Stop for Moose! I read as the car’s headlights caught the sign in the dark. It was about 1 am.
Time wants to show you a different country. It’s the one
that your life conceals, the one waiting outside
when curtains are drawn, the one grandmother hinted at
in her crotchet design, the one almost found
over at the edge of the music, after the sermon.
It’s the way life is, and you have it, a few years given.
You get killed now and then, violated
in various ways (and sometimes it’s turn about).
You get tired of that. Long-suffering, you wait
and pray, and maybe good things come-maybe
the hurt slackens and you hardly feel it any more.
You have a breath without pain. It is called happiness.
It’s a balance, the taking and passing it along,
the composting of where you’ve been and how people
and weather treated you. It’s a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.
Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours”.
- The Gift, William Stafford
Stafford is a gift that goes on giving. When I’m tired, or I’m blue, or sitting down trying to catch a breath after a long day, or just comforted by the silence of 5 am, browsing Stafford at random, accentuates the mood. I feel my warm breath in the cold room, hear the soft rustling of pages, I taste the hint of bitterness in my morning coffee, swirl it’s aroma round in my nose, and I see outside, the promise of dawn.
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My stomach disagrees with the quality/quantity of something I ate the night before and I feel crummy. My joints feel stiff. My upper back complains about my carrying Maya so much and my neck laments about having spent the night at an odd angle. I look outside to a gray, cloudy and cold world, like some late fall or winter morning. But we’re in the middle of summer. Where is that California sunshine ?
Crabby, sleepless, sore, lonely, I start getting ready for work. I put Maya down and sit down on the potty. The only book around is William Stafford’s collection of poems, “The Way It Is”. I open a page at random and read:
It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,
the composting of where you’ve been and how
people and weather treated you. It’s a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.
Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, its yours”
I turn another page and read:
When a goat likes a book, the whole book is gone,
and the meaning has to go find an author again.
But when we read, it’s just print – deciphering,
like frost on a window: we learn the meaning
but lose what the frost is, and all that world
pressed so desperately behind.
My face begins to relax. Some of the tenseness goes out of my body. I begin to breathe slowly again, deeply. I turn another page.
Air crowds into my cell so considerately
that the jailer forgets this kind of gift
and thinks I’m alone. Such unnoticed largesse
smuggled by day floods over me,
or here come grass, turns in the road,
a branch or stone significantly strewn
where it wouldn’t need to be.
I hear the soulful call of the mourning dove outside the window, the high notes of asolitary crow somewhere, the twitter of some birds that had no name. And I turn another page:
No leader is free; no follower is free -
the rest of us can often be free.
Most of the world are living by
creeds too odd, chancy and habit-forming
to be worth arguing about by reason.
And the re-enchantment with the world begins again.
In the movie The Dark Knight, the widely acclaimed and chart busting top grosser of last year, Batman’s closest confidante, his butler Alfred, describes the nature of the villain, The Joker thus: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Batman does some unacceptable, and in my mind unheroic, things in his attempt to catch the Joker and save people from the mayhem that the Joker unleashes. Things such as torturing the Joker in an attempt to extract crucial information related to saving the life of someone close to him and widescale, warrantless surveillance. Some raved at how well these choices were shown, that they weren’t shown in black and white terms. But, the viewer had to concede that they were eventually acceptable because the movie intones several times (though not so in your face) that Batman is the hero who does the “right thing” even if it is not the culturally or legally acceptable thing. That they were acceptable because of the nature of the Joker, a man who just wanted to watch the world burn, a man to whom normal rules don’t apply.
Clint Eastwood, my favorite childhood Hollywood actor, did similar things in “Dirty Harry” because the villain (Scorpio in that case) was portrayed as a madman, randomly shooting people to spread terror and extract a ransom from the city. Villains in James Bond movies are also shown as madmen, willing to destroy anything that stands in their way of taking over the world. In Sholay (and in countless other Bollywood movies), the villain of villains, Gabbar Singh, is shown as a sadistic dacoit, willing to terrorize innocent villagers.
This depiction of villains as madmen, men who committed deeds well beyond the knell of acceptable, which therefore justified the unbelievable acts of violence unleashed against them by the heroes, has a long history in many cultures. In Indian mythology, demonic emperors such as Ravana, evil uncles such as Kamsa are shown as “being evil”. It is in their nature. Superheroes (and gods) exist because they have to battle such super villains.
In real life, people such as Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot are similarly portrayed as evil men, men who are the way they are because it is in them. While biographers may chart the lives of such people, in popular conception, they are just evil incarnates, nothing can explain things such as the Holocaust or Year Zero. Attempts to explain their actions are decried because they are seen as justifying the acts.
This view of things, of looking at people’s seemingly innate character as an explanation of their actions, has always struck me as being unsatisfactory and incomplete; maybe because the engineer in me hopes for solutions and no solutions can be found if people are simply evil. But this simple division of people into black and white, good and evil seems too simplistic. Gandhi’s view that we are each a mix of good and evil seemed more real to me. Jesus seemed to speak similarly when he asks only men who have not sinned to stone the prostitute they condemn to death by stoning. M.C.Escher’s famous painting depicts this incrementalist view, of angels springing forth from demons and vice-versa (picture courtesy of http://www.hnorthrop.com/escher.html).
In 1963, the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, conducted his landmark “Obedience to Authority” experiment, in which ordinary people were shown capable of subjecting others to shocking acts of violence in obedience to authority. Volunteers were divided into two groups, teachers and learners. Unknown to the teachers, only they were the real volunteers and the learners were actually part of the research team. A researcher provided word pairs to the teacher and told them to first read the word pairs aloud to the learner. After this, the teacher was asked to question the learner by reading the first word of a word pair and asking the learner to pick the corresponding word of the pair from one of the four provided choices. Each time the learner provided the wrong answer, the teacher had to administer an electric shock to the learner. The intensity of the shock increased each time the learner gave the wrong answer. The teachers were also administered a sample shock before the experiment began to make them feel the pain of the punishment. During the test, the learners would deliberately answer incorrectly in an effort to see how much shock the teachers were willing to administer. The learners were kept in a separate room from the teachers. Unknown to the teachers, when they twirled the dial administering the shock, no real shock was actually subjected upon the learners. But the learners yelped, moaned and pleaded in agony before seemingly lapsing into unconscious so that the teachers were aware of the consequence of their administering the shock. The result of the experiment was that most people were willing to administer the shocks despite the pleading of the learners and were willing to administer lethal doses (the dial indicated the voltage) of shocks. Those who wanted to stop when they heard the painful cries, continued when asked to do so by a monitoring researcher.
So, what makes authority figures whose demands make us indulge in such behavior ? In 1971, Philip Zimbardo carried out the now famous Stanford Prison Experiment. He and his associates selected twenty four graduate students from a volunteer pool at the university and randomly assigned them to be either prisoners or guards. These students were selected for their lack of criminal record and of sound mind and body. All came from white, middle class families. A prison was constructed and the guards were asked to maintain the prison. In less than a week, guards and prisoners adopted to their roles and the guards indulged in shocking acts of violence against the prisoners. One third of the guards indulged in acts that were considered sadistic. Zimbardo terminated the experiment six days after it began. Most of the guards were upset that the experiment was terminated early.
The lesson Zimbardo drew is that many of us can descend into violence due to just role playing. That the guards began to abuse their power because that’s how they thought guards ought to be, and the prisoners soon accepted their treatment more acceptingly because they felt like victims. Some questioned the breadth of this conclusion.
In 2002, two professors in UK in collaboration with BBC, attempted to duplicate the Stanford Prison Experiment. They reached different conclusions, but the conclusions did not seem to detract from the fundamental point that individuals do not work in isolation, but as part of a larger ecosystem and that different ecosystems engender different behaviors in individuals. In a paper published in 2005 titled “Psychology of Tyranny”, they write: “In general terms, we concur with Sherif, Milgram, Zimbardo and others that tyranny is a product of group processes, not individual pathology. …. We believe that people at every level of the group help to foster a collective culture of hate and are responsible for its consequences. … When a social system collapses, people will be more open to alternatives, even those that previously seemed unattractive. Moreover, when the collapse of a system wreaks such havoc that a regular and predictable social life becomes impossible, the promise of a rigid and hierarchical order becomes more alluring.”
A paper published in 2008, based on this experiment, identifies five steps in the creation of collective hate which enables people to carry out sickening acts: (i) Identification, the construction of an ingroup; (ii) Exclusion, the definition of targets as external to the ingroup; (iii) Threat, the representation of these targets as endangering ingroup identity; (iv) Virtue, the championing of the ingroup as (uniquely) good; and (v) Celebration, embracing the eradication of the outgroup as necessary to the defence of virtue.
Philip Zimbardo has written a book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”, about the Stanford Prison Experiment, the lessons drawn from this and its application to real life incidents such as Abu Ghraib. He talks about how this tendency to seek answers for sadistic or heroic behavior in people underlies much of of how our world functions today: the legal system, medicine, psychology and even religion. They’re based on answers to questions of “who”. People like Zimbardo belong to a group of people called social psychologists who instead ask “what” questions: “What conditions contributed to the behavior, what circumstances, what was the situation. Social psychologists ask to what extent can an individual’s behavior be traced to factors outside the actor, to situational variables and environmental processes unique to a given setting ?”
Zimbardo also says that the “who” approach to evil allows “good people” to get themeselves off the hook. He writes: “They’re freed from even considering their possible roles in creating, sustaining, perpetuating, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror and violence. ‘It’s the way of the world, and there’s not much that can be done to change it, certainly not by me.’”. Popular reaction to terrorist acts such as the WTC attack on 9/11 or the recent Mumbai attack show this kind of thinking in real life. We, ordinary citizens are not responsible for the violence unleashed by the terrorists. It is in their nature (or in this case, their religion). It is what allows us to attack Afghanistan and Iraq without a troubled conscience.
People like Hitler and Pol Pot do not arise in a vaccuum. Hitler rose in the ruins of post-WWI Germany, because of Germans ravaged by the unbearable war reparations thrust by the winners of WWI, and rampant anti-Semitism in Europe made it easy for the creation of an out-group to blame for all the problems. Hitler probably believed that he was achieving some good by his actions. George W Bush to this day proclaims that the invasion of Iraq was good because he rid the Iraqi people, nay the world, of a madman, Saddam Hussein.
In the Dark Knight, Joker tells Batman that he doesn’t want to kill him because they complete each other, as if without one, there would be no need for the other. In Dorothy Rowe’s book, “Friends and Enemies: Our Need To Love and Hate”, she quotes Martin Bell of BBC: “The American government seemed to crave tinpot dictators, whether it was Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Noriega, Ortega in Nicaragua – and all these became hate figures. It was almost as if they needed them. Americans needed someone to denounce. They needed someone against whom they could parade their American values. I found it the same with Serbs. They believed themselves to be a heroic people and they needed a dark background against which to shine. They would if necessary create that darkness themselves”.
Richard Hofstadter writes in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: “The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, of deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will”. The Joker is a perfect example of such an enemy. The history of superheroes is filled with villains that fit this description to a T.
The world seems to be slipping into a chaos where the loudest voices are those proclaiming the supremacy of their specific in-group (be it religion or nation-state or language or culture), its inherent goodness and the need for defense against other not-so-good out-groups. In a world where natural resources are being depleted rapidly and where the near exhaustion of essentials as water, food and clean air has the potential to fuel more and more conflicts, it is left to us to decide the kind of world we want our children to inherit. To do so however requires us to question much of our world view, especially those which encourage us to construct arguments based on “who” instead of “what”, of enemies who just want to watch the world burn.
It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by. – William Stafford
I went for a long run on Tuesday, here in Kailua, Hawaii. There is a little mountain near here and I decided to run up that if it was possible. It involved scrambling up a really steep slope and then preventing myself from slipping down badly an even steeper slope, with running in between along a knife-like ridge overlooking the little hamlet of Lanikai with the backdrop of the spectacular, jagged Ko’olau mountains on one side and the turquoise, aquamarine Pacific on the other. The trail was narrow and overgrown with bushes in places. The scenery was breath-taking.
Someone told me that it was essential to carry water to complete the ridge and a challenge was laid down. When I was at my peak, I could run a half-marathon with just a swig of water, midway through the distance. But I haven’t run more than 10 miles in the last nine months and not more than five the past month. I had no water, but something inside me said that I wanted to do this entire loop.
I met only two people during my run. I asked one of them how to go all along the ridge but drop back into Lanikai instead of the neighboring, but far away town of Bellows Air Force Base. Hang left all the time was the advice. And watch your footing. When I run, I plan the run upfront such as “I’ll complete a 10K today with 3 miles at my threshold running pace” or “I’ll do a half marathon today”. And I rarely waver from that plan. I don’t go charging up mountains, follow a completely unknown trail, not knowing how long it’ll take and not worry about my pace. When I returned to the cottage an hour and forty minutes later, I was tired but exhilarated.
This week, I celebrate my forty-first birthday. I’m as much a creature of habit and lassitude as anyone else. As I age, I want those to become less of a problem they can otherwise be. As we age, we become more conservative, they say. We stiffen both in our bones and in our souls. I want to stay limber. Running that ridge was an attempt to do that.
Forty years seems a marker just like thirty was. Many people tell me that whatever that they have not managed to accomplish by the time they’re forty, they don’t think they will accomplish after, that they will remain who they are once they pass forty. Two colleagues at work the other day shuddered as they talked of going past forty (which they will next year). People say that friends made in college or earlier are the best friends they ever had, that they have not managed to make close friends later in life. A study reported earlier this year using data from 2 million people from over 80 countries found that people are generally miserable in their middle age, that happiness over a lifetime is a U-shaped curve.
Part of the problem may just be the ideas we carry about what aging means. Many people dye their hair as they get older (I’ve been asked several times about why I don’t dye my hair). A friend got himself a convertible, to handle his mid-life crisis, he said. My parents carried on about how they had one foot in the grave, that they were old, starting from their late forties. A colleague at work told me wistfully how he had bicycled up and down the Canadian Rockies in his twenties and that he couldn’t dream of doing it now (he was in his late thirties). Studies seem to indicate that our ideas of age can influence how we react to aging.
Consider a study conducted in 1996 by three researchers from New York University that had volunteers (male and female graduates at NYU) rearrange groups of words that were scrambled to form the correct sentence (for example, “they her brother see usually”). The volunteers were told that they were undertaking a test of verbal acuity and flexibility. Unknown to the volunteers, one group was given words that stereotype the elderly such as ancient, old, lonely, Florida, forgetful, retired etc. while the other group was given words that were neutral i.e. they did not contain words that stereotyped the elderly. After they completed the words, one of the researchers thanked them and bid them goodbye. Unknown to them, the real test began now. Another researcher sat outside in the corridor and using a hidden stopwatch, measured the time each volunteer took to walk the length of the corridor to reach the elevator to exit the building. The researchers found that volunteers who were primed with words that stereotyped elderly took much longer to walk the corridor than the ones who were not. They were unconsciously acting as if they were older than they really were. They volunteers didn’t know that they had been primed with words that contained stereotypes of the elderly (the original researcher caught up with the participant at the end of the corridor and explained the real experiment and checked if the participant had detected that the words were stereotypes of elderly people).
Another study conducted in 1970 organized a five day retreat for people over 70 in which the people were made to think as if they were 20 years younger. For example, they were surrounded with magazines that were from the time they were in their fifties, listened to radio and TV shows from when they were in their fifties, encouraged to speak in the present tense about topics that were current when they were in their fifties. After five days, the results showed that the men had significantly improved their visual and memory acuities and even their joints were more flexible. The study reports that on average, photographs showed them younger than the photographs taken before the retreat. Making people think and live for five days as if they were twenty years younger made them physically and mentally younger.
I came across a saying many years back: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were ?”
I’ve had a wonderful, blessed life so far. Been absurdly fortunate. Have Shanthala and Maya by my side and memories of Kitty to prove that. Less than a century ago, I’d most likely be dead already (average life expectancy in India was forty around independence time) . I was raised me with a lot of love. I could go on and on. A recent study found that rare, major happy events won’t make us feel as happy as lots of little ones. My life has been filled with both.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say. - Ask Me, William Stafford