Streams across borders

Stream across a border

Photo: Wikipedia

Recently, I attended a talk by a Chinese professor of literature who is translating the novel “Finnegan’s Wake” into Chinese, a task which is not to be taken lightly considering the circumstances. The author of “Finnegan’s Wake” is James Joyce, the Irish author famed for his stream-of-consciousness & idioglottic style. Joyce uses words derived from a combination of languages or words that could be interpreted in numerous way. All of these words and sounds are new territory for Chinese literature and linguistic scholars, meaning that new Chinese characters are being created to describe the thoughts of an Irish man who was pushing boundaries almost 100 years ago.

Joyce, having lived in Catholic Ireland and later Continental Europe had many of his thoughts influenced by his religious upbringing and surroundings. Joycean scholars write about his work, often on themes which are identified in relation to their own, predominantly Western, cultural and societal influences.

Now we have this paradigm shifting book being introduced into a population hungry for intellectual stimulation. In some ways, the language barrier has been the not-so-great wall which has kept people out of China for a long time. My work brought me to China and into Chinese cultural engagements on many occasions. Although I tried to learn Mandarin and my hosts spoke some English, the communication of abstract thoughts remained difficult at best.

Now, with thanks to the work of Professor Dai Congrong of Fudan University, the barrier is being brought down and Joyce is making headway with Chinese high-school students in particular, according to the Professor. It made me ask, if “Finnegan’s Wake” is being read and interpreted by a group, who do not possess a backgrounding in the same cultural and societal reference points as the author and other commentators, surely it’s possible for the work to be interpreted in a brand new and interesting way?

Professor Congrong noted that Chinese people, herself included, already view Joyce’s work to be in line with Taoism. Many of his themes and subject matter would appeal to fit its philosophies. It will be interesting to see how Joyce travels in China and even more interesting to see the Chinese interest in Irish culture take a new step forward.

Choosing a better mood

“The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood.”
― Voltaire

Choice Road2

Imagine waking up every day and looking out unto the word through a window in a house. The window, your sole portal to the outside world is dirty from built-up grime which makes it very difficult to see clearly. The view is obstructed and obscured by the stains, leaving the whole process of looking out the window quite onerous. Now imagine that you could clean the window and all you had to do was imagine or decide that the window was clean, and it would miraculously become crystal clear, making it easier to look through. Would you be willing to imagine the clean window for the sake of a clearer view?

Our moods can be subject to a variety of influences which determine the states we end up in. How much sleep did I have, how hungry or thirsty am I, how healthy or unhealthy I feel, all factors which feed into the complex equation which is our mood at any given moment. We also know that our moods change and that it’s possible for us to consciously steer the direction of the change with our willpower to be in a better mood. However, it can be difficult to change your mood if its position is deeply entrenched and intertwined with emotions as well.

Few schools educate children on how to properly tend to housekeeping of the mind. The windows accumulate dirt from childhood and will continue to grime up until we either have a massive storm which may wash away the dirt, and roof slates in the process, or we go and get a bucket, a sponge and get to work. The techniques of cleaning our personal windows are not lost to us but are rarely deemed of such value by educators so as to form a part of the core curriculum of any syllabus.

We have adopted a methodology based on the premise that we want our children’s minds to be strong and robust for the modern world. The most prestigious schools impart the required information in the most efficient ways, leading to the best exam results which result in the best jobs and lifestyles. That’s our chosen underlying driving principle in the education system. Hence, we teach them to have strong minds by filling their heads with heavy loads of facts and information, but we neglect to instruct the practices of balance and flexibility which would serve so well after the mind has become overburden in our information driven society.

There are a variety of techniques which can be taught, learned and perfected which allow one to clean that window to ensure the view of the world is at its best and brightest. Consider a room of people at a party all hushing at once, leaving only one ingrate loud-mouth who was speaking ill of the host to be revealed, and duly ejected from the party to everyone’s delight. Similarly, by encouraging the mind to quieten via meditation, the nuisance thoughts can be observed and set aside, no longer interfering with the daily interactions. Achieving mental equanimity through meditation can become a lifelong pursuit, a path explored by millions worldwide, with an infinite journey available for the willing.

Gratitude, or more specifically the practice of, has been identified by people to have a marked effect on their ability to elevate their moods away from a negative state which may keep them down. The medicinal effect of the old adage “be grateful for the small things” packs a more powerful healing punch than the simplicity of the advice may superficially portray. There are a variety of practices spread across cognitive based therapy, psychology and neurology which harness the power associated with gratitude to improve people’s overall good being. Knowing this, it only makes sense to take advantage of these marvels of mental medicine to take control of the direction of our mood. Unless we want to continue choosing the negative mood? No, today I choose to be in a good mood.

Answers and questions

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
― Voltaire

Politics, or the game of getting re-elected, is one area where the art of dodging pointed questions is considered a required black art, which is either naturally occurring in an individual or acquired via coaching and specialised training. Politicians of the modern day know that everything they say will be held up to scrutiny within seconds of being said, so any version of the truth which they may elicit must either be positioned “beyond the debate”, by the nature of it being an agreed fact or a null-implication platitude, or “kept out of the debate” by not allowing any specific aspect of their political manifesto or opinion be explicitly defined or accounted for.

Informed citizens, journalists and people armed with a cannon full of truth often aim for our politicians in public forums. Confronted with such artillery, it requires maneuvering through the battlefield with the greatest of care to avoid being caught in the fall-out by any loose shrapnel. Quite often it involves politicians ducking for cover, digging in and entrenching their defences with the use of diversionary talking points and misdirection tactics.

When did you last see a leader standup and voluntarily take accountability for what they said and the result of their actions? When did you last hear a politician answer the actual question they were asked, besides when it related to a trivial matter? In which case they will easily explicitly respond with the most favourable response according to their latest polls just in, or they may just let the facade drop for a moment and let unfold a gaucherie which would embarrasses the head monk of an abbey.

Considering the elusiveness of their elected brethren, one would hope that the questions posed by these con-artists of rhetoric to each other must then be the most sharply engineered instruments so as to lock onto a moving target, such as another fellow’s opinion on the subject at hand, by means of verified facts? Alas, rather than using their questions to broaden the public debate on issues and encourage a deeper understanding of the situation, we see the game of re-election descend into a distracting blaze of allegations of a personal nature, the attacking the person instead of the issue tactic, the oul’ “ad hominem” ploy. This keeps the real issues out of the discussion as the valuable time of day is eaten up by sound bites of the caretakers of our public offices, calling each other names across the room.

This is a phenomenon which feeds into the media machine which thrives on such fodder. These schoolyard antics make for scandalous headlines digested by unscrupulous media hacks and spat out out by the omnipresenting news outlets whose original purpose, let us not forget, was to inform the public of the true goings of the day. Two years after writing the United States constitution, the founding fathers, upon reflection, saw it in the best interests of their developing country to add certain additional laws, the amendments to the constitution or also known as the “Bill of Rights”, the first of which relates to the right to free speech and the freedoms of the press. The press, also described as the “Fourth Estate” with the other three estates being the houses of the Government, was regarded with the esteem such that its rights to report the truth, despite the consequences, were enshrined in what was called the First Amendment.

This First Amendment and its applied interpretation, is perhaps the most referenced constitutional argument in non-legal domains outside its home jurisdiction of the 50 states united. The “right to free speech” is a right expected everywhere but actually enshrined without limitations in very few places. I say “without limitations”, as free speech is on the menu in quite a few countries as long as you don’t talk about certain things, the sort of topics which may upset or criticise political or Soverign powers. These limitations, known as sedition laws, are undoubtedly a very useful tool for governments to keep unwanted questions out of the game. By putting the unwanted questioners behind bars, it serves to remind freethinkers the potential cost of turning their thoughts into words or actions.

So it’s ok to say what you want as long as you don’t want to criticise the way things are or potentially change the way things are? Is free speech where you have to reign your words, really free speech or is it an illusion of free speech? Further considering that Governments are actively passing legislation to make it more difficult for controversial questions to be asked (by categorising activists; political, animal or environmental, as terrorists), we find ourselves driving down a highway with fewer and fewer exits showing up ahead on the map ahead in case we need to change direction.

Our media having resigned itself to calling the play-by-play change in opinion polls in the run up to Election Day, essentially commentating on the horse race instead of facilitating and deconstructing the debate, is not portraying itself as a potent poultice with the potential to sooth and heal the painful ailments. Nor will they yield a scalpel, aimed at cutting through the fatty tissues of empty words and posturing to extract the cancers from our political bodies.

In the midst of all this, should we take ourselves aside and ask the questions of ourselves, “where are the questions going to come from and who is going to ask them?”.

Do we learn from our past?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

Since the beginning of recorded civilisation, we have documented the key moments from our collective existence and defined it as “our history”.  This history has shown us where we came from, and with some analysis and understanding, serves to provide insight into our current permutations of situations and habitations.  We carry our history around with us, it’s our collective baggage.  It provides the reference points for navigating what we call our reality.  It suggests why certain groups have privilege and why others are oppressed.  I say that it “suggests”, rather than “explains”, because our reality is subjective and defined by the observer.  As such, one history can create many conclusions.

When a certain behaviour causes you pain, you attempt to avoid that behaviour to attempt to avoid the pain.  Once bitten, twice shy.  As individuals we draw from our experiences to minimise the pain and sorrow in our lives.  As a collective, we have our history from which to learn from.  Yet in the same way which we, as individuals, repeat our mistakes, as a collective we are no different.  Is simply remembering the past enough to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes which have afflicted humankind since our documented inception?  These atrocities and injustices include war, racism, genocide, to name but a few, yet time after time, we repeat our collective mistakes without realising we have once again fallen into a trap we laid for ourselves.

As we study the history of humankind’s greatest sorrows, the inevitable question arise: “How could they let it happen?”.  The shame of ancestral inaction lingers for generations.  “How could the Germans have let the genocide happen?”, “How could the Americans have let the lynchings happen?”, “How could the world have let the war happen?”.  How could they not see what was happening in their time?  Why do we not learnt from our mistakes?

We assume that our generation is immune to such lapses in societal judgement. We have studied the history and we will never let genocide, racism or war happen again in our lifetime.  Are we complacent to the point of thinking “our” society is any more advanced than “their” societies in the past?  Are we oblivious to what happens in the world around us?  Let there be no doubt about my point here, future generations will ask of us, “How did they let it happen?”.

“How did we let what happen?” –  The exact line every other person from generations before us would say if confronted with a time traveller asking them that question.  The exact same line every generation will say until we understand that remembering our history is not enough.  The malaise which has afflicted us over eons is not indifference, greed or hate.  It’s blindness, as in not seeing that which is right before us.  This blindness is caused by a combination of two main factors: ignorance and fear.  Ignorance meaning the lack of knowledge or insight, that which we do not know. And fear, a belief that something will cause us pain.

The rise of the Fascists in Germany or Greece went and goes unchecked in countries blighted by austerity measures.  The plundering of nation’s wealth into the pockets of a few in the name of empire and colonialism happened 200 years ago and in the name of globalisation and capitalism today.  The division of black/white, north/south, east/west, Christian/Muslim, Catholic/Protestant, continues to separate us from our brothers and sisters, yet when we cut each other’s throats, we bleed the same blood.

If we want to learn from the past, we must do more than remember it.  If we believe there is nothing wrong, we are ignorant.  If we know there is something wrong but do nothing, we are fearful.  Our ignorance can be addressed by adopting new ways of looking at the world… critical thinking.  Assess the evidence, formulate hypotheses, draw conclusions.

Our fear can be addressed by acknowledging our mortality.  Some day, we will all die.  As individuals, in our lifetime, and as a collective, when our environment can no longer sustain us.  Do we want to die knowing that we let it happen? Again?


Why not ask why?

WhyHow do we begin to understand our world? From a young age, we naturally question everything. “Why?” asks the child. “That’s why!” replies an adult, and the process is repeated until the child runs out of questions or, more likely, the adult runs out of patience. At some stage in the journey from child to adult, the questions begin to be replaced, with opinions which previously presented themselves as answers, and beliefs which restrict the lines of questioning in various topics. Have your firmly-held beliefs ever stopped you from questioning something which you don’t understand enough about?

Just as certain religious beliefs can restrict one marveling in appreciation of the advancement of human thought, the everyday beliefs you hold about yourself, your country, your society, may be restricted by the confines of what society deems to be tolerable questions. Why is it deemed “naive” to be an idealist, “evil” to support terrorism and “crazy” to suggest that there may be something happening which may be beyond our current models of measuring, analyzing and understanding about our world?

Could the words “naive”, “evil” and “crazy” steer you away from asking questions in subject areas which people don’t want to have to think about in order to answer? We tell children that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but we put a societal tax on asking questions in the way we treat people who ask those questions. People who ask difficult questions can find themselves in situations which invoke great emotions in people. People will feel how they feel. Change of thought patterns are accompanied by initial discomfort while the mind wraps itself around a new idea. Don’t worry about pushing the limits of your mind too far, it’s more capable than you think!

Remember how much fun it was to learn new ideas when you were young? Why am I asking you so many questions?