Transcendence: A Bad Dream

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.

A Softer World is an odd little webcomic. I used to read it all the time, and then stopped for some reason. I just found out today that they’re done making them, but the archives are still online.

It isn’t really a comic in the normal sense. Instead, they take a photo, split it into panels (usually three), and add some text. There aren’t characters, plot, or dialogue per se. It’s just something funny or sad or different. ASW is artsy and weird, in a good way.

This one is my favorite. It doesn’t have a date, but I’m estimating circa 2004.


Everyone – even people with safe and happy lives, like me – everyone gets so used to the ubiquity of pain and sadness that it simply becomes standard, part of the world, part of the mental model. It’s bad, but you expect it. You could call this jaded or cynical, but if so, it’s the baseline cynicism you need to get by as an adult, or as a child older than three.

You know how your windows get dirty, and you don’t even realize how dirty they are till someone wipes a circle on one of them? Suddenly you realize what clean glass looks like, and then for the first time you understand how dirty the rest of it is, has always been, which you never knew till now, even though you’d been looking at it all along.

That’s what this comic is for me. It’s not saying we should be naive or ignore pain or anything like that. It’s just saying “Look, this is where we are. This is how far we are from what we hoped it would be.” Not depressing (at least to me). Just true.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut imagines a soldier’s epitaph as “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

In my favorite episode of Buffy, “After Life,” our recently resurrected heroine describes what death was like:

I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form. But I was still me, you know? And I was warm. And I was loved. And I was finished. Complete. […] I think I was in heaven. […] Everything here is hard, and bright, and violent.

The Tower of Babel is supposed to be a cautionary tale. But that heaven, I think, is worth building a tower to.


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