October 17, 2005

Philosophy Beneath a Tree

I sit here in Dupont Circle on a brilliant fall afternoon. The sounds of the neighborhood reverberate in the background intermixing with the splashing water of the fountain. Beauty in all its manifestations converges on this point. From the businessman in gray checking his blackberry, to the homeless man sleeping near the chess tables, each person adds to the brilliance of this clear day. The ground glimmers from my spot beneath the tree as sunlight streams through the rustling leaves above. People pass by lost in the peculiar thoughts of their existence. Life finds its steady parade marching apace.

And so my thoughts on this day turn toward life and its reflection in this place. Life has its moments of gleaming splendor—its blue skies of fortune shining down. It also yields periods of immobilizing despair when you sleep life away, yearning for brighter days. Life has its ironies like the chess games nearby. Perhaps some of our most brilliant minds languish in this park, bereft of meaning, playing a game that does not matter. A true, disingenuous cynic would say that life is a game. We play the game and manipulate individuals in our lives like pawns on a chess board. And then we wipe them from our sphere of existence when we are done with them or have managed to triumph over them. In this way, we gain control over our existence and add meaning to our lives though the experience is arbitrary.

The problem of such an existentialist mind is that it presses for far more than it can actually apprehend. It is sheer hubris to reduce life to a game and assume that man can provide any sort of meaning to his lot. Even the early pioneer of existentialist thought, Nietzsche, went insane in his attempt. Any self-constructed meaning, upon intimate reflection, is destined to be rendered meaningless because it is arbitrary on a fundamental level. The meaning we give ourselves becomes depressing because its source comes from us. Meaning must be obtained extrinsic to the self. Otherwise, it is akin to giving oneself a present. The gift is not valued because the recipient is also the giver. It is empty.

And so people live within this paradox of modernity. Our culture seeks liberation in putting to rest the ailing vestiges of a God it has long dismissed as dead. It seeks meaning in the self, which brings the arbitrary into centrality, thereby sacrificing the very essence of meaning in the process. We question definitions and truth because we scorn both. And in the end our lives are met with a malcontent we have created for ourselves.

The solution to the existentialist paradox is to reject the arbitrary within its claims. Yet, to reject the arbitrary is to reject the philosophy itself. Given the dissatisfying nature of the existentialist mind, it is, perhaps, a wise sacrifice. To be sure, this is not an inconsequential step. There is no greater fear to the modern mind than certainty.

September 11, 2005

9-11-01: Four Years Remembered

Four years ago, life as we knew it changed. As a member of the class of 9/11, I can vividly remember the preparations I was making for my freshman year at Dartmouth and the Outing Club Trip which was to introduce me to campus. I had packed my bags and made all the necessary preparations for my departure when on a clear September morning the world shook.

I was schedule to meet a very good buddy from high school at Denny’s early that morning for breakfast when I received word at a gas station en route that a plane had hit the first tower. While listening to the radio on my drive over to Denny’s I learned of the second plane and the coordinated terrorist attack. My mind did not quite process the attack. Nor did I realize its implications for the United States and the World. I only knew that many people were in danger and many lives were surely lost.

When Chris arrived at Denny’s, late as usual, we decided to forgo our final breakfast and watch as history unfurled at his home on the east side of Lawton. By the time we clicked on the TV, we were just in time to watch the towers fall. We saw the smoke billowing in the distance of the cameras and witnessed, like so many Americans, the teary, stunned expression of New Yorkers filing out of downtown Manhattan. Later we heard about bombings at the Pentagon, which turned out to be American Airlines Flight 77 and we learned of the evacuation of the United States Capitol.

I left Chris’s house that morning in disbelief. It was difficult to fathom the fall of such large structures in such a densely populated area. We said prayers for the victims. We prayed for justice.

My departure to Dartmouth was resultantly made with great stress and much worry. I was stressed knowing that I would not be able to participate on my college outing trip as insignificant as it seemed, and I was worried for my life and the fear of another terrorist attack. Even so, I mustered some bravery and left the first day the airports opened. I arrived in the dead of night to the chill of a New Hampshire September. I had only the vague notion of what college entailed. I had no conception of how the institution of Dartmouth College would affect my life. And I had no idea what was in store for me during my four years there.

I was forever introduced to Dartmouth in a vastly different way than most students were. I arrived numb and this numbness set the tenor for much of my college career. I never took the DOC trip I missed. I never hiked the mountains of New Hampshire while I was there. Instead, my journey to Dartmouth began in the ashes of the World Trade Center and it ended on a similarly radiant morning in June of this year.

Looking back, so much of life has changed in these four years. Even as I have grown old and changed so too has our Nation, her citizens, and our culture. September 11, 2001 rocked the paradigm of academia. It altered the course of history. It influenced film and music. It radically changed the world political climate, setting a deep division between Western Civilization and its Muslim counterpart in the east. In many ways, 9/11 set a new standard of difficulty for the world and its future survival. It has pitted the forces of freedom loving people against those tired vestiges of fundamentalism and theocratic rule.

In all of these forces, change is the only constant. Yet, we Americans are a resilient people. If there is one thing Americans do well it is change. We change jobs. We relocate. We move our families where opportunity is greatest. We build. We re-build. We change our living habits. We change churches. We re-examine our values. Indeed, we have embraced change from the very inception of our country. We left the comfort of a well developed Europe for the unknown, Great, and New World. We take risks. We seek challenge. To say the very least we are gutsy.

Americans can adapt to change because we are a people of change. And we are all the stronger for it. Though the terrorists sought to deal a blow to the American Spirit, we have responded with strength, determination and vigor and the state of our Union is strong.

May God bless the families who are suffering today from painful memories—memories far more painful than my trivial introduction to college.

And, most of all, may God continue to watch over our blessed Land.

January 19, 2005

Modern Slavery

In a compelling show of magnanimity, one which I seldom see in the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a follow-up to his article of a year ago by revisiting two slaves he purchased from a Cambodian brothel.

On the surface, this article seems very crass. It is untenable to think that that a journalist would actually purchase two sex slaves from a pimp in order to write a story on their struggles post-slavery. But this story is different. Far from aggrandizing his own efforts, Kristof actually steps into the lives of the individuals he liberated and invests his resources (both journalistic and monetary) in their betterment.

This is really the substance of the article. Kristof does what many of us espouse a need to do—love others. He actually viewed a need and attempted to meet it. As terrible as the prostitution industry is, a much greater tragedy is that society holds scorn and contempt for those trapped from within its chains. The righteous indignation held by many Christians and Westerners in particular seems to overlook the point that we ought to love and care for these individuals. It makes me think, to quote the classic In His Steps, “what would Jesus do?” Would he see a need and ignore it? Would he condemn the prostitute for her actions? While he would certainly disapprove of them, his first instinct—and we see this many times in the Word—was to love. It’s interesting that we can stand to learn a great deal from a liberal reporter in a publication which espouses very few of the principles Christ taught.

Further, it is no small amount of irony that a reporter from the New York Times would communicate this message so clearly through his actions. I'm sure that Kristof will receive bad publicity for the good deed he has done. He will probably be criticized for investigating the struggles in the first place. In my view, Kristof did the right thing. He put into action love of humanity in a very real and powerful way. Perhaps his article will be a historical turning point in exposing the power and cultural elite to the very real problems of the developing world? If not, at the very least, two people are better off because Mr. Kristof cared. That makes his efforts worth while.
© Pax Plena
Maira Gall