The Art of Deconstruction

I’ve watched silently, often with annoyance, how it is that so many are considered to be intellectuals for their ability to tear apart someone else’s argument or contribution. The more effective they are at breaking down an opinion that they disagree with, the more revered they are in some circles. That’s the part that I watch silently. The part that fills me with annoyance is when I see that after all that effort, they have nothing of meaning or substance of their own to contribute.

The rest that follow such antics applaud the efforts of those vain ones that love the sound of their own voices as they spew their anger disguised as eloquently articulated arguments filled with nothing more than criticism without purpose. The anger is what fascinates me. Always has. Its origins are so deeply protected that most convince themselves that their anger is a justified response to an oppression or an injustice. But they stop there. They don’t consider why that specific injustice or oppression angers them, nor do they consider why anger is their chosen response to it. Instead, their anger defines their contribution and they garner the respect and admiration from those that are equally angry, or are passively aggressively angry. I suspect the latter group is more despicable than the former because they even lack the conviction to be true to their anger.

Nonetheless, these cycles play out all the time. Often in a public setting, but quietly in a private setting too. It is the private setting that intrigues me most. I find it intriguing because it is where we experience either our power, or our cowardice. When we experience our cowardice, it becomes a priority to judge or criticise the efforts of others to distract attention away from our meekness, hence the deconstruction of the efforts of others to make something of their lives. When we experience our power, our belief in being able to contribute towards the quality of life of others drives us towards contributing towards their efforts to improve their chances of success, because we realise that their success doesn’t threaten our own. But most don’t experience this. Most only see what they think should be done better but rarely (if ever) make an effort to actually do it themselves.

Pointing out what is wrong with the world is easy. I look at the rhetoric and criticism against those that step up and fight the good fight, and most often that rhetoric or criticism finds its roots in a belief that the quoting of divine scriptures elevates the rank of the critic above that of the rank of the activist. This is yet another ploy to appear pious or spiritually awakened while conveniently ignoring the demand of such spirituality to lead by example.

When we have a bone of contention with another, it is not our words in fiery criticism against them that is going to convince them to behave differently. It is our act of sincere and meaningful engagement that will hold any sway over their efforts. Either we will convince them of the benefit of our views, or they will convince us of what we may not have considered about their reality. But without this experiential journey, this side-by-side engagement, the reality of the basis on which we disagree will always remain theoretical and food for the ego, rather than genuine contribution or upliftment of the soul.

Deconstruction is the art of debate, and the art of debate is firmly established in the need to be correct. Debate has never resulted in a sincere pursuit of the truth. That is left to the domain of discussion and contribution. But contribution demands that we offer of ourselves that which we seek to criticise in others. When our opinions define our self-worth, such contribution is far too daunting. Hence the safer path of deconstruction to earn significance from those that are equally frail in their conviction to meaningfully contribute, while the few that appear foolish enough to sacrifice their composure in favour of benefiting others remain a soft target for the whimsical leaders of debate groups.

I have no respect for the argument that points out what is wrong with someone else’s approach, or philosophy, if it isn’t accompanied by a sincere effort to offer guidance and assistance as well. Having an opinion is easy. It means that you don’t have to do anything except blurt out the thoughts that occur to you as you vegetate in front of your keyboard. Having an informed opinion goes one step further because that vegetation was accompanied by some effort towards fact checking or research. However, even that is inexcusable if not accompanied by actual participation in the process of changing the reality, and not just the perception of an issue that weighs others down.

Without willing and sincere engagement, an opinion is simply a fart pretending to be thunder. And global warming has ensured that there is no shortage of hot air to go around.

Finding Balance (Part 2)

I need to step back from my life in order to regain an objective view (if that’s possible) of whether or not I am investing my time, energy, and resources as effectively as possible. Recently I’ve been contemplating how easily distracting it is to be coping well while losing sight of the fact that in coping we end up reacting, rather than owning.

Life happens based on what we perceive as being a priority. As we invest in those priorities, be they people or material outcomes, they increase or decrease in value for us. When we find ourselves enjoying success in any of them, we invest more. If we find a sense of fulfilment or joy in them, we invest more. Eventually, we focus on the success and the outcomes and how that makes us feel, while forgetting to question whether or not the investment is still in line with our original purpose for making the investment. In other words, we end up investing in our ego as the priority, with the original objective becoming a secondary concern.

It’s this cycle that I’m weary of. I pause for brief moments at times, and sometimes I’m caused to pause by health or other events, and in that brief moment I notice how little of my life is firmly in hand. Not from a controlling perspective, but from a deliberate investment perspective. How much of what I do am I doing because it is what I intended or needed to do, versus how much of it is purely because I am responding out of obligation or habit?

Part of the challenge of surrounding yourself with people that either don’t know you as well as they need to (often through no fault of their own but because of how inaccessible certain parts of us are) is that we have less sources of objective but meaningful criticism. This is exacerbated when we find ourselves surrounded by those that are at a life stage that we may have passed, or because they respect or admire us so much that they see no fault. When this becomes the make up of our social circles, be it significant others or professional acquaintances, we risk becoming heroes in our own minds.

The balance that eludes me is that despite being significantly productive by average standards, I am nagged with thoughts that I am not achieving nearly as much as I am capable of doing. The clutter, the noise, the distractions, and even the productive moments are so loosely strung together that the thread is almost invisible. Gaining visibility of that thread that pulls it all together will allow me to determine if its my own thread, or am I just a bead on someone else’s necklace? [That’s a weird analogy but I’m going to leave it there for now].

I need my own string of pearls. Costume jewellery (or junk jewellery as I prefer to call it) is far too easy to acquire and model into designs that are sparkly in appearance but lacking in true value. I need to ensure that the design of my life is in line with my understanding of the higher purpose that I profess to serve. Living responsively pacifies the yearning for movement in life, but it does little for the need for purpose. It’s for this reason that we sometimes find ourselves swamped with responsibility and inclusion, with no shortage of social contribution or familial relations, yet feel empty or unfulfilled.

More than being appreciated, I think we each have a deeper desire for leaving a legacy. That legacy is not materialistic in nature. Materialism satisfies the ego, not the spirit. The legacy has to testify to the improvement of the quality of life of others, or else our existence remains a commodity, or entirely inconsequential. Being inconsequential tears away at souls more often than we realise. It comes disguised as lacking in influence, or waiting for love, or even hoping for specific outcomes that are beyond our realistic reach. When our will to acquire that which remains elusive eventually fades, that’s when the feelings of being inconsequential set in; followed promptly by depression, self-loathing, lack of motivation, and often self-harm (not always with a blade either).

To avoid these pitfalls, I need to take time to step back, to observe and to account for the way in which my life is being expended. I see it as a traditional scale with the weight of my contribution to others on one side, and my extraction of benefit or personal gain on the other. The former must always be heavier, but never so heavy that it bottoms out. If it bottoms out, it means that I have failed to show due appreciation for myself, and for the abilities I have to contribute towards others. It means that I’ve become a martyr rather than a champion, or a pawn rather than a participant. And if the latter is weighed down, it means that I have become self-indulgent, quite possibly seeing others with contempt, ungrateful for what I have or receive, and a liability rather than an asset to society.

The quiet moments are needed for this to re-form to a shape that is wholesome and beneficial without detracting from the reality of my life. The outcome cannot be a dreamy one. It cannot be so superficial or esoteric that it offers little to no tangible value to those around me, or me. Instead, it must be substantial enough to encourage a recalibration of those areas of my life that are excessive in nature, or investment. It must provide a semblance of solace, and a tone that harmonises, without detracting from the responsibility that I have to act under circumstances that are not of my choosing nor of my preference.

Finding that balance, in many ways, embellishes the purpose of life. In fact, without it, there can be no purpose worth pursuing.

In a World of Worries

I often wonder why it seems so difficult to write about the good of the day, as opposed to how easy it is to rant about the bad. Sitting in my corner of the cave, with a window facing the gurgling water from the pond just outside, I’m often focused on the mental fatigue that draws me to that corner while hardly noticing the calming effect of that water and the usual cool breeze that accompanies it.

The moments taken to calm the soul are often forgotten in our distraction from the beauty that calms it. I wonder if the ability to notice the blessing that lifts the burden, rather than sighing at the lifting of the burden reflects the balance with which we meet the day? Are we so focused on what bears down on us that we’ve stopped noticing what makes the struggle worth struggling?

Just trying to shift the focus in writing this post demands more presence of mind than usual. It’s easier to bleed at the keyboard than it is to spill beautiful petals of hope and resilience without the scorn or the rhetoric that accompanies a cynic’s tale no matter how often betrayed. So easily I find myself drawn into the darkness that offers some quiet. The absence of light is not always daunting if the darkness provides reprieve from the demands of the world.

Every curious detail observed in the light by one driven to act demands attention, while every response holds within it the promise of joy or fulfilment. That joy or fulfilment is almost always incomplete if its essence is appreciated by too few. If the purpose of life is to serve a greater good, then what becomes of the fulfilment of that purpose when the greater good rejects such servitude?

Cryptic thoughts are as exhausting as its interpretation. Speaking plainly is an art lost to me while being deliberately vaguely cryptic comes naturally in a world where such sincerity is most often misconstrued as an attack on the ego, rather than appreciated at the value of the beautiful face that it offers.

I’ve seen too often how a good gesture is deliberately distorted so that the recipient is relieved of any compulsion to reciprocate. Those we wish to indulge, or we hope would indulge us, are the ones with whom even bad gestures we’d aim to distort into good ones. Seeing good in the ones we court is easy. It doesn’t require an investment in anything other than what we wish to receive, except where what we wish to gain is fulfilled within, and does not require validation from without. Achieving a state of composure in the face of ingratitude is the greatest gift in a world of worries. It saves us from feeling enslaved by the affirmations of others, while liberating us to enjoy the cryptic details that eludes most everyone else.

Just last week I quoted Einstein to someone. If we can’t explain it simply enough, then we don’t understand it well enough. Perhaps this is telling of my grasp of this world. My struggle to articulate my thoughts reflects the challenges I face in trying to understand the multitudes of why, but comfort is offered when I consider that most shy away from the challenge even before reaching this point.

The inclination to pacify myself relative to the lacking conviction of others threatens to prompt me into a similar space of complacency as those I despise. Perhaps I despise them so much because I am acutely aware of how even now, with this deliberate attempt to express the beauty of the world around me, I find myself consistently drawn towards emphasising everything that’s wrong with it.

I walked on the lawn with bare feet the other day. For a moment my senses were teased and I felt grounded. I gazed around the garden and looked past the sprouting indigenous trees, and instead noticed the chores left unfinished, or new ones that begged for my attention. I walked on and paid little attention to them because the lawn felt so good beneath my feet. In that moment I knew that even the reality of this world and all its worries could not rob me of the fascination of that moment. But no sooner had that thought occurred that I found myself robbing myself of that which the world was unable to take from me.

I know there’s an important point in all this rambling. Perhaps just that knowledge will make this worth sharing, even if the clarity of that point continues to elude me. Everything has an opposing truth, so perhaps this world of worries is simply the wrong side of the coin that too many are distracted by. If the first step towards success lies in acknowledgement, then perhaps this is the glimmer of hope that the realisation of the other side of this coin is the beginning of turning it over.

[There appears to be no comfortable nor logical point at which I feel ready to end this post, so perhaps it is best left unfinished…for now]

The Belly of Delhi

I simply couldn’t resist that play on words for the title. Delhi is famous for giving its visitors the Delhi Belly, which for those who received this gift would tell you that it’s no laughing matter. Like this, so many other aspects about Delhi and India in general leaves me with a sense of conflict. Recognising the effects of the caste system while noting the awkward balance it provides as well. Or seeing the beautiful structures left to ruin from the neglect of complacent or downright lazy hired help, while fending off beggars that rely on irritation and annoyance as a reason for you to part with your rupees just to get rid of them. The overwhelming sense I got though, when visiting Delhi and later Agra, is that it’s a distracted place.

I thought the irritable hooting from the Arab driver behind me at an intersection in Arabia was annoying, but that fast became a cherished memory in the face of the incessant hooting that has become the staple language with which drivers communicate in India. Unfortunately the hooting is needed because road signs, traffic signals, and general rules of the road are merely suggestions for normalcy, but are rarely observed or enforced. At a single intersection I witnessed a driver take a u-turn in front of us while another cut in from the oncoming side, while we cut in front of a third driver that actually had the right of way, all in the space of about 1.5 seconds. In South Africa, someone would have likely been severely injured or killed at that intersection from road rage. But that’s the difference, in a way, between South Africa and India.

When I look on the faces of drivers in South Africa, I see signs of life, mostly in the form of aggression, expectation, entitlement, or sometimes composure. But there is always an expression of emotion, which I interpret as life. In Delhi, the drivers probably make the best poker players ever. Regardless of how reckless the manoeuvre was of the person in front, the most it would solicit is a lotus flower-like twist of the fingers in that universal gesture of WTF. You know, palms facing up while fingers gesture as if unscrewing a lightbulb? So when you see that, you know it was really bad. The rest of the time it’s emotionless as if resigned to the fact that nothing more should be expected. Closer to the important truth in this I believe is the fact that it’s not rules or constraints that determine harmony in society. Those merely dictate an unnatural order. Collective subscription to a set of norms is what fosters the harmony that we all seek. In other words, if everyone collectively subscribes to the same version of chaos, is it really chaos? It stands to reason then that disruption or upheaval in society is caused when norms or standards are imposed on an unwilling audience. Hence your leaders are as you are.

That there is a potential for greatness in Delhi is no less true than the potential for greatness in the most rural villages in South Africa. Unfortunately, too often I find that we’re trying to subscribe to a set of laws that are unnatural, or to be part of a system that is exclusionary by design, but we do so anyway because that is the prevailing perception of success. Such thinking is not what leads to ingenious outcomes. When we subscribe without true conviction or understanding in the underlying purpose, we lose ourselves in favour of the version of us dictated by that system. Stated simply, we forget who we truly are when we focus on meeting expectations rather than living with conviction. Defining our worth based on these external and unnatural systems, usually capitalistic in nature, distracts us from defining who we are as human beings. This is what I see on the faces of so many around me, whether in Delhi or Johannesburg. There is a vacancy of the self, but an abundance of need for acceptance or celebration. In Delhi it’s expressed as complacency in the face of the overwhelming odds that stifle any desire to change it. In Johannesburg, it’s the excessive aggression towards each other which in essence hints at a belief that we are robbing each other of success, rather than a realisation that our collective subscription to a set of governance that erodes our self-worth is why we are so quick to launch the first offensive.

I would never have guessed that the Delhi Belly will come to symbolise the core of what is wrong with the human condition as we experience it today. We all partake in the consumption of things that we believe are needed for our sustenance, but are internally rejecting its origins or composition. Those that know better will subscribe under duress and will be more prone to the effects of such imbalance, while those that expect nothing more assimilate and become more efficient at processing the unpalatable. Such adaption might prove useful in the short term, but it lowers the bar in the long term.

Intolerance to a pervasive vice or imbalance may seem idealistic and naive, but having the courage to recognise a vice as a vice is all that stands between us and the rest of that slippery slope of decay. We’ve become so good at adapting that we’ve given up on idealism or conviction. Those that speak of old school values are shunned as out of touch while those that lack it complain bitterly about the state of the world. Such are the distractions of arrogance. When we assume that the technological advancements of the current generation implies moral superiority over the previous ones, we deny the next generation the benefit of finding a wholesome balance between the two. But just as decay is generational in nature, so too is rebirth. I believe that the human spirit will only tolerate the stench of immorality and imbalance for so long before the innate intolerance for such states drive us towards a resurgence of balance and harmony. The absolutists assume that such a return to old school values implies an abandonment of progress. They’re the ones that are most deluded. They’re the ones that contribute to the excess that we experience as the Delhi Belly.

I see it as being no different to cow hands working the farm and growing immune to the stench of the manure. They only realise what they’ve grown accustomed to if they remove themselves from it for long enough to grow accustomed to more pleasing aromas. And so it is with human beings. We’re collectively obsessed with competing for self enrichment while ignoring the greater purpose for which we exist. That is, the upliftment of those around us which automatically elevates our own condition. But in the absence of trust, we share a mutual contempt instead.

Trinkets of Distraction

As I walked through the ‘sacred relics’ chamber of the Topkapi Palace, I was mesmerised by the melodious recitation of the Qur’an. At first I thought it was a recording because of the consistency of the tone and pitch of the recitation, until I walked past the booth where the reciter set and continued reciting as if there was nothing around him that mattered. It was just him and his recitation of those beautiful verses. But as I walked through those chambers my attention was drawn to the common trend I noticed on so many artefacts. These artefacts comprised of various personal effects of the prophet (peace be upon him), his closest companions, and immediate family. It was a collection of impressively ornate pieces alongside some really rudimentary looking items.

The embellished ones had two dates indicated, whereas all the more simplistic items that included actual garments worn by some of the earliest luminaries of Islam had only a single date. The difference was painfully clear. In its original state, all those items were plain and practical. They weren’t embellished in gemstones, or silver mouldings, nor gold detail. For example, the drinking bowl of the prophet (pbuh) was a regular wooden drinking bowl that he used for water. The second date I noticed confirmed the period during which the silver embellishment on the outside was attached to the bowl. The differences between the two dates were generally 7th century for the original item, and 13th to 17th century for the embellishment.

The 7th Century was when the prophet (pbuh) lived, and the 13th Century was when many recognise the end of the Golden Age of Islam. Whether or not that was a coincidence, I don’t know. But what is striking for me is that it does coincide with a period that marks the eventual slide of the Muslims from being at the forefront of progress across almost every sphere of human development. While my views are largely conjecture (since I lack any inclination to conduct a formal study of the subject) the important point that stands out for me is that the embellished and ritualistic way of life that we see among Muslims today was not evidenced in these early artefacts of the greatest personalities of Islam.

At some point, being so accomplished, we lost our grounding and became obsessed with demonstrating to the world, internal and external to the Islamic empire, the extent of our success. The substance of what we knew or practiced was no longer sufficient. It’s almost blasphemous in my mind.

I find it difficult to process the arrogance that would go along with the decision to take a humble water bowl of the prophet of Islam and turn it into an ornate mantel piece presumably out of love for its owner? Surely such love should be the preservation of the way of life of the prophet himself, rather than to indulge in excess that he specifically and boldly opposed in everything that he did? But this was no longer the case. Even their swords we encrusted in jewels and gold. Why?

I found this disturbing to the point where I worked my way hurriedly through the chambers and left. My longest pause was at the display that contained two simple garments, one that belonged to the daughter of the prophet, and another that belonged to one of his companions (may peace be upon them all). These remained in their original humble states, with visible patchwork where it was mended, and a natural wear from its use. This resonated with me. This reflected the simplicity that epitomises the humility with which they lived, despite having the resources of an empire at their disposal.

Ostentatious displays of religiosity has become the hallmark of many Muslim communities. This is not an echo of the origins of Islam, but rather of its downfall. But this is not a flaw limited to Muslims. Every religion, and every culture I encounter these days has similar failings. The world is full of indulgence and selfish promotion. Even in charity we find ways of promoting ourselves or our businesses. Sincerity comes a distant second place to self-promotion.

The same is true for life in general. We’re so easily distracted by how we’re wanting to be perceived that we spend more time developing that appearance than investing in the substance that makes the real difference in our lives and the lives of those around us. Islam and Muslims are under attack because we’ve largely departed from this path of simplicity and sincerity in our application of Islamic principles and practices. The same is true for those that are more ostentatious than they are sincere. They are also despised by the people that don’t subscribe to such elitism, so it stands to reason that the same would be true for religious zealots. It’s just a pity that those zealots are the ones defining the perception of a way of life that offers immense peace and moderation for a world steeped in self-indulgence and excess.

Personal Space

The concept of personal space is an interesting one. We’re social beings by nature. We have an innate need to be appreciated and acknowledged for our personal contribution or expression in everything. We insist on withdrawing into a personal space when we are convinced that such appreciation or acknowledgement will be replaced by ridicule or rejection. I can’t imagine why anyone would prefer to recede if they have the opportunity to bask in the affection and attention of those that appreciate them endearingly. So it stands to reason that such withdrawal must be motivated by the absence of such an embrace.

It’s a distraction, like so many others that we’re surrounded with. The fear of rejection is established so early in life that we respond from a position of habit without realising that it goes against our innate nature. Our ability to be absorbed or immersed into the being of another underlies our sense of belonging. The less we feel like we belong, the more likely we will be to prefer our own company to the company of others. For this same reason we insist on establishing a personal space that excludes all others, because it also protects us from criticism or rejection about those things that we feel most passionately vulnerable about. Chances are, we include total strangers in those spaces through acquiring what we want, or indulging what we need provided they have no social or emotional attachment to us.

No wonder then that we are more inclined to social networking than social interaction. Face-to-face interactions are fast giving way to impersonal ones. It’s not because of convenience or constraints, but because it’s safer than being there in person. It’s easier to hide our vulnerabilities through a few choice words as a response, than it is to retract an involuntary facial expression. So it makes sense that we are more likely to express ourselves more willingly online with limited traceability to who we are, because to withdraw without repercussions or accountability is so much easier.

Personal space therefore appears to be a contradiction in terms because the need for it signifies an imbalance that makes it a necessity. When faced with overwhelming odds in one area of our lives, we seek balance in another. Most often, that space we can pursue such balance is in the absence of others, since it is the very presence of others that gave rise to the imbalance to begin with. The easy answer is to choose more carefully who you surround yourself with. The reality though is that there are repercussions of excluding the detrimental elements that may outweigh the benefits of righting that balance. Establishing your personal space to recover from that imbalance, even if just for a moment, therefore appears to be a necessary compromise that most are willing to make.