The Face

For a long time I essayed to convince myself that I’m an upstander in a world severely populated by bystanders. Our culture is one of silent observation and almost no intervention. I’ve no doubt there are people who wouldn’t hesitate to jump into the arms of danger to divert a possible calamity, and, more importantly, to prevent a death. I wonder, would I expose myself to danger to save someone else? Would I die for another? The answer came rapidly, without hesitation: Yes, I would.

It is neither a sense of guilty nor a desire for recognition that drives me; it’s about doing what’s right. A few weeks ago, as I waited to cross the street, I noticed a woman looking out a car window. Anger with a hint of resignation were visible on her small face. Suddenly, she looked up and pinned her gaze on me. Remembering that it is rude to stare, I pretended to be lost in thought. I quickly realized, however, that she wasn’t looking at anyone in particular–she was, unlike me, unaware of her surroundings. I squinted against the blinding glare of the sun, walked on past her, and momentarily forgot about the episode. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d failed to notice the man sitting across from her. As I hurried across the street, I heard agitated voices floating out of the car. I looked over my shoulder at the man turning toward the woman. His voice rose above hers. The urge to wheel around and confront him swelled in me, but the voice of reason (in the likeness of Mom) reeled off a list of potential scenarios, the majority of them involved someone–in this case, me–getting shot. The voice of reason (hello, Mother) suggested a possible alternative: dial 911. But what if the man had hit the woman? What would I have done? “There’s no question about it,” she said. “You call the police.”

I had a college professor who encouraged her students to leave their mark in small, yet equally significant, ways. Whether we witness an instance of domestic violence or playground bullying, it is our duty to say something about it and leave a mark on someone else’s life. Choosing to remain silent is another way of indirectly condoning an aggression; it’s another way of saying, I’m okay with it. We must not, however, rule out the possibility that the victim may come to the defense of the abuser (it could open up a mess of legal issues usually involving the upstander.). This is, of course, a response to fear and misplaced loyalty.

But why are some many of us afraid to be upstanders? The question suggests its own answer: fear.

We are afraid to intervene lest the perpetrator shifts his aggression on us. But that’s not all. Intervention, as writer Susan Metcalfe remarked, is “…going against the current of our ‘keep to ourselves’ culture and battling entrenched resistances to crossing the line between private and public.” We refrain from involvement because it would force us to thrust ourselves into a situation that does not “concern” us.

The truth is that we live in a spiritually interconnected world. When a tragedy befalls one of us, it affects us all to a certain degree. Emmanuel Levinas believed in the face of the Other. He asserted that we are infinitely responsible for the people we encounter directly, face to face, every day. “The face of the Other,” he said, “is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all. And me, whoever I may be, but as a ‘first person,’ I am he who finds the resources to respond to the call.” In short, the face of the Other is exposed and vulnerable, just like victims of aggression, often suffering the agony of silence.

 

Which fairy tale do I most relate to?

I grew up on fairy tales, and I’m certain most of us did. Fairy tales have always been one of the best forms of entertainment. Most are tapestries of magic, drama, and–most importantly–lessons. Though, it has been argued that some fairy tales are not suitable for children. If you’ve read the Brothers Grimm’s version of Cinderella, you’ll remember that both stepsisters mutilate their feet to force them into the golden slipper. Just as the tale is inching towards its happily-ever-after, the stepsisters, balking at the idea of defeat, attempt to win Cinderella’s favor. However, their plans are thwarted when pigeons–delivers of justice–swoop down on them and blind them. The stepsisters foray into homelessness while Cinderella wallows in opulence and prosperity. Isn’t this the perfect bedtime story? (“By the way, children, if you’re bad, pigeons will peck your eyes out.”)

But, in all fairness, fairy tales are impregnated with the nostalgic aroma of childhood and simplicity. (Who doesn’t remember fondly their favorite fairy tale?) The world of fairy tales is monochromatic: either you were good or you weren’t. There were no such thing as gray areas. Of course, with maturity and a fair deal more understanding, we can see what our younger selves couldn’t: fairy tales are stages upon which abuse, sexual threats, and poverty make their debut. That is not to say we can’t still burrow deep enough into them to find a moral. We can. But that is not what I want to discuss.

I’m not sure that I want to relate to fairy tales. I’m not sure that I want to sleep for an unspecified stretch of time and wake to discover I’ve birthed twins (“Sun, Moon, and Talia,” anyone? Hint: Prince Charming took advantage of Sleeping Beauty’s slumber to rape her.) The moral of the story? “Lucky people, so ’tis said, Are blessed by Fortune whilst in bed.” But if I had to choose, I’d say I’m a 21st-century Little Red Riding Hood. Why? Because I’m too trusting. Little Red Riding Hood erred in engaging a wolf–a stranger. I err in trusting. I also have a tendency to overshare. (You see, I keep thinking that oversharing can engender trust; this is perhaps one of my fatal flaws)  Of course, I’m in the habit of wondering why people hesitate to share details about themselves. (I’ve often wondered if I need to dial back the inquisitiveness.) Last night, I read that when we want to impress someone we like, we reveal embarrassing things about ourselves. I’m guilty of this. It is only when I’m tucked into bed, staring at the ceiling, that I berate myself: “Good job, idiot.” It’s like getting impaled on a wire fence of shame.

Oversharing appears to be an evolutionary byproduct geared towards increasing our chances of survival–at least that seemed to have been the case in the past. Now, in this day and age, those who overshare are seen as self-centered. But I assure you, that’s not it. I overshare because, as research suggests, I’m too preoccupied with making good impressions. This mission to impress has a negative effect: it repels potential friends.

Hey, oversharing did nothing for Little Red Riding Hood’s survival. If not for the lumberjack, she would have vacationed in the God-knows-what-it-smelled-like stomach of the Big Bad Wolf…forever.

Note: Speaking of fairy tales, today is Charles Perrault’s 388th birthday. So, happy birthday to him–wherever he is.

 

Do you love New Year’s Eve?

I don’t. There’s something about bidding farewell to the year that is poignant. Even with all its ups and downs, it is hard to say goodbye to a friend who caused you so much grief and joy.

I wouldn’t mind standing in the cold, in an ocean of humanity, to see a ball glittering with thousands of crystals drop, but due to security concerns, here’s to ringing in the new year with champagne.

How The Lord of the Rings Saved Christmas

It’s the day after Christmas. Usually, I’d be grieving the departure of Christmas, wishing it hadn’t ended so prematurely. Too bad the Christmas spirit has taken a leave of absence. It’s nowhere to be found. Where do you think he went? Somewhere clichéd and warm like the Bahamas? Wait, but temperatures have been alarmingly warm almost everywhere. At this rate, trees will begin to bud, flowers will sprout up from the earth, and Persephone will stumble out of the underworld to reunite with her mother Demeter. I don’t need to say this, but the unusual temperatures partake of global warming. Or El Niño. Flooding in Argentina and Paraguay, anyone?

Spring in December. How splendid. Soon, we’ll start having Christmas in July. Imagine inflatable Santa Clauses on the beach, sand heaping on their shoulders, waving their mittened hands at the surge of tourists. How marvelously delicious.

I can’t think of any justification for the absence of the Christmas spirit other than recent tragedies have darkened our cheer. There have been one too many in a row.

Well, the only thing I can think of doing to inject some cheer into the cheerless holiday season is to read The Lord of the Rings. Can you blame me for wanting to derive pleasure from Frodo and Sam’s soul-shattering adventure? Some do have it worse than others. But, in all truthfulness, I want nothing more than to zip through time and space and land somewhere, anywhere, in Middle-earth. Imagine celebrating Christmas in Middle-earth, among hobbits and Eldar, men and dwarves? I suppose it’s akin to being in a dreamscape, only this wouldn’t be a dream. The Eldar would entertain us with their shimmering voices and ancient wisdom.

O.K., I may be a little bit obsessed. Can you blame me? I need something to make up for one of the most unfulfilling Christmas in existence. You know, when the world wades waist-deep in chaos, I journey to Middle-earth.

‘Twas the night after Christmas, when all through Middle-earth

not a hobbit was stirring, not even an orc. 

O.K., I’m stopping. I tried.

Mourning the Death of Christmas

I love Christmas. I love the message associated with it. I love Christmas decorations. I even love the inflatable Santa Clauses displayed on lawns.

But…

In recent years, Christmas has become too commercialized.

Christmas is not about the Nativity of Christ, anymore.

Christmas is not about giving, anymore. (For many of us, it’s about receiving.)

Christmas is just another excuse to whip out those credit cards.

The Christmas spirit has tossed aside its plain red robe for the gaudy robe of commercialization.

Yes, Christmas seems to be about crass materialism.

I do find it a bit excessive to display Christmas decorations before the first autumn leaves have fallen, before pumpkins even line porches, before the Thanksgiving pie has been baked.

What’s next? Never taking down the Christmas decorations? Christmas land? Should I start wearing green leggings and pointed hats? This is why aliens haven’t tried to contact us.

About a month ago I read a blog post by Donna Vanliere, the best-selling author of The Christmas Shoes, on the true meaning of Christmas:

Where did it all go south and how did we get it so wrong? While picture perfect, happy people enjoy Christmas, it was never intended for them. Jesus was not born in a mansion or castle or even surrounded by nobility. He was born to a simple peasant woman and her carpenter husband so that he could sympathize with our brokenness and heartache, our pain and greatest disappointments. The first people who took the time to find him were not kings or queens or celebrities of any kind. They were working class shepherds who were working the night shift.

Even if you’re not Catholic, the Christmas story appeals to many. Christmas can trace its origin to the Pagan days of yore, when people celebrated the coming of warmer and more sunlit days. So, in effect, should we say Christmas is about celebrating the miracle of surviving the coldest and most merciless days of the year? Although we are hazy on the exact date of Jesus’ birth (there is evidence, such as the shepherds watching their flocks so late at night, suggesting he was born sometime in summer), I don’t mind that it’s celebrated in the winter; it rings in a new year of warmth and light.

 

Do Not Blame a Cat for Being a Cat

Photograph by Joel Sartore

I have a problem which is this: how can I learn to live in a world so desensitized to violence? How do I tolerate those who favor unnecessary cruelty in lieu of compassion?

In my absence, I’ve been pondering the conundrum of what it means to be human. Is it tolerating others? Is it respecting their Weltanschauung–which correlates with tolerance? What is it? Goddamn it.

Two weeks ago, an article highlighting our immunity to unnecessary cruelty popped up on my Facebook news feed. Here’s the gist: Australian officials are planning to cull millions of feral cats by 2020 on the premises that the latter has contributed to the extinction of some 27 mammals, among them a hopping, big-eared mouse. I seethed at the cruelty of it all. So, I assigned myself a mission: find out who among my network is compassionate. Some thought it necessary to subdue invasive species. Others reacted with the same horror I felt. No, no, no, no. Do you want to know what invasive looks like? There is no species more invasive than the human being himself.

If this were a comment thread, I’d be bracing myself for the ensuing verbal assault:

“Oh, you’re an idiot.”

“im smartt and ur idiot evn thou im shit at spelling.”

“It is our own fault for letting the cat population grow. It’s our responsibility to do something about it. Please, do some research.”

No, shut up, what is there to research? Oh, yes, you’re actually quite right.

According to the Center of Biological Diversity, while in the past mass extinction was caused by natural phenomena, the current crisis is caused entirely by us. In fact, species extinction happens 1000 times faster because of human activity. At this rate, roughly 30 to 50 percent of species could be passing out of existence by mid-century. Habitat destruction and global warming are major contributors to this sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. (Yes, we’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction.) Humans have been responsible for the extinction of some 300 creatures over the past 500 years.

But it’s easy to blame cats for being cats. There are over 7 billion of us. We destroy, pollute, exploit, and kill. But, because we’re the civilized ones, we know what we’re doing.

We kill 56 billion farmed animals every year. That is, some 3,000 animals are slaughtered every second. Though farm animals are in no danger of extinction yet, that’s still an alarming figure–enough to start worrying. Think about it: there are 7 billion of us. 56 billion animals are slaughtered every year. The world produces 17 percent more food per person than three decades ago. That means a lot of food goes to ruin–people don’t eat it and throw it away. Why are there people starving? Many people don’t have fertile land to grow, or enough income to purchase, food. Where is our sense of brotherhood? Whatever happened to feeding the hungry? Inequality is at the heart of the problem. (I’m aware I’m digressing.)

Because we have destroyed many a great habitat, animals forage for food wherever they may find it. It’s a shame mice happen to scuttle in cats’ ways. It’s a shame birds happen to be on terra firma. It’s survival of the fittest: the strongest one survives and the weakest one dies. We will do anything to survive one more day. Why shouldn’ cats do the same?

Just like us, cats fight daily for survival. Is it morally just to kill a creature for something we ourselves do? We kill cattle to survive. Similarly, cats kill hopping, big-eared mice to survive. (Cows may not be exotic animals, or on the brink of extinction, but it does not mean they’re any less valuable.)

Is it our place to decide who should live? There is a higher power who sees and knows all. All decisions regarding matters of life and death should lie with Him alone.

Even if you don’t believe in a higher intelligence, it was not decreed during our births that we should be the judges of life. At least I never got the memo.

 

And I will leave you with one last thought by Edgar Mitchell:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’

Do we really want to be known as those assholes who strip living organisms of their priori right to life? Wait, we’re already those assholes…

Tragic, isn’t it?

 Note: I’m not condemning all of humanity. I’m just expressing great dissatisfaction with the current affairs of the world. 

Complaining about Writing is Caring

Is it because we’re perfectionists? Or could it be that we take writing seriously and our expectations are almost unattainable?

Last week, I wrote a story about a garden gnome. In the story, a mini-me was convinced that a garden gnome “wedged between a stuffed elephant and a giraffe” was going to magically start talking and “taunting me with diabolical gestures.” Seriously? It was only 800-words, but I’ll be damned if those 800-words weren’t excruciating to write. It is a myth that writers are born with the power to pluck the right word out of thin air. We have to actually rummage our brains for it. Descriptive language is hard enough without the complications of narrative thrust, dialogue, and character.

Writer in itself is not an easy feat. I both admire and envy writers who make it look so. The composition of The Lord of the Rings went on for over a decade—Tolkien would work on the first drafts and promptly lay them aside, as more important academic interests jostled for his attention. Despite the great intervals, he plodded on. The horrors of WWII only fortified his desire to complete the story. Even if you’re not into fantasy, Tolkien is the archetypal writer who was plagued by self-doubt and managed to write through it. If he forced himself to do it, as so many before him did, why can’t we? What’s stopping us? Is it perfectionism or unattainable goals? How about fear?

It’s most likely fear. Writing exposes a part of us otherwise hidden from the world. We’re afraid that literary snobs are going to trample, spit, and urinate on our fragile egos. We’re afraid to give up halfway through our first novel. And, in the event we do manage to finish it, we’re afraid that the sequel will resemble less a sequel than a deflated balloon.

Writing is a grueling process. Seemingly harmlesss words have the power to sap of us energy and inject into us a degree of exhaustion that is both alarming and unconceivable. But someone has to do it. And why can’t it be us, right?

But, above all, writing is a blessing. And it is our mission to fulfill our soul’s desire–even if it kills us.

P.S. I never say, secretly to myself, that writing is hard. I like to complain publicly and forcefully, because sharing is caring.