Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Leaving Behind Your Essence: Book Review of The Legacy Letters by Carew Papritz

The Legacy Letters by Carew Papritz
Some works of fiction are hard to define as they are a mishmash and cumulation of different genres, while some works of non-fiction carefully tread onto fictitious terrain. When it comes to The Legacy Letters, its author Carew Papritz blurs and pushes the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction even further; in fact, he does not just cross the line, he grabs it and shapes it into a circle. As a result, he achieves one of those truly rare feats in literature where his work qualifies as both non-fiction as well as fiction and his book can be found comfortably nested on either bookshelf, while the author keeps garnering and collecting awards from both camps.

Normally, we would find a true kernel of a premise around which the author carefully constructs his or her narration in the form of imagined events and situations; famous case in point would be Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where true events are fleshed out and dressed up with fictionalized bits. Yet when it comes to The Legacy Letters, the main premise itself is a lie; it is the rarefied stuff of pure fiction. There is no man literally on his death bed desperately writing and compiling over two hundred handwritten letters to draw out and filter his essence, no such person to “distill into words the multiple essences of human existence” so that he could be known, remembered, and appreciated by his future twins, a still unborn son, and a yet-to-be-born daughter.

The situation is entirely fictional, and some take issue with this, but personally, I have no qualms about it. I suppose those who did not like it would be the ones who were turned off or angered by the fact that the original Blair Witch Project or the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap were not “real” documentaries about actual events or people. Although labeled as faux documentaries, they are not just instances of fake news because behind the apparitions and supposed lies, not only do we gain pleasure but at the same time, certain truths are revealed and expressed. The same can be said of Carew’s book.

In other words, the premise, the wrapping of the book, is fictional, but we should not jump to conclusions nor prematurely judge a book by its cover. Remove the cover wrapping and you uncover truth, the malleable fabric of hard-candied non-fiction, the unwrapped wisdom placed, embedded and enmeshed within the pages of an entirely hypothetical situation.

We cannot just take and judge the allegory for its literal truth; it is the figurative truth that is the essential aspect and purpose of the story, not unlike the mystical and poetic teachings of Jesus, which on their surface may seem childish and nonsensical, and yet, they reveal such deep and profound truths. It is less about the protagonist of The Legacy Letters facing his impending death and struggling to string together his legacy; it is rather our own existential life story in which each of us strives to leave a legacy behind for our loved ones as we all face our inevitable demise, regardless of whether we want to acknowledge this or not.

Such playfulness, the happy mixing and mingling of fiction and non-fiction, is in fact not that unusual in philosophy. It has been previously practiced by the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as he would create different fictional characters as mouthpieces for his differing philosophical views. To an extent, Plato engaged in the same practice as he was carefully tracing his teacher, mentor, and rival Socrates revealing each and both their philosophies in their shining glories.

In short, Carew is a modern philosopher-poet. His pages are dipped in rich and dripping poetic language, but he also traces and delineates not only profound insight but combines it with a practical and down-to-earth philosophy. As his character is trying to guide his children towards a better future, we can all benefit from those thoughts and observations that the fictional narrator expresses and generously shares with us, or rather, that the very children have now decided to share with all of us.

As it is a guide and roadmap for living a true, passionate, and authentic life, we can adopt his views on and his love for nature, music, writing, and romance. Furthermore, we can further enrich ourselves with his balanced view of spending and saving money and time, respectively.

Long story short, there is so much to see and gain here. I have enjoyed reading the pages as interchangeably as poetry, as philosophy, and as both, which is one of the main reasons it took me a longer time to finish reading the book. Nonetheless, I shall try to give you the essence and repercussions of the book’s legacy so that you are inspired to go and read the book for yourself. Suffice it to say, it is worth the time, money, and effort to do so.

The blurry lines between fiction and non-fiction are not the only shades of gray expressed in this book. The same applies to metaphors used in the book. There is no clear dividing line between good and evil nor can we neatly package and define a person along the separating lines of culture, gender, and philosophy. Although we need to be clear about our thought processes and ideas, the answers are not as clear-cut as we would hope or like them to be, and therein lies the god-given or godawful truth.

To provide an example, Carew uses the cowboy metaphor quite often. A whole range of associations are linked to this metaphor ranging from freedom-loving individualism to staunch independence and adventure coupled with indomitable will and strength and the protection of one’s life and property. It is about standing tall to fight the good fight and defend one’s ideas and ideals, while also ensuring that loved ones are safe and cared for. It is ensuring that there is clear pasture for cattle to graze on and enough bread on the kitchen table; it is about sheltering everything and everyone from the physical as well as metaphysical storms that life can whip up at a whim, out of nowhere and seemingly out of nothing.

Yet this is only part of the truth, as there is another dimension to everything. Behind the toughness, there is also a beating and caring heart. It is about both following as well as responding to the call of nature; it is about using one’s will to shape and build events and situations but also adapting oneself to them, especially when they seem insurmountable. It is both taking definitive and determinate action when the situation calls for it but also being ready and willing to let things flow as freely and unhindered as brooks and rivers.

Here is a cowboy in the sense and with the essence of Clint Eastwood movies, someone who may be set in his ways but who is not deaf nor blind to the plight and the suffering of the vulnerable and the downtrodden; he is ready to reach out and fight with and for those that find it hard to defend themselves, no questions asked and without conditions or strings attached. Throughout, his views of justice and morality are not firmly set nor engraved in stone as they adapt to the circumstances as clouds do to the canvas of the skies.

Apart from being strong and strong-willed, sincere, and truthful, these cowboy-poets are also humble; they admit when they are wrong or when they have wronged. Without justice, without love, without harmony, without sensitivity, and without being vulnerable, we just cannot be fully human. All other voices and utterances are a web of lies or make-believe; the truth of the matter lies in the balance and careful calibration of heart and mind. 

These are merely some of the many gems that can be mined from this Walden-type narrative. There are advice and guidance for young children as well as their respective parents. The children are told to heed and follow parental advice and ask for help, counsel, and information whenever necessary, while parents are sternly reminded to not have kids until they are ready.

Once the parents are ready, they should have them all the way without ifs and without buts; they are in it for the “long and beautiful haul” of parenthood and they must give their family the best they are. The particular letters dealing with raising children are also filled with details on how to fully be there for them, yet to always keep reminding oneself that kids are simply kids and not miniature adults, an erroneous and even dangerous subconscious belief that has been passed on since those gloomy industrial days faithfully depicted by Charles Dickens.

In fact, I was most taken by the thoughts on money, time, reading and writing. Time is a most precious commodity and gift we have been fortunate to receive, regardless of what others would like to make us believe. Our allotted time is more valuable and precious than gold, and if given a choice, we should rather squander gold before throwing away and wasting time. Time is relative, and so is our age. We are getting old but only as old as we feel at any given moment in time. We may say to ourselves, or others may tell us, that we are old, but if we do not believe the numbers and believe in our spirit, then we are indeed ageless.

This can be aided, supported, and complemented by a healthy sense of curiosity and wonder. As long as you are comfortable asking questions while knowing and being well aware deep in your soul that you do not - nor can you - have all the answers, then you are still young at heart and you shall be well fortified against the onset of old aging.

All this time, money may fill your time, but it cannot buy you time. You can ask for loans and borrow money, but time cannot be borrowed, and once it runs out, it cannot be refilled or replenished. When it comes to money, we should not go “thing-crazy” over it but rather choose quality over quantity. And if you think about it, you cannot buy love, as the Beatles sing, nor can you buy lasting happiness. There may be moments of joy, but they are as fickle and fleeting as time itself.

We all need money to survive and it can be used as a means to happiness; it has the potential to buy us a house, and in some cases, power, and in other cases, treatments and medication, but, on the other hand, it cannot make us a home, bring us respect nor give us true and lasting health or healing. Some claim that money may be a curse or the very roots of evil and that it tends to bring us more unhappiness than joy; we only need to look at the rich and the famous to know that it is not all smooth and clear sailing when it comes to monetary wealth.

Unless you are lucky and strike it rich or you have been born with a silver spoon or have a rich aunt or uncle somewhere across the globe, most of us need to work and work hard for a living. While many would prefer to strive for the higher-paying jobs out there, in the end, they may be merely deluding themselves especially when they ignore their true calling and set themselves up for unhappiness down the road. Yet if your chosen job happens to align with your felt passion, if you love what you do and it pays well, then everything falls into place for you. Carew gives the advice of doing the best you can, but if it is your love and passion, you would do that anyway, even without being asked or reminded.

Knowledge can be gained from reading books as they contain the “flesh-bone thoughts” of one person and are at the same time “immortal in the bound pages.” Books are an exquisite way and manner of exploring our humanity while increasing and diversifying our ability to think. All the while, we want to maintain, upkeep, and foster respect for knowledge, but we also want to leave room and space hand in hand with a deep sense of respect for mystery, the close cousin of curiosity and wonder.

This brings us to the question of legacy. What legacy are you leaving behind? If you were to leave the earthly plane, what accomplishments would you have left behind to be remembered by? What kind of wealth have you accumulated over your lifetime, long or short? If it is only in terms of money and property, you may be able to pass that on to family members. But if your life has been rich in thought and action, the circle would be much wider and affect many more people.

What would people say and think of you once you are gone? Would they celebrate you or curse you now that you are no more? Or would they not even know that you ever existed? What memories will your children have of you? Will they be sweet and sour memories or feelings of wasted opportunity and lost time? How many hugs and kisses have you given to your loved ones, well knowing and aware that they are an impossibility now as you peer in from the nether world. What have you inspired in others?

My legacy is my family. Fittingly, I am writing this on the morning of Family Day, a day designated and meant to celebrate families. I try to do as much as I can to help my son, to keep him safe from the turmoil and the tempests of life, to give him a moral compass to be guided by, alongside wisdom that could come in handy, especially when things go south.

Yet I would also be remembered by a handful of friends and various acquaintances. They will, if not now, at some point in time know that I have always meant well and that I wanted the best for everyone at any given time. I will also be remembered by thousands of students I had the pleasure and privilege to teach in a variety of places and in a variety of subjects. I hope that I have given them skills that they are using now, and if not, that they enjoyed learning with me as much as I enjoyed teaching them.

And last, but certainly not least, one of my greatest legacies will be this blog. A place where I have communicated with readers around the world and some of whom I hope I have touched, and perhaps taught a thing or two. It is the journey of a lifetime that I have tried to set down here in writing as I am traveling through time and I hope that I shall be remembered by it. The burning question now remains: What is your legacy?

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Think for Yourself: Interview with Critical Thinking Expert Dr. Steve Pearlman

Dr. Steve Pearlman
Critical thinking is a buzz word that gets leisurely and sometimes carelessly thrown around here and there and it is a little bit like James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses: Many know it to be a good book, some even have it in their collection and position it strategically on their bookshelves but only a handful of them have actually read the sophisticated brilliant novel. 

We all talk about the importance of critical thinking in our education and in our lives and it ranks high on the list of various companies and corporations that are eager to hire future problem solvers, but many educators in schools and universities do not teach critical thinking or at least they do not do so effectively. In the meantime, many others fail to demonstrate it because they do not have the necessary skills or background and/or because they do not take the time to practice it and cannot be bothered with it.

It is then not as surprising but still shocking that only 4 % of college students show proficiency in critical thinking, whereas education tends to inadvertently suppress it instead of developing, encouraging, and promoting this life skill. The problem is not education alone as parents alongside the rest of society including the media do not play an active role in fostering a thinking culture; in fact, critical thinking may be more often frowned upon or at times even punished by parents and others. Being cognizant that even educated adults may lack critical thinking skills, it does not come as a complete surprise that the world around us seems blissfully ignorant as well as confused about the essential difference between fact and fiction where the dividing lines between opinions and truths become blurred, and why many prefer to ignore or reject important advice dished out by experts.

But things are not as bleak, stuck, or hopeless as they may seem. There is not only hope but significant ways to ensure that critical thinking becomes embedded in our daily life. To talk about what can be done precisely, I had an insightful, enlightening, and delightful interview with someone who is certainly no stranger to the act of thinking: Critical Thinking Expert, Educator and Author Dr. Steve Pearlman. 

Dr. Pearlman has researched and studied the neuroscience and the psychology behind it all and he has written books about them, including his latest book America’s Critical Thinking Crisis: The Failure and Promise of Education. Not only does Dr. Pearlman provide useful tips for schools, students, educators, teachers, and parents, but he can help us become better and brighter thinkers ourselves by embracing and tapping into this critically important and relevant mindset.

There were two main topics of interest for me that I wished to discuss with him, which were the current education system and the current state of the United States. Before we fully delve and jump into the discussion, I wanted to make sure that we would all be on the same page and asked him to define critical thinking. It turns out that we are on the same wavelength in how we perceive critical thinking. It is not merely knowledge nor is it intelligence; they certainly could help in the matter, but they are not necessarily precursors of this domain. In fact, what is a more important prerequisite for the ability to think critically is a curious, inquisitive, and humble mind.

Contrary to popular opinion, curiosity did not kill the cat; it was ignorance that cost its life. Yet why are teachers and instructors not sufficiently encouraging curiosity, this vital aspect of critical thinking? They may wish to do so, but, in fact, education predominantly prefers to instill a respect for and of authority instead of having it questioned or put to the test. While in math and to an extent the sciences, there are often clear-cut answers, the majority of subjects cannot provide us with absolute answers.

Yet this fear or inner reluctance of questioning has its roots in our upbringing where we often have to take our parents’ knowledge (and more often lack thereof) as the ultimate gospel. Instead of being willing to openly discuss and reason with children and help them engage in thinking for themselves and give them acquaintance and familiarity with the reasoning process, parents often shut them down and shut them up with the authoritarian but highly discouraging statement “because I say so”. It often comes attached with the hidden implicit message of “don’t you dare asking” or contradicting the authority figure here. This can, in turn, lead to the dark side of independent thinking in which one erroneously assumes that one’s opinions are as good and as solid as veritable and proven facts.

At the same time, educators may solicit questions but deep inside they are afraid of making mistakes or worse (at least in their point of view) of not knowing the answer. This is where humility needs to come into focus. In fact, nowadays being an expert in any given field is a difficult undertaking because there is an almost infinite abundance of information and knowledge out there. 

Our own information and answer can be disputed within seconds by technology readily accessible and available at one’s fingertips. Dates and knowledge can be retrieved very quickly and rather effortlessly but what to do with the knowledge, what it can teach us, how it can improve our lives and our ways of seeing and interpreting the world, that is where critical thinking would have to come into play.

This requires a restructuring of the education system. Although there are some important movements from the traditional teacher-centered towards a more student-centered approach to teaching and learning, not enough is done regarding critical thinking. This is partly due to the fact that it is hard to define as it contains various layers and also because educators are not very clear about it themselves – they may claim that they know critical thinking when they see it. As a result, teachers do not model and teach it sufficiently and clearly enough to their students. Steve told me that in surveys both faculty and students rated critical thinking very highly, but the necessary skills and growth set were not demonstrated nor supported within the student population.

The second reason is that the educational system has had its roots in the Western way of thinking going back to its Germanic beginnings. At the time, the “empty glass” metaphor was used because the initial philosophy of education depended on this conception. This was before the printing press, so few books and texts were readily available, and the professors were indeed the ones who had the knowledge and who passed it on to their students during lectures. 

Back then, knowledge was hard to come by and knowledge was considered a source of power. This has been significantly upended by technology with information being at our disposal at any point and moment of time so this outdated model no more holds but, at the same time, it has not been adapted fully and sufficiently to the new demands and realities.

We also had a discussion on the preponderance of independence. In my view, real independence is one that makes one free to think for oneself; one can become independent in one’s mind through the very act of critical thinking. However, in schools and in homes, independence is often taught in terms of not thinking but of behavioral skills, for instance, being able to tie one’s shoelaces, or cooking for oneself. 

These are relevant skills, no doubt, but they are secondary in nature and magnitude. Having an educated opinion about different matters and being able to reflect on them critically demonstrate more independence to me and are more urgent than being able to perform handstands or to fry an egg. They are not mutually exclusive, but parents and educators focus too much on basic skills at the expense of more profound life skills like thinking.

Thinking is a natural and indeed pleasurable act in and of itself. Children at young ages naturally engage in it with play as they freely use their creativity and imagination. Yet with time, we get distracted and diverted from this path. That can come in terms of indiscriminate use of technology affecting all ages, which then manages to replace or override the pleasurable act of thinking. I was surprised and then again not so surprised to find out that thinking itself accentuates the release of dopamine, our natural happy drug, hence giving us a boost in mood and well-being. Evolutionary speaking, it makes sense to promote and develop thinking as it is a necessary component for personal and social development and advancement. Nowadays, we revert to our smartphones to give us that much desired and welcome boost but without the same benefits and advantages that accompany thinking.

Reading books would help as well and, in fact, unlike thinking, reading is somewhat unnatural. The brain needs to be trained and wired for it as the eyes are connecting to the language centers. I myself am an avid reader and a lover of books but I also do not read as much as I used to, courtesy of technology. So I asked Steve what I can do to encourage my son to read.

He told me one way to do so would be to ensure technology-free or device-less time periods. Incidentally, I had implemented a day of being without technology as a family unit and I must say although liberating, it was a rather difficult if not painful experience for us all. But having time set aside and designed and designated for reading and to ensure that your child is not lost in or absorbed by their technological devices is of great importance for their health and well-being.

Age becomes a factor as well. When is a good time to introduce my son to Dostoevsky was my question and Steve had another brilliant answer - whenever they are ready. Yet it is also important to keep in mind that what they read is far less important than that they read. Often parents try to push their kids to start reading too early, yet at the same time, they would hold back presenting children with important information about life and the world.

We should not push them too hard but also not underestimate nor limit our children in these matters. This has been something I have noted not only in interactions with my son but with children in general. They are often smarter than we think or give them credit for, and they can think critically in their own way and at their own level and rhythm as long as we do not scare, intimidate, or underestimate them.   

Interestingly, the brain prefers to assimilate and it learns better by reading printed books as opposed to reading off electronic screens. The brain responds differently to it, while the awareness of physical paper affects comprehension, depth, and reading time. This comes with advice against the current trend of moving towards electronic texts in schools and universities; although e-books are cheaper and more accessible, it is, in fact, better to return to traditional hard copy books to facilitate learning and retention.

As to retention, the brain will not release dopamine when we are merely memorizing information that is seen as having little value for the person’s life. Students may try hard to remember the information on tests but would then gladly dump it after it has served and achieved its purpose, namely the grade on the test. But learning that is relevant to and that resonates with one’s life will last for a much longer time and far beyond school and university, and it would help the formation and development of critical thinking skills.

After discussing how we can provide change and promote critical thinking in terms of education and parenting, we talked about what is and has been happening in the social and political landscape in the United States. We brought forth some interesting ideas. To understand the present, we often need to make light of the past and see how it all fits in. History does repeat itself, that is until we realize this and take charge and steer it in a different and better direction for us all.

It all comes down to the concept of the American experiment. Although ahead of its own times and circumstances in many ways, it is important to note that it had its own failings as well. Yet, more importantly, it was deemed an experiment. The founding fathers knew that there would be substantial trial and error involved with experiments and that a union would take a lot of work and effort. In fact, this is why they are striving for a “more perfect” union, meaning that we would keep aiming at perfection and perhaps not be able to reach it any time soon.

Combined with it are the glorious and rather abstract ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not only are these terms hard to achieve; they are often mutually exclusive. There are other factors in play, which the current pandemic has brought to light and to the foreground. Jefferson might have been naïve in assuming that people would be naturally guided by reason and that if people were left to their own devices - by having more freedom and less government interference - they would also be happier and more peaceful.

The problem lies in the interaction and interplay between freedom and social responsibility. This is where masks play an important role, both figuratively and literally. We think we are reasonable and have critical thinking when we might be irrational, deluded, and even delusional. We think we are exercising our freedom by refusing to wear masks when in fact we are endangering our loved ones and fellow beings. We may think we are protecting our lives and safety by owning a gun when it can lead to unprecedented and unwanted acts of violence.

Furthermore, the pursuit of happiness is a quest; a desire to become happier. That would not only entail personal satisfaction or monetary wealth but would also expand to our family, friends, our nation, and the world. Happiness is something we must strive for, work for, and actively engage in, and it may take many different forms that we do not always see or perceive immediately. Happiness is also intimately tied and linked with gratitude.

Finally, if we look at our founding fathers, and I have my eyes and heart set on Thomas Jefferson, we must take him as a human being who meant well, but who had his own share of failings. His failure was not always following what he preached and coming up short in a number of different areas of his life and within his politics.

On one hand, Jefferson opposed slavery, yet he was not averse to practicing it. His views of colored people, as well as his actions, are inexcusable and unacceptable. Others around him had freed their slaves but he held onto them. Nonetheless, we can understand his motive, which stemmed from a selfish desire: he wanted to keep up his lavish lifestyle with expensive wine and his many books. Notwithstanding, he kept running up debts and eventually died in poverty.

The world is a messy place, Steve told me, and he could not have said or worded it any better. In reality, we may be taught about the good and the bad in our homes, and in our schools and universities, but the moment we step out into the world, we encounter confusing shades of gray. Life is not easy, and it can get complex and complicated, but if we carry around the following vital and life-saving toolbox, it can help us make sense of the seeming chaos around us: a box that contains critical thinking, the ability to think for ourselves.

There are various very interesting tidbits from our interview that I have left out and have not covered here. I am planning to include them in separate blog posts one on the gap and divide between elites and intellectuals and another one on how failure can propel success in education and in business.

In the meantime, for the full-length video of our conversation on YouTube, please click here

If you prefer to listen to the interview, here is the link to my podcast, click Arash's World Podcast

Moreover, here is the link to Dr. Pearlman’s Critical Thinking Initiative:


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Searching for Identity: An Exploration of The Americans

The much-lauded and praised American series The Americans (2013-2018) is about a couple of undercover Russian spies that have infiltrated the United States and are now posing as an all-American family. Both the husband “Philip” (real name: Misha) and wife “Elizabeth” (real name: Nadezhda) are “illegals” - that is they have assumed fake identities based on American people who have passed away. They are allegedly working as travel agents when, in reality, they are secretly passing on information to their own Soviet government while both undercover agents are often involved and engaged in active life-threatening operations. 

                                                        The Jennings' Family

The American Family

The “Americans” Philip and Elizabeth Jennings own a house and live with their son Henry and their daughter Paige, neither of whom are aware that their parents are undercover spies and both of whom are living typical suburban American lives. None of the children have been given Russian names nor do they have any contact with their extended family; neither has knowledge about their real background nor do they have any familiarity with Soviet life and culture at the beginning of events.

What sounds like the veritable stuff of fiction is indeed, at least partly, based on true events. The inspiration for the series came when a Russian ring of “illegals” had been exposed by the US government. This caused a sensation because all its members had managed to live undetected in the United States for various years and had been successful in establishing and positioning themselves in the midst of American society. They were sleeper agents that had fooled both ordinary citizens as well as the authorities for such a long time.

This news item of 2013 caught creator Joseph Weisberg’s attention, and he decided to put together and create a series inspired by those events. At the time, Russia was not seen as a potential national threat, let alone a possible enemy of the United States, so in the attempt to make it more relevant and plausible, Weisberg decided to shift the action to the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 80s.

Little did the creator of the show know that Russia would come to the forefront a few years later with a series of targeted poisoning and assassination attempts of Russian public figures abroad. When Mitt Romney stated that Russia posed a potential threat to the United States, the Republican presidential candidate of 2012 was unfairly ridiculed for his stance by Obama and the Democrats; they all claimed that Senator Romney was out of touch with current geopolitical events and reality. In reality, Mitt Romney was more in touch than others cared or were willing to admit.

The promising headlining premise of the series soon develops into a fascinating and insightful study of identity. The show is never boring, and it has various, somewhat stereotypical, action sequences that we have come to love and appreciate from spy movies and thrillers, yet at its core, it is neither James Bond nor Jason Bourne nor Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It is psychologically more complex than that: it deals with the basic but fundamental question of who we are.

To what degree are we defined by our nation, our culture, and traditions, our religious, spiritual, and political beliefs. What influence do our neighbors, friends, social and political environments, and the media have on our psyche? Add to this already complicated mix, the elements and the effects of our self-perception of who we think we are and how we perceive we fit into the world around us. What would happen if the solid framework you established for yourself over the years were to be shattered and to fall apart in an instant with new incoming information?

At the same time, the series is also elaborating on themes of deceit, manipulation, trust, and mistrust alongside further reflections on social networks and isolation. Although few of us are “illegals” and part of a secret spy ring (I assume), many of us can relate to the feelings of confusion regarding one’s identity; refugees and immigrants will have had experimented at least at some points in their lives the queasy feeling of being a stranger in a strange land.

One of the aims of the series is to show us people not only as they are but to provide information behind the reasons and motivations of their actions and behavior and to create bonds of understanding and empathy as a result. Although we may seem worlds apart from each other due to our culture and upbringing and although we may be poles apart on the political and ideological spectrum, there are still many similarities and affinities between us. While the parents have close ties to their homeland, they still need to pretend to be American, and they live the American lifestyle so as not to raise suspicion. In the meantime, their unsuspecting children are growing up with lies about their identity and background.

The Americans aboards these themes in ingenious ways, and it is one of the best series in quite some time. If you have not seen it yet, be aware that I will have to provide a few spoilers along the way, but I will try not to give away major ones. I have also included pictures of the major characters to guide readers not yet acquainted or familiar with the series.


                                                                            Stan Beeman

Stan Beeman from The Americans

Things get complicated when the Russian spy couple finds out that their new neighbor works as a Counter-Intelligence officer for the FBI. It may not seem plausible, but it certainly racks up the tension on whether Stan Beeman, a bright and astute FBI agent, would be able to see through their guise and find out and discover who they really are. To circumspect suspicion, the Jenning's family decides to become close friends with the Beeman family, Stan, his wife Sandra, and their teenage son Matthew. This complicates things further because Henry develops a friendship with Stan whom he sees as the paternal figure he did not have with his own father often absent, Paige has a crush and a romantic relationship with Stan’s son Matthew, while lonely and secluded Philip traces a reluctant but relatively solid bond of friendship with Stan.

The stage is set with various intrigues and complications to ensue.  In terms of operations, there are various - and one might add too many - missions that the couple engage in throughout the series. Some of their work is joint, where they pretend to be a married couple in another town or city with disguises and under different names, and there are other assignments that they do solo, some of which are abroad.

Some assignments are very dangerous and high stakes involving lethal and contagious viruses (yes, I could not help shuddering as I was watching those episodes during our devastating Covid-19 pandemic), while other missions are about nuclear weapons and defense systems; the undercover agents find methods and manners to gain access to the top-secret and highly classified information and then share the details with the Center, the cradle, brain and main command of the KGB and Soviet covert operations.


                                                    Martha Hanson with "Clark" 

Martha and Clark

On the other hand, there are other comparatively minor lower stake missions in which the agents need to pretend to be someone else to get their hands on relevant and vital information and, at least, for the most part, they are not hesitant to use sex and physical intimacy to get to the people that have access to the necessary information or documents. The most memorable one is when Philip disguised and known as Clark continuously woos the lonely and emotionally fragile Martha Hanson, a secretary in the FBI. Using ruses, manipulation, and an abundance of sexual intimacy, Philip as Clark somehow and against her better judgment gets Martha to sneak in and plant a bugged pen in the FBI director’s office.

The charade and role-playing go in fact so far and to such lengths that Philip aka Clark is even willing to get married to Martha so that he can keep up with the farce and façade. Martha, blinded by love and a gullibility that is both head-scratching and heartbreaking, follows along. Clark claims that they need to keep their relationship and marriage a secret due to the fact that he has an allegedly important government position with the United States that would be otherwise compromised.

During the marriage ceremony, his Soviet directing officer is asked to become a witness, while Comrade Elizabeth, his real and pretend wife is asked to take on a role as his sister. It is all part of an absolute and elaborate sham that poor Martha, at least initially, falls for since she is head over heels in love with (whom she believes to be) Clark.

Using physical intimacy to “work” their contacts is not taboo to these Russian agents, and for the most part, there seems to be little friction between that aspect of their jobs. At the onset and years in, the Jennings’ marriage is a hoax, and their family is a shoo-in. That becomes somewhat shaken up when Phil and Elizabeth develop some sort of affection or “real” feelings for and between each other, up to the degree that they end up getting “officially” married for a second time around, in an abandoned warehouse and by another undercover agent, a practicing but rogue Russian Orthodox priest.

These undercover agents are constantly fluctuating between acting and pretending, between being their adopted American versions of a fixed and established family unit complete with children as well as other improvised and rehearsed personifications of fictitious characters, roles, and disguises that they take on, such as Philip’s Clark and the various personas of Elizabeth; their only respite exists when they are alone and intimate with each other, most often in the bedroom. But even there and then, they are often not at liberty to freely discuss their missions with each other and they tend to withhold information, which blocks them from having genuine conversations and from showing true feelings to each other.

Pretense and artifice are part and parcel of their daily make-up. Identity can be fragile for everyone, but much more so when you are almost always pretending to be somebody you are not, and it is even more complicated when your life depends on it as undercover spies from a foreign country or as an agent working for your own government. The former, the Jennings couple, don various disguises and identities (the disguises, especially the ones of Philip are so mesmerizing that I was wondering whether it was him or simply a similar-looking actor), whereas the identities, alongside different names and background details, are head-spinning. It must be incredibly stressful to keep the roles, personalities, and experiences straight and apart from each other. The moment they step out of the house, they are performing, but most of the time the performance continues at home with their children and their neighbors.

There are layers and layers carefully placed upon each other like a house of cards, and it is only a matter of time that a gust of wind, an unforeseen event, or complication would bring it all down. And there are many such potential moments and pitfalls along the way. The fact that Henry, their son, spends most of his time with their FBI neighbor Stan, that Paige their daughter dates his son, and that she notices odd behavior and absences with her parents is merely the tip of the iceberg of complications to follow.

Yet the biggest hurdles come from the inside, one’s emotions, and they affect every single character in this series. For instance, due to the confidential nature of his work as an FBI officer, Stan cannot share information and details of his work with his wife Sandra. This creates an emotional distance between them, and it creates barriers to communication while blocking access to essential parts of the self.

As a result, Stan becomes more and more a stranger to his own family and this takes its toll on his wife. Sandra ends up going to a personal development/self-help/human potential seminar that is initially known as EST, which is more or less based on the Erhard Seminars Training first established in the 70s. It is, at least in my understanding, a program that delves into the past to gain insight about oneself and to clear blockage and traumas that interfere with one’s day to day functioning, and by extension, one’s pursuit of happiness.

This is done with the aim and purpose of personal growth and of reaching a more authentic and genuine understanding of one’s core self. To do so, one must also release feelings of anger and guilt and come to terms with them to move forward in a more fruitful direction and with a clearer purpose in one’s life. In terms of identity, you are confronted to see the difference between different roles that you assume, play, and adopt and the person that you genuinely are deep inside.

These seminars serve as a continuous background metaphor of the series, and they play an important and vital role in the lives of (and around) Stan and Philip. For instance, the seminars become a catalyst to the eventual break-up and divorce of Stan and represent an estrangement and a source of conflict within Philip’s marriage. Stan himself is not innocent as he is “working” a beautiful Russian government official Nina whom he tries to “turn” and whom he (inadvertently?) falls in love with. In essence, what Stan ends up doing is similar to the way the Soviet illegals operate. And, in fact, Stan cheats on his wife and, to make matters worse, with a Russian agent, hence destroying his all-American family.

This is part of the brilliance of this series as no side is spared. What Stan does is not that much different from what Philip and Elizabeth do and he also engages in pretense and artifice although for different reasons and with different motives. These characters are all fallible, and they are all trying to do what they think is in their best interest, or rather in the best interest of their respective nations and governments. But, all in all, and all things considered, both Americans and Russians are not that different from each other. There are rhyme and reason to their actions, and they all believe that they are doing good.

Stan sees it as part of his job but also as a patriotic duty, while the illegals have engaged in it for global social justice and for the maintenance and propagation of their preferred political system of communism. All of them love their respective countries.  This raises the question of how far you are willing to go for your country. Are there and should there be principles that go beyond the love and duty for one’s own nation?

Put differently, if your nation asks you to kill others, as a targeted assassination or as a soldier during the war, would it be justified? Is it acceptable to kill occasional innocent people simply because they were unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Is it acceptable to pretend to be in love with someone only to gain access to relevant information that would help and benefit one’s nation? Is it ethically sound to gain possession of biochemical weapons as a means of proactive self-defense, that is, in the case the other nation should decide to use them in an attack?

In a brilliant scene, a Soviet diplomat is confronted and accused of being involved in and facilitating espionage at an American biochemical facility; an undercover agent had attempted to smuggle a sample of a highly toxic virus produced in the United States. The retort of the Soviet diplomat was why was the American government involved with lethal and illegal biological weapons in the first place?

Yet to return to our main characters, Philip is taken along by Stan to one of those EST seminars, and although he has a shield and firewall that protects him from emotions, some of those messages end up seeping through, and this experience touches and changes him, not unlike his daughter who falls for organized religion by joining a religious youth group. Elizabeth, more for worse than better, is the “tougher” one of the two, and she views the whole self-help organization as a capitalist money-grabbing scheme, something she is not entirely wrong about. But it is during those seminars and sessions when Philip, or rather Misha, gets to awaken and share parts of his true essence, by carefully trying not to give away or reveal his cover-up, of course.

Ironically, the American agent Stan is immune and fortified against these types of changes, and, unlike his ex-wife Sandra, he is only partially affected by those messages of the seminar. What touches and changes Stan is his brief, tender but doomed relationship with Nina, the enigmatic Soviet woman who in some ways opens his eyes and his heart to love. And he is given a chance to choose love over duty, but after some thought and reflection, he chooses the latter.

To blur boundaries between feelings and nationalities, Stan’s only friends are Russian. He is not aware of this, but his best friend is Philip, a Russian spy; Stan plays racquetball with him, drinks beer, and has dinner with him and his family. Stan even confides in him more than he did to his ex-wife Sandra, albeit in indirect ways and manners without essentially comprising operations and investigations of the FBI. Little does he know that he is being friends with the enemy of the state, the very same people he is on the lookout for.


                                                                            Oleg Burov

Oleg Burov from The Americans

The other Russian friend is Oleg Burov, an official Russian diplomat, who is also an agent but much less covert and somewhat shielded and protected by his diplomatic position. At different points, Oleg puts his own life at risk by providing Stan with classified information about his government; Oleg does so out of principle because his personal beliefs and principles are at odds with his own nation’s operations.

Although they have a delicate cat and mouse relationship, their friendship is rather heart-breaking. They cannot be friends in the traditional sense, but each respects the other and the principles that they stand for. Plus, they have a passion in common: both are in love with Nina. And if it were not for their nations, duties, and politics, they would have made excellent and lifelong friends. Instead, although both mean well, they end up harming each other through the proxy of their own governments, nations, and ideologies that are at odds with each other.

On the other hand, Philip cannot be his friend either and it is only a ticking time bomb. We anticipate that it will not work out for them and that, sooner or later, one of them, if not both, will end up getting hurt, not only emotionally but also physically. Add to that, the ultimate irony that the person Stan later falls in love with, an energetic and engaging American woman might just be another “illegal” herself, another undercover Russian agent that could have been sent to spy on the FBI agent from the inside.

No one is who they are or who they claim to be; each is hiding and playing a persona to others and themselves and each has their own deep secrets. We know that, sooner or later, it will all unravel. The marriage of Philip and Elizabeth will be tested, the truth will have to come out, endangering and significantly altering the relationship they have with their children; both have been living under a lie and pretense for all their lives, especially when it comes to their parents and their real intentions and motivations in life. Finally, we the viewers are tested and would have to pick a side, and it is a complicated choice to make.

Despite all the atrocities that happen on both sides of the fence, we realize that we are all very similar in different ways. That we are all human; we need love, friendship, and purpose in our lives, and that ignoring or repressing feelings does not mean nor signify that we do not have any. It just means that we tend to fool and blindfold ourselves, and it does not matter whether we are Americans or Russians, whether we live and root and fight for the capitalist dream of freedom and individuality, or we lean towards and embrace communism with its purported socialistic dreams and aspirations.