If I Lived Then

In the 2006 biopic Amazing Grace, my favorite monologue takes place in a scene where the movie’s hero, William Wilberforce, is compelling an elite class of society to come face to face with the horrid reality of slavery. During a lunch cruise, the luxurious reception is interrupted by the ship’s pause next to a less lavish ship called the Madagascar. It is a slave ship.

“Remember that smell,” on the putrid smell of death emanating from the ship, “Remember the Madagascar. Remember, that God made men equal.”

My recent blog posts, starting from A Child of All Nations, Human Strudel, and the three-part series on the Story of Complex People (Part I, II, III), are spawned from personal reflections on recent reading and watching materials. They comprise of historical accounts and biographies circa World War II, the Bosnian War of the early 90’s, and stories of war survivors. I need to process the information and answer the questions, “What have I learned from history?” and “How am I to live now that I’ve learned these things?”

In this historical journey, I encountered incredible accounts of human resilience, the inconceivable horror of torture, and humanity’s amazing capacity of both good and evil. In war situations, reality and ethics are thwarted. People who previously mingle together can quickly become hostile to each other once they are convinced that their subgroup is superior to the other. Everybody is a victim of war, no matter which side one belongs to.

The end of Wilberforce’s monologue in that movie scene emerges as the silver thread: God made men equal.

It seems to me that at the root of many ethnic conflicts, wars, and massacres, is the attitude that says, “I am better than you.” The thought may seem innocuous at first, but translated in situations where entire societies are swayed by convincing propaganda, it can easily turn into “I am better than you, therefore I can exist, and you don’t have to.” Our love for vanity and (group) pride cannot be underestimated.

It is easy to be distant and judgmental of the great evil recorded in historical books: “I cannot believe how evil these people are.” But what guarantees us that we would not act the same way given the same situation, living in the same cage of manufactured hatred by the prevailing powers? I’d like to think that I would stand for the tortured if I lived during Nazi Germany. I’d like to think I’d champion Wilberforce’s cause to abolish slave trade in Britain if I lived in the early 1800s. But what guarantees that I would indeed be such a person given the social pressure of the time?

If I don’t have human compassion right now, there is no guarantee that I wouldn’t be part of humanity’s evil in any part of history. What I can do right now, as a 21st century global citizen, is to abolish any notion that “I am better than you” due to socio-economic status, race, education, or any social strata we have manufactured for ourselves. I need to cultivate that human compassion by seeing each person with respect and dignity. Then maybe, if I was thrown into complicated situations, I would actually have the moral backbone to stand for fellow mankind, no matter what race, religion, level of education, social status, or any group they belong to.

The antidote of many great wars and conflicts lies in the simple, but profound, powerful statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because my neighbor and me are equal. The phrase is said often, perhaps too lightly. But it carries with it such power that can counter and prevent much evil. And isn’t it fitting, that those who should first and foremost live by this statement are the same ones who say it the most?

A Child of All Nations

A Child of All Nations

Stolen from a book title by my favorite Indonesian author, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the title of this blog post captures the essence of what I consider my life personal statement, to be a child of all nations. I consider the entire world as a classroom and every culture a teacher. Since I have not had the privilege of traveling to very many places, books are my gateway to the world. I fight against the pull of insularity, with its ease and comfort, and I consider those who intentionally cross national and cultural barriers to widen their perspective as heroes.

My modern-day hero in this regard is Rory Stewart, a British author and Member of Parliament, who walked across Afghanistan in early 2002 and recorded his journey in the book Places in Between. He has also written two other books about his year working in Iraq and his analysis on political interventions in conflict regions, which are both on my reading list.

What I love about Places in Between is that it’s written in a factual way, detailing the day-to-day events during his journey without much commentary or analysis of the individuals and society he encountered. He meets individuals who are devious, truly honest, and a thousand shades in between, but he never passes a character judgment categorically on the entire society: the Afghans are such and such.

I firmly believe that in cross-cultural experiences, one should first and foremost take the position of an observer, and use wonder rather than critical thinking as the foundation of the encounter. Respecting the other culture’s dignity is paramount. Questions should be motivated by curiosity rather than criticism, and one should wait a great, great while before coming to a conclusion about a group of people and saying “The [insert nation/people] are [insert quality].” In fact, I dare say that kind statement is never true.

In this day and age, I find the sentiments that one location, society, or nation is emphatically superior to another really bothersome, including the times I find myself subscribing to such sentiments. To live is to ever learn, to stretch the boundaries of one’s experience, and to marvel at the complexity that is our human experience.

*A book I’m currently reading, which I’ll review soon, prompts this rather abstract entry, even though I’ve always held the aforementioned views. This entry also marks the beginning of me delving deeper into another side interest of mine: international affairs and women issues.

**Update (06/30/2012): Please find the review of the book I mentioned here.