Archive for September, 2008

September 28, 2008

principles

It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them.

Alfred Adler

People seem to forget this all the time. Most think that they will consistently stick to whatever they believe is right. This is, up to one point, true – it’s easy to stick to principles when they are not being tested. However, when life becomes complicated and throws you something unexpected which is, in a way, a test of how much you really believe in your principles, most people give in to the pressure – here in Serbia, for instance, we all know stories of cops trying to bribe a driver who passed the red light (instead of writing a big fine, he takes a smaller amount and doesn’t write the ticket), and we wail about the corruption of the police. But I know of an equal number of stories of drivers who initiate the bribe themselves, so as not to pay the larger fine. We complain about corruption, but when it’s our ass on the line, we often try to wiggle out of responsibility.

Of course, it’s never so black and white. There are some very gray situations, some laws are plain ridiculous… I’ll give a few examples, from student politics, in a future post. But still, I think that the overall picture would improve a lot if people decided where to draw the line and, no matter where that line is, stick to not crossing it.

If sticking to principles was easy, everyone would be doing it. Sticking to principles is hard.

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September 23, 2008

Log 9

Read Chie Nakane’s Japanese Society a couple of days ago and Erich Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion today.
Japanese Society is an excellent read, and what left the strongest impression is the utter rationality with which the Japanese society and the Japanese individual are analyzed. After all the stereotypes of “The Japanese are so mystical and incomprehensible”, it’s a strange feeling to read a book which makes you truly, rationally understand some of the fundamental attributes of Japanese society. Also has several examples from India and the Western world, which makes for some great comparisons of different social dynamics.

Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion is a great read. Basically, He explores the essence of an individual’s search for meaning and happiness and the place of psychoanalysis and religion in this search. The hard (but so true) conclusion is that there’s no easy path or 12-step (or in fact a 1200-step ) program to getting there, but rather what is required is that we, through careful observation of our thoughts and actions, finally realize how misguided the “official” story of how a life should be lived is (in the modern, predominantly capitalist societies, or what he calls “the ‘marketing orientation’ of modern man”); from there, by accepting this method of constant, honest introspection, we should devote ourselves “to the realization of the highest principles of life, those of love and reason, to the aim of becoming what [man] potentially is, a being made in the likeness of God”.

Yes, I know it’s very difficult to paraphrase over a 100 pages of philosophical thought in 2 sentences and show why it shouldn’t be dismissed as hippie-talk (this stereotyping of almost any mention of searching for life’s meaning and brotherly love as some misguided bullshit for naive, misguided flower-children is a whole another story). But what’s in this book is, for the most part, very true or very near the truth, and while not offering an easy solution (since there isn’t one), it gives some good pointers to what’s not good with today’s world – and after reading it I feel as if I have a deeper understanding of the workings of today’s capitalist society and the individual trapped in it.

I’ll stop here, because this topic requires a whole new post (or three). Just a last random observation: I’m happy to say that my reading concentration is visibly improving – even though I should now probably be, for various reasons, very emotionally stressed, not only am I mostly successfully overcoming the stress (again, for various reasons), but I’m amazed to notice that my attention while reading was almost constantly on a very high level. There were several moments when I had to go back and read a sentence 10 times, like trying to start an old car, until the words started registering in my head, but my motivation never wavered and I always regained my attention. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.

September 18, 2008

When companies don’t want your money

“Hi, is this [company which makes recycled poo-scooping bags]?”

“yes, how can I help you?”

“I would like to buy some of your recycled bags, so I’m wondering how much are they?”

“you would like to buy what?”

“er.. recycled bags. Which you make.”

“We don’t sell them.”

“Wait, aren’t you [company name]? I saw your phone number on the bin in the park, the one with the bags for scooping dog poo.”

“Oh, those bags. Right, yes, we have them (I dread to ask what other bags or strange artifacts they could possibly have so that she is this confused), but we only sell them in large quantities”

“Well, I’d really like to buy them. How much would I have to buy?”

(smiles nervously) “well… er… around… a thousand”

“Ok, great! So how much is that?”

“er, I don’t know…”

“… What?”

“I’m going to have to check. Can I get your phone number, and I’ll call you with the info, ok?”

“… Sure… no problem…”

(3 days and 0 phone calls later I call them)

“Ah, sorry for not calling you. I still wasn’t able to find out the price for the bags. Our boss is out of town, so we’ll know the price from Monday when he’s back.”

Right. This is exactly the moment to revert to that meme and simply give up. I, possibly the first person to have called the company, am offering them money for the things which they sell. I want to buy their stuff. However, I can’t, because they don’t know the prices of the products which they sell.

However, I’m very glad that I don’t have even the slightest drop in my motivation for doing this thing. I’ve made a firm, rational decision and the rest is simply going to happen. If they can’t sell me their bags, I will find some other recycled paper bags. Or ordinary paper bags. Or whatever. My dog’s poo will be scooped.

But it still boggles me. She was confused when I called. I mean, why put your number on all the bins then? Who are you expecting to call you, your mom?

I have almost too many examples like this one, but as I said, there’s no point in letting them get to me. However, I am thinking about what can be further done to make the other person understand the absurdity of the situation. Another example:

I went to a certain clothes shop because someone told me that there’s a fire sale going on there. As shopping for clothes so far has been a very rare and mysterious, nay, mystical occurrence for me, and I’ve lost some weight recently, I’ve more or less ended up without almost anything to wear for the winter. So, possibly for the first time in my life I’m eager to go and buy clothes (I will not say “shopping”. Shopping is for metrosexuals).

I enter the shop and, since I’m not sure that I’m in the right place, I ask the guy who works there: “Sorry, is there a fire sale going on here?” He simply says: “no.”

I go out, confused. Yes, I know I’m lost when it comes to knowing the locations of stores with clothing, but this is the only clothes shop in the street, and it fits the very specific description. I call my friend, and she confirms that this is the place.

I go back in, go up to the third floor and I find that most of men’s clothing is on a big discount, sometimes up to 50%. So, I was misinformed, it wasn’t a fire sale, it was just a big sale.

Is that guy who works there demented? Again, I, the eager customer who really wants to give them money i.e. his prime target, am asking him if there’s a fire sale. Instead of saying something like “Well, we do a really great sale with huge discounts, so it’s the same thing really.”, he simply says “no”. Lying to me would have been better. He should have said yes, and I would have gone up there and I wouldn’t know the difference between a fire sale and a “regular” sale.

So I want to tell him all of this, but, of course, a part of me is screaming: “Is there any semblance of a point in telling him?!?”.

How can you influence such people? How do you show them why it’s important to always strive being better in what you’re doing, whether it’s sports, science or selling clothes?

I guess I’m coming back to my new meme, which more or less is: “Shut up and behave the way you sincerely believe people should behave, and some day they’ll behave like you.”

But I’m afraid it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that.

September 17, 2008

dog shit and responsibility

One of the easiest ways for me to start a conversation with the taxi driver is to comment on the weather, which is quite often bad (either too hot or too cold) and at times completely unpredictable (too hot, then suddenly too cold). I always do that with the following sentence (very loosely translated, so it looses the punch it has in Serbian) “Our weather is just like (i.e. as bad as) our country.” They never fail to smile and agree with me, for most people here share the more or less same view:

Serbia is a country where things just don’t work.

It’s a big meme here, really. Whether you’re standing for hours in a long queue, arguing with the clerk at the post office, paying ridiculous amounts for essential every-day food & necessities (a pair of Nike sneakers which is $40 in America is around $160 here) or watching the politicians throwing black-magic-ish curses at their opponents (I’m not kidding), you’re bound to sigh disappointedly and say something like the following: “I’m not surprised in the least; it’s just the sort of thing to expect in a country like Serbia”.

Now there are people who are really struggling to survive, working long hours for minimal wages (the average salary here is officially around 400 euros (a bit more than $600) per month, which in itself is insufficient for anything resembling a  normal life, and in reality a lot of people are working for as low as half of that). I feel that I have no right to say anything about their being frustrated, because I am lucky to be in a way better financial situation than them.

However, what does tick me off is that this meme has become a sort of a national, general excuse for avoiding all kinds of responsibility: “When everything’s falling apart, why should I play fair and, say, not use my connections to enroll my kid in this high-school or university? Or not scream irritably at someone in the queue, because they would also scream at me?” In addition, we almost enjoy looking at ourselves as the victims, as if there’s something cool about living in a country which always seems to be not so much on the verge of breakdown as generally half-broken.

I think the worst part is that we apply the same way of thinking to things which depend almost solely on our own behavior. For instance, recently in parks they’ve put a few containers with recycled paper-bags for scooping your dog’s number two. I’ve rarely seen anyone use it, and I myself never got around to using it. It took a sense of shame, after having some lady on the street criticize me for not picking it up, to get me thinking. Yes, I don’t want to step on a piece of dog shit, or see children catch some disease or something. Yes, I know there’s practically no effort or time required for doing it. But why then haven’t I seen almost anyone use the bags? Ok, so I’ve heard that they are used more often in another park, so whether or not that’s true, let me rephrase the question: Why hadn’t I, the person whose main interests and activities revolve around motivating and teaching people how to basically be better, more responsible persons, started using them?

Thinking about it, I came back to that meme: It’s simply easier to not change your behavior when it seems that no one else is changing their own. And since there’s no law requiring us to clean our dogs’ mess, and thus no fine for misbehavior, there’s even less incentive to try to scoop. If anyone asked me why I’m not scooping, I think that I wouldn’t even try thinking of a good excuse – I’d simply revert to the meme.

This is something which depends solely on one’s personal beliefs and behavior. However, through behaving in a certain way, we also set a new standard toward which others may aspire. From simple things like scooping dog poo we can slowly move toward more complex and difficult ones, and slowly, step by step, we can increase the overall “average level” of responsibility that each one of us has.

So, I decided not to wait for a law, more public shame or something else to influence me to change my behavior. I’ve decided to start cleaning up shit, both my dog’s and my own.  It’s time to put some effort into becoming a more responsible citizen and setting a positive example for other people, because I feel that these things are something that our country desperately needs. Some things are changed by laws and some are a consequence of a strong economy, but, as I said, there are also things which rely solely on our own sense of responsibility. Our country may not be as economically developed or as well-organized as some other countries, but I’ll be damned if our citizens can’t be as personally responsible as theirs.

September 3, 2008

Log 8

Did some 7 hours of studying today. Burned out around 18:30.

Yesterday I did 8h, not 10h of reading. Just needed to correct that. My arithmetical powers are astounding.

The more I study the more I see how much it’s about perspective – yes, I hate the way the book is written, but the subject it covers are so interesting, there are moments when I can even ignore the writing and suck in the essence, the idea of the text. I feel there really must be a good solution to making this study thing more pleasurable.

So, tomorrow I’ll try to really turn off my emotions. When I see stuff which makes no sense or is factually wrong (such as the Mongols somehow influencing the creation of theatre in 6th-9th century China, even though there is no such thing as a unified Mongol state until early 12th century), I will ignore it or laugh at it and happily move on. Yes, it will be difficult, but I will try. It’s not like I have other options – sulking is a very expensive one.

Also, even though I’m going to bed at 11 pm and getting 8 hours of sleep for the past several days, in a row, which I last remember doing when I was entering high-school, I feel quite tired mentally at the end of the day. I know I probably sound like I just discovered how to flush, but hey, I’m being honest here.

September 3, 2008

attention and determination

I’m trying to find a root to my lack of attention, but apart from what I mentioned in the previous post, I can’t really pinpoint it to some big insight or something grand like that. I guess the answer really is simple – I never actively tried to correct this problem and develop my attention, and so far the situation hasn’t been so unbearable to make me change it. Well, since I don’t want That guy to be right again, I’m going to try and correct this. I’m simply going to have to try and pay attention when I should. Yes, it’s very unglamorous, but at the same time it’s possibly the best solution there is.

As for the consequences of this ADDD (Attention deficit day-dreaming) … they go deeper than I expected.

Being lost in thought means that you also spend a lot of time thinking about stuff. This has some great benefits, but it also means that I easily end up unnecessarily overanalyzing things, which I think long-term has given me a big disadvantage – it has undermined my resoluteness to act. More often than not I would let a situation take me somewhere I originally didn’t want to go, but my big mouth would in some way rationalize it. After years of this behavior only absorbed only half of the lesson – I have learned to accept unexpected events, plunge into uncertainties and learn from the experiences, but I still haven’t learned to consistently act with resoluteness when I really decide I should.

This is certainly connected to another part of my personality – my openness. With several friends I share practically everything going on in my life, no matter how personal it is. This need to share, however, is exactly that – a need. Whenever something happens in my life, I want to almost immediately talk about it with someone. I need to share it, to take in the other person’s reaction, to laugh with them or be angry or sad or whatever it is we should feel about it.

This is another reason why I think that for a long time I have lacked resoluteness – having had to share everything with my friends, I have lost my own confidence in my own opinions; the sort of confidence which makes you act once you decide what you should do. I have let other people judge the value of most of the things happening in my life.

So, this also has to change. I’ve thought about it (ironically) and it came to this: I don’t want to neither wait for a sudden difficult situation to make me change my ways, nor simply throw myself into one. Instead, I am making a conscious choice:

Some months ago I have decided what I want to do in the next 12 months. One thing is an experimental language-learning workshop. Another is creating an environment in my faculty which will foster student activism and cooperation both outside and within the classrooms.  There are some other smaller and important tasks, but these are the two big things which will take up most of my life until next June. They are things which I sincerely want to do and to do them right, I will have to become way more responsible, organized and disciplined than I am now.

This will also require me to whip both my resoluteness and my attention into shape, and I think that this is how it should be done – by becoming aware of your flaw and realizing how much your life will truly benefit from fixing it (I am avoiding the opposite sort of motivation, because I feel that if I’m telling myself how bad my life will remain if I don’t fix something, I’m only two steps away from waiting for my life to really become that bad to make me change myself, and that’s a clear victory for That guy. Some might say this is simply a glass is half-full/half-empty sort of perspective shift. Obviously I disagree with this, but I think there’s no point in elaborating even more – I should first wait and see what it feels like to actively fix yourself, and succeed).

September 2, 2008

Log 7

Sooo many things to write about.

First of all, I’m a bit annoyed that I didn’t sit down and write for the past… wow, almost 3 weeks? Ok, I’ve had a certain amazing person enter my life and sort of occupy my thoughts for most of my day, but this brings me to the following ironic moment: I am regularly inspired by that person to do stuff and improve myself, and more things in general are happening every day which are begging me to digest them in my head and write them down, but at the same time I’m forgetting or postponing, or whatever, to actually write them down. I’m letting my oh-so-frequent lost-in-space mode take me over even more.

Which is one thing which occupied my attention these days, culminating with today’s discovery: After spending most of the day reading for my exam, I’ve managed to pin down probably one of my biggest problems – my general lack of attention.

I am completely to blame. Studying wise, high-school was a joke, and in university it was never intense enough to make me have to study over a prolonged period of time. Frequently when I’m told to do something, such as go to a certain place in a certain street to do a certain thing (or if you want a recent example, take urine sample to doctor X in street Y), I would sort of listen to the instruction and then remember maybe 2 of the 3 parts of it. Or less. When I’m doing very responsible work, such as teaching in workshops, I would have to ask for instructions several times before they sink in.

Basically, I never actively trained myself to pay real attention for a prolonged period of time. This became very obvious today after several hours of reading. I literally had the following conversation with the brat in my head:

“I don’t wanna read this bullshit! I wanna do something else!”

“No. You have to study for your exam. Exaaaaam. Say it. Slowly.”

“No! This book is written awfully and he’s giving me information which is obviously wrong!”

“You’re not repeating after me. Exaaaaaaaaam”

“But I don’t wanna read this! I wanna, I wanna… do something else! Like, like, surf the internet!”

“Yes. Doing what? Reading things? Which is how exactly different from this?”

– ” … Fuck you.”

In any case, I prevailed over the brat and did a total of 10 hours of reading. And it felt good. There were moments when I expected to become tired and instead I would become even more lucid then before. I did sort of burn out in the end, which was to be expected after 10 hours, but in general I’m glad with the way it all went.

I’ll finish the post here, because I want to take it in a direction which requires a lot more thought and I want to keep these posts relatively short. So, tomorrow I’m going to explore how this attention deficit of mine influenced me negatively as a person and how I might change that.

I’ll say it quietly: it’s time I really try and live up to the name of this blog.