Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Age of Apathy


Life has never been easy. Trials and tribulations have faced each generation of mankind. The hardships that each faced may have been different, but there was a common thread of solutions and coping methods used, and these have been passed down the generations.

If you saw someone in danger or in need, you'd help them. In the aftermath of a disaster, you would help rebuild the community in any way you could. In case of an attack by an external force, you would defend your nation and the people you loved. In the event of an injustice to a fellow citizen, you would stand up for their rights using the power of your vote or of protest.

But the world is not as simple anymore. We are now aware of disasters and injustices and evil in every corner of this round world. And while this knowledge has helped make us more empathetic towards people we do not directly know and who aren't necessarily similar to us, it has also created a generation that lives with a feeling of helplessness.

Because when you can't protect someone, or help those in need simply because they are too far away; and when you hear of a disaster thousands of kilometers away from you and you feel sad but you aren't there and cannot help; and when you hear of injustices to your fellow human in a country that isn't yours and where you have no power to change anything, all you can do is hope that things will get better.

War used to mean an attack on your home by an external force. Something with a face and direction that could be fought. You could defend yourself against a known enemy. We are now in the midst of a global war. There is no place left that is safe from evil. We hear of an attack each day, and the world hasn't even time enough to mourn over one when the next blow shakes us. How do we defend ourselves from an enemy that is everywhere and nowhere? So we stick our heads in the sand pretending that the storm will pass, because we have no solution.

When you read the news each day, each minute, and hear of all the terrible things happening, you simply want to take the world apart and put it back together right, because it is all such a mess. And you can't, so you cry each time you hear of another life destroyed. And you run out of tears and learn to stop caring, because otherwise you simply could not function. And you just give up on the world, adding yet another cynic to this world.

This feeling of apathy has us numb to pain, but it also has us frozen into inaction. So much so that even when there is something you can do, you don't. You witness someone killed on a train station right next to you and simply watch as if it's happening somewhere far away on your news feed, and there's nothing you can do. Just another story and another headline in a world that has nothing to do with you. Not really.

We are the connected generation. We know everything that is happening everywhere. But we are also the passive generation. We have no hope, no power and no solutions. This feeling of impotence, of caring without being able to do anything, slowly turns to apathy. It just hurts too much to care. After all, what's the point when there's nothing you can do about it? And yet we must care. It is the price we pay for being connected. We cannot enjoy the culture, art and knowledge of the world, without caring about its people. Our challenges are new, but we can't afford to do nothing. As Edmund Burke said,

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Malady

Have you heard of the sweating sickness? It was a plague that terrorized England, around the 16th century and killed thousands within a year, and then disappeared suddenly. No one really knows why. Symptoms include chills, pain, fever, sweating (obviously), and very quick death.

Have you wondered why we get sick? I always assumed it was a side-effect of the very existence of the germs within our bodies, that they didn't mean to make us sick. But sometimes, apparently, they do.

We know that there are billions of micro-organisms living in, on and around us, in a largely symbiotic fashion. In many ways, we would not be able to live without these "germs", and they without us to feed off of. But there are some greedier microbes that aren't happy with what they have. They don't want to live and let live. They, like fanatics of all kinds, want to spread their ideology (through biological terrorism) all over the world. What these creatures do is they make you really sick so that these microbes get a free ride on your fluids to other hosts. Sometimes, they even kill you in the process.

Of course, lacking brains, they are unaware of what they are doing. But then, some might say that ignorance itself is a sin, so I'll just go on judging them.

But getting back to the point, some germs make you sick so that they can spread. But sometimes, they evolve to become much too effective at their jobs. And such, it is thought, was the case with sleeping sickness. It was too effective- it killed its host before he even had a chance to shake hands with or sneeze at anyone else. This is one possible reason why the disease disappeared so quickly.

Speaking of disease, today is World Environment Day, and the Earth is sick, largely because of us. We are exterminating species, consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate and in general giving our poor planet a bad case of "the humans". It appears that we have now become evil parasites of the sort that make their host (our planet in this case) ill for their selfish gains. The only problem is, we don't have another host.

Perhaps, like the virus that caused sleeping sickness, we have become much too efficient at destroying nature and consuming resources, and maybe, just like that virus, we will die out too quickly. The Earth will rise once again from the ashes, and life may even go on. But for humans to go on, perhaps it's time for some introspection as a species. We know we can do better. We can fund research in the improvement of the efficiency and costs of renewable energy. We can work towards reducing population and conserving wildlife. We can change laws and change habits. We may need to change the very way we live. But at least we will live.

We may have become global citizens and today recognize humans of all shapes and colors as deserving of the same human rights. We have learned to extend our empathy across our borders. We must now learn to extend this empathy towards other creatures and towards our home. We only have the one.

In the words of Ron Weasley, we need to sort out our priorities.

Note: I read about the sleeping sickness in an entertaining and educational book by Bill Bryson called "A Short History of Nearly Everything".

Burn

I don't like pain. I can't imagine anyone does, but I actively avoid it. I especially hate the torture that is running. With all my heart, body and mind.

My heart tries to escape its cage, my body screams in agony, and my brain twists trying to fathom why its container is wasting all this energy for no good reason: running in circles just to get back to where it started, or worse, running in place!

Some of the aversion may be attributed to my belief that running hates me back. This may or may not have something to do with an exceedingly embarrassing incident involving a treadmill throwing me off like it was an ill-treated horse. I think treadmills can smell fear. I learned to stay far away from them, preferring instead the non-threatening cross-trainer, which is rather kinder to those of us who are weak of cardiovascular strength.

I've heard of the runner's high: some people actually experience exhilaration from the activity, apparently. But then, people in general are strange. I've also read that running comes naturally to humans. I considered writing to the author telling him of the counter-example I had found: me! After a while I just assumed that perhaps my fight-or-flight response is simply more geared towards fight: I don't like violence, but it can't be worse than running.

A month ago however, a strange feeling came over me. I wanted to learn to run. I am not entirely certain why, but it may have to do with pride. I refused to yield to a simple, mindless machine - and here I speak both of the treadmill and my body. I shall conquer.

And so, I ran. The first day, I managed an entire minute of jogging before clutching my side and fearing I might be having a heart attack.

The next day, I made it to two minutes.

The next, I ran for three.

And the next - well, you get the idea. Each day, I ran just a little bit longer. The last minute was always the hardest. The minute after, always the most triumphant. I was setting new personal records each day. They may have been rather modest as records go, but they meant the world to me.

I used loud music to distract my mind from the senseless exercise, and tried to trick it into thinking this was actually fun by smiling to release dopamine. And in this manner, I conquered first my mind, and then my body.

I can now run for about a half hour before giving up. I still strive to improve each day, either in speed or endurance. I may never run a marathon, and I may live with perpetually sore legs, but I can proudly say today, that I can run.

I realized that to run, you need to be in a Zen state of mind, one where you do not think of the result of the activity, and forget that you've been running for what feels like an eternity, and instead learn to live in the moment. You pretend that each minute is the first, that there was nothing before, and there is nothing after. There is only now. It gives you a feeling of freshness, of newness. Something to keep the pain away: both in cardio and in life.

Of course, there is pain. I can fool my mind, but I cannot fool my body. My calves burn every evening. But, it's worth it, to grow, to learn, to be stronger.

To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, it is a pleasure to burn.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Wise - Part 2

I can't understand the boy who
Doesn't cry, with every right to
His laughing eyes are open gates
Into a heart that hasn't learnt to hate

He's lost everything, everyone is dead
He has no bright future looming up ahead
But he still smiles as wide each day
As if everything was still okay

He tells me he forgets yesterday
So that he can be happy today
And because he wants nothing,
He is rich, he wants for nothing

I smile and put my humble books away
They asked me to teach, I learn instead
From the wisdom of youth that knows
Happiness returns to those who let it go


You can read Part 1 here.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rational

Emotion, by definition, tends to be fleeting and based on the body's hormonal response to stimuli. To respond to a circumstance based on emotion then, is nothing more than reflex.

Children are most susceptible to emotional responses because they do not know better. Reason requires the ability to predict the outcomes of your actions, which in turn, requires experience. This is why we do not allow persons below the age of majority to partake in certain activities that require better decision making, such as driving or voting.

Most adults, however, are expected to have the ability to use reason (a magical ability that shows up the day you turn 18). But logic, you see, is hard work. Use of reason in decision making requires you to weigh the pros and cons of each possibility. You must think through the outcome of every decision and how you plan on dealing with the worst case scenario.

And all that sounds so boring and tedious. It is just so much easier to give in to the lazier, emotional response, which doesn't hurt your brain as much. Which is why we have people shooting random strangers when they feel like their life is unfair, and families killing children who dare "dishonor" them, and teenagers killing themselves over a failed grade, and rejected men thinking that burning the face of a woman who dared reject them would somehow make them feel better about it.

On the other hand, we have people who use logic in every aspect of their lives, who may be making poor decisions themselves, because there are situations where emotions are more important. For instance, in selecting a mate, the rational way to choose would be to consider genetic compatibility, fertility and financial means. None of these however guarantee marital happiness, because that is inherently an emotional decision. As is the decision of dropping everything to drive a hundred miles when your best friend or a family member needs you to be there for them.

So maybe to be truly rational, one must know when to use reason and when to be guided by emotion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Same

There are some who say there is no true peace, that conflict and violence are our natural state of being and that peace is only the absence of war, found in those temporary states of equilibrium when both sides fear each other equally.

The idea here is that countries do not go to war when there are weapons on each side that can destroy the world. And that law and order even within a society is only maintained through might and violence; through fear of punishment.

This also means that  it is the mighty that decide what is right, because they alone can bring change and they alone can uphold the law.

History begs to differ however.

Women's rights were won, not through violence, but through education. Gay marriage was recognized because of increased awareness, both of the science but also of the fact that these people are our friends and family and deserve the same rights as everyone else.

In both these instances, it was empathy that brought about change. How can you deny your own brother the happiness that you enjoy?

Protests have taken the form of fasting and self-immolation. How would harming oneself hurt an enemy except by appealing to his empathy?

The progress in human rights has come from identifying more and more individuals - people of a different gender, race, religion or sexual orientation - as human. It comes from emphasis on our similarities rather than on our differences.

I strongly believe that a lot of the world's problems could be solved if only children were taught empathy at a young age. And empathy, of course, is all about focusing on the similarities, to the point where you become that person and can feel what they feel. You cannot wish pain on yourself after all.

As for law and order, more than the laws being forced upon us, I think it is a matter of people coming together, deciding to live together in a society, and making some rules that would benefit everyone (e.g. I don't want my things to be taken, and you don't either... let's make theft illegal). It's more a social contract which includes the needs and benefits of more and more people as society evolves.

There is a theory in philosophy called monism. It says that all of reality is at its core, one. That the universe and nature and all its creatures are made of the same substance, and that we are all manifestations of that substance. If we are all one, why then do we fight?

When looking at another, do you not marvel at the astonishing manifestation of stardust that forms him and that may have come from the same cosmic explosion that created the substance of you? And are you not amazed at the complex dance of molecules that worked together to create him and to keep him alive?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Battling hope

The Cynic fought Hope in no man's land
His real world against her fairyland
He mocked her, pushed her down
But she always got back up again

Time proved him right at last
Defeated, Hope must now depart
But victory wasn't as sweet as imagined
She'd left him hoping he'd been wrong, alas

Sunday, May 08, 2016

O Captain! My Captain!

I, like a lot of people, watched Captain America: Civil war this weekend. It was beautiful and here are some of my thoughts on it.

Spoiler alert!

When I watched the trailer all those months ago, my first thought was: That looks so cool!

My second thought was: Spider-man! Spider-man! (Please read that in the tune of your preferred version of the theme song.)

My third thought was: Why are the good guys fighting each other? I thought the whole point of being the "good guys" was to show that conflicts can be resolved without resorting to violence, and that they should be setting an example for the world. How are they better than the "bad guys" then?

But I loved how the movie handled the conflict, how there was no right answer and no real resolution: no real end. Just like in real life, except with people who can shrink and fly and, well, you get the picture.

The most important question, of course, is, what side are you on? And this is incredibly difficult to answer. My desire for law enforcement clashes with my belief in the right to choose there.

At the end, the following quote from the Captain explains my position:
"We are ... not taking responsibility for our actions. This document just shifts the blame."
That's what makes me admire the Captain the most: the fact that he is willing to take responsibility. It's what makes him a great leader. He also does what he believes is right, no matter what, and in that he is truly noble. You don't see a lot of that these days.

A line from the movie that really made me stop and think though, came from young Peter Parker with his awkward, yet somehow more real version of "With great power comes great responsibility":
"When you can do the things I can, and bad things happen because you don't, it's on you."
P.S. Learning how to sew seems like a prerequisite for superheroes. How is that such a common skill? Or is that an add-on that you get with whatever super-skill you end up with at superhero school? "Congratulations on passing sewing 101. Here's your power of flight. You will have to learn to master that yourself. Good bye!"

P.P.S. How I wish there were a superhero school! (Yes, I'm still waiting for my letter to Hogwarts.)

P.P.P.S. The title refers to this Walt Whitman poem. 

Little worlds

And the world still carried on
Like it hadn't just imploded
And the moon still smiled each night
And the stars still shone so cheerfully

Laughing as if at our miseries
So petty in comparison to the universe
But the little worlds we create around us
Still sink under their gravity

Saturday, May 07, 2016

On Driving

If you really want to know what a person is like, watch them while they're driving. Their strength of character and their flaws are all laid bare on the road where animal instincts kick in and jungle rule prospers.

Today, I'm going to talk about some of the species I've observed in the urban wild and describe their behavior.

First, there's the self-conscious learner. This is the person who knows they don't know how to drive, feels like everyone noticed their car stall or saw the poorly judged swerve, and have permanently red cheeks. They are exhausted after fifteen minutes of driving because apart from remembering to look in each mirror, indicate, honk, switch gears, hit the brakes and park without hitting that pillar yet again, they have also been thinking about how they're making fools of themselves. This is because it's been a while since they were children, when falling and failing were ordinary, and they are afraid of what people will think of a grow adult who cannot do something so simple which seems to come so naturally to everyone else.

Of course, I prefer the driver that knows that he knows not than one who knows not but thinks that he does. You know the kind, and, because I really don't want ruin your mood, I won't go into the details.

Then there are drivers such as myself, who still believe that the world is inherently fair and just. We pause and wait for others to go through, stop at a red light when no one is looking, enduring even the cacophonous symphony of a hundred cars honking. We believe in changing the world by example, by making politeness so common and contagious that it becomes habit. We follow Kant's philosophy: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

Another driver, who also hasn't given up hope, is the kind who tries to create more direct change. He honks at people going too slow, gestures at them for going the wrong way, yells at them for talking to friend driving alongside them, or for overtaking from the wrong side.I call this the "holier-than-thou" kinda driver. Of course, another person's definition of holy may be different than your own, or that of common sense, and I have myself been yelled at for turning into a one-way road by people who were driving the wrong way. I have been guilty of this behavior myself. My thing is honking at people who spit or speak on the cell-phone. The honk is essentially a rebuke, a scolding: we all know it won't work, but we keep wishing that it did. It's better than feeling helpless.

There are also some cynical drivers, who pretend that everyone around them is an obstacle, something unthinking and in the way. They don't get angry or bother honking or trying to change the ways of other drivers. They've given up. They just overtake and zoom past as quickly as they can, making no ripples in the ocean of the road where they are the sole fish of reason.

Finally, there is the philosophical driver who doesn't care what you think and shall drive exactly as they please, thank you very much. They savor the drive, with all its troubles, just like they savor life knowing that there is only one final destination and they're in no hurry to get there.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Pain

How in joy
Even the greatest suffering
Is easily overcome.

Yet, how in misery
Even petty aches
Seem to grow to agony.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Course correction

“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.”

If everything you knew was only everything that you experienced, and language, and history, and education never existed, then we would still be cavemen. Each generation would rediscover fire and reinvent the wheel (literally).

Think of it like a relay. The baton is the knowledge gained by the previous generation, and it is our job to further it and hand it over to the next. If instead we started over from the start line, and dropped dead at the 100 meter mark, we would never complete the race. We would never move forward.

And so we have the forward thinkers, who hold learned science as true and then go discover something more. But we also need a different kind of thinkers: the kind that look backwards.

Let us change the relay to a maze instead of a straight path. There are times we must make a decision, and that can impact where humanity ends up generations from now. Forward thinkers would not begin from the start but would assume that the decisions so far were correct, and carry the baton further.

But what if there were some runners whose job was to go back to the last decision point and reconfirm with their greater wisdom (they are drawing on more years of experience remember) whether the path taken was indeed right. If not, these "backward thinkers" would take the baton back until they find a new, better path. These are the people who question what is "known". They are dissatisfied with what their ancestors did and want to go fix things: course correct, so to speak.

I think we need both kinds of thinkers. Indeed, in our own lives and our careers, we need to be both within ourselves. We must make decisions, and our future then depends on these decisions. But there are times when you realize that the "past you" made a mistake, and so you decide to go back and start over, a little slower, but also a little wiser.

Frankenstein's Monster

Frankenstein, you should know, was not a monster. He was the brilliant scientist that created the monster that tormented him for the rest of his days.

But what made Frankenstein's monster a monster? The scientist, successful in his experiment of creating life, was shocked at the ugly thing that he had created. He called it a monster, but practically speaking, it was a new born baby.

Yet, he abandoned this child, all because he looked different, scary. And because this child was left to fend for itself, unloved and unwanted, always feared and never appreciated, he threw tantrums. Sure they were colossal tantrums compared to what you and I did as children. But that is all they were. He didn't really know any better.

Have you heard of the Socratic theory that if a person knows what is right, he couldn't be happy doing what he knows is wrong. And because no one wants to be unhappy, the only reason for doing wrong is ignorance.

I think that's fascinating. And I think that that was the problem with Frankenstein.

Frankenstein did create a monster; the monster was created not when it was born, but when it was abandoned when still ignorant. He hadn't been taught what was right, or how to deal with people, with problems, and with life. And that was Frankenstein's real error. Not in trying to be god or in messing with nature; but in not taking responsibility for that which he had created.

So perhaps Frankenstein was the monster after all.

And the same is true of technology. In speaking of the Frankenstein complex, we speak of creating technology or discovering a science that could end humanity or, at the very least, bring about some noticeable destruction. Creating new technology shouldn't be our fear, just as creating life wasn't Frankenstein's mistake. We should be more concerned with "raising" it right: in adding safeguards and creating rules and laws on its usage.

It isn't the pursuit of science that is evil, but the ignorance of man.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Fate

Do I believe in fate?

I know that the fate of two, when three is added to it, is to become five.

That the fate of a piece of sodium that dives into a glass of water is to burn.

And that every reaction of elements and forces has some predetermined, and predictable outcome (quantum weirdness aside... I won't go into what I do not (yet) understand).

If we accept that universal laws bind us and everything that surrounds us, then everything that happens has a "fate". And if everything that happens has a cause, as logic tells us it should, because everything must come from something, then perhaps everything is indeed predestined, and that from the moment the universe was created, everything has been leading into this one moment where I almost accept that there is such a thing as fate.

But I cannot believe that everything is predestined. I cannot live without belief in free will: there would be no point to life otherwise.

Perhaps it is my fate to believe that I shall write my own destiny.

P.S. Apparently, Kant said that although we may not be able to prove free will using science, that it is necessary to believe in free will for moral responsibility. I think it is necessary to believe in free will to breathe.

What shall we do?

I read somewhere that ancient Greek philosophers kept slaves, and that apparently, having someone else do lesser tasks gave them the time required to discuss and debate and wonder and ponder. In other words, the silver lining of slavery was the birth of philosophy.

Before you start thinking you may want to own a person yourself, consider that these philosophers had not yet extended person-hood to those unlike themselves. Now, I'm guessing here, but with improvement in transport, print media, education and our understanding of biology, humanity's eyes opened a little further to see others as not so different from themselves. Today, we have grown as a species, and believe all humans are equal, and slavery, with all its benefits, is certainly unconscionable.

However, we may yet have slaves in the future, in a mechanical dress this time. I speak, of course, of robots. People wonder what there will remain for us to do when we have all been replaced by robot. I believe this will bring in a new era of enlightenment, where humans will be free of labor, and have all their needs of food and shelter and transport and entertainment met without having to work 16 hours a day.

By the way, we are already seeing this with automation and outsourcing. So this is simply a more extreme version of what we see today.

Then, we will have art and we will have philosophy. We will have people doing what they love and not what they must. The lower levels of Maslow's pyramid shall be scaled and we shall all run around in the playground at the summit of self-actualization, trying to meet our true potential. And we shall be happy.

And yet, all anyone can talk about is variations of the Frankenstein complex. I do not know why we so fear technology when all it's ever done is improve our lives. When women were freed from perpetual childcare with the invention of birth control pills, they finally realized their potential as doctors and programmers and scientists. When medicine improved enough that most humans would live to be 70, people spent more time learning in college than their parents.

Speaking of learning, many years ago, a woman of thirty may have been a grandmother. I wonder how much time she would have had to wonder, to figure out who she was, before dying of disease or in childbirth. Did she even have a choice, or realize that there may be something else out there?

Today, I am on the wrong side of twenty-five, but I am still, in my eyes a child, in need of a lot of growing. I haven't found myself yet, and I don't even know who I am, much less who I will be. If only the robots would take away driving and other chores, I'd have enough time to find out. Or to binge-watch the next season of my favorite TV show of course. That counts as art appreciation, right?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Wise

He looks so wise
With his old man's eyes
Those windows into a battered soul
Blazing so bright, I can look no more

He smiles and is a child again
So young, barely nine or ten
He plays so happily, gaily
Like he hasn't just lost home and family

One time he tells me he doesn't cry
He's learned it doesn't work, that's why
Another time he says he isn't afraid
That he's going to learn to be strong instead

He is wiser than he should be
Seen things that never should've been
But wisdom seldom comes to those with closed eyes
So I turn my gaze back to those old man's eyes

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Glory past

The old man smiles
Thinking of the past
When he was king
But all that's passed

He frowns at the present
Things have changed
He's now past his prime
He doesn't matter anymore

He sighs because he knows
There's no going back
His servants now rule
The land that was once his alone

He looks back and forth
And in that moment wisdom shines
You don't move forward
By walking around in circles

And lost glory shall not be regained by repeating history.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Wipe

Swing left, swing right
In hypnotic arcs
Wiping away raindrops
With calm, mesmerizing swishes
Serenely they dance
Then furiously, wildly
Fighting to keep up
As the storm worsens
But their effort is futile
The rain is on the inside