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.

We are all to blame…

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

These words are uttered by another character in Dostoevsky’s Devils, Shatov. If you are familiar with other works, such as Crime and Punishment or Brothers Karamazov, the idea that we are all responsible for the sins of others is not a novelty. Let me mention only Zosima here, or even Mitya, the eldest or the Karamazov brothers, who says, “We are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people… but… I’m worse than anyone.”

You may also be familiar with one of the prayers before the Eucharist, which is said by all people participating in the sacrament together, at the same time: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

All of these words, including Shatov’s, bring forth the same idea, that we all have responsibility for the suffering of the others. However, if Zosima’s and Mitya’s words seem to emphasize the responsibility that one accepts–a responsibility that precedes him–Shatov’s expression has a different flavor: “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

Shatov utters these words after he finds out that his wife, whom he hasn’t seen in three years, is pregnant and is about to deliver a baby. With no questions, no judgments, no .accusations, he runs to find a midwife. In a moment in which he could feel that he has been wronged, he says, “We’re all to blame, all of us…” It is, I take it, a description of the human condition: we are born into this world, we participate into it, and so we must acknowledge that its scars are manifestations of our own behaviors.

Still, in the midst of this pure feeling, Shatov says, “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

This is such a human reaction, and, at the same time, the seed of our judgment for our brethren… The desire to have the others see that they are just like you, responsible for their and your suffering, is one of the most understandable desires one could have, be it in interpersonal relations or in society.

Consider a married couple as an example for the former. You feel your spouse has harmed you, and your suffering may blind you first. But then you may still realize that you are to be blamed, for in this world of sinners “I am the first.” You see her absence or her blow as manifestations of your own lack of presence, of your own inadequacy, and so your perceived suffering is transformed in love. Still, a thought creeps into your heart, “if only she could be convinced that she also is to blame…” And this is not because you consider that she has any guilt, but rather because we are all made out of the same mud, we live in the same world, and thus we are touched by all of its impurities. And just this little thought brings your defeat… For you no longer say, “I am the first sinner, I am first responsible for all,” but rather that she is the first one, even if you don’t realize it.

Societies… When the third comes in, and so the political, Shatov’s words become even more dangerous. “If only everyone could see how they are responsible for the lives of the others…” Of course, I am responsible as well, but they must see it, too. They must see that this world depends on them. There is one step from the beauty of Shatov’s words to ugliness and death. These words are the creed of any totalitarian communist society, which comes to claim that we are all responsible and equal in that responsibility. And those who do not see it are “enemies of the people,” individuals who must be eliminated, sent to Siberia or executed in dungeons.

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…” Of course, if everyone could be convinced of that, then there would be no suffering. Shatov may not have to face a group of people dedicated to causes. Still, even so, Shatov’s words invite us to vigilance against our own hearts: the demons never leave us alone, even in moments of beauty.

An athlete for all

6:00 am. I’ve been awake for a while, but I feel like going back to bed, to linger there for 5 more minutes. My wife senses me and says, “What did Simona do?”

“She lost,” I reply. “I’m so sorry,” my wife says.

I had waken up at 4:00 am, and the first thing I did was to check Simona Halep’s result in the semifinal at the Australian Open.

We live in the US, and still, the first thought we had in the morning was about Simona, a Romanian who plays tennis for herself, but who brings together many hearts while doing so.

There is something about these athletes, who are able to produce such emotion by hitting a ball with a tennis racket or by throwing a ball into a basketball hoop. We can discuss notions of identity, belonging… We can engage in moralizing arguments about the intrinsic importance (or lack of importance) of the ability to run on a court or on a football pitch… We can analyze the social impact of sports…

But how is it that the successes of someone I have never met are so important to me that they are the first thing on my mind when I wake up in the morning? Of course, one may say that it is about my own successes, that somehow the successes of people who belong to the same nation with me are experienced as my own. But there seems to be more than that: it is about Simona’s sadness when she loses, and Simona’s joy when she wins. Her feelings (or what I imagine them to be) touch me.

Imagine the many cries for joy that accompany a successful backhand; imagine all the sighs that are buried together with the ball into a net… And imagine living the life of an athlete who takes together with her the energy of millions of people. There is a certain freedom in this: the energy is not mandatory, but it is offered freely, in love.

Can each of us become an athlete for those who share our lives, so that we redeem the world that is touched by us in our dedication to whatever talents each one of us may have? A world full of athletes, each dedicated to his or her talent and thus to all around them. Perhaps this is what it means to be part of a body: to be a limb that attempts to live virtuously (in the Greek sense of excellence, arete) and who rejoices in the excellence of all other limbs. A Body: a Kantian Kingdom of Ends. A Kingdom of Athletes.

The temptation to change the suffering in the world

There is one aspect of human life that we cannot change: death. In a world of uncertainty, one thing is certain, that there will be a time when we will no longer be here. But before that time, there are many aspects of human life that we feel we can change, and one such aspect is as universal as death is: suffering. Anyone of us has experienced suffering and has desired in one moment or another to do something about it, to act in way that would eradicate or, at least, diminish it. This is especially the case when we see people dear to us go through terrible psychological or physical pain.

Perhaps we can call this desire to eliminate suffering a desire to beautify the world. Exhausted by the ugliness that surrounds us, by innumerable instances of violence, treason, or boorishness, we want to change our reality and the people belonging to it in the name of the good. It is the simple desire of improving our world.

Of course, I can simply say, as I’ve done before, that this is how many murderers begin, with good intentions. We’ve heard that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We know that that communists, for example, justify torture, deportations, and killings by claiming that they eliminate the bad elements of the society and that suffering of some is justified by the subsequent creation a perfect society. But saying all of this is not sufficient, and this is mainly because speaking against the attempt to beautify the world by changing your surroundings and the people around you seems to sound as a call to passivity. Someone on this blog called me on this (see the comments on Dostoevsky and various solar systems), and I often wonder about it myself. The temptation to change the ugliness around you and to “repair” those people you believe are repairable is, in my experience at least, one of the most powerful forces of existence.

But I am not talking about a passivity that is opposed to action. In fact, I believe that this temptation to act, to do something about the ugliness of the world, can stem only out of passivity, out of a state in which I don’t do anything for it, out of a state of complacency in which I allowed myself to forget about that ugliness and to forget that it is somehow manifested in me as well, for I am part of this world.

It all begins with the self, with the focus I have on the self. I have said it here before, I think. There is one way of looking at the world as if it were a nice soup that I am having for dinner. I taste of it, and I make a judgment: it is too salty, too sour, or too sweet. The temptation to “repair” it comes only from that position, that of an objective outsider. But there is another way of looking at the world. In this other way, I realize that the taste of this soup is the way it is because I am also part of it and that I cannot taste of it without, at the same time, tasting of myself. This realization takes place beyond the choice between passivity and action. Passivity and action take place when I judge something from the outside and try to decide what to do about it or whether I should do anything. I can feel “responsible” for the world or I can believe that the only responsibility I have is for my life only. If I see myself as part of the soup, my responsibility is not a choice, but it is a way of being and it precedes me and it also precedes any choice I have. And so I need to work on my “taste,” to let it help the taste of this soup, trusting that somehow all the other vegetables and seasons and ingredients of this soup will be touched by it. This is the only kind of healing responsibility that I can imagine.

Dostoevsky and various solar systems

Yulia Mikhailovna is not a central character in Dostoevsky’s Devils. Nevertheless, she is someone who becomes the center in a different sense: she becomes the sun of her world. In just one page of a particular psychological finesse, Dostoevsky describes a character who loses her humanity by wanting to become more than she is.

“But whether as a result of excessive poetic feeling or the sad and repeated failures of her youth, suddenly, with the change in her fortune, she felt specially selected, almost anointed, one of those ‘upon whom a tongue of flame had descended.'”

What does such a person do when she perceives she has been chosen? She transforms herself into the world’s savior:

“She dreamt of bestowing happiness and reconciling the irreconcilable…”

Beautiful and noble desires for which someone may feel to be called and imagine that they cannot come to be in the absence of her work, her determination to change the world in such a way as to experience happiness. For everyone is obligated to be happy; everyone must live in this world as perfectly as possible, and she is called to bring it about.

But this dream of bestowing happiness upon all can only be done in one way: “She dreamt of bestowing happiness and reconciling the irreconcilable, or, to be more precise, unifying everything and everyone in adoration of her own person.”

This is the feature of all self-proclaimed saviors, be them family members or politicians: they perceive the world must be in a certain way, according to their own criteria of beauty, and they don’t understand your “inability” to live in it. Just like everyone else, they also perceive the world as a solar system, but inevitably fall into the temptation of judging life, perhaps even without realizing, from the position of the sun.

Perhaps there is no higher suffering than that of the one who believes that she dedicates her life to you in her attempt to create a beautiful world in which you have to live. In her focus on the beauty that she imagines, she forgets about you, and so she remains alone, creating everything around her in a mirror, in a splendid life that clones everyone of her cells. The suffering is multiplied by the ungratefulness she perceives in you: “I dedicated my life to you, and you throw it in the trash by not accepting it.” It is the hell that all tyrants who perceive themselves as their nations’ saviors must live in. But it is also the hell that we, in our daily, small lives, can live in if we ever believe we can “fix” other human beings.

What Dostoevsky does here, in just a few lines, is a description of the corrupted meaning of love: it always starts with the self and it returns to the self.

I always run away from saying anything about a possible solution. Still, since it is Dostoevsky, I will say one thing: perhaps the solution is still the solar system. I am not talking about another solar system than the one in which the self-proclaimed saviors live. The difference is that the solar system of the pseudo-saviors is interpreted through their understanding of love, that which begins from the self and ends in the self. Hell is not outside this reality; it is inside it and is the manifestation of our inability to leave the self behind (and so in our inability to love). The “other” solar system (but again, it is the same solar system) is the one which Alyosha describes at the end of Brothers Karamazov, the one of brotherhood and sisterhood with the others just as they are. It is one in which I see my role as that of a star in a constellation, having responsibility for the beauty of the constellation that was already given to me, and so for the stars that were already given to me, for whose lights I am responsible but whose lights I cannot repair or fix through my power, because the light does not originate in me. And so I have to deny myself to the point in which the light of the true Sun illuminates through me and, hopefully, would help the others rekindle their candles.

The journalist and the philosopher

Immigrant on Earth

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The journalist and the philosopher are both engaged in study. Journalists are trained to look at the world around them. They describe it, and they see its sins. And they become righteous.

Philosophers are trained to look at the world inside them, to forget their surroundings. They discover this world with fear and trembling. When they turn their gaze toward the world around them, they see in it the manifestation of their own sins. And they may become merciful.

A human being may wake up a philosopher and go to bed as journalist. Or vice versa. Or be journalist to some and philosophers to others. Perhaps the best combination is to be journalist to yourself and philosopher to others.

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Eucharistia: an all embracing thanksgiving

Photo by Vlad Dumitrescu (http://www.vladdumitrescu.ro)

“Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World).

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“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God–and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World).

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Perhaps the first “missing of the mark” is eating without being thankful, and so without becoming myself nourishment for those around me.

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Bethlehem: “Bayit lehem,” the house of bread.

It is rather beautiful that the feast of Thanksgiving takes place at the beginning of the fast that prepares us for Bethlehem.

Applying for visas into your souls

As some of you may have noticed, I changed the name of the blog to something that, I think, expresses better its nature.

I’ve written for five years, more or less. As I have mentioned in the past, the primary purpose of the blog was to spread the word about a translation that is very important to me: the memories of six Romanians who were deported to Siberia from Bessarabia. If you haven’t checked it out, do consider to do so here. Brought together under the title of Do Not Avenge Us, the memories bring forward the suffering of a people that is very close to my heart because I am part of it. 

At the same time, my writing went into other directions, witnessing to various tribulations or thoughts that came to me during these travels that compose life. I say this because life seems to be a journey toward a place that is fully known and unknown at the same time. For there is one certitude about human beings: we all die and our existence as we know it has an end. But there is also the unknowability of what takes place, if anything, after.

This completely known and unknown end governs our journeys here. It also makes us immigrants, and so in many senses. We do not travel alone, but with others, and our communications with these people can be described as an attempt to apply for visas in order to be accepted into their souls.

The blog then is much less a corner, as it used to be called, but rather a manifestation of an immigrant. An immigrant on earth, first of all, but also an immigrant from one country to another. On top of all these, the most important aspect of my status as immigrant is the fact that I attempt, like all of us, to journey into my brethren’s souls, for it is only there where we can truly find rest (unfortunately, we most often find war as well, but this does not deny the radical potentiality of a brother’s and sister’s souls to be places of rest for tired travelers).

This text explains, then, the name of the blog. But it also reveals its implicit purpose: I’m applying for visas into my readers’ souls.

“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”

This text was written while experiencing the wonderful performance of Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo!” by Bradley Community Chorus, conducted by Cory Ganschow.

“Those that I love are dying… My world is shattered… You talk about some meaning, some happiness… how so? What is the point of asking for things when death surrounds you? What is the point of singing, of dancing… when… Joy? I find no more.”

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth”

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“My child no longer speaks to me, and I’ve no strength to call him. My days drag on, no light in sight… my candle quenches… Some children on the street sing on, today, when people carol. And You, my God, so far away… Can’t you appease my sorrow?”

“Jubilate Deo!”

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“Who is the old man who looks back at me from that mirror? Whose face is it, with those cold eyes, and wrinkles, and no hope? No wonder he is lonely, betrayed, and left by all, with nothing but a mirror for company… no door that he could open… no window… joy no more…”

“Worship the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyful songs”

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“And how can harmony exist if hell exists too? I want forgiveness, I want to embrace everyone, I want an end to suffering. And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. And above all, I don’t want the mother to embrace the torturer whose dogs tore her son apart! […] Tell me honestly, [Alyosha], I challenge you–answer me: imagine that you are charged with building the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but that in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck of creation, that same child beating her breast with her little fists, and imagine that this edifice has to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under those conditions?” (Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov).

Omnis terra, jubilate, omnis terra, laudate, Omnis terra, jubilate Deo! (Adapted from Psalm 100, LatinVulgate)

(from Dan Forrest’s Jubilate Deo, see one performance below)

“But come to me, O Lord, descend from mighty heavens, behold your own creation: some flesh and bones together, ravished by pains and sorrows, by passions and desires… Betrayed, abandoned… by death surrounded and far away from childhood. No place to rest my heart, no arms I can respond to…”

“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”