Here's how far down the churchless rabbit hole I've burrowed: I'm able to find existential "spiritual" meaning in a book series about an unstoppable assassin, the Gray Man, a.k.a. Court Gentry.
Court Gentry is known as The Gray Man – a legend in the covert realm, moving silently from job to job, accomplishing the impossible, and then fading away. And he always hits his target. But there are forces more lethal than Gentry in the world. And in their eyes, Gentry has just outlived his usefulness.
Now, he is going to prove that for him, there is no gray area between killing for a living– and killing to stay alive.
I've devoured the first two books in the Gray Man series, "The Gray Man" and "On Target." Well, I've devoured them slowly, because I enjoy reading about the Gray Man's exploits so much, I don't want the books (and the series) to end.
This is unusual for me. I'm a fast reader. Typically, when I get engrossed in a gripping spy/ killer/ espionage book I read it as quickly as I can, because I want to find out how the ending of the plot turns out.
But something about the Gray Man appeals to me on a deeper philosophical level. Again, this is weird, because the fictional Court Gentry seemingly isn't much like the real person Me.
This excerpt from "The Gray Man" points to the main thing I like about Court Gentry. He goes through life largely clueless about why stuff is happening to him, but he manages to carry on just fine anyway.
The fight was on. The fact that Court didn't have a clue what they were fighting over was a nonissue. He did not waste a single brain cell pondering this turn of events.
Court Gentry was a killer of men.
These were men.
And that's all there was to it.
...Court rolled left, emerged from behind the pallet with his M4 raised, and fired a long burst at McVee. The man's goggled face slammed back against the wall, and his H&K dropped away from his fingertips.
The black-clad operator fell back on the bench, dead.
Gentry had killed him, and he had no idea why.
Beautiful! Not the killing, really, but the Gray Man's realization that the most reliable understanding about reality is that it isn't understandable.
Sure, Court Gentry knows a lot about the shadowy world he inhabits after being betrayed by his CIA handlers. But in his day-to-day efforts to complete a mission for hire, and stay alive while doing so, he often has no idea what is going on. Yet this doesn't stop him from dealing in a marvelously spontaneous way with whatever is happening without an evident why.
Gentry is the Wandering Taoist Sage of world-class assassins.
Frequently he unexpectedly falls off (or is pushed off) cliffs. Bloodied, bruised, bewildered, he gets up, assesses the situation, and draws a new course of action out of his almost infinitely large bag of survival tricks. I liked this passage from "On Target."
Maurice had another saying that popped into Court's mind right then. "A plan is just a big list of shit that's not going to happen." Court had found this to be the one constant in his missions, in his life. Plans were good. Plans were necessary, but ultimately, most plans were bullshit.
Most people would consider that, at best, the Gray Man occupies a realm of moral ambiguity. However, the way I see Court Gentry, he is an intensely ethical person who doesn't care if anyone else can read his moral compass.
Here is the Gray Man engaged in a conversation with a high-minded female International Criminal Court staffer whose life he is trying to save in Sudan. She calls him by his code name, Six.
"Six, I think a lot of very bad people started out as good people, don't you?"
"I don't know."
"Be careful you don't become that which you hate."
"I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Yes, you do. I believe you. I believe that you believe you are here for the right reasons. Maybe in your head you are. But this place needs people who are saving lives, not taking lives."
Court stopped her from stumbling over an anthill in the dark. He led her around it by the arm, and then immediately let go. "Saving a life and taking a life are not opposites. Sometimes they are two sides of the same coin. I may take lives from time to time, but I wouldn't do it unless I felt I was saving some, too."
"Sounds like you're trying to justify it to yourself."
"I have to justify it to myself. But I don't have to justify anything to you. People like you will never understand. Waste of time to try to convince you."
Today I was driving into town, idly musing about some issues related to my civic activism efforts here in Salem, Oregon. I was feeling a bit anxious about how other people would look upon my actions, worrying what they'd think about me, concerned that what I was doing would be viewed negatively.
Then the Gray Man popped into my consciousness. I instantly felt way better.
Court Gentry does what needs doing. He is motivated by what he feels to be right, not by anyone else's conception of rightness and wrongness. Sure, he makes mistakes. But the Gray Man learns from what goes wrong and keeps on doing what is right. With boundless confidence.
Not a bad philosophy of life, not bad at all.
"American, I know the Janjaweed; they destroyed my village, they raped my two sisters, killed one, let the other live, but she crazy now after what they did. They killed my father, too. Only my mother and I left, and she at the camp at Dirra. If the Janjaweed come, nothing we can do. They have guns, camels, horses. If they come, we are all gonna die."
Court shook his head. "We can do this. These Janjaweed are killers, but they are cowards. They don't come to fight; they come to slaughter. We make it tough for them, bloody some noses, kill a couple of them even, and they will break and run. They aren't looking for a battle, believe me. These guys kill women and children for fun. We can do this."
"It doesn't matter if they're not real soldiers, they have guns! We don't have anything to stop them with."
"Yes, we do."
"We have me."
The kid's eyes grew wide. "You crazy, man," he said, a little smile growing on his face.
Smiling at a time like this meant Bishara was a bit crazy himself. Court could tell immediately that he'd be able to work with this kid.