Thursday, December 29, 2022

Here, Now and Later: Different Views and Perspectives on Experiencing and Living Time

A colored and giant human hamster wheel
It’s that time of the year again and what better time to talk about time than right around this time. In fact, time is our greatest commodity and no matter how much and how hard we try and how strongly we try to deny or accept it, it is indeed a limited and non-renewable resource. We can extend it by taking good care of ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. but with all our collective science, wisdom, and knowledge, we cannot escape death – at least not yet.

And yet, we often pretend that time does not matter, shrug it off or procrastinate when it comes to our own relationship with it. We assume that time is money (which it is not), whereas, like money, we often squander it on things that don’t really matter when we ought to seize and squeeze each day and see and deem it as a precious gift.

What would be our best approach to time? Is it useful and beneficial to see it as a finite resource and try to do and cram as much as we can within the limited time span that we are given, i.e., living each day as if it were our last, or should we just relax and take it in stride and not worry too much about it?

Interestingly, I was planning to have two separate podcast interviews on each of those views and wished to probe and explore them further. I was scheduled to speak with Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals and to follow it up with Lisa Broderick and her book All the Time in the World: Learn to Control your Experience of Time to Live a Life without Limitations.

As it may become apparent from the book titles, the first one is rather reductionist and focuses on the limits and constraints of time and pushes us to make the best out of the approximate 4000 weeks that an average life span affords us, whereas the latter has a more expansive view of time viewing it as a string of eternal moments and glimpses of infinity that we can learn to control and play with.

Although we had scheduled interviews, neither of them showed up for reasons unknown. As they did not take the opportunity to explain their own views - either because they had too little or too much time on their hands - I will present my own thoughts to you to the best of my knowledge and understanding; that said, I will encourage both authors to schedule a meeting with me to set things and matters straight, if need be, or just to confirm and reaffirm my theories.

The reason I wanted to have them back-to-back was that we could all see and evaluate the benefits and potential limitations of each view when considered and viewed side by side. In fact, and grosso modo, Oliver’s view of time can be deemed materialistic; we have one lifetime that we need to make the most of and that is pretty much that. I would have liked to probe deeper into his philosophical outlook and views, but I would not be too surprised if it had an atheistic bent to it.

As time is deemed limited and non-renewable, this can fill one with anxiety, existentialist despair, and potential dread. Every choice in daily life would be undertaken under a microscope to ensure that it is not wasteful and that it is indeed providing the maximum amount of benefit and/or happiness to the given individual.

And yet, there will also be the nagging doubt, the voice of unreason, questioning, consciously or subconsciously, each choice of ours and putting it under a magnifying glass. In fact, there may always be another better choice out there than the one we have made, and this is the proverbial FOMO (fear of missing out) that drives us toward not enjoying the present moment as we are constantly aware of our mortality alongside a certain perceived but unspoken futility and aimlessness to our time-constrained existence.

Incidentally, Oliver may have canceled our speaking engagement because he had another and, in his view, more productive and more promising event on his agenda, or it may have been due to his underlying fear that I may probe him further in his views and beyond his comfort zone, and hence exposing and bringing into the open what he would rather have concealed and kept unaware of his own consciousness; of course, there may also be a completely unrelated and different reason whatsoever at play.

On the other hand, the second one, Lisa’s view is quite spiritual in nature. Time is not fixed; it is flexible and can be moved and shaped through and according to our experiences and outlook. We are not just talking Einstein’s relativity here; the book also freely quotes and references results and findings in quantum theory to show how time is not merely linear ticking away in seconds and minutes. This outlook has a spiritual base and does not see our life as limited in space and time but rather as an expression, if not manifestation, of another (or other) dimension.

I myself am leaning toward seeing time not as fixed and limited. That does not mean nor imply that we should not seize each and every moment, but the way and manner Oliver is presenting our relationship with time, it looks and feels like it is mostly driven by fear, anxiety, panic, and despair. It is like a death sentence that is looming in the far away or close distance and it hangs above our heads and all our decisions like the imaginary sword of Damocles.

Furthermore, it is treating time as an accessory one has, and it is not unlike running a business, or at the very least, it has a business-tinged outlook. Whereas the CEO fills up his or her schedule with supposedly relevant and worthwhile meetings and trips, we would take that approach and try to fill as many gaps as possible and try so hard to avoid boredom and wasting time that we might just end up losing our grip on the little time that we have and end up running around when we should be relaxing and taking it all in and in a stride.

In Lisa’s perspective what we get is a combination of metaphysics and quantum physics, including quantum uncertainty and entanglement and a particular perception, distortion, and manifestation of time with a spiritual nod, understanding, and acknowledgment of our existence in spacetime. In the same way, time is relative, our frame of mind and perspective decide and determine if an event is long or short, fun, or boring, and this can be adjusted and changed if we become aware of the process, an observer effect of sorts. Instead of seeing a task as dreaded or dreadful, a shift in mindset and perspective could make the same task interesting or challenging in its rather positive and curious sense of the word.

But if like most of us, you always feel that you are rushed and busy and that time is always lacking, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You would always be on the run and on the go and would rarely find or have the time to do what is truly best and beneficial for your body, mind, and spirit.

It often comes down to how our brain processes information and the current state and frame of mind. We spend most of our waking time in the beta brainwave mode where we are constantly on alert and ready to deal with stress and challenges, and only once in a while, do we give ourselves the time (!) and luxury to delve into, dwell and settle in the more relaxed alpha brainwave.

Yet the ideal state, according to Lisa, is focused perception, a trance-like quasi-mystical state of mind with gamma brainwaves, which is a combination of various brainwaves in which your mind is alert, but your body is relaxed. We often designate the words and expressions “in the zone” and “flow” to this state that is razor-sharp and free from worry or panic. Athletes are familiar with this, but we also experience it when we are deeply focused on a task that fully absorbs and engages us. Often this turns out to be what we love to do in the first place; however, we are not just purely taking time off, daydreaming, and relaxing but are fully grounded in and aware of the present here and now.

In fact, Lisa provides different exercises and practices to increase our awareness of time and augment our mindful engagement with and within the present. Any moment considered under the lens of mindfulness can last a very long time, and it does then seem that time lasts longer and flows more slowly; if it passes more quickly, it did so because we enjoyed our time.

Although we have all the time in the world to enjoy the present moment, it is important to note that our time is limited at the same time. It is however true that time is not linear (although we may perceive it as such) but that it can be stretched, manipulated, and yes, for a lack of a better word, transcended.

At the same time, it is not unlimited within our given lifetime, so both perspectives (and either perspective on its own) are equally right and wrong; the main thing is to enjoy life and seize the moment and not just let it pass by, while also not fretting or worrying too much about losing out or failing to fill every minute of the approximate four thousand weeks allotted to us. If you find ways of living in the zone or add bouts of mindfulness and higher awareness to your daily existence, you must be on the right path.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Intricate Differences and Ramifications between Indebtedness and Gratitude

Son hugging Dad at giant Christmas tree
We often feel indebted to others, be it our parents, teachers, and mentors, in addition to all those who help and support us by going out of their way and walking the extra mile for us. At the same time, we express our gratitude for them, their counsel, guidance, and actions, and often feel grateful for them not only for being there for us but for simply being here in this world.

I used to think of the two terms indebtedness and gratitude as interchangeable. I would feel indebted to those who would help me and at the same time feel grateful for them. But only rather recently have I noted and noticed subtle but vital differences not only between the two terms and definitions but more importantly concerning the feeling and the psychological dimensions associated with and connected to each of them.

This new awareness was brought about after the wonderful opportunity to speak with Kristen Ragusin about her revolutionary concept and conception of money and the importance (and various benefits) of moving and shifting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance. As a result, I came to reevaluate not only how money is used and portrayed in our world but also how we use it figurately in our way of thinking, interpreting, and understanding the world.

As Kristen points out on my podcast, we need to change how we see and define money and if we are stuck in a mindset that accentuates scarcity, meaning we never have enough money for our needs and desires, then we are trapped in an endless loop. This would create a scarce and pessimistic outlook regardless of how much money we end up having or making. This is also demonstrated by the usual restlessness that accompanies many ultrarich people who are so set on making and amassing money that life passes them by unnoticed and unused.

They may be financially rich, but they would often lack in wealth; the former representing how much money they have in their respective bank accounts while the second underlining how much overall wealth they have accumulated, which would include various other qualities and characteristics that are closely tied with happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction.

The spotlight is now on the first term, that of being in debt with someone or something. When it comes to our educational background, we would often literally be in debt due to student loans (I have had my fair share and managed to pay them off after various years). As to my graduation, I am certainly grateful for my professors, some of whom were excellent and some of whom were not, but essentially, it was my own hard work and discipline that led to my degree. In other words, I am certainly grateful and feel privileged to have had the opportunity and at such a wonderful university to boot but I do not and ought not to feel indebted to them.

But what about the accumulated debt that we tend to have towards our family, in particular, our parents who brought us into the world and (hopefully) supported us along the path of life? In certain terms and manners, they may have ended up paving the way for us to get where we are now. What and how much do we owe them for all of this?

It often depends on who you end up asking, and there is a definite cultural component, relation, and variable there. For instance, my home culture very much values the contribution of parents, and they are put on a pedestal much more so than simply honoring them as is said or rather commanded in the Bible. Various Asian cultures follow suit in which sons and daughters are expected to subjugate their own wills (and often dreams and aspirations) to those of the family; this is often referred to and acknowledged as a collective society or mindset. It is also prevalent in many Latin cultures often driven by Catholic beliefs but it is not as pronounced in places that have predominantly Protestant roots, which typically tend to value work and material wealth over everything else.

This often unconscious mindset has significant repercussions on decision-making, lifestyle, and control. The will of the self or ego often needs to yield and give way to those of one’s environment or family. At its best, it ensures harmony and balance; at its worst, it can squash or severely limit and hinder personal freedom and liberties. And it is so effective not merely because we feel gratitude towards our parents and by extension our country and nation but rather that we feel in debt and lacking. And debts need to be repaid one way or another, with money or actions.

It becomes a moral issue as we assume that, like loans, we need to pay them back the material and emotional tolls and costs that our parents have endured for simply having us alongside everything else that they may have endured because of us. But in this case, we get it wrong and the wrong way around: the moral responsibility does not lie with the children but with the parents who decided to have the child in the first place.

By accepting this and making this decision, parents and caregivers are personally responsible for the maintenance, upbringing, and well-being of the child at least until the age of maturity. We tend to understand this concept much better when it comes to our pets than our children and willingly and gladly take care of animals for the duration of their life span. Yet somehow, parents come to believe or assume that the children are indeed theirs, if not their property, that they belong to them, and that the children need or ought to pay off their dues one way or another.

But in fact, parents are fulfilling their necessary obligations, some indeed do more and better than others. Some do go the extra mile and help and encourage the child on his or her chosen path in life while others do not and may even limit them when it comes to their dreams and endeavors. Still, other parents continue treating the adult person as children wanting them to obey and wishing to discipline them when they are not acting in accordance with parental wishes and desires.

And yet, here is where gratitude comes into play. We can be grateful for our parents, family, and teachers as well as our nation, government, culture, and compatriots without having to feel the urge to be indebted to them. This is where the independent spirit plays an important role in which we choose what we deem best for us instead of blindly obeying others or following rules, impositions, or cultural and religious traditions.

Yet it is equally important to underscore that, like anything in life, it is not a matter of either/or but a combination of various factors that is ideally in harmony as perfectly symbolized by the equal and calibrated forces of the yin and the yang. An extreme assertion of independence will do more harm than good, and neither is a complete abandonment and annulation of one’s own wishes and desires desirable.

Along the same terms, even individualistic cultures are certainly not immune to the feeling of feeling indebted. Our whole conception of work is based on the idea that employees need to respect and obey their employers simply for the act of being hired in a world where jobs seem - and often are - rather scarce and hard to come by. It is not merely a matter of gratitude but one of deeply ingrained debt. The “reward” for one’s hard work would be dished out in terms of salary.

But what if we see the workplace as a more balanced interaction. The employee provides a service or manufactures products that lead to overall gains and wealth for the company and organization, while in exchange, elements of gratitude and appreciation are often - but not solely – expressed and demonstrated in terms of monetary compensation by the employer. This is where many employers often fall short; they do not give enough thanks and should not ignore, neglect, or undervalue the emotional aspects of this professional interaction between the two parties.

Once we see that we are not in debt nor need or ought to feel shame or guilt, then we feel free to live a freer and happier life that is more in tune with who we really are deep inside. And that is a path worth taking and would lead to abundance, not only in fiscal but more importantly in emotional and even spiritual terms. And this is certainly something to cherish and to be extremely grateful for.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

New Order: Love Will Unite and Bind Us Together

New Order playing live under vibrant lights
I want to start off with a personal disclaimer: I am quite new to this and it’s only recently that I have joined the New Order bandwagon. I am not claiming to be a lifelong fan nor am I too familiar with their music, moves, and their impressive body of work. I should have been a fan of them during adolescence but alas back then I was youthfully arrogant and too focused on Classical Music to accept or acknowledge - let alone listen to - other genres and types of music.

When I was a teen, New Order was at the top of their game, but I had barely heard of them and had rarely heard their music. This is certainly to my detriment because seen retrospectively and in perfect hindsight, they were one of the best bands of their times, and I should have embraced them at the time. It was the pandemic that brought them under my radar and purview, which brought to light and showcased to me how good they indeed are.

As a matter of fact, I am not too sure they themselves are fully aware of how good they are, and this seeming inferiority complex might have come about mostly because of how they came about in the first place. Like phoenix, they rose out of the ashes of the once promising and thriving Joy Division, which was cut short by the untimely and unfortunate death of its front singer.

Yet the decision to reimagine and reinvent their music and to combine rock with electronic music and dance produced exhilarating and fascinating songs that make you feel good deep inside while also making you sway and move to their notes. In my view, both Power, Corruption & Lies, and their best album compilation Substance may just well be among two of the best albums of all time.

New Order’s music, particularly the utterly wonderful triple combo of “Blue Monday,” “Temptation,” and “Run” alternatively filled most of my rainy days during this lonely and often difficult and challenging pandemic. The first one is a classic and to me a perfect example of how electronic music could and should be. The official 7+ min video is minimalist, hypnotic, and mesmerizing but equally brilliant in bringing back forgotten trace memories of floppy disks and slow computers.

The second music video - the song “Temptation” - feels like taken straight out of a nouvelle vague film, and it bridges and segues into the third video, my most recent discovery, which erupts in joyful and energetic dancing at the end. Life is a joyful dance despite blue days, various temptations, and our constant run-of-the-mill running around to survive and get by.

When after months of being on the run in my quest for a job and looking for some much-needed income and finally ended up landing the job I had aimed and wished for, I followed up on the promise I had made myself: I had told myself right after the interview that if I indeed got the job, I would treat and reward myself by buying a ticket to see New Order live and in-person on their Unity tour with their legendary counterparts, the Pet Shop Boys.

It was the tail end of their concert tour, which had been postponed and rescheduled due to – you guessed it - the pandemic. It was sad, wonderful, and fitting for them to wrap up their Unity tour in our hometown.

My wife had shown some interest in the concert, mostly because of the headlining act of the Pet Shop Boys (interestingly due to their almost equal stature, the two bands would switch and flip headlining throughout the tour), and we both ended up attending and being utterly impressed with this concert. And it was easily one of the best concerts I have ever seen!

The “opening band” New Order used impressive visuals and fascinating bits of film throughout and although there were a few issues with voice and sound, their music was exceptional and outstanding, and they played everyone’s favorite tunes alongside all their classic hits.

But I remarked on two things that really touched me deep inside and shook me to the core. Previously, when listening to their wonderful music and watching some of their music videos, I noted how much love they managed to express and exude. It was deeply embedded and enmeshed with the music: it was certainly palpable in their choice and selection of sounds, and this also came through occasionally through their lyrics though not as predominantly.

Not only did one feel their love but their love for their art and craft was equally noticeable. We can often sense it when artists use their form of the medium not only to communicate messages but also to demonstrate and showcase their genuine love for and commitment to their chosen art form.

There are a handful of musicians I get that sense and feeling with, and the closest I would come would be the magnificent Beethoven whose chords are filled with love and appreciation. Although not on the same level, I must say New Order does come close, and at that concert, I had a few glimpses of God or a brief mystical union with the powers that be.

This may be an odd statement - and the last time I felt something similar at a concert was experiencing the Resurrection Symphony by Gustav Mahler - but there was no doubt that I felt this also during the performance of New Order. I had previously heard people say something of that ilk about witnessing a Pink Floyd concert while probably being under the influence of certain substances, but I felt it that night too, completely sober and with New Order.

This filled me with renewed hope not just for that moment but for many next moments to come. If there are enough people who can express their pure love in such an authentic way and passionate manner, the world will be a much better, brighter, and more inspiring place! I felt the warmth within my chest and wished the entire band the very best from the bottom of my heart for eliciting and awakening such feelings in the first place.

Interestingly, I doubt I was the only one that had felt this way about New Order. While my wife did not have that quasi-spiritual personal connection that I had (she did very much enjoy the ensuing act and music put on by the splendent, playful, colorful, engaging, and always youthful Pet Shop Boys – the Prokofievs of the music industry), right after the New Order set, I heard someone in the men’s washroom (of all places) exclaim to his friend “Amazing God bless!”

I could not have said it any better and concur and conclude with that statement because somehow or other this magical music band had the glue, substance, or secret ingredient that connects, and binds notes and sounds with the innermost recesses of our heart and our spiritual core.

Monday, October 10, 2022

With a Deep Sense of Gratitude and Appreciation: Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving

Sun Halo visible in the daytime sky
The past few months have been a rather busy time on my side of things where I moved from a single part-time position to four of them (and yet still merely getting by, thank you, inflation ;) while at the same time keeping up with my podcasting and talking to wonderful, awesome, and inspirational experts and leaders across the world!

Thank you to everyone who has actively participated in these projects and endeavors and everyone in the background who has worked hard to make them happen! All of this has put blogging on the back burner at least for the time being, but I shall make some sort of amends with this posted note on gratitude and forgiveness.

Essentially, I have embraced and, in many ways, re-ignited and invigorated my passion for both in-person and remote teaching. Interestingly, I recently started teaching at the same college that I used to attend a quarter-century ago as a young promising student hence marking a full cycle and reaching the other side of the aisle; my previous student number is now my current employee ID. It is fascinating how seemingly separate dots end up connecting with each other in an arc and lead us to familiar yet new shores within the context of the always evolving and expanding yin and yang of teaching and learning with this eternal student teacher.

Moreover, regardless of whether we want this or not, growth is often associated with if not based upon previous adversity. Most of the time, when the living gets easy, we can get complacent, at times lazy, and nestle, accommodate ourselves, and grow accustomed to the delusive hammock of our respective comfort zone.

And yet, life has its ways of pulling the rug under our feet and ripping the blinds off our eyes and thus getting our attention, whether we want and seek it or not, and it wakes and shakes us up. Part of this universal experience was the pandemic that has affected literally everyone on the planet at least one way or another, while another part tends to be family, relationship, or work situations and tensions that spiral out of bounds and control and lead to necessary and mandatory stretches of strife and suffering.

But all these experiences that we often prematurely and unfairly label as negative and bad if approached and harnessed appropriately, can indeed become and be converted into glorious chances and opportunities. Most outcomes, if given enough and ample time and seen through a positive lens or prism can bring many unexpected benefits and pay dividends. Whether it is a premature and abrupt end to a relationship, connection, or association, it can potentially and realistically be converted to not only stability and productivity but much better and more rewarding prospects and vistas across the bright horizon.

I think in a sense this is what Jesus was referring to when he said to love our enemies or to turn the other cheek. It is neither an act of cowardice nor masochism but rather a wider perspective on our humanity and our lives. Events that trigger us and that we jump to see as negative can be turned into gold, and oddly enough, those who do us harm may unwillingly and unwittingly do us immense good. My best lessons came from suffering, and in a sense, my so-called enemies have been my best teachers in life.

Turning the other cheek does not mean passively accepting injustice or harm nor does it imply being senselessly beaten or abused by others without speaking up or standing up for one’s and other people’s rights. It is more a willingness to accept the circumstances no matter how dire and to not offer resistance to that we cannot change or influence; rather it is important to gather up and muster courage and build, rebuild, and channel our forces toward those situations and outcomes that we can effectively and realistically influence and change. This is the core heart and main lesson of the Serenity Prayer.

Throughout, it is best not to harbor grudges, ill will, or negative feelings toward those who have wronged us. They, in the words of Jesus again, do not know what they are doing and will find out to their cost, sooner or later. At some point or other, they would have to deal with the persistent nagging voice of conscience and bubbling feelings of guilt and will end up looking for forgiveness from those they have trespassed.

This may not always be apparent to the eye, and some may be able to fight that voice of the conscience for longer periods while others may drown themselves in their guilt or wallow in pity. But all this time, whether we see or acknowledge it or not, the karmic wheels will be constantly turning and even the mightiest will fall from their thrones.

One thing I have learned is to make forgiveness a priority in my life and to offer gratitude whenever I can as it is not something that can be misplaced or wasted. We should always be more grateful than we are as we are more fortunate than others no matter what the circumstances may be or seem to be in our life.

In the cycle of life, friends can disappoint, let us down, and betray us while our enemies may become our best friends. It comes down to a matter of perspective. It is easy to love those that love us, but the challenge and effort lie in loving those who do not love us and do not wish us well. In many cases, they are filled with negativity, pain, and suffering, and they may express this in the form of envy or anger toward others. And it is usually good people who do seem to take the brunt.

It is interesting that Freud himself had an issue with “loving our enemies” but I believe he might have misunderstood and misinterpreted the adage. It is not a quantitative but rather a qualitative statement. I do not think that we should love our loved ones less or the same as those who are our purported enemies, acquaintances, or neighbors.

But it is the fact that not loving them at all will be a lack and demerit not only towards them but for us as well. In other words, if you love life, willy-nilly, you have to accept the whole package that comes with it, the good and the bad ranging from the first breath and morning of birth to the last breath and mourning of death. It is not a menu we can pick and choose from and the moment you make a choice and take a path, you have opted out of other potential choices and paths.

But since we cannot and should not sit on the fence (at least not for long periods of time), we need to choose a path but also be ready to make changes, and amendments if not complete detours with new destinations. And during this journey, we will make friends and out of necessity enemies and both need our love to different degrees.

Once we send our enemies some love and clear the toxic and poisoned atmosphere around us and fill it instead with gratitude and optimism, not only have we done good, but we have made the world a better place. That is what it is all about, seeing adversity as opportunities and challenges that can help us grow and become more ourselves. To those who oppose or have opposed us along our path, we shall wish them a clear mind and a heart of feeling and empathy.

And yet, my focus here shall not be merely on the lost sheep but also give a deep sense of gratitude to those who have stood by our side. Although there are some who have disappointed and who let us down especially when you needed them most, there are many others who not only help but do it to an unexpected and outstanding degree going the extra mile so-to-speak and that should be always acknowledged, and I shall do so here as well.

Providing a hand to someone who needs help is an act of altruism, and I want to express my heartfelt thanks to all those who have made and continue to make a difference not only in my life but also in other people’s lives. I am in your karmic debt and hope to have been able to show it in this post but also promise to do more so in my personal interactions with you so that fortunately we all continue to pay it forward on this Thanksgiving and beyond!

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Revolt and Uprising of the Downtrodden Stray Dogs: Review of White God

Two humans lying down in front of many sitting dogs
No matter how many movies you watch, there are always some that will stick with you, and one might even say haunt you forever. It may consist of a handful of memorable scenes, an unforgettable ending, or a particular performance, and, in some cases, the perfect marriage between images and a moving score. And then, there is White God (Fehér isten) by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó which is rather all those elements combined. It is a story about a special bond between a teenage girl and her dog, her fraught relationship with her father, and by extension, life itself in an uncaring society in addition to the intimate and lasting relationship with music.

As if all this was not enough, it evolves into a surreal movie that is a mix of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, The Birds, Animal Farm, and Spartacus. Please be advised that from now on, you will be entering into a bizarro world that for the necessities of this piece will have to include spoilers and that will contain strange ideas that strangely enough will make perfect sense. There will also be a political dimension to everything discussed that will not take sides on the political spectrum but oddly enough, at least in my interpretation, give both sides their dues while at the same time criticizing them in equal measure.

Moreover, oddly enough animal lovers and rights activists who should be eating this up have jumped to quick and hasty conclusions and have claimed that the film portrays and represents animal cruelty, which is not the case, certainly not thematically nor in terms of filmmaking; to the careful and discerning eye, it becomes clear that evident care was taken to minimize any potential harm to the animals, while the trained stray dogs were, for the most part, adopted after filming. Be it as it may, you have been forewarned.

I first saw this movie about seven years ago. I do not really know why but I remember reading a favorable review of it. In fact, it had received generally good reviews and although it was an official selection and was sent for competition in the best foreign movie category at the Oscars, it was not nominated. It is one of those cases where it might have gone over the head of the Academy Award members and/or it might have been too bold and daring to promote and feature in that category.

The movie starts a bit like Danny Boyle’s zombie apocalypse 28 Days Later: In this case, a young girl with her trumpet dangling on her back is riding her bike through empty and deserted streets with hastily abandoned cars that have their doors wide open and without a soul anywhere in sight. Suddenly, out of nowhere and accompanied by an ominous score, she is being chased by a mob of angry and vicious dogs.

Flashback to where the same girl, our thirteen-year-old main character Lili is forced to spend the summer with her Dad, a divorced and solitary meat inspector who does not seem pleasant at first glance. Thank goodness she has Hagen, her dog, who is her faithful companion, but it becomes quickly apparent that neither her father, nor nosey and quarrelsome neighbors nor society at large have any type of feeling, affinity, or compassion for the creature. Dogs are seen as a nuisance, especially so-called common and ordinary half-breeds like Hagen whose designated place and fate seem to be the dog pound and animal shelter.

The difficult relationship Lili has with her father intensifies with the presence of the unwanted and disliked dog. As he is strongly opposed to the dog sleeping on the bed with them, he forces Hagen to sleep in the bathroom where he barks all night long robbing him of sleep and annoying the already annoyed neighbors. In a touching scene, Lili gets up at night, plays notes from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 that soothe and calm the distressed animal, and she crawls into the bathtub and falls asleep there. The next morning, a government official appears and wants the father to pay for a dog license. After this event, Lili takes Hagen to her orchestra rehearsal and hides him behind a door asking him to be quiet.

For the most part, he is until he recognizes the musical section with the string of notes that she usually plays for him on the trumpet, and he bursts out to her happily barking. This gets Lili into serious trouble with an ill-humored conductor who puts her on the spot and gets her to choose between the orchestra and the dog. Of course, she chooses the dog and leaves the orchestra without further ado.

Without going into too much detail in terms of plot, what happens next is that the father abandons Hagen to his fate, and the dog ends up going on a few adventures that become increasingly disturbing and difficult to watch. At first, he befriends a friendly stray dog, and they are chased by dog catchers, but then, he finds temporary refuge with a homeless guy who sells Hagen who ends up becoming a dogfighter.

His eventual trainer sees something special in this dog. Although the dog is meek and friendly, there is heart and determination behind this façade, and the trainer recognizes that potential. And in some of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, he begins to train Hagen for fighting purposes by torturing him, beating him, and injecting him with steroids. The practice by this trainer is undoubtedly animal cruelty of the cruelest type imaginable, but it is definitely not a view that the filmmaker endorses but rather something that he exposes. And it is done most skillfully as most of it is not shown; and yet, it still makes us shudder and want to close our eyes so that we do not see the horror occurring in front of us.

After Hagen’s and the trainer’s first successful fight, we see blood, but it is a bravura sleight of hand that turns playfighting into an apparently vicious and bloody battle between two dogs. In the following scene, Hagen suddenly realizes that he has killed an innocent fellow dog for no reason. The acting of the dog, the expression, and his demeanor are exemplary here, and we feel or assume that he has woken up from pain, trauma, and torpor and suddenly realizes what he has done. Hagen decides to escape this cruel and heartless underworld.

But this experience, however painful and traumatic, has also emboldened him. When he is eventually caught by the dog catchers, he suddenly starts a revolt, which turns into a full-scale revolution. Hagen attacks and kills various people at the animal shelter and frees his fellow stray dogs to embark upon the city. This part of the movie has hues of Spartacus but is also a nod to B-movies and westerns. It becomes the revenge of the canine as he tracks, hunts down, and brutally kills all those who have harmed and done him wrong, from the homeless person to the awful dog trainer. The last on the list is, yes you guessed it, her ex-owner’s meat-inspecting father.

This is the surreal part of the movie, which is also a jolting experience, basically The Birds but with dogs. Given the emotional connection we have with Hagen, this is not as silly as it may sound, but it does require a stretch of the imagination and might be a turn-off for more realistic-minded viewers. In an astounding set piece, the members of the orchestra are suddenly faced with various dogs staring and glaring down at them from the balcony. They all stop the music and flee in panic.

The final scene of the movie is the most moving and I would put it as one of the best endings I have ever seen, right on par with other masterpieces like Shawshank Redemption. Lili soon realizes that Hagen is leading his posse of rebellious dogs to kill her father. Yet, at this point, her father has had a change of heart. After his daughter had almost hit rock bottom by being arrested for drug possession – the drugs were somebody else’s and she was not going to use them herself – her father changes his tune and becomes more caring and attentive.

It could be seen as a handy plot device to rouse sympathy for an unsympathetic character but at the same time, it could also be the true nature and being of a person who changes for the better after experiencing intense turmoil, heartbreak, and suffering. Be it as it may, we end up not wanting him to die, and she tries her best to save him from the attacking mob.

The showdown and final scene happen in front of the slaughterhouse. She bravely faces the pack of dogs and tries to talk sense to its leader Hagen. He menaces her but she tries to win him over with soft and kind words. Does he recognize her? Can she re-awaken those feelings and moments of tenderness that they shared, those moments of innocent bliss together before the world went berserk? Will he ever forgive her?

Then, she pulls out her trumpet and starts playing the familiar motif of this film. What happens next still gives me goosebumps as I am writing this. We can see on Hagen’s expression and demeanor that he recognizes the melody and that powerful memories have been stirred and triggered deep inside of his being, and he then lies down. And with him, all the other dogs follow suit as the beautiful melody continues and lingers in the air. Moved by the spectacle and in awe and reverence, both daughter and father prostrate themselves in front of the dogs, and the movie ends.

This movie can be read and interpreted in different ways. The more straightforward interpretation would be to be kinder to animals and treat them with empathy, love, and respect. This message would easily resonate with pet owners, but it can be extended to society as a whole, which often views animals as inferior beings. It can also be further extended to using and abusing animals as food alongside criticism of the (over)consumption of meat. The graphic opening at the slaughterhouse and the symbolic ending at the same place certainly point in that direction.   

In terms of political allegory, we could also consider a more communist and socialist interpretation in which the poor and downtrodden would rise and revolt against the bourgeoisie and take over control and power. There would be a state of anarchy, chaos, and destruction and a time of reckoning for a long history of abuse, exploitation, torture, and suffering.

Yet, if you replace the poor with the meek, which is a characteristic of Hagen, then we can even have biblical connotations of the meek finally inheriting the earth. It is, however, not done by turning the other cheek but with the sword, as Jesus himself has proclaimed. The dogs would be his disciples and soldiers breaking through ignorance and hatred and taking control of their lives. Put into the context of a more current perspective, this is a fight for freedom and liberty where the shackles of censorship, control, and manipulation would be taken off.

I admit that both views are wacky and extreme. Interestingly, they would condone violence and anarchy, and I oppose both. In my personal view, revolution founded on blood and destruction only fosters hatred as there is literally no love lost between both sides. This is the current political climate, which will not be resolved until negotiations, compromises and open dialogue from both sides are engaged and are taken seriously to bridge the differences, mend the hurts and misconceptions and find common ground.

And yet, and by all means and purposes, this is an excellent movie that can be enjoyed without becoming entangled in controversy as it showcases the love and bond between humans and animals, a message that will and should resonate with each being, first and foremost.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Under the Banner of Feminism: The Myths, Struggles and Realities of Women’s Rights

Women's lib movement
Above and beyond all, we must respect human rights and as much as it is possible, feasible, and advisable, we certainly ought to expand and elaborate our freedoms. Throughout history, people everywhere have been struggling and fighting for equality and dealing with discrimination, racism, systemic violence, and genocide. These are real issues that we need to face but how we approach them, and the means (our attitudes, agendas, beliefs) are as, if not more, important as the end results.

When we look at women’s rights in North America, we can see a trajectory with the curtailing of and gradual gains of rights and opportunities since the time of the pioneers and settlers. Initially, the limits and restrictions must have been established out of necessity mainly due to the fact to the various threats and difficulties that the settlers had to face on a regular basis. Basically, they had adopted a hunter and gatherer lifestyle where the home would be assigned to the females, while the dangerous ventures into unknown terrains as well as the protection of the property were the business of the men. Such behavior, practices, and mindset in today’s world would be justifiably called and criticized as "toxic masculinity", but back then it was out of sheer necessity and circumstance and not a matter of choice.   

During slavery, another crucial instance and a serious case of injustice, there were many women who would identify with black people’s plights, not only because of a natural heightened sense of empathy but also because they could identify with the plight of not having necessary rights and a lack of movement, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Women felt equally limited and shackled in their societies so the unconscious motive and potential hope and drive would have been to shed some light on their own conditions by helping to free and liberate the enslaved members of their respective communities.

At this point in time, those who clearly ruled the lands, as well as the politics of the time, were men, and they would purposely not allow and even subjugate females by purposely ignoring and stifling their voices and influence. But as black people began to gain certain basic rights and freedoms, at least in theory and on paper, women felt emboldened to demand their God-given rights next to men, which would represent at least a semblance of equality. A crucial moment in the women’s liberation movement was the right to vote. This opened the path and opportunity not only of influencing politics but to enter it, that is of course, to the extent that the ruling males at the top would permit and allow for this.

The Second World War highlighted the many contributions of women in the workplace. It was not a conscious choice but came out of necessity, and women showed their mettle during these troublesome times as many of their husbands were fighting for freedom overseas. This not only gave them confidence but also demonstrated to the men that women were much more capable than previously assumed. But as the economy was thriving and necessities did not demand a double-household workforce during the 50s, most people focused on their homes and families, and we could say that to an extent, women’s rights regressed and took a step back.

Then we had the 60s and it came with a powerful tool at women’s disposal, the pill as a contraceptive device. This empowered and emboldened women to gain control over their bodies and to choose whether and whenever they wanted to become pregnant or not. It also opened pathways into the workforce as they could work so to speak without “unwanted interruptions” due to unplanned and accidental pregnancies, a concern that many employers openly or secretly harbored.

But that is the moment where women moved away from their quest for equality into other somewhat more radicalized domains and territories. Their real focus, whether intentional or not, was an attack on marriages. As such, it was framed as a rejection of femininity and female values. The bra instead of supporting the chest was redefined as a symbol of oppression and was burnt at the stake.

Women within this liberation movement joined forces with other marginalized groups including gay rights as well as the hippies. The latter with their rejection of marriages and denial of romantic notions and conceptions driven by anarchistic ideas of free love without strings attached, and an overall lack of commitment and emotional bonds gained traction with the women’s liberation movement. Various women who were not themselves attracted to men felt a sense of threat, anger, hatred as well as envy towards everything that was deemed masculine in nature.

While marriage was seen and defined as a prison, the focus then shifted toward families. This is where the battles over abortion come in. The idea that pregnancy occurs within the female body and hence it is her absolute choice gained momentum since then. What this encouraged and accelerated was an attack on families. Many conservatives noted that and started to oppose and fight back. Many of them were women, and although they were seen as traitors of the movement, and hence of their own gender, they did have a point.

At this point, the quest for liberation and equality moved into an uncomfortable battle for hegemony and power. The battle cry was to bring about a sexual revolution and to topple the patriarchy only to replace it with a matriarchy, which would be, by all likes and purposes and in the words of The Who, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

Sadly, eminent and respectable figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg got caught up and entangled in the more radical aspects of the movement. Although she had fought for equality, successfully so, in her later years, she had a less open and more inflexible, and one-sided stance. For instance, she was asked what the ideal gender proportion would be for the Supreme Court. She answered to have a Supreme Court that was made up of women only. At this point, she was clearly not supporting equality and equal rights, and it may have started to set a dangerous precedent for judges and courts to take more daring and provocative stances thereafter.

Then, we have the famous or infamous case of Roe vs Wade, recently overturned after having half a century of precedence. I had little knowledge about the actual case, that is until I watched the documentary AKA Jane Roe. Somehow, I had imagined the case in a very different way. In reality, the alleged victim was neither honest nor sympathetic. Initially, she had even lied about the circumstances of her pregnancy falsely claiming that she had been raped by black men.

And yet, the civil rights lawyers saw an opportunity in her and managed to win the court case in the name of women’s rights. It is rather unfortunate if not misguided for the movement not to have found a better and more reliable representative for women’s rights. In fact, what Norma craved most was attention and the spotlight, but soon enough, the women’s liberation noted that she was emotionally unstable, volatile, and highly unpredictable. As a result, she was barred from major speaking events on this cause.

And they were right because, at a later date, she was recruited and paid by an evangelist group to speak out against abortion. There, she was handed the opportunity to speak up, but it came at a cost because she was asked to renounce sexual intercourse with women from then on. In the end, she got paid handsomely for her speaking engagements against abortion where she claimed that she was conned into advocating for it in the first place. But, in all fairness, she was the con artist who managed to always get her way on both sides of the fence and debate and managed to attain both fame and money by deceiving and letting down everyone in the process.

Sadly, this casts a shadow on the whole movement from its inception. But women’s rights are much more than the right to abort. It has received too much attention and focus but by doing so, the movement loses focus and undermines itself. The slogan and battle cry “my body, my choice” has been overused and it does not take into consideration or underplays various factors, such as the many potential threats and dangers of such operations, which could cause permanent physical and emotional damage and lead to sterility.

Moreover, while it seems accepted and commonplace to pigeonhole and demonize conservatives on these issues and to label them as bigots and chauvinists, they do have a point in that the baby’s rights are being completely disregarded and undermined in this debate. It is not merely a matter of religious stance or viewpoint but a simple fact. And there is a double standard at play here where many concerned with avoiding meat and animal products to save sentient beings are asking for unrestricted access to aborting life within their bodies.

In fact, I have rarely heard any talk about men’s rights in this matter. Yes, it is not their body, but it is still their child and the fact that men would have no say whatsoever is unfair, unjustified, and unethical and only proves my point made earlier that the current state and status of women’s rights is not interested in equity and equal rights but has its own agenda of superiority.

There are also issues with the terms given to each side of the movement. Those who claim to be “pro-life” are essentially anti-abortion. It is not an issue of life only, the preservation of life leading to birth, but it also includes being against the harms and dangers of such abortions. Of course, it is to be assumed that women are aware of the implications but there are cases where the information is not conveyed to them clearly, they are not fully conscious of the risks, or where it is used as political fodder. Lastly, there is also a matter of cost and resources. Abortions are not free and will take various resources of time, money, and staff away from other pressing and urgent health issues and concerns.

It is also to be noted that most world religions and philosophies tend to oppose abortion, whether it is Islam, Christianity, the Catholic Church, or even Buddhists. In fact, His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has openly declared to be against abortions as they impede, disrupt, and hinder the karmic flow and cycle of life.

On the other hand, the term “pro-choice” should also be scrutinized. I would prefer to see such a morally, psychologically, and emotionally loaded decision less as a choice than an option or a way out. A choice can range from minor decisions about what to wear or to eat to life-changing ones about whether to get married, have a family, or have children. But it is my opinion that in this case, the 'choice' is not and should not be entirely the women’s.

Although it’s her body, she should consider the input of the person who impregnated her as well as take counsel from her loved ones and family members, her community, and even more importantly, the input and consultation of her doctors, those of the body as well as those of the mind. And like any type of surgery, the decision to abort should be made as a last resort. It is not to claim or imply that women tend to take this choice lightly but cases in which a person chooses to partake in various abortions are a red flag that not everybody takes the matter as seriously as they ought to.

I would like to add some final thoughts, reflections, and potential clarifications here. There are many issues that need to be addressed in terms of women’s rights. We have made headways on the path to equal rights, but we have not yet reached equality and the quest may even slip back and recede if we are not careful and attentive.

This is not just about Roe versus Wade being overturned, which is unfortunate and deplorable because as a whole and as a blind blanket statement, it curtails women’s choices and freedoms in various states, but it is also a setback as it pertains to sexual abuse and domestic violence. To hold onto a hardline view without allowing for any compassionate grounds will not benefit anyone, and there are and will and must be viable exceptions to the rules even from those who are strongly set against abortion.

On the other hand, the fact that people support the notion and institution of marriage does not mean that they are not aware of misuse and abuse occurring in these relationships especially where and when the couples are not on equal footing. There are also cultural and religious aspects to be considered and evaluated and, in many cases, re-evaluated since women are often mistreated in many of those practices and traditions.  Nonetheless, these problems are not limited to men and heterosexual marriages as they occur also in same-sex relationships and, although less common, there are also cases of emotional abuse perpetrated by women against their husbands in heterosexual relationships.

At the same time, while in the Western privileged world, we are fighting for certain specific and important rights, many basic rights are ignored and trampled upon in other parts of the world. As implied earlier, even in the West, we still have outdated, and dangerous practices that are done in the name of religion or other bigoted ways of thinking and mindsets. It is important to try to see these vital matters through a less emotional and political lens by adopting a more reasonable and realistic view and to make gains in the direction of what matters for all of humanity, not only select groups, lobbies, or agendas. All the while, we must ensure that we protect, fortify and expand upon rights and privileges, not at the expense of other equally important matters.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Mana, the Tree of Knowledge, and the Fall from Eden

Adam and Eve hugging each other
For a long time, the Story of Adam and Eve hand in hand with the advent of original sin and the subsequent Fall from Grace has been of great interest to me. In fact, I am not the only one who is puzzled/slightly obsessed with the Fall from Eden, nor is it limited to religious and philosophical discussions: various psychiatrists have tried to wrap their heads around this phenomenon, the alleged origin of humanity, and human sin. I have already expounded on different views and interpretations here, apart from my own thoughts and reflections, which, by the way, keep changing and are being modified as we speak or as I continue to read fascinating insights and theories on the topic.  

I certainly enjoyed Erich Fromm’s discussion but that was before reading Otto Rank’s brief mention of Adam and Eve in his outstanding if at times confusing, confounding, and baffling book Psychology and the Soul. Fromm’s depiction of God as not-(already)-perfect but as always striving for perfection, a dynamic and constantly evolving being that is not fully shaped and formed was thought-provoking, to say the least. In that sense, God operates on a higher spiritual plateau, which is, in fact, not an endpoint in and of itself but rather a path that continues and evolves towards growth and fulfillment.

This view raises and opens up some interesting questions and observations for me especially after reading Rank. It could represent a potential shift or rift from monotheism to henotheism and would come closer to a gnostic reading of the Bible, in particular concerning the passages of Genesis. The assumption would be since God is not perfect, he may also feel threatened by other potentially superior or at least equally capable and competitive supernatural beings. In a sense, God would play and adopt the role of an impostor and would prefer to keep his creation unaware of this and make them believe that he is indeed the sole creator and ruler of the universe.

And that brings us to the tree of knowledge. My question is why would you put and build a potential source of temptation and conflict into your own garden? The idea that it is simply a test is rather naïve. And if it were so, why did God get angry and overreact? As an instructor, I know what it feels like when students fail to perform on the level that they are capable of, and worse if they cheat on exams. But it does not and should not amount to nor emanate in wrath and ire and dire punishment!

But what if God needed the tree for himself? This is where the idea of mana can come in, the divine food/fruit that is imbued with special powers. Mana is a spiritual life force or energy; in other words, it gives you power. It is essentially neutral so this power may be used for good or for bad. Some people are born with it, but it can also be cultivated, augmented, or transmitted.

In ancient Hawaii and in Tahitian culture, there are two opposing gods that thrive on mana: the god of peace and fertility represented by Lono and the god of war and politics symbolized by Ku. Regardless of their divine status, regular humans can gain mana through right, noble and altruistic actions generally referred to as pono. But one can also increase mana through the act of prayers and through the aid, help, and assistance of spirits, be they of ancestral or divine nature.

In fact, the concept of mana is not unheard of and has been designated in different shapes and forms by various cultures and religions. Basically, it has similarities with chi, the Chinese life force and it is also affiliated with mojo and Freud’s libido. It is interesting that this life energy and force can easily be connected to the sexual drive and sexuality in general, which is not only life-giving but also life-affirming. And yet, it is important to note that the story of Adam and Eve is not about sexual sin but rather a case of disobedience.

Now let us look more concretely at Adam and Eve. The tree of knowledge was not used as bait or temptation, but it was much more practical than that: it may have been a precious source of spiritual nourishment for God himself. Although the serpent is blamed for enticing Eve to later convince and persuade Adam, the situation and circumstances may have been slightly different.

In the beginning, there may have only been Eve (Heva), who was associated with the Phoenician serpent goddess of the underworld and the mother of all living beings. Moreover, as Rank points out, she was the primal representative of the primal mothers, that is Earth, the mother goddess. In a sense then, it is Eve who gives birth to Adam, not unlike the Virgin Mary bearing the (other) Son of Man.

At the onset, Adam meaning “red” and most likely related to red clay or ground, did not have a name. But his name may have been the feminine form “adamah” meaning “moist earth” and from which he himself was formed. In that sense, neither Adam nor Eve would be motherless; the latter an emanation of the earth goddess, and the former then becomes earth and flesh destined to till and cultivate the land. (Technically, Eve would be his divine mother-creator as she has not physically given birth to him; hence, their sexual union would represent at least only ideologically an incestuous relationship.)

According to this interpretation, the serpent and Eve have fused into one. They convince Adam to set on his quest for knowledge, which is in this case, the tree of the forbidden mana. Once he partakes of it, he wakes up from his ignorant bliss and moral torpor and essentially starts the quest for immortality; in the process, he becomes willy-nilly a rival to God who is clearly and perhaps justifiably angered with as well as afraid of this outcome.

So God ensures his own safety and predominance by banishing and banning them both as personas non grata; they would never be allowed to enter or set foot in his realm again. Interestingly, when we say God has created mankind in his own image, from a psychoanalytic perspective, it makes more sense to claim that humanity ends up creating God in their image. And in this way, the divine would become an anthropomorphic projection of humanity’s wishes and desires for omnipotence and even more importantly, immortality.

It is this same desire that is a threat to God and paradise, and it is not as is generally believed a matter of sexual temptation and its subsequent activities and outcomes. Seen from the divine perspective, it is not only a case of disobedience but rather defiance of established rules, orders, and authorities.

Seen in its negative form, it is hubris that can lead to the demise of this carefully constructed creation. The sexual act is equally rebellious as it can ensue from and out of sexual desire, mana-turned-mojo that is activating and charging the libido. But more importantly, it is the life-giving aspect that is of relevance here: with this procreational impulse (as in pro-creation), it is creation that is carried forward and intergenerationally immortalized across many generations.

Ironically, if Adam and Eve indeed had immortality, to begin with, they lost it by seeking it. This may be the doom and saving grace of humanity. Our quest for immortality combined with the fear of death and annihilation keeps driving and propelling us forward in various ways and forms. It is mana-in-action, and without it, we might as well be dead. Genesis represents the birth of humanity, and it started off in its infancy with ignorance and, at the same time, in a state of undifferentiated quasi-mystical identification with the divine.

But we then moved from this state of ignorance to one of knowledge and consciousness and with it and out of it comes the creation, individuation, and differentiation of the self and others. Yet, it remains in our own hands, how we morally use this energy and life force, whether for good or for bad, for growth or for destruction, and this is essentially where free will comes into play, the very soul and essence of who and what each one of us essentially and truly is. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Infantile Amnesia, Trauma and the Recontextualization of Broad and Generalized Anxiety and PTSD

Dr. Lynn Nadel at UBC answering a question
After a hiatus of more than a couple of years - yes, you guessed it: due to the pandemic - it was finally back to (relative) normal for me with a long-overdue (masked) in-person attendance of one of my favorite traditions of psychology, the annual Quinn Memorial Lecture! This year’s talk was about memory, and it was presented by Dr. Lynn Nadel from the University of Arizona entitled “Brain Development and the Emergence of Learning and Memory in Humans and Other Animals.” And yes, humans are animals, hence the deliberate use of the word “other.”

Getting out and getting to the location was more challenging than expected. It was one of my first large-group outings since the onset of the pandemic, and I was slightly nervous. It did not help much to encounter continuous construction sites and the rerouting of traffic due to construction and closures. It was with some difficulty I managed to get to the university site and with UBC’s mandatory masking rules in place for another month, this year’s lecture was in equal measure familiar and unfamiliar. 

But the main thing was that I was finally able to be there in person and ready to take in another interesting and insightful lecture with the added bonus of a complimentary glass of (red) wine and psychological chit-chat during the subsequent reception.

The lecture started with an interesting tidbit of trivia that was new to me: hippocampus actually means “seahorse" due to the similarity in terms of its shape, and, for better or for worse, it has nothing to do with hippos. The other bit of surprising information was that the hippocampus does not develop for the first two years of life - its function emerges only after 18 to 24 months with its fully adult function from 10 to 12 years - which explains not only pre-adolescent forgetfulness but also why we cannot remember anything from our first few years of infancy, and which also implies that those who claim they do are either misguided, misled or they are simply lying to you.

I was pleased to hear Freud’s name mentioned during the lecture, but sadly, it was not done with the sufficient respect I had hoped for. And yet, there were three reasons given by the father of psychoanalysis, and all of them contain at least a ring if not a shout of truth to them. Freud hypothesized three potential reasons for the dead zone of infantile amnesia, namely that it could be because of repression (a plausibility but not applicable to all cases and situations), the second reason was the non-translatability of experiences due to an absence of and recourse to language, and finally, that it may have been due to biological development and mechanisms.

We now know that the last two are certainly of importance here. We should not forget that Freud himself was a neurologist and to be able to see things clearly in a time and age where neuroscience was in its own infancy is truly impressive. It is evident now that the hippocampus develops and matures later than various other parts of the brain and that language and self-consciousness and self-awareness do not make an impact until after the second year of life. Adding to this, it is not just a matter of being unable to form episode memories but memory, as a rule, and as a function, is not meant to capture events photographically but rather to be used as a tool for predicting future events and essentially setting up conditions and opportunities for overall learning. 

This also has serious ramifications for the experience of stress and traumatic experiences in the first fragile and impressionable years of human life. Any neglect and trauma become stored not as a concrete memory but as waves of vague, uneasy, and seemingly impenetrable feelings. This is different from the usual and regular issues and matters that the unconscious is tasked to deal with because the experiences have not been formed and are shapeless in this case.

The unconscious is the convenient and useful placeholder for and reservoir of unwanted memories, feelings, desires, wishes, and traumatic experiences. Although they seem to be locked away, the contents often leak and seep through and may create a number of neuroses, neurotic afflictions, and anxiety. But in his lecture, Dr. Nadel was claiming that our fears and anxieties may usually have a traceable cause, such as fear of dogs resulting and emanating from a memory of a dog bite in childhood. But the problem is what if we cannot find or trace our fears, phobias, and anxieties back to any specific event? For instance, what would cause the prevalent fear of spiders even though the person in question may have never had any negative contact or experience with those insects?

Of course, we could refer to Jung’s collective unconscious and that there are archetypical fears that regardless of personal experience, we collectively inherit and operate within. But another possible explanation could be that we might have had a negative experience say of a bite but since it occurred at a time where we did not have access to a) any memory - remember we are still lacking that capacity before the age of 2 - and in addition to having no access or recourse to b) the benefits and clarity of language.

When we experience fear-inducing moments with a clear and distinct sense of threat, a road accident, burglary, or attack by an animal, we do not need language to tell us what to do, but we instinctively and automatically engage in fight, flight, or freeze behaviors. But what if it is something that is at least from a rational perspective a non-threatening and often benign-seeming situation? We understand how the sight of dogs can be fear-inducing for some but few of us would feel that way about puppies. So how to make sense of that kind of seemingly irrational fear?

In this case, we sense not only concrete, specific, plausible, and traceable triggering experiences of fear but also the vague, broad, and generalized forms of anxiety in which threats are sensed and perceived where none of them seem to exist except in our own perception and minds.

This may be due to traumatic experiences at a point in time where we were either too young to process them or too overwhelmed by them. Infants may internalize the dread alongside feelings of fear and since they have no context nor nothing to compare it with and have nothing to express nor make sense of it, it remains floating and elusive as a general sense of ominous and foreboding threat. This could lead to panic attacks and the fear of open spaces, with agoraphobia being a less common form of fear as opposed to claustrophobia and the fear of spiders and heights, which many of us commonly experience. 

This would be then due to the amygdala being switched on without the mediation and aid of the hippocampus in the form of stored memory as well as a lack of rational thinking via language and logic in the prefrontal cortex. And yet, the feeling of unease might get imprinted and recorded across various parts of the brain and hand in hand with sensations stored in the body. In an experiment where rats were stressed early on (poor things), the effects of early environmental stress could be demonstrated as well as how the hippocampus is loaded with stress receptors and how stress affects and weakens the development of the hippocampus. 

In fact, a similar process may occur even with adults who experience significant stress and trauma. The clearest example in history would be when perfectly healthy adults came back from World War I and were shell-shocked, i.e., simply not being able to shake off, process and digest their feelings of fear and dread and making it difficult for them to function in daily life. Those “shell-shocked” individuals did not have any issues or precursors with mental health, and we know now that they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When seemingly random events trigger those events (and it may not even have a trigger or provocation, to begin with), the afflicted person is not simply remembering what happened to them, but they are reliving the whole stressful and traumatizing experience repeatedly. It is not a case of episodic memory, but it seems that they are not able to recall it without the mental anguish and debilitating bodily sensations that are intimately linked and associated with the original experience.

This is often due to stress downregulating the hippocampus, which would usually give it a label and a context, and increasing the amygdala, which is connected with sensations of fear. In other words, the reactions to threats are isolated and taken out of any and all context, and this enhances emotional memory in the amygdala. The hippocampus is further weakened and affected due to exposure to too much cortisol.

As a potential form of treatment, people suffering from this condition could be encouraged, helped, and guided to contextualize and in some cases even re-contextualize those experiences, that is to give them a definite form and shape and then be able to store them properly in memory and be able to understand and process them more effectively. Evidently, this boils down not just to a matter of reason and rational thinking, but it can help to understand it and to put it into context; then, one can gradually deal with the emotional aspects and counterparts without being overwhelmed by those paralyzing feelings of dread and fear.

As you can see, this year’s Quinn Memorial Lecture was another wonderful opportunity to learn more about the brain and psychological processes and where I was once again able to mix and mingle with like-minded and interesting people. It was indeed a most memorable lecture!