Tag Archives: reality

Why Do We Drink?

We get in trouble or at least embarrass ourselves once in a while because of our drinking. Why do we still do it? Ok, it is fun to have a drink or two at a party — it gives you a buzz, loosens your tongue, breaks the ice etc. But most of us go way beyond that. We almost always end up regretting it the next morning. But we still do it.

Alcohol actually tastes bad, and we have to add all kinds of sodas and fruit juices to mask it. It is a depressant, so if we drink it when we are sad, it makes us sadder. It is toxic to our liver, kills our brain cells and makes us do silly things like puke and generally make an ass of ourselves. But, by and large, most people who can get their hands on it, drink it.

I am not talking about alcoholics who have trouble controlling their urges (although I believe most of us are budding alcoholics). I am not even talking about why we start drinking — that could be because of peer pressure, teenage dares, curiosity etc. I’m talking about those of us who continue drinking long after that sweet buzz that alcohol used to give us is history.

I do have a theory why we drink. But I have to warn you — my theory is a bit looney, even by the generous standards of this Unreal Blog. I think we drink because it alters our sense of reality. You see, although we don’t usually articulate it or even consciously know it, we feel that there is something wrong with the physical reality we find ourselves in. It is like a tenuous veil surrounding us that disappears the moment we look at it, but undulates beyond the periphery of our vision giving us fleeing glimpses of its existence in our unguarded moments. Perhaps, if we can let our guard down, may be we can catch it. This vain and unconscious hope is probably behind our doomed attractions toward alcohol and other hallucinants.

Although the veil of reality is tenuous, its grip on us is anything but. Its laws dictate our every movement and action, and literally pull us down and keep us grounded. I think our minds, unwilling to be subjugated to any physical laws, rebel against them. Could this be behind our teenagers’ infatuation with Stephenie Meyer’s vampire stories and Harry Potter’s magic? Isn’t this why we love our superheroes from our childhood days? Do we not actually feel a bit liberated when Neo (The One in Matrix) shows that physical rules don’t apply to him? Why do you think what we worship are the miracles and the supernatural?

Well, may be I am just trying to find philosophical reasons to get sozzled. Honestly, I’m feeling a bit thirsty.

Helen Keller

The story of Helen Keller is the story of the dark reality that traps you in the absence of your senses. It is also an illustration of the role of language in breaking out of that darkness. Born a healthy child on June 27, 1880 in Alabama, Helen Keller was a perfectly happy baby — until the tender age of 19 months, when she was stricken with a strange illness that “they called acute congestion of the stomach and brain.” The terrible illness left her blind and deaf — “closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby,” as she would later write in her autobiography.

Disconnected from the physical world, Helen was trapped in her dark, silent reality (or the lack thereof). She did not even have thoughts or words in her mind, because the tragedy happened before she started talking. She could not learn from her parents like normal children, because she was blind and deaf. There were no special schools at that time for disadvantaged children like her. When she was seven, Helen’s parents contacted Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who was also an educator of the deaf. Through his help, they found Anne Sullivan to tutor Helen. Anne Sullivan had special methods of making hand signs to spell out objects. Sadly, none of these tricks worked with Helen for a few frustrating months. She could not make the connection between the hand movements and the objects. It looked as though Helen would be doomed to her dark reality for ever. Here is how she made the connection and broke free from darkness. (This block quote is from Helen Keller’s autobiography “The Story of my Life,” which was ffirst published in 1903 and is in the public domain according to the US copyright laws.)

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

The mystery of language is at the genesis of reality; it is what sweeps away the dark barriers standing between us and our conscious awareness of reality. It took Helen Keller out of nothingness into a world of reality, and if it is not the Word in “The Word was God,” I will never know what is.

Photo by The Library of Congress

What is the Word?

I know very little about religion. Although my smart-ass comments may appear, once in a while, as profound, I’m really ignorant in matters of theology and religion. After all, I have no formal background in these fields that scholars spend their whole life exploring. So, forgive me if this post comes across as pontificating on something I’d better leave to the scholars; but I cannot help wondering what the Word is. I mean, when they say, “In the beginning, there was the Word,” what exactly is the word?

The verse, John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, is again something people have spent much time researching and pondering over. My cursory search unearthed a couple of lines of thought. These lines were mostly concerned with the accuracy of the translation of the verse from Greek, which was complicated by the lack of “the” or “a” articles in the original language. So the verse could be translated as, for instance, “The Word was the God,” consistent with the monotheist notion of Christianity. Or it could be “The Word was a god,” giving quite a different, perhaps pagan, coloration to the issue.

For obvious (atheistic) reasons, I am not interested in this aspect of the verse, nor in these lines of thought. I found another translation, allegedly more literal, that went like, “When the beginning began, the Word was already there.” This suited my purpose better. Still, what exactly was this Word?

My understanding of this statement is as follows. In the philosophy of language, it can be argued that life, universe and everything exists in language, in thoughts, in your brain. The term “language” as defined here doesn’t just mean the communication tool, it also encompasses your thoughts and ideas. It is the vehicle of your thought process. In the absence of language, you have no thoughts, only animal instincts. You have no conscious awareness, only unthinking reactions to your surroundings. You don’t know that you exist, you don’t know that the world exists. The nothingness that engulfs you in the absence of a language is most poignantly depicted in the inspiring story of Helen Keller, coming up in a few days.

In my view, the “Word” that was there in the beginning is language, the ensemble of your thoughts and ideas, and the thought-processing mechanism. It creates our reality. Before we had language, we had no reality; we had nothing. And John 1:1 is a statement of intention to attribute this world of reality, or the opposite of nothingness, created by language to God. And, to me, this statement is the clearest proof that the saint knew how god was born. Obviously, I am rushing in where angels fear to tread. This view of mine will not be embraced (or even tolerated) by anybody who believes in the theological meaning attached to this text of scripture. And to them, I humbly point out that it is just a view, a mere mortal’s view at that! It probably only goes to show that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose!”

Of Dreams and Memories

I recently watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon), which describes the tragic plight of the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a severe stroke and became “locked-in.” During my research days, I had worked a bit on rehabilitation systems for such locked-in patients, who have normal or near-normal cognitive activities but no motor control. In other words, their fully functional minds are locked in a useless body that affords them no means of communication with the external world. It is the solitary confinement of the highest order.

Locked-in condition is one of my secret fears; not so much for myself, but that someone close to me might have to go through it. My father suffered a stroke and was comatose for a month before he passed away, and I will always wonder whether he was locked-in. Did he feel pain and fear? So I Googled a bit to find out if stroke patients were conscious inside. I couldn’t find anything definitive. Then it occurred to me that perhaps these stroke patients were conscious, but didn’t remember it later on.

That thought brought me to one of my philosophical musings. What does it mean to say that something happened if you cannot remember it? Let’s say you had to go through a lot of pain for whatever reason. But you don’t remember it later. Did you really suffer? It is like a dream that you cannot remember. Did you really dream it?

Memory is an essential ingredient of reality, and of existence — which is probably why they can sell so many digital cameras and camcorders. When memories of good times fade in our busy minds, perhaps we feel bits of our existence melting away. So we take thousands of pictures and videos that we are too busy to look at later on.

But I wonder. When I die, my memories will die with me. Sure, those who are close to me will remember me for a while, but the memories that I hold on to right now, the things I have seen and experienced, will all disappear — like an uncertain dream that someone (perhaps a butterfly) dreamt and forgot. So what does it mean to say that I exist? Isn’t it all a dream?