Traveling toward death

My heart didn’t beat for an hour this year. Was I dead?

*

Three months passed between my heart attack and bypass surgery, so I had plenty of time to think about death. During that time, I often imagined the moment just before the surgery, just before falling asleep under anesthesia: what will my last thought be, having above me the menace that I may not wake up? Will I have any special revelations? Will I remember to entrust the people I love to God one more time? Will I be strong? Will my fear overcome me? Will I be decent? Will I remember to call upon the Theotokos to pray for my soul? Will I have it within me to go out with grace?

I’ve never shied away from talking about death. In fact, in my home, death, my death, is a topic for dinner conversation. I still remember my son’s somewhat troubled eyes when I spoke about it when he was still a small boy. I always wanted him to be prepared for my death, and for his as well. So “wise” of me… You never are prepared, as life taught me when my own father passed.

Still, I’ve always felt as if I was ready for my death.

Statistically, I had less chances of dying during the bypass surgery than I have of dying of COVID. Nevertheless, I had three months during which I prepared for death. It wasn’t really discussed–it’s odd, but death was much more a topic of conversation when it was more of a distanced possibility than when it was palpable. In my case, preparation for death meant separating myself from the others. Not so much physically, but emotionally. I realized at that moment that this was the reaction of those close to me. They were not preparing for death, but for my death, my potential death, and it is difficult to grasp the reality that your husband or your father may just as well disappear from your existence. You need time, time alone, to process all of that. Consciously, we were together; we made an effort to be together, especially during those times, but we also needed time alone.

Even more than that, you imagine more easily how life may be without you. And nothing matters anymore. During the last days of your life you no longer remember discussions you may have had with your wife, but you rather rejoice in her existence.

*

What if there’s no life after death? What if I don’t encounter my ancestors, and what if Socrates is not there to accompany me in the underworld and introduce me to Plato, Aristotle, and, yes, Dostoevsky?

It strikes me that it is irrelevant whether this idea, that there is life after death, is true or false. What may matter, though, is how I relate myself to it: what does it do in my life? There are plenty of other beliefs that may be true or false, that we fight about, without having any power to actually prove one way or another. Shouldn’t we judge them according to whether they make this life more or less beautiful? Beauty, a new criteria for truth; beauty, something that makes even death desirable. Why would I embrace a philosophy that brings me to the brink of the abyss of despair and gives me no tool to deal with it? And I hear Elder Sophrony of Essex: “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.” He doesn’t say drink tea and, when you are sick of it, go at the brink of the abyss. Life is life when you face nothingness. Funny, though, how I truly saw the abyss only when a complete occlusion stopped the flow of blood on one of my arteries. God bless the occlusion of my LAD, which made me aware of the brink and encouraged me to have a cup of tea.

*

Socrates says in the Phaedo that philosophy is preparation for death and dying. I think the imminence of death may also be a good teacher of philosophy as well. There is one thing to look at a tree and consider, abstractly, that it may belong to a world to which you don’t tomorrow, and one other thing to do so the day before going under the knife.

*

There was no great or heroic moment before I went blank under anesthesia. I remember being taken from one surgery room to another (I had another procedure done right before bypass) and being welcome by a nurse, who actually came to visit me every subsequent day I spent in the CVICU, bless her heart. There was plenty of light in the surgery room. Another lady told me she was my anesthesiologist and placed something on my mouth. “Thank you,” I said. “These may be my last moments when I am aware of my existence,” I thought. I think I wanted to think of my family and I wanted to pray. I had no time for that.

I woke up after eight hours or so, hearing the voice of a former student, now a nurse in the CVICU.

“It seems I didn’t die today.”

Am I know more prepared to die when time truly comes?

The Socrates Express, or bringing philosophy to people

The Socrates Express | Book by Eric Weiner | Official Publisher Page |  Simon & Schuster

I rarely read books that popularize philosophy. Still, encouraged by two of my colleagues (non-philosophers), I picked up Eric Weiner’s The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. If you come toward it as a professional philosopher, it is a leisure text, one in which you have the feeling of discussing philosophy with “laypeople.” I think, however, that this is precisely the virtue of the book: Weiner is able to bring philosophy (or philosophical ideas) to the level of a discussion at a Parisian coffee shop, an endeavor that, perhaps, many of us, professional philosophers, are no longer able to do. The entire approach begins with an acknowledgement of what people may think of philosophy today:

“The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called philosophy ‘radical reflection.’ I like how he imbues philosophy with the edginess and whiff of danger it deserves. Philosophers once captured the world’s imagination. They were heroic. They were willing to die for their philosophy, and some, like Socrates, did. Now all that is heroic about philosophy is the epic struggle for academic tenure.”

While the statement is false–it is quite “heroic” to ask questions differently than the world around you does and to not allow yourself to fall into the thought categories of the age, and there are “invisible” philosophers who continue to do that–I think we would be blind if we don’t see that this statement points to the precarity of academia, where economic values slowly (or perhaps not so slowly) replace the pursuit of truth. Then, even if there is a heroic attitude, it usually limits itself to the personal lives of philosophers-heroes, who detach themselves from the tumult of this world.

Be that as it may, Weiner’s book raises an important problem: how is it that a non-philosopher can be better than a philosopher at bringing philosophical ideas to the general population? What have we, philosophers, lost? I ask these questions because I enjoyed the book and because I know that the majority of my students in introductory courses in philosophy would get out of it much more than what they get from reading, let’s say, Descartes’ Meditations.

One answer may be that The Socrates Express reminds us that philosophy loses its own nature, that of love of wisdom, when it becomes separate from life, when it dismisses those who have not yet come out of their caves or, rather, those who are not aware of the various caves of this existence. Weiner may travel mostly by train, but Socrates himself (assuming that he was the one from the allegory of the Republic) traveled back into the cave after rejoicing into the nature of realities.

Should we replace philosophical books with volumes that popularize philosophy? No, of course not. But I think it is an encouragement for philosophers to stop our own Expresses, from time to time, in the various stations of this life. When we do, perhaps it is best to be like Nietzsche, who, Weiner, says, “didn’t formulate ideas. He birthed them.” As a consequence, some potential travelers may decide to buy their tickets for the journey.

Losing yourself in the depths of your being

Photo by Beverly and Pack.

I have come to learn that every moment of this life is an occasion to look deeper into your soul. The funniest thing is that every such moment is also a failure, since you hardly achieve arriving there, unless, perhaps, you go through moments when everything is taken from you. Perhaps, then, it is improper to say that I have come to learn this, since every moment is also an occasion to realize that I haven’t really learned it. Still, I say that it is an occasion to look deeper within you because the usual temptation is to go precisely in the opposite direction: to see how the other and the world itself treat you.

I’m sure you see how funny this is: you cannot look at the other or the world unless you first see “you”; that is, you have given yourself a definition, without even acknowledging it. There is no point in saying that others mistreat you and act toward you with lack of love, respect, or fairness if you don’t begin with YOU, about which you have no idea, since it is still this conceptual you that beholds yourself. A “you” that looks at “you” while none of these two “you” is you. It seems, then, that you live every day at the crossroad of two “forces.” One of them annihilates you by, paradoxically, giving you the impression that you are something, and this force can be manifested as attack on others or even attack o yourself, two faces of the same coin. The other pulls you away from the double-headed force described above, leaving you in what seems to be a state of inaction; let’s say a “force” that annihilates all forces.

I think we normally refer only to the first force, having the impression that we talk about two different things. We acknowledge that we come in contact with others and the world, and we say that we either focus on what others do to us, or we could focus on how we react before the world and learn something about it from our reaction. In this framework, we could say, for example, that you should describe how others’ actions make you feel instead of focusing on what others do. But if we remain here, in this dichotomy, it seems to me that we lose ourselves. This is because this approach leaves you in the same darkness, it creates separation between you and the other, and, primarily, it separates you from yourself, leaving you in the same space of double measure in which events gain or lose in importance depending on how you are emotionally connected with the one who tells you something or with the kind of activity in which you are engaged. This force that is so much worshiped by today’s world fixes you before yourself, so that you no longer get lost within your depths but you disappear, leaving your image have a dialogue with your image in the mirror.

The self-learning that I am talking about goes beyond this dichotomy, judging the other and falsely judging yourself. It is rather an acknowledgement that you are to find yourself in one of these previous two situations at all times. Perhaps, discovering yourself means looking at you looking at yourself in the mirror and being surprised by your heart’s movement, your patterns of thought and behavior, and your inability to avoid them even while you behold them.

It is at such moments when you no longer see problems in others, but only suffering, realizing that this suffering is a manifestation of your own disease (a disease which I would describe as your image looking at the image in the mirror).

It sounds as if you’re doomed if you get there, because you would no longer be able to defend yourself and your feelings, you would no longer be able to tell people how their actions make you feel, and so you would no longer achieve “justice.” This is, actually, a normal and, dare I say, desirable consequence: who cares of justice if it is not me who receives it, but the “me” who beholds the “me” in the mirror?

If you truly lose yourself in the depths of your being, justice is irrelevant, because you are already free.

Short philosophical plug: this is what Socrates must think when, waiting for his execution in prison, is calm and rejects Crito’s attempt to free him by also rejecting justice as “giving to the other that which he deserves” (“benefit your friends and harm your enemies”). And this is why he must have said in the same context that “the good man cannot be harmed.” Perhaps the good man came out of the mirror dichotomy. How can you “free” Socrates when he’s already free?

Freedom, shame, responsibility, and, once again, CVICU

If you’re familiar with Orthodox Christianity you may have heard the phrase that genuine freedom is only in Christ. This may sound strange because it doesn’t take into consideration any type of external circumstances of your existence, whether you are free to move, whether you are under the oppression of another human being, or whether your health allows you to have any kind of movements or desires. At times, I have some difficulty to understand this type of freedom. Still, it was again in my CVICU experience that I remembered these words, that genuine freedom is only in Christ. I had no freedom of motion, but I felt I was free. This freedom stemmed from an embrace. Nothing else was important anymore, and nothing else had any hold of me. I had not renounced my passions; they were taken away from me. I had not renounced my image before others; it was taken away from me. I had not renounced my judgment of others; it was taken away from me. I could have concentrated on what was taken away from me, if I weren’t overwhelmed by the splendor of the freedom that I received.

At times, freedom is understood as the ability and the “authenticity” to act in whatever manner your pleasures may incline you to act. According to this, you have to be shameless (that is, to renounce shame) in your actions and behaviors. The only thing that matters is to pursue your own pleasure so that you fulfill it. Happiness thus becomes the achievement of a purpose: the fulfillment of pleasure itself.

I do think that joy also has to do with some sort of transformation of shame (I recently read some texts about shame written by Fr. Stephen Freeman; here is one of them, but you could find on his site several ones: Morality, Shame, and the Acquisition of virtue); however, it is not in the framework of this binary understanding I suggested above (you either have shame or you don’t; something is either judgeable or is not). Rather, shame disappears in freedom not because whatever you perceived as shameful about you is, all of a sudden, fine, but rather because you become aware of your own nothingness. Shame disappears not when I say, “I am who I am, and you must accept me the way I am,” but rather when you acknowledge who you are and see yourself as the root of all evil, while, at the same time, you are surrounded with love.

After I wrote about the joy one may experience in the CVICU unit, someone mentioned to me Mitya’s dream of the bairn in Book IX of the Karamazov Brothers. After the tiring investigation having to do with his father’s death, when there is nothing in him that can have honor, Mitya falls asleep and dreams of a child. The child is weeping; his arms are bare; he is frozen. Why? According to logic, and the language of responsibility badly understood belongs to logic, there are explanations: “they’re poor, there’s been a fire, now they’ve no bread, they’re asking for aid for the burned-out village.” But Mitya is already beyond logic. He does not understand. The thinking of cause and effect is no longer relevant, and he seems to be painfully and acutely aware of the suffering in the world: “why are those homeless mothers just standing there, why are the people so poor, why is the bairn so distressed, why are the steppes so bare, why don’t they hug one another, why don’t they kiss one another, why don’t they sing joyful songs, why are they so ashen-faced and laden with so much despair and grief, why don’t they feed the bairn?” May I add, “why did I have a heart attack?” But still in this dream, Mitya hears Grushenka’s loving voice: “And I’m with you, I shan’t leave you now, I’ll stay with you for life.” He wakes up and finds a pillow under his head, a pillow that was not there before. Nobody knows who left it, but Mitya takes it as a sign of love. He is already embraced, and so there is nothing to fear. He is, however, responsible for everything in a renewed sense: because the suffering around him is an emptiness that calls for an embrace, and his refusal to do so diminishes his genuine dignity of a human being. “We are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people, but I am worst than everyone,” he says. There is no more shame in this, but there is no entitlement either. There is only joy, responsibility, and love.

I believe that this responsibility takes place in the kind of freedom I mentioned above. It doesn’t put you down under its heavy burden and doesn’t transform your life into a stressful existence. It is rather a responsibility that you experience as joy, as the only kind of existence one can have if one is to be authentic to oneself.

It is also a responsibility that doesn’t take into consideration the achievement of the purpose of an action, although it has purposes. You still live with plans. You wake up and you think that you have to wash dishes, write a book, or take the kids to school, but if these things don’t get to be accomplished, it doesn’t mean that your life was lived in vain. You may also plan on voting for a candidate, but the final result doesn’t change your life and doesn’t change who you are. It doesn’t matter if one or the other is victorious, and it doesn’t matter whether you are still here to witness it. What matters is that, at that moment, you live your life according to who you are. In fact, I may have a heart attack and not see the light of the day when this blog is finished, but it doesn’t mean I should stop writing it. It may be that you fall in love with somebody, but the relationship doesn’t work out for one or other reason. It may be that you put your entire energy into a project, but it doesn’t come to fruition because of external circumstances or because you get to CVICU. It doesn’t change anything about your life and about your freedom at this moment. For if you are free in Christ, there is nothing else that you need in order to be who you are. Freedom in Christ is eternal life; it is also eternal responsibility and eternal love.

When he writes about suffering, Father George Calciu, who spent 24 years in a communist prison in Romania, said, “‘Why suffering, why us? Of all the millions of Romanians, why have we been chosen to suffer? What is the purpose?’ And God wouldn’t reveal anything to us. Every day we cried out to God to give us less pain, and He seemed to grant us even more suffering.” Still, he remembers a reflection of Paul Claudel: “Christ did not come into the world to eliminate suffering, Christ has not even come into the world to explain it. Rather, He came to fill human suffering with His presence.”

Perhaps this is why I experienced freedom and joy in the CVICU. Nurses filled my emptiness with their being. You could say that they were doing their jobs, or that they were paid to do whatever they were doing. This aspect is also obviously true; even more, it is necessary to be so, and I truly hope they get paid well. But what I experienced was not someone who got a paycheck at the end of the week, but, in each one of them, Christ on the cross for me. I visited the CVICU after I came out of the hospital, and I had a very short glance into their tiredness because I caught them off guard, when they were not with a patient. However, when I was a patient in the CVICU, I only saw joy and wilingness to make me feel better. I am sure they had problems, perhaps children at home who were cared by others because their parents were in the hospital to do their jobs. But at that moment, on my hospital bed, I was the one whose emptiness was filled with their presence. And this love made me free.

Shame, joy, pretense, and CV-ICU

Many things have taken place this year, on personal and public level. Nevertheless, I have to also admit that I spent a few of the happiest days of my life precisely during some of the most difficult times. These days took place in the CV-ICU unit of a hospital in my town.

I got there due to a heart attack after a complete occlusion of one of my arteries, which sent me to open heart surgery, for a double bypass. For a guy in his 40s, who played soccer the week before the heart attack, it was quite a surprise. Of course, it resets priorities and it makes you reevaluate yourself. But this is not what I’d like to discuss today; I just want to talk about my days in the Cardio-vascular intensive care unit: CV-ICU.

Even now, when I think of these days, I can only smile; in fact, there is a certain joy that comes upon me when I hear the sounds, “CV-ICU,” sounds that have come to signify not fear, but rather light and happiness. I was in terrible pain during those days, with a vertical large cut in the middle of my chest and some tubes coming out of me. Still, I was in heaven, because the people around me, the nurses (some of them used to be my students in philosophy) created a space of freedom and authenticity in which you encounter yourself and your Creator.

There is a certain embrace in the CV-ICU. If you’re there, it feels that everything has been taken from you. You have smelled death; you no longer have power to move; you are kept alive by various machines and medications; you depend on others to move from one side to another, to take some steps, or to go to the restroom (and you’re already in good shape if you get to this stage); your body is mostly naked; you urinate through a tube without even realizing you’re doing so. Still, you are alive. Not only that, but even in those moments, when there is no more pretense, no more mask, no more claim that you are mightier than a breathing handful of clay, there is somebody who takes care of you, with no judgment, no expectation that you would need to be other than what you are, a nobody. This other is your nurse.

I can truly say that love is breathed in every corner of the CV-ICU unit. Many of those nurses had no idea who I was; they had no idea who the other patients were. But through them, in their complete dedication to you, divine love was pouring out.

And there is one more thing: there was no shame. You didn’t have to hide anything, because there was nothing else to hide. On the contrary: everything must be in the open. And so we all communicate directly, in our nakedness.

Interestingly, it is not a nakedness that precludes communication, the one after eating from the forbidden tree in Genesis, but rather one that brings back communion (and so the state before the fruit) because it eliminates a third component that is always between people, a third that has different names but is somehow connected with shame. In Genesis, after the man and the woman ate from the forbidden fruit, they hid from God because “they were naked.” God asked them, “who told you that you were naked?” Who is the third that interfered in the relationship between us? Why would you even think that you should have shame? The man and the woman brought somebody else in their relationship with God. It was not the third that comes to life naturally in relationships (love itself), but it was an external third, a third imposed by their image of themselves. This third is the pretense we have every day that we are something else than we actually are. A third that becomes so familiar that it replaces who we actually are.

Just as in Genesis, where people lose their ability to communicate directly when they fall from heaven, we have also lost our authenticity in our daily lives. We always think about how the others may perceive us, or about how we want them to perceive us. We want to hide our diseases and inadequacies. Doing so, we lose the ability to know each other and to know ourselves, all being due to the creation of these artificial beings who we’ve become. In fact, we arrive to the point that we are able to “know” each other and communicate with one another through a third, the image we have made of ourselves.

It is hard to give up pretenses. This year, I received a gift: I was stripped naked of them for a few days by a heart attack and a bypass surgery. The doctor and the nurses from the CV-ICU who took care of me during those days gave me the gift of life. But they also gave me another gift, one that I consider more important: they gave me the chance to live heaven on earth. It was terrible in the CV-ICU. Terrible pain. But I was cared and I had no more pretenses. CV-ICU gave me heaven on earth.

Paul Goma: “Who am I?”

Paul Goma died last week in France of coronavirus. For those who do now know about him, read the short article about his works and about his activities as a dissident to the communist regime in Romania. Below, you can find a text about himself but also about how people tend to place others (and most often themselves) into categories. It is my translation of the introduction of his The Colors of the Rainbow ’77 (Humanitas 1990). His words speak of freedom.

Photo from: https://www.romaniajournal.ro/society-people/romanian-dissident-writer-paul-goma-dies-of-coronavirus-in-france-media-report/

There have been many years since I approach a mirror, unless I shave. Even then, I don’t do it to see myself–I know me to the point thatI’m indifferent to myself–but rather to avoid cutting me.

However, since I arrived in the West, I surprise myself before a mirror, even without intending to shave. I know me, and I don’t really care for the face across the path; however, I repeat others’ questions:

What are you, Paul Goma? Are you a dissident? An opponent? A communist, a fascist? An anarcho-syndicalist, a free-tradist? Are you on the right, on the left? Are you on the center-three-quarters-toward-the-north-east-faced-to-south-south? What are you?”

Knowing me to the point of indifference, I don’t answer. If I were asked–even through me–“Who are you?”, I would have answered, “I don’t know,” but this would have been an answer. However, “What are you?” is not a question, but an aggression. A violation. An insolent, imbecile summation, as any summation, which does not require an answer but only requires of me to “choose” a certain group, a certain rubric, to choose, I, a numbered cell.

Since I came in the West, I have been always asked:

What was the movement for human rights in Romania, in 1977? A reformist movement? A movement of opposition? Possibly free-tradist? An annex to Charter 77? A nationalist spurt? Was it a soviet diversion? A version à la roumaine of Trotsky-socialisant euro-communism? What was it?”

Since it was no longer about me (even doubled in the mirror), I was forced to answer, to explain not what it was, but what it was not; questions vitiated answers.

Incidentally, I am a writer. By structure, education, formation, incidentally I think and I act according to a moral code. All the political Talmuds scare and sicken me. At home, I learned to be for good and against evil–any color it may have, regardless of whether it has the swastika or the hammer and sickle on the forehead, regardless of whether it dictates in the name of nationalism of internationalism.

[…]

Incidentally, I am a writer: that animal who narrates that which he knows, even if, at times, he does not know what he narrates.

Love in isolation

Photo by David Smith.

I am in isolation for 14 days. No virus problems, but we switched to online work and encouraged to stay home. I’m almost thankful for it. I was increasingly worried that I may become the one through whom others would get the disease. Now, with the isolation, it feels as if I were given the gift of the freedom to not get others sick.

This makes me wonder about my other problems: the “viruses” that I often carry with me into the world. My anger, my judgments, my lack of patience, my passions… Those aspects about me get others sick, often without me knowing. Words that I carelessly say, phrases expressed in anger or out of a perceived harm, eat at the goodness and positivity of others. Contrary to Corona or other viruses, these other “spiritual” viruses don’t murder people physically, but don’t they contribute to their spiritual death?

Still, I am given the freedom to carry them with me into the world. I, part of God’s creation, am placed within His larger creation with the power to murder it. Terrible situation: to be called to love the world while being allowed to uglify it. This seems to mean that if I truly love this world, if I am called to love God’s creation by affirming its beauty within me, I am called to personal purification not for my sake, but for the sake of Beauty: creation itself. I need to work towards curing my “viruses” not for my sake, but for the sake of the constellations in which I participate.

So I am thankful for isolation. But even in this isolation, I am not isolated: I can harm the ones I love the most: those who are isolated together with me, my family. Isolation is not then a break, but a reminder of how I need to change for the sake of everyone in my life, and thus for the sake of the beauty of God’s creation.

*

In the Orthodox Church, we are during Great Lent, a period in which one is faced with one’s own shortcomings. It is a period of renewal of the entire creation, for it ends on the Sunday of the Resurrection. We are required to separate a bit from the world, so that we can remember we have the power to harm it without even realizing and also the responsibility to love its beauty. And we look into ourselves so that we can fully and authentically be with all others.

The Friday of the Crucifixion and the Sunday of the Resurrection: there is no one without the other.

Persons and individuals; taking all in one’s heart through forgiveness

Immigrant on Earth


There are no individuals in Dostoevsky’s work, but we often encounter situations in which characters treat others as individuals. I actually think that the beauty of Dostoevsky’s writings stems also from the fact that he explores our failure to treat others as persons. The difference between “persons” and “individuals” is often discussed in Orthodox Christianity, and Dostoevsky is of course influenced by it. So what does this difference mean?

Photo taken by Andrei, who has a relationship with Mishu


Let’s say that individuals are always replaceable, in the same way in which we replace pieces of furniture. At times, people treat animals as individuals. Suppose my cat Mishu dies. If my relationship with him was the relationship I have with a cat, any cat, then I did not treat him as a person and I can replace him with any other cat who will engage in “cat-activities.” So I can…

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Washing dishes and dealing with life

Soviet style apartment in St. Petersburg. Photo by lafleur.

Do you know those ugly, soviet-style apartment buildings that you can see all throughout Eastern Europe? Many of us who grew up in that part of the world have spent our childhood in those match boxes, as we called them, and we also had our joys.

Nowadays, there is one activity by which I recognize those of us who have lived in these buildings: washing dishes. The people who lived in houses, and thus in independent units that were responsible for the amount of water consumed, do not allow water to come from the faucet incessantly. They rather get some water necessary for the washing and then use it throughout the process, or just use a sponge with detergent to clean all dishes, and only then use water to rinse them. But those who lived in apartment buildings–or the majority of them–let the water run indiscriminately. This is so much so that, at times, water starts running when the process of washing dishes begins and ends running with the rinsing of the last plate or fork.

Well, you may say, to each his own–and I stand by that as well! Then, this whole discussion is in no way an intent to express moral judgments about dishwashing and water. Still, you may be well entitled to ask, “What is it to you how someone decides to spend his or her money or how someone decides to consume water?” In my avoidance of uttering any moral claim, out of fear of categorizing others and placing them into murderous boxes, I would probably be dumbfounded, unable to say anything. Of course, not paying attention to water consumption harms the environment and it is a moral affront to all the places in the world that suffer from drought, but aren’t we free agents? Can’t we decide on our own what to do in life?

Be that as it may–I prefer not to discuss such topics for the moment, or at least not here (my fear of moralizing may not work for my benefit)–the dishwashing example suggests to me that education is a very funny notion and that human nature is such that, regardless of our own claims about our moral views and behaviors, we still act the way in which it is convenient for us and the way in which life taught us. You see, in those ugly soviet-style buildings, we did not have responsibility for how much water we consumed. Every month, the building received bills for water, electricity, and gas (by the way, there are many more lightbulbs turned on in the houses of those who lived in apartment building than in those who lived in houses). These bills, summed up, were then divided by the number of people living in the apartment building, so that each would pay his or her “fair share.” I never knew exactly how much I consumed, because it was divided to all–in, let’s say, a building with 9 floors, 3 apartments per floor, that would mean the population of 27 apartments. And why should I deprive myself of the convenience of running water from the beginning to the end of the dishwashing process, especially so when my neighbor may do it as well? And if he does it and I do not, don’t I end up paying some of his share? Wouldn’t I be a fool? Why should I tell my kids to do it? Why should I teach them to turn the light off when they leave a room? Am I not preparing them for a life in which others would take advantage of them if I did so? And so we may have forgotten to turn off the water just because things were done this way around us.

In this particular case of dishwashing (and this is by no means scientific research, but rather the poor musings of someone who has many friends who used to live in that part of the world), responsibility for consuming water was produced not by moral precepts, interest in the life of another human being, or acknowledgement of the fact that we depend on each other (which I believe to be true). Responsibility for water was due to the pain one suffers for having to pay for it. Or it was due to the pain of your parents who, because they had to pay for it, reminded you always to turn off the light and to be more careful with water when you wash the dishes. This may also suggests that the step from education to action is much longer when education takes place theoretically than when education is attached to an immediate consequence on your own life. Perhaps this is a cynical view of human nature–and I am one with those from soviet style apartment buildings and with those from houses. And, after all, this is nothing more than some musings about washing dishes.

OK, you may say, but how is it that now, when people pay for what they consume, they still run the water the same way they used to do it in those ugly buildings?

Well, habit is a nasty thing.

Dostoevsky and today’s world: the value of humanities

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Dostoevsky publishes the Demons in 1871-1872. The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21th century, with all their craziness, have not yet come to pass. There is no terrorism in his world as we understand it nowadays. Nevertheless, this is how he describes why a group of people bring havoc in a society. To the question of why there were so many murders, scandals, and outrages committed, a character of his novel answers:

“It was to promote the systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society and all its principles; to demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything, and then, when society was on the point of collapse–sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a perpetual desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self-preservation–suddenly to gain control of it, raising the banner of rebellion and relying on a whole network of groups…”

Some say that there is no value in humanities, that they are no longer relevant in today’s world. But if we really want to understand this world, we may need to read the great books of humanity. And for sure, Dostoevsky.