Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Next Phase of Arpinum's Looking Glass

This is the last post for Arpinum’s Looking Glass. After today, this webpage will provide updates on my work as a civic educator – logging those modest attempts to follow in the giant footsteps of Cicero, the sage of Arpinum. Cicero has been an inspirational figure to me because of his political determination to challenge those who sought to amass and abuse power; his philosophical commitment to displace falsehoods by reasoned arguments; and his ethical concern with sharing the lessons on the pursuit of the common good.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Only Because ...

13.7 billion years ago the universe exploded into existence;
4.6 billion years ago a star went supernova in the Milky Way to form our solar system;
2 billion years ago, bacterial activities brought oxygen level up to 21% so that more complex life forms could develop;
65 million years ago, a meteoroid hit earth and wiped out the dinosaurs which had dominated our planet for the previous 160 million years;
35 million years ago, ape-like creatures began to evolve on earth;
250,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens developed their brains and spread out across the world;
During the 13th century my ancestors in China moved south and escaped the slaughter of the invading Mongolians;
In the 1940s during the Japanese occupation of Hongkong, father got away with just a slap in the face after refusing to bow to a Japanese soldier;
In 1959, despite the hospital’s assessment that I would have at best a 50/50 chance of being born alive, I made it;
On 7 July 2005, instead of taking my usual Circle Line train, I was on my way to a meeting in Harrogate when the bomb exploded on that underground train;
… otherwise where would I be now?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

By God, What Do You Mean?

It’s because people mean so many different things by the term ‘God’ that I’m never sure what to say when asked if I believe in God.

If by ‘God’, you mean ‘the totality of existence, of everything that is”, then I’m with Spinoza, God exists.

If by ‘God’, you mean ‘some being who in some way which no one can ever explain played an important part in the universe coming into being and has continued to take an interest in what happens in it’, then I’m not so sure.

If by ‘God’, you mean ‘the owner of that voice which speaks to people, telling them what to do without others ever hearing what is said – including things like “take your son outside and kill him”’, then I’m seriously worried about you.

However, if by ‘God’, you mean ‘an omnipotent and all benevolent being who is not prepared to tolerate what we can all see as the grotesque suffering around us, and who nonetheless allows it to go on’, then no, on that definition, there is no God.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Farewell Marcus

As silence fell in the room, Marcus walked round the carved green stone by the fire and found that it had an opening in its back. He squeezed through it to descend down winding stairs which led him to a cellar resembling the basement of his villa in Arpinum. Ahead of him was the mirror he had run through months before. Should he return home though the memory of his family being slaughtered by his father’s enemies was still painfully fresh on his mind?

Behind him were footsteps coming down the stairs. He hid behind the tall mirror. The voices he could hear were of two men. One said the experiment had failed and it was time to terminate the boy. The other said they should leave him alone and he would fade away anyway with no interest in him. The first one was unwavering in his determination to hunt the boy down so there would a definite end to it. The other one would not allow it and drew out his sword. Fighting broke out.

“Stop!” Marcus cried out. “I know you’re fighting about what to do with me. It’s clear there’s no place for me in this world of yours. For all I’ve tried, I’m no more than a ghost. And I’m tired of being a ghost, seeing so many cold eyes looking straight through me. I have been told that I must continue my journey, but it doesn’t have to be here. I will go and you will have the ending you need.”

The two men, swords by their sides, watched Marcus step across the threshold of the mirror. He disappeared back into his own world. Marcus Cicero grew up to be a vocal defender of the rule of law. Fearlessly, he opposed the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and denounced Mark Anthony for his ruthless ambitions undermining the wellbeing of the republic. He was to be betrayed by the young Augustus and murdered by Mark Anthony’s henchmen.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Oracle of Hope

The murky water into which young Cicero had dived seemed to possess unfathomable depth. As if being drawn down by invisible weights, he sank relentlessly until he reached a mirror lying flat at the bottom. Cautiously he crept into it and found himself in a warm, dry room where a carved green stone as tall as the boy stood by a glowing fire. “You’re wondering what’s happening? Why you’re caught up with one bizarre event after another? And what it all means?”

Marcus nodded, and the voice continued, “you have been chosen to be the agent of the gods, to draw attention to those who threaten our world and kindle a spirit of defiance in the battle against them. The gods are alarmed by the relentless march of tyrants who rob the poor to aggrandise themselves and their rich allies, fanatics who sacrifice the innocent to gratify their perverted sense of righteousness, and charlatans who spread lies to serve their unscrupulous masters.”

“But what can I do?” asked the boy, “I try to explain but nobody ever listens. I’m as powerless as ever in the face of the horrors you speak of. They are everywhere, and there’s nothing I can bring about to stop them. I fear that regardless of what I do, however much I protest, even if the gods are on my side, all the efforts are in the end futile. How long have I been wandering now? For much, if not all, of the time, I’m just on my own. If I were struck down, nobody would even notice.”

“For a long time to come, it is true, you will remain alone. You will have to continue on your journey fraught with mishaps and dangers. And no one will pay any attention to you. But it is written that you will continue with your quest. Let neither the cold neglect nor scorching attacks you face divert you from the true path. Some day, the dream of Arpinum will give strength to hope, and the resistance to the darkness upon us will burn that much brighter."

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Curious Trial

The Judge stared sternly at Marcus. He asked if he had anything to say before sentence was passed. All the boy could muster was that he was an innocent bystander – he neither stole nor damaged anything. “But you didn’t stop the looters,” thundered the Judge, “you are morally weak, you are a pathetic creature who would not stand up for what is RIGHT. Your weakness must be punished, as a reminder to you and as an example to others.”

Looking at the gallery where a large crowd had gathered screaming for the death penalty, the Judge smiled grimly. “The people have a right to expect justice to be carried out on their behalf. They have been wronged and it is my duty to strike back, judicially, to right that wrong. So, based on the power vested in me by an ancient constitution none of you remotely comprehends, I hereby sentence Marcus Tullius Cicero, aged ten, to death by hanging. May God have mercy on you, because we certainly don’t.”

“But I’m innocent”, the boy cried out, “surely you understand that.” That only infuriated the Judge who acidly replied, “How dare you ask for understanding in the middle of a crisis. Now it’s no time for understanding, now we must take decisive action. Only the weak, the liberal-minded, the treacherous ask for understanding. We ask for justice, strength, and resolution. Take this criminal away!”

Back in his cell, Marcus counted out the number of days he had left before his execution. No appeal would be allowed, he had already been told. The Governor, a good friend of the Judge, was running for some even higher political office, and had proudly declared that he was the only man to have the courage to ensure the accused was hung, regardless of the incessant whining about innocence. The boy turned the tap on until water overflowed across the floor. Looking at his gaunt face staring back at him, he dived into the reflection and vanished from the cell.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Owl in Shining Armour

Marcus kept crawling through the narrow underground tunnel. It had been hours. As he was getting more tired, the space got tighter. Before he even realised it, he was well and truly stuck. There was no way for him to extricate himself. As the clock of futility ticked away, he pined for the quick death he could have secured had he stayed behind in his own world. Then tremors swept across him. The ground above shook and cracked open. Cautiously he climbed up to the surface where hundreds, thousands of people were running around, shouting, and throwing stones at buildings.

He was still staring at the chaos when troops appeared and started firing on the rampaging crowds. Civilians were being torn to shreds. Marcus knew not where he should turn when an owl in shining armour appeared to tell him not to worry. It had contacted a friend in the west who promised them his protection. Within minutes the sky was filled with planes dropping bombs on the trigger-happy soldiers, but also from time to time on the civilians in the streets and those hiding in their own home. Bemused by the deadly help it received from its friend, the owl led the boy across the border to a different land.

Here the streets were quieter, but as dusk approached, a large crowd gathered in a public square decrying the injustice they daily faced. Almost immediately tanks arrived and proceeded to kill defenceless people on sight. The owl flew off to speak to its friend in the west, only to return later with the news that since the name of the land they were now in began with an ‘S’ rather than an ‘L’, no help would be forthcoming. As bullets and shells were sprayed around them, the brave owl guided young Cicero to yet another place where there were no soldiers, just civilians smashing shop windows and burning cars. “I’ll leave you now. You should be safe here”, it said, “this belongs to my friend in the west.”

As the owl disappeared into the night, Marcus felt a truncheon crashed into the back of his head. He woke to find himself arrested for rioting and looting. Repeatedly he attempted to explain that he was an innocent bystander, only to be told sternly that an example must be made of him for daring to mix with the unruly elements of society. A man with an expressionless face threw him into a stinking cell. The boy stared out of the barred window, hoping against hope that the owl would come back once more, but he looked in vain.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The River of Venom

Marcus came upon a river and saw people wearing headbands of different colours mingling together. They wore black, white, pink, green and many besides and happily exchanged greetings and gifts. But then to quench their thirst they approached the river to sip its flowing water. The boy noticed a violent change of disposition amongst them. Rapidly, they were attacking anyone not wearing the same colour headband as their own. Vicious punches were thrown, merciless thumping and kicking spread uncontrollably. Some drew weapons on those with no defence against them. The verdant fields turned raging red.

Fearing for his life, Marcus ran along the river up the hill. In the distance he could see half a dozen figures. He desperately hoped that they would be able to help him. They seemed remarkably calm, and it was possible that they could cure the madness downstream or at least offer him temporary sanctuary.

Men and women each wearing a different colour robe stood at the head of the river, pouring bucket after bucket of dark fluid into the water. They explained it was part of their ritual. They could not live without their constant outpouring of hate against people of different colours and traditions. Great stress they laid on their condemnation of violence. They would not have anything to do with those lunatics lower down. Unfortunately they would not have anything to do with the boy either, for they must carry on infusing the river with their vitriol. They had no time for anything else.

Marcus tried to warn them, but they would not listen. The hate-filled zombies were fast approaching. The boy ran to hide behind a tree and witnessed them picking out those wearing robes with colours they despised to unleash their unspeakable fury. The robed figures, proclaiming their detachment from violence to the last, had their lungs flattened and skulls smashed by those who had unwisely consumed the poison released into the river. For young Marcus Tully, there was no escape apart from that deep hole by the tree. He had no choice but to jump into it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Young Cicero's Arrival

It was early summer in the year 96 BC. A ten-year-old child in Arpinum was looking for something his father told him to recover from the basement of their villa. Marcus Tully Cicero didn’t know what he was meant to be searching for. The elder Cicero had actually only sent him there in the hope he might remain unseen by soldiers sent to punish the family. It was the custom for no one, however young or old, to be spared.

Marcus pulled away a large red cloth, uncovering a gleaming mirror. He saw in the reflection a ladder which did not correspond to anything in the space around him. He could hear his father shouting defiantly above. Swords were drawn. Arpinum was guarded by its own loyal troops. Weapons clashed. The scent of death drifted down. One of his father’s trusted servants cried out, “Marcus, go now!”

Into the mirror he ran. Behind him, the basement of his home vanished to be replaced by the image of the dimly lit cavern he now found himself in. Not far ahead of him was the ladder he noticed before. As fast as he could in near darkness he climbed up it until it led him to a bright opening. The sun was overhead, but the air was cool. Cautiously he stepped away from the hole in the ground he had emerged from.

A red squirrel ran up to him and passed him what appeared to be a walnut. It gestured to him to break it open, and he complied by cracking it against a black stone on the ground. In it, he found a crumpled note that simply said, “It’s not too late, if you hurry.” He looked up but the squirrel was nowhere to be found. His quest through the looking glass had begun.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Till Death Do Us Start

We daydream, we look out the window, we procrastinate, we do what we know is a waste of time, and so we continue until the ultimate deadline comes into view. It could be us, or someone we deeply care about, and the emergence of the end of the road blows away our self-delusion. This is it, the realisation finally dawns. We must do what really matters with the time left.

But why throw away the best part of one’s life until it’s too late? Why not make each day one we have to look back on with satisfaction? The most important things are not the ones to be left to the indefinite future, but should be prioritised for the present. Today, what must I achieve before my consciousness extinguishes at the onset of sleep tonight? Have you answered the question yet, and are you acting on it?

It’s curious how so many people who get a narrow escape with a misdiagnosis or a false report slip straight back into a habit of squandering life’s precious opportunities. How much time has each of us really got left to love, be kind, create, complete, protest, craft, nurture potential, overcome injustice? It’s unforgivable to forgo the hours, days to lead a meaningful life because one has once again forgotten the sand is always running out of the hourglass.

Perhaps some of us need a constant reminder. A chess set for those with a taste for Bergmanesque culture; a Brad Pitt poster for those who know the meaning of inescapable blankness having watched him portray death in ‘Meet Joe Black’; a listen to the Righteous Brothers’ ‘Unchained Melody'; or another viewing of Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’. Whatever it is, don’t wait for death before you embrace your life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chuang Tze's Cup of Tea

My old friend, Chuang Tze, came for a visit. Every morning he would brew a peculiar pot of tea which was not like anything ever concocted before in this world. At 8.00am sharp, he would insist we put out a table in the forecourt, and leave a cup on it filled with his unique brew. Day after day, a few people would walk by but no one tried the tea. So I asked Chuang if I should put out a sign inviting people to sample his tea. But he was adamant that I should do nothing of the kind.

This morning I saw him watching intently as an elderly woman came by the front of the house. She looked at the cup of tea, paused for the briefest moment, and continued her journey. Chuang smiled and went off to sleep on the kitchen floor.

Later Chuang rose to pack his things and get ready for the train he would have to catch. I pressed him to explain what his ritual was all about. I was not surprised when he ignored my request, and instead asked me to brew a pot of tea. He said I must put whatever I wanted to into the pot, mix them in a manner of my choosing, and then pour it out carefully into a cup. “Do you want me to drink it?” he asked. “Absolutely not.” I replied. “Then let us leave the tea in the cup.” He then went off to catch his train.

Chuang’s now gone. I tried out another combination, and poured the resultant brew into a cup. The moment I finished pouring, I began contemplating what I would do next time. Chuang never looked back on whether his tea was drunk by anyone. He was only interested in the making.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Assassination of Humpty Dumpty

“Why shouldn’t I draw a precise line between reality and imagination?” asked Humpty Dumpty. There was something very odd about that challenge coming from him, and I tried tactfully to suggest he might care to clarify what he meant by ‘reality’. Instantly, he snapped back, “Reality is what I experience, nothing more, nothing less.”

I turned away from my egg-shaped friend to reflect further on how we got ourselves into this conversation. It is that desire to capture some of those fleeting moments, to record it as distinctly … real. It wasn’t just a fantasy. It happened. Each and everyone of us feels the weight of this finitude closing in on us almost as soon as consciousness transported us to the commencement of our mortal journey. So we want to put a marker down. It’s a kind of a cry for acknowledgement. Please confirm, we are in effect entreating, that we have truly existed.

When I looked around at the lonely figure sitting on the wall outside my study, I felt perhaps he should get his recognition after all. Books, films, songs, cartoons have all featured him, yet his existence is still granted at a level somewhere below that of true reality. But that’s the point, this so-called separation line for these levels is itself unreal. I was attempting to explain that when the phone went.

It was some automated sales pitch about insurance or something, I put the receiver down in muted annoyance. Walking up to the window, I saw a man and a little boy cycling by at speed. I wish they would be careful. There are reckless drivers around these parts. Then it occurred to me. I wasn’t thinking about Humpty Dumpty, and therefore he was no more. He was not to be found anyway. Wiped off the face of reality.

Monday, June 6, 2011

After the Shadow

Let me tell you more about the man who ran past me, nearly knocking me over. But you would only be interested in his obsessive chase after a shadowy figure he swore had been hanging around wherever he went. Day and night, he would point to a distance and claimed someone was staring at him. Running off for hours on end, he would eventually return exhausted with nothing but his conviction that he was getting closer to catching whoever it was he wanted to snare.

The truth is that he had stopped sleeping and eating. The only thing that kept him going was the belief that there was something out there worth him pushing himself one last time. He had lost his job months ago, because his firm could make more money without him – even though he worked hard and had much valuable experience. His family couldn’t take the strain and they fell apart. Next came the eviction notice for his home. Perhaps by revealing who it was who had been watching him in silence, he might end this conspiracy to destroy his life.

Yesterday morning he was seen in a confused state in the city centre. Before anyone offered him any help, he disappeared into an old, disused building. Given the haunted look on his face, it was probable that no one would have approached him anyway. Shouting was heard from the outside. And then, silence.

I can tell you that he went straight to the dark basement. There was something he had tracked there. He ran down one corridor and then another. He had his prey cornered. He had no doubt about it. Into the last room he pounced. Switching on the dim light behind him, he saw clearly at last, there in front of him, a flat lifeless shadow. It belonged not to him, but his former self. He shut the door, and turned the light off.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Two and a Half Existentialists

Charlie Harper may barely add up to a half in the company of Kafka and Camus, but what stimulus he would bring. Just the other day he was noticing that Alan, his younger brother, was losing the will to live because he was no longer driven by the fear of not being able to send his son to college. Having been told that mum was setting up a trust fund for the boy, Alan stopped going to work, but rapidly came to feel that his life had no meaning. So Charlie stepped in and told Alan that he must start paying a hefty rent for staying at his big brother’s house (Alan had previously been kicked out of his home by his ex-wife). And if he should fail to pay on time, Charlie would hit him hard.

Kafka, having smoked a cigar or two with Charlie, would probably sit down and spin out the tale of a man lost on a California beach, desperately trying to work out how he could find his home before the tides would come in and drown him. Staring at meaningless messages in the sand, he would get more and more anxious about the hopelessness of his situation. He would turn to run, but every house on the sea front would look the same. When he finally opened a door, his brother would punch him hard and he would turn into a fresh water fish just before he dropped into the ocean. “That is life”, Kafka would observe.

Shaking his head, Camus would protest. Alan’s life could have no meaning beyond what he would invest in it. If all he could do to get himself up each morning is to fix his mind on something he must do to protect himself, then he was half way dead already. But life could be more. Alan could commit himself to bigger things, caring for other people. Life is not so much like a damn box of chocolates as a potential plague sweeping across the face of the planet. We can give up and perish, or join in solidarity with others and fight valiantly for every moment of cherished existence. “That,” said Camus, “is life”.

To complete the existential demonstration, Charlie Harper would deliver an immaculate proof. Yes, there are people like Jed Bartlet, who would embody the defiant spirit of Camus and dedicate themselves to making the sum of human existence greater than its tiny parts. But for others who cannot be bothered with all this lofty stuff, there is Kafka’s path to total futility – and Charlie led the way by drinking himself into oblivion.