We see it in “Jack in Space,” where Jack gives up the chance of going back to save the lives of the scientists, as well as in “Jack Tales,” where he has his one and only chance at a magic wish to go back, and instead uses it to free the fairy who was going to grant it. Neither of these instances required Jack to put himself before others, because his travel to the past would ultimately undo any of the misfortunes that befall these individuals in the future. But he does, because it’s in his nature and the values he was raised with to be a compassionate and good person.
With such tales of altruism, there’s often the unanswered, haunting question of, “Am I a bad person if I’m not willing to make that act?” The former tales don’t entertain this line of thought, but there is the implied lesson of the importance in placing others’ needs above your own. A good moral to be sure, but how far should one go before one begins to neglect the care of oneself? (Especially when it’s, you know, preventing you from going home and undoing a cosmic evil.)
Enter “Jack, the Monks, and the Ancient Master’s Son.”
At first, the episode seems to be going the same route as the aforementioned ones. And at first glance, that’s exactly what it seems to do. Jack is given yet another opportunity to return to the past, but when he sees that the people who helped him are in danger, he can’t bring himself to do it. It’s, again, a case where he really doesn’t have to save them, because again, he’ll be ensuring a better future for them in the end.
We’re treated to a wonderful bit of visual character-driven storytelling as we see Jack wrestling with this conflict. And yes, this does play a crucial role in the lesson this episode teaches.
First, Jack is reluctant to take a step towards the portal, hearing the sounds of the monks suffering on his behalf.
Then he grits his teeth in a moment of bitter resolve, knowing the monks will likely perish but also understanding that the monks have accepted their fate, and he shouldn’t let their sacrifices be in vain.
But try as he might, he can’t ignore their suffering, no matter how well the ends may justify the means.
So Jack returns to the monks to help them, and the time portal closes. When the monks ask Jack why he rescued them, his answer isn’t the expected “I couldn’t simply leave you to die.” It’s undoubtedly the root of the reason–we see as much in his expressions above–but that’s not the conclusion Jack chooses to arrive to.
Jack understands and respects the monks’ decision to sacrifice themselves for him. It isn’t a question of what’s most “morally sound” in the end, but rather where Jack himself is on his journey. Is he at the point where he’s ready to let others risk their lives for him if it means saving millions of others’? He’s not, and that’s that. This wasn’t just a question of what he felt was most “right” for others, but what was right for him in the end.
And that’s an important lesson for anyone in making altruistic decisions. Consider what’s right, but most importantly, consider yourself and where you are on your own personal journey.