Category Archives: Life and Death

Of celebrating life, even in death — this category contains some of my more personal posts.

Rules of Conflicts

In this last post in the rules of the game series, we look at the creative use of the rules in a couple of situations. Rules can be used to create productive and predictable conflicts. One such conflict is in law enforcement, where cops hate defense attorneys — if we are to believe Michael Connelly’s depiction of how things work at LAPD. It is not as if they are really working against each other, although it may look that way. Both of them are working toward implementing a set of rules that will lead to justice for all, while avoiding power concentration and corruption. The best way of doing it happens to be by creating a perpetual conflict, which also happens to be fodder for Connelly’s work.

Another conflict of this kind can be seen in a bank, between the risk taking arm (traders in the front office) and the risk controlling teams (market and credit risk managers in the middle office). The incessant strife between them, in fact, ends up implementing the risk appetite of the bank as decided by the senior management. When the conflict is missing, problems can arise. For a trader, performance is quantified in terms of the profit (and to a lesser degree, its volatility) generated by him. This scheme seems to align the trader’s interests with those of the bank, thus generating a positive feedback loop. As any electrical engineer will tell you, positive feedback leads to instability, while negative feedback (conflict driven modes) leads to stable configurations. The positive feedback results in rogue traders engaging in huge unauthorized trades leading to enormous damages or actual collapses like the Bearings bank in 1995.

We can find other instances of reinforcing feedback generating explosive situations in upper management of large corporates. The high level managers, being board members in multiple corporate entities, keep supporting each other’s insane salary expectations, thus creating an unhealthy positive feedback. If the shareholders, on the other hand, decided the salary packages, their own self-interest of minimizing expenses and increasing the dividend (and the implicit conflict) would have generated a more moderate equilibrium.

The rule of conflict is at work at much larger scales as well. In a democracy, political parties often assume conflicting world views and agendas. Their conflict, ratified through the electoral process, ends up reflecting the median popular view, which is the way it should be. It is when their conflicting views become so hopelessly polarized (as they seem to be in the US politics these days) that we need to worry. Even more of a worry would be when one side of the conflict disappears or gets so thoroughly beaten. In an earlier post, I lamented about just that kind of one-sidedness in the idealogical struggle between capitalism and socialism.

Conflicts are not limited to such large settings or to our corporate life and detective stories. The most common conflict is in the work-life balance that all of us struggle with. The issue is simple — we need to work to make a living, and work harder and longer to make a better living. In order to give the best to our loved ones, we put so much into our work that we end up sacrificing our time with the very loved ones we are supposedly working for. Of course, there is a bit of hypocrisy when most workaholics choose work over life — they do it, not so much for their loved ones, but for a glorification, a justification or a validation of their existence. It is an unknown and unseen angst that is driving them. Getting the elusive work-live conflict right often necessitates an appreciation of that angst, and unconventional choices. At times, in order to win, you have to break the rules of the game.

Life: East vs. West

In the last post we examined life from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Now let’s move on to philosophy. There is an important philosophical difference between the perspectives on life in the East and the West. These views form the backdrop to the rules of life, which shape everything from our familial and societal patterns to our hopes and prayers. How these rules (which depend on where you come from) do it is not merely interesting, but necessary to appreciate in today’s world of global interactions. In one of his lectures, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan made a remark that the basic stance vis-a-vis life (and death) in the West is that life is a good thing to have; it is a gift. Our job is to fill it with as much happiness, accomplishments and glory as possible.

The Eastern view is just the opposite – the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Hinduism, which gave birth to Buddhism, says things like this world and the cycle of life are very difficult (Iha Samsare Bahu Dustare in Bhaja Govindam, for instance). Our job is to ensure that we don’t get too attached to the illusory things that life has to offer, including happiness. When we pray for our dead, we pray that they be relieved of the cycle of life and death. Deliverance is non-existence.

Of course, I am vastly oversimplifying. (Let me rephrase that — this oversimplified version is all I know. I am very ignorant, but I plan to do something about it very soon.) Viewed in the light of these divergent stances against the conundrum of life, we see why westerners place such a premium on personal happiness and glory, while their eastern counterparts tend to be fatalistic and harp on the virtues of self sacrifice and lack of ambition (or its first cousin, greed).

To an ambitious westerner, any chance at an incremental increase in personal happiness (through a divorce and remarriage, for instance) is too good an opportunity to pass up. On the other side of the globe, to one brought up in the Hindu way of life, happiness is just another illusory manifestation not to be tempted by. Those caught in between these two sets of rules of life may find it all very confusing and ultimately frustrating. That too is a macro level pattern regimented by the micro level rules of the game.

Game of Life

We started this series with chess and then moved on to the socio-political topology of a typical corporate landscape. Both could be understood, in some vague and generous sense, in terms of a simple set of rules. If I managed to convince you of that satement, it is thanks to my writing prowess, rather than the logical cohesion of my argument. I am about to extend that shaky logic to the game of life; and you should be wary. But I can at least promise you a good read.

Okay, with that reservation stated and out of the way, let’s approach the problem systematically. My thesis in this series of posts is that the macro-level patterns of a dynamic system (like a chess game, corporate office, or life itself) can be sort of predicted or understood in terms of the rules of engagement in it. In chess, we saw that general pattern of any game (viz. structured beginning, messy mid-game, clean endgame with a win, lose or draw) is what the rules prescribe. In this last post, we are going to deal with life. In a trivial analogy to chess, we can describe the pattern like this: we are all born somewhere and some point in time, we make our play for a few years, and we bow out with varying amount of grace, regardless of how high we soar and how low we sink during our years. But this pattern, though more rigorously followed than our chess pattern, is a bit too trivial. What are the salient features or patterns of human life that we are trying to understand? Human life is so complex with so many aspects of existence and dimensions of interactions among them that we can only hope to understand a limited projection of a couple of its patterns. Let’s choose the pattern of family units first.

The basic set of rules in human life comes from evolutionary biology. As a famous man put it, nothing in biology (or life itself, I would think) makes sense except in the light of evolution. On the other hand, everything from gender politics to nuclear family units makes perfect sense as the expressions of the genetic commands encoded in our DNA, although we may be stretching the hypothesis to fit the facts (which is always possible to do) when we view it that way. Let’s look at the patterns of gender relations in family units, with the preamble that I am a total believer in gender equality, at least, my own brand of it.

Evolutionary biology tells us that the instruction encoded in our genes is very simple — just live a little longer, which is at the root of our instincts for self preservation and reproduction. In the end, this instruction expresses itself as a man’s hidden antipathy toward monogamy and a woman’s overt defense of its virtues. Although this oft-repeated argument can be seen as a feeble attempt at justifying the errant and philandering behavior of man, it has simplicity on its side. It makes sense. The argument goes like this: in order to ensure the continued survival of his genes, a man has to mate with as many partners as possible, as often as possible. On the other hand, given the long gestation period, a woman optimizes the survival chances of her genes by choosing the best possible specimen as her mate and tying him down for undivided attention and for future use. Monogamy indeed is virtuous from her perspective, but too cruel a rule in a man’s view. To the extent that most of the world has now adopted monogamy and the associated nuclear family system as their preferred patterns, we can say that women have won the gender war. Why else would I feel scared to post this article? Weaker sex, indeed!

Evolutionary biology is only one way of looking at life. Another interesting set of rules comes from spiritual and religious philosophy, which we will look at in the next post.

Home No More

I have been called a lot of unflattering things in my life. One of the earlier ones of that series was that I was hard-hearted, which I countered by pointing out that I was perhaps harder on myself than anybody else. Thankfully, my accuser concurred. One of the recent epithets in the same vein is that I’m cold and calculated, and I use my head to think rather than my heart;  I believe it is a fair assessment. Then again, using my head is the only way I know how to think (which, of course, is exactly the sort of cynical comments that earned me the said assessment.)

Continue reading

Ridiculous, Annoying and Embarrassing

Now it is official — we become embarrassing, ridiculous and annoying when our first-born turns thirteen. The best we can hope to do, evidently, is to negotiate a better deal. If we can get our thirteen year old to drop one of the three unflattering epithets, we should count ourselves lucky. We can try, “I may embarrass you a bit, but I do not annoy you and I am certainly not ridiculous!” This apparently was the deal this friend of mine made with his daughter. Now he has to drop her a block away from her school (so that her friends don’t have to see him, duh!), but he smiles the smile of a man who knows he is neither annoying nor ridiculous.

I did a bit worse, I think. “You are not that annoying; you are not always ridiculous and you are not totally embarrassing. Well, not always,” was the best I could get my daughter to concede, giving me a 50% pass grade. My wife fared even worse though. “Oh, she is SOOO ridiculous and always annoys me. Drives me nuts!” making it a miserable 33% fail grade for her. To be fair though, I have to admit that she wasn’t around when I administered the test; her presence may have improved her performance quite a bit.

But seriously, why do our children lose their unquestioning faith in our infallibility the moment they are old enough to think for themselves? I don’t remember such a drastic change in my attitude toward my parents when I turned thirteen. It is not as though I am more fallible than my parents. Well, may be I am, but I don’t think the teenager’s reevaluation of her stance is a commentary on my parenting skills. May be in the current social system of nuclear families, we pay too much attention to our little ones. We see little images of ourselves in them and try to make them as perfect as we possibly can. Perhaps all this well-meaning attention sometimes smothers them so much that they have to rebel at some stage, and point out how ridiculously annoying and embarrassing  our efforts are.

May be my theory doesn’t hold much water — after all, this teenage phase change vis-a-vis parents is a universal phenomenon. And I am sure the degree of nuclear isolation of families and the level of freedom accorded to the kids are not universal. Perhaps all we can do is to tune our own attitude toward the teenagers’ attitude change. Hey, I can laugh with my kids at my ridiculous embarrassments. But I do wish I had been a bit less annoying though…

Everything and Nothing

I once attended a spiritual self-help kind of course. Toward the end of the course, there was this exercise where the teacher would ask the question, “What are you?” Whatever answer the participant came up with, the teacher would tear it apart. For instance, if I said, “I work for a bank as a quantitative finance professional,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s what you do, but what are you?” If I said, “I am Manoj,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s only your name, what are you?” You get the idea. To the extent that it is a hard question to answer, the teacher always gets the upper hand.

Not in my case though. Luckily for me, I was the last one to answer the question, and I had the benefit of seeing how this exercise evolved. Since I had time, I decided to cook up something substantial. So when my turn came, here was my response that pretty much floored the teacher. I said, “I am a little droplet of consciousness so tiny that I’m nothing, yet part of something so big that I’m everything.” As I surmised, she couldn’t very well say, “Yeah, sure, but what are you?” In fact, she could’ve said, “That’s just some serious bullshit, man, what the heck are you?” which is probably what I would’ve done. But my teacher, being the kind and gentle soul she is, decided to thank me gravely and move on.

Now I want to pick up on that theme and point out that there is more to that response than something impressive that I made up that day to sound really cool in front of a bunch of spiritualites. The tininess part is easy. Our station in this universe is so mindbogglingly tiny that a sense of proportion is the one thing we cannot afford to have, if we are to keep our sanity — as Douglas Adams puts it in one of his books. What goes for the physical near-nothingness of our existence in terms of space also applies to the temporal dimension. We exist for a mere fleeing instant when put in the context of any geological or cosmological timescale. So when I called myself a  “little” droplet, I was being kind, if anything.

But being part of something so vast — ah, that is the interesting bit. Physically, there is not an atom in my body that wasn’t part of a star somewhere sometime ago. We are all made up of stardust, from the ashes of dead stars. (Interesting they say from dust to dust and from ashes to ashes, isn’t it?) So, those sappy scenes in sentimental flicks, where the dad points to the star and says, “Your mother is up there sweetheart, watching over you,” have a bit of scientific truth to them. All the particles in my body will end up in a star (a red giant, in our case); the only stretch is that it will take another four and half billion years. But it does mean that the dust will live forever and end up practically everywhere through some supernova explosion, if our current understanding of how it all works is correct (which it is not, in my opinion, but that is another story). This eternal existence of a the purely physical kind is what Schopenhauer tried to draw consolation from, I believe, but it really is no consolation, if you ask me. Nonetheless, we are all part of something much bigger, spatially and temporally – in a purely physical sense.

At a deeper level, my being part of everything comes from the fact that we are both the inside and the outside of things. I know it sounds like I smoked something I wouldn’t like my children to smoke. Let me explain; this will take a few words. You see, when we look at a star, we of course see a star. But what we mean by “see a star” is just that there are some neurons in our brain firing in a particular pattern. We assume that there is a star out there causing some photons to fall on our retina and create neuronal firing, which results in a cognitive model of what we call night sky and stars. We further assume that what we see (night sky and star) is a faithful representation of what is out there. But why should it be? Think of how we hear stuff. When we listen to music, we hear tonality, loudness etc, but these are only cognitive models for the frequency and amplitude of the pressure waves in the air, as we understand sound right now. Frequency and amplitude are very different beasts compared to tonality and loudness — the former are physical causes, the latter are perceptual experiences. Take away the brain, there is no experience, ergo there is no sound — which is the gist of the overused cocktail conundrum of the falling tree in a deserted forest. If you force yourself to think along these lines for a while, you will have to admit that whatever is “out there” as you perceive it is only in your brain as cognitive constructs. Hence my hazy statement about we are both the inside and the outside of things. So, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, we can argue that we are everything — the whole universe and our knowledge of it is all are patterns in our brain. There is nothing else.

Want to go even deeper? Well, the brain itself is part of the reality (which is a cognitive construct) created by the brain. So are the air pressure waves, photons, retina, cognitive neuroscience etc. All convenient models in our brains. That, of course, is an infinite regression, from which there is no escape. It is a logical abyss where we can find no rational foothold to anchor our thoughts and crawl out, which naturally leads to what we call the infinite, the unknowable, the absolute, the eternal — Brahman.

I was, of course, thinking of Brahman ( and the notion that we are all part of that major oneness) when I cooked up that everything-and-nothing response. But it is all the same, isn’t it, whichever way you look at it? Well, may be not; may be it is just that I see it that way. If the only tool you have is a hammer, all the problems in the world look like nails to you. May be I’m just hammering in the metaphysical nails whenever and wherever I get a chance. To me, all schools of thought seem to converge to similar notions. Reminds of that French girl I was trying impress long time ago. I said to her, rather optimistically, “You know, you and I think alike, that’s what I like about you.” She replied, “Well, there is only one way to think, if you think at all. So no big deal!”  Needless to say I didn’t get anywhere with her.

A Parker Pen from Singapore

During the early part of the last century, there was significant migration of Chinese and Indians to Singapore. Most of the migrants of Indian origin were ethnic Tamils, which is why Tamil is an official language here. But some came from my Malayalam-speaking native land of Kerala. Among them was Natarajan who, fifty years later, would share with me his impressions of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army of the forties. Natarajan would, by then, be called the Singapore Grandpa (Singapore Appuppa), and teach me yoga, explaining the mystical aspects of it a bit, saying things like, “A practitioner of yoga, even when he is in a crowd, is not quite a part of it.” I remembered this statement when a friend of mine at work commented that I walked untouched (kind of like Tim Robbins in the Shawshank Redemption) by the corporate hustle and bustle, which, of course, may have been a polite way of calling me lazy.

Anyway, the Singapore Grandpa (a cousin to my paternal grandfather) was quite fond of my father, who was among the first University graduates from that part of Kerala. He got him a Parker pen from Singapore as a graduation gift. Some fifteen years later, this pen would teach me a lesson that is still not fully learned four decades on.

My father was very proud of his pen, its quality and sturdiness, and was bragging to his friends once. “I wouldn’t be able to break it, even if I wanted to!” he said, without noticing his son (yours faithfully), all of four years then with only a limited understanding of hypothetical conditionals of this kind. Next evening, when he came back from work, I was waiting for him at the door, beaming with pride, holding his precious pen thoroughly crushed. “Dad, dad, I did it! I managed to break your pen for you!”

Heart-broken as my father must have been, he didn’t even raise his voice. He asked, “What did you do that for, son?” using the overly affectionate Malayalam word for “son”. I was only too eager to explain. “You said yesterday that you had been trying to break it, but couldn’t. I did it for you!” Rather short on language skills, I was already a bit too long on physics. I had placed the pen near the hinges of a door and used the lever action by closing it to accomplish my mission of crushing it. In fact, I remembered this incident when I was trying to explain to my wife (short on physics) why the door stopper placed close to the hinges was breaking the floor tiles rather than stopping the door.

My father tried to fix his Parker pen with scotch tape (which was called cellophane tape at that time) and rubber bands. Later, he managed to replace the body of the pen although he could never quite fix the leaking ink. I still have the pen, and this enduring lesson in infinite patience.

Two and half years ago, my father passed away. During the ensuing soul-searching, this close friend of mine asked me, “Well, now that you know what it takes, how well do you think you are doing?” I don’t think I am doing that well, for some lessons, even when fully learned, are just too hard to put in practice.

Photo by dailylifeofmojo cc


After being called one of the top 50 philosophy bloggers, I feel almost obliged to write another post on philosophy. This might vex Jat who, while appreciating the post on my first car, was somewhat less than enthusiastic about my deeper thoughts. Also looking askance at my philosophical endeavors would be a badminton buddy of mine who complained that my posts on death scared the bejesus out of him. But, what can I say, I have been listening to a lot of philosophy. I listened to the lectures by Shelly Kagan on just that dreaded topic of death, and by John Searle (again) on the philosophy of mind.

Listening to these lectures filled me with another kind of dread. I realized once again how ignorant I am, and how much there is to know, think and figure out, and how little time is left to do all that. Perhaps this recognition of my ignorance is a sign of growing wisdom, if we can believe Socrates. At least I hope it is.

One thing I had some misconceptions about (or an incomplete understanding of) was this concept of dualism. Growing up in India, I heard a lot about our monistic philosophy called Advaita. The word means not-two, and I understood it as the rejection of the Brahman and Maya distinction. To illustrate it with an example, say you sense something — like you see these words in front of you on your computer screen. Are these words and the computer screen out there really? If I were to somehow generate the neuronal firing patterns that create this sensation in you, you would see these words even if they were not there. This is easy to understand; after all, this is the main thesis of the movie Matrix. So what you see is merely a construct in your brain; it is Maya or part of the Matrix. What is causing the sensory inputs is presumably Brahman. So, to me, Advaita meant trusting only the realness of Brahman while rejecting Maya. Now, after reading a bit more, I’m not sure that was an accurate description at all. Perhaps that is why Ranga criticized me long time ago.

In Western philosophy, there is a different and more obvious kind of dualism. It is the age-old mind-matter distinction. What is mind made of? Most of us think of mind (those who think of it, that is) as a computer program running on our brain. In other words, mind is software, brain is hardware. They are two different kinds of things. After all, we pay separately for hardware (Dell) and software (Microsoft). Since we think of them as two, ours is an inherently dualistic view. Before the time of computers, Descartes thought of this problem and said there was a mental substance and a physical substance. So this view is called Cartesian Dualism. (By the way, Cartesian coordinates in analytic geometry came from Descartes as well — a fact that might enhance our respect for him.) It is a view that has vast ramifications in all branches of philosophy, from metaphysics to theology. It leads to the concepts of spirit and souls, God, afterlife, reincarnation etc., with their inescapable implications on morality.

There are philosophers who reject this notion of Cartesian dualism. John Searle is one of them. They embrace a view that mind is an emergent property of the brain. An emergent property (more fancily called an epiphenomenon) is something that happens incidentally along with the main phenomenon, but is neither the cause nor the effect of it. An emergent property in physics that we are familiar with is temperature, which is a measure of the average velocity of a bunch of molecules. You cannot define temperature unless you have a statistically significant collection of molecules. Searle uses the wetness of water as his example to illustrate emergence of properties. You cannot have a wet water molecule or a dry one, but when you put a lot of water molecules together you get wetness. Similarly, mind emerges from the physical substance of the brain through physical processes. So all the properties that we ascribe to mind are to be explained away as physical interactions. There is only one kind of substance, which is physical. So this monistic philosophy is called physicalism. Physicalism is part of materialism (not to be confused with its current meaning — what we mean by a material girl, for instance).

You know, the trouble with philosophy is that there are so many isms that you lose track of what is going on in this wild jungle of jargonism. If I coined the word unrealism to go with my blog and promoted it as a branch of philosophy, or better yet, a Singaporean school of thought, I’m sure I can make it stick. Or perhaps it is already an accepted domain?

All kidding aside, the view that everything on the mental side of life, such as consciousness, thoughts, ideals etc., is a manifestation of physical interactions (I’m restating the definition of physicalism here, as you can see) enjoys certain currency among contemporary philosophers. Both Kagan and Searle readily accept this view, for example. But this view is in conflict with what the ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle thought. They all believed in some form of continued existence of a mental substance, be it the soul, spirit or whatever. All major religions have some variant of this dualism embedded in their beliefs. (I think Plato’s dualism is of a different kind — a real, imperfect world where we live on the one hand, and an ideal perfect world of forms on the other where the souls and Gods live. More on that later.) After all, God has to be made up of a spiritual “substance” other than a pure physical substance. Or how could he not be subject to the physical laws that we, mere mortals, can comprehend?

Nothing in philosophy is totally disconnected from one another. A fundamental stance such as dualism or monism that you take in dealing with the questions on consciousness, cognition and mind has ramifications in what kind of life you lead (Ethics), how you define reality (Metaphysics), and how you know these things (Epistemology). Through its influence on religions, it may even impact our political power struggles of our troubled times. If you think about it long enough, you can connect the dualist/monist distinction even to aesthetics. After all, Richard Pirsig did just that in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

As they say, if the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails. My tool right now is philosophy, so I see little philosophical nails everywhere.

How to be a Good Parent

Looking back at how I brought up my children (or, how I have been doing it, for they are still children), I have mixed feelings about how good I have been as a parent. Overall, I have been decent, slightly above average, I guess. But I have certainly formed strong opinions about what it means to be a good parent. I want to share my thoughts with my younger readers in the hope that they may find something useful in it.

In most things we do, there is a feedback, and we can use the feedback improve ourselves. For instance, if we do poorly at work, our bonuses and paychecks suffer, and we can, if we want to, work harder or smarter to remedy the situation. In our dealings with our children, the feedback is very subtle or even absent. We have to be very sensitive and observant to catch it. For instance, when my daughter was less than a year old, I noticed that she wouldn’t make eye contact when I came back late from work or when her mother came back from a business trip. To this day, I am not entirely sure that it was an expression of disapproval on her part, or fanciful imagination on mine.

Even when the children are old enough to articulate their thoughts, their feedback is often subtle to non-existent because they don’t know how to judge us, the parents. You see, they have no yardstick, no standards by which to assess our parenting qualities. We are the only parents they will ever have and, for all our follies, it is very hard for them to find any faults with us. So we have to measure up to a much higher standard — our own.

Coupled with this unvoiced feedback is the huge sense of injustice that our little unfairnesses can inflict on our children’s little hearts. As Dickens said in one of his books, small injustices loom large in the small world of a child. (I am sure he put it a lot better; I am paraphrasing.) We have to appreciate the need to be painstakingly and scrupulously fair with our children. I am not talking about being fair between children, but between us and a child. Don’t hold them to rules that you are not willing to live by. These rules can be small — like don’t watch TV while eating. If you like your TV with your dinner, don’t expect the kids to stick to the dining table. They do what we do, not always what we say.

In fact, imitating our habits and mannerisms is part of their charm for us. By nature and nurture, our kids mirror our looks and actions. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror and complain about it, we are often barking up the wrong tree. In order to improve the image, we have to improve ourselves. We have to live up to a high level of integrity and honesty. Nothing else works.

Another essential virtue for a parent is patience. In today’s busy world, with thousands of thoughts and cares and distractions all vying for our attention, it is always a tussle to be, for instance, a good blogger, a good corporate player, a good spouse and, at the same time, a good parent. One way out of this is to dedicate a certain amount of quality time for our parenting Karma. This may be the only practical advice in this post — so pay attention now. Set aside half an hour (or whatever time you can) every day for your little ones. During this time, focus your undivided attention your kids. No TV, no Internet, no phone calls — only you and your kids. If you can do it on a fairly regular basis, your kids will remember you for a long time after you are gone.

Our children are our legacy. They are what we leave behind. And they are, in many ways, our own reflections — our little addition, little pieces of colored glass in the dome of many-colored glass staining the white radiance of eternity. Let’s try to leave behind as perfect a reflection as we can.

Thinking again about all the sermonizing I did in this post, I find that it is not so specific to being a good parent. It is more about being a good person. I guess what they say (in the Zen way of looking at things) is true — how do you paint a perfect painting? Be perfect and then just paint. How to be a good parent? Be good, and then be a parent! Goodness happens in the stillness of perfection and peace where even “bad” things are good. This statement is perhaps mystical enough to wind up this post with.

Death — Last Words

We all have some genetic logic hard-coded in our DNA regarding death and how to face it — and, much more importantly, how to avoid it. One aspect of this genetic logic perplexes me. It is the meekness with which we seem to face the prospect of death, especially violent death. In violent situations, we seem bent on appealing to the assailant’s better nature to let us be. With apologies to those who may find this reference offensive, I’m thinking of the millions of people who marched quietly into the night during the holocaust, for instance. Given that the end result (death) was more or less guaranteed whether they resisted or not, why didn’t they? Why is there such a motto as “resist no evil”? Why the heck not?

Well, I know some of the answers, but let’s stack some cold and possibly inappropriate logic against these vagaries of our genetic logic. If a Bengal tiger attacks you in a forest, your best chance of survival would be to stand up and fight, I would think. It is possible, though not likely, that the tiger might consider you too much trouble and give up on you. I know the tigerologists out there would laugh at me, but I did say “not likely.” Besides, I have read this story of an Indian peasant who managed to save his friend from a tiger by scaring it off with a stick and a lot of noise. My be the peasant was just lucky that the tiger wasn’t too hungry, nonetheless… Anyhoo, I would have thought the genetic logic in our DNA would reflect this kind of fighting spirit which may improve our survival rate. Appealing to the tiger’s better nature would be somewhat less effective, in my opinion.

A similar meekness is apparent, I reckon, in our follow-the-crowd attitude toward many things in life, including our notion of morality, happiness etc. I suspect these notions are perhaps so complex and taxing to fathom that we let our intellectual laziness overtake our desire to know. My own thinking seems to lead to a dark symphony of aimlessness and lack of ethical values. I am desperately trying to find a happy note in it to wind up this series with.

The “trouble” is that most people are moral, ethical and all-round decent folks, despite the existence of death and their knowledge thereof. It is silly to dismiss it as meekness, lack of intellectual effort etc. There must be some other reason. I don’t think I will be able to find this elusive reason before the end of this series. But I have to conclude that “living everyday as your last” definitely doesn’t help. If anything, it has to be our blissful capacity to ignore death that brings about ethical rectitude. Perhaps the other motto of “living in the present moment” is just that — an appeal to ignore the future where death looms.

Death has the effect of rendering our daily existence absurd, as Sisyphus’s work on rocks. It really does make the notion of existence so absurd as to force one to justify why one should live at all. This dangerous line of thinking is something that every philosopher will have to face up to, at some point. Unless he has some answers, it would be wise to keep his thoughts to himself. I didn’t. But then, very few have accused me of the vice of wisdom.