Tuesday, October 10, 2006


"Gee, this is a long time ago."

-- Comedian Gilbert Gottfried, wondering how people in Ancient Rome
pondered their position in life

Two scenarios, similar but different:

1) A group of women, elderly, probably grandmothers, possibly widowed, gather together in a wide and brightly lit room. They are dressed in clothes that are colourful and flowing. They lavish boxes wrapped in paper on particular woman. There are no men in the room, though they may arrive later.

2) A group of women, elderly, almost certainly grandmothers, very likely widowed, gather together outside in a wide and brightly lit space. They stand in a row, wearing only gossamer sheets tied around their chests. A group of people empty buckets of cold water on their head, while the crowd, dozens in number, if not hundreds, cheers warmly and appreciatively.

What's going on here?

I would argue that the first example would be that of a birthday party in Canada, America, England, the West, for one particular middle-class lady getting on in years, surrounded by her friends, the men downstairs watching football/hockey/cricket.

I would suggest that the second example is very similar to what I witnessed one hot summer day about an hour from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the elderly women of this particular village were given the honor of having copious amounts of frigid water dumped on their bodies. Repeatedly. To much laughter and general good will.

What was going on there, exactly?

Not a fucking clue.

And I think that if you were to gather those same old ladies, book them on a plane, take them off to Toronto and drive them out to the suburbs of Aurora or Ajax to a senior citizens' birthday party, they would be similarly clueless. General emotions might translatable; the scenario, after some thought, might be discernible. But the specifics, the reasons, the WHY: that would remain foreign.

It seems to me that most of the world's problems, complex as they are, can be reduced to a single, common paradigm: the inability of small groups (be they cities, societies, races, countries, whatever) to see themselves as being products of a particular time and place that, by the very nature of its temporal placement and geographical location, inevitably fosters a mind-set that tends towards a limited, stringent view of themselves and the world, instead of an elasticity of compassion and understanding that is necessary to figure out who we are and where we're going.

Let's put it this way. We judge things, usually, that are able to be integrated into our own conception of what society's norms happen to be at a given moment in time -- be they linguistic, familial, morality-based, what-have-you.

I imagine a teacher in Hamilton, Ontario giving out an assignment for his English class -- a short story, let's say. One of this students, a new immigrant from Vietnam, for example, duly hands in his homework the following day. Written completely in Vietnamese. The teacher, raised in Renfrew, does not speak nor read the Vietnamese language. And, considerin that this is, after all, an English class, and this is, after all, Hamilton, not Hanoi, the student gets zero. Or is simply asked to do it again. In English, please.

Reasonable, right? Sure.

But what if that student was a prodigy. A fucking genius linguist of the Vietnamese language. A wunderkind of Asian insights and culture. All of which cannot be determined by an English teacher in Hamilton, Ontario.

And rightly so. We can't be expected to understand anything and everything that comes across our desks and into our lives. Life is only so long, and there is much to know and little time to learn it. (Let alone absorb it.)

Yet this Vietnamese boy, an undeniable genius in his own mother tongue, is left hanging in the Hamilton wind. Because he cannot be integrated into the presiding system, a genuine talent is abandoned.

Everything we do -- whether it be art, architecture, science, or medicine -- is borne out of a particular time and place. It must be integrated into what we know, or it is readily dismissed. I cannot assess the artistic, aesthetic validity of a Vietnamese short story, as I do not read Vietnamese; ergo, out goes the story, into the wind. A Christian scholar is ill-equipped to pass judgement on the latest developments in modern interpretations of the Koran. A dentist assessing current fashions in carpentry is at a loss for words. The new information cannot be integrated into present systems. Therefore it is (almost has to be) disregarded. Something is lost.

Extrapolate this outward, into the world, and this is how I see modern society as a whole, a collective whole, a global whole, operating. Everybody's trying to integrate everything into everything else, but we don't know how, because we are limited by our own pre-conceived beliefs, which in and of themselves are developed from pre-existing limitations. A mother in rural Oklahoma, a fundamentalist Christian, cannot reconcile the Harry Potter books, abundant as they are with obvious incarnations of black magic and witchcraft, with her own sincere beliefs. A young Korean student, raised to despise the Japanese because of their wartime atrocities, finds it hard to believe that modern-day Japanese people can actually be good, kind citizens of the world. Canadian teenagers, rather ignorant of ancient history, dismiss Oliver Stone's Alexander or Shyamalan's Lady In The Water because it bears no relation to anything that forms or has shaped their own particular view of the world. One hundred years from now, everything we consider to be certain and cool, hip and artistic, valuable and trustworthy, will, inevitably, be put in its proper historical place. Everything you think is good -- be it medically, artistically, scientifically -- will, in less than a century, be considered primitive and outdated and archaic. We are adrift in our own indulgences, not caring that they are temporary, and, at the very least, inadequate to our growth as humans.

If an MP from rural Saskatchewan were to dropped into the middle of Mongolia, would his political status bear much clout? I don't know. If Kazakhstan's Chief of Defense were to immigrate to Toronto, would his considerable political clout back home get him a job as a manager at McDonald's? Can one way of being possibly adapt and enfold another?

The point being, we seem to believe that what is here and now is the be-all, end-all of human knowledge and wisdom and certainty. There are expressions and modes of being outside of ourselves around the very next corner, should we seek them out. And, finding them, we would, of course, be confused, like the Ontario educator confronted with the Vietnamese language; like the Canadian teacher witnessing Cambodian women drenched in water; like the Cambodian grandmother watching Ontario grannies exchange birthday gifts. We would, though be forced to expand our comfort zones and acknowledge that differing perspectives offer alternate routes to enlightenment. And that these enlightenments, in turn, are transitory, limited to who we are and when we are.

But they're the best we've got.

I keep thinking of Gilbert Gottfried's Ancient Roman character, or some dude back in, I don't know, 1329, or 1256, or 1123. He thought he had it going on. His clothes were stylin; when he got sick, he was bled by leeches on a daily basis. The world was flat, so he knew not to go too far from home. Everything was around him, assessed, figured out. He knew what the world was all about.

From our point of view, he didn't have a fucking clue.

And somebody, right now, four hundred years from now, may be reading this blog on some collective-galactic-interplanetary server and marvelling at how ignorant us twenty-first century lifeforms were. Thinking that we knew the deal. Wondering why we were so close-minded in the way we approached our likes and dislikes, beliefs and judgements. Yet grateful, too, that we were somehow able to hack our way through an endless array of differences and emerge on the other end, centuries from now, still limited, still enclosed, but searching, seeking, refusing to allow our own differences to doom us to a future of lazy containment and self-satisfied certainty.

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