Today, I was just thinking what makes us tick. What is the reason for living and how is that connected with being alive. I just met a car accident last Wednesday and broke some bones in the palm of my hand. One moment’s lack of concentration and weeks of pain. It made me think how fragile life is, especially when it could have been a broken head or something worse. Please don’t misunderstand, I’ve had many accidents and every time I get close and personal with death, it makes me think.
Mind you, this wasn’t a close enough brush with death. I’ve had two of those moments in my life. The first was in 1981. I was in a motorcycle accident and survived. As my helmet hit the tarmac I heard a swoosh. I turned to see the tyre of a lorry rolling by. That could have been it for me, had it been ten seconds earlier. The second was in 1991. my doctor told me that I had cancer. It was non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. He told me I had a malignant tumour in my throat.
A lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a part of the body’s immune system and helps filter out bacteria, viruses, and other unwanted substances. Most people don’t notice the workings of their lymphatic systems; in fact, the only time you may be aware of your lymphatic system is when the lymph nodes swell up. This often happens when a person is sick – a sign that the lymphatic system is working hard to filter harmful substances out of the body.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a disease in which cancer cells form in a person’s lymphatic system and start to grow uncontrollably. It took months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment to cure. I thing I hated the most about the therapy was not the nausea but the constipation. It really made me miserable. I am entirely convinced that three things saved my life. Firstly, I wasn’t about to just give up – I loved my life very much. I was successful at my job, I just had a daughter and generally I was having a really good time…secondly, I had a great oncologist – Dr Tan Meng Kuan, and last but certainly not least – I loved my job. I really enjoy teaching and immediately after chemotherapy I would head for the college and start lecturing and continue to teach for the whole day. It took my mind off everything. I’m in my zone when I teach – it’s the thing I do best.
So you see, I am no stranger to confronting death. These events have made me question the meaning of life? Why are we here? Is there a God? If there is a God, what is he up to? Is religion about finding God or just manipulating the masses? Of all the world’s religions, which one is correct? Is there an afterlife? Do we just die? Or is there a spiritual journey beyond the physical one?
People have struggled for millennia to deal with these questions. Many wars have been fought over them. But as much as these questions cause people to lose their heads, both figuratively and literally, the bottom line is that these questions need to be addressed by every intelligent human being.
As the great Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates spoke these words to the jury in the court of Athens in the year 399 BC, after he had been found guilty of heresy and sedition. Heresy, a crime that threatened the established religion, and sedition, that threatened the state. After his accusers presented their argument for the death penalty he had the opportunity to argue for an alternate punishment. He chose death over silence. He chose death because he considered the love and pursuit of wisdom was both religious and patriotic. He believed his death would be a witness to this belief. He chose to die in defense of the right of every individual to participate in independent critical thinking. Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We are unable to grow toward greater understanding of our true nature unless we take time to examine and reflect upon our life. As another philosopher, Santayana, observed, “He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it.”
Examining our life reveals our patterns of behavior and makes us question the reasons for our actions. Deeper contemplation will yield an understanding of the subconscious conditioning, the powerful mental paradigm that runs our life. Unless we become aware of these patterns, much of our life is unconscious repetition.
The parable the Guru’s Cat by Anthony De Mello illustrates what I am saying most emphatically,
“When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the essential role and liturgical significance of tying up a cat during worship.”
It is important for us to ask the question – what makes me tick? We all have blind spots. Sometimes when I examine a difficult problem in my life, I can’t seem to find the solution. I know something is missing in my analysis but I can’t quite see what it is. That is because none of us can see our own back side – the blind spot. Socrates’ method of self-examination included an essential element that became known as the “Socratic” dialogue. Talking through the problem with a close friend or one’s spouse or a skilled therapist will help to unravel those blind spots we cannot see by ourselves.
It’s a radical thing to stop and take time to contemplate your own life but it is the only game that really matters. On the final analysis the one thing that is certain is death. It comes to all of us. Yet many people construct their lives as if they were immortal. Materialism controls their outlook and they become empire builders. They shun death and are afraid to even talk about it. In many cultures it is a taboo topic. Still the question of what death is, is central to the question what life is? Since death really defines the parameters of life.
My favorite passage on this is from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet;
|“To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Hear-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir too? It is a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To dye to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressors wrong, the poor mans Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose Borne
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Then fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hew of Resolution
Is sicklied over, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their Currants turn away,
And loose the name of Action.”
What a great human behaviorist! Shakespeare has asked all the questions and also provides us with the answer, “For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come”. It is our ignorance of what death is, that makes life so precious – it makes us rather bear those ills we have then fly to others that we know not of. Religion purports to provide the answer and we take refuge in the house of religion, clinging to the hope that they got it right. Many people have surrendered reason to religion for this reason. They just don’t know. It is the undiscovered country. It is our mind.
(to be continued)
“Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”
Laws of Motion I – Isaac Newton
There is a widening gap between the First and Third World countries. There is an increasing polarization of wealth and a significant growth in the debt burden of the Third World. Is development per se the cause of such inequality or is it the type of capitalist development imposed by the First World and the strategies and policies imposed by the agencies set up by the First World like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank which accelerate such inequality?
Inequality is on the increase. In 1976 Switzerland was 52 times richer than Mozambique; in 1997, it was 508 times richer. Two hundred and fifty years ago, the richest countries were only five times richer than the poorest, and Europe only twice as rich as China or India.
In 1960, the 20% of the world’s people who live in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20%; by 1995 it was 82 times. The world’s 225 richest people have a combined wealth of over $1million million. Only four per cent of this wealth – $40 billion – would be enough for basic education and healthcare, adequate food and safe water and sanitation for all the world’s people. The 15 richest have assets that exceed the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of sub-Saharan Africa and the assets of the 84 richest exceed the GDP of China, which has 1.2 billion inhabitants.
More than a thousand million people still live in poverty, a tenth of them in the industrialized world. Of the 4,400 million people in the Majority World, nearly 60% lack basic sanitation and more than 30% have no access to clean water. 25% do not have adequate housing. 20% have no access to modern health services. Two thousand million women are anemic (including 55 million in the industrial world). 20% of children in the world do not attend school to grade five. One in four of the world’s people still live in severe poverty. It’s worse for women than for men; and for black people than for white.
It is clear that even though we have advanced technologically, this has not contributed to the betterment of the human condition. Has imperialism, as a distorted form of development, masked the potential benefits of development in the Third World?
My view is that people who live under the belief that colonialisation is a thing of the past live under a grand illusion. The world that we live in is largely defined by self interest. Self interest has shaped the world we live in and distorted our perception of reality.
As the great Gandhi himself said,
“I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use and keep it I thieve it from somebody else. I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no more dying of starvation in this world. But so long as we have got this inequality, so long we are thieving.”
The essence of what he was saying is that we have sufficient resources for everybody’s needs but we cannot fulfill their greed. Greed however, has been the defining characteristic of the human condition.
The feudal system developed out of the interests of the rich, influential, and powerful – the oligarchy.Their interest is focused on creating short-cut processes to wealth that bypass creative productivity in favor of various forms of stealing or looting. Historically, this involved colonialisation and slavery.
In modern times, colonialisation is found in the cartelization of resources. We have mining cartels, oil cartels, food cartels and the like. Modern slavery is provided by free trade between unequal-wage-cost economies, and the creation of debt bound economies in the third world. This is reinforced by the capitalist ideology of free and uninhibited trade. Even though economic theft through colonialisation and slavery is strongly anti-social, capitalist ideology artificially creates an environment that protects and insulates the imperialist’s position of power.
The focus of feudalism, in modern times, has shifted from land-estate types of feudalism but the underlying process hasn’t changed. Land-based feudalism limited the available land, which was the source of power. Today we have the “money-estate” form of feudalism. Today, the ‘peasant’ pays a substantial rent for his use of the lord’s property, called “royalty” or “interest”. In olden times this “money-estate” feudalist system was called “usury” and was banned by the church. The First Council of Nicaea in 325AD, forbade clergy from engaging in usury. Following centuries of church condemnations of Jewish usury, the Jews were expelled from many countries and regions. Now, it has become the global system. It is no longer resisted or abhorred and as a result, it is now looting the entire global economy.
Another feudal practice is the phenomenon of free trade between unequal-wage-cost economies. This can be traced to the time of colonialism. Today it is a global practice. Under this system the strength of the world’s poor, defenseless, nations is being exploited. The imperialists operate this free-trade process of international looting. Its’ globalised operations are looting society on a world-wide scale.
When one speaks of the “British Empire,” therefore, one speaks of this type of imperialism. Today this form of imperialism may be more predominant in the United States than anywhere else, but its’ ideological centre remains in Britain. The British monarchy serves as its structural base and ideological driver. The English legal system provides the legal platform for its power.
The British Empire no longer exists but its dominion and influence continues, by the direct domination of much of the world through its near global ownership of the media, research institutions and environmental institutions. It also exerts substantial influence on such global institutions as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, by which its process of looting the world becomes legitimized and legalized.
The original idea of a stock-market was not to facilitate speculation, but to provide a platform on which the public could collaborate in setting up large companies that are jointly owned with the profits being shared. Today however it has largely become a speculative enterprise rewarding the gamblers and impoverishing the workers. A person who speculates that the profits of a company will increase in the future, will be willing to pay a higher price in order to get hold of these shares, to cash in the future profits. This price is more than what the shares are actually worth. A profit is generated for the original owner out of this process of speculative trading.
As the speculation continues, more cash will have to be put up. Unfortunately, for society, none of that extra cash produces anything as it doesn’t flow into the business to enhance its activities. Conversely, this money is drained out of the economy which is thereby deprived of potential investment capital. Once financial speculation sets in, society’s money no longer flows into productive processes that enriches lives, but is siphoned off into a speculative treadmill that enriches a few. It is now time to think about the shape of the world that we live in and to understand that the true nature of the world has not really changed at all. We just now have new systems of and new forms of oppression.
I once read somewhere that if we shrunk the earth’s population to one village of exactly 100 people. This is how the village would look:
60 would be from Asia, 12 would be European in origin, 15 would have come from the Western Hemisphere (9 Latin Americans, 5 North Americans, and 1 from Oceania) and 13 would be from Africa. 50 would be female and 50 would be male. 80 would be non-white and 20 would be white. 67 would be non-Christian and 33 would label themselves as “Christian”.
20 people would be receiving almost 90% of the village’s total income. 25 would live in substandard housing. 17 would not be able to read at all and 13 would be malnourished. 1 would die within the year and 2 would give birth within the year. Only 2 would have a tertiary education and only 4 would own a computer.
Its time to rethink the world we live in and the usefulness of the institutions we are depending on to get us out of trouble and the ideology that defines our reality. Let me conclude my thoughts by quoting another great man, Lincoln,
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
In every field of human endeavour, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership is vested in a man or in an institution, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same.
The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man’s work becomes the standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be merely mediocre, he will be left severely alone – if he achieves a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging.
Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or slander you, unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius. Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious continue to cry out that it cannot be done.
Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountebank, long after the big world had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all.
The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by. The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy – but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant.
There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions – envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it avails nothing, If the leader truly leads, he remains – the leader.
Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamour of denial. That which deserves to live – lives.
THIS TEXT APPEARED AS AN ADVERTISEMENT IN THE SATURDAY EVENING POST ¶ JANUARY 2ND, IN THE YEAR 1915 ¶ COPYRIGHT, CADILLAC MOTOR CAR DIVISION