I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time making sense of what we’re going through right now. Of course, compared to what the people we have known have gone through, especially those who lived through the twentieth century with all the wars and ideological conflicts, it seems like a trivial thing. I had to wonder whether my expectations and the belief that we would overcome the experiences that caused so much suffering by becoming more reasonable were the cause of my difficulties.
The assumption that we would become more reasonable after the horrors of the last century was, I think, fostered by schooling in Germany, which was clearly an indoctrination away from the fascist mindset that had made Germany such a war machine. It was propaganda designed to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, and it was, of course, well-intentioned, and many of us believed it. A similar mindset accompanied me in my training as a geriatric nurse, where it became clear that gerontology, a relatively new field of nursing, was trying to overcome the appalling conditions in which older people with dementia had been kept until the 1980s, and to better educate caregivers. We had set out with the idea that our approach would make the world a little better, especially the world of people with dementia.
Many of us had not understood that people had a similar intention at the beginning of the 20th century, when they believed that World War I would be a war to end all wars and intending to make reason and science the tools with which to overcome the irrationality of religion, ignorance, and superstition. In a sense, it was an application of pure rationality that led to the atrocities of the 20th century, and a heartless determination took people’s breath away in horror because it seemed to consume people and make them burn for something that had the opposite effect of what they had imagined. It did not seem to matter in which ideological direction people moved, whether fascism or communism, people were captivated and those who were not indoctrinated were swept away.
The conclusion of the post-war period was that an evil had been overcome with the surrender of Nazi Germany and Japan, but the comparably rationalist indoctrination of communism had taken place in Russia and China, causing unimaginable suffering that surpassed that of World War II. An ideological struggle was still going on in many countries, and people continued to suffer until towards the end of the century. It is hard to imagine how I could have had such an idealistic worldview when I set out to make the world a better place, given the recent past. Not only did the world not make sense, but I did not make sense either.
Since then, it has become abundantly clear that while we had not defeated the evil that plagued the last century, at least in the West, we had driven it underground. We could have recognized this after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the supposed victory over communism by noting a shift in power, but the problem was by no means defeated. In fact, the problem is our nature. Some call it a dualistic nature, some say it is due to the structure of our brain, and some say it is our shadow self which, if ignored, overturns the good resolutions we have carefully made. In whatever way we want to explain it, explanations do not free us from the consequences. To make sense of the world, we must make sense of our contradictory nature.
The strange thing that people discover is that there is a side of humanity that well-meaning people tried to eradicate at the beginning of the 20th century: Religion. Today, many people in Europe see religion as something outdated, something that is rapidly disappearing – especially since the scandals of the Church have been investigated and made public. It has cost the sense of faith the church sought to convey, and its maternal nature has been sullied by the behaviour of a minority among the clergy who have abused the trust placed in them. But, as studies show, we are a species that is primarily emotional, and our rationality comes later. That’s why we keep looking for something we think as an institution in which we can place our trust. For some it’s work, for others it’s the soccer club, for others it’s the vacation that is an expression of what they believe they are. That’s why we can get very emotional about some things, even though we suspect that it’s something else that makes us happy.
This is also the reason why we are so easily disappointed. Material possessions do not satisfy the need within us that seeks nurturing guidance to understand ourselves. It is the restlessness within us that makes us unbalanced, sometimes depressed, sometimes a little paranoid. It is the place where conspiracy theories are born, and blanket condemnations are made of certain groups or individuals. It causes hooligans to fight with a rival group, and other people to fight with their partners and leave them. It causes the cohesion of society to crumble, sows’ distrust of the authorities, and leads to the radicalization of groups that actually mean well. It is a hole that needs to be filled.
The trouble is, we can’t just go back. That is probably why there are numerous people who are seeking solace in other religions, or in other convictions and teachings. It may well be that our society has a number of areas that are clearly remnants of the Christian faith, but unless it is translated differently, our access is blocked by the typical. Our problem with other traditions, however, is often that they presume a social cohesion that is different to our own understanding. Other nations underrate the individual, and only sees the individual as subject to the group he or she is in. We celebrate the individual and the group works to give the individual his freedoms. That is important and the reason why we fail to understand people in those traditions. Their discipline often seems restrictive and limiting.
So, making sense of our self seems to entail finding something to fill the void, since we obviously can’t ignore it. I found a quote on the Internet from Blaise Pascal’s Pensees that addresses this problem:
“All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions.
A test which has gone on so long, without pause or change, really ought to convince us that we are incapable of attaining the good by our own efforts. But example teaches us very little. No two examples are so exactly alike that there is not some subtle difference, and that is what makes us expect that our expectations will not be disappointed this time as they were last time. So, while the present never satisfies us, experience deceives us, and leads us on from one misfortune to another until death comes as the ultimate and eternal climax.
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”
As St. Augustine said, there is a “God-shaped hole” in each of us. But what do we understand when we use the word God? What could be infinite and immutable? It is quite obviously not a “thing” since all things are finite. In fact, many Christians seem to make the mistake of making God a thing, something graspable, as though we were able to understand how this whole existence in which we live came to be – “it’s easy”, they say, “it’s in the Bible”. But it isn’t easy, is it?
So, how do we make sense of our existence? What do you think?
There is an old German saying, “age doesn’t protect from folly” (Alter schützt vor Torheit nicht), but as it turns out, knowledge doesn’t protect from folly either. Hegel anecdotally said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. It does make you think, regarding the lack of awareness of historical context in society, whether we are keeping ourselves in the dark. I have to agree with Joe Murray, the coordinator with Afri-Action, who said “More and more, I tend to read history. I often find it more up to date than the daily newspapers.” Knowledge of the past seems to be continually covered over by the triviality of the news that is regularly used to attract our attention. The similarities in current developments to problematic developments of the past is virtually ignored.
As Kurt Vonnegut observed, history is a list of surprises that can prepare us to be surprised yet again, and Thucydides states “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” It is a shame that the large numbers of people in the west accumulating knowledge aren’t making a better world, despite the assumption by many in the west, that we are so knowledgeable. The fact is, that we are not using knowledge as a tool for improvement, and probably never have, but instead it is our feelings that guide us, and we know how insignificant they can be. We have also built tools, called social media, in which we can let these feelings out into the world, and if one doesn’t see the insignificance of feelings there, then nowhere. By insignificance I mean that they don’t help us construct anything but are very destructive in most cases.
History is significant because it is deserving of attention and can show the consequences of a particular behaviour. We can glean meaning from experience by studying what was good and what was bad in the past, a sign that guides us to a better future. The problem is, as we have observed above, we fail to learn from history, or even from bad experiences. We allow ourselves to follow the rut on the path we are travelling, which leads us down the same erroneous paths we have followed over and over again. The fact that we fail to follow examples is something that we must begrudgingly own up to, and overcome our prejudices, our misled confidence in our knowledge, and look for wisdom. As was quoted above, wisdom isn’t equivalent to age, and age also has its share of folly, but wisdom is the ability to discern the right judgement from the insights we have won by past experience.
One wisdom of the East that has impressed me was an age-old advice to look at things as if for the first time, called “beginner’s mind”. This isn’t a voluntary ignorance, but a deferring of what we assume to know for a moment, in order to perceive a situation anew. A knowledge of history shows us the ruts of time in which mankind has been stuck, and a new assessment could help us avoid the mistakes of the past. Rushing into important decisions has always brought us into the ruts of the past. We need to carefully consider our intentions at an opportune moment, so as to be prepared for situations in which quick decisions must be made. What we observe in history is the opposite. In fact, the most important decisions in current politics seem to be rushed, for fear of having to think them through. In such cases, all knowledge and experience are thrown out, there is no time to rethink, and we fall into the same ruts as before.
I can’t help thinking that it is because we are being ideologically influenced. Ideologies have a rigid agenda, and there is no time to contemplate the consequences of its policies, rather the dogma must be quickly implemented. Ideologies are also resistant to criticism and doubt is seen as a sign of betrayal. Ideologies have maintained a course of action with the most atrocious consequences, and people addicted to ideologies have become firm to the point of being cold and callous. There is another danger, that Iain McGilchrist picked up from John Stuart Mill in his book:
“As John Stuart Mill so wisely said (speaking about social science, but it applies more widely):
All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”
McGilchrist, Iain. The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (S.620-621). Perspectiva Press. Kindle-Version.
We put our trust of people who are educated, who aspire to release us from dogmatic ideas, but as McGilchrist points out “…some evidence shows that people with more education are more likely to cling to ideological beliefs in the teeth of evidence…” (S.1098). This is evident in the ideological warfare that seems to be going on in university campuses in the western world, which doesn’t increase our confidence in our younger generation to avoid the mistakes of the past. In fact, it is truly worrying that those who should know about history are still prone to repeat it.
The question then is, what can we do?
The problems of the world are of course compounded by the fact that time is unrelenting, and we must do things of importance when the opportunity arises. With enough time, perhaps many of the blunders of the past could have been avoided, but I believe that it has more to do with our mindset. The more dogmatic we are, the less alternatives we have and the less imagination of what else could be perceived as a solution. We need to understand that we are being driven, not just by time, but by the ideology of commercial growth, expansion of markets, and global competition. This ideology tells us that consumerism is the calling of mankind, and that without it, there is no point in living. It is at times as merciless as a tsunami and takes everything in its path with it. Most important, it drives us into the channels of the past and prevents us from finding other avenues, other directions in which to travel.
If we are stuck in that rut, we know where it is leading, just like in the past. If we can get out of the rut, we have a chance.
Growing up in a military environment, politics was hardly talked about, and I had no idea what was going on in the world. It was only when my father left the army and I left school in 1970 that I became vaguely interested in what I read in the newspapers and gained a rather caricatured impression of the struggle that was taking place in Britain. It was all somewhat black and white in my mind, there was the political party that was for the working class, and the political party of the upper class. I had gained the impression that I was working class and I watched the uninspiring governments that clung to the remnants of a post-war consensus, the struggle between the parties, and the voter disillusionment that brought on a cultural shift and, in the end, the way punk music best portrayed the mess the country had got itself into.
The 1970s was namely a decade brought to a halt by industrial action, a decade of falling productivity and an economy struggling under the pressures of globalisation. In 1973 I joined the army at eighteen, where I experienced once again a suppression of political interest and was even called before my commanding officer to explain myself for portraying the political environment in a caricatured manner. I also got to know Belgium and the Netherlands a little bit via a buddy of mine, whose father had been posted there when he was younger and with whom I served in Germany. We were sent to Northern Ireland, and I saw even more poverty and desperation. The comparison between the German town I was posted to and the British town I had left seemed drastic in my eyes. The army and even my time in England on leave seemed to me an environment that was increasingly constricting and after marrying a German girl, and with her help, I broke out in 1978 and decided to turn my back on Britain just before the Falkland war.
It was in Germany that I began reading political commentary, in books and magazines I learnt about the cause of the world wars, the political struggle that ensued after the wars, and the political parties that were prominent then on the political landscape. It also gave me the chance to review my perception of the British situation, and it seemed to me to be even worse than I had imagined. Inflationary pressures back home were almost visible to the naked eye. Unemployment was high. The British government seemed to be permanently concerned with curbing trade union power and the striking British worker seemed to be the subject of the decade. The British worker was not generally well-paid, I heard from my brother that he could only earn a living by working long hours, and there was a growing militancy mixed in with the discontent I heard.
In Germany, The Coal, Iron and Steel Codetermination Act of 1951 had enabled employees in the coal and steel industry to participate in corporate decision-making. Corporate co-determination was ensured above all by equal representation on the supervisory board. Although the prerequisite was that the company must be in the coal, iron and steel industry, must have the legal form of a stock corporation or a limited liability company, and must have at least one thousand employees, this approach had far-reaching implications for the rest of industry. The strikes I experienced in Germany were of a very different nature to those in the UK. Living standards were raised by securing a wage that many people could live on after a forty-hour week. There were still areas where this could not be guaranteed, but progress was being made.
Denmark, Ireland and Britain had joined the EEC in 1973, after Charles de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, as he was the main reason why Britain hadn’t joined earlier. Under the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, there was a UK referendum on continued membership of the EEC in 1975. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in Europe. But the relationship was difficult to begin with. Margaret Thatcher negotiated an EU budget rebate in 1984 after threatening to halt payments to the EU budget because Britain’s economy hadn’t yet picked up to the degree it had when Cameron’s Referendum knocked on the decision to leave. Up until then it had become one of the strongest nations in the EU, but I diverge.
In Germany, along with the Works Constitution Act, the Co-Determination Act and the Act on the Formation of Speakers’ Committees, the Coal and Steel Co-Determination Act was one of the most important laws on employee co-determination in workplaces and companies in Germany and paved the way for further development. Employee rights in other areas were largely further developed due to these laws. Of course, this was the situation at the beginning of the 1980s that had a large effect on how I viewed the world and gave many of us the hope that these developments were promising further improvements in the future. It is clear now that this wasn’t the case and globalisation also had its effect on Germany, although political developments, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of eastern Germany gave a certain reprise to the hopes we had been fostering. We all know now that these developments changed life in Germany, as well as the rest of the world.
In the early 1990s, I began to turn to more conservative values after becoming a father and working for the British military, and I turned away from the more hawkish political attitudes of the past and was amazed to learn that even what I considered conservative in Germany was considered socialist in America. It was the time when New Labour emerged and was led by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown in the mid-1990s until 2010. In Germany, Helmut Kohl had become chancellor in 1982 and survived a long term in office until 1998, when the Christian Democrats suffered from numerous scandals. Gerhard Schröder took over as chancellor until November 2005 and showed a similar interest to Blair in developing the Social Democrats (SPD) into a modern party and leaving behind the socialism of Willi Brandt, which had also caused Helmut Schmidt to fall in the 1970s. Blair was successful until he got involved with George W. Bush in a war in Iraq, which Schröder had strictly rejected, but that still didn’t help him. His policies had lost him the support of the left, who were welcomed with open arms by the successors to the East German communist government.
In between was the highly symbolic attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, which was seen as an Islamic reaction to the expansion of American interests but led to an even more aggressive attitude toward Islamic countries, which many saw as a culture war, with no distinction between militant and conventional Islam. In Germany, however, there was concern that the CIA could do as it pleased, and the aggressive defence of American interests, including the unjustified war in Iraq and the aggressive occupation of Afghanistan, which experts predicted in retrospect would not succeed, sparked a wave of criticism. The lack of sympathy for American policies included criticism of Israeli policies, which were supported by America and viewed by some as a form of apartheid against the Palestinian population.
During this time, I was undecided about my political direction, having been in Germany long enough to lose my right to vote in the UK, and not qualifying to vote in Germany. The political situation in the UK seemed to be moving toward a more conservative approach after Gordon Brown. I remember being puzzled by the increasing criticism of the EU in the British newspapers and the reaction of my family, because my experience of life in the EU in general was positive. I particularly remember a conversation with a Frenchman at the birthday party of a German friend of ours, and the fact that we both came from backgrounds where the Frenchman was critical of Britain and the Brit was critical of France. We both concluded in German that both the British and the French should meet informally on neutral ground and that hostility would then give way to friendship. This experience seemed to be shared by many “ex-pats” residing in European countries, very many of whom were later horrified by the decision to leave the EU.
Angela (Mutti) Merkel took over as Chancellor of Germany in November 2005 until December 2021, ushering in another long period of conservatism. In America, despite the election of Barack Obama, emphasizing issues of rapidly ending the Iraq War, increasing energy independence, and reforming the health care system, in a campaign that projected themes of hope and change. In his first few days in office, Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda directing the U.S. military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. He ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but Congress prevented the closure by refusing to appropriate the required funds and preventing moving any Guantanamo detainee. Obama reduced the secrecy given to presidential records. He also revoked President George W. Bush’s restoration of President Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City policy which prohibited federal aid to international family planning organizations that perform or provide counselling about abortion.
There was broad agreement between Merkel and Obama, and Merkel was particularly instrumental in finding solutions to European problems and calming the situation in Germany. Because of this maternal influence on her country, she earned the nickname “Mutti,” which faltered when she misjudged the public’s attitude toward increasing immigration. The reaction triggered an even greater racist backlash than I had anticipated, caused primarily by the uncontrolled admission of young men as refugees, who in turn misjudged their freedoms in the country due to a lack of integration. There were several incidents of assaults on German women by immigrants that were all over the media and where the perpetrators clearly had a wrong understanding of sexual freedom and female rights. The cultural divide became clear and another reason for the rejection of immigrants.
I find myself today somewhat disillusioned with the international politics that effects most people on the planet. We seem to be moving into a situation that nobody wants, and those countries that have supposedly been the home of liberty loving, supportive politics, where freedom of speech was valued, has now become home to political parties and activist groups that are more authoritarian in their approach than they would like to admit. These people are in their own words, of course, struggling against some enemy that would subvert society, whilst all the same by their actions, undermining the freedom they claim to protect.
The first wave in which this became clear, as far as I was concerned, was the reaction to the Brexit referendum. This became especially clear in 2019 when Theresa May had been disposed of after she had planned a new vote on the EU withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons and, in contrast to previous votes, added a detail according to which a future vote on an EU withdrawal agreement should be mandatorily linked to a so-called “Final Say” vote – which would have been, in effect, a vote on a new referendum. In retrospect it was a sensible thing to do, but the powers that had pushed Brexit to begin with had the upper hand. Brexit made little or no sense, except to those whose interests lay in the finance markets and large corporations, who feared a move by the EU to tax them all, as we see now.
Secondly, despite Obama’s appeal to Europeans, and to the surprise of many of them, there was growing unease in America about the liberal policies that were being implemented. The latent racism that has always existed in American society sparked reactionary protests and counter-protests, and the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the presidential candidate to succeed Obama led to a responsory vote that put the most radical Republican candidate in office: Donald Trump. In much of Europe there was an immediate repugnance at the change of personality and policy in American politics, and Trump seemed to revel in it. His immediate reaction was to reverse many of the achievements of Obama and affront his allies. His warming to Putin, even Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and his initial attempt to better the relations with Xi Jinping of China, sent waves of disquiet through European countries – although here and there, it was clear that the people who were behind Trump were also active in Europe.
Since Trump’s ouster, we have seen the Russians and Chinese threaten world peace in response to the West’s expansionist policies. Of course, the West supports people on the borders with these countries who want less tyrannical government and freedoms comparable to the West; and of course, Russia has actively supported countries with authoritarian, if not dictatorial, governments to suppress such movements. The EU has actively supported opposition to such repression, but the EU was built on trade policy as an alternative to armed conflict. NATO is also incapable of real military resistance because of existing interdependence. The days of nuclear stalemate are behind us, and now alternative weapons are being developed that would enable a first strike with a speed and precision we have never known before.
Of course, we need a mutual agreement to respect the borders of countries, especially when authoritarian and liberal political systems are adjacent. The contrasting politics in these countries inevitably raises desires or concerns depending on which system people live in, and the sovereignty of a nation requires that, should that nation want democratic renewal, repressive measures should not be taken by other countries to prevent that. But Putin in Russia and Xi in China obviously believe that such a development in neighbouring countries is an attack by the West on their own sovereignty. We desperately need a diplomatic solution to this problem, especially since the West is having its own problems.
I was always a bad runner. Oddly enough, it wasn’t so bad when I played soccer or rugby, and when I joined the Army, I was minutes faster than others on the indoor assault course. It was only when I was running that I didn’t seem to be able to adopt the meditative mindset to run down a dirt path. I also know that running has good effects on the body, improving lung function, boosting the immune system, and lowering the risk of blood clots, heart attacks and strokes, as well as preventing high blood pressure and osteoporosis, but it doesn’t motivate me.
Of course, body type matters, and those who start out with a pronounced disadvantage like obesity have to make an extra effort to overcome the resignation that sometimes sets in. I was never truly obese except later in life before my wife and I changed our eating habits, exercised more and went outdoors and lost a lot of weight as a result. That’s when she discovered she could run. The secret was smaller steps, and once she mastered them, she had no more problems. Apparently, it was balance and rhythm that held her back, but as her sense of balance improved, she was able to run. I must concede that I just didn’t get the positive hormone boost from running, although I did notice that when I walked for over an hour, after about ten minutes, something changed, and it wasn’t as unbearable after that.
There are other problems, of course, and the later you start, the more likely you are to develop them. I have a problem with lumbago and sciatica, which begs the question of whether these are the reasons I can’t run or the consequences of not walking. My orthopaedist advised me not to run after I had my problems with lumbago, and I willingly complied after having a feeling like my lower back was flopping about after every step. Of course, slowly approaching 70 is not the best age to start running. I don’t have balance issues, but coordination could be a problem. The latest cross-training machines give my legs a run for their money, and I quickly went back to the bike or back to walking on the simple treadmill. A big issue, I found, was stretching either before or afterwards – I prefer to stretch afterwards, which relieves much of the discomfort almost immediately.
I think the main reason many people can’t run is because of the pressure we put on ourselves, and instead of relieving the tension, we cause it. I often watch young people at the gym really pushing themselves when running for a few minutes but then stopping and preferring to lift some weights. This is quite a problem because moderate running is also recommended to reduce stress and depression, which have become serious problems today. I must confess that I am a little jealous of those people who seem to have a natural spring in their steps and who go bouncing down the road, as though it was no effort. Especially smaller people with the right proportions deem to have an easy time, but I’m sure there is more effort involved than I can see.
I think the most important thing is to start early in life to find our balance, coordination and rhythm – and especially the rest that allows us to move with less effort. The longer we wait, the more problematic it becomes. I don’t think it’s about being able to run a marathon, even if people have such ambitions, and a leisurely pace is recommended for most. For most people, sixty minutes is enough, especially if you lead an active life anyway. If it becomes a daily exercise, less is more, and it is recommended to run 30-45 minutes until you reach a fitness level that allows more. It is also important to have rest days in between: two a week at first, and then you can reduce them to one when you notice that you feel comfortable running.
It may be strange that someone who has confessed to being a non-runner is recommending that people take it up. It is because I can see the benefits and would like to see myself enjoying them, but there are also reasons why that isn’t possible. However, I think society as a whole would benefit if we were more active, and if running came naturally to many more people.
I like the concept of the Matrix movies, and I like the last movie too. I know it calls for a stretching of the imagination, but that’s good for us as long as we can differentiate and return to the real world. The films speak to a quasi-religious intuition in many people’s lives about the reality they live in and the need to see through the surface and understand the workings of the matrix they live in.
But Matrix is about recognition, from Latin recognitiō, from recognoscere to know again, from re- + cognoscere to know, ascertain. The word suggests that we relearn something that once belonged to us but that we have lost. It is a regaining of knowledge and an assurance of what really is: the truth. The story of Neo is certainly taken from the many concepts of a man among us who is “the one” who takes the first steps of knowledge and liberates others, and not least taken from Christian story. Even the title of the last project, Resurrections, is a pointer to the Christian concept.
I feel like our lives are a bit like Neo’s, whose movie existence is obviously an archetype meant to draw us into the Matrix and have us travel along with him. We too need to wake up from the fantasy we are living and see things as they are. In the Matrix, it’s a sobering experience, and the “real world” is a struggle against the machine that rules the lives of millions – and in our world? We too live in a programmed world, in a maze of intentions that simultaneously construct and control the world we live in. The industrialization of our world is much like the machine – on the one hand, it gives people in the industrial nations a sense of achievement and provides comfort, on the other though, we have recognized the fact that we are destroying our environment and exploiting people less fortunate than us. Sometimes we look through the mirror and doubt the validity of our perceptions – “Am I going crazy?” asks Neo.
In the past, there were other stories that suggested something similar, and the minds of those who recognized that they were living in a world controlled by minds that were disparaging them were challenged. Our problem today is that we have many self-proclaimed “seers,” people who are not motivated by awareness of the bigger, global picture, but by their own selfishness. They too suggest that their lateral thinking sees the flaws in the structure of our society, but their concern is with maintaining the status quo and deflecting the needs of others in the world at large. They fail to see that our concerns for our future must necessarily include the concerns of underdeveloped countries.
If we leave aside the action in the Matrix films and recognize that the depiction of the struggle against the machine is necessarily dramatized, the fact remains that the processes we have brought into being must not be allowed to dominate us and dictate our lives. This is a common image in dystopian films and represented as “the spirits I called up” and lost control of, like in the Terminator films in a similar fashion. In reality they are new adaptions of a classical theme, and the fact that situation portrayed in the Matrix seems familiar is disconcerting.
The question that stayed in my mind after the first three films was whether we will regain consciousness and realize our true role in the world, as stewards of the planet, with a calling to avert, ward off or prevent danger and harm, to care for our environment and our fellow humans.
The remnants of the last films, Niobe, Sati and Agent Smith, suggest that the sacrifice made by Neo and Trinity has made only a minor difference, and that there are still millions of people trapped in their capsules, and that the Matrix continues. This sounds a lot like the failed Christian hope for a new world after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which instead turned into a power grab when Constantine declared Christianity the state religion.
I am pleased with the romantic ending of the fourth film, but disappointed that the metaphor was abandoned and that the Saviour who had come to liberate the world ended up more like a Greek god who had power over the world. The flight into the sunset seemed like a betrayal but is probably resignation to the fact that the analyst who said, “try and change it!” regarding the Matrix was probably right. In the end, isn’t it just a Hollywood fantasy, a pipe dream that is over when the lights come on?
We can take inspiration from such a film, look up and see through the illusion that our world presents us. But to change it, we need to do something more substantial than just fight a few agents. Instead, it starts with each of us individually, recognizing who and what we are, and resolving to make what small changes we can. In this way, the ripples we produce could unite with others and form a wave that might make a difference.
These two terms are alternatives in the political landscape, but their meanings have become blurred. The use of the term “authoritarian” on social media has made it appear to mean “orderly,” “conservative,” and “disciplined,” while the term “liberal” is described as the exact opposite by many who persist in speaking out. We are currently witnessing a twisting of the meaning of our vocabulary and a strong sense of insecurity among the population, not least among those who aspire to academia. What does it mean for public discourse when we are not sure what we mean when we use words?
We also have a protest movement throughout the free world, painting the threats of the past on the wall and accusing authorities of using measures to control the pandemic, that are typical of communist or Nazi regimes. They claim to be silenced by the press, as if it were state controlled, all the while their concern is being reported in the press. There are people who are loudly demanding their rights while at the same time failing to distance themselves from groups, who use repressive tactics in an attempt to scare people in official positions. It should be noted that such protests are quickly and brutally silenced, and show-trials are conducted in real repressive regimes, to undermine similar protests, but we seem to be very confused.
A few years ago, before he came under criticism, Jordan Peterson tried to educate his students in Canada about the misunderstanding that occurs when an overly romantic notion of Marxism forms the basis for supposed reform movements. He also pointed out the fact that young people who claim that communism has not realized the ideals of Marxism are basically falling into the trap of using similar methods to silence opposition. At the same time, they take advantage of the freedoms given to them in a supposedly oppressive capitalist society. He pointed out that this is the main problem with Marxism, which was conceived in a Western country under privileged conditions but put into practice under the harsh conditions of Soviet Russia and Mao’s China. It led to a death toll that far exceeded even the atrocities of Nazism.
We are also heavily influenced by a discourse that is going on in America where conservatism is being weaponized. There is probably no other place in the Western world where so many weapons are hoarded, supposedly as a defence against oppression by the state – or so it is claimed. This clearly means that the January 2021 uprising was an uprising by these gun-toting conservatives and an attempt to overturn a voter decision that the militant right saw as a move by the militant left to topple Trump from the throne. The potential and the mindset are still alive today, although they are doing the opposite of what they think they are doing. They have tried, perhaps unconsciously, to establish a “strongman regime” that bears all the similarities to a monarchy from which their constitution has tried to protect them.
The bottom line of these examples shows how deeply contradictory we are. It doesn’t matter either what the subject is or the intentions we have. This seems to be connected with the choices we make, often unconsciously, and Iain McGilchrist is of the opinion, that it has to do with which brain hemisphere we employ when making those choices.
“While the left hemisphere underwrites local attention, the right hemisphere underwrites global attention, as we saw in the previous chapter – and the ability to switch between them.
This last ability is easy to pass over. But it’s not just another technical difference between the hemispheres. It inevitably makes a difference to the world we perceive. What it means is that both to perceive the form of something as a whole, and to see it differently from the way you are accustomed to see it, depends on the way of taking in the world that is underwritten by the right hemisphere of the brain. If you think and adopt the way of being of the left hemisphere world, not only will you struggle to see the overall shape, but you won’t be able so easily to switch – or even be aware that you can. If someone else tells you they see something quite different there, you might well, sincerely but wrongly, believe that they must be mistaken.” McGilchrist, Iain. The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (S.177). Perspectiva Press. Kindle-Version. [My underlining]
The inability to see another perspective is one thing, but not to be aware that there is another perspective that one could consider, is another. If we constantly employ the perception of the left hemisphere, we will tend to have a restricted awareness of what we are observing. The danger of forming then a contradictory opinion in relation to the whole picture is then heightened. This is the connection in the subtitle of the book, “the Unmaking of the World”. It means that, because of this restriction in our perception, our ideas become damaging, which we have probably all experienced if we become angry.
The big problem, in my opinion, is that we have social media whose algorithms are designed to make us angry or at least elicit an emotional response, and we have a reactionary mindset in postmodernism that rejects the reliability of conservative structures and sees them as restrictive. As a result, the Western world we live in is split between “never change anything” and “change everything.” The truth, as with many other things, lies in the middle, but this would require of us to get things into perspective, and look at the larger picture.
The question that then arises for us is how to put ourselves in a more comfortable state of mind that allows us to weigh and consider the choices we have, rather than unconsciously perpetuating the biases we have. This requires each of us to first acknowledge the problem. Then we need to recognize the biases we have, because we all have them. It helps to recognize the situations or statements that make us uncomfortable and ask ourselves why that is. We need to recognize our positive and negative biases and talk to other people about our perceptions. This makes us aware that we all have prejudices, and we can help each other recognize them.
In the second phase, we change our prejudices, preferably in a group with the same goal, and talk about intentions, common interests, and share ideas. In particular, we must make an effort to consider ideas and perspectives we have not considered before, and even go against our instincts for a time to reconsider our point of view. If we commit to being aware of and overcoming our biases, and always try to get a better overall picture, we will make greater use of the right side of the brain and be better able to take a balanced perspective.
I think we would have fewer conspiracy theories, a better understanding of situations and the needs of others. There would be a greater willingness to compromise, make exceptions, or help those who can’t keep up on their own. We could recognize where there are influences that seek to divide society and weaken our resistance to destructive forces. I think the question of morality is a question of making a balanced and comprehensive assessment of an issue. If we make wrong assessments, we make wrong judgments.
It would then be obvious that the authoritarian approach seen in Russia, China, and North Korea, and to which certain people in the West tend, is far from our own idea of a free world, and our current disputes show that we live in a society that, perhaps within a certain limit, can allow and tolerate dissidence, even if it becomes noisy. Not so in the countries I mentioned. But even the liberal, progressive, open-minded society has limits to which it must adhere and needs rules within which it can operate. We should be aware of that.
Two words have been on everyone’s lips lately: truth and immunity. Both seem to be used in arguments where the point is dramatically missed. Truth is defined as that which is consistent with fact or reality. It means authenticity, integrity, or accuracy. It is about how things actually are. And a person who is immune is not receptive or responsive to something because they have the protection they need.
There are numerous examples in the media of the truth being elusive, and of what really happened being obscured and tainted with suspicion of corruption or hypocrisy. It is not surprising that we have industries that are used for cover-up by people who can do whatever they want without consequences. The result of this is a growing distrust of institutions and authorities and an increasing cynicism about the value of truth. In fact, it weakens the foundation on which our societies are built.
The Corona pandemic has put the term “immune” in the news, suggesting a protection against the virus similar to that of polio, which we clearly have not achieved. Instead, there are many people who have contracted the virus despite vaccination or even after a previous infection. The experts quickly revised their words and instead spoke of protection that weakens the effect of the virus on the human organism but does not immunize it. This caused many to doubt the point of vaccination and even to doubt the measures taken to contain the spread of the virus.
We have also seen an interaction between the two debates, with conspiracy theories that suspect the authorities of Western governments of exercising mass control and authoritarianism through the pandemic, and that assume that the virus was a hoax and that measures were not necessary at all. While countries that took the measures saw at least a temporary drop in infection rates, with New Zealand standing out, the countries or states where the restrictions were rejected faced high infection and death rates – including prominent anti-vaxxer activists.
The question of what is true about all this is obvious to one side of the argument and hidden under a veil of conspiracy to the other. The two sides regularly clash and have a degree of media coverage that keeps the situation in people’s minds, and the emotionalism of the situation takes over. The media coverage masks another fact, which is that the vast majority of people are trying to protect themselves and follow the rules that have been established, but distrust is growing, nonetheless. Authoritarian regimes look on and smile.
I think our biggest problem is that we in the Western world are developing an immunity to the truth and promoting cynicism. There are forces at work that either work for their personal gain or are used by opposing regimes that prefer authoritarian rule to true democracy. The two, of course, could be intertwined. I remember a discussion in one of the universities that was televised about trust in society. There were many who called for more trust, but the lady who stood out was the one who brought the discussion to the heart of the matter, which is that there can be no trust if there is no trustworthiness.
Only when we all work toward trustworthiness in our personal lives, in our work relationships, in politics, and in our social interactions will trust return. Only then will we come to the facts, to the reality of a situation as it really is. Only then will we become immune to cynicism and work together to defeat the natural enemies of humanity and develop protection against influences that can limit us in our freedom, our health and our well-being.
So, it is up to all of us to ask ourselves how we can become more trustworthy, how we can ensure that the people we give power to are more trustworthy, and how we can foster a society built on trust.
Beauty is generally described as a quality that makes the contemplation of something pleasurable. This includes the sight of a landscape, certain times of day, people, objects, music, paintings, poems, songs, or more broadly abstract things such as ideas, thoughts, behaviours, relationships, and of course memories. In many cases it is a consciously made value judgment, in other cases we are overwhelmed by a pleasant feeling of attraction to something we find beautiful. My wife and I witnessed a young lady on the street who clearly had some beautiful thoughts expressed in a sweet smile and we both smiled in sympathy.
Of course, in a world of dichotomies, the beautiful is opposed to the ugly, but there is an observable phenomenon in which supposedly ugly attributes are occasionally perceived as beautiful nonetheless, and this is called the “paradox of ugliness.” But ugly is actually something that fills us with an unpleasant feeling or that repels us for some reason, at least initially, usually in connection with some perceived danger, real or imagined. Sometimes it is the contradiction of values that one sees, which is often provoked by activist groups in an attempt to get people to rethink an issue.
In all attempts to define beauty as something objective, our subjective side is consistent with the adage that beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.” The reaction that something I perceive as beautiful or ugly triggers in me often affects my own attractiveness to others, and people who are particularly critical of others, no matter how likeable they may otherwise appear, reveal a “mean streak” that many perceive as ugly.
In classical ideas, of course, beauty is defined by the relationship of the beautiful object as a whole and its parts. We have an idea of what proper proportions are and how they form an integrated, harmonious whole. Other views see a necessary connection between pleasure and beauty, for example in the form that an object is beautiful only if it causes disinterested pleasure and are called hedonistic concepts. There is a whole range of very different approaches to the phenomenon of the experience of beauty.
This makes it a very odd phenomenon to experience, especially in the western cultures, where the common ideas of beauty are often contradicted by the provocations of minorities, and attractiveness plays a bigger role than beauty. There are also the changing concepts of beauty that can cause generational conflicts, or the enacted portrayal of a character in a book, which in film or television contradicts the imagination of the reader. There are also conceived stereotypes, which cause distress, such as the typification of goblins in the Harry Potter films, which are now seen as “antisemitic”, although the image produced was a classical portrayal of how people in the past saw the fantasy figures. Curiously, the image that the written description that JK Rowling gave doesn’t invoke the same repulsion.
We are confronted far more today with the depiction of femininity by transsexual men, which is often a gross contradiction of the traditional image of femininity. In some people it evokes repulsion because it suggests a danger of misrepresentation, which is imagined to be used to abuse others. Again, this doesn’t have to be a real danger, but the suggestion is enough to cause discomfort. A question arises, whether the portrayal of femininity in this way is in fact only a provocation and intended to repel people. We seem to be in a time when incitement is normal on social media, and there are enough people all to willing to be provoked.
However, it makes a mockery of those who feel repulsion towards their own image but don’t have the impression that they have the wrong sex, or those who feel forced to comply with accepted standards, masking themselves more or less with make-up. Some feel they are over-sexualised, but some do it to themselves in their attempt to appear attractive, assuming beauty is a terminology that doesn’t apply to normal people and sexual allure the only goal.
Beauty then, seems to be overrated, and doesn’t play a role in the lives of ordinary individuals. The feeling of being overwhelmed by a pleasant feeling of attraction is reserved for summer evenings and sunsets in foreign lands, for the flirt on holiday, or for music, paintings and songs. There is also a real lack of beauty for many people in urban areas, where nature is reduced to manageable lawns and a few parks here and there. It makes people accept what they can get, just to get away from the hum of traffic for a while. So, have we driven out the concept of beauty because we have put it on a pedestal, declaring it divine? That could have a negative effect on our appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us, or on our pursual of beauty as a goal for our environment as an experience of life.
In the 1990s, when I worked in geriatric care, one of the strangest encounters we had was with patients who had suffered a stroke. Often it had happened long before, and the chances of reversing the symptoms were long gone. When I learned that I was receiving a new patient or resident on my ward, it was important for me to know which side was paralyzed and to what extent. This had to do with care needs, because we found that those paralyzed on the left side often had problems with speech but had integrated their paralyzed side into their lives, while those paralyzed on the right side had the symptom of “neglect” and were often much more limited because their left side “no longer belonged to them,” as one resident told us.
At that time, I developed sample care plans for my staff to simplify care planning and ensure that nothing was forgotten. In developing the care plan for residents with stroke, I found that the entire topic was far more complex than I had learned in my training or was presented in the textbooks that were available to us. Where the complexity was outlined, my staff often had difficulty translating that knowledge into their care planning or distinguishing between the theory and the case at hand, which was my motivation to find a way to facilitate that process. At the time, I was kind of a novelty, which a visiting psychiatrist told me at one of our educational meetings, and we developed a kind of friendship that lasted as long as I worked in that area.
Since then, a series of books by Iain McGilchrist has been published, in which the complexity of the affliction by a stroke, and far further implications of the working of the brain hemispheres have been investigated. I list the books below. In Ways of Attending, McGilchrist writes, “Attention may sound a bit boring, but it isn’t at all. It is not just another “cognitive function” — it is actually nothing less than the way in which we relate to the world.” In his new book, The Matter With Things, he adds to this by having a chapter on attention, in which he illustrates this point in the larger context.
What I didn’t understand in the 1990s was that the people we were dealing with had a much bigger problem than we could imagine. Those who were “in denial” about their left side actually had no concept of the left side anymore in many cases, and it wasn’t just a matter of turning a plate so the occupant could keep eating – as long as the left side of the plate wasn’t in sight, it didn’t exist. This was evident by the apparent inability to cope with this limitation and to turn the plate itself, because by the next meal the experience of the previous one had disappeared. McGilchrist goes to great lengths to demonstrate this phenomenon with numerous examples recorded in medical journals.
The reason I mention this in my blog, aside from recommending the books to people who want to better understand how we relate to our world, is that McGilchrist points out that such a strange phenomenon is not limited to nursing home residents or patients in a medical setting. We experience many people throughout our lives who exhibit strange inabilities to relate to the world in which we would not immediately see some form of pathology at work. In many ways, this is another example of why we need to be patient with our fellow man, and I hope we can experience the same patience and get to the bottom of our differences.
If there is a crisis at present, then it is surely illustrated by an inability of some to come to terms with reality. I experience many people who, as I do as well, tend to block out aspects of the world that aren’t compatible with our worldview. It isn’t just the religious or political extremist who does this, but we all have a blind spot. There are various systems that try to enable us to overcome these blind spots, whether the Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs personality types, which are useful in at least giving us a different perspective. A simpler way is in communication with other people who have a different perspective, if we can accept the possible conflicts that can occur. But at the bottom of the whole issue is the question of how we attend to the world.
The term “mindfulness” has been bandied about a lot in the last twenty years. I discovered it in 2002 when I took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. The term mindfulness comes from Buddhist teachings, where it has greater significance than in the medical field and is part of a body of doctrine. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books pick up on this aspect, teaching us to be mindful of the world and to manage the “normal catastrophe” we call life and reduce stress. The method has been extended to other particular areas of stress, not just the normal stress we can feel under pressure. I think this is valuable, but I think the implications Iain McGilchrist makes in his books are equally important, because he points out that we have the ability to relate to the world in a broader sense, but we seem to narrow our perspective and lose the big picture.
The review of the newest book on Amazon is perhaps something with which I can close this issue and recommend the book to all who are interested.
“Is the world essentially inert and mechanical – nothing but a collection of things for us to use? Are we ourselves nothing but the playthings of chance, embroiled in a war of all against all? Why, indeed, are we engaged in destroying everything that is valuable to us?
In his international bestseller, The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist demonstrated that each brain hemisphere provides us with a radically different ‘take’ on the world, and used this insight to deliver a fresh understanding of the main turning points in the history of Western civilisation.
Twice before, in ancient Greece and Rome, the perception that evolved in the left hemisphere, which empowered us to manipulate the world, had ultimately come to eclipse the much more sophisticated take of the right hemisphere, which enabled us to understand it.
On each occasion this heralded the collapse of a civilisation. And now it was happening for a third, and possibly last, time.
In this landmark new book, Iain McGilchrist addresses some of the oldest and hardest questions humanity faces – ones that, however, have a practical urgency for all of us today.
Who are we? What is the world?
How can we understand consciousness, matter, space and time?
Is the cosmos without purpose or value?
Can we really neglect the sacred and divine?
In doing so, he argues that we have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us, had we but eyes to see it.
He suggests that in order to understand ourselves and the world we need science and intuition, reason and imagination, not just one or two; that they are in any case far from being in conflict; and that the brain’s right hemisphere plays the most important part in each.
And he shows us how to recognise the ‘signature’ of the left hemisphere in our thinking, so as to avoid making decisions that bring disaster in their wake. Following the paths of cutting-edge neurology, philosophy and physics, he reveals how each leads us to a similar vision of the world, one that is both profound and beautiful – and happens to be in line with the deepest traditions of human wisdom.
It is a vision that returns the world to life, and us to a better way of living in it: one we must embrace if we are to survive.”
Iain McGilchrist’s books include The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (Perspectiva), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale UP), The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning: Why Are We So Unhappy? (Yale UP), and Ways of Attending (Routledge).