Tell Me A Story, Turn The Pages

If you GOOGLE “Why do we need stories?” you’ll gain some 805 million results, a good many of the top ones pretty darned interesting. Clearly, stories are a device we humans need to express…something. But what is that something? And why the universal need to express it?

In order to answer this, shut the book you were reading before you drifted over to your computer and the Internet, and close your eyes. Think about the story you were reading. What enthralled you about it, kept you turning pages? First, as any decent writer can tell you, there’s the quandary, the pickle some character has gotten him(her)self into. Then there’s the way this character tries to extricate him(her)self from it. Not that this character’s way of grappling with a problem is universal; in fact, it’s not. All manners of grappling are personal, depending on so many factors I fear they can’t be enumerated – certainly not here. But there are at least two pretty good reasons why we keep turning the pages:

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AT LAST! Someone with a problem, and it’s not me! There’s great relief in watching another person tangled in a web of lies and complication slowly untie their Gordian knot. They may be superheroes, or average Josephines. Why do we enjoy seeing another person, even a fictional one, struggle with such problems? Here, there’s the personal perspective. We KNOW we’re mortal, flawed beings, and while we enjoy seeing superheroes leap tall buildings or scale walls, we yearn for the commonality of our collective fall from grace so that we can understand it. And so this pleasure of story is currency in our society: novels, movies, songs.

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But the more subtle aspect of story is, the more novels and stories we read, the more we grow in our appreciation of the unique differences of other people. And so we have in story a basis for ethics: how to avoid life’s pickles insofar as we can. How to cope with pickles in ways that help us and leave others harmless. For once we understand that while we all struggle in individual ways with life’s issues, there a sameness there, too. Whether we extricate ourselves or not (i.e., we win), the struggle changes us. In a sense we become annealed, the way steel does when subjected to heat and shaping from the blacksmith’s hammer. So what is there to life than to be changed for the better by the way we live it?

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Birthday Afterglow

First I want to thank all those who helped me celebrate yet another year of doing what I do on planet earth. There’s an age at which the anticipation of birthdays brings excitement, sugar fixes, and partying until nap time, and another age at which you simply fasten your seat belt and hang on, hoping the vagaries of life don’t push you beneath the sod. 

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There was once a time when I spontaneously dashed out the door, eager to race a pal to the end of the block, or some other form of exercise. Now there’s the creaking and groaning of protesting body parts in even considering such a thing. I played basketball for almost twenty years, finally giving up on it in my thirties. I’m still a fan, though – I sat rapt through game after game of the latest NCAA Men’s Tournament, aka March Madness, watching these gifted, much taller than I athletes do a form of what I used to do. Occasionally, my thoughts gave me this: “I can still do that!” But then my body had a different opinion: “You can try, but it’s gonna hurt.”

All this to say that aging is an art that few understand. Ever notice those seventy-year old rockers plod out on stage to sing slightly off-key, their playing a bit clumsy now? Do you sigh sadly at the golfer, the baseball player, the rickety quarterback, trying to put together one more day in the sun? It can be pathetic.

Once there were certain stages to life that perhaps we should honor again – in an age in which we keep pretending we’re still thirty-five, fit as a fiddle, and able to party all night:

  •  Some Native American tribes placed children under the guidance of their mothers until about age five, at which time the fathers took up the boys’ guidance and the mothers relationship to the girls changed from infancy-at-play to a stage of preparation for adulthood.
  • Then there are the rites of passage to adulthood, their conclusion celebrated in many different ways, by endurance feats, tattooing, of ceremonies such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
  • Adulthood, with the advent of an emerging middle class became split into three rough categories:
    • Apprentice, in which a young person went to work for someone in a certain trade, simply running errands, doing the dog-work, and getting the feel and the language of the craft.
    • Journeyman, in which a young person operates within the craft or trade, but still under the guidance of an elder.
    • Master, then, is the peak of this training, a person responsible for training others while establishing his/her mark as a superior craftsman or trade person.

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We still tend in western society to be roughly guided by these stages of life, albeit not as closely as in the past. But where we fall flat, I think, is in our older adulthood, or as we call it in modern times, retirement.

As we age, we’re no longer the able warriors, our bodies’ strength waning, nor the gifted weavers, our hands gnarled and arthritic. But we still have our minds. This is the stage of life in which, with less responsibilities, elders have often retired to monasteries or to the deep woods or caves to ponder the meaning of life. The age at which we try to patch together the disparate craziness of life into a provisional whole that makes sense. 

Look at the lost expression on the faces of bankers and businessmen when asked to confront income inequality or climate change. Listen to the whining of politicians whose only interest is stasis in the face of compelling social evolution. Watch the average Joe grow angry because the world around him has changed and he has no clue why.

This should be the territory of the aged folk, who return from the monastery or woods or cave with some sense of social purpose, of an inkling of a way forward for one’s people. This, I’m positive, is the key to a world of change: not only to have one’s thumb on the pulse of what used to be, but a sense of vision for the younger folk, scrabbling to make their way in a chaotic world.

The Celebration of Moments

Having lost my wife last October and upon discovering three months ago that I have a serious heart condition, I find myself thinking that I’m caught between the throes of death and the possibility of being reborn a new man. What is there to life but moving from one version of it to the next?

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We are one person in our early childhood; we’re another during our teen years, and yet another when we take up adult responsibilities of career and family. And yet there’s a continuity to all of these different personages we become. Each succeeding one is built on the previous one, even though changes in our lives are sometimes drastic ones.

Genetic flaws ultimately caused my wife’s death, and now another threatens mine. Will I endure, at least for a while? Part of the answer is up to me, to personal will and strength, and the rest I submit to fate.

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But today is my birthday. Such days are part celebration of the moment and part retrospective. So where does the future fit into this? The seed of the future is, I believe, in the moment of celebration. Each moment begets the next, and if I were to make a celebration of each of these succeeding moments, and of those that have drifted into what we call the past, I will have lived my life to its fullest, no matter the encumbrance of its failures, its ailments, and hardships.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

An Islamic Reformation in the Making?

After last week’s post on the Tahrir Square revolution, Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets down to business in this book. Since most of the Islamic world’s governments are controlled by Islamic precepts, she tells us where the pressure points are in bringing that part of the world into modernity.

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Heretic – Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

We here in the west have for a long time been as insulated culturally as we now believe those from northern Africa and the Middle East have been. All cultures built roughly on regional religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam to name the largest, seem to thrive on exclusivity, i.e., ours is the real deal, yours is inferior if not wrongheaded and dangerous. These cultural biases can’t change through external forces; they must change internally, much as Christianity changed through Luther’s Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment. Now, says Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it’s Islam’s turn.

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One of the most provoking ideas Ali puts forth in this book is that by the Qur’anic scripture the sort of evolution Christianity has gone through is considered by Muslims to be apostasy, i.e., all social and spiritual practices must always return to those at the time of Muhammad. Clearly this would set the stage, if Islam were to conquer the world, for Islam to then feed violently upon itself in seeking religious and cultural purity. Ali has left that faith, but she apparently cares enough about it to be at the forefront of a group of reformers demanding that Islam evolve, find its truths and precepts in the context of the modern world. Toward that end, she puts forth five theses that she believes will diminish the violence innate to Islam.

This book is one I consider highly valuable to all religions, as well as to secular society. Ali, in order to see her former religion in the clearest light possible, has become a religious scholar in order to push her ideas forward, and I view her scholarship as crystal clear. This, then, is a book that sheds new light on Islam – its good and its bad, and Ali, in this reader’s view, is one thinker people of all persuasions should read.

My rating: 18 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

New Boss Same As The Old Boss

Once again, I’m posting on some excellent literature from a culture other than our western one, this time a well conceived piece of journalism from a young writer about the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt.

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Once Upon A Revolution, by Thanassis Cambanis

Books such as this one do more to allow readers to gain insight into political change than any other form of journalism – in this case, the locale and incidents have to do with Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution of 2005, the first major outpouring of the Arab Spring. The author interviews a handful of people as the revolution begins and follows them through the revolt’s initial stages, then the reach of these few into politics, their political repression, and finally, to the disintegration of these few’s ideals amid an eventual and common unease with a fight that would need to be one of long duration.

In this respect the revolt had much in common with the leftist revolution that reared its head in the U.S. in the 1960s. That is, endemic problems weren’t solved quickly enough to keep the populace from being uncomfortable with the inevitable counter-revolution, repression, both political and social, and the forces trying to improve poverty, income inequality, police relations among the poor, corruption. As a result, the democratic movement, as in the 60s revolts, fragmented.

A couple of facets of the Arab Spring, as manifested in Egypt, are worth noting.

The revolution was led by secular forces, and was eventually repressed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Those leading the revolution were committed to peaceful change, even in the face of beatings and murders by the police, the military, and eventually by the Brotherhood.

Cambanis’ writing here is some of the best journalistic writing of this type I’ve read, despite English being his secondary language. He rarely repeats himself, his reportage is neatly laid out in chronological fashion, and he manages a studied objectivity throughout.

And this brings up one other thought concerning what the Tahrir-ists were trying to do: We in the U.S., because we were the first to forge a significant national democracy, albeit at the beginning of our nation, tend to think that ours is perfect. All one has to do to be dissuaded of that attitude is to note the excusable lack of insight our founding fathers had into the power of corporations, globalization, mass politics, the flood of technology, particularly concerning communication and privacy issues, and a plethora of social issues. The Tahrir-ists did recognize these issues and openly desired to improve on what the U.S. has been trying to import to the Middle East in the name of democracy. Too, they realized the difficulty of trying to implement such a government and constitution without a modern prototype, particularly in an area of the world still tied by tribalism and religion to ancient socio-political constructs.

My Rating: 18 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.