Sunday, March 31, 2013

Trapped and Caught in the Loops of Time

Double Townclock shrouded in fog

The other day I was on the bus with my wife and son when a senior citizen started chatting with us. He made some half-witty remarks regarding fishburgers and added offhandedly that a good son ought to always listen to his mother. Then my son in his curious innocence or unblemished honesty asked the elderly man if he had a Mommy too.

The man sighed and said that his mother was looking down from heaven as we spoke. Thank God, the matter was settled there and then, and my son did not ask any more probing questions on the uncomfortable topic of death and the matter of the possibility (or non-possibility) of an afterlife.

Three different generations were interacting and clashing at that moment. We had a four-year-old child, a middle-aged couple (my wife and I) and an unknown elderly man (presumably in his late seventies). In fact, our combination comprised the quintessential arc of life. We come into the world tabula rasa (clean-slated), flourish (to use a Greek term for the highest stage of personal accomplishment) and become old and die.

In my mind, I fast-forwarded this scene about say forty years into the future. And I saw myself as the elderly man facing equally challenging questions by another four-year-old. Essentially such was not only the cycle of life, but it was inevitable. Time, like a gravitational force, exerts and wields its power and influence on us, and just like gravity, it acts upon us at all times (no pun intended); it is hardly perceptible, almost invisible pushing us hither and thither in different directions.

We are eventually subdued by its force; whether we fully accept the fact of our mortality or try to resist it with all our might and force within our innermost beings, we will end up losing this battle against immovable and stern Father Cronus.

The work of Father Time will become perhaps most visible on our faces. They will undergo changes, when wrinkles appear and date us the same time tree trunk circles inform us of the age of a tree. Our hair and teeth will fall out, and our quest will have only one exit or destination: death. We cannot cheat our way out of it; the use of make-up, wigs and false teeth cannot save us from this inescapable endpoint.

Our very existence from Day (or, more precisely, Moment) One is measured by time and space, in other words, spacetime, which is as tight and closely associated and inseparable as the two sides of a coin, or the pervading elements of yin and yang.

The same way we cannot escape space, there is no dodging time. We are caught in the webs of time; while in space we can at least move around a little, by foot or in cars and planes, time can be only counted and measured but not traveled in. There might be at best minor adjustments, such as the artificial daylight saving time or the physical trip across different time zones with its subsequent lagging and time-adjusting jet lags. But that is about all we can do with time.

Sure, one might say, we are all mortals, and that includes the syllogistic and real version of Socrates; our days are numbered, counted and accounted for and sooner or later we will reach the end of our existence. That is a truism and anyone who believes otherwise may be merely a wishful thinking escapist fool.

But what I find interesting here is that time has us firmly rooted to the ground. This is not just about its endpoint death, but the fixed grasp that time has on us, and all we can do is circle around its gravitational wheel like a cog in a machine, like the planets revolving around the sun.

This loop keeps ticking at all times, and it starts off as a loose noose around our neck, imperceptibly but steadily tightening with each tick. The moment is gone quicker than we think, faster than we can shout Amen or any other word for that matter. 

It seems I was a lonely teen just yesterday, a proud father today and an old toothless man tomorrow. If this seems a little bleak and depressing, one could take my son's “game” analogy that we are rather moving through the different levels and stages of a lifetime.

I like Julian Barbour's idea of Platonia, the illusion of time, the claim that science cannot prove or pin down the existence of time, that there is no definite or connecting flow or link between individual moments. I see also very little connection between the teen and the adult, and my past does seem like a distant and vague dream.

However, time (or whatever it is) is writing its message across my body, is pushing (bullying?) me forward, is not letting me go until ...
my time has come.

If there is an afterlife (which I think possible), then there might be another eternal load of time dumped upon us. In the meantime (!) and because we do not have an endless supply of time and world, we can follow Andrew Marvell's marvelous advice to his “Coy Mistress”: Since we cannot make time stop or stand still, we better make it run or pass more quickly. At best, we can only enjoy the time we are given, make the best and most of it all; at worst, we can delude ourselves that the lassos of time will spare us and that we can get away from its stronghold.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Framed Spontaneity: Teaching Resources from the Philosophy Shop

There are different approaches to classroom teaching, ranging from lecturing, which is highly structured, and controlled and directed by the instructor to other styles that are more open-ended and student-centered, hence putting more emphasis on the role and participation of the student body. My own approach is somewhere in the middle.

I think too much structure tends to make a class (or even a work of art, J. S. Bach excepted) rather dull by stifling creativity and spontaneity. Spontaneity is a necessary ingredient for teaching (or pretty much anything) as it allows to take a slight detour from a given lesson plan and to incorporate and address the particular needs of a situation or of the students themselves. Many a time I had to adjust my plan because students either lacked the background or were already proficient (though the latter happens less frequently than the former).

Spontaneity allows for dealing with such situations and not feeling stressed or overwhelmed by those adjustments. In all of this, it may also help to add a healthy dose of humor suited to the context since it will more likely engage or draw in students to the given material. However, spontaneity merely on its own will lack direction and if you stray too much from the plan, you might end up getting lost.

So the best approach in my view would be what I call “framed spontaneity.” This involves a necessary and at least rudimentary structure of what ought to be covered in a class (content and learning objectives), while at the same time leaving enough space and time to readjust it as one goes along (to further sharpen the students' skills). Such a style suits best those who already have some experience in teaching and who are confident enough to handle situations that do not have nor elicit clear-cut responses, i.e. arts and humanities mainly.

In addition, such a style is also student-centered, at least to a certain degree. An example would be discussions, which are at times gently guided by the instructor, but are for a large part open to individual responses, thoughts, questions or concerns of the students. At this point, the discussions like any other in our ordinary lives, can go in different directions and as long as it does not stray too far from the given topic, it can be helpful and enlightening for all involved.

I have recently come upon a great book full of resources that are convenient for such a teaching style. It is a host of philosophical scenarios compiled in the book The Philosophy Shop with entries mainly provided by members of The Philosophy Foundation. The scenarios are selected and organized around and according to different fields and topics within philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, language and meaning to name some of the major categories), and they are often presented as questions, puzzles or riddles that can lead to wider discussions.

To give a tangible example, let us look at “Immy's Box” by Peter Worley (who is also the book's editor). The starting premise is that Immy has a box that he wants to empty. So he takes out all his “bits and bobs” (whatever that may mean) and this can be demonstrated with props for special effect.

Question 1 is then whether the box is empty. Yes? But can there be anything else in it? Is empty the same as nothing? Can the box be full of nothing? And my favorite proposed question: Is the inside of the box inside the box?

This situation and the following questions are there to get those creative juices flowing. I love how a reasonably simple and mundane example can take increasingly complex and philosophically deep proportions. For example, even if Immy manages to remove finger prints, germs or atoms, can the box ever be “finally completely and utterly empty”?

In other words, is there something that can never be removed? We could talk about a vacuum as “space entirely devoid of matter,” but can we also remove space itself? And if we removed space, can we also take away time? Does the box exist in time?

All of this can lead to discussions or at least the introduction of Kant's a priori perception of space and time as well as Einstein's spacetime curvature. In other words, the discussion can go in a wide array of directions and can lead to the sharpening of critical thinking skills and increase the students' understanding of important philosophical questions and concepts.

To return to my previous point of framed spontaneity, one can see that these exercises are a little like a game of chess; two chess games or discussions will never be the same or exactly alike as they would be depending on the moves and input of one's students. Either way, it engages students and can end up enriching their knowledge, while hopefully also teaching the teacher a few things along the way.

Especially in philosophy, the need to maintain absolute control or to direct the discussions to reach predefined answers ought to be generally avoided by the instructor. In fact, as in most cases of philosophy, it is less about the answers one gets but the method one uses for getting there. It is a practice of skills, such as critical thinking and asking relevant questions and responding to them logically and rationally. It is an ongoing debate because it incites and invites discussions on topics that make you think and wonder about life's mysteries.

This is one of many examples that are food for philosophical thought. It is its universal aspect and application that can engage the young and old alike in a playful manner; in fact, this resourceful book furnishes the necessary ingredients and concoctions to come up with a delicious meal for mind and soul. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Joe Wright's Anna Karenina: The Train Wreck of Literary Adaptations

Various characters from Anna Karenina dancing

Previously, I defended the experimental methods used by director Joe Wright in the film The Soloist (2009), which I believe work well to show the confusing, perturbed and overwhelming state of someone suffering from schizophrenia. Elements of sound and visuals combined to illustrate the mental stress of the movie's protagonist, which I found overall more convincing that its sanitized Hollywood version in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001).

I decided to write about The Soloist because I believe that it was both misunderstood and underrated by public and critics alike. However, when it comes to Joe Wright's most recent film Anna Karenina (2012) I do not only agree with public and critical displeasure with the film, I also consider it one of the worst movies of the year. Sorry, Joe, I know that experiments sometimes fail, but I will try to show why it does so in Anna Karenina, while at the same time trying to fathom how and why (!) such a talented director can butcher, make mincemeat of one of the best novels ever written.

To begin with, I must confess that Anna Karenina is one of my all-time favorite novels and that I have been generally displeased with the more recent cinematic adaptations I have seen so far. Sophie Marceau was visibly miscast in a dull affair (pun alert) of a film and the fact that Joe Wright was attached to this endeavor of bringing Anna back to the big screen made my heart flutter and beat faster with pleasure, excitement, and anticipation.

And, God, how disappointed was I afterwards! Tolstoy must have repeatedly turned in his grave, while I would have gladly pelted the director (and the entire cast minus Jude Law) with tomatoes. In fact, I think Joe Wright must be given a life-long restraining order on works of classical world literature.

One of the failings is the audaciously pretentious and preposterous, not to mention conceited idea of experimenting with such a beloved novel in such a disrespectful way. The movie starts as a parody and / or musical and I had to double-check if there had not been a practical joke played on me by deliberately switching movies.

At first, it reminded me of Burton's (also disastrous) barber Sweeney Todd (2007). The first minutes of Anna Karenina are completely incomprehensible in tone and action despite me having read the entire novel. It definitely did not help to have Kevin Kline in the movie because it all seemed like an admittedly bad SNL sketch.

Due to my general optimism and also confidence in the director I continued watching this self-parody and kept my fingers crossed and as far as possible from the remote control. I was also led on (in both senses of the word) by the beautiful visuals and the musical score. The costumes were breathtaking, while acting and dialogue were not.

It is not that I am averse to new concepts, namely to have the actors move through a theatrical stage by opening doors into new sets and decors (on its own it was a kind of interesting at times beautiful gimmick). I also did not mind the exposure of artificiality in the scenes of the toy train to (I presume) represent and reveal the artifice and illusion of cinema.

But this is not a Godard film; it is supposed to be a literary adaptation of a famous work! There was very little (if any) emotional connection with any of the characters. Anna Karenina was simply annoying; we see very little of her internal struggle and pain so well exposed in the novel; we do not feel her affection and love for neither Vronsky nor her own child.

In terms of chemistry, the only credible and remotely interesting connection was between Anna and her rigid but somehow still endearing Karenin. Jude Law did his best under the circumstances (and generally Karenin is one of my favorite characters of the novel) but both screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright gave him very little to work with. They assumed that simply showing a close-up of Jude Law's face will convey complex characterization.

And while we are looking at the acting, what drugs were the filmmakers on to use Vronsky as such a parody of Vronsky himself. There is nothing interesting about him; there is no explanation or background story to make us believe (or even accept) the birth of such hot and wild passion between him and Anna. And what may have been intended as erotic (the horrendous picnic scene) is ludicrous and banal.

It is sad that when Vronsky fell off the horse one wishes he would never get up. But since I know the plot and outcome of the novel I must agree with the film critic who notes that you have a serious problem when the viewer is cheering for the train instead of Anna.

All in all, to further this metaphor, this movie is a complete train wreck and disaster. It is uneven in tone because what seemed a parody turned quasi-serious (yet still unintentionally comic) later on. A few cinematic sleight-of-hand tricks do not save the overall pretentious aura of this film. It seems as if the director did not care much about his characters, but rather wanted to showcase his unique and experimental style of film-making. Perhaps had he chosen another source, I might have had a more favorable review here.

But the way it stands, I can only hope for one of two options: Either let Anna Karenina alone and let her sleep nestled under the covers of the written word or come up with a more genuine and heartfelt film adaptation. And keep Joe Wright at bay and do not let him touch similar masterpieces of world literature, not even with a ten-foot pole!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What about Empathy?: A Review of The Science of Evil

Book Cover of The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen

Why does evil exist in the world and what are its underlying causes? Why are people capable of doing horrible and atrocious things? Are they to be blamed for their actions? Are they morally responsible for their deeds? Is there a potential solution or treatment for evil people?

These are some of the questions that religion, philosophy, and psychology have approached via different means and avenues. In religion, evil is often blamed on malicious demons that cause otherwise decent human beings to stray from the good path. Philosophy speculates about the potential consequences of evil and is generally more interested in philosophical analysis and purposes, such as debunking religion with the quintessential “problem of evil.” Ancient philosophers like Socrates blame the existence of evil on ignorance or lack of knowledge about one's own personal connection to the truth.

Psychology, on the other hand, has different modes and means at its disposal. Psychologists can undertake experiments, brain scans and base their observations on character and case studies. But even within psychology there is a way of evading the question, especially when it is claimed that certain psychological disorders ought to be blamed for evil.

Would that preclude the option that there are “normal” (a very vague and ill-defined term anyhow) individuals out there knowingly causing harm and suffering to others? And why would they do so? Simply because they are evil? And why are they so? Are they born with their “dark passenger,” to quote TV serial killer Dexter Morgan? Does evil have a genetic basis? Or is it something that is shaped and influenced by experiences and one's social environment?

Renowned psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (and incidental cousin of “Borat”) approaches the existence of evil by focusing not entirely on psychological malfunctions, but on the matter of empathy, or rather lack thereof that makes people incapable of connecting with their own feelings and the suffering of others. As such, it is possible that even a person who is psychologically sound may cause pain or even kill another human being because of a complete lack of empathy.

I must say that I completely agree with this view. It is one thing to say that people have a dark side to them, but it is another to actually carry out evil deeds. In fact, when we commit acts of cruelty, ranging from “mild” forms, such as making fun of others, Schadenfreude or hurting them with sarcastic comments, to more serious forms of cruelty, such as bullying, verbally or physically abusing people or torturing animals, we shut off or disconnect our feelings of empathy.

In all these cases, there is almost no emotional connection to the other being and hence a lack of understanding or acknowledgement of the other person's (or animal's) feelings and sensations. By not connecting with them, we are treating them as objects and may not have any feelings of remorse. Put differently, the problem of evil in terms of violence occurs mainly because we are not treating others as full and sentient beings.

As Baron-Cohen shows us there are various reasons for this lack of empathy. It can be biological, as in cases of certain brain abnormalities in which the empathy circuit is lowered or even damaged; it can also be caused by traumatic experiences, such as physical or sexual abuse, particularly during childhood. Or it can be a mix of both biological and environmental elements.

In fact, a lack of empathy widens the reach and range of evil and this makes it possible that good and decent people like the subjects of Milgram's shocking “shock experiment,” or ordinary college students as in Zimbardo's "prison experiment" can show and unravel their dark and aggressive nature in certain stressful environments. Thus, the dark oppressive forces of society may bring out the worst of a person in such a given situation or environment.

This means that evil is allowed to exist because people either permanently lack empathy, for example, those that are psychopathic in nature or suffer from a list of personality disorders that erode their sense of empathy, or because they are regular people who switch off the empathy circuit for different reasons, such as political or ideological beliefs. These people may believe that they are doing good, the same way a soldier who kills others feels that his opponents' death is justified, and so he switches off his empathy for them.

In fact, the soldier may even rationalize that his sworn enemies deserve to die, the same way certain people feel about the deaths of convicted psychopathic serial killers or of controversial political figures. What none of these “ordinary” or “normal” citizens actually realize is that they have just objectified the other; they have turned them into monsters, stripped away their humanity and with it all their human rights.

At the same time, their own actions are monstrous along a similar vein. These people may justify and rationalize the killings in these particular instances and circumstances, but they have actually more in common with their aggressors than they would like to admit. To wish for a person's death or, evidently worse, to kill another human being, good or bad, is only furthering the case of a world without empathy. The problem is that morality has relative viewpoints and neither side is blameless nor entirely good or bad; they are mostly pursuing their own interests.

It may become clear that I do not support war; although in some cases it may be seemingly inevitable I think it has devastating psychological effects on all, victims and victors alike. Empathy cannot survive in fields of blood and violence and that dark environment brings out and unleashes unspeakable atrocities towards our fellow humans.

In other words, none of us is fully spared of evil because all of us have our temporary shut-downs and closures of the empathy path. It may happen because we are tired, preoccupied, distracted or simply unaware of the pain and hurt our comments or actions may provoke in others. We may be blinded by our hatred of another person and fail to see past our own differences to recognize them as a sentient human being. We may be angry and escalate our levels of aggression and violence with no regard to the other person's state, motivations, and feelings.

By shifting the attention from evil to empathy, we are suddenly aware of a tool that we can use to combat it. For instance, we can be more mindful of our own feelings and of those of others. It indeed should come naturally because we have so-called “mirror neurons” that are triggered by simply facing and viewing the pain in others. 

We can start being an example of empathy to other people. We can bring up our children to be more sensitive to these issues. We can show them that bullying causes serious pain, fear, and trauma. We can help them recognize how much verbal ridicule can hurt others.

Although Simon Baron-Cohen's The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty starts with examples of past and present existence of evil, the book soon switches its focus on empathy. Hence, my only caveat would be that its title may be slightly misleading for those who expect detailed accounts of cruelty in this otherwise excellently written and engaging book. Those who feel let down might be more interested in Dr. Michael Stone's equally brilliant show entitled Most Evil in which the forensic psychiatrist analyzes and classifies real case studies of evil and twisted people.

What we get here, however, is an important, simple and often overlooked fact: Our society has become desensitized to suffering because we have lost touch with our own capabilities of empathy. Maybe our parents did not teach us; maybe it was our fellow students or teachers. But it is essential for us to realize this deficiency. It may be necessary to occasionally shut down or diminish our empathy because life would be too difficult to manage if we constantly tried to balance our own needs and those of others, but we should be aware to check and restart it so we do not lose touch with our own feelings of empathy.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Baron-Cohen talks about autism and Asperger syndrome, his personal field of expertise, which taught me many things about those conditions I was not previously aware of. Baron-Cohen shows that those with Asperger's are different from psychopaths in that they may not realize that their sincerely meant but socially awkward comments actually hurt the other person (“your new haircut is awful!”), whereas the psychopath may be cognitively aware of the damage he is inflicting, but it does not affect him emotionally.

There are also enlightening bits on parenting and the confidence that this would imbue for the rest of their offsprings' lives. He states that parental love and trust are like an internal pot of gold that can serve their children for confronting the ups and downs of life on a secure footing. Creating an environment of trust and respecting the needs and feelings of our children will help them to perpetuate these positive experiences and project and incorporate them in their own personal lives.

The most moving part comes towards the end when Baron-Cohen addresses the continuous conflict between Israel and Palestine, where there is generally a lack of empathy (and communication) between both sides. He gives a touching example where such differences are overcome, namely the charity Parents Circle for Israelis and Palestinians that encourages both sides to communicate with each other.

In this case, parents who have lost their children can make free phone calls to those on the other side of the fence. By sharing their grief, they have not only taken an important step toward expressing empathy, but they have also managed to see and realize each other's shared humanity. At the same time, each part sees how senseless war and violence is and that lives are being lost and people become devastated; all this time, empathy comes a distant second to other interests, be they political, ideological, religious or economic reasons.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

No More Pennies for your Thought: A Dirge to the Penny

A piggy bank with two pennies as eyes
Penny Piggy Bank

The decision of the Canadian government to stop minting copper pennies as a matter of saving money should have left me cold. The value of money has continuously taken a nose dive, the dip being called - or blamed upon - the inevitability of inflation. All this means in a simplified and direct manner is that everything is going to get more expensive, while your wage will stay pretty much the same. This is the (economic) way of life; inflation is a plague that has no cure.

Surely, the penny has lost all its worth. It has become a nuisance as unwanted change that one constantly wants to get rid of. While in its prime it was seen as the equivalent value of an occurring thought or an idea, now all of this is just symbolic. In other words, I should be happy that that worthless piece of copper is out of circulation.

But I am not. In fact, as in most things in life, I miss it now that it is gone. I see its affective value. The penny has existed since time immemorial; it has been with us for such a long time (in its Canadian version since 1858). We have held them in our hands; we have kept them in our pockets and wallets, and we have used them in our language, with the above idiom or other expressions like being “penniless,” having no pennies at all.

Imagine a few generations down, the penny will be seen as an antique, and no one will fully understand those sayings and expressions. A (Canadian) penny already refers to a currency used in the past. Would these expressions have to be updated and “inflated” as well, such as a nickel for your thought or the state of being “nickelless”?

Think about it. The penny is the first one to have fallen victim to the cost-saving sword of government, so when will the next one be slashed? Why not go all the way and kill off all the coins while we are at it. Who needs coins anyway?

That idea frightens me. So does the fact that money is not dealt with paper anymore, but that it is mostly electronic now. Electronic digits that are the so-called equivalent of money. Not that the paper was worth what is was printed on (remember the gold standard?) but these days they are just blinking numbers on a computer screen. Click, delete, and I am penniless indeed.

But how has the elimination of the penny impacted our daily shopping life and habit? What is happening nowadays is confusion regarding amounts we have to pay. We are told that prices will be rounded down or up, so that we can get it right to the level of five (nickels now being the smallest unit of currency, congratulations!).

In other words, candy that may add up to $1.12, will be $1.10, while $1.13 will cost you $1.15. Remember, no pennies, but more math. On a lucky day, you will save two cents; on a bad day you will lose a couple. But none of this applies to electronic payments, such as debit or credit card, the latter also known as “evil plastic.”

Remarkably, most stores are not accepting pennies anymore. Cashiers give you a look as if you are from a different century when you attempt to pass or sneak in that red copper coin. What planet are you living on? The one that used to have pennies in circulation, the good old days!

No more take-a-penny, give-a-penny, that wonderful way of balancing out change. When you were a penny short, it used to help you out; when you had an extra penny you did not want to burden your wallet with, it could simply go in the tray, cup, dish or what-have-you. Goodbye to that karmic penny equilibrium.

It has been only a few weeks, and I feel waves of melancholy for a worthless piece of metal. May you have more prosperous days in penny heaven! Call me a sentimentalist, but to put my two cents in, I miss my penny.

And don't think Canada is the only one to slash this beloved coin; the United States is deliberating an equal move, and this might catch on around the world. It is just a matter of time. And it turns out, sooner or later, we will all be penniless in this money-driven inflated world of ours.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Utility of Jobs: Are Teaching and Writing Useful?

A picture of me in my inquisitive mood over coffee
Coffee Thoughts

When we are about to pick a career, we will probably ask ourselves some or all of the following questions: Will a job in this field pay the bills and perhaps help me save some extra money? Is it something I am good at and would I enjoy doing it for the rest of my life? Is it making the world a better or a worse place? Is it useful for and well-regarded by society?

Sometimes there might be a conflict between ideology (what you would like to do or what may contribute most to society) and financial or economic necessity. We may sacrifice the job we most enjoy for the sake of a job that may be our second or third choice, yet which ends up being safer economically speaking. This happens quite often since we all want to bring home the bacon and survive in this competitive world. So many would-be poets and philosophers fall victim to financial needs and necessities and never fulfill their latent talent and innate potential.

It is a shame that this should happen, and it is a luxury for the few who can effectively live off the gains of their chosen profession. Others, of course, choose so-called lucrative and generally desirable jobs, such as lawyers or doctors, and if they do so out of genuine love for the field and not because they are solely out for materialistic gain, those people can consider themselves extremely lucky in life.

I consider myself in this very category although my profession (teaching) is generally not as well-paid as it should be (well whose is really?) and despite being a close second on my list of careers (writing would be first, with directing movies being a very distant and improbable dream of mine).

My initial choice of writing goes all the way back to the innocence (euphemism for gullibility) of childhood. It was the need for creative self-expression coupled with the promise of fame and fortune. That was the dream. The reality is that all my income associated with writing so far may (at best) cover the annual expenses of pen and ink (yes, I am aware we are living in a technological age, hence see the irony / lack of income here?).

It is my second job that keeps me afloat, namely out of the reach of poverty and it provides (thank God) enough for my family and me. Teaching is also a passion of mine, and it is, in fact, not too difficult to build a bridge between the two fields. So the good news is that I can combine both teaching and writing in different ways as they are more cousins than strangers to each other.

However, the other day, in one of my more pensive and inquisitive moods, I was asking myself not about material aspects but about the utility of my profession. Certainly, I consider it being a necessary service to others; a kind of sharing what I know with those who would need or benefit from those particular skills and knowledge.

It is my hope and desire to transmit some of my passion, love and interest for this wondrous field by making students see the world and their lives differently via the lens of arts and humanities. It is indeed the most rewarding feeling to have students personally or via evaluations thank me for the help I have provided them. All of this validates me and my chosen profession, and I sincerely hope I can engage student and reader alike, or even better, perhaps infect them with this joie de vivre, this beauty of life in all its artful and colorful representations.

But, both feet firmly back in reality, is my profession really useful for society? Do you need teachers to learn a language these days or to analyze a text or to philosophize? I taught myself Spanish without ever paying for a single lesson. I used a host of books plus lived in a Spanish-speaking country to improve my language skills. My most productive analysis was done not under university pressure but on my own spare time. And my writing improved through continuous practice (some of it on this very same blog!) and not so much from my schooling, which, however, did get the ball rolling in certain ways.

So we can see that to a large degree learning can be done at the comfort of one's homes once you are equipped with a reasonably fast and reliable Internet connection. In fact, in our day and age, more and more people are becoming auto-didactic, teaching themselves the necessary skills via books and useful resources on the Internet. Are we teachers then as replaceable as cashiers in grocery stores? Can a computer do the same (God forbid an even better) job as we do?

In other words, how useful is teaching since I am not visibly constructing anything, no new buildings, no musical compositions, no observable lasting legacy? My writing is there visible and accessible, but if it lacks readership it becomes worthless.

What then would be examples of really useful jobs out there? Usefulness can be measured by how often and in what kind of situations we would contact or recur to a person from that particular field. This is a rather loose but somewhat useful (!) definition for our purposes here.

In times of medical emergency, who would you call? You would call a doctor or paramedic, of course. If you have a friend in that profession, she would be extremely useful. When doctors manage to treat or cure a child's illness, there is no limit to the feeling of gratitude. Doctors fulfill a need that is unparalleled in comparison to others, and we can easily add to the gamut of medicine, surgeons, pharmacists, nurses and so forth. Not to forget, dentists who can get rid of that nagging and throbbing toothache of yours.

Who do we call when we feel threatened? We would call the police. Again their appearance leading to the elimination of the threat will make us want to shower them with abundant feelings of gratitude. So if your friend or neighbor is a police officer, they will be the ones you would contact in such situations, or else it would be the 911 call for help. We can easily add firefighters to this list and again a big thank you to all of these people who risk their lives for our safety!

Who do you call when your toilet is overflowing or there is a flood in your basement? A plumber friend will be the one who can save you from a mess and a hefty bill. What do you do when your computer does not work? The computer expert friend will be contacted, and we will feel extremely obliged for their help. The lawyer friend will be contacted when you need immediate legal advice or if you are in a legal tight spot. Who do you call when there is a ghost in your fridge? Ghost-busters, of course, you catch my drift.

But when would you call a teacher? A grammatical question or spelling errors can be dealt with online or with the right handbook. A writer? Sure, he can help you write your application letter, but on the scale of usefulness, this is not that high or immediate. A philosopher? Never really. In terms of serious trouble, a psychologist or priest would be preferred over someone who would only sow doubts in your already troubled and muddled mind.

So my question is this: Is the trio of jobs above really useful? Do they contribute to society in significant ways? I am not sure. Maybe, or maybe not. But one thing I do take comfort in: At least I am not willingly causing harm to others as weapon or drug dealers do.

Put differently, my goal is to help people. And entertain them and give them something to smile and think about. Along the way, my writing and ideas may cause temporary confusion. So be it. Out of confusion comes clarity and out of chaos order. And if this post was not “useful,” please bear with me; I will try harder next time around, or else I will be forced to look for an actually useful pass-time.