To Be or Not To Be

A little kingdom I possess,
Where thoughts and feelings dwell;
And very hard the task I find
Of governing it well.
~ Louisa May Alcott

...that more or less describes my situation!

~A Wise Man Said~

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
~ Aristotle

Tuesday, July 14, 2020
 
Dear readers, after almost 4 years in the UK, I had my first visit to a doctor today. You know I avoid the medical world like the plague, which is ironic to say the least, but now that we are in the middle of a plague I should be going to the doctor’s, well, that’s like the icing on the irony cake! ;) I used to joke when this corona business started that the one place I won’t want to be visiting is the doctor’s; of course, I never expected to visit it then. I guess God took this as a personal challenge! :( As they say, never say never.

A few months ago I had written about my bad case of acne. The bad case has only gotten worse and you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a minor issue what with life and death problems around us… that’s what I thought too when it started… but having given it almost six months now I realised that it was not a light problem after all. It was affecting me mentally and emotionally…just looking at my face which I couldn’t exactly avoid looking at if I had to apply the creams and stuff… was giving me anxiety and stress. And then it’s said that stress exacerbates acne…so all in all I was caught in a vicious circle not to mention my fear and dread of going to a doctor, on top of that dread of figuring out how the medical world functions here, on top of that fear of the virus doing the rounds in all sorts of places… you get the picture? How was I not supposed to be anxious and stressed is the question!

Finally, I took courage in my rather trembling hands, and decided to get the ball rolling to meet a doctor. I say ball rolling because I never expected it to be as easy as turning up at the doctor’s. Something told me this would be something long drawn out and it was. Having not visited a doctor in so many years I was apparently deactivated on the system… not to go into all the details but it all culminated in me eventually seeing a doc today.

I don’t know if it’s a difference between doctors here and doctors in India or maybe it’s just that doctors in general don’t realise the effect their words have on patients. My dear readers may remember the episode of my foot injury some years ago and how the doctor said I might have had to amputate my foot if I hadn’t visited the hospital when I did (you understand why I avoid doctors/hospitals/so on?). I obviously didn’t expect to hear any chilling pronouncements this time what with the problem being my acne and all, but had I gone in there with a heart palpitation I wouldn’t have heard anything worse to make it beat faster I’m guessing. Suffice to say I have started with a very low risk treatment of a topical cream but if this doesn’t help matters then the next level treatments will progressively increase in risk :( I mean, I don’t understand what I am supposed to say to this…? Fix my cheeks and let what happens to my liver …?
All in all though, I am glad I visited today. I am back in one piece and just the thought that I am following a doctor’s advice makes me feel that I am on the way to getting fixed. Though I am still a little miffed about the advice… I was told not to put any moisturiser or anything at all on my face. I asked, how was I supposed to care for my face then? The response, how has caring helped your face? I couldn’t deny the logic of it, could I? :(

Saturday, July 11, 2020
 
The Parable of the Talents

“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
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I am not sure how to interpret this parable from the Bible. I find it intriguing to say the least. I vaguely remember listening to this parable ‘of the talents’ at Sunday School as a kid but couldn’t remember what it was about. Even after reading it now I feel like I am reading it for the first time but that’s not surprising because I am viewing it through frames of knowledge that make it appear almost new and something peculiar even. Why would God reward people who made good use of the money and punish someone who didn’t make any use of it? What virtue is exhibited in maximising interest or generating more profit out of the principal? Why would God say that those who have will be given more and from those who don’t have will be taken? The word ‘talent’ of course must be interpreted as talent in the general sense or innate gift and not money but still…
I need to sleep on this a bit more… food for another blog!

Monday, July 06, 2020
 
As usual a random thought caught hold of me today. I wondered why when I was much younger I was intent on sorting out my emotional life; it is pretty clear to me now that my intellectual life is where it's at for me, so why? Did I consider my emotional life to be more important when I was younger? What made me want to prioritise it then? The answer came to me in an analogy.

I think even when I was very young I was a fan of ideas and ideals. I thought of emotions and the life of emotions as presenting something of an Achilles' heel for me. My personality nor my interests lend toward living out the emotional life that most humans especially the female kind take for granted almost from the cradle onwards. But there are no alternative lives equally valid or granted by society. So I guess I thought that I would first fix my Achilles’ heel, and having done so, I would be free to pursue the life of my dreams. Pursue the life of the mind so to speak. Naively, I never questioned if an emotional life would be compatible with an intellectual life, but what alternative did one have?

The emotional life didn’t materialise. But now I realise that the Achilles’ heel wasn’t there to be fixed or taken care of but to signal to me that the life of my choosing carried this inherent burden. That I would have to live with it. If it could have been simply dealt with, it would not have been an Achilles’ heel. Now that I have fully embraced the intellectual life I realise that the Achilles’ heel, an externalisation of my internal nature, is something I could never have cut off as if it was an extra limb. The removing of it would have caused more pain than the living with it because I wouldn’t be fulfilling the destiny that the heel brought to its owner… it is not a smooth destiny but there is peace and acceptance in it… and who knows… emotional fulfilment may even find its way where there are these things…

Tuesday, June 30, 2020
 
The Heaviest Burden. What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: "This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence - and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!" - Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: "You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!" If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to all and everything: "Do you want this once more, and also for innumerable times?" would lie as the heaviest burden upon your activity! Or, how would you have to become favourably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?

~ Friedrich Nietzsche (The Gay Science, Book IV)

Sunday, June 28, 2020
 
I am grappling with a productivity problem these days! :( I am not sure if it’s a new problem as much as an old problem that rears its head whenever I start a new piece of research writing. I get this feeling that I am easily distracted by the phone/social media and I don’t know what to do to stop myself from impulsive-compulsive browsing. The thing is I don’t technically do nonsensical or wasteful stuff but visit interesting sites or groups on relevant things like writing, philosophy and so on. I’m not sure if that renders it as a valid activity to do when I am very much using it to distract myself from what I should be doing, if you get my point? It becomes an easy excuse to give myself that I am doing something valuable but the value is diminished if it’s not indulged in a balanced way, I guess. I am trying to think of how to make myself more accountable to my goals and how to reduce distraction in the course of achieving my daily work goals. One thing I have started to do is to keep the phone in a different room so it takes some effort to check it—this does reduce the frequency but I still find myself drawn to it.

I have always believed that reading up other things or letting my mind wander into other areas does help my creative process or does help my subconscious simmer ideas at the back of my mind. Which is why I have always encouraged myself to explore interesting ideas or articles or concepts even if not directly related to my research writing. There are connections and patterns that can be suggested by the most unrelated of ideas. But what is bothering me now is that the optimal balance is getting disrupted. Instead of the distractions triggering some interesting thought processes that help me in working out my writing, I am wondering if too much of it is clouding my thinking. As in, my subconscious is perhaps losing sight of the main goal, it perhaps does not have the resting time required to join the dots? This is what’s troubling me really. On the other hand, I have always been troubled about this whenever I have felt like I am not getting where I want to be with what I am working on especially if that piece of work happens to be a bit high stakes or key as it is at the moment. Sooner rather than later things do fall in place though. So maybe I am just overthinking it as I am wont to do. Oh well…

Saturday, June 27, 2020
 
I am musing on an interesting question today: what is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

These words are very often used together, sometimes as complementaries, sometimes as oppositions... some think one cannot exist without the other, some think former is factual and latter the application of the factual... there are many ways in which people understand these terms and yet we use them as if it means the same thing to all people. I think the context in which these terms are used also changes their meaning so we might sarcastically say of someone who has arrogantly bungled a situation that so and so in his or her great wisdom decided to do such and such a thing which has turned out quite differently. Not that we mean something very specific when we use the word in this context—interchange it with knowledge and the sentence seems to mean the same.
I personally see knowledge and wisdom as two very different things. I fundamentally see knowledge as a "material" acquisition or acquisition of what can be called data or facts relating to the material world. Even if one collects data or facts relating to the subjective or social world it would still be a kind of knowledge even if not of the hard variety. Wisdom on the other hand is not about direct apprehension of the material world and does not grow from facts, hard or soft. I see it as an intuitive grasp or sense of the essence of things rather than a factual understanding or study of the material properties of things. I see it as an intuitive sense of balance, of appropriateness, of harmony, of beauty, of the good, of virtue... of the things that transcend empirical knowledge.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020
 
Carrying on the cultural conversation struck in my last post...

My Chinese housemate offered me a taste of a new dish. I tried it and it literally stung my tongue. I couldn't enjoy it. It reminded me of Wasabi flavoured something I had had in Mumbai and how it irritated my taste buds in a serious way. I asked my housemate about the ingredient that was creating havoc with my tongue. She was firstly quite taken aback that I found it "spicy" (I couldn't give a better word for the taste) and more so because she finds my dishes too spicy. Apparently this wasn't spicy at all for her whereas the dishes I make with all the chillies are overly spicy for her! She read out the names on the ingredient list at my request but most that she could translate into English seemed quite ordinary; among others such as "sea weed" I couldn't tell what could be giving the specific flavour I was finding too strong for my taste. It had to be something I wasn't used to. I told my housemate that the fact that she found my dish too spicy and I found hers was due to difference in cultural tastes. To which she responded to the effect of taste being a matter of the body, not culture.
I guess we usually even if subconsciously think of culture as something out there that can be observed or something in here in the mind. It's only after deeply engaging with certain sociological literature on culture that I have come to have a deeper appreciation of the "embodied" nature of culture. The fact that what I find appealingly spicy is too spicy for someone else’s comfort and what someone else finds delicious is too fiery for my taste is our bodily cultural reaction so to speak...or to put it in a different way, cultural habituation of the body. It is intriguing to think about the many different ways in which such habituations might manifest… and be taken for granted just as I take my spicy for granted as the normal spicy…until I encounter someone who tells me otherwise. Even then this information is only theoretical information to me; I have no way of practically understanding her exact experience.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020
 
My Chinese housemate made a strange comment. At least it sounded pretty strange to my ears. She said something to the effect that I must be considered beautiful in my culture! (It's difficult for me to not sound vain in saying this!) I was quite taken aback by the "in my culture" bit because I usually see someone as beautiful or not. Obviously my perception of beauty would come from a cultural lens but that would be true of everything I say or see or do so I would never consciously ask myself if the person is beautiful "in my culture" or in general because what would general mean to me? I cannot take off a cultural lens and wear a general one. My cultural lens is also my general lens and if someone looks beautiful or handsome to me then they are that to me...I wouldn't be able to say that they are that "in their culture" or “my culture” or “in general”. Which is why I was quite surprised by her question because it almost sounded like a backhanded compliment though I don't think it was meant in that way at all.

I asked her what she meant and she was not really able to explain it except for pointing out that I had "big eyes" which in her view was a mark of beauty (which sounded like she was applying her own cultural standard). I started thinking more about this and it made sense to me that different cultures based on physical characteristics may have different standards of beauty. But I found it curious that they would think about their own standard of beauty as applied to people within the culture as "cultural" and not "general". I cannot say whether Indian women I think of as beautiful would be considered beautiful in a "general" sense or a cultural sense. But that begs the question, what is the "general" sense? Isn't every perception of beauty a cultural one?

I guess what we really mean when we say general is actually implicitly Western. And beauty by Western standards would obviously mean a Western ideal of it. This framing of the Western as the "general" or in other words "universal" makes the suggestion that Western constructs or aesthetics are somehow superior to local or cultural ones; this seems strange given the fact that Western nations are also specifically cultures with their own cultural standards which have no objective claim to be considered superior or universal. If there were such a claim, it would have to be evaluated on some standard too, and whose standard would that be?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020
 
Grief. For some strange reason this word kept circling in my head off and on yesterday. Not an overwhelming sense of grief, overpowering, forceful, disruptive... more like a dull ache, something sad, something poignant, something like when a wisdom tooth is taken out and the painkiller wears off… there’s something missing where the tooth once was and in its place is a lingering pain reminding you of the thing that used to be…sometimes you are too conscious of it and sometimes it’s there somewhere in the background.

I guess in a way the loss that I feel this grief for is as minor as a tooth that won’t grow back but whose use cannot outlast its time or at least I hope not… I am grieving for what could have been this time of the year but isn’t… I am grieving for all the plans I made to achieve what I wanted to achieve and which are now made doubly, even triply hard… I am grieving for the little things and big things that never came to fruition because of the pandemic... I also feel grief just looking around the world today… as if nothing is tranquil, nothing is at peace, nothing is warm, nothing is comfortable, nothing is reassuring… sometimes when we lose hope it helps to look around the world and find some hope in it… but there is no such hope reflected back from the world today… and your personal grief joins with a grief for the world… you can only look upwards…

Recently someone asked this question that what is the one thing on which you have come back full circle… as in you started off thinking one thing, then thought something else, and then came back to what you thought at first. For some reason I thought about God but then realised that I haven’t come back full circle on this topic. I mean I never really started off with a faith in God because going to church or praying in a mechanical your-parents-told-you-so sort of way doesn’t really count for having any kind of faith. And then I never really stopped having faith because I never really had faith in the first place. When I consciously started thinking about God it was with an inquisitive and questioning stance, that is, that I don’t know whether God exists because I don’t really know but I am interested in exploring further. I neither believed nor disbelieved. And now, I am very hesitant to say that I have “faith” because the word suggests a blind fanatical sort of belief which is not at all what I feel though I could use the same word in the sense that I do not have any evidence or logic to back up how I do feel. It’s not a full circle because I have never been at this stage before but it could be called an evolution from where I was… I now trust my intuition a lot more (I need to talk about why I have come to trust my intuition in a separate blog)… now when I ask myself how in the whole wide world am I going to achieve a particular goal… this intuitive voice just tells me to trust that I will… this is not to tell me to not work hard but to do my best and not worry about how things will materialise… the way will appear when I walk on it, as Rumi said…

Thursday, June 11, 2020
 
If you want to win a fight, choose an opponent of your own calibre. A mouse cannot try to fight a lion not because a mouse has no fight in it but it does not have the same inherent calibre. It's not the mouse's fault that it doesn't have it but I would think it's the mouse's fault if it doesn't realise it. Its survival depends on it so it's unlikely that it's not invested with that minimal intelligence.

I am not interested in animal psychology of course and nor do I know anything about it so the former must be taken only for its analogical value. I was driven to use this analogy in the context of persons who refuse to learn, refuse to listen, refuse to look inward, refuse to chew on mistakes, refuse to inform their opinion with knowledge, refuse to educate themselves on principles of logic... and yet jump into the arena for an argument. It is useless to argue with such a person because if winning consists in learning, of one or the other or both parties, there is no learning to be obtained in this situation. The lion can't be filled with the killing of a mouse nor will the mouse profit by being dead. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2020
 

If yet I have not all thy love, 
Dear, I shall never have it all;
I cannot breathe one other sigh, to move, 
Nor can intreat one other tear to fall; 
And all my treasure, which should purchase thee— 
Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters—I have spent. 
Yet no more can be due to me, 
Than at the bargain made was meant; 
If then thy gift of love were partial, 
That some to me, some should to others fall, 
         Dear, I shall never have thee all. 

~ John Donne
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There is one whom I greatly admire and adore and recently it seemed to me that I was probably not even a blip on their radar. It pained me to think that might be so though I could be wrong. And then I asked myself if it made a difference to my admiration and adoration... that even as a worshipper I might be seen as just one among many, let alone my devotion having any value. Does it make a difference to how I feel? ... It doesn't. If I choose to elevate an idol and adore it, is the idol obliged to adore me back? Is the idol supposed to be thankful for my worship? Is the idol supposed to live up to my ideals? The idol never asked to be elevated or put on a pedestal... It didn't ask to be worshipped... how is it the idol's fault? It is my fault and mine alone if I still look up to it... the idol owes me nothing... and yet I live in hope that my sincere devotion will win me its regard... maybe someday... but even if it doesn't...there is a pleasure to be found in devotion itself...maybe similar to the pure pleasure to be found in virtue that seeks no reward but itself... 

Saturday, June 06, 2020
 
"Thus, for instance, when you are to write to your friend, grammar will tell you what to write; but whether you are to write to your friend at all, or no, grammar will not tell you. Thus music, with regard to tunes; but whether it be proper or improper, at any particular time, to sing or play, music will not tell you.

What will tell, then?
That which contemplates both itself and all other things."
~ The Discourses of Epictetus, Book 1

Tuesday, June 02, 2020
 
I have been pondering over the question of 'personal' vs. 'impersonal' relationships. I am a bit wary of getting personal or friendly with people because I will then have to worry too much about outward appearances…or maintaining perception. When a relationship is on a purely transactional level, say you're a colleague or a housemate, you can be more direct, honest, straightforward... basically focus on the content. The trouble is that most relationships, like that of a housemate or colleague, if they extend over a period of time in close proximity, have a scope of flowing into the personal zone. This means that you cannot not care about the appearance or perception aspect or how the appearance of what you say may affect the other party. It's like once you know your audience well you can't help think about how your words might affect them; it's natural that you would think about the form or the perception of what you say as much as the content.

It seems to me, maybe because of my culture, I veer on the side of personalising relationships rather than not even though by way of my natural personality I am more of a content than appearance person or I believe in being direct, honest, straightforward etc. rather than diplomacy and superficiality (can’t do small talk for example). I guess to me where the personal aspect comes in is in the mutual regard or deeper affinity that I discover with a person rather than with a regard for appearances. What I'm trying to say is that even if I see the relationship in personal terms or even if I see the housemate or colleague as a friend, I would still want to retain honesty, straightforwardness etc. as the foundation of the relationship...rather than let appearances dictate my conduct with them. But, I find this sort of balance tough to maintain because people are inclined toward seeing the personal more as ‘nice and polite’ as opposed to ‘honest and direct’. Invariably I start to tiptoe around rather than hitting the point...worry more about how the communication will be received than what needs to be said...I become inauthentic so to speak.

Which might be one of the reasons I am quite wary of personalisation or friendships. I prefer the authenticity I can maintain in impersonal relationships to the inauthenticity I am forced into in personal relationships. If I get a sense that a potential relationship is likely to drag me into inauthenticity I don’t let it flow into the personal (which might make people see me as immune to personal feeling but that’s actually the opposite of the case!). In fact, I want to take the risk of personalisation only if I feel that there is some sort of deeper affinity or we cherish the same values of honesty and forthrightness or that I can be myself or be authentic without risking the relationship. It would be very precious to have something like that. But so rare…

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
 
I did promise to say something more on the topic of the post before the previous one… but something happened to take my mind in a different direction. What I had to say is best said after sharing the following excerpt; it happens that I have shared this excerpt before on this blog but I focused on a very different aspect then…so it seems quite apt to share it again.

"I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.”

~ Leo Tolstoy's Diary, 1897, excerpt from Victor Shklovsky’s ‘Art as Technique'

It seems to me that if moments that are lived unconsciously are as if they had never been, then moments that have never been but are made conscious in the mind would be as if they actually were. These would be our contemplative worlds or worlds of imagination buoyed up on literature or philosophy or any of the arts… they give us the sensation of intense living even when our physical lives may be routine or fairly unconscious. Such lives I would say are not as if they had never been… because they are very much lived consciously though on a different plane. What defines living then does not relate to material reality but to consciousness… as Tolstoy himself hints.

Thursday, May 21, 2020
 

I have been here before
This exact moment
This moment of asking
Not begging or pleading
But feeling
Like reaching out
Come to my aid
Be there for me
I need you
In this dark hour
Just a nudge
On my back
Or a reassuring
Pat 

It will be okay
We will get through this
Together
You will say
Count on me
I have seen you
Toil and worry
Put your blood and sweat
All you've got
In your labours
I will stand by you
See you through
Take no heed
Of the mountain ahead
You have it in you 

But these words never come
Nothing even close
I have been here
Disillusioned
Disappointed
Familiar territory
Not even empty words
Or superficial gestures
Instead
Just a laugh
Or snigger 

You know what
You are on your own
How presumptuous
You are
To expect more
Have you not learnt
Anything
From those moments
Gone before
Gather yourself
Stand up
Don't ask. Don't beg
Don't make a case
It's all on you 

I have been here, yes
I will get through
All on my own
Because
I always do...

~Me