Surviving In This Very Moment…

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Archive for the tag “World War II”

Private Ryan’s Question

Private Ryan's Question

Private Ryan’s Question

Just the other day I saw again the movie Saving Private Ryan. Near the end of the film Captain Miller, dying from a gunshot wound, tells Private Ryan, “Earn it.” At the end of the film we are returned to the beginning where the old man and his family are visiting the military cemetery above the beaches at Normandy. The old man turns out to be Private Ryan. Kneeling at Captain Miller’s grave he turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’m a good man; that I’ve lived a good life.” While this question tugs at the emotions of the audience, I believe we are left with more questions than answers at the close of this film.

It would seem that Private Ryan carried a great deal of guilt for having survived when his savior dies. The question he asks is rhetorical, requiring no answer, unless, of course, Private Ryan’s life was anything but good. The fact that he had to ask this question of his wife, a person who would likely not tell him the truth if his life had been less than good, makes the question all the more absurd. One knows whether one has lived an ethical life, a life in which one fulfills one’s obligation to the other before thinking of oneself. One knows whether his or her life was earned rather than given simply by the measure of regret one has as time passes.

As I look back on my own life I am satisfied with my contributions to the world in which I live. I have no regrets and were I to drop dead in this very moment I would traverse into the unknown happy, joyous and free. This is not to say that I would do everything exactly the same if I were given the chance to do things over again; to the contrary, each mistake proved to be a tool for change. I learned, sometimes the hard way, that doing the same thing over and over expecting different results did not work for me. Learn from the mistakes, do things differently and one need not ask the question that Private Ryan asked in the end. He would simply know the answer so the question would be left unasked.

In war, as in life in general, events are random yet predictable through applied probabilities. If something can happen it will happen, we just don’t know when or to whom. One can calculate the odds in war as to how many people will die as a result of battles waged as well as how many will survive. While the probabilities do not say exactly which people will live and which will die, in the end the numbers are accurate. The fact that Captain Miller dies and Private Ryan lives to return to Normandy those many years later is a result of randomness and does not suggest any purpose in the two instances, rather, it confirms the very nature of the odds of survival. It is something like this quote from “Nuke” LaLoosh. “This [baseball] is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

The point is, if you have to ask whether or not you have lived a good life, if you are a good person, chances are the answer is no. Private Ryan asked the wrong question and the audience is left without a resolution.

Of God Who Comes to Mind

Emmanuel Levinas© Photographed by Bracha Ettinger

Emmanuel Levinas (Photo credit: Bracha Ettinger)

As my readers know, I have been influenced by the writing of Emmanuel Levinas. I recently re-read one of his more important works, Of God Who Comes to Mind, a powerful phenomenological analysis of the very idea of God and the impact that God has on rational thought. Levinas begins chapter 1 as follows:

Ideology usurps the appearances of science, but the statement of its concept ruins the credit of morality.

To some extent, Levinas was commenting on his experience with the Nazis in World War II. In a more prophetic tone, he could easily be commenting on the rise of the Christian evangelical movement in which the work of science is dismissed in favor of some Bronze Age textual mythical material. In another sense, Levinas is commenting on the very notion of totalization, the reduction of difference into the same, the self into the same, the homogenization of society into a plain white gruel where one does exactly as one is told, where war is peace and love is hate.

To explain the world only in terms of ancient textual mythological material is to undermine the rationality of science. It is to somehow privilege mythology over observable data, to privilege ideology in favor of analysis. This privilege effectively places barriers to the admission of facts as evidence therein creating generations of ignorance. A bumper sticker I once saw said it quite well: “God said it, I believe it, That settles it.” In truth, that settles nothing. If God said that the sky is green in some arbitrary text it would not make the sky green (unless, perhaps, you were looking at the Northern Lights under certain circumstances).

Does this mean, however, that faith, belief in a power greater than oneself, always and for certain is ideological? I think not. It is perfectly reasonable to believe in something without requiring that something to be absolutely correct in areas of knowledge outside of its own limited sphere of influence. To rely on a single source is, as journalists will tell you, a recipe for disaster. One may, and quite often does, look to spirituality to find answers to ineffable questions. In non-theistic ‘religious’ practice, Buddhism for example, transitioning into silence through proper meditative practice proves to be a powerful resource for peace and tranquility. Here there is no triumphalist need to be “right” at the expense of all other possibilities for seeking and finding inner peace.

It is when ideology presents itself as absolute truth to the extermination of all other evidence to the contrary that one must take notice. This is especially true where there exists conflicting “truths.” When the Abrahamic sects of monotheism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, collide the historical record reveals nothing if not hatred and mistrust often breaking into armed conflict. Perhaps it is a trait of monotheism in particular for where polytheism is found it is generally accepting of other polytheistic cults seeking integration not destruction, assimilation not annihilation. The claim that my god is somehow better than your god has the clear ring of ideology where the ability to merge my gods and your gods has a quality of integration that allows for an open discourse.

Ideology, in usurping the whole-cloth of science, cannot make the claim to be scientific for long. To be a true believer means that one rejects the whole idea of science (rationality) in favor of revelation (dogma). Of course, when rationality and dogma merge, one may experience the horrors of the mid-twentieth century in Germany where entire groups of people, especially Jews, were targeted for extermination based on a dogmatic vision of a raving lunatic. One can also recall the marriage of rationality and dogma in Stalinist Russia where the paranoid visions of one man led to the death of something like 20-million people carried out with a bureaucratic precision to rival that of Nazi Germany (see Zygmunt Bauman).

In my own lived-experience I seek integration of self and other, not through reducing the self into the same but by embracing the differences between self and the other in order to better understand my relationship with the approaching infinity. I recently read a quip, perhaps on Facebook: “Life is a terminal illness!” Taken together with the Mark Twain response when being asked if he feared death he said, “Young man, I was dead for billions of years before I was born and it seems to have done me no harm,” I try to avoid, as best I can, that which separates us while celebrating those very differences as the joyful and interesting reason for living in the first place.

Thanks to my recent good news, I plan on being able to celebrate that life for many years to come. I can now add to my own diversity the simple fact that I am a cancer survivor, a fact that provides additional openings for service.

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