Friday, July 22, 2011

Different Selves and the Phantom of Personal Unity

Poster where a tough yet worried man is protecting a woman
Is this really John Doe?
One of the most difficult questions anybody could face is the following: Who are you? Most people will come up with the superficial, uninspired or lazy answer that they are so-and-so

Imagine your name is actually John Doe. There goes any hope for individuality. But if John Doe answers that he is John Doe, what if one day he decides to legally change his name to Jack Smith? Would he be a completely different person simply because he switched names?

Names feel comforting, and they do give us a sense of continuous identity. People call us by our names, and we tend to refer to ourselves in the same manner. Sometimes nicknames are prompted but they are only a slight addition to the repertoire of names. We cling to our names because they give us stability and even John Doe will get a sense of comfort and will attach a certain relevance and gravitas to his name.

But the other problem is that names are given, not chosen or selected. We are born into a certain family whose surname we will carry down the line and our parents choose a given name for us. By the time we are old enough to think and decide for ourselves, this name has been ingrained deeply within our consciousness so that we take it for granted; we consider it one with the personal identity we have developed over the years.

So who are we then? Some will say that the essence of the person is their personal soul. Often this essence will have the same name as the name-bearer. It is that which is immortal and will continue in the next life. It is that which will appear after John Doe has traveled on and left the plane of this existence and when he is called upon to reveal himself on the Ouija board. However, what a soul is and how it is manifested is too difficult and complex a question to address here and certainly deserves its own post.

Others define themselves by what they do for a living. It is interesting that we ask what people do for a living, yet when they answer they respond what they are, for example, a doctor, a teacher or a writer. Jobs often mark and shape our personality since most of us spend the majority of our lifetime working in a specific field. This steady exposure obviously must have an effect on our personality.

In fact, there are certain characteristics, sometimes stereotypes that are associated with a given profession. A teacher might correct your grammatical errors even during her off hours, while a psychologist will analyze his friends and family members on the weekends. When we think of politicians, we think of misinformation and manipulation and do not expect them to keep their word or promises even in their private lives.

Related to jobs are also income and social status. In a culture of prosperity, money has a tremendous effect on personality and self-esteem. It builds upon the Puritan spirit which (erroneously) equates wealth in the material world with being favored or even chosen by the divine. So not only are people divided economically and socially into haves and have-nots, they come to see and define themselves accordingly. You are what you have; your possessions come to define who you are.

Yet even if you add up all the different aspects and all the social roles, such as father, son, brother, job, we are still far away from defining who the person really is. We get only close approximations.

The problem is a lack of consistency. Even though people are generally predictable, there is always the occasional curve-ball to throw us off. A responsible person may get caught doing irresponsible acts. A shy person might suddenly throw all caution in the air and surprise us with shocking naughtiness.

One and the same person will also undergo changes, either minor through mood or major because of life experiences or even in some cases diseases. People might undergo transformation in a spiritual manner and find or lose God in the process. These fluctuations influence also the way a person is, their core being, the continuous fluid interaction between nature and nurture, where certain genes are primed while others are neglected.

Moreover, there are the issues of culture, religion, upbringing and nationality. To a large extent, we do not have much of a say in these matters for various years. Some people, however, manage to see beyond most of the limitations that these factors may impose on the individual. Yet it is like our childhood, very formative of and highly influential on the later self that we come to adopt over the years.

People are changing all the time. As we are growing up, we often grow into another person. There are many facets to each being. Those who accept and understand life as a continuous process will find it easier to adapt to the ebb and flows of their own being. But those who seek or try to hold onto the phantom of unity will often feel pressure and stress because life and existence are like birds; they are averse to being caught and locked up in a cage, no matter how beautiful or well-constructed the cage may be.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Quaker Way: Silence, Peace and Democracy

Portrait of Quaker William Penn
William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania
Some of the most known distinguishing characteristics of Quakers may be their clothes, especially the wide-brimmed hats, and the supposed trembling or quaking before the power of God. Others may know them for their contribution to breakfast cereals and chocolate (Cadbury is a Quaker trademark). Still others may confuse them with some of the other more traditional Christian denominations that have consciously turned their back to society or that breed within their own confines.

As with most Christian groups, the Quakers or Friends have also had their share of disagreements over the years and there are distinct parts and parties to Quakerdom. Although they mostly share the main Quaker tenets, there are still vital differences among them. I will discuss here what seems to me the most original aspects of the Quaker belief and lifestyle of its most liberal and, in my view, most influential branch.

Quakers generally believe that everybody has a bit of God within them, a Light that shines in and through each individual, regardless of creed, sex or race. As a result, their religion has been steeped in deep promises of democracy and is filled with humanitarian concerns. 

The Quakers, for example, were the first to treat native Indians with kindness and not as barbarians or uncivilized heathens; they accepted and embraced the colored population and fought against slavery; they believed that women ought to have the same rights as men, while in modern times, most liberal-minded Quakers would support equal rights and treatment of people of different sexual orientations.

It is amazing that there is a Christian religious group that would advocate those beliefs consistently and vehemently, and to my knowledge, they are one of the few, maybe Unitarians excepted, that have constantly stood up both in words and deeds for equality and human rights.

Part of this reason may lie in the fact that they do not preach and that their own congregations are often marked by bouts of reflection and silence. Friends go to worship and sit in silence. Suddenly when one is moved to say something, that person stands up and shares his or her feelings and thoughts with the others.

Yet mostly their attention is focused inward, and they do not merely listen to the preachings of one person or pastor. There is the opportunity for all to speak and reflect in equal measure. They believe that in such moments the Holy Spirit visits and delves among them and often makes them utter some deep contemplations about life, thus unifying them in strength, purpose and belief.

I think it is through silence and private meditation that one can really be and exist in God. If you are compelled to listen to constant talking, you do not have time nor are you given the opportunity to absorb and internalize those ideas. And through such practices Quakers tend to feel more connected not only to their own members but in fact to all members of the human race.

Some of the other influences of Quakers has been their refusal to make oaths and to carry arms. They do not make oaths as it creates a double standard. You are supposed to say the truth in everyday life so why would your word not suffice? Why was it necessary to make another oath in order to ensure you are telling the truth? The word of an honest person shall suffice and the dishonest will lie anyway, whether they are under oath or not.

That belief or practice has gotten them into a lot of trouble, especially in court proceedings as well as political office. In addition, since they see everyone as equal, they would not remove their hats for others nor get up or rise for judges. According to the Quakers, these actions serve as outward appearances underscoring the difference and furthering inequality among people.

Their refusal to carry arms lies in their deep-seated belief that war is violence and always wrong. Any violence begets more violence even if it is done for the sake of later good. As such, Quakers generally avoid the draft because of conscientious reasons. During the Civil War, for example, many Quakers focused on helping slaves to escape to the North and supported them in many different ways, such as schooling and humanitarian aid.

Their conviction of nonviolence has had an impact on many important leaders. They are said to have influenced the thinking of Leo Tolstoy, who in return influenced Gandhi, who later had an impact on the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. Hence, Quaker thought may have shaped many of our ideas of nonviolence and resistance to war and violence. The fact that Quakers have avoided the war was not based on cowardice since in their tumultuous history they had to endure severe prosecution and in many cases deaths and executions for their strongly held, revolutionary beliefs.

In fact, I cannot but admire people and organizations who stand up for what is right regardless of public opinion. The Quakers had a hand in what is known as the Kindertransport, where the British government agreed to take in and sponsor over 10,000 Jewish children to escape prosecution from the Nazis. Quakers have consistently taken care of those who have become victims of war and often helped the supposed enemy during the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

When it comes to humanity and suffering, there are indeed no differences nor boundaries. And I am grateful that there are groups, both religious and secular that can see beyond the limits of their own zeitgeist and beliefs and reach out to embrace all of God's children.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Orthodox Dogma and the Problem of Heresy

Painting of Jan Hus being burned at the stake for heresy
Jan Hus at the Stake
What is heresy? In many traditions, it is that which contradicts or denies a certain religious dogma. For example, if you claim that there is no God in a society where the belief in God plays an important role in its social and political structure, then you will possibly face certain consequences for your aberrant belief. 

The important point to stress here is that there are two conflicting views, one considered orthodox, the other heretical or perhaps revolutionary. In a world where the orthodox belief is that there is a God, you may suffer consequences for not believing in Him.

In either case, it is a self-protecting mechanism. Dogma is generally not bulletproof as it is mainly based on faith, and it will sometimes not be able to sustain pressure or criticism. Dogma or rather orthodoxy is telling us what and how things are; they represent so-to-speak the rules of the game. You cannot make up your own rules as you go along but must embrace a given or established frame. Therefore, if the religion is monotheistic, you cannot believe in other gods as you would be “breaking” the rules.

There are some rules or rather infractions of them that may be considered minor. Is there not some leeway to adjust rules and to adapt them to changing circumstances? Yes and no. 

In the Western tradition, most of us have mainly distanced ourselves from reading the Bible literally. In some cases, we even find contradictions. Should we be vengeful and follow the “eye for an eye” approach of the Old Testament or should we adhere to the meek and forgiving attitude of Jesus by turning the other cheek?

By and large, the Ten Commandments hold up even under modern scrutiny, but we do prioritize them. Is it the same to lie and to kill? Evidently there are varying degrees of actions that are followed by different consequences. 

We do not imprison people for lying unless it happens in a legal setting, under oath, for instance. We do imprison people for killing unless it is under mitigating circumstances, such as a soldier in times of war or some cases of self-defense. Hence, religious authorities, albeit reluctantly, have been forced to adapt to new conditions.

But looking at the Catholic Church, there has been little movement or adjustment in this conservative institution. For example, it was only recently that the Church accepted it had erred concerning Galileo. Why is religious authority so slow to react?

The problem with set dogma is that even slight adjustments and concessions may put it slightly off balance. It goes hand in hand with the assumption that the dogma is true and that any diverging information is ipso facto false.

So what is a heretic? It is those who make claims and statements contrary to dogma. There have been disagreements over the Eucharist, for example, whether it is a symbolic act or whether the bread and wine are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This issue alone has created splits and rifts within both Catholic and Protestant traditions.

When faced with concessions, orthodox leaders take a hard-line stance and will not negotiate. In other words, if you do not follow the rules, you are proclaimed a heretic. The consequences have varied over time. Today we may face excommunication, but in the past, death by burning was at stake for many so-called heretics.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Deliver us from Evil Priests: On Cases of Child Abuse in the Catholic Church

Poster of documentary "Deliver us from Evil" on pedophilia in the Catholic church
Deliver us From Evil
When the documentary Deliver us from Evil came out, I shunned it at first for two reasons. I knew that it would affect me emotionally, so I was reluctant to go through it. Child abuse is a touchy subject and especially in a documentary you cannot pretend it did not happen or that it is a work of fiction. My second reason was that I did not want the documentary to stain the image and respect I have for the institution of the Catholic Church. Despite its various shortcomings, I could not help feeling admiration for its traditions that have managed to exist and last for about two thousand years.

Needless to say, I was in a state of shock and torpor after watching the documentary. No, I do not believe it is merely a “witch hunt” or propaganda against the Church, since those were real children affected by the horrific actions of various priests. I was mainly appalled by the statements of Father O'Grady. He took everything so lightly and did not seem to realize the gravity of his actions and its devastating effects on the lives of the children and their family who had put their whole trust in this man. How can a man of religion breach the trust of sincere believers and commit acts so shameful in the eyes of God, especially since they involve the most pure and innocent of His creatures, children?

Evidently, such people are not only disturbed but mentally ill. The documentary gave a glimpse of possible reasons for such deeds. The priest himself had dealt with sexual abuse in his family. He was delusional and dissociated himself from certain events. He believed that he was showing children affection, perhaps even doing them a favor, through his sexual acts. He lacked any real sense of their feelings and devastation.

But what infuriated me much more was not only the actions of this priest. It was the cover-up of the church authorities that made me most angry. The first reaction was denial and that it was all mere fabrication or exaggeration on the part of the children. Then once there was irrefutable evidence, all the authorities did was to send this troubled priest not to counseling but to different parishes. He was moved several times as a result and hence continued committing horrendous acts with the full knowledge and support of the authorities.

This became especially clear in the statements and depositions. The church authorities in charge all either refused to comment through objections raised by their hired lawyers or they feigned dementia. They simply did not remember what had exactly occurred. The most startling statement was that they did not connect the dots between two incidents of child molestation by Father O' Grady because one involved a girl and another a boy and that usually priests abuse only one or the other gender!

Now if the Church would have acted with urgency and authority and taken this issue seriously, they would have managed to redeem themselves in my eyes. But instead they offered immunity to their own who have committed serious legal crimes. Father O'Grady could not escape fully since his crimes brought him seven years behind bars, but he was told that the authorities were still behind him, and he is to my knowledge receiving generous pensions living freely in Ireland.

One of the most shocking pieces of information was that the issue of child abuse, something so prevalent and so damaging to the reputation of the church (it is estimated that about 10 % of new members or graduates commit sexual acts on children) was not even raised during the conferences of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the person involved for overseeing such claims was no other than the current Pope Ratzinger. When faced with the possibility of legal action in the States, George W. Bush officially pardoned him, so there have been absolutely no legal proceedings against someone who is fully aware of the wrongdoings of his flock.

It is a very sad and unfortunate state of affairs. A lot of the problems may stem from the tradition of not allowing sexual activity for priests. They are human beings after all with sexual desire and often they enter priesthood at a young age. Thus, they misplace their sexual desires on those who are most unsuspecting and most innocent, the children in their grasp.

I am not a Catholic, but even if I were, I would never hand over the care of my son to church authorities. In fact, I would not want them anywhere close to my child. It may be an exaggeration or even prejudice, but it is one supported by evidence and by the fact that these crimes are taken silently and go by unpunished to this day.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Living Passion and Art as a Substitute for Life

A photo of smoking and introspective American poet Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski is hailed by some as a Bohemian poet, while others consider him merely a bum. For better or for worse, he is like a Nietzschean prophet who defies the laws of gravity and groundedness and who like many other talented artists decided to take a leap and live out his passions. Yes, he may have been driven on by his personal demons, and yes he may have been self-destructive, wreaking havoc on his body and soul, yet at the same time, he was passionate about living.

Sometimes I feel that my passion for life is like second-hand smoke. I dare not lead a life of ecstasy the way Bukowski and many other artists did. For these people it is not about creating art, but actually living it to its ultimate consequences. Life becomes a work and expression of art. He was in the shadow of society, but he did not care what others thought. What mattered most was his own personal lifestyle, and very few people have the guts to live out such a gut-wrenching life of ups and downs.

To such people, joy and ecstasy are the most important motivators. Money to them is worthless in itself and is valued only to the degree that it can bring them pleasure in drink, drugs and sex. Nothing holds them back, that is why I see them as a Nietzschean prototype who verges on the border of madness but wears his heart and mind on his sleeves for all to see and touch.

Although most of us would shrug off this kind of life or might even criticize these people for being irresponsible, selfish and childish, the truth is that we have a certain secret admiration for them. Some part of us would like to live like there is no tomorrow and wake up with heads filled with memories of yesterday's scandalous, obscene and outrageous deeds.

Such a life would be devoid of sentimentality or companionship. It is not about building bridges or foundations. No family, no permanent jobs, no tangible accomplishments. Just fleeting floating life. No romance, but purely physical connections. Love as its basest form, lust, not as a void, but as a spiritual abyss.

A passion that reverberates in every fibre of your body and remains there until your final day. And when that day comes, you can look back and say, yes, I have lived a full life; I have lived out all my fantasies and although I leave behind no lasting legacy, I also, like the untamed lion-hearted Caesar, can claim for myself “veni, vidi, vici.”

But me, I have contented myself with life's mirror, Mistress Art with all her beautiful playful handmaids. Books fill me with the joy I dare not experience. Movies take me to places I would not willingly go. I watch yet in the comfort of my home, with the support of my immediate family close to me. I experience life by observing the daily accomplishments of my son.

The joy I feel is nonetheless real and lasting. I have to work for a living; I need to ensure safety and security; I am tied to the ebb and flow of money, but I grow content by taking pleasure in small things. And whenever I feel stagnant and stuck, it is art that comes to the rescue that fills my soul with images of a life lived to its ultimate consequences, the limitless passion that devours the whole being in a blazing fire.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Psychological Cartoon Complexes: Is Toopy and Binoo Good for my Child?

Cartoon characters Toopy and Binoo having fun with bubbles underwater

The first time I stumbled upon Dominique Jolin's Toopy and Binoo Show, I felt a little perplexed. The cartoon stars a speaking, or rather overly talkative, always enthusiastic rat in a striped shirt with a silent white cat as his friend and sidekick. Both of them get into the most bizarre adventures, most of which end up being figments of their imagination. Due to the show's popularity with my highly picky toddler son, who happens to adore it to bits, I could not resist the urge to watch and analyze this original cartoon.

From a clinical perspective, Toopy is a highly complex, if not troubled individual (i.e. rat?). His neuroses are a fresh breeze in otherwise stale and one-dimensional cartoon characters, such as classical figures like Mickey or Goofy. This one is, in fact, an unapologetic, in-your-face narcissist. He never stops short of telling you how wonderful or rather “fabulous” he is. He becomes the central hero of all of his adventures, whether he is Tarzan (yes, his Tarzan howl is quite entertaining or annoying) or a princess in a pink dress (yes, you read right).

Toopy manages to transcend gender stereotypes with ease and natural poise. What might be offensive or even unthinkable in other situations or cartoons, for example, Toopy turning into a fairy, wanting to be a mother, or obsessing over his favorite color pink is merely an expression of this rat's shiny personality. Sure, many so-called concerned parents are immediately puzzled by Toopy's sexuality, but in the end, I doubt that this show will be the decisive factor for determining a child's later sexual orientation.

What is rather more disturbing is his proclivity for schizophrenia. He is, in fact, the rat's version of Don Quixote. Everyday objects are suddenly filled with magic and lift him to another world, a world of fantasy and speculation. Anytime he climbs up a slide, he ends up on the snow-covered top of a mountain with a mountain goat sipping tea. Ants suddenly become the size of dinosaurs, while toys, suddenly and without prompting, turn into life-size creatures and monsters.

Not that any of this should trouble an overconfident, almost reckless Toopy. He never stops bragging about his fabulous qualities and is almost too optimistic for my taste. His imagination is so fertile that I believe hanging out with Toopy shall offer not a single moment of boredom, something the silent Binoo must enjoy in his own way.

Binoo accepts his friend the way he is, with all his idiosyncrasies and warts and all; although Binoo doesn't speak, there is quite a lot of characterization. Binoo loves reading and he wears his glasses whenever he does. His favorite toy is Patchy-Patch. Binoo goes wherever Toopy goes; he is always up for adventures.

Sometimes he takes the ramblings of Toopy too much to heart. For example, when Toopy reads about the sneezing monster one evening, Binoo actually sees it appear on the bedside. Toopy's mental exuberance would indeed shake up even the most steady of characters, and he talks more than enough for two, which is probably why Binoo had to become a silent character in the first place.

So who in their right mind would recommend this cartoon to vulnerable toddlers? I think there is something truly magical about this show. Apart from the optimistic outlook, something that we should encourage in children as long as possible because soon enough they will be confronted with the harsh realities of life, there is also a universe of creativity and imagination lurking inside a child's mind just waiting, like a genie, to be unleashed and released.

At the same time, compared with many of the other shows out there, like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or mindless cartoons like Spiderman, He-Man ad infinitum, which are mainly an insult to any child's intelligence, I appreciate that there is the energetic pink-princess-loving Toopy to entertain both of us, father and son.