The gospel reading last Sunday was about how St. Thomas came to believe in the resurrection of Christ. He had to see the wounds in the hands of Jesus with his own eyes in order to believe. It occurred to me that there is a similar dynamic in play in a story of today. The context is the response of some of us in the USA to the coronavirus. (I know the analogy will not be perfect, and please do not take offense.) In my modern version of the story, it is a tale of not listening to, or maybe just not accepting, what the scientists and doctors are telling us about the coronavirus. It appears that some people will accept the facts about the virus only if they personally experience it. They may have heard about what is happening in other places because of the virus, but since it has not not touched them, or anybody close to them, it is a matter of belief, and they do not appear to believe. I say this in the context of some of the protests that are going on today against the lock downs. Some people seem to be taking risks with their lives, and the lives of others, during these protests (or political rallies, depending on your point of view) that no sane person should. The least that people could do is conduct their protests in a safe and sober manner, and acknowledge that the physical danger is real. Reasonable people would probably take folks more seriously if they behaved more sensibly. The protagonist in this whole story is the captain of the ship of fools. The captain is incompetent and arrogant, to say the least. He is happy to stir up discord, and he does not seem to discourage or condone dangerous behavior. He has pointed the ship towards the rocks, and I fear for the ship and the lives of the people on it.
In other news, food was prepared at the food bank last Tuesday for over 400 families. It is the highest number I have seen so far during this time of the coronavirus. It was a tiring but very fulfilling morning doing the work of filling the boxes with food. There was no time for a lunch break. But I felt good. There was plenty of food to give out. The food bank had to purchase a lot of this food instead of depending on donations. That may be a sign of the times. Please support your local food bank!
Here is a picture of some of the boxes of food that were in the process being filled for customers.
Perhaps some saw this coming, but kept their fingers crossed nonetheless, hoping that it would not happen during their lifetimes – a tiny, unknown, virus that would completely disrupt the way they, and everybody else, lives, and perhaps even kill them. It has happened before.
It is beginning to slow down almost all of the activities that are markers of modern human existence. It is slowing them to a crawl. Travel, trade, tourism, educational institutions, the daily work scene, shopping, worship, sports, dining out, other forms of public entertainment, etc.. And some other parts of the world have already had it worse than us in this regard. People have also already died because of the virus.
At this point we are almost completely at the mercy of the new virus. We do not know the end game. We do not know as much as we need to know about the virus itself. We may be able to slow it down by modifying our behaviors, but we cannot stop it. We know that it has the capability to cull the already weak and vulnerable. The virus is, at this point, nature’s great equalizer. It seems to have penetrated all levels of this connected society. It has not discriminated based on privilege, power, and fame.
The virus shows us how vulnerable we really are as a species. Even if it were not this new virus that that is causing this challenge to our systems, it could be some other kind of natural disaster, something outside of our control, that can damage and destroy our systems and our comfort on this planet. Uniquely, this is a disaster that leaves most physical structures untouched. Everything looks fine when it is not.
Of course, we will survive this, but at some as yet unknown cost. And then, within just a few short years, we will forget about all of what just happened, and we will regress, and we will behave stupidly once again, even as nations. That is a given.
I recently saw a Netflix show called the Greatest Events of WWII in Color.
This great ten-part series is highly recommended for anybody interested in history and not that familiar with the details of WWII. (As an aside, the show’s impact had little to do with addition of color to the footage.) The series focuses on certain key events and elements of WWII. The stories are clearly told, and in what I thought was a balanced manner. You learn about the lead up to the particular events, the battlefield strategies employed therein, about how the event played out in reality, the end results, and, finally, the overall impact of the event on the direction of WWII itself, and on history. I learnt a lot of new things.
I emerged from the experience of viewing these episodes convinced that very, very, few people are really completely “good”, or noble. Evil lurks in the human heart, perhaps closer to the surface in some more than in others. All it takes is the right set of circumstances to bring out the worst in a person. Some of us, even if we are not active participants, become complicit just from our capability to justify harsh cruelty done to others in our name, for what is claimed to be the greater good.
The last two episodes of this series were the most impactful on me. They had to do with the genocide in the concentration camps in Europe, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the genocide, the killing of human beings became an effort of industrial scale, with the goal of speeding up the process of systematically murdering people. The goal was to find the most efficient way to do this. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki attempted to legitimize the process of mass murder on an even grander scale. It was, in a sense, a response to an already brutal war with a even greater level of brutality. There appears to be no limit to which we can push each other in this regard.
There were many atrocities committed in WWII. The conventional bombing of cities on a large scale, in a deliberate attempt to massacre civilians in large numbers and achieve a psychological advantage in the conflict, was something that both sides were guilty of. The fire-bombing of Dresden was particularly horrific.
And it is not as if we remember the horrors of previous wars and strive not to repeat them. We will never learn that war is hell.
Have any of you read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn? Christina had come upon the book in Guinee, and had suggested that we also read it so that we could talk about it. It is a fascinating book, with a neat premise, but it does take some discipline to get through. Anyway, why did I bring this up? It was because my mind wandered into the realm of the absurdness of what our civilization is all about while I was on the trail this morning. I am not going to get into the book any more, except to say that it explores the concept of takers and leavers. If you have not read the book and the subject intrigues you, please do give it a read and give me your impression..But why have I opened up this subject? Fortunately or unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that happens to me on the trail. After my body adjusted itself to the the freezing cold of the morning, the mind essentially wandered into this topic. The initial phase of mental activity is usually a cleansing of all the bad things that happened during the week, during which I allow myself to literally scream at the emptiness around me, where nobody can hear me.Getting past this phase can take varying amounts of time depending on what actually happened during the week, and then this is replaced by an emptiness of the mind that allows it to wander wherever else it chooses to do so. So here I am, a mad mind let loose.Onto the subject of this random monologue… To start with, I think there is no counter-argument to the fact that over the centuries human beings have made significant advancements in many different areas and facets of life. We have a gained immense knowledge about things around us and even within us. We are capable of exploration everywhere, from the smallest scale of things, right down to subatomic particles, all the way to the largeness of the universe and the cosmos around us, with limitations placed only by the current technology and the costs of indulging in such explorations. As humans, we are also capable today doing a lot of things, some of which would have been considered unthinkable even a few years ago. We tend to take a lot of this for granted today. For example, flying through the air at great speeds in extremely complicated machines would have been unimaginable even a century ago. We have instant communications today literally in the palm of our hands, by transmitting invisible waveforms through the air and by even connecting everybody and everything through the Internet. We explore space using powerful machines and clever technologies that allows devices to operate by themselves on far away planets. Interventions to extend human life that include fixing of all kinds of internal plumbing and even mechanical replacements are commonplace today. Improvements to our capabilities to provide food and nourish human growth have resulted in major extensions to human life. It is all like magic!
So what happens as a result of all this wonderful capability. While there is much more to learn and become more aware of of the world around us today, more of the people who have access to all kinds of resources have stopped thinking. You have the mindlessness of the societies that are supposedly doing well, that are completely self-absorbed, that are immersed in entertainment based pastimes using the new “toys” that the technical advancements have brought, and I will say that people have become dumber and less capable of learning and understanding things, and thinking and surviving. I was reading the news about the “suffering” of the folks who were on a cruise last week when the they lost power on the ship and the engines gave up, and they had to survive for a few days in this condition before they reached shore. Oh, the horror! And I was thinking about the living conditions in a country like Guinee and how those folks (including the Peace Corp Volunteers) would probably look at the complaints of the the well-to-do Americans and laugh. Who is the better off, who is the happier, who is the person closer to reality?
We have made so many medical and nutritional advancements on earth that life expectancy has increased over time. But are we going overboard by keeping people alive regardless of circumstances just because the technology allows us to do so? At what cost do we do this? Are the people affected really happy about this? Under what conditions do they live their extended lives? Populations are also increasing and we are using more and more of the resources around us to keep this up. We have introduced genetics into the process of food consumption so that we can be more efficient, and pretty soon we will be using this kind of capability in various other ways to extend our lives even further. We will even mess with our DNA. At the same time there is immense waste of food on a massive scale, and there is so much inequality that while we are growing stupid super-humans in one part of the world, people are still starving in other parts of it and living by the seat of their pants. And we are slowly destroying the world we live in while we are about it. Are we even stopping to think about where we are heading? We talk about progress, but there are consequences for the kind of progress that we are making that are too inconvenient and perhaps even difficult to grasp.
And then when we do not understand things, or we need some sort of justification for what we do, we can look to the supernatural to try and answer our questions and give things “purpose”. Yes, there has to be a meaning to everything that exists, and everything has been put into place for a reason, and we are the focus for everything that goes on in the cosmos. Is this not some form of arrogance?
This is all too absurd!
Who are we – takers and leavers? My hats off to those of you who are actually trying to make a difference in other people’s lives in very direct ways. To me that is what life should be all about.
“The road to moral hell is paved with gradual self-permission.” …Maria Popova
I have maintained for a little while now that we will look back at some of the things that we ourselves did as a part of civilization today, things that we take for granted, and wonder how we ever thought that it was the right thing to do. And sometimes we will even swallow our nagging sense of injustice so that it will not be disruptive to our own sense of well being. It is true that we can learn through history, but there is never an end to this process, it seems. When will true justice be really served?
Imagine for a minute that you are an alien being, an intelligent species from somewhere out there in the universe, somewhere far, far, away, from a very distant galaxy.
Imagine that you are the alien being searching for signs of life in the universe, listening to patterns in the radio waves that whiz past all around you. You are capable of recognizing not just emissions from point sources, but also all the kinds of signaling that exist in the universe, both simple and sophisticated. You can certainly recognize all the simple forms of signaling invented on Planet Earth.
Imagine that one day you hear something from a very, very, distant source that seems to make sense to you. Somebody is trying to send some “information” to you about itself. And you are curious….
You focus more of your resources on tracking this new source of “information”, and you are able to pick the fainter signals emitted from this source. You begin to separate the many signals and the patterns in them. And you recognize that there are many, many, different kinds of signals, at widely varying signal strengths, being emitted. And embedded in these various signals are many different kinds of information coded in many different ways. This information seems to be more sophisticated than what you first detected from this source. Since you have zoomed in, you realize that information sources are clustered around a central location which seems to be generating most of what is being sent out into space. But there are also emissions from the space surrounding this central location, and the intensity of the emissions is reducing gradually with distance from the central source. Indeed, there seems to be some form of “communications” going on between the central source and the surrounding space.
And, you, the alien being, get even more curious. You find a way to focus even more of your resources on this source to find out what is going on. All of sudden, you are hearing a cacophony of signals that are getting more and more difficult to make sense of. The signals are in all kinds of frequencies and at varying signal levels, and the ones you can extract from this cacophony are of many different kinds. A lot of it is difficult to make sense of even when decoded. There could be a lot of communications going on within the source, but it all seems so random. It seems like chaos. It seems like a mess. And, the intelligent creature that you are, you wonder what is going on. This source is generating a whole lot of what seems to be noise. Is it some form of pollution? How is this being generated? Is there a purpose? How much of the energy of the source is being used generating all of this noise?
And, perhaps, intelligent being that you are, you are concerned. This seems to be pointless, and maybe even self-destructive. Is the planet radioactive? Where is all the energy coming from, all to be expended into nothingness? All of this cannot be sustained for too long a long time. What is going on? What is the point? Is there a purpose?
We are preparing for a visit to Peru next month. During this trip we will be traveling to the interior and visiting the heartland of the old Inca civilization, including the ancient city of Cusco. We are looking forward to this visit.
I have been doing some reading in anticipation of this trip. The first book that I read was ‘Turn Right at Machu Pichu”, by Mark Adams. This book, first published in 2011, weaves two different story lines. The first is Mark’s experience of traveling the region, following in the paths of earlier explorers, including trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Mark interweaves this narrative with an account of the history of the region, some of it very brutal, mostly centered around the time of the Spanish conquests of the area. He talks about the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a somewhat self-serving American explorer in search of fame, in 1911. But Machu Picchu was never really “lost”, especially to the people who are from the region! In any case, the stories are interesting, even if the details of the book are difficult to remember just a few weeks after reading it. My memory is not what it used to be.
The other book I read more recently was “The Old Patagonian Express”, by Paul Theroux. This book was first published in 1979. It is an account of Paul’s travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Esquel in Patagonia, mostly by train. The travels took the author through Peru, and specifically Cusco and Machu Picchu. I have a copy of the book that I had bought in June of 1985, when I was about to graduate with my doctorate degree. It was time to open the book once again.
The spirit of the somewhat arduous trip taken by Paul Theroux (it took a few months to complete) is something that I can appreciate. It is an undertaking that seems to have been driven mainly by the author’s sense of curiosity and adventure, and his need to leave his zone of comfort in the process. It is about the thrill and the romance of travel. You do it because you want to see, experience, and learn about new things, new places, new people, etc.. You are not looking for the familiar place or face. You do not have a complete plan in place to handle the situations that you will encounter. And it is more significant than that – you willingly open yourself to the unexpected and let yourself become more vulnerable. And in all of this, you manage to learn something more about yourself.
One has to remember that Paul Theroux’s book was written in the 1970s. I now find that his attitude towards the kind of people that he encountered, especially the locals, seems to be somewhat condescending, or maybe it is just a general sense of superiority. I wonder if it is actually a sign of the times that Paul Theroux lived and traveled in, or if it is a somewhat generic attitude taken by folks who are out on voyages of discovery, including most of the explorers of times past – especially those from Europe and North America. They always thought that they were better off than the others, and that they knew what was good for others. Perhaps they were really better off from a materialistic point of view, but did they necessarily know what was good for others?
Paul talks a lot about the poverty he encountered in Peru, especially among the natives. The power structures in place in government in those days did not seem to be geared towards improving the lives of the common man. Perhaps it is all true. My problem, reading Paul’s work at this time in my life, is the feeling I have that he does not seem to have gone beyond the superficial in trying to understand the lives of people. He does not seem to have had the conversations that someone who is undertaking this kind of effort should be having. Maybe he did not have enough time. Maybe he did not think his book was meant to be read by somebody of Inca ancestry. In my mind, he comes off as being quite opinionated in this regard. He might have thought that he was be brutally honest, but I think the problem is that he did not make the attempt to have a more complete perspective. He really did not complete his homework. Perhaps, this is a general problem with the attitudes of too many explorers.
Anyway, here we are, more than 40 years after the time of Paul Theroux’s travels to South America, and we are on our way to South America once again (we went to Ecuador two years ago). I wonder how the country of Peru has changed since the 1970s. We are not adventurers like Paul Theroux. We are going in an organized tour group, and everything is going to be taken care of for us. We will probably be shielded in some way from the locals. Paul Theroux had also traveled through Ecuador, and he talks about the poverty in that country, but our exposure to those circumstances a couple of years ago in the tour group in Ecuador was minimal. It could be that the situation has changed since the 1970s, but it could also be that we were just shown what would be tolerated by “tourists” like us – things that were unlikely to cause us distress, or show the country in a poor light.
It seems like the town of Cusco was geared somewhat towards tourism even in the 1970s. It is in all likelihood even more so today. You only have to see all the information on the Internet in this regard to sense that this is the case. You would also be led to believe that people are generally much better off in Cusco today than 40 years ago, but how can one be sure without having the complete experience?
As I said before, since we will be arriving in Peru as tourists in a tour group, almost everything that we do will be according to a plan and a schedule. But the explorer in me feels that perhaps some of the more remarkable and memorable moments of the trip could happen outside of the script. One just has to be open to the possibilities.
One final note about the trains that Paul Theroux took many years ago. Even in those days, there was no way to do the entire trip from Massachusetts to Patagonia solely by train. Looking at the available train services today, this situation has gotten even worse. Passenger train services are available in much fewer places today. Common folk have to depend more on the buses than they used to do in times past. In a few places, the trains have been saved by running services over short distances just for the tourists. But this is not the real thing! The romance of the railroad is not what it used to be.
Some of us feel quite good about ourselves because we recycle our plastics at home. We believe we are doing our little bit to save the environment. But, as it turns out, very little of the plastics that we recycle are being reused in a useful way. As the article below points out, there are many challenges to achieving real meaningful recycling. Perhaps the solution is to use less plastics, or plastics in a more sustainable way. (The author of this article linked to below (click on the image) talks about “bioplastics”, which is something they are working on in their University.) Whichever way you look at it, there are additional costs involved in getting things on the right path. The article below is a good read in the sense that it also gives you a good sense of the bigger picture, and of the damage we are doing to ourselves over the longer run.
(Courtesy – The Conversation)
Here is a video from the article.