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February 2007

How you look at stuff

At the risk of dancing all over a cliche, or sounding like an annoying motivational speaker, I feel compelled to write about the importance of attitude (or perhaps, more accurately, perspective). 

What matters most in our lives is not circumstance itself, but how we perceive circumstance.  I've noticed, in my life, that it is possible for me to have two nearly identical days in terms of my routine and what happens to me.  One of those days can feel brilliant while the other is drudgery.  The difference depends solely on my thoughts.  Am I lost in the moment or worrying about the future?  Am I appreciating the way things are or worrying about when they might change?  Am I seeing beauty in an old man on a bicycle or lamenting old age itself?  Am I living in fear or living with hope?  Living with regret or celebrating experience?  Thinking about money or thinking about love?  Thinking about a relationship or thinking about chores?  I could certainly provide more examples.

A more complex illustration of this phenomena has to do with friendship or a love relationship.  If one focuses primarily on the bad in a person, it is easy to demonize and run for cover, to play victim, to fall into depression and hopelessness, to destroy a potentially healthy relationship.  Indeed, to look at a relationship through the eyes of negative thought is to take offense with every word or misinterpret and even imagine problems.  Taking this view of a relationship begins a spiral that no amount of conversation, argument, or rationalization will end.  Nothing that the other person can do will penetrate such a dark cave of despair.  The entire relationship then becomes a burden, a source of pain and unhappiness, and a symbol of everything that is wrong in one's life.  In reality, the only thing wrong to begin with was the way of looking at things. 

A negative spiral in a relationship can end in two ways: either the relationship can end or the spiral can end.  In the case of ending a relationship, we fall deeper into our own thought patterns and convince ourselves of our own rationality.  On the other hand, both people can simply decide to stop it...they decide to take a positive view of things and accept each other unconditionally. 

In a healthy relationship, it is necessary to take every word and gesture with its best possible meaning or interpretation; not its worst.  Only then can two people experience the relationship's full potential, allowing it to strengthen their lives and add a new element of happiness.

Still, the idea of "positive-thinking" is enough to make anyone roll their eyes.  That's because we normally conceive of positive-thinking as something that is done through sheer though the achievement of such a state can only be attained by fighting our human nature.  It is interesting that we only talk of human-nature...say that someone is "only human" in the negative sense.  It is every bit as much human nature to find happiness, comfort, contentedness, bliss, beauty in something as it is to find worry, hopelessness, pain, and fear.  So the only question is: what part of one's human nature does one want to celebrate, embrace, and live?  It is actually an easy choice that is as simple as making up one's mind and taking the first step.  The rest of it follows effortlessly.

To make this shift is to take a momentary leap of faith.  That conscious leap ends the destruction of the downward spiral and begins a renewed time of growth, love, passion, and happiness.  Having a friend or loved one who is there waiting for you to take this leap helps, but it is also something that can be done within the invisible realm of one's own mind to impact every aspect of one's life.

Losing someone to the common

The joy of becoming, expressing, living your authentic self comes along with the pain of being misunderstood and misinterpreted.  With respect to the vast majority of the people we encounter, we find ourselves competing so intensely with society's rules, commercialism's rules, or the church's rules...that the words we speak and even the moments we've shared simply cannot pass through the filter of un-thought or fear.

Such is to be expected in a shallow relationship, but causes deep pain and frustration when encountered in a loved one.  I interpret such a misunderstanding as nothing other than a rejection of my being by someone who, perhaps, I overestimated. 

More likely, such a person does, in fact, perceive me or comprehend me at some level...but rather than taking the risk of following me on the path of the authentic, is choosing something safe and numbing...choosing something that is as common as the rest of those folks mindlessly filing into church or pacing the corridors of the local mall. 

The choice to cling to that which is normal and acceptable is simple and boorish...yet easily understood.  It is the choice of the vast majority, the herd.  But when that choice is made by someone who you know has the potential to stand apart, to transcend, to is nonetheless heart-breaking.  Most heart-breaking is that, whether such a decision is a conscious or unconscious rejection of authenticity, any attempt to reach out to that individual with a shred of love, compassion, or joy is met with rejection.  In such a situation, it takes every bit of self-control to fight the desire to respond in kind.  Yet doing so would be to join in the surrender to that same fear, immaturity, and self-doubt which is already showing its weak, sad nature.

What's next?

The modern history of the Slovak Republic, over the past 100 years, has been roughly divided into segments of 20 years. 

The country gained independence from various empires when it combined with the Czechs to form an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918.  This relatively prosperous period was also one in which the Slovaks developed a deep sense of national identity, and was only interrupted with Germany's violent ascent to power. 

From 1948 - 1968, during the initial stage of Communism, Slovaks had a general sense of optimism in many of the benefits brought by the new system.  But as the injustices of Communism became evident, increasing pressure was put on the independent Czechoslovak government to liberalize.  This period was abruptly ended as the Russian tanks rolled into the country in 1968, and occupied it for roughly another 20 years until the system collapsed and a revolution was staged.

Much like today, in the midst of all these periods, there was a general sense among the population that things would remain roughly as they were for an indefinite period.  So today, 18 years after the initiation of Corporate Globalism that has come to rule the country, one has to wonder what changes may await us over the next few years.

And what has this period brought?  Between 1989 and 1994 (I first visited the country in 1993) a general sense of optimism and promise was in the air.  The notion of "freedom" brought with it not just hope, but a deep sense of national identity and tradition.  Freedom had more to do with discovering some authentic notion of identity than with defining identity through material possessions.  Ask any foreigner fortunate enough to have visited during those first years after the fall of Communism, and you can't help but notice the twinkle of fond memories in the eyes.  The term national identity is perhaps a bit esoteric.  I'm talking about a general sense that a culture knows who it is in a more-or-less authentic way.  It is something that is as detectable in a people as it is in a person. 

Year after year I visited, prior to finally moving here, and the changes are difficult to describe but easy to notice.  For my American audience, imagine the changes that occurred between 1950 and today in the USA.  Now imagine that it happened in just 15 years.  In theory, I support the idea of ignoring or even destroying traditions because traditions are oppressive to individual freedom.  In reality, however, one can't help but notice in any of today's liberal cultures (the USA or EU countries) that, in reality, what replaces national traditions is nothing other than hardcore commercialism.  What starts with radicals, poets, musicians is immediately followed by greedy corporations trying to get mind-share or wallet-share.  In 1993's Slovakia, people believed in the vague notion of freedom and that things would get better...but they didn't know exactly how or what this might look like.  Multinational corporations and churches immediately stepped in to tell them and show them what it was to look like, and essentially transformed the "good little communists" to "good little consumers."  In that process, what made life worth living (individual worth, purpose, human connections, art, literature, music, beautiful traditions) were ignored.

So as I look at Slovakia today, I realize that, to a sad extent, the people have forgotten who they are -- both as individual human beings and as Slovaks. 

Yesterday I attended a party in Strazske, a small town in Eastern Slovakia.  While urban life anywhere is completely separate from rural life (even Kosice can be considered urban culturally), it would seem to me that, if traditional culture is to exist anywhere, it would have existed in a place like this.  What I saw, as I took my seat in the corner of the room, were a bunch of individualistic consumers parading into the room.  Many of the women made the mistake of reading magazines like Cosmopolitan or the Slovak equivalent, and then actually believing that they were to take these images of models literally!  Imagine the most extravagant "concept photo" in Cosmo, and then imagine a 30-year-old mother showing up to a small-town party mimicking this!  It was sadly comical.

Then came the "cultural program" (of which I was a part, primarily because I'm considered cool because I'm foreign, of course).  First came the dancers.  Slovakia has a great tradition of hundreds or thousands of unique regional dances to go along with regional costumes and music...all of which is different from other regions but somehow recognizably Slovak.  Still none of that would have been considered interesting enough or cool enough on this night!  What's cool today, apparently, is Irish Folk dancing!  Why on earth would a culture this rich learn and celebrate the dances of another culture which probably isn't even as interesting as its own?  Does it actually arise from a sense of self-doubt, self-loathing, or open-mindedness?

Of course things change.  Cultures are dynamic.  When the older generation dies these cultural relics will merely exist on film or in museums.  Sad, but probably not tragic.  My larger concern is the herd-like consumers who won't think, won't shut up long enough to listen, and don't see anything that isn't commercial. 

My performance last night came just as the party attendees were buying raffle tickets.  I will immodestly admit that I absolutely nailed the performance.  I played a few of my songs and one U2 song as well as (if not better) than I've every played them, feeling and looking completely in control doing it.  The only problem is that about 5 people in the room of 200 were actually listening.  The rest were shouting their ignorant chatter over the music and racing to buy raffle tickets in hopes of winning some beer mugs, a stationary bike, or a ladder.  I had a good time anyway, as though I was playing alone in my living room only for myself and a few friends.  A line in a Bright Eyes song rang true, "I am not singing for you." 

I didn't take this personally, though the few friends and family members who saw what happened seemed to take offense on my behalf when they saw people rudely walking in front of me and yelling across the room as I poured my heart out.  I wasn't really offended, only saddened and disappointed with people in general.  I'm saddened that people have forgotten how to listen to music; to really shut up and listen...savoring it.  Music has become a backdrop to meaningless chatter and mindless tasks.  People have also forgotten how to read anything longer than what could be fit onto a product label (if you are still reading this, you are certainly not the kind of person I'm describing).  And people have forgotten how to not just look around, but to see.  It goes without saying that I fully realize there are millions of acceptions to any of what I'm fact I have chosen to fill my life with a few of these kinds of people.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon I'm describing is certainly not unique to Slovakia.  That's kind of the point.  We have allowed the global cancer that is Corporate Rule to destroy individual happiness, national identity, and even life on earth itself.  This state is unacceptable, and a small but growing number of people around the world are becoming conscious of this.  When we become conscious of these problems in a large enough scale, we will begin the process of conceiving what's next.  This brings me full-circle, wondering if what's next might start in the next few years (following the 20-year pattern).

We were the first to leave the party, bored to tears after the 1-hour raffle and tired, grumpy DJ.  We went to a disco at about 2:30.  I sat with my philosopher sister-in-law, both already drunk and drinking vodka straight, in a disco where a DJ was playing some of the best electronic music I've ever heard...with lighting effects, smoke effects, everything working.  And even here, what wasn't working is that the place was nearly empty with not a person dancing.  I remembered the life energy I felt in that same place back in 1993, even though back then the music wasn't as good, the fashion was laughable, and the effects non-existent..  But back then we didn't really need any of that because human spirit made up for it.  I turned toward my sis-in-law and said to her, "You know what, Slovakia just isn't what it used to be."  She agreed, with no further explanation necessary.

Nonetheless, I convinced my British friend to dance, just the two of us guys.  My self-confidence was definately not lacking, as at some point I found myself pole dancing.  Eventually I made it into bed, and watched the video of my performance on the camcorder...with some of the thoughts I'm now describing creeping into my tired, drunken mind.