Going East Instead of West

I read an interesting idea from philosopher Alain de Batton this morning.  He said when people in the west want to “find themselves” they almost always look to the philosophies of the east.  It’s true to a large extent.  All of those yoga classes, chanting as the Buddhists do, seeking minimalism in our materialism, within reason of course. 

It’s not entirely true of course.  Some people find meaning in their lives through volunteer work in their community or involvement in faiths other than those of the east.  Yet I would say the majority think you are referring to the east when you talk of getting in touch with your inner self.  It’s rather ironic though.   It seems to me these peaceful pauses are often just that in the west – pauses.  They’re next to never ways of life. 

All too often they jump up from those 20 minute chanting sessions and yoga classes etc. to go hop in that gas guzzling vehicle that is destroying the environment and ride off to an office to either languish in anonymous mediocrity or themselves oppress others.  Not to mention at the very same moment the many who are slaving away in the east itself in order to feed the materialism that you’ve supposedly just finished humming out of your “stressful” life.


The Aftermath

I keep seeing more and more photos out of Russia these days of people embracing the Neo-Nazi movement.  It’s not enough to simply say they are naïve.  Their support for a movement that literally destroyed half the world is not a matter that should be taken lightly in the least.  We have only look at Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria to see how fanaticism has consequences.

I imagine most of us remember Holocaust education from our school days.  Typically you saw some films with countless bodies being bulldozed into mass graves.  It seems inconceivable that the majority of people only know the story of Anne Frank when there were millions upon millions of others – all with unique stories of their own – that are largely ignored by time pressed school curriculums.  We need to make the time – we won’t convince all the kids but we need to start somewhere.  I’m not saying tell every story but I’m saying balance the coverage of the curriculum – five minutes isn’t enough to give a sense of the true scope of the horror that was the Holocaust.

With that in mind, I would like to make several points regarding educational initiatives when it comes to Holocaust awareness that I would hope would be relevant throughout the world.  First of all personal contact with survivors:

I remember in school having a guest speaker one day.  Later that afternoon as I was going to the bus to go home I saw him standing all alone.  I have no idea why, but I felt compelled to walk up to him and thank him for coming to see us.  I guess I felt sorry for him because he was standing all alone.  I held out my hand to him.  I was a tiny little girl and he was a huge man.  I’ll never forget the look on his face.  His eyes welled up with tears that he bravely held back.   I think for him the fact that even one child had paid attention to his story made him feel that his efforts at educating today’s youth had not been in vain.   There was one that had listened.  Sadly many of our survivors are elderly now and such personal contact is not always possible.  But there are many good documentary films out there in which those who are no longer with us have shared their experiences.

Secondly I think a dangerous impression that the bulldozing scenes alone without elaboration give is that it is either staged (for those who look for reasons to deny history) or that they’re all just “victims” like some video game – a horrible generalization that dehumanizes all of those individuals into one mass causality that simply disappeared into the ground to be forgotten.  Which leads to my third point:

What you rarely ever hear about is the aftermath.  As soldiers came upon some of the camps after the war to help liberate the survivors, they described many of the people they saw as zombies who were well on their way to irreversible madness.  They wondered if the people would ever be able to adjust to “normal” life again.  Of course many did as we well know.  The ones you never hear about are the ones that didn’t.  The countless people that wandered the world from place to place.  Their entire families, communities and cities that they had lived in for generations ceased to exist.

We forget those in resettlement camps in Cyprus on their way to Israel that put wire fences around their tiny tents because they simply wanted to be alone.  Having spent years in cramped, foul bunks with strangers from all walks of life and languages they wanted to shut themselves off from the world.

Many rediscovered their faith in God for having survived and made it their life’s mission to tell their stories so that those who did not might never be forgotten.  Others who felt God abandoned them simply wanted anonymity never to be reminded of the horror again by others who could never possibly understand the daily terror of watching babies shot and elderly women gassed among the long list of atrocities.  Those “others” often included their own children who they had after the war.  Many of these children grew up unaware of their own parents history and often felt emotional disconnect from parents who never fully came out of a state of shock and were unable to provide the emotional nurturing that many of they themselves had been stripped of themselves whilst going through the war.  To survive you often had to turn off your emotions – not run to save the child or shield the father.  Doing so could mean forfeiting your own life.

Sometimes I wonder if these so called neo-Nazis that throw their arms up casually in the air have ever looked into the eyes of someone who has truly lost everything.  Sadly they don’t have to watch documentaries, they can just turn on their nightly news and watch the wars of the world raging around them today.  Then put it in perspective – Nazism created the very same terror on a scale incalculable even compared to what you see on your news today.  The terror doesn’t stop when the war does – it survives for generations to come in abandoned homes, the eyes of orphans, wandering homeless and the vacant stares of the mad.  Nazi jokes aren’t funny and throwing up your arm in the air is like wishing for the world to end and rest assured you’ll be along for the ride with the rest of us.




There is always something

If locked in a solid white windowless, door-less cube it would be incorrect to say that before you in your external surroundings there is nothing at all.  Don’t believe me?  Think of what would happen should you cover your nose and mouth with your hand at the same time whilst in such a predicament.  You see – there’s always something.  That invisible something that sustains us even in the most inhospitable of environments where all the friends and family have vanished and you’re even refusing to believe in the imaginary ones too such as like God. 

That’s right, the only thing separating you from oblivion is air.  And who’s to say if that suddenly disappeared that there wouldn’t be an alternate existence which we would then enter.  Even then there might be “something.” After all a fetus in the womb could hardly guess of the world to come.  Neither can we anticipate what follows once our time here is up.

Withdrawal From Society

In his film “Hands” Artur A­ristakisyan speaks of the path that those who end up living outside of traditional society travel.  His focus is primarily on the mentally ill, however many of his observations can also apply to those who find themselves unemployed for a long period of time.

When you’re employed, in particular in the corporate sector, aside from rare circumstances the work is neither plentiful nor difficult.  The payment you receive for a minimum of effort is often grossly inflated when evaluated against the mind numbing tasks it is for.  In many ways it’s like being in the rabbit hole.  You can’t believe how inflated everything is.  It seems nothing is impossible and yet at the same time nothing seems particularly real either.  Lets face it in the majority of jobs the evidence of your efforts (all that data you process or products you make etc.) are unlikely to be uncovered by archaeologists a century from now and marveled at for their worth.  Your name won’t go down on the rolls as a contributor to the betterment of your species.  How many even know the names of those sitting five feet from them?  

When you become unemployed and are in essence blasted out of the rabbit hole, it closes behind you.  No more false gaiety, no more excess.  Now you are forced to truly engage with the world.  As all the money dries up you budget for each day and meticulously plan each meal.  There are no friends – who wants to know someone outside the rabbit hole?  Life on the surface is cold and all too real, those who have never experienced it joke about it amongst themselves masking the fact that they fear it intensely.  Just watch them nervously lock their doors as they travel through those parts of the city where “urban outdoorsmen” roam.

Yet it is not all gloom.  When you’re unemployed you stop wearing a watch because you don’t have to race back to the desk after an hour’s break.  As frightening as it is to be alone and in a world where you must be constantly aware of even the smallest shift in circumstances, you have something you never had before – freedom.  You are never expected at a certain time and in a certain space and no one knows your name.  

Of course freedom has its cost.  When the savings run out you revert to hunter-gatherer mode for even the most basic of needs.  Yet even then your time is your own, the world and not just a small cubicle is your space, and your destiny is what you make it and not confined to a bullet list on a sheet of paper which identifies you by nothing more than a job title.  

All, both employed and not will be equalized at the end as we all turn to dust at some point.  Then and only then is a person’s worthiness amongst their peers reckoned with the truest justice there is – time.  If your actions, even if not your name, can be recalled by even one with kindness in the years or even centuries after your passing, then regardless of your societal station in life your suffering through all the trials and tribulations of humanity will not have been in vain.

Time Capsules

Every so often you hear of time capsules being dug up here and there around the world.  It’s curious how we always choose material objects to sum up the life experience of a community.  Were you given a shoe box and told to put things in it that would represent your story what would you do?  After all you couldn’t stuff it with all your hugs for those who were sad, smiles for each and every child both brat and saint that you encountered and that look in your eyes reserved exclusively for your beloved.  Such a shame to think that centuries from now when they dig up the box they’ll miss the true essence of what made you a unique presence amongst your species.  Are a few material objects which likely have a remote connection to you at best really a fair representation of close to a century of presence?  The truest time capsule to a life lived long ago are in the memories of those who encountered you and those that will pass down the legends of  your life for generations to come.  

Abstraction – the great unifier

Have you ever noticed that the concepts that provide unity in our life are almost always abstract?  For example if I have two pigs, a pen, a piece of pizza, an ostrich feather and a piece of lint what is the singular concept that unifies all of these diverse, tangible objects?  A concept that is 100% guaranteed to be disputed by no one no matter what?  Simple – a number.  There are six items.  Their individual characteristics are of no importance. 

The purity of the unifying power of numbers surpasses even God.  Why?  Because as you travel throughout the world if you question people about their belief in God you will get a different answer practically every time. 

Despite the fact that a sizeable proportion of people do look to religion to bring a sense of clarity and spiritual unification with all that is known and unknown in their lives, there are still nagging questions even amongst the most faithful. 

Although numbers too are an abstract concept invented by the human psyche, it seems they are questioned as to their validity to a much lesser extent.  You could not say that a pen, two pigs, lint, pizza and an ostrich feather are all God’s creations.  At least one person would dispute that.  Yet none would dispute that there are six and only six items and there can never be more or less.  

Abstractions used to give sense to our lives through groupings leading to overall unification are not limited to our material world.  Thanks to the efforts of the great mathematician Georg Cantor, infinity itself can be abstractly quantified through a modified use of numbers.  Yet when we apply religion to infinity the best we can say is that God created it.  We can give offer little more clarity than that.  We simply claim that through His omnipotence the concept of infinity itself can only be fully grasped by and of use to God alone.  We wash our hands of it.  Through mathematics, perhaps we have created an abstraction to trump the abstraction of religion that has been with us for so long. 

Yet even the most ardent mathematician will tell you that there are still concepts that even a solid grasp of numbers cannot answer.  When faced with those questions, even men as brilliant as Cantor came full circle and once again leaned on religion – the imperfect but reliable old standby.  How fascinating will it be when we eventually manage to create another abstraction that will further evolve those we already have in our never ending attempt to grasp the realities of our world in all its material and non-material forms.       

Infinity Within Us

Many people look to the heavens when asked about the concept of infinity.  They envision galaxies beyond the realms of even our most fervent imaginations.  Yet infinity is actually within tangible reach of our immediate surroundings.  No, I’m not speaking of an internalized spiritual knowledge of an omnipotent God, but something much more practical – our ability to reproduce. 

Men and women each contribute to the production of children which of course are a furtherance of our species.  Our children can in turn have children and so on infinitum.  Of course there is always the possibility of lines ending when someone does not bear any children at all in their lifetime.  However there will always be at least one couple on the planet, so long as it is in existence, that will be capable of creating new life in continuance of our species. 

As we look upon ourselves as an individual finite entity, never lose site of the fact that the seeds of infinity lie within us (and that we ourselves are a product of said seeds) giving us all (even those who are childless) the dual characteristic of being at once both finite and infinite.  Just one of the fascinating aspects of our existence. 

The Freedom Of Anonymity

Despite the fact that travelling can be a logistical pain these days there is a certain “freedom of character movement” aspect of it that can be entertaining.  In your home town you run a higher than average likelihood of running into someone you know as most of us only circumnavigate within about a 30km radius of our residence in our daily lives.  When you travel beyond that scope, the probability decreases markedly. 

You can be anything you want when encountering strangers in your travels.  They have no point of reference against which to refute you.  When stating what city you’re from you can leave out the actual street you live on.  After all every city has its good and bad parts, how will they know which part is yours? The same with your workplace.  Unless it’s a huge corporation, they’re unlikely to know it and you can appear far more successful and relevant than you probably are.

I’ve seen countless people play these smoke and mirror games on the road.  No harm done, after all travel is all about escapism isn’t it?  And who among us doesn’t mind dabbling in a little mystery now and then?

Intellectual Heroes On The Front Lines Of Freedom

Dickens begins his famous novel David Copperfield by asking whether he shall turn out to be the hero of his own life or if that station will be filled by another.  What does it really mean to be a hero?  Is it purely a projection of your acts for the benefit of others, or can it be more singular and effect only you personally?  I think it is a combination of the two. 

Heroism begins at home within yourself.  Your ability to form and hold steadfast to your own beliefs makes you a formidable foe to inaction due to apathy or self doubt.  It is no slight courage to be able to dissect your world view with clarity and conviction and then to be bold enough to go on to share your thoughts with friends and enemies alike.

To me being a hero isn’t always about combatants on the front lines in physical confrontations.  Whilst those actions are heroic to be sure and should not be discounted in the slightest, I think all too often we take intellectual heroism for granted.  Aside from purely spontaneous situations, the fuel of heroism that keeps those on the front lines fighting for freedom are spurred on not only by personal convictions, but by impassioned speeches and writings from those who fight with pens and not swords.  They are no less heroic.  Everyone has a hero within them.  But the genie isn’t let out of the bottle unless you will it so.  It’s not a matter of age, money, high education or fame.  You can write a single sentence on the internet or say something to someone in a café and make a difference simply because you’ve had the courage to speak.

These behind the scene heroes  speak for those in physical conflicts who have given their life for the cause – they keep their voices alive thereby expanding the troops by countless souls.  Without those behind the scenes you wouldn’t know who these people were and why they fought for their convictions. 

They also speak to the generation to come – those that will have to rebuild once the fight is won or else continue the fight of their parents.  So in essence the intellectual hero speaks for those who have passed, to those struggling in the present, and those that will constitute the future.


The Wall

An interesting premise I saw in a German film last night – what if you were walking down a road alone and suddenly came upon an invisible wall?  You could see people in the distance but they could not see you.  You were to be forever trapped in a confined space.  How would it change you?

I took it one step further and began to think – what if day by day the wall came closer and closer, decreasing your life space inch by inch until you were to be completely immobile, in essence buried alive.  It’s not like being diagnosed with a terminal illness for which there is no cure.  You don’t know how long you have left, there is no time to “prepare” either emotionally or get sorted out as to where your material possessions will end up once you’re gone.  

You can’t go around undoing wrongs either – when you are alone behind the wall there is no one left to impress and that’s what the majority of good deeds are about – improving others opinions of you whether or not your actions actually make any substantial difference in their circumstances to begin with.  “It’s the thought that counts” sort of concept.  

Despite the fact it was a fictional movie, in fact it is reality.  We do build up invisible walls in our daily lives as we retreat into comfort zones.  Sometimes it is sheer escapism out of fear or hurt and at other times merely convenience born of laziness.  The older we get the closer those walls seem to get.  The adventurous spirit of our youth is spent and our willingness to explore beyond known horizons dims.