Friday, December 30, 2011

On Beauty, Personality and the Influence of Confidence



Beautiful Angelina Jolie in elegant dress with make-up


Although I fully subscribe to the idea of beauty being in the eyes of the beholder, there are still cases where beauty cannot be seen, no matter how hard you look, and how permissive and easygoing the beholder may be. There are people who are simply not beautiful, not by any classical or modern standards.

Of course, the question may arise what exactly is beauty, and we might get into a discussion of geometrical proportions, including symmetry, shapes and sizes. And many may cry out how beauty is relative and subjective, and I fully agree with you, but notwithstanding all that, we do, more often than not, agree on what is deemed beautiful and by exclusion what is not.

So what if you happen to score low on the beauty level? So what if you are not certified to be among the sexiest men and women alive? Exactly, don't despair. You still have a go at beauty because there is still the matter of personality.

Personality is another shady area though. The main problem of personality is that it is often not immediately visible. It is not apparent to the eye, but rather revealed over time. This fact puts personality at a serious disadvantage. Beauty is in your face, but personality involves some digging. You can see beauty as a mask while personality is what looms underneath.

So what does it mean when we say that someone has a good personality? It may be tied to ethical principles, somebody who is honest and upright; it could also be judged on affective grounds, such as caring and loving predispositions, or even other characteristics, such as being responsible, intelligent, easygoing, fun and creative. The absence of (a good) personality would be shallowness, vanity, excessive pride and so on. 

In other words, having a companion who scores high on the looks department but is bankrupt on personality by having shallow convictions and beliefs and by offering merely empty platitudes will not constitute the best “catch,” however much at first glance or on a superficial level this may seem a fact.

Hence personality can rescue beauty or make up for a lack of it. In fact, I must confess that I have had crushes in the past (I stress the word past because I am currently happily married) where the person in mind would have generally failed beauty contests. Yet in such cases, what amazes me about these women is their confidence.

These people are aware that they are not exactly good-looking but they manage to shine with confidence which immerses them with a light that somehow transcends beauty itself. In fact, even an average-looking person with confidence on her side can wipe out the competition of pretty much anyone. 
 
Strangely enough, for beautiful people confidence actually detracts instead of adding to their looks. If you are blessed with looks what would add to your beauty is a moderately timid stance. This is because everyone already knows you are beautiful and if you exude confidence on that respect you will end up appearing cocky. It's when people say that she is beautiful and she knows it!

Let me explain this point by giving examples of movie stardom. Recently, Jennifer Aniston has been named the sexiest woman alive beating out Madonna and arch-rival Angelina. We would think that Angelina may be more interesting or exotic in her looks, but Jennifer comes off as a little shy in comparison, which adds to her overall appeal. I am not claiming that Angelina is shallow or anything like that, but that the confidence that she exudes may eventually work against her. Another ideal would be Nicole Kidman who manages to balance her beauty with her personality. Again I have never had the fortune to have met any of these ladies so I can only speak about appearances, of how they appear to me.

Let us look at an example where looks were replaced by confidence. I must say that I do not find Zooey Deschanel attractive by any classical standards. Yet she has managed to win over people's heart through her personality, at least judging by her movies. She seems to be witty, exuberant, yet at the same time both complex and confident. My knowledge of her is based mainly on (or rather limited to) the movie 500 days of Summer. There were moments where I did not really see why the male protagonist was so infatuated and captivated by someone who was not that beautiful after all, but again she, to put it in an overused expression, made up for it in the personality department.

So there you have it. An analysis of beauty, personality with the variable of confidence thrown in for good measure. Feel free to completely agree or disagree with me. Yet one thing that strikes me often is that yes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but this also means that it is hard for us to gauge our own looks because we are willy-nilly biased and also caught up in a world of appearances and media frenzying.

Beauty can be at the same time defined as cultural or dependent on society and media. What constitutes beauty, more so for women, has changed over the years. While plump women used to be considered the ideal body image in the past, we are nowadays often bombarded with images of super-skinny, borderline anorexic women. Despite these fluctuations of taste and fashion, I believe that there is a core tacit agreement on the notion of beauty, even though it cannot be set in stone nor clearly defined or outlined.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Zat you, Santa Claus? Letter and Questions for the Ho-Ho-Ho Man

Santa Clause sled flying through the sky with raindeers from Stanley Park Bright Lights

Dear Santa,
I am writing to you despite the fact that I do not officially believe in you. In fact, I believe that it is more likely that there are aliens out there than the possibility of your existence. Despite all that, you do exist; you exist in the hearts and minds of many children, and I will gladly foster this same belief in my own child.

You see, when my son saw one of your incarnations at your self-named parade, his face glowed with joy. He clasps his hands in awe whenever he sees you on TV, and he is following my own childhood tradition of counting down to Christmas with a chocolate-filled calendar.

I want to say thanks. The innocent bubbles of childhood will burst sooner or later, a victim of temporal circumstance, and we will get more cynical, but, at least, there used to be magical moments once upon a time. We can tap into it every now and then and hopefully at least once a year for memory's or nostalgia's sake.

Actually, dear Santa, I never had the privilege of believing in you. I grew up in an environment that stressed the religious over its more secular and jocular aspects, and yes, you may think you are special but you cannot ever reach the status and respect of the Son of Man who was (supposedly but not really) born around the time you come around from your far-away home in the Cold North.

Ironic, no? You come from the coldest part of the planet to bring us a little warmth. Yes, Humbug aside, Christmas can be special for adults alike. They say it is a time for family, but it is mainly a time of coming to terms and setting priorities. It is the last step before the new year, that point in time of reckoning and resolutions.

I reckon you bring justice in your own way. You punish the naughty with the absence of toys and joys. But what about adults? Can they escape retribution simply because they have stopped believing in magic and supernatural beings? Are they exempt then? Or do you agree that those people are all naughty and no nice children trapped in adult forms?

Again, Santa, thank you for being so jolly and so round. And I hope to be in your good books this year, presents or not. Either way, I will leave you a glass of milk and cookies on the window sill, just in case you come around.


P.S. Here are some questions for you. Answer them at your leisure because I know you are a busy fellow during the Christmas season.

  1. What is your nationality?

You come from the North Pole, so it means that you have no nationality, right? But then how can you travel to and through places like the United States, which is so stringent with passport requirements and border security issues?

  1. What were you like in your younger years?

There is practically no biographical information about you. Who are your parents? What did you think of high school? What is your level of education? Are you romantically linked to anyone?


  1. How do you keep yourself happy?

How do you manage to keep good cheer all the time? Do you listen to Christmas carols nonstop? Do you shun the news?


  1. What do you do the rest of the year?

What do you do when you are not in demand? Do you dedicate yourself to other activities like martial arts or monopoly? Do you watch movies? Who do you hang out with, reindeers excepted?


  1. Do you know what the word “ho” means and that your first name comes dangerously close to a dangerous evil entity?

Purpose or just a crazy coincidence?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Keeping it Real and Being against the Art of Flattery




Polish court jester Stańczyk sitting sad and dejected
Stańczyk by Jan Matejko
They say that if you want a job nowadays, it is all about the contacts you have. Although education is important (and beneficial) and although your resume may be bolstered by hands-on experience, it will be much more difficult for you to land the job unless you do a little bit of networking on the side. Or as they also say, it is not what you know but who you know.

Despite my belief that merits should speak for themselves, I can see how personal characteristics can be vital in the job market. The employer who either directly or from hearsay can vouch for the job-seeker's personality will choose you because personality goes a long way. Sure, the employer can always check and verify your references, but it would save them a lot of time and hassle if you are at least somewhat familiar to them.

I do not doubt that personality should be a major factor in hiring decision. Someone who has education and experience but has a lousy temper or lacks professionalism in their demeanor or actions may not be as qualified as others who make up in the personality department by being cheerful, responsible, independent and a team-player at the same time.

All this preamble will (eventually) lead us to the main topic at hand here: flattery. Networking may get you the job but in order to keep it or to advance in it, many people use flattery to their advantage.

Flattery is as old as Swiss cheese. It was used freely and extensively among the aristocrats, for example. When you are facing a despot king who may lack rhyme and reason but who still had power and authority, in particular, power over your life and fate, then you would be wise to flatter him to be and remain in his good books. I believe one of the best examples to be the fairy tale “The Emperor's New Clothes” where everyone agreed to flatter the king on his super-lightweight, non-existent clothes. To state the truth in such a situation means risking imprisonment or even death.

It has been a similar case with the royal advisers of old. Afraid of giving “bad” news, they would flatter the king, conveniently gloss over his errors, diminish and conceal the reasons for defeat, especially if the king's decisions had a hand in it. The only person at court who would give real advice would be the court jester or clown. Being considered a fool anyway, he had nothing to lose and in Shakespearean manner he could criticize and expose the king's flaws, although Shakespeare may have romanticized that notion to a certain degree.

Yet the point here is that flattery has not gone extinct and is still at full force even within modern democratic systems. For instance, it is alive and kicking in the modern job market.

Professional flatterers exclaim that it is a jungle out there, a world of dog-eat-dog so they are merely trying to survive. By making the boss feel good about herself, their chances of survival would increase, according to their logic. Face it, next time there is a higher position at stake, it is not usually timid hardworking Joe who gets promoted but charming verbal master Steve.

To shed some more light on this situation, let us define flattery here. Flattery is information that regardless of its validity is meant to please the recipient. There are other derogatory terms used for such behavior, “boot-licker” and “ass-kisser,” for instance, but I am not here to insult anyone, so we shall play it fair and clean.

As can be seen, the motive is to make the boss feel good about himself, and it is purely for selfish reasons because the flatterer is driven by ambition and wants to succeed. Flattery is hence not only an art form but can be used as a weapon. It is a form of art because there are certain skills involved, and the professional flatterer knows them by heart and has them imprinted on his sleeve.

A little bit of flattery here and there may be all right although I am instinctively opposed to it as a rule. Honesty and integrity are often not so compatible with the flatterer. And they can be scrupulous. In order to reach their goal, these ambitious people may even use gossip, flattery's dark sister, to get to their position.

After winning the trust of the boss through affected kind words and a show of steadfastness, the flatterer has worked his way up to the boss's confidence. Then comes the cruel blow, a piercing comment about a co-worker which, true or not, may be the end of that person. And the flatterer is deep inside quite insecure and envious, and she would not want the co-workers to “steal” from her what she “rightfully” sees as her own, job security or the desired upcoming promotion.

Unfortunately, in the real world, these flatterers do get what they want regardless of whether they are truly qualified or not. They charm their way through but deep inside they resemble snakes that can bite and poison you with words and deeds at any given moment. So whether you are a co-worker or a boss, please heed this advice: Beware of the hidden fangs of the flatterer!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Different Meanings of Possession



Blue and white convertible car at beach


There are many things we can possess, ranging from the tangible, such as property, cars, shoes, and jewelry to the intangible, such as status, reputation, success, and ideas. There are other things that are a little bit of both, for example, a bank account with money in the form of numerical statements, credit card bills or electronic money and credits. But we are led to believe that we can possess all of these things and much more.

Regardless of whether it is tangible or intangible, to possess is an active verb. It denotes ownership, that something is mine and that this is, at least conceptually, in opposition to ideas of any notion of "shared" ownership. One may possess "part" of something, say a shared business venture or you may even “share” your possessions with your wife and family, but at its core most of us prefer sole ownership and we may even extend this idea to people, such as possessing a family inclusive of wife and kids.

But we refrain from using the verb possess here, which may appear too aggressive and uncompromising. So instead we use the verb to have. We then have a family, a car, a business, a job. It can even be extended to include rather abstract ideas, such as time. To claim that you “have no time” implies that time is something that can be possessed and not be possessed at different times. 

Similarly, it may be commonplace but equally bizarre to state that your body is yours. Is your body your possession? Is your mind, for that matter? Can you lose ownership, let's say in terms of “losing” your mind, which once used to be yours but now is up for grabs? Or what about selling, renting or sharing your body with others?

This leads us to another matter, that although we may possess objects and people, we can also be possessed by them. The verb to be possessed has now become passive and we turn into victims because it is the thing itself that is driving us. In such terms, to be possessed is similar to be haunted or obsessed in the sense that you are about to lose or have already lost control. For instance, you can be possessed by certain ideas so that it becomes more difficult to think clearly. The idea that you "possess" can come to haunt you and you will "be possessed" by it.

In other words, you need to be careful. The things you claim to possess can, in fact, take over and possess you. Think about money, for instance. Most of us may work hard to get our hands on a little bit of this sought-after and -- more often than not -- elusive item. At first, we may be aware that money is nothing but paper which, nonetheless, gives us the means to have financial transactions. We can buy this and that, and it will become ours then.

However, once you start collecting money as paper or as growing numerical figures on electronic screens, some people lose control. Instead of possessing it, they become possessed by it, or at least the idea of money. We then forget that money is symbolic and that it is a means not an end in itself; in our confusion, we cannot think clearly (obsessed as we are) and may spend years, even a lifetime, seeking it. 

In the same way, we may be possessed by fixed ideas, which can include religion for that matter. People can become so possessed with this subject that they lose sight of what it really was that attracted them to religion in the first place.

And it is only a small step from possession to obsession. If you are aware that whatever you have, tangible or intangible, is nothing but a loan, including the most precious of them all, your own life, then you may be able to see the fallacy of any type of so-called ownership. Yes, we may own cars and computers, but they are impermanent things and will break down sooner or later. And then we are left with nothing.


PS: Dear Readers! Sorry I have been rather absent here lately. I have been possessed by work and have possessed very little time for writing. On the bright side, I have possessed ideas so soon there should be a more steady flow of writing again.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Being a Father – Three Years Later: The Question of Discipline and Authority



Toddler son sitting in front of Cars birthday cake


As I continue jotting down some of my personal perspectives on the progressive stages of fatherhood, I must say that there is so much happening at any given time period that I will not be able to do the subject justice. Yet it goes with the common piece of wisdom that you do not really know what it is like until you experience it yourself. 

And, in fact, these are my personal experiences and observations, yet they will tend to be universal among many fathers out there. At the same time, this is not meant to sound in any way superior or haughty on my part but I am simply stating that two fathers who truly care about their offspring will understand each other with a simple glance.

My son never ceases to amaze me. The fact that communication has become much less of an obstacle and that there are a host of topics to talk about is only part of the matter. He can string full, and for the most part grammatically correct, sentences, but it is rather more amazing that he has begun to reason. Yesterday evening I told him that I would buy him something he wanted, and he just pointed to the window claiming that it was too dark for me to go outside and buy the mentioned item. I had to bow my head and accept his convincing logical point.

And then there is a slew of questions that show a budding desire with an almost despairing and impatient sense of curiosity. I have also both anticipated and dreaded this moment. It is part of his education, and I will do my best to foster and assuage his curiosity; yet at the same time, I dread it because it will probably reveal to him his father's gaps and holes of knowledge.

I am of the persuasion that children know and understand much more than we give them credit for and that we should never underestimate children nor stunt their intellectual growth. Hence, especially over the past year, I have engaged in reasoning with him as much as possible. Mostly I have been successful; at other times, the tantrum may have been too intense for logic to find a passage and break through.

When it comes to parenting, I instinctively do not like authoritarian behavior on the part of parents. The intentions may be good and many will claim that such behavior is meant to create discipline and responsibility. However, I believe that discipline is something that needs to be internalized so that it can become a force to be reckoned with. Outward discipline as well as motivation is too contingent on the presence of authority. Once the presence is removed, so is the threat of punishment and hence the disciple in question will fall back and return to his or her “undisciplined” way of life.

As a result, I will try to ensure that my son will learn to respect authorities up to a certain degree. I will not stand for “blind obedience,” not even to myself for that matter, because authority that is not questioned will bring more problems than benefits. And here we return to the importance and necessity of reasoning.

If my child is equipped with reason to think for himself and be able to recognize flaws and holes in arguments, the best kind of weapon for life, then he should be fine. In fact, I meticulously avoid stock phrases like Because I say so or I know best and replace them with reasons and explanations that I deem appropriate for his level of understanding. Daddy may know a few things here and there, but unfortunately Daddy does not know everything. Nobody does. But at least we are trying.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

God as a Piece of Heavenly Cake



A largely eaten birthday cake with cutting knife in view


Religious debates will go on for all eternity and it is as rare as a blue moon that religious authorities come to a consensus or see eye to eye. In fact, more commonly there will be splits and rifts within a religious body. Whether it is Buddhism with its small and large spinning wheels and vehicles or the debate over the legitimacy and authority of the Pope and the use of confessional booths or even delicate and controversial questions concerning the Holy Book, disagreements abound and little consensus is reached. Religion seen globally and historically is filled with instances of conflicts and quarrels.

But why? If we look at the main world religions, they have actually more in common than they would dare to admit. Indeed Christianity, Islam, Judaism believe in a God that has very similar characteristics, while in Hinduism there may be many gods but they are, when all is said and done, manifestations of a unifying divine spirit. As to Buddhism, they may have a slightly different depiction of what constitutes divinity, a more introspective universal embodiment but essentially there is not much of a serious clash either to the aforementioned representations of God.

So here is my proposal. Let us all agree and live in peace. Let us all partake of the divinely delicious (or deliciously divine) heavenly cake. Think big. A cake that supersedes the Tower of Babel, but unlike the tower, one that unites instead of alienating people. Now this cake that is enough to fill the stomach and mind of every being on this planet can easily be divided into pieces. So for all those religions who want to be in the right or who prefer to think they are the only true religion, you can have your own slice and eat it too.

The amazing thing about this cake is that every slice contains the divine essence and is, ipso facto, infinite. In fact, as a mathematical expression if you divide infinity by five you will still be in the infinite range. Such would be the case of God. Whether you divide Him (or Her or It or Them) you will still end up with more than you can chew and handle. There is no need to want the whole cake; no need for excessive greed or pride or arrogance for that matter. To each their own piece of cake.

This leads us to the following question: Whose slice of cake is actually better? Would that make a difference though? They are all from the same cake and just for argument's sake, they have been divided in equal parts (in reality it is a difficult task when you are dealing with infinity). Can you claim that your piece tastes better than the other person's?

And then we are caught up again in a world not made of facts but opinions. The fact is I am eating a cake, which can be defined with certain properties and characteristics. This one has frosting but of different flavors and colors, just to add a bit of variety because I highly doubt God to be monotonous and I believe Him to be the best chef or pastry-maker there is in this or any other universe.

Suddenly we are not dealing with facts anymore. What we are considering is not a fact, but an opinion. And opinions are exactly that; they are what and how people think and feel about certain issues. When it comes to taste you cannot claim that this food tastes better than the other based on reason or empirical facts. It seems ridiculous to claim that one's cake tastes better simply because you prefer lemon over chocolate! Lemon is great, but so is chocolate. Yet some people do not like either. They should not burn in hell for their taste buds and culinary preferences, don't you think?

Opinions then cannot be judged on a scale of right or wrong. They are reflections of personality, genetics, culture, upbringing and personal taste. So let's all have cake and let us share and break dessert together. And if you do not like my slice of cake, I will have to live with it and so do you, but at least neither one of us will hunger in mind or spirit because there is more than enough cake going around for everyone.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What it might feel like when Epiphany kicks in



A falling tree in Stanley Park Vancouver


Insight, epiphany, understanding, sudden realization – it comes under a variety of names, shades and classifications. In short, they are moments when something (or everything) suddenly comes into focus and you grasp it better. It is the camera lens that zooms in and gives us a crystal-clear image of what is really going on within and without us. But once you are lucky enough for this realization to kick in -- and in my opinion it is a matter of time and effort -- what will be your reaction?

There are two possible types of reactions I can think of when the moment of realization takes place. The first one would be that reality was all a sham. It is suddenly realizing or perhaps being told that life has been not only an illusion, but actually a kind of cosmic joke. It's like an episode of “Punk'd” or “Candid Camera,” where the host (God? An angel? The devil?) points towards the secret hidden camera.

When that moment arrives, there are two kinds of reactions. You may feel frustrated and angry. You may want to sue the host for wasting your time and making you suffer all for nothing. You may be angry to have been taken for a fool.

Or you may be relieved and happy. “I knew it all along,” you may shout out to regain a few shreds of dignity. Or you may smirk about it and be pleasantly surprised. You may even be amazed at the ingenuity of the “host” or “creator.” Or if there be no host, the atheist will give you a sermon on how they were right all this time.

In its Judeo-Christian version, you will be a game-show candidate. You will be told that all your life was just a test, a kind of reality show contest. You will then hear if you have made it or not. Did you win the grand prize? Will you get to enter heaven or did you not play according the rules, did you get disqualified, would you end up in hell for being such a lousy contestant after all? Or will it be a matter of random luck: Choose one among three doors and find out what lies behind it!

Another way we may realize the truth would be what Zen calls satori, generally known as enlightenment. It also contains the element of sudden insight or surprise; you may see it all as a sham, but you would only have yourself to blame. You will be like the dog chasing its tail and suddenly you stop and realize what it was all about. Yes, happiness and salvation were always there in front of your very own eyes. The devil (!) was in the details, and we have spent so many years just running around like a headless chicken, following the unnerving and incessant chatter in our heads. Everything is and has always been beautiful but we just failed to look at it properly.

Either way, I do believe one day there will be insight and everything will make sense. Perhaps not in human terms and perhaps not even very logical, but one moment will come in this (or the other) life where everything proverbially speaking falls into place. And yes, if the atheist is right, we would just fall into eternal sleep. Life may have been nonsense, but at that point, who cares, there is nobody to feel or regret anything and one would dissolve with all the natural elements and become enmeshed with loose particles whirling in the empty air. 
 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chris Hedges and the Dilemmas of the Liberal Christian



Writer and intellectual Chris Hedges facing the camera with blurry background
Chris Hedges
There is often a strong imbalance when it comes to the media and its coverage of religion. The media mostly focuses on the more sensational and often downright outrageous events and claims and is not so much interested in showing a balanced perspective. This is not necessarily out of vicious or deliberate intentions but rather because news must sell and the best kind of news is of the sensational type.

As a result, religion, a highly personal and controversial topic, is given ample treatment but predominantly of its most extreme aspects. In such cases, Islam becomes willy-nilly intimately tied with Islamicism and Christianity with the fundamental Christian right movement hence ignoring a large part of both Christian and Muslim communities that are more liberal and tolerant in their views and attitude and that continuously promote peace and understanding. Just to give one example on the Christian side, based on the media coverage one can get the bloated or distorted impression that all Christians believe in the pseudo-scientific claims of creationism and that hardly any Christian accepts the theory of evolution.

In reality, there are various theists who advocate evolution theory and have done so in the past. Not every Christian denomination claims that the Bible never errs, especially when it clashes with generally held and understood scientific claims. There are other instances such as the belief in slavery which every true Christian would -- or rather must -- object to on moral grounds but which seems rather commonplace and accepted in the Holy Book. That being said, I am certain that most Christians are opposed to the idea of slavery.

My intention here is not to discredit or bash certain rather irrational aspects of Christianity. I strongly embrace the healthy view of equilibrium. My focus here is mainly a defense for “god-fearing” intellectuals like Chris Hedges who share an uneasy fate and find themselves in no man's land because they are in the crossfire from both sides: a) The liberals who often deny the existence of God, b) Those who consider themselves devout believers and who think that being liberal betrays the foundation of their religion.

Many liberals nowadays opt to turn their back on religion, which they may regard as a limiting ideology. The fact that there are even people who believe that Creationism should be even taken seriously, let alone taught in schools, is demonstrated as evidence for a narrow-minded and misguided perception of the world. In addition, many intellectuals are wary of religious dogma, which has unfortunately been used to control and manipulate people and which is, has been and will be the cause of many wars because of its tendency, intentionally or not, to support bigotry, prejudice and hatred.

Furthermore, most scientists who embrace the scientific method find no reason for an existence of God since the mechanical view of the world does not need to make room for a creator. Science may have created some certitude and bragging rights regarding predictions on nature, yet at the same time, it has made us humble showing us that we are not at the center of the universe and that physical laws can explain various processes without having to resort to an omnipotent creator and controller of the world. As such, intellectuals like Chris Hedges who mainly subscribe to the liberal ideas but continue to believe in God by finding a compromise between the realms of science and religion are sadly in the minority.

Yet such a Christian liberal faces opposition at his own camp, so-to-speak. Many religious groups are wary of putting any sort of limits on the Bible and the powers of the Almighty. These people subscribe fanatically and unconditionally to the will of God and eye advances in science with suspicion.

They believe that technological and medical advances would infringe on the powers of God. If stem cell research continues and cloning is practiced at a fuller scale, it is considered interference and tampering not only with nature but with God's (often inscrutable and mysterious) plans. In other words, the scientist and the liberal are regarded with great suspicion for they seem to be playing God; they are the ones who are constantly eating from and digesting the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, an act curiously enough considered a grave sin.

So the liberal Christian becomes isolated and has no friends on either side of the spectrum. He finds himself in a comprising situation, but it makes him so much more courageous because he is defying the general stream. He is swimming against the current by holding onto his own truly felt and experienced beliefs. And at the same time, he is free and tied to no specific side or dogma.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Religion, Law and the Need and Desire for Justice



Woman with sword in one hand and scale in the other brings about order and justice
Triumph of Justice by Hans von Aachen
Throughout history, people have been drawn to religion for a variety of reasons. Religious belief and practice often fulfill social, psychological and philosophical needs. Therein included are also the big existential questions like the purpose and meaning of life, the question of the afterlife, and a strong need, desire and longing for justice in a seemingly ambivalent world.

The meaning of life is ultimately a highly subjective question and in this case I subscribe to the existential and multifarious trend of choosing the best path for the given individual or, to dress it in colloquial jargon, the unobtrusive and egalitarian “whatever floats your boat” philosophy. When it comes to existence after existence, I have blogged about the mystery of the hereafter to a limited extent in my questions about the afterlife post. Here I would like to focus mainly on the need and desire for justice.

As a child, we rely on our parents as the ever-present enforcers of justice. In our eyes, they punish the wicked and reward the good. We hold onto the “childlike” belief that there is a justified and just moral order in the universe. At this point our morality is still in its budding infancy but when it comes to ethical questions we sense -- or may even deeply believe -- that good actions, such as being honest and telling the truth, not intentionally causing harm or suffering onto others will bring us benefits, candy, higher allowance, sometimes even abstract and intangible benefits to our psychology and well-being in forms of praise and respect.

On the other side of the spectrum, being “bad” is tied to negative consequences, such as (God forbid) corporal punishment, a decrease in allowance, and a denial of our wishes and desires, especially on the items petitioned for in a Christmas letter to Dear Santa. The latter by the way can be a useful tool for disciplining children in terms of negative reinforcement since evidently Santa asks parents if their children are well-behaved and his opinion and judgment carry weight and matter indeed.

However, soon enough we make some of our first and initially painful realizations about life. Our parents, after all, are human beings, and they are limited in their powers. They have to obey the law (not only of gravity but also the rules of society) and have to accept its representatives; the priest can order them about; they have bosses at work who are superior to them while our dear parents must swallow their pride if they do not want to lose their position (= income and livelihood) and so on and so forth. Moreover, they have their own share of flaws and weaknesses. In other words, they lose some of the power we had inferred upon them in our childish naivete as glorious bringers of justice.

As a result, they need to be replaced. The common phrase of retributive justice I will tell my Mommy / Daddy tinged with a fair amount of threat translates into its abstract equivalent I will call the authorities. The police then becomes the principal and most visible enforcer and embodiment of the law in addition to a host of government organizations.

Yet soon enough, we recognize the flaws of such fallible systems, we realize that even the sanctified law has its pitfalls and biases, not to mention its own price. You can literally get away with murder if you play your cards right or if you are rich and / or famous. This often profoundly affects, even shakes our belief in the justice system that is run, after all, by humans and humans tend to err being far from perfect; at the same time, everyone has to deal with their own demons and temptations.

So who can ensure that justice is served on our little planet? That is when some may desperately and pleadingly turn to God to fill the void. He is the Heavenly Father and hence very different and much more potent than the puny earthly one we are given down here. He ensures that Justice is served and whenever it seems that the opposite is the case we hold onto the belief that the wicked will be punished in the other life to come and will burn in eternal flames, while the good (like us) will have goods aplenty in the next life.

I am aware that my phrasing may make me sound like a cynic but far from it. I do believe in the ubiquitous balancing act of unseen karma. Eventually everything will be sorted out. The universe is operating on a rational and moral order; it is too structured to revert to chaos and randomness. It is the Logos or that divine and eternally vibrating and echoing Word that fills hearts and souls with the promise of Justice, served and redeemed for all.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Columbus as Brave Explorer or Grave Murderer



Portrait of Christopher Columbus looking proud and serious


Christopher Columbus (or rather Cristobal Colon) is often celebrated as a hero and has been assigned his own personal day alongside truly remarkable people like Martin Luther King Jr. Columbus defied many obstacles and managed to sail halfway around the world. His bravery and determination led to one of the most significant discoveries in world history. Christopher Columbus brought us sugarcane and the land of great dreams and promises that the American continent has ensured for centuries since.

Upon reading Howard Zinn, I saw a completely different facet to this account of history. Previously, I was aware that Columbus' main motive and driving force were stacks of gold and that his discovery was sheer luck based on serious miscalculation. At the same time, he was also religious to the bone, and he was planning to bring his own message of salvation to any primitive people he might run into along the way, whom he collectively and erroneously referred to as “Indians.”

In fact, his arrogance, greed and ethnocentrism knew no bounds. When meeting native Indians, his head was filled with material gain. The Arawaks welcomed him and shared all their possessions with the newcomers, not having been exposed and contaminated by the unnatural love for money and gold. But to Columbus they seemed naive, even insane. Who in their right mind would share their possessions so freely, especially with a stranger?

So instead of enjoying and thanking them for their unbridled hospitality, he forced them to show him where the gold was hid. It did not help the cause of the Arawaks that they did not have any weapons except spears made of cane, which were definitely no match to the swords and armor of the Spaniards. In fact, Columbus noted with amusement that when he produced a sword, the natives were so clumsy and so ignorant that they accidentally cut themselves with its blade.

To add to his profits Columbus decided to take various Indians captive so he could sell them as slaves back in his home country for an extra bit of income. That various of them died on the trip especially due to the harsh conditions and the cold climate must have been a blow to his income and pride, but it hardly touched his personal integrity.

Moreover, his sailors who remained behind at the fort called “Navidad” fell short of the Christmas spirit and gifts; they took absolute control over the island, forcing the natives into labor, raping their girls and women while killing those who resisted these abject and inhumane living conditions. In fact, various Arawaks saw no other way out and committed mass suicide through poisoning.

Some of the cruelty as observed by Bartolomé de Las Casas was that Indians were knifed by the sailors to test the sharpness of their blade, and a particularly horrifying incident in which sailors took away the parrots of two native boys beheading the kids just for fun while keeping the parrots.

One of the unspoken and often overlooked legacies of the “Admiral of the Seas” was the decimation of large parts of the native population. Instead of peace and salvation, he mostly brought the natives violence, hatred, death and destruction. These inhabitants were driven off, regarded as subhumans and were exploited ruth- and heartlessly. Religious values, such as empathy, compassion, justice were all wiped out by the incentive for power, control and wealth.

Despite all, Columbus is still revered and is given his day in the United States. The bloodshed is buried and forgotten, perhaps even forgiven, just like a bitter aftertaste from the past that is dissolved by the sweet success of subsequent generations of settlers, all of which has led to the impressive world status and industry of this young budding nation and its annual celebration of Columbus Day.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Maya and the Physical versus the Metaphysical



A Woman is hiding behind curtains
Erasmus Darwin's The Temple of Nature
Maya, I have claimed elsewhere, can be approached from two different perspectives. One builds on the assumption that everything “out there” is Maya. Everything we encounter in daily life is illusion, regardless of whether it causes suffering or joy. The second approach is that everything could be real but our minds distort them and turn them into unreal images. In that sense, a cleansing of vision and mind is necessary, the same way a dirty or broken mirror cannot give off an accurate or valid reflection of objects.

Here I want to approach the phenomena of Maya from a slightly different angle. Maya is similar to the first view in that physical objects are not real. Anything that is material is impermanent, so it decays according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Our body, for example, falls into the same category. Moreover, one can claim that physical objects are not what they seem. On a subatomic level, they are merely atoms moving in space and hence their form or rather existence is illusive.

Taken to its extreme, this view would discredit science, which is based on physical phenomena and evidence. It is not to say that it is wrong, but rather that it is not infallible. Science looks at events that are part of an illusive process thus it examines that which is constantly passing away. It is trying to explain and make sense of the inexplicable in a rational manner. In other words, it disregards the “spiritual” elements that are what give each object and person their “life” and “breath.”

As a result, both our bodies and everyday objects only seem to exist as they are. What projects them into our consciousness is their spiritual essence, that which makes each object and body unique. Through the breath of life, they are transformed from an indeterminate physical object to being, and they exist in the concrete reality with space and time as reference points.

How can objects possibly come to life? Therein lies the problem of science. It not only classifies and categorizes but it also presupposes that matter is “dead,” without will and consciousness and hence predictable. This may be the reason why science has generally failed to make sense of humankind and has delegated this topic to the hybrid field of psychology.

But science may also become flawed because it is the scientist who analyzes and determines what science is, adding more speculation and relativity to this method that aims at objectivity. Unless the vision of such a person be cleansed from any framework, i. e. influences or traces of Maya in forms of distortion, illusion, cultural baggage, science will not be fully accurate.

To return to the matter of Maya, it seems that we can break it up into two parts, the physical and the metaphysical. The physical then is all that can be observed, weighed, measured and analyzed. This is mainly the focus of science and scientific pursuits. However, the metaphysical is beyond the grasp of full understanding, as it is slippery, knows and follows no definite rules or laws and elopes human prediction and comprehension, at least at the current point of our limited perspective and knowledge.

The realm of religion and spirituality might give us some hints or answers toward understanding the truth about metaphysical aspects. However, this information ought to be taken with caution as the forces of Maya, in this case ignorance or misunderstanding, can easily overrun the profound spiritual aspects and teachings.

Similarly, a too rigid hold on science and scientific knowledge is also full of Maya as the person is deluded in thinking that the world in all its aspects can be fully grasped and reduced to a simple formula. It boils down to the fact that in order to diminish Maya, we need to render upon science what belongs to science, give religion its own independent territory, while at the same time allowing free and unbiased interchange and exchange of ideas between the two different-minded camps.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fascist Governments and the Freedom and Self-Expression of the Arts



Celebration of throwing hats during Marine graduation

Any fascist government, regardless of ideological background has been wary or downright hostile toward the arts. Whether it is the Nazis burning books, the Communists banning and prohibiting works, or any other government or organization that actively censors works of art on the grounds of ideology, art is seen as a subversive threat to their hegemony, while the artist and intellectual are the marked and targeted enemies of such societies.

Nonetheless, such governments have used the value of art for their own sake as a tool of propaganda. They ensure tight control on materials, their hand poised over the censorship button to select what kinds of messages may be transmitted, at the same time ensuring that their own standpoint is presented in a clear and visible manner.

In other words, they take away the original and creative expression of artists and use the same method to fabricate their own brand of stifled and limited art to win over or rather to brainwash and lull the hearts of minds of their citizens. When it does not work through “positive” means, such as reinforcement and rewards, the flag of punishment is waved and those who step out of line in their behavior or thinking shall meet the iron rod of discipline.

In fact, the goal of any fascist state is uniformity. It builds on the premise of a false and strongly deluding sense of equality through identification. The trump card of fascism has always been blaming scapegoats but mainly on the basis that they are the unwanted “other,” the ones who stand out, the ones who are different, whether in appearance, lifestyle or belief system.

The strange and unknown is often perceived as a threat and these totalitarian manipulators ruthlessly exploit this fact. On the other hand, cultures that are multicultural, tolerant and accepting of other people and lifestyles are more resistant to the fascist disease.

In societies where self-expression is encouraged, it becomes easier to see the other person's point of view. This is one of the great achievements of literature and the humanities. In our ordinary consciousness we can never know what the other person is thinking and feeling. We get glimpses through their behaviors and words, but we can never fully put ourselves in the other person's shoes so-to-speak.

In literature, however, the expressive and courageous writer can expose herself. It is like a cosmos that is opened up for all to see. We learn about the plights of people through fiction and biographies. We see that they, whether gays, foreigners, Jews, Muslims, are essentially human beings who want, desire and feel exactly the same things we do. Strip away the outward differences and practices and you will end up with a person exactly like us.

This is what the totalitarians cannot stand. They prefer you think in simplistic black-and-white terms. It is easier to go to war when you believe that the other side is not only wrong but downright evil. You think yourself a hero because you are under the impression you are doing a moral deed by killing the "bad guys."

The so-called enemy is then singled out and many other facts are blocked out. They are stripped of their humanity and are not sons of other people; they are not husbands and caregivers of their family, not somebody's brother or friend or loved one. They are just militants that have come to destroy your nation because they personally hate you. This kind of thinking is encouraged by both sides of the conflict and most of the populace is ignorant and bounce around empty slogans and subscribe to bankrupt ideologies.

But as long as there is freedom of self-expression, when media is allowed to show both sides of any conflict, when everyone gets a chance to speak up and ask tough and probing questions, only then do we have a chance to break through the walls of ignorance and fanaticism. Otherwise, look out your window because the next fascist group is parading just around the corner.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How Teaching is Similar to Directing



Stern schoolmaster facing class of young hard-working children


It has been one of my life-long dreams to become a movie director, seconded by a career in writing. In terms of directing I had my first taste when I made a short film alongside a friend of mine and the experience was wonderful and rewarding. At the same time, I got to sense some of the difficulties that may come with this line of work.

Anyhow, I ended embarking upon a teaching career. In fact, there are a few similarities between the two professions. The idea came to me when I realized that apart from every teacher having their own style, quirks and trademarks, the same lesson plan can have completely different outcomes, the same way two directors with identical scripts will not produce identical movies.

One of the decisions film-makers must make is the pace of their work. Does or should the movie follow a deliberately slow or an action-packed fast pace? Is the film able to consistently keep the interest of the viewer?

Pacing is the rhythm of the work / class. Most of it is related to instinct and experience. A seasoned director will notice that certain parts of the movie may slow it down unnecessarily or that some segments do not contribute to the main flow of the storyline. Although digressions may work in some instances by adding variety to the work, too many of them will confuse, bore or irritate the viewer.

In a classroom the lesson plan is your script. You will have time allotted to each activity, but the estimated times are only approximations. In reality, you will often have to adjust to the students' needs and their previous knowledge. Some activities may be extended while others need to be reduced or modified. The drawback of teaching is that you will not have a lot of time to reflect since, unlike a director, you cannot cut and edit a finished work in the studio; as an educator, you have to do it during the class itself.

The experienced teacher will also realize which activities work and which ones should be scrapped. Some will incite interest and participation, while others will feel like beating a dead horse. Whether you have spent sufficient time on an activity, whether you have “milked” it all the way, is what the teacher needs to decide on the spot, which makes it important to ...

Improvise

To be creative is one of the main requirements of certain professions, especially in the arts. Both teaching and directing revolve around the ability to spontaneously react to situations and challenges.

I cannot speak much about directing due to my lack of experience in the field, but there were moments where we had to solve unexpected and unforeseen problems on location. Due to the fact that the shooting days were limited, we needed to come up with a solution quickly. What may cause feelings of distress in some is a welcome challenge for others.

As a teacher you may be very well-prepared, but there are always what I call the “technical pitfalls.” For example, you bring a transparency or slide to the classroom but the projector does not work. The DVD or CD you brought skips and stops without warning. As a rule, I always have a Plan B (and sometimes even “C”) when I come to class because I enter with the expectation that something “will go wrong.” But even though I abide by Murphy's Law, I am still caught off guard every now and then.

So I improvise. I quickly grab hold of the situation by coming up with something that will not only fill the allotted time but that is educational and intellectually satisfying and stimulating for the students. Yet this does not only apply to “emergencies” or “unforeseen circumstances.” Since we as educators are purveying and gauging the mood of our students, we often need to change our plan on the spot to achieve a better outcome.

A director too has to be on his toes at all times. A line that may have looked great in writing does not always translate or ring true from the mouths of the actors. Then you need to change it, improvise. Also, it would be a good idea to give your actors / students a certain amount of autonomy and control. Get them involved in the decision process but be sure that they do not take over. That's why it is important to remember that you are the one who is ...

Calling the Shots

Let's face it: Ultimately you are in charge. Whether your film or class is successful depends mostly on you. As teachers we tend to blame the students, their lack of interest, knowledge, motivation, participation, but all in all, we are responsible for providing an interesting and stimulating class to them. That is our job.

A director cannot distance himself from his work either and excuses will get him only so far out of his responsibilities. The class in retrospect, just like the movie, is a finished product. And when they are falling apart, you are the one who needs to take control and guide the whole thing in the desired direction.

Obviously, digressions are a welcome relief from a fixed structure, but keep in mind your main goals and objectives. Have my students accomplished what we set out to do? If there is disturbance, say an unruly student, you need to ensure that it does not throw off the direction of the class. Those are moments when the teacher-director is called upon to be strict and to demonstrate who is running the show.

That does not mean that the actor-students are left out of the creative process. Quite to the contrary, they actually enrich it all. It is their ideas that add salt to the class environment. Without students or actors, our line of profession would not only suffer but be, in fact, impossible.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Christianity, Karma and the Culture of Prosperity



Two poor, homeless children sleeping in an alley
Jacob Riis, Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890)
In medieval times, the knight considered himself a holy warrior fighting in the name of God. He would justify not only the means of violence and brutal slayings of the so-called infidels, he also strongly believed that God was on his side. Such belief systems that God will be on the side of the victor and punish the opponent was widely held in those times.

When there was a duel or battle between knights, it was said that the one favored would gain victory by divine will and right. The outcome would often be a form of justice and restoration of order ordained by God. Constantine, for example, attributed his victory to the divine aid and interference of the Christian God and, as a result, embraced and promoted Christianity for his kingdom.

Nowadays, many people tend to judge result and outcome on similar criteria. It is based on the simplified karmic belief that if you do good, you will have positive results, but those who do bad, will get their deserved punishment.

Yet when we look at the order of things in the world, we sometimes come to doubt this philosophy. It often seems that evil is triumphing since dictators and charlatans are gaining important positions everywhere. In these cases, religion steps in to create a balance by claiming that no matter what happens in the world, in the end, there will be justice and the good will gain entry into paradise, while the evil will burn in hell for all eternity.

So far so good. I believe in the importance of doing good regardless of personal benefits. At the same time, I embrace the belief that good people tend to get rewarded in life though it is not always as clear-cut as that. Those who commit evil acts I think live in ignorance or have a completely erroneous perception of what life is all about and why values and humanitarian concern are of utmost importance. In other words, they confuse material wealth and power with spiritual advancement.

Nonetheless, the karmic system is often turned on its head in most of Christianity, especially when it comes to its fundamental or radical offshoots. These ideas have their roots in Calvinist doctrines of the “culture of prosperity.” In fact, Luther's idea of following your vocation is transformed into using your talents to make money.

So people who have managed to become successful -- and the focus is on financial success -- are seen as favored by God. People strive to amass wealth because God is said to reward the faithful by giving them access to luxury. If you are rich according to this pseudo-ideology, consider yourself blessed.

If the rich are favored by God, then that would mean that the poor are in such a state because of either a lack of effort, of faith or perhaps even both. This reliance on full personal responsibility completely avoids looking at any socioeconomic or political reasons for poverty. The fact that the “blessed” rich have exploited people driving them deeper and deeper into the abyss of poverty while at the same time increasing their own profits is conveniently overlooked in this way of thinking.

However, the problem is even more complex than that. We live in and are surrounded by a culture of prosperity. The media presents us the lives of the rich, and we are like hungry folks craving a slice of the delicious cherry pie. We are the majority of the people in this world; we are the peasants standing outside of the gorgeous palace not unlike the beginnings of the French Revolution; we are gazing with incredulous eyes and drooping mouths at the glamorous excess and beautiful lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous.

But the ones in power are smarter than before; they have learned their lessons. They envelop us skillfully in intricate webs of rhetoric and logical inconsistencies, absurdities and make believe. One day, this could be you if you only work hard but mostly if you give yourself completely to the power of our power-hungry god. If you accept our conditions unconditionally and do exactly as we tell you then even you can dine with us inside.

The fact that the American dream has come up empty and has ended up as a sham for most people has led many of the powerful elite to use the language of religion. They manage to distort the values and commendable religious teachings to serve their own needs while playing on our desires and insecurities. No, money is not the root of evil; it is considered a blessing in this religion of prosperity.