Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Billy Joel and The Stranger Within and Inside of You

A man in a suit is sitting on a bed looking at a mask
Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone”

Billy Joel

One of the questions that often remains unasked and underexplored is the one about who we really are versus who we think we are. This is a matter of great importance, especially when we are encouraged, motivated, and even driven to be ourselves often without acknowledging the unknown, often hidden, and sometimes repressed aspects of ourselves. Naturally, and most likely for good reason, there are parts of ourselves that we hide from others or rather choose not to reveal to them but there is also a stranger within us that we fail to look at and who may suddenly and unexpectedly lurk its head from the shadows and kick us right between the eyes.

To delve further into this, I am going to look at a musician who despite his fame and glory is in my view still underrated especially when it comes to his lyrical and poetic qualities and propensities. In fact, I believe that his repertoire, which includes numerous hits and catchy but meaningful and impactful tunes, has become part of our global psyche no matter where we live and regardless of what generation we may be from and what our belief system is.

This particular post represents a trilogy of sorts vis-à-vis this rather interesting and versatile singer-songwriter by the name of Billy Joel, and in this cyberspace and blogosphere, I have previously discussed his song “Honesty” in the context of a professional and personal lack thereof and his rocking “Room of My Own” with the background of re-creating, refurbishing, and re-decorating your very own place and creative headspace.

For our purposes here, I shall discuss The Stranger. This iconic song starts off with about a minute of a purely musical and melodic introduction that includes soft dreamy piano combined with melancholy whistling both of which are filled with yearning and longing. This song made an impact on me during my youth. The youth in question was interested in existential philosophy while cautiously dipping his toes into the deep waters of depth psychology but with limited knowledge and much less experience in these fields, let alone the minefields of love and romance.

Although The Stranger is mainly a song of self-discovery and the revelation or realization of hidden aspects and dimensions of oneself, it provides an additional layer of complexity by considering and looking at interpersonal romantic relationships, an area in which I had practically no experience whatsoever at the time. In fact, my first encounters with this song occurred during a bittersweet period of youthful idealism and constant and continuous yearning and longing for desire and romance.

And yet this song not only appealed to me but also spoke to me, albeit in a language and in terms that I did not and could not consciously grasp at the time. Yet the overall message is that there is a stranger in each of us, a part of us that we intentionally hide from others and that others hide from us – as the singer finds out to his surprise when he tries to seduce his partner. In fact, he used to consider himself a “great romancer,” i.e. skilled and adept at the art of seduction but his loved one bluntly and unexpectedly rejected his advances without even giving him a reason (ouch!).

(Incidentally, in a rather hilarious mishearing and misunderstanding of lyrics, something which I am not immune against and which was more prevalent during my youth when I was not as fluent in the English language, for the longest time I had assumed that she refused him and gave him the slip for the western Bonanza, a fact that would have been a much funnier and even more shocking line and reason had this indeed been true!).

Interestingly, the first time I encountered Billy Joel in my youth was via an interview he gave about his most recent album at the time. In that program, he was wearing shades and looked cool but then he said something that made an impact on my youthful ears. He said giving a concert was like having sex; the louder they are, the better one gets, and the more he would enjoy his performance on stage. I was immediately intrigued by this artist and have been listening to his music ever since.

Yet this specific song appealed to me back then and continues to do so throughout the years. With 20/20 psychoanalytic hindsight, this may not be so strange after all because I was a triple stranger myself, at home with my family, as a foreigner in a country that often reminded me in no uncertain terms that I did not belong while also being a stranger to myself or rather misrepresenting me to myself.

Hence, my fascination was not just based on its catchy tune but moreover the lyrics and the theme of The Stranger, which strongly resonated with and within me. We all have a face that we hide from the purview of others, it told me. As a teenager, these words are most soothing because you feel misunderstood by your parents and sometimes also your peers. So you start wearing a mask with which you decide to please others or hide aspects of yourself that you think they do not appreciate, or a combination of both. The more you wear the mask, the further you move and remove yourself from your true self and identity.

Essentially, this comes down to a case of authenticity versus putting on an act, and that is certainly part of the song’s appeal as it points to the fact that we intentionally and intently hide facets of ourselves and bring to the foreground parts that have little if anything to do with who we really are deep inside. Everyone is so untrue.

And yet, seen from my current perspective, this lack of connection also includes parts of ourselves that are lodged in the unconscious and that we do not have currently access to. In fact, there is a stranger that we have never met but resides within us. It can be a dark side of our nature, but it could also be the amalgamation of repressed desires and wishes or even realizations. In that sense, we are strangers to ourselves and may find ourselves at odds with thoughts and feelings that seem to come out of the blue and supposedly have nothing to do with who we are.

This gets more complicated when another person becomes involved and entangled with it, especially since they also bring their own stranger and emotional baggage with them. And if neither side knows themselves, we can find ourselves in deep waters and much bigger trouble. This then comes in addition to and on top of the secrets we willingly withhold and conceal from the eyes and the ears of the other.

This should not be a source of worry and concern because we all make mistakes and we hold mistaken assumptions both about ourselves and others. A relationship that is filled with secrets cannot be authentic but a relationship with no secret whatsoever may not be realistic or even commendable either.

Moreover, there are parts that we hide because we feel others will not appreciate or tolerate and accept them. But in a truly loving relationship, you should be as close to who you really are deep inside and as much as is possibly possible. Put differently, the fewer secrets you have the better. It also reduces your stress level because if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Nothing can be revealed if all has been already exposed, whereas no dirty laundry means no washing is needed.

In that sense, your relations can be your home, not only literally but also figuratively. Home is not merely where your heart is but where you yourself find yourself and reflect who you are, warts and all. And it is this whole package where you need to accept yourself first and then have the other accept it in the same way that you accept them with all their flaws and glories. All this time, perfection and/or idealism can be the enemy, the hidden poison to any real life-and-blood relationship.

To sum up, do not ignore the voice of the stranger. Listen to it. It wants to communicate something to you, and you may not understand it immediately, but it does have something important to say to you. As Billy Joel sings, he is not always evil nor is he always wrong and all your good intentions will not quench its desires while the fire will keep burning deep inside. 

And if you are not aware and careful enough, don’t be surprised to be kicked right between the eyes. Instead, it is best to listen, make amends with him or her, and get to know your stranger better. Because in the end, the stranger is not merely a part of you, it is you.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Replaying the Past Decade as a Scripted Rise of the Underdog Movie

Ripples within a water surface
As someone who lives for and through movies, it will come as not much of a stretch for me to assume that life may be an epic movie itself. I have written a few posts on films and filmmaking and have previously compared teaching to directing especially in relation to content, theme, and pacing so why not expand it all and include the rather tumultuous past decade of ours.

It is merely meant as an exercise, a thought experiment of sorts and not meant as disrespect nor parody and certainly not mockery. Various issues mentioned here have been a source of pain and suffering and I think this needs to be acknowledged and stated explicitly, especially in these volatile, excessively politically correct times of ours.

No harm nor ill will is intended but rather an open and flexible mind with a certain amount of playfulness is requested. I have refrained from using actual names, but it should be clear enough to most readers who it is referred to in each of these situations. It is recommended to distance oneself and to view and consider these issues and matters from a different angle and perspective and to allow for thinking outside of the box albeit there may or may not be some social and political commentary or asides embedded here.

So here it goes, starting off with a rhetorical question: What if the past decade were a scripted movie? What would be its genre, and would you consider it badly or rather well-scripted, sloppily, or carefully constructed? And more importantly, what would be its theme? I will not dive into my personal life with its unprecedented level of drama and upheaval including moments of comedy and irony, both of the intentional and the unintentional kind, but rather I want to look at more national and occasionally global events from and through this prism.

Leaving aside any potential author, be it God, the universe, evolution, regression, or just randomly strung and woven moments of sheer luck mixed with karma, let us look at certain groundbreaking and shapeshifting events. Most of my outlook is focused squarely on what has been going on in North America, and more precisely United States, but again, these do or did have worldwide ripples, effects, and repercussions.

I put the starting point a bit further past the needle of the decade, namely the historic moment in which a black man became the first American president eerily materializing a statement or wish made forty years earlier by another presidential candidate. What should have been a moment and occasion of joy and celebration for everyone was unfortunately marred by certain people who strongly objected to this. Add to it, a personal background and dimension for a man with distinguishable hair who was made fun of and did not take it lightly and who then started his own push and drive toward the presidency.

A given amount of order was then upturned by chaos. This is not necessarily a political statement, but we suddenly had a reality show host with practically no political experience really and actually become the president of a global superpower. Other previous presidents may not have been seen and considered as being up to par and standard for this distinguished and noble position, yet all this pales immensely in comparison.

Whoever penned this movie not only liked upheaval and dramatic unexpected twists and turns but also favored the noted underdog. In this case, a brash person who spoke before he thought and promised what people loved to hear was quickly propelled to power. When people claimed that it was a stunt or a belated and long-in-the-works prank by the man on the moon, then it did not seem as far-fetched. For the longest time, I was asking myself if this was indeed an elaborate you-have-been-punked show (and part of me is still waiting and hoping).

The events did not go as planned. From the first African American president, the glass ceiling was to be broken with the first woman president. Instead, what trumped was a media circus act mixed with elements of wrestling mania. In retrospect, there is an element of irony if not comedy here. It is certainly a case of innovative writing as no one would have expected it to turn out this way, including the elected man himself who could not have dreamt this up even in his wildest dreams.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, a comedian who played a teacher who accidentally became president of his country and tackled corruption actually decided to run for president. He must have been inspired by the reality show host’s success and must have asked himself, why not, if he can become president, so can I, and what have I got to lose anyhow. And against all odds, or perhaps because people wanted someone new and different and chose the underdog, he was elected.

But the plot thickens. This ex-comedian who was not a career politician and only played one in his show, took this job most seriously even more than a serious-minded politician would. But suddenly, he was faced with one of the biggest moments of crises in world history since the Second World War. The ruler of his powerful neighbor who was generally considered strategical, practical, and even rational, had an unexpected change of heart. His character arc went downhill or berserk, and he acted on purely emotional impulses, grounds, and desires instead of the strategy and reason he was known and lauded for.

The stage and conflict were set between David and Goliath. What should have been a quick military operation of a few days and an overnight win for Goliath turned into a long-lasting and ongoing war. In fact, the novice, the one with practically no political experience ended up being much more up to the task than perhaps anybody else in his country or in the world would have been. What this David lacked in experience and stature, he made up in courage, and again the underdog seemed to have the upper hand or at least has been able to resist in remarkable ways until now.

But that is not where the plethora of underdog stories end. We also have a convicted criminal, addict, and ex-con turning into a saint but more importantly, sparking and becoming the name and the face of a worldwide movement toward much-needed and lacking justice and equality. The burning issue of climate change is not addressed and handled by seasoned experts nor politicians and statesmen who have been decrying it for years as inconvenient truths or upcoming and impending global disasters but instead, we get an emotional hot-headed emotionally unbalanced teen who does not mince words and chastises world leaders for their lack of action and their hypocrisy.

And what about those voices who had not been heard since what amounts to time immemorial? Apart from ethnic minorities, women also rose to the occasion with a movement of resistance that was rather ironically started by a group of privileged Hollywood actresses purporting to represent and speak for all women across the globe.

The pendulum seems to have swung to the other side as women and those who view and define themselves differently have gained a sense of empowerment and have come back resoundingly, their voices even overpowering and drowning those who up to now believed themselves in power and control.

The tables have turned, and some of the victims started using the power of victimization to become the new bullies and perpetrators in this cycle of control and domination. A quasi-biblical lesson and a reminder that we should not judge lest be judged by others and that the first will indeed end up coming last. Religion that considered itself the standard bearer of morality has been upstaged by others who similarly judge, point fingers, and punish but merely not in the name of religion. 

As if these conflicts were not enough on their own, why not throw in a global pandemic for good measure? This is the ultimate lesson of humility for those who think or thought they were in control of things; they were and are not. It was an equalizer of some sort where everyone was touched and affected in one way or another through suffering and ordeals – although even then there were different levels and degrees and certain malpractices and injustices would be revealed in the process.

At the same time, the script underscored the fact that despite some battles still ongoing and the immense amount of pain and suffering both in the past and the present, all things considered, we have weathered various storms, at least for the time being, and largely thanks to innovative science and actions. Although there are clouds on the horizon, we should have the strength and resilience to face the looming challenges but that is the subject and the theme of another movie (the sequel?) yet to be made.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

The Hubris of Human Thought Vis-à-Vis The Existence of God

Inside of the Cathedral with light and hues of blue
Do you believe in God? This is a common question we ask others or, in turn, we get asked by others. It is posed as a yes-or-no question. Some evade a direct answer by claiming to be agnostic, which is practically a different way of asking the pointed rhetorical question Who knows?

As a matter of fact, the only one who would know in this case would be God Almighty Himself but then that gets us entangled logically and semantically since God would only know whether He exists if He did exist and if God did not exist, then how could He know that He does not exist? It is like asking the question of whether you are asleep. No response could mean yes or simple annoyance with the silly question followed by the request just let me go to sleep, will you?

Cogito ergo sum. Our thinking and the capacity or lack thereof define whether we exist, or ipso facto, do not exist. This comes at the expense of feelings, which do not seem to matter here. Feelings can create doubt or incertitude whereas cold rational thinking is more rock solid in comparison. At the same time, this stance could also exclude a large portion of sentient beings. In fact, Descartes did not think (!) or believe that animals had reasoning capabilities or a soul for that matter. But he was and is wrong, and hamsters do have souls.

To the degree that Descartes underestimated human and animal capabilities, we have the unfortunate tendency of overestimating our own. Nowhere is this hubris clearer than when it comes to the discussion on the existence or non-existence of God. The question of whether there is a power higher than our own ends up boiling down to our own personal judgment and opinion. I believe so, and poof! God comes into existence, while the I don’t think so comment would just as quickly and easily believe and evaporate Him out of existence.

In existentialism, we often associate and equate meaning with one’s own personal view of what is meaningful and relevant to one’s core self and being. Meaning can take unique shapes, forms, and hues according to one’s desires, wishes, and belief systems. But it is quite a step and a steep jump when it comes to divine matters. If a belief in God is in fact wishful thinking, or worse, pure fantasy, then Freud would be absolutely right about projecting the ultimate father figure up there into the heavenly spheres.

But the fact remains that if God did exist, He would do so regardless of whether we believe in him or not. It would be a fact not contingent or dependent upon one’s personal belief system or convenience. For the longest time, we (including yours truly) used to judge people who believed in the existence of aliens rather harshly but by the looks and current appearance of it, the facts and evidence seem to be heading in their favor and direction. Worse, we went through a phase where belief and denial went headstrong against science when some opinionated people, perhaps to this day, held onto the belief that COVID did not exist. And further left afield, there are those who claim that the Earth is flat.

But their rejection of the disease did not simply make it vanish away nor does believing the Earth to be flat actually make it so in reality. It comes down to a simple matter of whether God or a higher power exists or does not exist. God, unlike Schrodinger’s unfortunate cat, cannot simply exist for some who believe in Him and at the same time not for others. Of course, there is also the possible outcome that God does not exist, which comes then with the charged claim that billions of people are not only wrong and misguided but downright delusional as they are simply praying into the void.

But facts are facts, and they should not be swayed or influenced by popular opinion, sentiment, or passion. It is certainly possible that God does not exist, but I think science if it is a science and not a dogmatic religion and if it does follow and abide by its own credo and criteria then at least under current knowledge and circumstances, science would not be able to prove without any doubt that there is no Creator or higher power so-to-speak. The hypothesis of the Big Bang can explain and account for what comes after the creation of the universe but not what came before it. Scientists are still puzzling over what was before the Big Bang or before time was born. Poetry seems to come much closer to the truth in this case, but poetry is elusive and a slippery slope for the logical mind.

But how could we know for sure that God does exist? Why do so many around the world claim and swear by it? We enter the realm of intuition and gut feeling combined with personal experiences of the paranormal that tend to be rather hard to verify and prove to those who do not believe this to be true. How to explain to someone what chocolate ice cream tastes and feels like if they have never had chocolate or ice cream before.

Just trust me is all that we could say here. In fact, we are asked to either bet on God’s existence, a kind of blind but cautious wager à la Pascal or to just hold our breath, close our eyes and take a leap of faith as Kierkegaard and others would suggest (please note that the leap is only figurative and never literal).

Existentially and essentially, there is this gap left by the void of God and so we look for ways of filling it with close-enough substitutes. Ironically, that could be science as well. Although Freud vehemently denied and decried the existence of the otherworldly or the mystical, we have his once protégé and projected successor later turned persona-non-grata Otto Rank who underscored the importance of the psyche in the field of psychology. Rank so wanted to believe in a soul but never seemed to fully accept and embrace the idea, something that felt and came more naturally to the more psychic-oriented, “spiritually” inclined Carl Gustav Jung.

And yet essentially, the question is the same. We either have a soul or we do not, and if we do, then denying or rejecting that we have a soul does not make it any less so. If you deny having a body, you would be seen as irrational and delusional, but it is more easily acceptable to deny the soul. We say we are more materialistic in outlook believing our own eyes and only what we can see, and yet, we live in a world where there are wireless devices that connect to invisible sources operated by unseen electromagnetic waves, not to mention the enigmatic and paradoxical and inherently entangled and bundled (not to say messed up) world of quantum physics.

But what would account for proof and evidence of God’s existence and presence? Then again, if God exists in my worldview only when, whenever, and as long as He makes my wishes and desires come true, then that would mean that He would not and does not exist if and when my prayers and wishes are not answered and are left hanging and dangling in the void. Again, the hubris of it all is that we would have the power to will or not will God into existence as long as He fulfills our will and demand or does not fulfill them. Put differently, God exists as long as He is on my side; if bad things happen to me, such as my prayers being left unanswered, then He must not exist. We are back at Square One.

Let me retrace my steps. This question about God’s existence independent of our belief in him came to me when watching Kiarostami’s movie Ten. In one of the segments, a young love-stricken woman was asking or pleading with God to unite her with her lover. He did not.

I then assumed that she would be angered and even doubt His existence because her wish had not been granted. But no, what if God did purposely not respond to her will and actually went against it. What if His will being done did not include the wishes and desires of this young female. If you prefer a more generic term, what if the universe did not give you what you asked for, does that mean that the universe did not exist?

Some would say that God acts in mysterious ways that are not always reasonable or fathomable or even logical to human minds. Although that seems to be the easy way out of a difficult dilemma and conundrum, which would also entail and assuage the problem of evil or which one was first, the chicken or the egg, there seems to be some uncomfortable and inconvenient truth to it all.

At least when seen and looked at from the human perspective. We would then not be as powerful as we think we are, nor are we immortal. It clips the wings of our flight and exposes the hubris we have created after our many discoveries and accomplishments. Instead of being the one who decides whether God may or may not live, we could attain a certain humility about it all and not just claim ignorance or lack of knowledge but openly state that despite all our knowledge and wisdom, there are certain things that we do not know and acknowledge our limitations. This does not make us less as we continue swirling around on a tiny orb in an endless expansive universe.