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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