#58: Question Everything; But Also Yourself

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

#55: It’s The Uncertainty That Makes Us Worry

Endless nightmares. An obsessive news intake. Stocking up on masks, cleaning materials, emergency groceries, wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, whatnot. Do I have a mask? Have I forgotten it? Dreaming of forgetting a mask? Agitatedly yelling at the news?

These are not normal times. I personally grew up in East Germany; shortage of goods in “super”markets was normal, politicians all lied, freedom was a fiction. But East Germany is over. In the West, supermarkets are supposed to be fully stocked, politicians may be hyperbolic but their truth can be checked, and freedom is the goal of society.

No wonder we are feeling weird, especially in the West. Our social contract, especially our consumer-society contract, is in question. Will we see shortages? Will we see unrest? Will we have enough protection? Will we ever be back to normal?

Suggestion: Youtube has a selection of videos of cats purring. Or whatever gets you in the mood to relax.

There is every reason to feel weird nowadays. Accept it. We are all in it, to different degrees, but basically, we are. Let’s use this time to appreciate what still does give us stability. Hold on tight, but at a distance, and wear your mask.

This too shall pass.

#47: And Soon, For Something Completely Different…

Advance warning: I will dare address topics other than politics soon.

The times being as they are, I felt the need to address what was pressing in the political landscape. I hope I have done as good a job as possible, but seriously, this ended up feeling like homework, not fun. These apparently are not the times to have fun.

But wait, why not? If we cannot responsibly have socially-distanced mask-wearing fun (ok, not when I’m typing alone…), we will completely lose our humanity.

Life is bigger than politics. We know that the virus will not be over soon, and political and social problems are here to stay. But life must go on, and we cannot let the allegedly big problems get in the way of the splendor that life can be. We need to be hopeful also, we need to be allowed to enjoy life, overall, and to embrace other ideas and matters as well.

Thus be not surprised about a change in topic – also, politics will resurface as needed always, sorry. Teaching never stops.

#45: Benefit of the Doubt

It is probably human nature to be tribalistic, to be focused on supporting “your” side or team. This can sometimes limit our ability to cooperate with the “other” side. It also creates a false dichotomy, in which we can think only about two sides to any issue, even though there may be more.

One way to overcome this dangerous divide is to remind ourselves that even if we disagree with someone else, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Division works by painting an extreme difference, between only two choices, one absolutely correct and the other absolutely wrong; and additionally, painting those believing in the first choice as good, and the other as bad or even evil.

Trying to understand someone we do not agree with does not need to endanger our moral compass. It may question our own facts and assumptions – but that is a necessary process. The believe in an either-or, in the dichotomy of good versus evil is in itself the very problem plaguing our society. People are not all good. People are not all bad.

We need to fight against actions that create avoidable suffering, but we need to give people the benefit of the doubt even in those cases where we think that they may be causing harm. People’s motivations can be complex. They may actually mean to do the right thing, even if it ends up being the wrong thing. The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intention” is quite applicable here: in too many cases, people may feel locked into a path that they may feel they have to take, even if it is wrong, even if they know it is wrong. Moral dilemmas are nothing new in human history, and all our literature and culture is full of such stories. Oedipus does everything to avoid killing his father, and yet ends up doing so. Utopian communities have always aimed at building a better world, and always ended up building hell on Earth. People know they need to communicate with each other to fight climate change, but they also need to use the very technology that is contributing to the destruction of our habitat.

If we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we truly listen to the other side, we display strength, not weakness. It is true strength to veer out of your bubble, to try to learn and understand what is alien to us; it is also true strength to change one’s mind if something convinces you that you have been wrong in the past. The longer we live, the more we will find where we have been wrong in the past. This happens all the time, and as much as we – hopefully – give ourselves room for growth, we should give it to others. Not without reason is judgement reserved to the Eternal in all religions.

#42: Be the World You Want It to Be

Unhappiness with the world is abounding right now. There are always things that need improvement, issues that need to be addressed, change to be made.

But most importantly, within yourself lies the power of the future. Not to just create it, but to be it. You seek justice, be just. You seek peace, be peaceful. You seek equity, be equitable. You seek truth, be truthful. You seek love, be loving. You seek understanding, be understanding.

It is easy. It is hard. But it works.

The other way works too. Be obstinate, and obstinacy is the result. Be without respect, and you shall not have any. Be violent, and you will live in a world of violence.

When Kant said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, he also described that if you model a certain behavior, it will be normalized.

You want a better world? I assume you do. Be it. Show it. Now. We cannot wait for heaven, we need to bring heaven to earth right now. Our lives are too short.

#41: Corona Funk

Bigfoot Sighting near Lyons, Oregon

I’m not necessarily a believer in sharing emotions. I consider it emotional blackmail, overwhelming others with my own private feelings, not allowing others a space for critique (for how do you critique someone’s emotions? It would be rude), and also, it really is nobody’s business how I feel. Emotions can be turned into art, that’s what poetry, photography, music, etc. are for.

But I do have to admit, this s-u-c-k-s on some levels. Believe me, I am perfectly happy at home. Love it. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to make a nice home. Some aren’t, and that sucks even more, I understand, I know people whose situation is not ideal at all. Nevertheless, I love being home, but as a choice, not something forced upon me.

The virus situation is real, it is like a bungee ride, you think it’s over, and once you think that, it’s back. If that sounds ridiculous, it may be because I’ve never enjoyed a bungee jump, but also, because it sadly is true. This virus is a tricky one, fools you into being harmless, and then it can gut entire families and communities. Everyone’s trying to either adapt, prepare, or deny, rebel, resist, but whatever venue we choose to air our emotions, I think we all – all human beings, and maybe even some cats, on this entire planet, we all are raging into the night, some more inside than outside, but the rage is there.

We are used to being in control of things. Some more than others, of course, but still – we have gotten used to being able, in principle, to control nature, to a fault. Now we have to give in. It’s embarrassing, infuriating, debilitating, humbling, depressing. Wait for climate change to get worse, and practice your feelings already. You can also hope against hope, which is fine as well.

But let’s just admit it, we probably are all in a Corona Funk. It’s ok. This is not normal. Let’s focus on survival, and let’s do what we can to help this be over soon. For crying out loud…

#26: Coronavirus is a Thief

The Coronavirus is a thief. It is stealing our time, our lives, our present, and attaching an unnerving question mark unto our future.

Wherever you stand on the question of lockdown or not, or on how to live with the virus, we all share the same predicament, even if to different degrees.

This is what stands behind the criticism of the lockdown as well: The fear that our life, even if we save it as bare life, will lack the meaning and the promise it had before the virus arrived. Whatever time we lost, at school, at work, with friends and relatives, cannot be recovered. If you missed falling in love because you did not get to meet that special someone, that will remain missed. Precious moments have already been lost, precious opportunities disappeared, many people’s lives’ work destroyed. Most crucially, thousands of lives have been lost, and are still being lost.

We have learned to hope that life is different now in modern, even post-modern times (whatever that means). We have adjusted, at least in the more affluent countries, to a safety and predictability of life that was – and in many cases still is – the domain only of the most privileged.

Now we are learning, or rather re-learning, the old truth: That the veneer of civilization is very thin. Nature is always stronger. Life (and death) are not abstractions, but concreteness. Loss is permanent, and everywhere.

We need to re-learn to process loss. We also need to rediscover what really provides meaning in life.

#20: Exiled

I grew up in former East Germany, lived through the 1989 Revolution, saw the fall of the wall, transitioned to life in West, or rather, United Germany, fell in love, moved to the US, enjoying a freedom I never thought I would ever be able to enjoy pre-1989.

My transatlantic life was based on the assumption that I would always be able to be present on both continents, keep doing work on both continents, travel, visit family and friends. This very liberating mobility was a dream come true.

Enter Coronavirus. We saw it coming in December, where it was some “mysterious” pneumonia in Wuhan, PRC. I still traveled over Christmas, back and forth. Then, in January, it became clear something serious was happening, and by February, international travel was becoming increasingly not kosher, and by early March, we entered a new reality.

This tiny virus has turned my transatlantic life into an unintended exile. How quickly, life can change, and distances that used to be traversable become impossible to overcome.

Life has gotten smaller, the world has become something much more abstract, less concrete, unreachable. I am sitting in my house, my home away from home, but my original home is out of reach.

I’m doing well otherwise, and I am well aware there are worst fates. But the feeling that you cannot just drive or walk or even fly to go over there is numbing.

Corona takes the crown for reducing this beautiful world to a cruel memory and abstraction. There are now advertisements on television saying that it is ok to be depressed. Really? Street signs, for when I do get out to just look around, from the care, tell me to go home. I understand that there is a new virus out there, that we understand too little, and that far too many people have died already, and more will be dying. We are afraid for a very good reason, and need to be cautious. Certainly.

I can do this. I grew up not being allowed to travel to the “West”, to other continents. This exile may well be temporary, but my time, and that of friends and family is not endless. This is a cruel virus. Make it stop. Certainly, I am not alone in this wish.

This sucks.