Something struck me the other day while I continued to read Erik Erikson's psychoanalytic study of Gandhi entitled Gandhi's Truth: On The Origins of Militant Nonviolence. It was a red ball, tiny but powerful, soft but potent, thrown by an adolescent child with stupendous force and intent.
(That was, um, a joke, and probably one I've used before. Sorry about that. Won't happen again.)
This is kind of a neat little book, the type of which I don't usually read, written by someone I haven't even thought of much since university. (Where, truth be told, I didn't think much about him then, either, but I pretended I did. What is university but a four-year jaunt where one pretends to learn and learns to pretend?) We tend to think of those humans we've classified as saints -- Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Pauly Shore -- as somehow being above the rest of humanity. And here comes Erikson saying no, no, these are people, and people have motives, and they do things for psychological reasons based on their past histories, so let's study them a little bit. I'm not saying I agree with psychonalysis as a practice or even know much about it, but it makes for compelling reading. And Erikson's actually a pretty good stylist.
Here's the quote:
...For membership in a nation, in a class, or in a caste is one of those elements of an individual's identity which at the very minimum comprise what one is never not, as does membership in one of the two sexes or a given race. What one is never not establishes the life space within which one may hope to become uniquely and affirmatively what one is -- and then to transcend their uniqueness by way of a more inclusive humanity.
Wow. Deep. The kind of quote that I could write two, three blog entries about, but I won't. (I can hear you all through cyberspace collectively muttering "Jesus Christ, thank God for that" under your breath. Sentiments I second.)
Deciding what we are not is surely part of the path to determining who we are. The experience of living abroad is, if anything, an ongoing exploration of what one absolutely isn't. You are not part of the race, the culture, or the language. You share no genetic history with anyone; you haven't even shared a pizza with anyone. You don't know what you're supposed to be doing or how you're supposed to be doing it. You no longer have any favorite TV shows, music stations, bookstores or restaurants to turn to. You are, devoid of all your previous connections, perhaps for the first time, authentically and undeniably yourself. It this disassociation, as the quote implies, particularly in the last sentence, that then links you more concretely to humanity as a whole. You realize that, on the surface, you are not of them. Which leads you to search for something in common. Being an alien forces you to look for those similarities amongst your fellow creatures that link you to a more collective sense of brotherhood.
I'm thinking right now of Bruce Wayne at the start of Batman Begins. (Aren't you? No?) Here is a young man who, as a boy, watched his parents be blown to bits by a desperate thief in a grungy alley; the only reason they found themselves in such a predicament in the first place was because young Bruce was scared of the opera that reminded him of a rather unfortunate encounter with bats that occurred months earlier, so off they went into the night, abandoning that spooky old theatre for their own unfortunate rendezvous with death. Bruce, as a university student, confronts a mob boss who killed said thief before he could plea bargain his way out of prison in exchange for information that would have implicated the mobster. The mobster tells Bruce, essentially: "You think you know the dark side of life because your parents were killed? Well, boo-hoo, rich boy. You don't know shit about the real world."
So Bruce Wayne spends the next seven years immersed in the criminal underworld of Asia, surviving on his own, being trained in the ancient martial arts by a secretive, elite criminal organization that he then, in turn, rejects. Why? Because he discovers who he is, and it is not a killer. He wants justice, yes, and vengeance, certainly, but on his own terms.
I love the opening hour of that flick, and not just because it's about time that the Batman mythos was given the respect it deserves on the silver screen, detailing for the first time just what, exactly, would drive a man to dress up as a bat and fight crime in the streets of his hometown. I love it because it shows the despair and the discipline and desire that transformed a spoiled rich kid into a warrior of the night. I love the seriousness with which it treats exile, with which it treats the concept of a world unhinged by violence and despair. I love the philosophical edginess it, if not endorses, at least illustrates so damn well. After watching this flick, it makes sense. He had to find out what he was not before he could accept who he was -- which is, apparently, a driven, tormented dude who wishes to avenge his parents murder and wear tights while he was doing so. (Hey, to each his own, right?)
And I love it because it's linked to that quote about Gahndi. (In my mind, anyways.) Bruce Wayne pushes himself and tests himself until he comes up against his own limit, which is murder. He allows the world to teach him what it needs to before deciding to return home and use what he has learned to make the world a better place.
And for me, who's been abroad almost as long, six years to Batman's seven, I can identify. (Granted, I'm not a wealthy orphan with a mansion and a butler resembling Michael Caine awaiting my return, and my parents weren't murdered, and I haven't been trained by a secretive, sequestered group of black-clad ninjas -- but other than those minor discrepancies, me and Christian Bale are ideological twins.) I have a feeling that I've been given a glimpse into a real world out here in Cambodia, one that has no bearing or allegiance to freshly cut lawns and newly scrubbed windows, to classrooms full of computers and plazas full of Burger Kings. There is a rawness and a truthfulness here that has added depth to my life and perspective to my goals. I have seen things I do not care to remember and met people I long to embrace. I have not become part of this society but by being in this society I have recognized more clearly what I am not, what western society is not, and at some point, perhaps soon, perhaps later, I hope to return home and, like Batman, only minus the cape, cowl and Katie Holmes, put what I've learned to good use.