"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 24, 2012

Epitaph: “He Stayed Late At The Office”

I rarely stayed late at the office, and always arrived as late and left as early as possible.  My work was always a means to an end, the necessary anchor to allow me to travel; and travel I did to over 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.  I stayed at the very best colonial hotels like the Raffles in Singapore, the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand in Calcutta, and the Galle Face in Colombo; ate Nile Perch overlooking Lake Tanganyika and the Niger River, Afghan naan in Rawalpindi, full lamb burra near Kashmiri Gate in Old Delhi, got drunk on cachaça on the beaches of Rio, smoked Cuban puros overlooking the volcano in San Salvador; made love in the Arab port city of Moroni; danced High Life in the quartiers of Kinshasa and meringue in the bars of Carrefour in Port-au-Prince; swam in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the tropical lagoons near Galle at the southern tip of Sri Lanka.

I had a great and wonderful time.  Each three week trip was a free ticket to another life, far from the pleasant but ordinary life at home in Washington, and a temporary but complete fugue to a completely different world, one of excitement, stimulation, and adventure – my own unique, personal world crafted and determined only by me.

I am not sure when I realized that enjoying life was all that mattered; that the world’s problems would roll on inevitably, inexorably, and predictably; that there were no hell fires to scare me into a tightly-wrapped moral and ethical being; that there was no celestial paradise awaiting me if I followed the rules, no land of milk and honey, cool brooks and succulent melons, or endless fields bathed in divine light. 

Not only was there nothing but this world, this life, this being; but it would always be so. As long as human nature is at the foundation of all activity and enterprise; and as long as our desires are predictably self-serving, self-protective and designed by evolution to assure our survival, nothing will change.  There will be thousands of millions of me as there were thousands of millions of me in the past, revolving in and endless, purposeless cycle.

Contemplating this ever-repeating world, turning again and again until the sun goes out; or the hundreds of trillions of other endlessly revolving worlds in this and any other universe, was by no means depressing.  It was liberating, exhilarating, and life-affirming.  If this was all there was and it lasted a scant four-score and twenty years, I had better get busy.

William Pfaff reviewing Francis Fukyama’s latest book in the New Yorker, took exception with the author’s optimism and hope for the future.  Pfaff said:   

I am not myself aware that human character and conduct today display any general improvement over that recorded in the historical past. The political crimes of the twentieth century had their counterparts in the past. Things comparable to or worse than Asian barbarism, past wars of religion and race, enslavement, or mass extermination waged by men like Genghis Khan, continue to happen in our times. That men and women are morally improved from what they were at the beginning of recorded history has yet to be demonstrated.

Jan Kott, one of the foremost critics of Shakespeare, wrote about what he called The Grand Mechanism – the eternally turning cogs in a world-machine which always turned in the same way to the same end:

Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it.
From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them -- good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naive and cynical -- tread on the steps that are always the same. . .

Everyone is caught up in the movement in Kott’s ‘Grand Mechanism’ to which the whole kingdom is subjected.  “A mechanism whose cogs are both great lords and hired assassins; a mechanism which forces people to violence, cruelty, and treason; which constantly claims new victims…”

What makes commoners as well as royalty subject to the Grand Mechanism? They – we - are no different in our desire for power, wealth, and supremacy. Kott went on to conclude that the engine for this Grand Mechanism was human nature; and if one understood this and accepted the fact that it would never change and would always determine history, we would never be surprised and perhaps be better prepared.

Many of my friends have been perplexed at my personal philosophy.  How could I live without God, they asked; or without the hope and expectation of a life after death?  Others wondered at my indifference to politics or world affairs.  I have always been fascinated with the drama of history and wondered how history - its own playwright - rewrote the same tragedy over and over again but with different characters, different music, different sets, and different costumes; but I have had no interested in changing its course.  Why would I ever spend my valuable energy, my store of energy, passion, and determination for events which would eventually and inevitably be folded into a great lava flow, sputter, be submerged and incinerated, and ultimately forgotten?

My attitude was selfish, my friends cried.  Didn’t I care for community, society, the welfare of the human race?  Where was I on matters of environmental catastrophe, devastating wars, mutilation, depredation, and insanity?

Political conservatives were just as perplexed as ‘progressives’, but understood my position a bit better.  They did not really believe in human progress, or a positive evolution of the human race; but saw the individual as the center of the universe.  Progress, if it occurred at all, was a matter between the individual and his Creator – a spiritual road to personal salvation.   As Christian a concept as this is, it is remarkably similar to that of Hinduism.  Life is maya, illusion, and a belief in the tangible ‘real world’ with all its deceptive promises leads nowhere.  The only meaningful, logical path, is a spiritual one. 

I suppose it might be nice to believe that when you die you simply board a train that takes you to a very nice vacation spot, one with no troubles, and where you can always drink the water, and live happily for ever after; but human beings always put conditions on nice things.  If you want tickets on that train, you’ve got to pay for them.  Uh-uh.  A bad investment, a bad bet. 

This does not mean that I have jettisoned any of my moral and ethical anchors.  Who said that morality and ethics only exist within a religious framework, or within a ‘progressive’ one?  Although most societies have wanted to live in a world with promised celestial rewards, those that have not have done just fine indeed; and in fact those with a purported spiritual basis for right actions have been among the worst killers and looters the world has ever seen.

A few years ago I went to the memorial service for a woman with whom I had been very close friends.  She died young and unexpectedly.  Speaker after speaker talked about her special talent of writing proposals, managing projects, supervising local health activities.  They all missed the real B by a mile.  She was a passionate, funny, outrageously hungry woman who laughed at everything, floated over the surface of life with ‘An Unbearable Lightness of Being’.  I felt happy in her presence, insanely happy in her ‘unreal’ world.  And here she was being remembered as someone who’s best qualities were bureaucratic, socially responsible, and predictable.  I loved her, and was appalled to hear the sodden remembrances of friends and colleagues.  I left the church in tears, not because I missed her – which I did – but for the distortion of her memory, for the erasure of what made her who she was.

I know many of my former colleagues who simply cannot give up their work.  Many of them will one day topple over in the emeritus offices provided them by their employers, splash in a spill of coffee as their heads hit the desk before they know it.  There are others who insist that they have ‘unfinished business’ –  final papers on energy, health, education, or civil society that will make a difference, make a contribution, make the world a better place.  And this with fifteen or maybe twenty years to go before their lives flicker out.

“He stayed late at the office”, their epitaphs will read.

No comments:

Post a Comment