Thursday, April 28, 2011

What Lesson Plans and Poetry have in Common

Blue poet smurf with feather and paper
Poet Smurf

To my TESL instructors who tried to teach an old dog new tricks and my colleagues who are forging a career in language teaching.

At first glance, lesson plans and poetry have absolutely nothing in common. They are polar opposites poles apart. While the poem brims with imaginative language and figurative rhetoric, the lesson plan pales in comparison with its dry, dusty and overused jargon and its thoroughly self-conscious and partly neurotic desire for always achieving its own aims.

Yet there are still similarities in their process of creation. A poet uses language to achieve her aims, namely to convey a message or a feeling. She will cut and trim unnecessary words and focus on all that adds to the desired mood; she will chisel away with words and phrases like an obsessed and driven sculptor to give the poem its definite and most beautiful form.

A teacher does exactly the same thing, however, on his own terms. He wants the students to gain particular knowledge about language so that they can reflect on and through language. He will need to get rid of any white noise or distractions to get to the core of his lesson aims. He will need to set the mood for the class by focusing on words that are based on and connected to his given context. With discipline and foresight, he has to limit himself to the essential words and functions that will help him get his message across to the students.

And both, the poet and the teacher at their best will stir souls and create magic. Writing as well as teaching thrives on passion, vocation and inspiration. Language just lies there as receptive letters of fact but both of these professions have to turn it into something living and breathing, something tangible and edible. We say “eat your words” for a reason because both of them will want you to digest language and let it all sink in.

I disagree with one of my teachers and his insistence that language is alive. Language is in fact merely dead meat and nothing but a blueprint. A lesson plan is a piece of paper that depicts and points to an ideal state, which is more often than not in conflict with reality. A good lesson plan may point and lead toward a good class, yet without creativity or spark of the teacher, it can also leave you stranded at a dead-end street.

It is, in fact, all of us that bring life to language, the writer, the reader, the blogger, the speaker, in short, the users and alchemists of language. A lesson plan cannot achieve its own aims no matter how hard it may try. A poem no matter how beautiful needs to touch an inner chord and resonate within to have true effect on a person. On a similar note, language needs its interpreter to survive the onslaughts of time, erosion and oblivion.

It is mainly the steady and relentless work of the teacher-poet who looks past the trite messages to come a little closer to the heart of humanity. A poem as well as a class can be an unforgettable experience. In those instants, the reader-student will be awakened to a world of possibilities and will come in contact with pure magic. It is not the poet, the teacher nor the language that creates this moment of blissful tension; it is the joyous and playful combination of them all.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Computer Virus Analogy for Mental Illness and Religious Fervor

Graphic depiction of computer chips
Computer Chip by John & Vicky Schroeder

Modern cognitive psychologists often enjoy drawing analogies with computer terminology to explain brain functions and processes. For example, they use the terms input for sensory information, storage capacity to refer to how much information a person can remember and output for memory retrieval.

In fact, even certain philosophers have borrowed from computer language to explain difficult processes and interactions. Some claim that one's hard drive is the equivalent of one's genetic make-up, whereas our experiences form the software. In this sense, we may be seeking answers for the contentious nature-and-nurture debate. This has interesting repercussions on concepts like free will, that our software may have the power to affect and even change our genes; yet at the same time, this change is also limited and kept in check by the very same genetic make-up. For example, you cannot expect a computer with limited processors to perform a multitude of complex operations.

From a religious point of view, the computer can also aid in explaining theology. Then the programmer-engineer is God who writes and designs each computer according to His will and desire. However, he leaves open the option of software. It is then the person's decision whether they want to download and run certain types of programs, whether they prefer Firefox over Internet Explorer and whether they have a good up-to-date anti-virus to protect themselves from threats such as viruses and hackers or all the other demonic devices.

And let us elaborate on this particular point. It is when one's defenses are generally weak or incapacitated - in other words, when one's guard is down - that there is a more serious chance of a threat to the system. In times of stress, the system is not as protected toward attacks. It is a known fact that when you experience stress or trauma, your immune system is compromised and viruses can wreak havoc within your body.

What about mental illness then? Can it be passed on or triggered in such a way? Our general view is that mental illness is not contagious. However, that being said, it may be propagated not physically but through mental acts. Ideas can work like germs and when they are planted in a person's brain or system, it has the chance to grow and lead to a mental breakdown of the system. We have then unwillingly attracted and nourished dangerous memes in our mind that have come to compromise or collapse us.

Sounds like a crazy idea? It is indeed. But that is not all. When our nervous system is in danger, we become more vulnerable. And that is not always bad, though it depends on your point of view. Some people manage to have life-changing and earth-shattering perspectives in such moments. You may become a strict follower of certain religions and cults or it can lead to a sudden epiphany that touches and affects you in your core beliefs.

In fact, when we see how some of the saints are converted, touched by the Holy Spirit as they say, it usually happens in moments of helplessness and despair. St. Paul was considered to have been in a state of exhaustion and mental anguish, when he had his vision. St. Augustine was at the crossroad of loss and confusion in his life; he felt unfilled and anguished when he heard a voice tell him to pick up and read the Bible, and his eyes fell on a passage by the aforementioned St. Paul that changed his life forever.

Similarly, those who enter a church in a state of despair are more likely to be converted and to accept a given religion. It is as if we have temporarily shut down our anti-virus and turned off our firewall, i.e. our reason, for a moment. We become completely open to these outside forces; yet at the same time, we are at high risk for drastic change.

We are at risk because according to the Scriptures there are a host of spirits, both good and bad roaming the Earth. That is why Christians are told to double-check whether the spirit is coming from Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, the spirit is obliged to tell you the truth, but to tell you the truth, we can never know for sure. In fact, they could pretend to be a benevolent spirit, while they are not. And others may simply dismiss all the spirit talk and immediately schedule a visit with the psychiatrist.

However, by being shut up in our safe and sterile world, by not visiting potentially dangerous sites in cyberspace, by sticking to all that is known and secure and by never downloading anything unless we are hundred percent sure they are harmless, we will never fully experience life. Opening up to life may carry around its risks but it also has its potentially unlimited possibilities for the individual system to grow beyond the ordinary and to enter an exceptionally dynamic beautiful world. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Last Supper and whether the Infinite can exist in the Finite?

Last Supper painting with Jesus and the Apostles

In previous times, and perhaps to a certain extent even today, there has been debate over the rite of the Last Supper, also known as the Eucharist. Some, mostly of the Catholic persuasion, insisted that when Christ said his disciples should partake of his body, it ought to be taken literally.

Through an act of magic (though most Catholics would shun the use of this particular word), bread and wine are transformed and become the living body of Christ. Opponents to this view accused that if this were true, it would be an act of sheer cannibalism! They, later to be known as Protestants, espoused the view that it was all to be taken with a grain of salt (!) and that the Last Supper was rather a symbolic act.

Surprisingly (well for me at least), Martin Luther, who was in many ways opposed to the Catholic tradition in ideology and practice, believed that the Last Supper was indeed flesh and blood of Christ. He claimed that the same applied to infant baptism, where water would be transformed into a spiritual substance to wash away sins and to make the infant particularly responsive to Christian teaching and values. Furthermore, Luther believed that the infinite, God or the Holy Ghost (take your pick) could be contained in the finite, be it then a physical body, a piece of bread or a cup of wine.

In fact, fellow Protestant Zwingli entered into a vivid debate with Luther, but the latter did not budge an inch. Luther maintained that the Holy Spirit was speaking through him; his main criticism was that the Catholic Church did not allow the drinking of wine as part of the complete ritual.

This might have been for hygienic reasons – they did not want the cup to be passed from lips to lips – or moral reasons, the Church did not want to promote cases of alcoholism by providing free alcohol in their service. So if the eating of Christ's body made you a cannibal, was Christ himself not an alcoholic with wine flowing freely in his body?

But the idea of the infinite in the finite was mostly supported by the example of Christ himself. Luther believed that God, i.e. the infinite, had taken a finite form, a human body, so that such an act was indeed in the realm of the possible.

In fact, modern atomic theory would probably side with Luther. The body is made of atoms or infinite space that is contained within a limited physical space. It brings to mind the words of mystics like Rumi who claim that the entire world may be reflected in a single grain of sand.

I once glanced at a book called Powers of Ten. The first image was of the universe. Then there were close-ups of the earth zooming deeper and deeper until it reached the hand of a man lying in a park. As it finally entered his body and depicted the atomic structure within, this book that consisted of only pictures, came to a sudden end. But not until a jaw-dropping realization had occurred.

The first picture of the universe was identical to the last of the inner atoms within a person's body! Do we indeed contain infinity within our physical (mortal) frame? Are we actually eating Christ's body and drinking his blood? Vampires may rejoice at the thought and for all the rest of us: Bon appétit!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Psychics and Seeing Your Life within a Blink

Mysterious woman dressed in long red gown in trance

John William Waterhouse - The Crystal Ball

We are told that all we have is the present. The past is already gone and the future has not evolved yet, nor will it ever because unlike the past, the future is simply intangible. And we live out each moment, some of them good and enjoyable, others sad and depressing; in the meantime, we are racing toward the ultimate destination, our own death.

The present, however, is not as fixed as we may think. Time flies when we are engaged in pleasurable activities and drags on forever when we are facing boring or tedious situations. It flows imperceptibly when we are asleep.

Yet at times, we feel that time has stopped or that it has acquired an eternal quality. It is a mystical moment, which I have referred to elsewhere as epiphany, where we see beyond the present into the eternal now. In those moments of spiritual truth, time has stopped its ticking and we seem to step out of time.

We gain a different perspective of events. Life does not become a moment-to-moment struggle with the dread of the future haunting us at every step, but we get to see the so-called big picture. It is seeing beyond trivial matters or daily chores while observing a certain direction and purpose in our life. It is the underlying and undying eternity that embraces us. Such visions may be induced by drugs or are the reality of people with a special gift: psychics.

Psychics are often repudiated in modern society. We often do not believe in them and think they are crackheads, weirdos and charlatans. Religious people shun them due to the psychics' supposed ties with the occult. God does not want us to see into the future. Or does He?

In fact, age-old prophets were psychics in the sense that they had gained a glimpse of the future. They foretold the coming of the Messiah. The Bible itself foretells of the end of the world, the Apocalypse. So why would fortunetelling be so wrong to practice?

Sometimes I agree that the reason we are wired this way, of not knowing our future, is for the best. We can function better by not knowing and second-guessing what will happen next or when our own life will come to a grinding halt. Most people would not mind some guidance now and then, but would not like their whole life spelled out in detail because that would take all the fun and initiative out of it.

But what are some of the implications of psychic phenomena? Life as we know it is a straight line. It starts from birth and it ends at death. We do not know what happened before nor can we say with certainty what will happen after. But we know that there is the invisible stream of time connecting and weaving the past with the future and giving form to our own life.

Psychics are said to step out of conventional time and see this “line.” They are not being tied to the present, but get to look at the complete panorama of all time events, also known as synchronicity. It is like watching a movie that you can pause, rewind, fast forward anytime. Time becomes a plaything you can direct whichever way.

And there is something to be gained with such a perspective. It shows you that life is more than just your present. This is reassuring when it seems that the present obstacles and hurdles are dragging you down. It is a hope, almost childlike and naive, projecting into the future, that everything will work itself out, regardless of the present circumstances. 

It is also the realization that our life is made up of all those little interminable moments that we come in touch with, that define us and give our life direction. It is being aware of and knowing that death is only an endpoint of what we call a life lived.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Symbols Revealing the Absurdity of War in Anti-War Movies

Soldiers on D-day in the Normandie during World War II
Cinema has tackled the issue of war in various forms. It is interesting and frightening at the same time that during times of war most of the movies are usually pro-war and serve as propaganda. Anti-war films usually take place after the event. And as it often happens, the propaganda movies disappear into nothingness, but the ones that stick out
and receive recognition are those movies that reveal the absurdity and horrors of war.

For the following purposes, I have chosen three movies to discuss. It is a very random sample and I am excluding brilliant movies like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, or even Paths of Glory and La Grande Illusion. All these movies do an excellent job of showing the effects of war, but I am limiting my reflections to the subsequent three movies because they use recurring symbols and themes to express the absurdity and randomness of war.

The Symbol of Reckless War in Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai lives strongly on the performance of Sir Alec Guinness as Col. Nicholson. He is the perfect and noble gentleman officer filled with dignity and justice. In fact, he is ready to accept cruel treatment and punishment by the Japanese commanding officer to gain benefits for his officers and soldiers. It may be trifles from our point of view, such as officers not supposed to do manual work as a Prisoner of War, but Col. Nicholson insists on this issue with such steadfastness that he amazes the Japanese commanding officer, someone who is equally stubborn and rigid when it comes to dignity and discipline.

The movie thrives, at least for its first half, on the clash between the strong adamant wills of these two officers on different sides of the spectrum. When the Japanese officer finally gives in to the demands, Col. Nicholson becomes fully devoted to and involved in the Japanese project of building a crucial bridge. He motivates his crew to do their best and to create a steady bridge instead of sabotaging the whole effort.

Why? Because he acts as any self-respecting person would do. He wants to be remembered for his efforts. In fact, the crucial moment of pride and jubilation is when they put up the plaque taking credit for all their efforts. Unbeknownst to him, the allies are planning to destroy the bridge. The bridge becomes the symbol of lost efforts, of false hope because noble causes and dignity become mixed up and confused in the smoke of war.

War as Claustrophobic Space in Das Boot

Most war films dealing with the Second World War have been made in Hollywood. However, there are occasionally a few movies that reach international fame and that show us a different perspective of war. In fact, the excellent German movies Das Boot and Downfall give a glimpse of how the “bad guys,” the Nazis saw and dealt with war.

What the two German movies have in common is both a claustrophobic, doomed and fatalistic atmosphere. Das Boot is about a submarine that enters the zone of war. At first, the crew is bored and misses the thrills and actions of war because nothing happens and there is no enemy in sight. However soon enough, they are shot at and have to fight desperately for survival.

Das Boot makes us feel the pain and despair that soldiers feel; regardless which side they are fighting for, they share the same humanity. It is within instants that the hunter becomes the hunted. This submarine is the pride of the German army, yet it undergoes vicious trials. The crew becomes one with the submarine because for all of them it is their vessel of hope and salvation.

Similar to the bridge, the submarine is a sign of human accomplishment, but it is tightly connected to destruction as well. The crew becomes trapped and disillusioned. They had imagined war differently. They realize and experience firsthand that destroying other ships at the push of a button has devastating consequences. War is not a game, and many lives are at stake whether you are fighting on ground, in the air or at sea.

War as Russian Roulette of Personal Destiny in The Deer Hunter

The movie The Deer Hunter makes a humanistic statement about the Vietnam war. It demonstrates the regular suburban lives and how the experience of war alters and even destroys the lives of the soldiers involved. The first half shows us a jovial and fun-loving group of friends who work in a steel mine and have beer and go hunting deer in their free time. Life is simple and a traditional wedding is the highlight of their experience before they enter the war, full of hopes and aspirations.

Suddenly the movie throws us into the throes of war, without explanation. It is like entering an unknown country without a map. The friends find themselves in the hands of sadistic enemy soldiers that derive pleasure from playing Russian Roulette with their prisoners.

In fact, you never know when the bullet will be triggered, when you will die. It is the unexpected outcome, just like the sword of Damocles that dangles over your head and can end your life at any moment. War is like a grinning madman holding the gun to your head and spinning its chambers. Some will survive and others will not, and it all comes down to nothing but sheer luck.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Contradictions Versus Coherent Philosophical Systems

Karl Marx in his youth
Young Karl Marx
Western philosophical systems are predominantly rational and are supposed to be logically sound and consistent in order to be taken seriously. This is the general norm. If there are inconsistencies or controversies in your philosophy, then you need to revise the problems or discard your system completely. This has been largely the legacy of ancient Greek philosophy with its reliance on rational reasoning and thinking, more particularly going back to the dynamic duo of Socrates and Plato.

Furthermore, when we are looking at individual thinkers, we tend to look for an integrated root philosophy, a so-called common denominator that captures and synthesizes the person's essential thoughts. Accordingly, a philosopher is either Marxist, Kantian, Existentialist etc. We feel the need to classify philosophers into a known and accepted catalog that we believe will provide us information about their stance and main view.

With philosophers and thinkers, this may actually change over their life time. For example, you may start off as an atheist, but then become a theist in your later phase of life, or vice versa. Some thinkers change slightly, while others do so in leaps and bounds because of radical changes in their life, behavior or thought, all of which may have a dramatic impact on or shift in their philosophical foundations and outlook.

Yet we mostly value and give the benefit of doubt to the later not the earlier phases. For example, St. Augustine is not remembered for his contributions to Manicheanism but for his Christian writing, which occurred in the latter part of his life. Was Marx more Marxist in his later writings than what he accomplished at first? The curious question also remains whether Marx indeed was a Marxist and whether Christ was a Christian since leaders are often identified anachronistically with movements they have helped initiate or bring about.

But with what authority can we claim that later is better? For example, in the arts it is the ending that gives the work a decisive genre; comedies end happily and dramas end tragically, while mixed genres, such as comedy-dramas or dramedies remain in no-man's land and can go either way. But what if the latter part of a person's life is senility or madness? We may acquire more knowledge in later life, but, at the same time, we might have reached or surpassed our prime in previous times; in fact, certain artists, such as Orson Welles or Justin Bieber, never seem to reach initial heights of achievements.

One example that has managed to give Western philosophical systems a major twist or kick in the shins is the case of Nietzsche. He did not believe in a unified philosophical system, openly criticized the over-reliance on logic in relation to the realm of feeling and passion, and he proudly and defiantly contradicted himself.

The scientific axiom of either A or not-A goes back to Aristotle. Yet we see in life, and even certain modern aspects of science like quantum physics, many cases where we do not get a clear-cut answer. Instead we get a weak and indeterminate “maybe” or “it depends” or “it could be this or that.”

Maybe that is part of the problem, namely that reason and logic may get far, but not hit the mark completely. When we are considering such weighty and complex issues like the meaning of life, we need to approach it from different perspectives and be ready to concede certain internal contradictions and inconsistencies.

In fact, readers of my blog will find contradictions in my philosophy. I am not ashamed of them because they are reflections of fixed points in my life, where I may have had different views on issues. At the same time, I reserve myself the right not to commit to any one category because one point of view may not be sufficient, and purposeful inconsistency is not necessarily a flaw in itself.