À la Recherche d’une Qualité Perdue

À la Recherche d’une Qualité Perdue

Childhood days –
Endless summer
Over so soon.

School routine –
Facts and figures
In place of friends.

The shy boy
On the fringes –
Mock his strangeness.

Building Lego
Sat for hours –
Transcendent joy.

Exam success,
Afraid to speak –
Social failure.

Computer geek,
Obsessive interest –
The world forgotten.

Curious mind
Always learning –
Child-like wonder.

Naïveté
Jamais perdu –
Le retour de l’été.

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom is an illusion. Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of action; all are constrained in one way or another by the written and especially the unwritten rules – conventions – of society. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no such thing as freedom from consequences.

Everything we do, everything we say has an effect, whether large or small. Every time I articulate an opinion it colors somebody’s feelings towards me: if they agree then they feel more closely aligned with me; if they do not then they feel alienated. Even the way I express myself has an effect: my vocabulary in the workplace is more extensive and less coarse than when I’m in the pub. This is because social conventions exist in both places. There are certain behaviors that would be seen as inappropriate in the “wrong” context, such as swearing or drinking in the workplace. So while it is physically possible for one to, say, drink a beer at work, one would certainly face serious consequences as a result.

Can one be said to be free to act when one is physically able to perform an action that will result in censure or punishment? I do not believe so. I believe that freedom implies that no harm will befall one as a result of one’s actions: that there will be no consequences that one is unwilling to accept.

Unwilling to accept – that is the crux of the matter. If one truly does not care about what happens as a result, either to oneself or to others, then one is free to do as one pleases. Greater freedom comes at the cost of diminished responsibility: being responsible for one’s actions means being aware of and accepting the consequences.

Respect is a factor in this: respect for the right of others not to be offended or harmed by anything one might choose to do. Consider the idea of freedom of expression: a concept that many, especially in the Western world, feel is an inalienable right. A liberal interpretation of it could be construed as a license to lie, offend, incite hatred or violence – one has the freedom to say anything at all and because of that one is absolved of any responsibility for the outcome.

I recall the controversy over the publication, initially in Denmark, of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The publishers used freedom of expression as their defense; however there appeared to be an almost complete lack of understanding of the degree to which many Muslims would be offended, of the utter revulsion they feel towards those committing what they see as blasphemy. It is the same revulsion that many people feel towards those who desecrate Jewish cemeteries with Nazi graffiti, or those who abuse children. Would you say that people should have the freedom to commit those acts? Or should they instead have enough respect for others’ rights that they could not do something so harmful? Understanding that, I feel I have a responsibility not to cause such offense – and in this it does not matter whether it offends me: it is about respecting the rights of others. Is it not reasonable to expect other people to behave with the same respect?

Having started on the subject of freedom, and dismissed it as a chimera, I have ended up reiterating my long-held views about respect and responsibility. I do not worry about whether I am “free” – it is a concept that carries little meaning for me with my consciousness of the social constraints within which I must navigate my daily life. I try to act intentionally according to my beliefs: in basic terms, to treat others as I would wish to be treated in return. It is more important to me that I be treated with respect than that I should feel free to do as I please.

Weathering the Storm

Weathering the Storm

Looking back from where I sit alone,
Thinking how it all was meant to be,
Sunny days and laughter in the home,
Not a care to trouble you or me.

Gathering dark storm clouds: trouble looms
On the far horizon, distant fear.
Thunder rolls and hints of pending doom,
Presages the trouble drawing near.

Suddenly the tempest rages round,
Unexpected fury a surprise,
Trying hard to keep feet on the ground,
Lashing rain brings vengeance from the skies.

Feeling such oppression I withdraw,
Cower in the shelter of my mind.
Memories of happiness are straws.
Desolation creeps up from behind.

Identity

Identity

We all go through life acquiring labels: abstract, shorthand descriptions of how others see us. Some are positive: intelligent, caring; while others are negative: weird, rude, crazy. I’ve picked up several over the years. But how do these labels relate to my self-image, my identity?

The short answer is that they don’t. I see myself as an individual, unique, with a set of behaviors and thoughts that is mine and mine alone. Yes, I share certain traits with others to varying degrees and this induces people to file me under certain categories in their minds. To put me into particular boxes bearing little hand-written labels, identifying me as a set of characteristics.

When I think of these labels I picture a dark, dusty, wooden cabinet, perhaps in a Victorian museum, with row after row of small drawers. Each has a tarnished brass handle and above the handle is affixed a small, age-yellowed paper label with one or two words written in a neat copperplate hand; the black ink has faded to gray. Inside each drawer, in perfect alphabetical order, is a stack of plain cards and upon each is written a person’s name in the same hand as the drawer’s label.

This view of a person as a collection of basic, orthogonal characteristics has its uses. It provides a point of reference, a sketched outline upon which to build a more detailed representation. But the picture must not be confused with the subject it represents – a portrait of somebody, whether painted or written, cannot describe them fully. The picture is not the object. That is the message in René Magritte’s La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) with its caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).

As in mathematics, membership of any number of sets does not predicate that those attributes are the sum total of being, of identity. It’s just like saying that a particular number is prime and odd, and attempting to infer its other attributes from that incomplete description. Can you guess what number I was thinking of? The number of possible answers is literally infinite.

When I consider myself reduced to a meager collection of adjectives my hackles rise and it brings to mind the rebellious outburst of Number 6 in The Prisoner, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” By simplifying me, painting me with a palette restricted to primary colors, you deny my complexity and individuality. To understand a person in any depth it is necessary to consider the subtleties, the fine nuances of their character. To be aware of those aspects that set them apart from others who appear superficially similar. To understand that your labels are no more than a frame that limns the gross outline within which lies the colorful richness of detail.

I reflect upon my own identity and I can recognize traits, but they are not me – they do not define me. They are the bold strokes from a broad brush upon the canvas – no fine detail is possible. I am a complex system emerging from the unique combination of more factors than I can name, each contributing to the whole and generating new additional behaviors through their interactions. In this whole world of some six billion people there is not one other who is the same as me. I am me, no more and no less. My being is my identity in toto.

Say What You Mean

Say What You Mean

I’m trying to make sense of what you say,
But meaning keeps eluding me. I try
To get you to explain, to be precise,
But fail to crack the code; I’m left confused.

“You don’t spend any time with me,” you say,
Although I’m in proximity all night.
I guess you must mean more by these few words
Than superficial reading can discern.

In lieu of reading minds, I query you
To tease out your intent in speaking thus.
My literal approach has let me down:
Unable or unwilling, you decline
Request after request from me to put
Your evident concerns a different way.

You speak a language using words I know,
Combined in cryptic metaphors to bear
A meaning that may seem so clear to you:
It might as well be Mandarin to me.
So once again I offer up my plea,
I wish for once you’d just say what you mean.

Saying No

Saying No

Saying “No” doesn’t come naturally to me. Whenever people come up to me and ask me to help them in some way my instinctive response is to go along with whatever they want. I actually feel anxious even thinking about refusing their requests – I worry that refusing will lead to argument or confrontation.

So I end up doing things for others – not that I mind most of the time – but it takes time and energy that I ought to be spending doing other things. It can be a problem for me at work when I get people coming up to me or phoning me to ask for technical assistance when I am in the middle of some other piece of work: I end up taking longer to complete my tasks because I’m spending time on unrelated issues. I even raised it as a problem at my recent annual performance review.

One of the biggest problems with interruptions at work is that it can take me out of a flow state which then means I spend fifteen minutes or so trying to get back into it. Just four interruptions over the course of a day can lose me about an hour of productive working time.

I guess that invariably saying “Yes” to people actually makes things worse for me because it encourages them to ask for favors more often. In contrast I very rarely ask anybody to do things for me – I feel uncomfortable imposing on them.

I need to learn how to say “No” without causing myself stress as I fret about the possible consequences. Experience tells me that a simple, blank refusal doesn’t work in most instances – particularly in a social situation. The person will just repeat the request, often with some attempt at emotional coercion – a deliberate attempt to engage my sympathy. And it works – I then feel that I would be letting them down by continuing to turn them down, which upsets me. It could be labelled emotional blackmail. I consider it a particularly devious, underhand means to get one’s own way, but it seems to be a depressingly common tactic.

Some people have suggested that I invent some prior commitment that would preclude my assistance at that time; however that would mean lying which makes me even more uncomfortable so it’s not a viable option. If only people would take a simple “No” as an answer and drop the matter there and then instead of arguing about it and trying to change my mind. I really need to find some stress-free way to refuse, because otherwise I will just continue to take the (for me) easy way out and assent to their wishes.

Mandala

Mandala

Each instant of the present
Hangs like a leaf
Upon the infinite tree
That is the future.

And just like leaves in autumn
Each in its turn
Becomes an instant of past:
Now falls from the tree

Whose roots absorb the essence
Of fallen past,
Feeding on earlier times
To nourish new growth.

The cycle thus continues:
Old times return
Though in a different guise.
Our stories repeat.