Sunday, February 21, 2010

No Man/Woman is an Island: How Individuality is overrated in Western Civilization

Islands near Fiji

In Western history, the role of the individual has been of paramount importance. Individual accomplishment has always been praised, and the focus has been on willpower, drive, and determination. We are told not to give up despite resistance, to become independent and stand on our very own feet. Why ask for help and assistance when you can do it yourself.

Our society and family, even religion is structured on and around the individual. We may congregate together in Church, but each will have to work out their salvation on their own. Each person needs to have personal faith. Others may support you, guide you, give you compassion, but in the end, we all keep being “islands onto ourselves.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with individualism. In fact, I believe it is healthy and beneficial. But my problem lies with our over-reliance on individuality. All our life, we have been drilled to stand our own ground and take credit for our accomplishments; our worldview is mostly based on this unique perspective.

As a result, we isolate ourselves more than ever from family members and friends, and we will have a tough time or difficulty relating to another person in a close relationship. By exaggerating individual values, we are fostering isolation from the world around us. We are feeding the selfish voice within us and are guided only by what suits and benefits us best personally regardless of its impact on others or our community.

This is a tremendous difference between our society and that of the ancients, for example. For the Greeks, community / state and family values were highly valued, and one ought to always yield to the benefits of the many despite inconveniences of the self. There is a humility that holds one in check, so that one does not cut oneself off from the crowd.

Certain of these views are reflected in some collectivist societies where the individual works and acts for the whole, and any recognition of the group reflects equally on each individual member. We get this only sometimes, such as in team sport events, where the hockey team wins gold, and every player rejoices in it.

However, each member also wants to become the most valued member and become a superstar, and, at times, these athletes, often referred to as “hogs,” are the ones who want most, if not all, the credit for the success. That would often cause tension within the team and affect adversely the progress of the harmonious whole.

In my opinion, we have to face certain truths about life. First off, we are not alone. I believe that we are all part of the cosmos the same way that each drop of water may have its value, but gathers only force and power in relation to the rest of its members. Secondly, our efforts are often merited, but success does not always lie within ourselves. I believe that there are always higher powers at work that may either help or hinder us from achieving our goals. People who work hard to attain a lot of money through their continuous work or striving may see it all disappear in a haze in the context of a sudden and unexpected devaluation. Overnight that person may become “equalized” by forces beyond his or her control.

Despite all the benefits in science and technology largely due to our work ethic and reliance on the individual self, there have been also drawbacks on our spiritual states. We find it much harder to live a happy life, to relate to others in a meaningful way and to connect to spirituality in a profound manner.

Individuality should have its limits, and we should all regroup for the higher cause because, in fact, we all benefit from it. By understanding in a real way that I am no different from the other, by seeing how individual strings are connecting me with the outside world and everything that happens in it, by tracing all our efforts and lives to one common source and origin and grasping how all of humanity, in fact, how all things living and non-living are part of the same whole, the cosmos, then we are in a condition to enjoy life to a maximum, to feel bliss and not be the isolated individual slowly wasting away on a deserted island somewhere offshore.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Becoming Divine and Following Christ’s Footsteps: The Quest for a Spiritual State in Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal

Cover from Canadian movie "Jesus of Montreal"
Ever since I was introduced to Jesus of Montreal in a beginner's French class at college, I have been an avid fan of the movie. There is something poignant and touching in the whole story and its delivery.

The movie works on various levels. It is definitely a critique of crystallized conservative (not to mention stagnant) authorities that refuse to accept any change whatsoever to their established doctrines. In the movie, the Passion play was modernized and made upbeat with inclusion of the most recent findings of scholars on the enigmatic persona called Jesus of Nazareth.

This actualized play revived a mounting interest both in the man and the religion, but the Church authorities in the movie would rather have the play canceled and return to its overacted and pretentious traditional version. In this case, the actor who plays Jesus in the movie, a well-meaning individual on the quest for truth, is in conflict with the same forces that Jesus had to deal with over 2000 years ago; Jesus himself wanted to “modernize” the established cold laws and doctrines and infuse them with love and compassion and was criticized and put to death for it.

On another level, this movie also presents a criticism on the fake, harmful and sex-obsessed modern world of advertising. This had its climax when the actor portraying Jesus in the staged play turned over the tables and destroyed all the cameras to protect his fellow actress / model from exposing herself to this greedy and inhuman jury of so-called critics during the audition. Of course, there is a deliberate parallel with Jesus attacking the money-lenders in church.

What impressed me most about the movie is that a young talented actor who is offered the role of Jesus would become so immersed in researching and “updating” the portrayal of his “character” that willy-nilly he gets dragged into the same fate.

It is a kind of playing with fire by touching the higher powers and gradually being sucked into the same destiny. The most moving scene must be towards the end when he has sustained a hit on the head and is confused with reality and believes to be actually Jesus incarnate warning bystanders of impending doom.

According to one of the actors, staging a tragedy is a sign of bad luck and, in fact, everything does result in disaster. The motions that had taken place with Jesus remain the same and lead to its own lethal demise. The resistance of the clergy is embodied in the priest and his supervisors who frown upon the new version of the play which inadvertently results in the principal actor's death caused by an accidental fall of the cross!

The movie, in my point of view, shows how things have not really changed, and if Jesus returned, he would unfortunately have to encounter the same destiny as before. We would crucify him again because we have not really changed that much within and without.

In addition, Jesus of Montreal also makes an interesting statement about following into the footsteps of Christ. This resounds with another controversial work, The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus by being attributed more human characteristics becomes somewhat closer to us.

At least then, we can attempt to emulate him and strive towards a higher state of being instead of meekly and with heads turned to the ground be drilled the teachings and rules of Christ. In my view, Jesus would rather have us follow in his footsteps, like Buddha, than someone who just outwardly and blindly sticks to the rules but inwardly is selfish, like the Pharisee, who observed the rules but was inferior to the modest tax collector in one of the parables of Jesus.