Thursday, October 22, 2009

The “Neck Verse” or Why Medieval Gangsters benefited from Literacy

Drawing of an old and lonely criminal in a dark cell

During the Middle Ages, monks had a special status and with it came various privileges. For all the poor people who were struggling for survival (or those who were simply looking for a means of education), monasticism may have indeed been a good option to escape their dreary lives and to be presented not only with meals (and often when lucky even beer) but also with respect and impunity.

Because the monks were said to be doing God's work on earth, people both admired and feared them. In addition, their knowledge of the scriptures or their ability to read opened the gateway to knowledge usually hidden and inaccessible to the common masses. Since they were important in society, they also enjoyed various other privileges. For instance, should they have committed a crime, they were spared from the regular courts - where torture and hanging were the norm - and were tried in the much more lenient “monk-favorable” ecclesiastical court, a process generally known as the benefit of the clergy.

How did the judges find out who was a monk? Could one simply confide in the monk's clothing? In fact, there were many frauds and thieves out there who might have used the monk's garments to escape harsh punishment.

As a matter of fact, anybody who could read was often spared from the common courts; it was simply assumed that they were monks. This procedure can be seen as an early form of literacy test; however, one's life often hung on it. The accused were given a passage of the Bible which they were told to read; should they accomplish it, it was often equated with a pardon.

It turned out that the particular Psalm 51 was later nicknamed the “neck verse” because it had the power to save the “neck” of many a felon. Many of them had simply memorized it to impress the judges and to gain their liberty.

Nonetheless, if the judges had doubts, they could ask the accused to read other passages as well. If they did not know how to read, they would be exposed and sentenced to death. Those who could read may have simply gotten away with a penance.

Anyway, two things can be concluded from all of this. One, monks, as said before, were immune and could commit various acts with little or no consequence. Two, if you were a "gangster" in the Middle Ages, you had better brush up on your reading skills, and you could get away with pretty much anything, including bloody murder!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Humanity first - Rules and Regulations later

An ambulance with sirens on

As a general rule, I believe that compassion should be first and foremost - right before any rules and regulations. Although I appreciate and understand the necessity of bureaucracy, we should not bury our own humanity under it. Often I have heard the comment about how the “system” rules and cannot be changed. It is the system that runs the show and makes all the decisions; we humans are just pawns and followers of it.

Whoever made the rules should, however, be (made) aware of exceptions. There are always exceptions, as there are always loopholes to any laws. There is no shame in admitting the occasional merited exception. It is also a statement about the fact that we are not slaves, but have the capacity to make decisions in the face of adversity and with our eyes set on compassion for our fellow beings.

Bureaucracy does not have to become a monster if we are aware of our own powers in the whole process and do not become simple mindless victims. Anarchy is not really an option; constant lawlessness and chaos may work in theory but not in practice, and, in the end, nothing would ever get achieved and no consensus attained.

There are many instances where I have sensed that people lacked any sort of compassion and creativity. I believe compassion is of utmost importance in health care, for example. Whenever I have to deal with emergency admissions, I am stunned at the level of bureaucracy before any treatment. In fact, I did not only have to deal with rudeness and apathy, yet was also asked to pay up first. In cases of emergency, money should never be the first thing whether on the patient's nor on the health practitioner's mind.

I do not think I am merely an idealist (I'd rather call myself a humanist). People's cases should not be seen as numbers or statistics. They are real people suffering for real. Someone who rushes to the emergency room is in a state of confusion; whether they are the afflicted or their loved one is makes no difference here. I hate it when I wanted my son, wife, father to have immediate care, and I am stuck there answering silly and unnecessary questions.

Next time if you are in the position of making a decision, think about your own options. Do not be narrow-minded. Our ambulance drivers wanted to have my one-year-old son who had difficulty breathing strapped on the bed for an almost two hour ride to another clinic.

It's for safety reasons, they said. No, he cannot be held in his mother's arms. It is for his own safety even though his stress level might go up, and he might get worse. Rules of security and rules and rules and there is nothing we can do about it. In a world where people get sued over anything, they are more cautious and stick to the rule. No exceptions.

However, those same people were not heartless. They gave me advice that saved us from an unnecessary ride to a far-away clinic since my son could have medical attention in a close-by children hospital. They informed us even though they were not supposed to. And I really appreciate it because despite their tough façade, they were real human beings who shared our moment of distress. For them, even though their hands were tied, humanity did come first.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Balance and Equilibrium in the Ups and Downs of Life

Johnny Depp in movie "Once upon a time in Mexico"

In my experience, life consists of a continuous cycle of ups and downs, the wheel of fortune, the goddess Fortuna herself in the driving seat. As in the saying “what goes up must come down” there always seems to be a neutralizing factor determined to keep things in check and balance.

When life becomes too comfortable and easy, out of nowhere, a bolt out of the blue appears, and we are pulled into the abyss. It comes as a surprise, especially for those who believe they are somehow immune against the pushing and pulling forces of life. Those are the ones that fall the hardest.

From my limited perspective and experience, I do find that everything balances out in the end. It is a consolation for times of need and crisis. And it is a constant reminder, for some even a warning, not to take anything for granted since nobody can hold onto those fleeting moments of success and happiness for a long period of time.

The off-beat Johnny Depp character in Once upon a Time in Mexico illustrates this tendency best as he takes this “balancing act” into his own hands. For example, when he finds a cook that makes too good a “cochinita pibil,” he decides to go into the kitchen and shoot this cook to restore the old food balance and order again.

This idea of harmony is not something that has appeared in modern times. The ancient Greeks believed strongly that nature balanced itself out and that it always sought harmony, whether it was the body, soul or even physical objects. In fact, our bodies follow the same trend, whether it is temperature, weight, there is always an internal harmonizing balance. It is unfortunately us who overlook such truths of yin-and-yang-equilibrium, and we seek the extreme, whether in diet, drink, wealth or pleasure to our own peril and (dis)illusion.