Category Archives: Society

Italy. 15 hours near Pisa

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Italy. 15 hours near Pisa

To even consider a 15-hour drive (round trip) for a measly 15 waking hours in Italy, you must be pretty desperate.

We not only considered it, we actually went. Three weeks of winter in the month of May, all hell breaking loose at work and a nasty throat infection did it. We wanted Italy. We needed Italy. We found a nice bed-and-breakfast near Lucca at €120/night for four (Triolivo, in Guamo), packed a bag, and didn’t think twice.

An ambition that had been simmering in our subconscious quickly developed into a full-blown obsession. We want to see the leaning tower of Pisa! We’ve been to Italy so many times by now, how could we have missed it? I mean, it’s not exactly hard to find. It’s right there, on every children’s atlas, right next to the red Ferrari. Simply had to see it. Simply had to climb it.

293 steps and we were at the top for the noon bells! Was it worth it? Well, our son was crawling on all fours under the large bell to explore the sound mechanism, and was so excited he even forgot to cover his ears in the hubbub, so you be the judge of that.

What else was on the list? The charming little citadel of Lucca (where Giacomo Puccini was born), sun and storm in the Tuscan hills, a seaside view of the Apennine mountains with surfers in the roaring waves, profiteroles, dry soup made of fresh tomato puree and white bread, and the hot sand at Camaiore.

We only spent one night, but came home with a bagful of great memories. I think our son’s exclamation on the way back pretty much sums it up: “But we were there for 3 days!”

Enjoy… 🙂

The Sacred and the Profane

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“Just as a modern man’s habitation has lost its cosmological values, so too his body is without religious or spiritual significance. In a summary formula we might say that for the nonreligious men of the modern age, the cosmos has become opaque, inert, mute; it transmits no message, it holds no cipher. The feeling of the sanctity of nature survives today in Europe chiefly among rural populations, for it is among them that a Christianity lived as cosmic liturgy still exists.”

Mircea Eliade – The Sacred and the Profane (The Nature of Religion) – written in 1956

PS: Could science (or rather, scientism and other isms) supply the new non-theistic religious experience? Certain ideological positions seem to enjoy “sanctity” status, while others are taboo. There is even talk of “brand religion” in marketing, with brand communities built around a consciousness of kind, traditions and rituals (for shared memories, experiences and behaviors), and a sense of solidarity and moral responsibility among members! Can man make sense of his journey and his life without transcendence, and without a higher authority or a fixed frame of reference (the Absolute)? What do you think?

Quotes of the Day

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“When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny. (…) There is danger there – a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?”

Arthur Conan Doyle – The  Adventure of the Creeping Man

“- Your life is not your own, he said. Keep your hands off it.

– What use is it to anyone?

– How can you tell? The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger

Third week of spring

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Luminous torrents of calmness.

The sun, shining, muffles the sounds of everything but the birds.

Our inner discord is rendered quiet.

Brightness explodes in every hidden corner.

Graves and hills bake in the heat, grow bellies of grass,

pubescent voluptuousness.

Sweet violets spill their inebriating fragrance.

Amidst it all, elongated shadows of men move along the sidewalk

like insecure writing,

trying to make sense.

Arrival: The Gift of Language (A Film Review)

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Is time really linear and sequential like our writing? Or could it be, for a more advanced awareness, circular: a spherical sum of simultaneities? When past and future become perceptible and intertwined, is the present any more tangible than the emotion of a flashback or the knowledge of a glimpse forward? Is a vision, a revelation, any less “real” than what we call immediate “objective” reality?

If we were able to see into the future, would we still choose to live it? Can something or someone, once it has existed, ever slip into non-existence? And if time as we imagine it really does not exist, then are possession and ownership really possible or consequential? Can anything (especially time, loved ones) really be gone and lost forever? Or is everything and everyone just a gift.

Is conflict (especially armed conflict) anything else than the ludicrous, petty and futile attempt of an inferior understanding to “protect” an illusory here-and-now? What is the meaning of “weapon”?

Under the guise of a sci-fi action movie/thriller à la Independence Day, Arrival is the poetic unravelling of all these philosophical questions. Enigmatic and dreamy – and played beautifully in all its eeriness by Amy Adams – it ditches the fetishization of science for the more ethereal challenges of language – this system of arbitrary sounds and signs that we take for granted and which reflects, shapes, and limits the way we understand the world.

The film provides an almost mystical fusion of spirituality (albeit more understated) and science (linguistics, mathematical modelling) to challenge many common-sense notions and reawaken us to that foundational sentence: “In the beginning, there was the Word.”

The heroine, Louise Banks, a reputed linguist, is required by the U.S. government to help the armed forces communicate with an alien life form that has materialized on Earth, in 12 different locations across the globe. She must figure out their communication system and translate from human to alien and back, in order to understand the visitors’ intentions. The process is complex.  It becomes apparent that language – an element so overlooked by many of us on a daily basis – is in fact the ferment, the connector and the foundation making it all possible – from science to inter-species communication.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not mentioned for nothing. It states that the structure of the language we speak greatly influences how we think and behave, how we relate to the world and what sense we make of it. Mastery of a language goes beyond vocabulary and syntax. To internalize another language is to receive the gift of that culture’s schemata and scripts, of their way of perceiving, ordering and making sense of the world. It is always a window into a new, richer understanding of what might be out there.

The film raises some interesting questions from semiotics, about signs and how we attribute signification, about how we decipher speaker meaning to get to real understanding (does the human term “weapon” mean the same to the superior conscience and technology of the aliens – an instrument of death and destruction – or does it mean “tool”?).

We cannot communicate (verbally!) that which we cannot conceptualize. That which we have no word, no sign for. That which our brain has no notion for. Language is constitutive. It not only describes and reflects, it creates realities. But to understand fully, we need more than signs and words: we need meta-communication, para-verbal and non-verbal communication. A presence, an availability, a putting-ourselves-out-there, emotions, trust. Successful communication is taking a chance and moving closer to one another. To create that common reality. To enter each other’s understanding and “read” each other without the mediation of filters.

The alien “ships” are indescribable with our scientific knowledge and lexical fund; they are conundrums. They are present, but they do not literally “land”, since they float inexplicably at some distance above the Earth’s surface. They defy gravity, yet there is gravity inside. They emit no radiation and no waste. The creatures’ writing is circular, it would be like us writing with both hands from both directions at the same time and calculating the exact space we need to meet in the middle. This is a powerful metaphor of past, future and present meeting and intermingling in a multi-dimensional continuum, of left and right hemisphere (not only of the brain, but of the planet) collaborating, etc.

The antithesis between the strict authorization procedure by the military of basic word lists Louise wants to “teach” the heptapods and the incontinent, shallow, incessant speculation of news channels (leading to insecurity and outbursts of violence across the globe) are a poignant reminder of the grave responsibility borne by those who deal with and in words.  “If all you give them is a hammer (…) everything will become a nail.” What we consider to be hard facts is often nothing more than an interpretation – namely, our interpretation of our perceptions. Getting to a more timeless truth requires not only interdisciplinarity, but also the simultaneous and collaborative inputs of all points of view within the same discipline, a multi-dimensional piecing together of complex threads, of different angles of looking at the problem.

It is only appropriate that the film allows a variety of different readings, too. As Romanian philosopher and essayist Andrei Plesu once wrote, the largest, most intriguing questions of life – such as what is time, what is the meaning and purpose of our existence, etc. – cannot be answered “geometrically”, because no answer would ever be exhaustive; they require parables, little stories where all facets of the truth can be brought to light without excluding others.

From a European and Christian perspective, the parallelism between the 12 alien ships (and their 12 pieces of the message) and the 12 Apostles is always at hand. As Louise begins to grasp the heptapods’ language and her awareness expands with this new understanding, as she is given visions, dreams and memories that cannot be clearly ordered on the time axis, as she finds herself solving a major conflict and preserving peace without the conscious awareness of what she had said, we are reminded of Pentecost, the glossolalia and the Holy Spirit alighting on the Apostles (as messengers, too, of a new gospel) and the Biblical verse: “… do not worry how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” Louise does not “learn” the language, she acquires it, she receives it like a gift. It begins to flow from within her, it begins to work within her almost below the level of consciousness.

Arrival also touches on the issue of prescience vs. predestination. When Louise receives the gift of seeing into the future – as heptapods do – she is confronted with all the coming pain, yet she never for one moment is devoid of choice. Ian’s question “Want to make a baby?” drives home that point. She could still say no. She obviously still has free will, and she can make her own choice, but the beauty and fascination of life and love, and her newfound sense of the overlapping and bidirectional nature of time make it an almost inescapable choice.

A mysterious, cathartic movie for all those searching for a richer meaning beyond the here and now, Arrival also brings back some of the lost glamour and appreciation for the complexities of being a (good and responsible) translator.

Revisiting the Stoics

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Well, you know what they say, some things never change. Anxious, dissatisfied, relationship not going well? So what else is new?

I’ve recently come across the following, from Epictetus:

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.” (…)

“Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.” (…)

“Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent, and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own, and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (…)

– from Enchiridion I

And also, this:

“When I see anyone anxious, I say, what does this man want? Unless he wanted something or other not in his power, how could he still be anxious?  A musician, for instance, feels no anxiety while he is singing by himself; but when he appears upon a stage he does, even if his voice be ever so good, or he plays ever so well. For what he wishes is not only to sing well, but likewise to gain applause. But this is not in his own power.”

– from Discourses, On Anxiety.


Source: W. Ferraiolo, Stoic Counsel for Interpersonal Relations

Walk, sadness, walk!

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I took my sadness for a walk.

I walked it right out of the park, past the tram stops and onto

the streets flooded with the slow, hesitant steps of old age.

 

I walked and walked and walked it out of my body.

Then I walked some more with it like one walks with a walking stick

until it got blunt.

 

Popov the Clown died yesterday.

Popov the Clown used to say, ‘as long as you have somewhere to go,

you’ll live another day.

But when you don’t know where you’re going tomorrow, you’re nearing

death.’

 

So I walked. Walked my sadness. Showed it the way.

And after just about enough walking,

I felt invigorated and could stand again.

 

So I set it free like a helium balloon and said, ‘Go now.

Go

make the trees red. My eyes have cried enough.’

 

It’s late. It’s November.

A tiny airplane inches forward across the spotless blue sky.

And the sun bathing my face is a thing of beauty.

Ancient words of counsel?

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“It may be said that every individual man and all men in common aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid. This end, to sum it up briefly, is HAPPINESS AND ITS CONSTITUENTS. (…)

We may define happiness as prosperity combined with virtue; or as independence of life; or as the secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure; or as good condition of property and body, together with the power of guarding one’s property and body and making use of them. (…)

From this definition of happiness it follows that its constituent parts are:

  • good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age, such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers, together with fame, honor, good luck, and virtue.

A man cannot fail to be completely independent if he possesses these internal and external goods (…). (Goods of the soul and of the body are internal. Good birth, friends, money and honor are external). (…)

The phrases ‘possession of good children’ and ‘of many children’ bear a quite clear meaning. Applied to a community, they mean that its young men are numerous and of good quality: good in regard to bodily excellences (…) and also in regard to the excellences of the soul, which in a young man are temperance and courage. (…) Communities as well as individuals should lack none of these perfections, in their women as well as in their men. Where, as among the Lacedaemonians, the state of women is bad, almost half of human life is spoilt.”

Aristotle – Rhetoric, 1360b-1361a.

(Translated by W. Rhys Roberts – The Modern Library, New York, 1984)

On the future of education

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Motto: “The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn – and change.” (Carl Rogers)

I’m a structured learner. I admit it. I like engorging information, reflecting upon it, and structuring it mentally or on paper. But it is only when I manage to enrich that information with something new, with an additional original thought, to move forward and share/discuss/debate that new understanding with others, that I feel real learning has taken place. And I get a kick out of that.

I did very good in formal education until I became an adult and realized there are so many more ways to learn and move forward. Now I enjoy handpicking my classes, without necessarily pursuing a degree, challenging myself to face new situations, looking at things and people from different perspectives. I guess I’m constructing my own meaning and purpose for learning now. My children have taught me to learn and think about learning in different ways.

There are four types and four theories of learning: cognitive, behavioral, social, humanist. Four reasons why we learn. We learn to know, we learn to do, we learn to live together and we learn to be.

And there are many styles of learning, too. We learn by memorizing and reflecting (abstract learning), we learn by observing (seeing, hearing, touching), we learn by doing and applying, we learn through emotional experiences sometimes. We learn skills, but we also learn wisdom, critical thinking, a better understanding – of ourselves, of others, of the world at large.

I believe in lifelong learning. In this constant moving forward. Not as a compulsory course of formal education, but as a kind of openness to growth and a willingness to open up to new things. Learning is change, the willingness and the ability to understand more and perhaps even overhaul one’s convictions. I believe that is both the present and the future of education.

As I’ve just read in a great book, “what if, in our universe, there is a possibility of becoming that which we aren’t yet…”? (Muriel Barbery – L’élégance du hérisson).

No justification for mass murders

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I have kept my mouth shut for the past week to process the terrifying and abhorrent events that unfolded in Germany and France. Trying to get to the facts. Trying to make sense of the senselessness.

But as I keep browsing through (parts of) the press, I can keep quiet no longer. I have read too many articles that attempt to justify what has happened and somehow pin it on the host society. Do we intend to abolish personal responsibility altogether? Do we intend to play into the hands of those who hate and want to destroy us?

Look: German culture might not be the most accomodating place on Earth for foreigners. I have felt it, many others have felt it. But so what? No country can ever please all of its residents. And feeling unhappy/depressed/discriminated should never be accepted as an excuse for committing atrocities.

There is and always has been injustice everywhere. All societies have disenfranchised, discriminated and disgruntled minorities. People whom life or their peers have treated badly. And yet, they don’t go around detonating bombs, blowing innocent people up at random, or hacking them to death with axes and knives on trains and in the middle of the street. Because there is a societal taboo on these things. Because normally, they don’t even occur to people. Because how one deals with injustice and frustration has everything to do with the system of beliefs one chooses to embrace.

It is only when an ideology comes along to justify and encourage this kind of behavior as a legitimate consequence of someone’s “suffering” that horrors like these occur. There are deadly ideologies among us which glorify such a response to frustration and to injustice as legitimate, and we should not buttress them. We should not allow murder to become a pathway to notoriety and fame! Murder is not the way to give meaning to a meaningless life.

So when I see smart people – analysts, intellectuals, journalists – treading the mill of how society as a whole has supposedly wronged or failed these deranged criminals, and thus bears part of the responsibility, I can only shake my head.

I don’t think finding excuses for this kind of behavior is the way to go. Finding excuses only makes frenzied individuals feel even more legitimized – and legitimization is the third stage of conflict escalation. The next is radicalization.

Legitimizing this kind of behavior makes it socially acceptable. That is wrong! Our society should make it clear that absolutely nothing can justify this kind of behavior. We cannot go around saying, well, it makes sense, because they were bullied. Or, well, it makes sense, because they were exploited and discriminated against. No. We should not build these kinds of causal relationships – that somehow, these things are a “natural” consequence. Because by finding excuses for the perpetrators, by espousing theories which attempt to understand and even legitimize terrorism, we are gradually dismantling the taboo on mass murders. Turning them little by little into a socially accepted norm, something “we just have to live with” – and thus stoking the fire of the next round of “avengers”.

I am reminded now of a lesson in social psychology by Dan Ariely. In an attempt to stop vandalism in the Petrified Forest National Park, the Park’s management put up a sign pointing out the problem and informing visitors that so and so many tons of rock formations were being stolen every year. The result? Stealing only increased. Because instead of feeling shamed into protecting it (as our flawed intuition would tell us), visitors now felt that stealing was “the thing to do” in that park. Something along the lines of “if everyone else does it, and it’s so ubiquitous already, why should I be the only sucker who leaves without a souvenir?”  So instead of solving their problem, the park officials actually managed to worsen it, by creating the feeling that vandalism was the social norm in that park – which motivated people to continue to break the law.

Let us be smarter this time. Like something very beautiful I have read, let us become “apostles of a civilization of love”.