Gert Jonke had an interesting passage in one of his books the other day about people sitting in a train station. Using it as a metaphor for life he explained how some people manage to get onto one of the various trains and thereby proceed to reach their destination in life. Others simply mill about the station endlessly looking for their particular train and never manage to find it.
It’s a fairly simple idea but quite true. However there is a little more complexity to it I think. After all some of us see the train that is ours and purposely miss it. We hold ourselves back out of trepidation or out of a sense of obligations to others besides ourselves. Often the ones we stay with are those who are afraid of taking the step, frantic to find it, or are devastated at having missed it. We stay to offer them comfort or perhaps even the alternative of trying to convince them to come along with us instead on our journey.
Still others take trains moving in the opposite direction. They’re either trying to go back to a previous station and switch lines coming forward. Or perhaps they simply return to a previous station out of nostalgia. Perhaps in doing so they hope to run across people they’ve chatted with at those stops whose company they miss or even find that long lost love who they should never have allowed to board a train different from their own.
Those left behind at the station never really know what becomes of those who have departed. Perhaps a postcard or two but not having shared the same journey and looking out the same windows, their experience will always be second hand at best.
Some are probably quite content to be oblivious to the passing trains. Perhaps they simply like meeting fellow waiting passengers. You don’t always have to be in transit to find purpose. They might share in the moments of excitement before boarding or help comfort those who cannot find their trains or have missed them all together.
That’s the beauty of stations really. You do have some choice as to which platform you choose and whether or not you remain on it. Moving backwards, forwards, staying put, chasing your tail in endless frustration or tossing yourself on the tracks in total despair like Tolstoy’s Anna.
It never fails that given a room full of people united in a moment of silence that at least one of them will ruin the moment. Whether it is a concert, a moment of mourning, a moment of wonderment (or boredom) at a museum or simply queuing for a ticket to the movies, someone will inevitably do something. They will cough, their phone will ring, they will fidget (thereby making noise via their clothes rustling) or they will accidentally (or purposely) scent their immediate space – discreetly of course.
Why? Because consciously or unconsciously we are constantly jockeying to be centre stage. Many of us rarely if ever get the opportunity. We’re mediocrities that don’t stand out in a crowd. We’re not exceptionally beautiful, wonderfully witty or broodingly brilliant. We’re just here and we’re not sure why and in all honestly most of us don’t really care. Yet when all the environmental factors around us are dimmed, even the most nonchalant of us seize our moment on impulse.
After all who doesn’t want to be the one to alter the expectations of the universe even if for just a second? Even if you do it anonymously. After all the primary point is that you changed the balance of the world around you and you know it. So why not conveniently forget to turn that cell phone off and let it be the tiny seed that initiates a world revolution for bucking the status quo? After all once you’ve tasted the power of change, it can be an addictive catalyst toward interrupting and reshaping the entire universe beyond your own immediate sphere.
When I was a teenager at school one day our English teacher had us write down on strips of paper all that we held near and dear in the world. We then sat in a circle and one by one discarded into a central pile those things that we could let go of. Most people tossed things like video games, favourite clothes etc. first. They were horrified that I tossed family and friends first. At the very end of the game the one piece of paper I had left said God. Everyone else was left with family and friends. Thereafter they all thought I was a religious fanatic which actually couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The reason I did it is because friends can fall out of favour with you or simply lose touch over the years. Very few people are still in touch with childhood friends. Most of us can’t even remember their names. As for family they too can change. How many children are estranged from parents and relatives for one reason or another?
The one constant over which you have complete control is your imaginary friend – God. It is the one element of life you will never misplace, fall out with or lose contact with because you control its very existence in your conscience. Call him or her whatever you like, imagine them in any form you like and know that they will believe in you, excuse your failings and grant your every desire because you and only you created its existence in your imagination.
I’m always looking for new ways to experience the world around me. I happened upon a passage in “The Sound Book” by Trevor Cox today that intrigued me. He talks about trying to describe your favourite sounds in terms of their actual quality rather than their source or metaphorical properties. So what does that mean? It means when you hear birds singing in the morning instead of saying a bird (meaning the source of the noise) is singing you would describe the actual sound. Whether that be something along the lines of “chirp, chirp” “tweedle, tweedle, tweedle” or “caw, caw” or some variant thereof. Similarly, should you hear a chime in someone’s garden instead of using a metaphor such as, “it sounds like a bird” you would again try to describe the actual tone of the chime.
Such efforts are typically referred to as ideophones. Many languages make great use of them, however western languages are severely lacking in them and I think we are all the poorer for it. Some english examples include words such as “swoosh” and “pitter patter”. What is interesting about experimenting with the idea of describing the environment around you in ideophones as opposed to standard source/metaphor combinations is that you are taking the materialistic element out of it (or the dislocating factor if you will) and thereby directly pinpointing the essence of what you are experiencing.
Another element of this experience is that it opens the door for you to create neologisms. Now that’s something that really makes me purr with delight. I’m a huge admirer of Velimir Khlebnikov and one of his favourite topics was the creation of brand new words – or neologisms. It’s exciting to try and come up with a word that no one has ever uttered before in the history of mankind. If it catches on and becomes part of a whole new lexicon you have not only broadened your own horizon of expressive possibilities, but everyone else as well. Conquering new territory and making the world a more sensitively cognizant place beats an old fashioned war any day. I wish more people would try it, don’t you?
I was watching a performance art piece from a group of actors that are from a country still ruled by dictators. It was full of simulated violence and endless fact pointing as to this and that horror effecting their people everyday. Surprisingly I left the performance not shaken but relatively unmoved. Why? Because I have seen variations upon the same theme time and time again.
I certainly understand the need to bring the horrible atrocities of dictatorship to light. But sometimes I feel there is an even more important story that is routinely sidestepped by even the best intentioned people. That is how people manage to survive the seemingly unsurvivable. How do they hold onto their will to survive amidst seemingly insurmountable suppression? How do those who have grown up under dictatorship and know no other way of life find that will if not from the examples of their elders? What gives people strength? What are the little, seemingly meaningless things they do in their daily lives that help them maintain their personal sense of dignity and individuality which in turn prevents them from feeling absorbed and rendered anonymous by the mass of corruption in which they find themselves struggling to breathe?
Sad to say the stories of dictatorships are all quite similar and with the over saturation of violence in our culture today even when it is based on actual events it comes off like a TV show or video game. It isn’t shocking anymore. We’ve become numbed to brutality. It’s a de-evolution of our species. Soon we’ll resemble our prehistoric ancestors far more than the world controlling techno marvels that our fictional creations would have us believe we’re meant to become.
To me the stories of personal survival are each unique in their own way and in the long run are probably even more effective when it comes to reaching out to strangers that are unaware of the devastating effects of such a regime. People are shocked by brutality but often feel powerless to act. They do little more than sign petitions as a rule. I have to wonder if educating people about realities but coupling that with personal connections that will truly give them the “full picture” would in turn compel more meaningful, transformative action?
I don’t know that it would work, but I think anything is better than the status quo which will imprison generations to come if not addressed. Don’t glorify the suffering for others to emulate, glorify those who manage to survive it and let them (or even just the attributes that helped pull them through) serve as “modern saints” if you will whose stories you look to and pass down to future generations for guidance in finding meaning and improvement in your own life.
It’s a fairly elementary concept to realize that we grow up in a very über-human world. From very early on most of us grow up in concrete jungles where practically no other visible life form exists aside from the birds. Even they are regarded as little more than “rats in the sky”, particularly when they make their presence known on the tops of our heads at the most inopportune moments. The vast majority also grow up in some sort of standard religion. Yet think about it, all the major players – Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all revolve in large part around a figure (whose non-human divinity I’ll leave you to debate) that looks just like you and me. Lets face it, Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha could just as easily be anyone we grew up with. Perhaps their extraordinariness being housed in humanness just makes the whole thing that much more palpable.
It’s not really narcissism, it’s not a conscious attempt to view ourselves above all else. It’s purely instinct because it is all we’ve ever known. Our environments, our faith and the vast majority of our logical functioning in general all reek of humanness. So lets shift the centrepointe of our thinking outside our species for a moment:
Place your conscience in the eyes of a fly as it sits atop a caribou racing across the tundra. Or inside a grain of sparkling sand as it is tossed to and fro along the bottom of a deep seabed by crabs in the midst of courtship. Or even as a microscopic particle atop an enormous asteroid lost beyond the farthest known reaches of the universe. Your perspective and insights will fundamentally change.
It would be fascinating to train our children to take these time outs on occasion as well. Perhaps we will find that using our imagination to shift our centrepointes at will helps balance our perspectives. It may end up being the hypo-allergenic pill that provides world peace.
I can see the appeal of isolationism. After all who doesn’t enjoy being curled up in a warm familiar blanket amidst four familiar walls? There is certainly a great deal of comfort in knowing what we know and not being terribly concerned with what we don’t. Anything outside of the comfort zone is the “other”. That invariably implies it is either bad by design or simply negligible in importance. There are few among us who seek it out, who crave to know its makeup from top to bottom.
Throughout time there has always been a certain percentage of any given population that retreats into isolation. It’s not limited to monastics in the days of yore either. Governments around the world are displaying the same motivations in spades today. The “lets worry about my own space and that of my immediate friends and leave the rest to oblivion” approach. A fundamentally flawed approach and here is why:
Like it or not we are sentient beings. You can sit in a proverbial cave all day long and think very deeply upon something as simplistic as “are rocks hard”? No matter how strenuously you go about it you simply cannot have a complete understanding of the question unless you go outside and touch one. Only through sentient interaction with the segment of the environment being questioned can you truly affirm the reality that when pressed against ones hand a rock indeed does fail to yield and is therefore hard.
No matter how hard you try to maintain equilibrium in your world the reality is that there are not invisible, impenetrable walls protecting kingdoms – either your own personal space or that of your country. Ignore that fundamental fact at your peril. Evil spreads far faster than good. Its motivation is much stronger – it must feed on chaos and decay in order to survive. Goodness on the other hand is an eternal potential which either lies dormant or is realized but it is never fully eradicated despite the grandest efforts. After all even amidst an apocalypse a single blade of grass will appear somewhere on the planet. It will give rise to a flower whose seed will be spread by the winds and thus life will begin yet again with or without you.
Countless hours are spent on internal concentration – discovering the inner me or in the case of politics trying to guess the others motivation. It’s a futile attempt. There are no tangible elements with which your senses can interact and thus assist in the clarification process. It’s all just guessing. By using nothing aside from thought, which is a pure abstraction in and of itself, you have in essence shut off approximately 90% of your bodily functions which were created in the first place in order to help you make sense of the world around you.
Instead of achieving enlighten you instead diminish your understanding to the point that you yourself become utterly irrelevant in the quest for knowledge. You gather information through your own senses and compare it with those of others (not in closest proximity to your person or your views but rather the opposite in order to have the widest perspective) in order to have the clearest view of any given situation and you share/act upon what you have learned. Closed books don’t solve problems or inspire anybody.
In short, when you want to cross a moat in order to enter a Castle you don’t blindfold yourself, bind your arms and legs and hope for the best.
How many times have we heard it, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It’s the 100th anniversary of WWI and where do we find ourselves? On the verge of WWIII.
Propaganda is as effective as ever. I find that inexcusable in this day and age. I realize in many authoritarian regimes and sadly even in so called “democracies” access to outside sources is severely limited. Still, in this age of media savvy it is not impossible. Don’t forget, the Arab Spring became a reality largely through finding the loopholes in internet access in order to coordinate demonstrations.
You have the means to learn the truth, but you have to make an effort. If you choose to sit by and either ignore it or believe without question lies fed to you by a government or even simply individuals with an agenda then you not only do so at your own peril, you are also committing your neighbors children to senseless slaughter.
The young invariably die for the lies and ambitions of the old. It’s rarely for protection of home and family. It is almost always on foreign soil against a heavily stereotyped enemy whose menace potential is largely invented by those who serve to gain power from their subsequent annihilation.
Be alert enough to see the difference between real threats and concocted ones and pass it along to others. Mass protests are not impossible. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. If it saves even one life it is certainly worth an effort when a population realizes it is being hoodwinked by those who are hoarding matches in their wallets. Fires are neither started nor doused of their own volition – in either case it takes active intervention.
Chaos is a beast whose appetite will never be satisfied. Once it consumes everything around it, it will began to consume itself. Those who mistakenly think they have saddled it and direct its wrath will no sooner find themselves in its jaws.
Silence is never the answer. I certainly realize that not everyone has the courage to stand on the public square alone and scream the truth though. Seek the truth for yourself and then spread it to others (friends, family, strangers you see expressing sentiments you know to be false). Share it anonymously if you must (online forums, media outlets), or courageously in public if you are prepared to bear the consequences.
Refuse to believe that the “others” are ALL evil. It’s never true. If you are the “other” refuse to prove them right.