Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Straight Story: A Road Movie with Heart

Richard Farnsworth riding on tractor in David Lynch's movie "The Straight Story"

The Straight Story, which is modeled after real life, is a simple movie with a big heart. The most outstanding feature is the acting of Richard Farnsworth who was in the final stages of terminal bone cancer and in considerable pain during filming. The movie is directed by David Lynch, who is known for his highly surreal work, such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, so it comes as a surprise that this talented man would be able to pull off such an emotional and compassionate picture.

Nonetheless, he does so with integrity staying true to his own personal touches and obsessions. Although this movie is produced by Disney, Lynch is not a "sell-out" but keeps certain bizarre touches, such as the twin mechanics or the hysteric deer-killing woman driver in addition to experiments regarding sound and visuals. At the same time, the movie explores a range of existential themes, some of which are discussed below.

On the Kindness of Strangers

The Straight Story is a road movie mainly, but with a bizarre twist. It runs as slow as the John Deer lawn-mover, but it is both beautiful and poetic at the same time. The success of Alvin Straight's undertaking is mostly made possible by the kind folk that surround him. On his trip, he runs into different types of people, but all of them contribute in their own way to support this stubborn man on his personal mission.

In fact, Straight runs into many problems, but he can always count on the kindness of strangers. These people are often simple townsfolk who wish him the best. They may have their flaws, but their heart is in the right place. They immediately like and have compassion for this elderly man who wants to see his estranged brother. 

Richard Farnsworth's face emits and glows with patience, understanding, and an unspeakable deep humanity. His simple phrases in the movie astonish all, young and old, because of their lived and timeless wisdom. And this brings about the desire to help this man a little along the way because, in fact, in his own way, he gives so much back in return.

Family Values

The main theme of the movie is undoubtedly the importance of family. Straight himself decides to bury old strife and to see his ailing brother perhaps one last time. He explains in poetic phrases that, after all, a “brother is a brother” and that a family is strong because it is a bundle of individual sticks that, once combined, is hard to break. 

One should hold onto the other and let bygones be bygones because life is short. These phrases may sound trivial, but they are expressed with emotion and reveal deep truths about existence, particularly in the context of this story.

The Invincible Human Spirit

Straight never gives up on his journey. He has the no-matter-what attitude to do it his way. He is as stubborn and pigheaded as they come. In his manner, his unfailing and unflinching attitude is the emblem of the invincible human spirit. He knows what he wants and will do anything to achieve his goal. 

In the characters of this movie, we may see certain failings, even Alvin Straight is not a perfect being, but we see that these people are all inherently good. When it comes down to it, they are compassionate and caring. And they are willing to stand up and fight for their ideals, be it trivial or of great importance.

All in all, I highly recommend this movie for those who have the time and patience to see stories unfold at their own pace. There is simply a wide range of wonderful bits. One of the most touching scenes occurs in the bar where two veterans talk about their previous guilt-ridden war experiences. It gives the characters additional depth and dimension and makes a brief, yet cogent, statement on the futility of war.

The movie also becomes even more moving because of the eventual fate of its Oscar nominee. Richard Farnsworth himself in real life decided to end his life because he could not stand the pain anymore. He has, however, left us a wonderful piece of art as his legacy that would also make the real Alvin Straight proud. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Three Takes and Many Questions on the Afterlife

A solitary person facing the wide open waters of English Bay in Vancouver

The afterlife is the greatest source of wonder, amazement and confusion in the lives of many, if not all, people. What happens after our stint on planet Earth has come to an end? Is there something and, if yes, what will it be like? Will we be able to have self-awareness? How will life after life continue? Will there be nothing at all, a dark sleep without dreams or consciousness? Or will we wake up in the body of another with no recollection whatsoever of our previous lifetime(s)?

Take 1: The Personal Soul

According to many religious traditions, there is a personal soul that will continue in the afterlife. It is purported to be the essence or unique quality of each person that will separate from the mortal frame, the body, and will soar to the heights of the afterlife. A sort of bodiless floating spirit or ghost.

In the case of the personal soul, you will remember all that has happened in your lifetime and will continue the rest of eternity carrying your name and memories. In many traditions, there will also be judgement on your previous life, so you may end up in Heaven, where you rejoice of delights, Hell, where you pay for a life of wickedness and sins, or for those who walk the middle ground, you will have the chance to cleanse yourself in Purgatory.

There are a variety of questions and doubts that arise with this view. First off, will age be a factor? For example, if you die in your youth, will you continue to exist within that frame and mentality? What if you die in old age? Will you transfer all your knowledge, skills and experiences to the afterlife? Will you be able to speak various languages and play chess over there? Do computer skills matter?

What about people who grow senile or who suffer from mental or degenerative diseases like Depression or Alzheimer's? Will they carry those forward to the other realm, or will it separate from the body? Can there be cases of depression in the afterlife? And will you be allowed to have more than one wife?

The other question is this, what if you don't like yourself in this life? Will you be able to shed off all the negative aspects of yourself and become new and shiny bright over there? 

In short, can we reinvent ourselves, can we make a new name of ourselves or are we trapped in the workings of what we were before in our previous mortal life? Is it a mere continuation of our own identity or will we gain a new perspective and be able to give a new spin to our identity? Can we shed off painful experiences or are we stuck with them for all eternity? Finally, is eternal life of a personal soul really a good thing then? Do we have a choice?

Take 2: The Non-Personal Soul

Another "way out" may be a non-personal soul. By this, I am referring to an existence with the possibility of consciousness but with no recollection whatsoever of the previous life. The most apparent form would be the idea of reincarnation.

In this case, we would be reborn but in another body. We are generally not aware of any previous lifetimes, but are building up our spiritual essence or energy over time. We are not tied down to one person or personality but are connected to a variety of them. We continue from lifetime to lifetime until finally one day, it is said, a realization or enlightenment may occur that would clear up all doubts.

But who are we then essentially? Would we pick a certain person we like best on this journey over lifetimes? And will we still be married to one person or will we have many husbands and wives? Or, and this idea I find most intriguing, are we always ending up committed or married to technically the same person (soulmate?) over and over again from life to life, unbeknownst to us? Are we essentially always surrounded by the same people in each and every life?

Who are we really in such a view? And who do we become to be? Is there something that passes on from life to life like energy, something that may hold traces of the previous life? And is this essence free of daily troubles, hardship and suffering? Is that non-personal soul relatively independent from the earthly body?

Certain views embrace this thought. It was developed by Aristotle as a non-thinking part of the person that would continue, as an existence without consciousness but as pure energy. But what good is this to the Western mind who cannot exist without thinking? Without the ability to reflect and feel, one does not actually exist in this point of view.

The mystical or gnostic view tries to circumvent the view by claiming that there is a divine spark within (at least some of) us. The divine spark or essence would then reunite with the divinity and become complete and whole. We would be part of the godhead again, but not as our self, but rather in the form of our divine higher self. Interestingly, all higher selves would be equal and the same; they unite to become one and the same super-powerful body.

Mysticism boggles the mind and is the death of logic. But if it were true, then we would not exist in our little limited consciousness or definition of the self, but would reach out to a unifying experience, where drops of water combine to make up an endless ocean.

Take 3: Nothing

I would have to do my atheist readers and friends also justice in this discussion. There would be absolutely nothing according to this view. We live and die. That's it. Period. You had your chance, you probably blew it and wasted the unique gift of life on unimportant things and you will never live again.

It can be a sad and disconcerting view, but it does not have to be so according to some of the existentialists. The focus would be on this life, so that we will appreciate it more, try harder and realize the many blessings we have. Life will become so much more precious because that is all that we get. One shot.

This can lead to two different types of behaviors. Some might take life more seriously and take heed of their actions and feel more responsible despite the fact that there is no afterlife punishment, while others may become full-blown unscrupulous hedonists. You may disregard other people's needs because you say, what's the point, we will all die anyhow, so why not enjoy life to the max even to the detriment of others. This is, of course, an exaggerated form and borders strongly on narcissism. However, in most cases, atheists tend to have their feet rather firmly on the ground.

Regardless of whether there is an afterlife or not, one should take this life seriously, by which I mean one should not let it slip away, but in fact have fun all along the way and follow one's dreams. After all, we really do not know for sure what will come afterwards. We can subscribe to Pascal's Wager or we can make our own assumptions. And one day we may meet up again, be it up there or down below or anywhere in-between to discuss these matters all together.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Psychology of Leaving and Taking Impressions

People in a café of Van Gogh's stylistic painting "Le café de nuit"
The Night Café by Vincent Van Gogh
Whenever I finish coffee in a café or dinner in a restaurant and get up to leave, I check back to see if I have left anything behind. Almost always, the answer is no. Yet I cannot shake off the feeling that something indeed has been left behind. It is not immediately apparent what it could be.

This sentiment also affects me when I am getting off the bus or the train as the seat I just happened to occupy a few moments ago suddenly looks so strangely empty. 

There I had been for a certain amount of time; both body and soul had shared their presence with the immobile non-sentient seat. The same could be applied to the café, the restaurant, or even the whole city. Whenever we leave, we leave something behind.

Whether we notice it or not, every place or event leaves an impression on us; at the same time, we take an impression with us. We call it memory, but it is actually much fuller and more substantial than that. 

We take souvenirs that we hope entails the essence of the place and experience, but that is often not enough. Every departure seems a little like death. Whenever we go away, our previous life ends. It happens on a micro-scale in everyday life.

I am reminded of the belief that photographs steal your soul. I do not subscribe to it, but photographs (and their cousin videos) are the most vivid manner to capture the moment and its impression. 

Because there we are in the present, younger, fuller, alive, and now we look at the photograph or video, and we cannot possibly be at the same place at the same time again. All we are left with are memories, a vague lacklustre remembrance that pale in comparison with the actual experienced event.

Maybe what all of this means is that we are constantly interacting with the world at any given moment in time. Every object and every place embraces us or rather we become enmeshed with them in one way or another while we are there. 

And each moment experienced in its fullness gives so much in return as we take our impressions from it. It was the moment that experienced us. The café has been filled with the atoms of our being, and when we step out, a trace of our self, our shadow, still lingers on.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Life of the Sexual Mystic: Kierkegaard and Different Types of Pleasure

Naked woman on bed brushing her hair in Edgar Degas painting
Edgar Degas: Frau bei der Toilette (The Yorck Project)

Who does not like pleasure? We may have different ways of seeing, appreciating and relishing pleasure, but we all enjoy it whenever it crosses our path. Pleasure may range from reading books, watching movies, or doing some gardening to engaging in sports, going dancing, to winning battles in everyday life. Pleasure can also effortlessly embrace seeming contradictions such as sexual fulfillment and abstinence. Yes, even religion brims over with sensuality when it comes to fighting against the manifestation of passion and its identification with the divine.

Generally, types of pleasure have been polarized into two broad categories, the pleasures of the flesh and the ones of the spirit. There is nonetheless a great overlap within the divisions. We can look at them not so much as two separate groups, but at differences in degrees and intensity. We may start with the pleasures that satisfy the senses only and then proceed to those that are meant for the mind or spirit. These types of pleasure have been identified, labelled and inspired by ideas of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard.

Sensual (Aesthetic) Pleasure

I have avoided the term “carnal” here, but this type of pleasure has gotten the most attention of all. We can say that sports and dancing give us the physical high of well-being; it can also be the particular enjoyment of a delicious meal. Yet at its most extreme form, it is often tied to the dripping sensuality of sexual anticipation and gratification.

This has been a thorn in the side of many a religious devout. Sexuality is an expression of liberty and physical enjoyment; it has been regarded as a suspect force to be reckoned with since it has the power to overturn established morals. In that sense, in its uncontrolled form, sexuality is utterly revolutionary.

There are crimes of passion, for instance. By satiating ourselves with pleasure, we may blind ourselves to reality, forget or perhaps not even need anything else. Although some may look for God in times of contentment and ecstasy as an expression of gratitude, most will choose to do so in times of pain and distress. On the other hand, unbridled sexuality can uproot lives, can destroy family units and create chaos, not to mention, a state of anarchy.

In fact, for society to function we need to channel our sexual energy. If we fail to do so, nothing can be achieved since people will be distracted all the time. It is said that we of the male species think about sex almost all of the time, but it would be quite another thing to actually engage in sexual activity every five minutes. It would be so physically and emotionally draining that we would not be able to do anything else in life.

And again it would go counter to various human emotions where we would, in fact, lose out on some of the deeper intimate and magical moments of romantic relationships. The trick lies in self-control, while temptation and the forbidden only add to and do not subtract from the aspects of pleasure.

Lasting (Ethical) Pleasure

A higher dimension of pleasure, according to Kierkegaard, would be the ethical realm. In this case, we differentiate pleasure. It can denote a variety of things. It may be that we decide not to have a particularly delicious-looking meal due to health concerns. We are resisting, avoiding or substituting a “lower” pleasure for a higher good, our health and well-being. What good would be that meal if it were to signify our own demise.

In a similar vein, we may decide to “limit” ourselves to a single sexual partner at a time. This is because we prefer to foster more durable and lasting emotions of companionship through the demonstration of loyalty and fidelity. Relationships are similar to construction; we are building a future together, brick by brick. For many, the pleasures of stability may be more rewarding than the unpredictable freedom of sensual gratification.

Others may, of course, see it as a course of moral must. They would refrain from what is deemed as illicit behaviour in their community and stick to married life like glue. These are probably some of the unhappier types, but they seek comfort in their religion and ultimately derive pleasure from acting well in the eyes of their congregation and God.

Everlasting (Religious) Pleasure

The final and ultimate stage of pleasure can be called bliss and is of a mystical nature. This is the highest form of pleasure one can imagine and beats the climax of the best sex in your life, or so we are told. It is considered a nirvana of sorts, the fulfilment and ultimate goal of any existence.

The first stage is often fleeting and progressive; after the gratification, we desire more. It is the scratch that relieves the temporary itch. The second stage is more lasting because it takes into account a process and underscores the premise that everything that we work and spend time and effort on becomes dearer to the heart. Yet the final stage is the most elusive.

For most religions, it is connected to abundance that takes place in what is called the afterlife. It is all the rewards that one denied oneself within one's lifetime, the unused credit or air-miles for the other world. It is delicious decadent chocolate cake on a daily basis without the need for checking cholesterol or fat levels. It is sex without any type of worry or concern about STDs or fits of jealousy. It is the amalgamation of all possible pleasures combined stretched out in infinity. It is pure spirit within the best of possible worlds. And it is only for an elect few.

Most of us will fall in the first two categories. It may be because of lack of interest and foresight. We tend to want things on the spur of the moment, and whenever we manage to hold out, we need to assure and ensure ourselves that it is worth the wait and effort. We lack foresight and persistence, often even faith, on this endless track to eternal bliss.

Ideally, I think that we need to pass through all the stages. We need to experience sensual pleasure to be able to appreciate the joys of having a family. We need to have a child in order to see and feel the presence of God, more so than in any sermon or church. We need to see the futility of our existence and the ephemeral quality of all our pleasures, even of our whole life, to reach the ultimate stage. And then, and only then, will we fully appreciate the bliss that life has prepared us for and brought us over the span of a lifetime.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Music as the Driving Force of the Protestant Religion

An old-fashioned and original Wurlitzer Organ

When we think of the birth of the protestant movement, we often refer to Martin Luther's famous Ninety-Five Theses which may or may not have been posted on the church door but which openly denounced the misuse and corruption within Catholic practice. His later vernacular translation of the Bible making it accessible for personal perusal and inquiry to anyone who had literacy and the financial means was another deciding moment in the eventual split from Catholic tradition.

Yet many are not fully aware of the role music played in this revolution. In fact, Martin Luther fervently believed that music was one of God's most precious gifts to humanity. He also composed various hymns and firmly believed that music ought to be a standard practice during sermons. Through music all the church members could unite to glorify God.

Luther was, in fact, obsessed with using music. He openly and adamantly complained about certain members that were refusing to sing or were not improving their skills; they should not be allowed to be part of the Christian body of Christ. In his view, every pastor should make use of spreading the gospels through songs. Again, it is significant that the lyrics contain religious messages, that they be based on the Holy Scripture, point toward or illustrate important aspects therein.

Today we know of the educational value of music. It helps you memorize parts through rhyme. It can be catchy so we hum it during the day, especially when involved in idle tasks. It also gives us an emotional connection to the subject at hand. Finally, it is a fun and popular activity for everyone.

It is a fact about human nature that one has more positive affect toward that which interests us and that we consider fun. Sermons then should not be dead-serious, some might even dare say dull and boring, but they should ideally have an impact on the congregation. The pastor needs to get through to the people in order to get his message across successfully. And what better medium to choose for gathering people together since in song all voices harmonize and lyrics can be memorized sometimes for a lifetime. To learn something by heart brings it so much closer to the heart indeed!

As such, Luther had his own reasons for choosing music as part of his “show” or service. Of course, the Catholic Church was no stranger to music. But instead of having monks sing in a foreign dead language, such as Latin, why not have the members sing themselves, each on their own in a language they speak in their daily lives. It just made such a stronger impact on them.

In a world before Rock 'n' Roll and Top Forty dance music, others may have been drawn to the protestant service simply out of curiosity or maybe just for entertainment. This situation gave the pastor a chance to spread the message and to catch more soulfish. No wonder then that the protestant religion spread like wildfire over the past centuries and became quite popular among the people.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Observations on Hockey and the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Poster of the Stanley Cup in NHL hockey

As a Canadian, I love my hockey and support my local team passionately. And the Stanley Cup playoffs are a time of excitement; it is the accumulation and climax of the entire season. This is what it all boils down to every year; it is “do or die” - well metaphorically speaking - for the competing teams that are on the mythic quest for Lord Stanley's Cup. And that particular Grail-like object is a fountain of pride and source of celebration not only for the team, but for the whole city, and from our Canadian view, even a rallying point for the whole nation.

But getting there is a grueling and sometimes even gruesome process. Players need stamina and willpower. It is not only about skills at this stage, but mostly about mindset in terms of discipline and work ethic. You must want it more than anything else. And that is what makes the playoffs so exciting, at least as long as you have a team to cheer for.

Hockey is not only about the teams and players; it is mostly about us, the spectators and die-hard fans who are glued anxiously to the screens (we can't afford the live games). We high-five each other and jump up and down when our team has performed well; we dissect, analyze and philosophize the game as if it were a political speech or a literary essay, and - we feel down in the dumps when our team has lost.

At this stage, there is equality to a degree rarely seen in everyday life. We all gather around to celebrate and share the passion regardless of education, profession, or social status. The bars are filled with all sorts of people, such as bums, intellectuals, and intellectual bums. It is a time when we are most united around a common cause, namely to celebrate or feel the pain together.

Strangely, it is often an emotionally draining process. Although I have not played myself, just worrying about the playoffs game after game, getting in there to egg on my team, I feel that I have also become part of the process, the ups and downs toward the rocky path of victory. Indeed, I have also worked hard and shared the load and deserve to bask in the light of glory.

It is very interesting how sports affect our psychology and to a large extent our confidence. When our team does well, we feel more positive and are more certain about ourselves; the opposite occurs when it comes to defeat. Hardcore fans might even dip into a brief state of depression when things are going horribly wrong.

Sometimes you can even use hockey terminology to explain your performance in life. For example, you can bounce back after a mediocre “play” at work. You can give it your all to achieve certain goals (no pun intended!) and not be discouraged or swayed by setbacks.

In the end, one can say hockey, especially during crucial times like the playoffs, becomes a metaphor. It is also an attitude, albeit a scrappy one that proudly faces challenges and shakes off negative experiences like flies; you put away a bad day, shake it off and fully focus on the new tasks at hand. You follow the sports formula: Step up and play better the next time around.

And yes, after all, it builds not only character but also community; hockey news becomes the next-day topic at work, on the bus, in the elevator. For a brief time, the community is united around a common purpose, to support their local team and to take the goals alongside with the hits, the good with the bad.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Expressions of Individuality

Green Circled Pedestrian Walk

In one of my darker and more discouraging moments the following bleak thought crossed my mind: “Being yourself may be the most elaborate fabricated lie in the history of humanity.”

Individuality has been a modern Western concept contrasting itself self-consciously from what is known as a collective society. The ancient Greeks may have given us the founding blocks, but they still had a more integrated view of the self since it was embedded in the fabric of family and ancestry. William Shakespeare was one of the strongest proponents of individuality by creating characters of flesh and blood with their own unique and life-like characteristics.

Although the idea of individuality spread like wildfire in Europe, it was mostly in the New World that it became a defining trait of society. The American dream was based on individuality, including the myth of the self-made millionaire or the “rags to riches” fairytale. The focus had been on the self, while the goal was to develop your talents in order to be the best you can be in your field. Even the American political system seems to have championed the notion of liberty supporting and encouraging all its necessary characteristics and byproducts, such as free speech, free press, in short, the freedom to voice your personal opinion.

You may have the freedom to be yourself, but how do you know for sure that you are being yourself and not somebody you are told to be? Can you be in fact anybody other than yourself? It would seem that in order to be yourself it is necessary to accentuate what it is that sets you apart from others and hence to differentiate yourself from who or what you are not.

If that were so, then we should see an utterly diverse society, not only ethnically of course, but in terms of different points of view. Yet in reality this is not what society looks like; it is not a cacophony of voices. In fact, our society is surprisingly homogeneous for a world full of free individual beings. For example, in the US, there are only two political parties, in Canada three. Can they really reflect the many conflicting views of each unique being? Why are people easily categorized and compartmentalized considering that each has an individual voice?

One problem may be exactly what I have stated previously, namely that it is all a blatant lie. And when we look at it, just believing that you are free does not necessarily make you free. Is a prisoner who feels free really a free person?

For every society and culture to function and to survive, you need to accept or embrace its basic premises. This is achieved by internalizing these concepts through what sociology calls “en-culteration.” From childhood to adolescence, we are drilled and grilled on how to behave and lectured on what is (morally) acceptable and what is not. There are various sources at work, which means that there is very little room for escape.

We are faced with these ideas at home through our parents, at school and university with our teachers and to an extent even our peers, and finally in our free time through the media, which includes popular music and commercial movies. My question is this: With all this bombardment and overload of information, how can you even remotely be able to find and become yourself?

In fact, some people have suffered and continue to do so. They have been labeled pejoratively as “different,” “weird,” “bizarre,” and have been and are being ostracized. This happened simply because they were “themselves.” It has ranged from issues of sexual orientation to different ways of thinking and alternative lifestyles. A homogeneous and functioning society needs to separate itself from such people as they deem them as dangerous parasites detrimental to the health of the social body.

Hence, in order to be accepted or rather to “fit in,” you need to sacrifice certain parts of yourself. You need to adjust. Or else, you will not be able to find a mate. Your family will turn their back on you. Your teachers will fail you and nobody will want to hire you. You will die penniless and all alone in the filthy street gutters.

So what does it mean to be yourself? It would mean perhaps staying true to your personality, living the life you love, expressing yourself freely. But can you do that without experiencing opposition or even offending people? Because one way or another certain people will always be offended.

There seems to be enough factual evidence against expressions of individuality. But I do not think so, at least not in its ideological sense. I think for any person to be themselves, it is necessary to have critical thinking skills. Being yourself is not just about always doing the opposite of what others are doing.

Being yourself may mean trying to find a system among all the conflicting chaos within ourselves. It means conscious or rational selection. So a person with the urge of killing others, a “natural-born killer” so-to-speak, is not himself because he is acting out his emotions. Being yourself often involves discipline. For example, you really want to pay attention or focus on something but your mind keeps wandering. There seem to be two different selves at war with each other. Which one do you choose?

Though there is nothing inherently wrong with distractions (but a lot wrong with killing fellow beings!), you probably would like to pay attention in that given moment. The same applies when it comes to either acting out aggressive impulses or maintaining calm. These are all in fact transitory purely emotional states and not so much character traits.

You may then be yourself by staying true to your core values, your essence. I think deep down all of us share the same goals. We want to be loved and we want to be happy. There may be differences in the methods and the forms of expressions we use; we may even have different definitions of what love and happiness is for us personally. But it is basically what each one of us is aiming for in this short life.

And as the ancient Greeks would say, our quest for the common good is the main aim in life, be it from a spiritual or humanitarian angle. It is merely that each of us will take our own unique paths as singular as the lines on the palms of our hands or the tip of our fingers in order to get there.