Tag Archives: literature

Beans and Strangers

It’s all about the can of beans.

People fear the Other and fail to see the humanity of strangers. This was the message in a short story I read in an English class years ago. The professor spoke about how the fear of others is unjustified and that we can live together. Humanitarian goals benefit everyone.

Then he stopped and stared out into space for a few seconds. As he continued, he said that these are all noble goals, but in the end, people care only for their own can of beans.

The last few survivors in the post-apocalyptic book, “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, kill for that last can of food found on any shelf.  Those beans mean life or death. The stashes of silver and gold are useless.

In a struggle between us and the Other, human nature gravitates toward selfish goals. Glimmers of humane treatment of others exist in McCarty’s book but only after being tempered and tested with severe, life-preserving distrust.

We protect our little band of friends and family and hope to make their lives happier and easier. How much energy can we expend on strangers? To expand on that idea, just how much can we move out of the here and now, and empathize with those that lived in the  past or will live in the future?

The past and future remain inscrutable. All I know about my great-grandmother, who lived to the age of 94, is that she hauled water from a well back to her home on the day that she died. She lived on another continent, another time. She is only an interesting anecdote to me.

Chances are that I will never see great-grandchildren. To feel love and empathy for hypothetical children or adults in the future is a strain. We would love to say altruism guides us and we care about the future as much as the children right in front of us, but human nature selfishly holds on to the now.

The here and now is all we have. Isn’t that what the trendy Eastern religions teach? To love the Other is a worthwhile goal, but opposes ancient instincts.  We must eat for today or else the future is irrelevant.

Let us hope for a time that humans can sever the dichotomy of good and evil that exists within us all.  At that time, maybe love will be all that we need.

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Of Human Bondage

viniciuggarcia Pixabay

viniciusggarcis Pixabay

A dark, depressing book brings me some peace. That book is “Of Human Bondage” by Somerset Maugham.

In the novel, Philip loves Mildred, a woman that tortures him and never loves him back. He loses hope and questions the point of being alive. An acquaintance tells him the meaning of life can be found in a Persian carpet. Before he can unlock the mystery of the carpet it is destroyed.

Later on when he keeps thinking about the lost carpet, he unlocks the secret. The patterns in the carpet, the cycle of life and death, are all we have. Life has no meaning on this rock hurtling through space. But this insignificance gives Philip power.

Forget about the meaning of life and just find a place in the pattern. Failure and success are all the same. Just live as best as you can.

Nivana is a big nothingness in an Eastern culture. The elimination of life on earth is the goal.

My Western mindset pursues meaning in life. A life that does not end in death but continues on to a blissful, new afterlife.

The Eastern viewpoint makes more sense to me than the Western one.

It’s kind of odd that meaninglessness provides more comfort to me than everlasting life. Getting composted back into the All seems to be a useful occupation for the dead. Not too shabby to be One with the Cosmos.

But how much do my sensibilities matter in the grand scheme of things? For all I know, this universe may be running on Calvinist principles. If that hurts anyone’s sensibilities, no one cares.

A Fabrication by Any Other Name

I prefer books over screens for my entertainment. I scoff at people that find joy in gluing their eyes to a computer screen. Surely reading is a superior way to spend time. To be fair, on closer inspection, just how different is virtual reality from fictional reality?

Human interaction suffers when life is lived predominantly within a computer screen. Yet many times, I get so involved in a book that I dread any human interfering with my turning of the next page. I want to stay in my fictional world. Screens and books are best as solitary endeavors.

I too feel the draw of a world filled with ubiquitous screens. I waste time clicking and scrolling through computer articles and photos. The dog and cat videos make me laugh. But I fear the sway of advertisements that push me to buy what the most powerful social media forces out there are selling. I try to resist this modern siren call.

Besides my Etch-a-Sketch, the television was the only screen I could stare at when I was young. My staring was limited to one-hour per day. And that hour had to be broken in half. So a half hour in the morning, another half hour in the afternoon. Maybe that explains why I read. I could explore fictional (and non-fictional) worlds with the flip of a page.

A flip of a page or a swipe of a screen, are they so different? I’m sure I could be swayed by reading too; that is if I only read one book. A wide and diverse reading list protects independent thinking. Social media lies behind a heavy curtain.

My father took me to the Detroit Institute of Arts one Saturday when I was young. I fell in love with this exciting, brand-new world.

Years later, I took my son and his cousin to the art museum. They were bored to death. I thought the suit of armor exhibits would surely interest them. More boredom. Unlike me, they had already spent hours playing video games and had a broader access to television. Television and computers were part of their school curriculum. How can a bit of paint on a canvas compete with the fast-changing and addictive colors and sounds that run across screens?

And yet, I admit to my own addiction. An addiction to the arrangements of 26 letters across a page. How can I judge others?

Books energize me, too much screen time depresses me. A screen has the power to dull a mind and passively lead a person to buy the ideas and products displayed so attractively on the virtual shelves.

Reading is far more active. A reader interacts with the author, with the stuff already read or experienced creating a solid foundation to build up ideas. Who knows, it can even bring about a change in long-held beliefs. Books breed independence and knowledge building. The ceaseless chatter of information on a computer ends up feeling shallow.

My prejudices lead me to forget that the oral storytelling tradition led to books and then books led to computers. Perhaps this is an inevitable course of events that is not necessarily better or worse, just the progress of imagination. The end of the oral tradition weakened our connection to each other. In turn, we connected with machines. Human to human, human to machine, machine to . . . How does the story end?