time being. If anything else comes up, I’ll just wave at it and go ‘oh, hey, this be a thing, but don’t worry your happy noggin about it’ and we’ll all just have a great time.
What we do need to investigate just a bit further is what happens when one of those three elements is missing. In fact there are a few permutations of things that can happen to individuals depending on the particulars of what peculiar and unexpected things happen to one or more of their body, mind, and heart, but for our purposes here we’re primarily concerned with entities with no hearts.
An empty vessel whose heart has been stolen away … Nobodies do not truly exist at all.
– Yen Sid
When a being loses their heart, the empty shell left behind becomes a ‘Nobody’. (Ignore the fact that they’re called ‘no-bodies’ but still have bodies. The ‘Heartless’ are literally just hearts and nothing else; just roll with the terminology!) Their body remains, devoid of the most important element of existence (or being) in this universe: the heart is the thing that connects them, that makes them real, that marks who and what they are and bestows presence upon them. It’s sort of as if a person in our world had somehow lost… I don’t know, their atoms or their gravitational fields or something. It’s impossible to imagine how this entity would continue to maintain any sort of existence, and we would probably say that by definition they did not exist, since all of the ways we have to measure the existence of something would come up empty. Yet let’s just imagine that somehow, in some way, despite this, they’re still here.
This is what a Nobody is, in Kingdom Hearts terms. They have lost that which makes them part of the universe in the most fundamental sense, and so are considered by most characters (themselves included) not to exist at all, really.
I am but a mere shell.
Most Nobodies become weird little flitting things which gyrate with strange geometries and wander intentionless like scraps of grey cloth on the wind. They’re just there to get beaten up, really.
Those with strong wills, though, those with a really solid image in their minds and souls of who they are and what their intentions are, create more powerful Nobodies. As a rule of thumb, the stronger of will a Somebody (that’s the person with all three of their components), the more humanoid and the more dangerous the Nobody they leave behind. It’s no coincidence that the weakest varieties of Nobody are bizarre shapeshifting blobs of goo, while the deadlier versions of these peculiar mooks are much more person-shaped. The strongest of all might be completely indistinguishable from a human (or, I suppose, from a duck: would Donald Duck have, like, a duck-shaped Nobody, or a gijinka-y duckperson one?).
This brings us, at last (sighs of relief, I’m sure), to Roxas.
You… you were never supposed to exist, Roxas.
Roxas is an extremely powerful Nobody, perhaps among the very most powerful ever to exist – well, not exist… you know what I mean. He’s the Nobody of the Kingdom Hearts franchise’s primary protagonist Sora, in fact, who has an exceptionally strong heart and will. Long story short, Sora deliberately removed his heart from his body near the end of KH1 in order to free another heart which also happened to be hangin’ out inside him: that of Kairi, for whom he’d been searching for most of the game’s story. Not knowing at the time that Nobodies were a thing, Sora didn’t learn that Roxas had been created at this moment until quite a while later; in a very unusual case, Sora was able to keep existing as himself for a time, even while Roxas was off inhabiting his cast-off body and will, thanks to some help from Kairi (a Princess of Heart, which for our purposes just means she can do some pretty whacky things that will otherwise go largely unexplained).
The journey that Roxas goes through is one that a lot of players didn’t really like all that much at the time, come to think of it. Anyone who’s played KH2 will remember that the game opens with a several-hour prologue during which the player controls Roxas, not Sora (sort of like how Metal Gear Solid 2 put Raiden front and centre without any real explanation, although at least KH2 did hand the starring role back to Sora after the prologue), and this is something that was pretty weird at the time. Without the benefit of 358/2 Days – a game that wasn’t to release until three years after KH2 and which would be ignored by a fair chunk of the fanbase due to its being exclusively on Nintendo DS – and with many KH2 first-timers having not played or not even noticed the existence of Chain of Memories on Game Boy Advance (not that CoM gave a huge amount of insight into Roxas, but it didn’t help), many people felt a bit… deflated by the spotlight being on Roxas. The later developments during KH2’s narrative help somewhat, giving him a place in Sora’s story, but Roxas himself was a bit opaque, coming across perhaps as a slightly flat character, until we got to know a bit more about… well, his entire life history.
Born on Day 1, Roxas found himself in Twilight Town, a strange in-between place. He was quickly discovered by Xemnas, the leader of Organization XIII: that’s the group of the very strongest Nobodies, including all known Nobodies who were strong enough to appear completely human. (One imagines that the group might have had to keep changing its name as more members joined, although for reasons that don’t become apparent until much later it turns out that thirteen was always the intended membership.) Xemnas gives Roxas his name, taking the letters of ‘SORA’ and rearranging them before adding the Organization’s signature X, and then takes Roxas in as the baddie bunch’s newest member. From his beginnings in the Organization Roxas is told that he, like the rest of them and like all Nobodies, has no heart.
I have a right to know who I am.
Roxas’s role within the Organization is to collect hearts by destroying Heartless using the Keyblade, a strange weapon he has the ability to wield on account of his status as Sora’s Nobody. (Presumably.) His mission is to help them amass enough hearts to build a huge dense mass of them and allow the Organization to synthesize a new Kingdom Hearts, which is a big ol’ heart-shaped moonish thing that will, so says Xemnas, give the Organization real hearts. They can exist; they can be real. There’s a peculiar tension between this stated goal of the Organization and their apparent opinion of hearts, which tends to be something along the lines of ‘hearts are dumb and useless and so are feelings’; at one point a member says that it is remembering what it felt like to feel things that makes the humanoid Nobodies so dangerous, because they understand how to exploit that as a weakness in those with hearts. It’s a condescending ‘I don’t need no heart’ sort of perspective.
The reason this tension is apparent is because the Organization lies to Roxas about everything. He’s not the only one, to be fair; a triumvirate made up of Xemnas and his most trusted lackeys Xigbar and Saix consistently deceive every other member as to the group’s true goals. Roxas, for his part, has little choice for much of his early life but to go along with the Organization’s instructions and its plan for him: he’s not got much of an option except to take it as read that they are being open and transparent, and frankly it wouldn’t make much of a difference whether they were or not, ‘cos what else is he gonna do?
Roxas is made to feel powerless: that he has nothing. That he is, in a very literal sense, nothing. It’s a really good scam, actually: take this guy who’s just been born and has no sense of what it is to exist, what it feels like to have emotions, what the experience of doing anything is like, and tell him that he doesn’t even have the capacity for any of those things. He’ll believe it, and if he starts feeling as if any of it’s not right then he’s most likely to simply disregard his own internal development, blaming it on the fact that he’s wrong in existential terms. If he starts considering that he might actually have emotions, the most likely reaction is for him to chalk it up to remembering what that was like or simply experiencing an intellectual reaction to the rather unpleasant idea of not having a heart, which seems like self-evidently not the best thing. It’s indoctrination of a particularly aggressive and potent variety.
In other words, Roxas is in this horrible little spiral wherein he’s repeatedly told that he doesn’t exist and is incapable of feeling emotions or connections; any time he starts to get an inkling of those feelings, he believes it’s just due to him being even more messed up as a being, making mistakes about his own internal states, and develops a barely repressed self-loathing that only increases in intensity. The more Roxas hates himself, the easier it is for the Organization to tell him how worthless (because by definition something that doesn’t exist can’t have worth, after all) and terrible he is, and thus send him further into a state of semi-catatonic compliance.
It’s not a sham. And neither am I.
There’s another character just as worthy of almost this exact same discussion, in fact, and I very nearly picked her as my subject for this piece instead. (If you’re wondering what deciding factor prompted me to pick Roxas over her (it’s nothing to do with gender, actually (I’ve never really found that I identify more with characters who are superficially ‘like’ me in terms of appearance or cultural background (and in fact I almost always choose to play as a female character from an unusual heritage if I have any sort of say in the matter (I’m aware that some people do this mostly so they can enjoy looking at butts (can you imagine if Miranda was a playable character in Mass Effect? (Or ME2 or whichever’s the one she first appears in.) I bet someone’s modded that already.), but that’s really not much of a factor for me (well, okay, maybe from time to time (I mean, I’m gonna go look for that mod now))) – in Skyrim, for example, I have several female characters from various races and for whom my headcanons usually involve life experiences hugely different from my own), although I do understand and have advocated for greater representation precisely for people who do want to see a character they can identify with in these ways) and in fact the character I have in mind is not quite technically female anyway, at least not to begin with)… well, I had to pick one of ‘em, and that’s about the only reason I can give!)
(Brief note: you may also be wondering what was up with that deluge of parentheses, and I’m sympathetic to your concerns: basically, I think there are a couple of people who’ve achieved the famed double-bracket in NormHapCollab history, and I was like… there’s a statistic there. Admittedly it’s one which almost nobody else probably even realises is a statistic up for the measurin’, but ‘number of nested brackets’ is a bit of collectable data on these things and therefore I want the record! Hence… the above. I mean, ‘you do you’ is basically the big overarching theme of this piece, so I feel that doing something harmlessly dumb purely because I felt like it is on-message here.)
Xion is the fourteenth member of Organization XIII, and perhaps the strangest. Her metaphysical situation is even more complex than Roxas’, unfortunately, so let’s just kind of gloss over it for now. Suffice to say that she’s told repeatedly and incessantly that she exists even less than the rest of them, and her self-identity is so fractured that she even looks like a different person depending on who’s looking at her. She’s completely broken within about two days of being born.
In the end, it’s a meeting of two people (because, as we’ll come to very shortly, they are people) who couldn’t be in a worse place in terms of self-worth and confidence that leads to both of them overcoming all the considerable rubbish that the universe has thrown in their direction: Roxas and Xion – and ensemble dark horse Axel, but while he’s not unimportant to the story he’s kind of outside the scope of this piece – form a real, genuine connection with each other. They go through stuff together, they find shared interests or make new ones, they moan about their bosses. I do think that what they have is love, albeit not at all of a romantic or sexual kind. I also think, just as an aside, that fiction and fandoms often underestimate how awesome it is to genuinely love someone in a totally platonic way; that’s not to say that I would ever tell anyone that they shouldn’t ship and have a good time shippin’, but I often prefer thinking of relationships between characters whom others might see as being in love as being non-romantic, non-sexual, but still true love.
You might remember way back near the beginning of this piece when we touched on what the heart does. I said it was responsible for the connections between people and that those connections had genuine force behind them, properties that could actually affect the world rather than simply being a way of cognitively or linguistically categorising an abstract relationship between two subjects. Xion’s entire existence, in fact, is predicated on the power of these bonds. I said I wouldn’t go too deep into it, but it’s worth noting that her identity is basically contingent on Sora’s relationships with others (mostly Kairi), so she’s even worse off than Roxas in that the Organization can reinforce in her mind that not only does she not exist but whatever it is that she does do isn’t even hers but is defined by someone else. Anyway, with no hearts, how is it that Roxas and Xion can form a connection with one another?
Nobody… or anybody. It all depends on whether you choose to believe in me or not.
Well, long story short, turns out that Nobodies can actually grow hearts of their own, and cultivating bonds is kinda the way to do it. Not only is a heart the thing that forms those connections, but it is defined by them: it’s like how a tree, which grows and spreads roots, is built on the foundation of those roots. (Boring analogy, but I can’t think of a better one without way overcomplicating things, and I’ve done enough of that already. OR, ACTUALLY (heck, why not), think of, like, a mix of lots of different liquids in a bowl or something. The mix is the whole thing, which would continue to be a whole thing if you took away one of the individual liquid components (albeit possibly a different or changed thing), but you have to put at least a couple of liquids in the bowl in the first place or you can’t say there’s a mix there at all. Does that make sense? Probably not. Oh, well.) Perhaps from a slightly different perspective the story is in fact that, in beginning to form a connection, Roxas and Xion basically force the universe to let them have hearts. Like, you can’t have connections without a heart, but they’ve definitely got a connection, so the universe is all like aw heck better give ‘em hearts then.
It’s not just Roxas and Xion: in fact, every member of the Organization is entirely capable of growing their own hearts. The goal they think they’re working towards during KH2? They could achieve it any time on their own. Of course, their real goal is something that only a few of them know… but we’re getting off topic.
Roxas… are you really sure that you don’t have a heart?
So far, this has really just been a recap of Roxas’s life story and an annoyingly thorough yet still somehow barely-scratching-the-surface exploration of the peculiarities of the Kingdom Hearts universe. You’re probably all like ‘I thought this was about the characters that define people, not about the characters whose histories bore people to death’. Or, more likely, you’re not all like anything because you stopped reading about 1,500 words ago. OH WELL. This is my article (… which is being hosted very graciously on someone else’s website as part of the collaboration they’ve put together…) and I’mma do what I want! We’re getting there, though. Bear with me.
Despite everything he knows about himself and the world – he’s never heard any information that contradicts what the Organization’s indoctrination has made him believe – Roxas grows as a person to the point where he’s able to think critically about his situation, use reason and his emotions in tandem to come to a conclusion, and then do something about it. Roxas has a view of the universe and of his place in it that has been completely defined by lies he’s had no ability to doubt, but through working out what’s important to him – using both critical thinking and an internal sense of his own axioms on which to base his worldview – he’s able to break out of what seems like an impossible mental and emotional prison.
What follows next is a glorious roaring rampage, as Roxas unleashes the full power of a Keyblade wielder’s strength of heart on the Organization who kept him chained and desperate. All the fury and fear that was built up within him – emotions that had developed in the heart he was told he didn’t, and couldn’t, have – burst out in spectacular, and somewhat painful for those on the receiving end, fashion.
I’m not saying that I feel a strong sense of kinship with Roxas’s extraordinary strength and wrathful vengeance. I’m not a particularly vengeful person, nor one capable of physically obliterating my foes, but where I do identify with Roxas is in his unwillingness to be told how to feel, what to believe, or what’s important. Roxas decides these things for himself based on both rationality – he observes for himself things that happen, and deduces truths from that – and true emotion. I think those are two wonderful things that are unique to conscious, experiencing beings, and I think that when Roxas awakens to using those feelings and capacities he really becomes fully human in a big way. His own human, to boot.
There is so much to learn. You understand so little.
– Ansem, Seeker of Darkness
The arc that traces the rest of Roxas’s story is complex and tragic. The misunderstanding that defined his early life pervades, sadly: he’s first taken against his will to enable Sora to awaken (the people trying to wake Sora are, despite not really being bad guys, just as quick as the Organization to write Roxas off as less of a real person, less as important, and not deserving of autonomy) and then eventually makes his own decision, after a fashion, to allow Sora to exist as a complete being again. Roxas continues to have his existence defined by the perception that he’s a no-hearted creature whose only purpose is to be used as means to another’s ends, whether that be Xemnas or Sora. Even Roxas himself comes to believe, at least to some extent, that this is the case and that he deserves life less than Sora does, that his own being is worth sacrificing.
Later, while he’s partly merged with Sora (but not fully, because as we know he does in fact have his own heart and so they can’t become a single being), he insists that he has no name and that he is Sora. It takes Sora believing in his humanity to lay the path for his eventual return… if that ever happens. (No KH3 spoilers – it was in all the trailers, and pretty clear in Dream Drop Distance, that Sora would be trying to make that happen!)
I still haven’t really covered why all this is relevant, though. Why have I picked Roxas as the character who defines me? What is it about him that I identify with, that feels relevant to my life? Why am I telling you all this, for heck’s sake?!
Look, I wasn’t planning to do a Whole History of Roxas, but I think almost all of it is more relevant than I’d realised. Perhaps you can identify with some of his journey; maybe you’ve struggled to define yourself, or have found yourself defined by a relationship to someone else. Perhaps you’ve been in a group that’s turned out not to be the best for you, and coming to terms with that and making the decision to leave was a difficult but defining experience. Perhaps a single friendship, one light in the darkness, has helped you to remember who you are and who you want to be.
All of these things are important, and I think Roxas is a far more well-rounded character than he sometimes gets credit for. He’s got his share of fans these days, but there’s still a bit of lingering ill will (if you’re a Kingdom Hearts fan, you may recognise that as sort of a joke, so you’re welcome) from his early days as an apparent replacement-but-not-as-good Sora. There are several aspects of his journey which I think have led a lot of people to feel a kinship with him to some degree, almost all of them to do in some way with what I think are essential and inevitable parts of the human experience.
No… Xion… Who else will I have ice cream with?
Before we get to more traditionally-accepted constituents of the endless struggle that it is to be a conscious being, though, I wanna take a quick diversion to talk about ice cream.
If you’re a KH fan, or if you’ve ever been on social media around people who are KH fans, you probably know about the infamous scene at the end of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days in which Xion not only dies but is completely erased from existence in every way. She chooses to commit suicide-by-Roxas, effectively, forcing him to fight her until her being unravels so that she can contribute again to the whole that is Sora (because, as we’re examining, she just doesn’t realise yet that she is worthy of being considered a whole on her own), and because of her status as an entity defined by the memories of others she vanishes both from the world and from everyone’s recollection. Roxas holds Xion as she disappears, and by the time she’s faded away he can’t remember why he’s crying.
Unfortunately (according to some), before she’s entirely gone Roxas gets one of the most famously divisive lines of the whole franchise, asking who he’s supposed to have ice cream with if she’s gone. (The obvious answer is ‘Axel’, who’s presumably a bit miffed about the whole thing, but whatever.) A lot of people read this line as being incredibly narmy, a bizarre tone shift from the very serious events that happen either side of it: someone’s just died at the hand of their best friend and been immediately forgotten by everyone they know, while said best friend then pops off for a bit of rage-war culminating in his defeat and imprisonment, which kicks off the events of KH2 (which by this point don’t even seem all that tragic in comparison). However, remember that Roxas and Xion are, like, less than a year old each. They have almost no experience of relationships, or even of the world, and they believe themselves unable to form real connections or feel emotions.
The closest approximation, as far as they can tell, is the time they spend together eating ice cream atop the clock tower while the sun sets. It’s their only break from work, really, the only time they spend just being together with other people because that’s what they want to be doing rather than because they’re on some mission or other. It’s a time during which they build that connection which is truly powerful in the metaphysics of the KH universe and which causes, or at least helps, them to grow hearts and to become truly, fully existing entities all of their own. Ice cream is the only thing they have to cling to by which to understand what it means to be friends, to care for someone, to care for anything.
Others have made this point before, but I just wanted to go over it again. There’s a lot made in existentialist philosophy of the sheer absurdity of the universe, of how ultimately ridiculous it is that humans try to give meaning to anything, but that in the end a person acting on their will is itself important and bestows meaning. I think that the simple fact that Roxas has internalised the relevance of the ice cream in this context is a genuine act of will which proves him to be much more than a heartless husk.
We shook hands, in our hearts. We’re connected, you and me.
– Mickey Mouse
For me personally, though, and returning to less snack-related things of universal relevance, Roxas and Xion are important because they help me to remember that I, an individual and a conscious being with the capacity to self-define, am not limited by what outside forces might try to make me. Nobody (heh) would truthfully answer their questions about who they were and what was happening in the world, so they went out to find those answers themselves.
I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve not been in any situation quite as extreme or as difficult. However, I have changed my mind in the past, something which I think is the right of everyone who realises that they can’t, or don’t want to, sustain a particular position any longer. I think a lot of people (not you, of course, friendly reader) tend to think that changing one’s mind is a weakness, a sign that YOU WERE WRONG, and a sign of having lost an argument. I mean, it may well mean that you now think that you were wrong before, and perhaps it did come about because an argument persuaded you that your position was flawed, but in no way is that a weakness. We can’t all get it right the first time; only by being genuinely receptive to new ideas and evaluating others’ positions as well as our own can we ever learn anything new or get anywhere. Self-improvement isn’t losing, and even if it were I would counter that in this case being overly attached to ‘winning’ would be a misplaced priority.
One particular instance of changing my mind was more significant and more difficult than most of the others. I’ve already written about this at some length elsewhere (I alluded to it all the way back in ‘The Games That Define Us’, in fact, and later fleshed out the mention a little bit on OverThinkerY), so I don’t think I’ll rehash the whole thing again, but this is what the whole piece is sort of about so forgive me for retreading a little bit of familiar ground.
When I was about sixteen or seventeen, I went from being what I’ll call a ‘low-intensity’ Christian – someone who would identify as believing in God and Jesus and so on but who didn’t really do much about it – to a churchgoing worshipper, and then after just a few months of that to a nonbeliever. Not just a lapsed worshipper who still held faith, but someone who no longer believed that any of it was true. I’m still not totally sure what happened, to be honest. I’d been through two Church of England schools where Christianity was just the default, a state you were kind of assumed to be in and so lazily assumed yourself to be in because there wasn’t really much else in the way of options, so perhaps it’s not that surprising that after leaving school and entering a more secular college I decided to go to church to remain a part of that faith. I had friends at the church, and I made new ones, and it felt really good to be a part of that.
As I was getting more involved in Christian beliefs, I suppose they started to seem more real to me. They’d been abstract before, just kind of distant concepts that everyone alluded to but mostly ignored, but now they were an active part of my life and people around me genuinely, truly believed that these things were literally true and real. Maybe it was that increase in closeness that prompted me to wonder why I believed that God existed, that Jesus had died for my sins, that the words of the Bible were literally true. Maybe it was something else I just don’t remember now. I don’t know. Either way, I started to wonder why for what must have been the first time, at least in such an earnest and sincere way, and I came up with the surprising realisation that I had absolutely no idea.
Does it hurt ’cause it’s true? Grow up.
I don’t think I knew how to deal with that for some time. I went to church for maybe two more weeks after my epiphany, or reverse epiphany or whatever you want to call it, but I felt dishonest being there. I was a fake, a fraud among genuine people. A bad person among good people. At first perhaps that feeling came from some residual belief that I was now a heathen but that God was still real and that I was therefore a terrible sinner, but then it was just an empty sort of sadness at the prospect that I was the only person there pretending to be having these wonderful experiences and to be a part of the community.
I think I did try to talk to people before I left, but I don’t think anyone quite got it. ‘Everyone doubts,’ I remember being told, ‘because God tests everyone. You just have to believe that God will come through for you.’ I feel as if that rather missed the point: that I didn’t. (Not the last time I’ve had something very similar happen, and I expect other dirty nonbelievers may have had similar experiences: a thoroughly kind and well-meaning friend once asked me in disbelief how I could possibly be an atheist when I knew that that meant I would go to Hell. I told her that I didn’t believe Hell existed either, and she just seemed flabbergasted and said something like ‘… but you must!’. For the sake of fairness, she was and remains a reasonable person, willing to listen and to learn, and she and indeed many, many other people of belief have a better understanding of nonbelief than she did at the time.) I didn’t feel able to press anyone too hard, and that’s my failing rather than theirs, but I wasn’t able to get answers there and I knew I didn’t fit anymore. Reason and emotion both told me that I was not a part of this belief any longer, and so I did what I can still only hope was the most honest thing and left.
I lost two things almost instantly: the community and reassurance of the church (I maintained some of the friendships, but they were evermore just a little… awkward), and a whole system of beliefs about how things came to be, what would happen to me after I died, what had already happened to loved ones after they had died, what was right and wrong, what the purpose of existence might be… all of those things were now questions to which I would have to find my own answers. That was not easy, for reals.
Another word in the interest of fairness and decency: I am not saying that my relationship to the church was alike to Roxas’s relationship to the Organization. At all. They were, and I’m sure they remain, good people. They did not intentionally mislead me, entrap me, lie to me, or even make me feel bad for leaving. And I didn’t then unleash my full power and beat them all up with giant keys, so hopefully it’s clear that the situations are not analogous in any way that reflects negatively on either my church specifically or on any believer or religious person in general. I have absolutely nothing against any person on the grounds of their holding religious beliefs (although I reserve the right to find some actions or positions which may have been motivated or informed by those beliefs objectionable, but that’s just life: we don’t always agree all the time, and that’s OK!).
ANYWAY. Losing faith is not easy. It feels like everything that was important, all the really big things you thought you knew, are just sort of gone. To my great surprise, though, there was comfort to be found in something I’d loved dearly for several years: Kingdom Hearts.
Giving up already? Come on.
I still can’t play KH2 or Days without feeling weirdly emotional about what’s going on – or, perhaps, weirdly personally invested. It took me a while – in fact, it took me participating in ‘The Games That Define Us’ – to realise why: Roxas and Xion are, ultimately, struggling to work out who they are, what they believe, and just what the heck is important in this life. That’s, like, a really human thing, and I think it’s something that all of us probably go through at some point. I know exactly when I went through all of those specifics, because there was a specific inciting event, but perhaps for most people it’s a bit more gradual.
Still, I don’t feel that I changed, fundamentally. I kept the same values, really, just with some different BIG-SCALE COSMOLOGICAL THOUGHTS underlying their foundations. Both reason and emotion were important in establishing what I did believe, now that I knew what I didn’t, but I remained the same person with the same… I don’t know, essence. The same heart, maybe.
You ever wonder what stars are? Where light comes from?
There are a lot of things I like about Roxas (and Xion) as a character, but the thing for which I will always feel the most connected to him is his complete inability to accept that anyone other than him has the power to tell him who he is. I thought I was going to define myself by my relationship to God, and when that fell away I had to accept that I needed to define myself… some other way. Not by reference to any other person or being, but as me. These days I’m an extremely happy atheist; I have beliefs that I feel are consistent with the world and with the things that I think are important, and which allow me to express values like respect, curiosity, and compassion. (Worth noting again, as I always do whenever I use the word, that being an atheist doesn’t tell you anything about me other than that I don’t believe in any gods; every atheist has different views on morality, the universe, the meaning of life, the supernatural even. As I mentioned, losing a faith which had pre-sorted answers to all the Big Questions meant having to come up with my own answers to each of them separately, and I think each of us probably does that a little bit differently. As such, I don’t claim to be a representative of atheism by any means, although I’ll always happily talk to anyone about what I or they believe and why.)
Roxas goes through a difficult but defining – and self-defining, importantly – process of working out what matters, and that’s what I have the most respect for. In the Kingdom Hearts universe to be born without a heart means that becoming a truly complete entity is a genuine metaphysical exercise in self-definition, and while I don’t claim to have been through as much as Roxas or to be as strong as he is, I find it both admirable and familiar to think of someone having to experience a loss of structure and belief and to then have to rebuild everything they thought they knew, emerging not as a different person but as someone about whom they’re happy to say ‘I am’.
Something else I really like about Roxas and Xion is that one of the values they (and indeed most Good Guys in the KH universe) choose to embody is a respect for others which expresses itself as compassion, empathy, and the willingness to stand against anyone who would take someone’s freedom to choose from them. I think that both of them ultimately move from a state of not being able to choose for themselves at all to one of total autonomy, of self-realisation and of choice, and although both at times make what I think are tragic choices which have the result of (at least temporarily) sacrificing their own personhood for someone else’s, the important thing is that at the critical moments, they are the ones who make those choices. Series protagonist Sora famously declared ‘my friends are my power!’, and indeed his inability to see his own strength is a character flaw; Roxas and Xion know the value of connections, but they will never underestimate their own individual existences, and they’ll never allow themselves to be defined as anything other than themselves. It doesn’t mean they don’t love or care for others, or invest in their friends’ wellbeing – they don’t go ‘well, we’re our own people so nobody else matters’ – but it’s their choice to do so. The ultimate victory for them (not that I’m saying whether this does or doesn’t happen in KH3, natch) is a full realisation of their personhood, an existence no longer contingent on Sora or on anyone else, and that is so fundamentally powerful.
Well, now what do we do?
– Donald Duck
I know that.
I’ve never really experienced abuse, or… I don’t know, homelessness, never even really had to deal with sickness or death of those close to me other than pets and grandparents I barely remember. I’m not a member of any oppressed groups, so I’ve never been persecuted on the basis of my cultural, sexual, or any other kind of identity. (I recognise that there are parts of the world in which atheists are tremendously oppressed, even killed, and that I am lucky again not to be in one of those parts of the world.) I’ve had an easy life, really; it’s not as if losing my faith (or coming out afterwards) had any kind of negative impact on my life or made people treat me any differently, apart from one or two very specific cases.
I hope that if I were a member of a minority group, one in which membership can be dangerous – let me say that anyone who persecutes anyone else on the basis of their identity just sucks, but the fact is that it does happen and being transgender or of a particular race or female or a whole host of other things you don’t get to choose about yourself can often come with unwarranted and undeserved disadvantages – then I would still look to Roxas and Xion for strength. They found themselves immediately subjected to torment on the basis of the nature of their existence, which they couldn’t do anything about, and decided to embrace who they were and make their own path. Roxas is of course someone who knows that he is an individual despite everyone around him telling him that he can’t possibly be, and that feels as if it resonates with things like gender identity: in the real world, people often find themselves buried under the convictions of others (who really have no way of knowing) to the effect that they can’t possibly be the person they’re pretty sure that they in fact are.
Meanwhile, Xion begins life with such a fractured sense of self that she appears to have the face of about four or five different people depending on who’s looking at her (incidentally, some are male and some female, and while Xion’s own self-expression of identity winds up being female there’s an important period of her life during which she identifies as Sora, who is of course male), and it takes a heck of a lot of strength for her to go through the astonishingly hard process of working out who she actually is and then expressing herself as that person.
We’ll go together.
In the end, Roxas is my pick for The Characters That Define Us because he doesn’t let anyone else define him. It’s almost an ironic pick in that the whole point is that I’m not gonna be defined by Roxas, or by anyone other than me. He represents a being against whom the entire metaphysics of his universe were set, but whose decision that it matters less what the universe thinks of him than what he thinks of himself allows him to become more than he ever ought to have been able.
This is not, by the way, a nihilistic point of view by any stretch of the imagination. I think the universe is astonishingly beautiful, but I also think that there is no cosmic meaning of life set by some entity or force beyond myself and that it is just as beautiful and no less meaningful or important that people are capable of deciding for themselves. One of the first lines I wrote in the novel I’m currently finishing up for the third time was ‘the universe may not care, but I do’. We can be, as individual and independently realised beings, still part of something greater but which isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere or set or imposed, and if there were something greater then I should hope it wouldn’t mind if we did the most human thing and questioned it as thoroughly as we could.
Humans are great, and none of us is any less human than any other. If it feels as if the world is telling you that you have no heart, no purpose, then never forget that you can grow your own.