Saturday, September 15, 2012

What Does Compassion Mean?



1     

What does compassion mean? Its dictionary meaning is: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. 1 A more concise definition: a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. 2

Human beings are social animals. We laugh at humour, frown at one sided criticism, and cry at agonies, of ours and others. In funeral, we gather together, hugging and reminiscing the memory of the departed. In a birthday party of a friend or family, our genuine cheers, claps and singing the chorus with others wishing a happy birthday lighten the mood of the birthday boy or the girl. In a wedding we celebrate the beginning of a marital life of a couple with hearty gestures and smile. When our favorite sports team win a vital game, soccer, cricket, football, or any other thrilling sports, we jump up and down and scream with the loudest and shrillest voice of ours, as if without our shriek and shout, the game is not complete. And when the same team loses in a lopsided or nail biting close game, we mourn the loss as our own personal loss.

Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason behind compassion. In 1871, father of evolutionary science, Darwin considered sympathy as the strongest of humans’ evolved instincts, stating that “sympathy will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best”.

Unlike Darwin, some scientists found compassion as part of evolutionary process perplexing. For many, natural selection process supposed to be super selfish, so the idea that the evolution prefers compassion over antipathy or hatred, by helping others without the slightest gain to the self, seemed not possible. However, the story of life, from antiquity to presence retells the assertion of Darwin, reaffirming wise words written in books of forgotten time.

Being emotional is part of humanity, and is perhaps the same in wider living world. Our heart starts pulsating with vibrant rhythm of joy seeing our loved one’s smile and happiness. Tears flow out of our eyes watching a dying beloved struggling with pain and last breaths. So helpless we feel facing the never changing human condition, mortality and extinction.

Human emotion, its swinging, ups and downs are documented and studied many years. Like unbounded kindness that humanity can bestow toward fellow beings in the time of their grief and misfortune, cunning exploiters use the same raw emotions for the purpose of selfish gains. Though the method and demeanor of exploitation may vary from time to time, if one studies the patterns available in recent and historical events, it may become clear that the repetitious arrangement and executions of inciting hatred and violence have no other end goal except to continue the anti-evolutionary cycle of creating meaningless strife.


2  

Nations and states had gone through wars and conflicts from the earliest recorded time of humanity. Slowly, humanity started realizing the steep human and economic cost associated with violence. Societies became more open. Previously frowned upon freedom of speech became the bedrock of progressive and successful nations. Suppression and curtailments of thoughts, ideas and writings that might not conform with the conventional wisdom of the day became less frequent, and in present world almost non-existent in prosperous nations.

And why not? The more free and democratic a nation is, the more progress it can make attaining economic gain by allowing more collaborative and cooperative environment where no ideas, thoughts, writings, movies are blocked or censored. Yes, there are disgusting and reprehensible ideas that the exploiters may try to use to string and pull the gullible fools for their mostly short term selfish goals. However, the wondrous natural selection process, evolution has a way to root out the plunderers and violence seekers and inciters.

To build trusts and more cooperation, nations exchange emissaries and ambassadors, for mutual benefits, as these diplomatic careerists play positive role sharing the goodness of their respective nations with each other. Protecting these diplomats, even in the time of volatile emotions, is the fundamental basis of humanity’s progress from blind savagery of ancient time.

3     

Compassion means benevolent response to other’s sufferings. A suffering can arise from deaths of loved ones, or dehumanizing any group of humanity or their beloved creed. There will always be exploiters who will probe, test and execute devious plans of incitement, to stoke more anger and distrusts among nations. There will always be misguided ones who will try to blame one vulnerable group for the nation’s or the world’s collective trouble. And there will be compassionate ones, who will be able to see through murky smokescreen to decipher the badly crafted fiction from a changing and albeit progressive reality.

A compassionate response is a necessity and a must in the face of growling fib.


References
  1.        Compassion definition in online Dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/compassion
  2.        Compassion definition in online Merriam-Webster dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion




Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Michelle Obama's Speech at Democratic National Convention



This is one of the best speeches I have heard in a long time. The urgency in Michelle Obama's tone and the simple connections that she made with her anecdotal stories from her and President Obama's life, did not feel like I was listening to a political speech. 

True that economy is still not recovered for millions of many (mostly because of Obama's predecessor's squandering from wars and tax mishap), and  there are other unresolved domestic and international issues, however, comparing to 8 previous years, from 2001 to 2008, of dismally darkened ages of constant fear, suppression, tortures and many "casualties of wars", and fomenting distrusts among the world populace, Obama administration did take the positive steps in building that proverbial bridges of peace. 

The task is enormous and complex. Wars and violence are still raging in some parts of our world, and in some instances I would like US to take more bold leadership roles in cooperation with other regional allies, for example, stopping the bloodshed in Syria. But overall, the war in Iraq that was started in blatant deceptive notion, ended, the hated Bin Laden was killed, and the war in Afghanistan will possibly end in a few years time. On domestic front, the equal pay bill, protecting American auto industry, reversing the hundreds of thousands of job loss every month, and creating millions of jobs in last 29 months are good signs indeed. I hope all these positive outcomes in last four years will rouse the American voters to reelect the correct choice of this time.

Following are the excerpts from Michelle Obama's speech from tonight:
"You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn't have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves." 
"...That's how they raised us...that's what we learned from their example.
They simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don't start out with much, if you work hard and do what you're supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids...." 
"That's how they raised us...that's what we learned from their example.
We learned about dignity and decency – that how hard you work matters more than how much you make...that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself." 
"We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters...that you don't take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules...and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square." 
"We learned about gratitude and humility – that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean...and we were taught to value everyone's contribution and treat everyone with respect." 
"Those are the values Barack and I – and so many of you – are trying to pass on to our own children." 
"That's who we are." 
".........If farmers and blacksmiths could win independence from an empire...if immigrants could leave behind everything they knew for a better life on our shores...if women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote...if a generation could defeat a depression, and define greatness for all time...if a young preacher could lift us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream...and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love...then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream. Because in the end, more than anything else, that is the story of this country – the story of unwavering hope grounded in unyielding struggle...."
Read the transcript of this memorable speech in full from the following NPR link: Michelle Obama's Convention Speech 


Monday, September 03, 2012

Solar and State of Fear - Fictions and Global Warming

Recently, I have read two books. First one is Ian McEwan's Solar, and the second one is Michael Crichton's State of Fear. No similarities in overall plot structures or the characters between these two books, but both of them have Global Warming as a part of the main stories.

When Michael Crichton's State of Fear came out in 2004, I almost bought it, however, reading the negative reviews in prominent newspapers and magazines, I decided not to.

This year, while browsing my old reading wish list, I came back to this book again, and this time I decided to give it a try. And I am glad that I did it so. Like Crichton's other fast paced novels I had read many years ago, like Sphere, Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Lost World and Prey, I found State of Fear was an entertaining and quite absorbing read. 798 pages length of this book that includes the main story, and the appendix containing the writer's explanation why he had written this book in a very controversial theme, and also the amount of research he had put into writing it, the bibliography that points toward some of the books that had framed the writer's mind creating the plot, and his globe trotting characters.

Michael Crichton was a writer who knew how to hook any reader from the very first page of his story. Too bad that this great writer died so early in life at the age of 66 in 2008. Like other great writers of past centuries, for example Jules Verne, Michael Crichton's fictions are mind bending, talking about technologies that are possibly far advanced than contemporary technologies. As an ardent observer of science and technologies, I do not believe all the astonishing claims that State of Fear made regarding Global Warming. I also found that the writer was not balanced presenting the two sides of Global Warming debate. His protagonists, Kenner, Morton and others were presented very well informed holding their views that Global Warming, especially, the drastic climate change, is nothing but a hoax, perpetrated by biased scientists and establishment of status quo (politicians, media and lawyers: PML). While the other main characters of this novel who were on the pro side of global warming debate, seemed to be very weak, and not able to match intellectual depths of the global warming deniers.

State of Fear is an entertaining read. A fiction written with plausible speculative fashion, though the graphs and footnotes in the book pointed to a mind of a writer who was himself trying to evaluate all the claims that global warming debates generate every year. For some parts of our world, the idea of global warming does not only reside in nicely plotted charts or graphs. Though I cannot claim with absolute certainty, but the changes in weather pattern, violent storms, receding land areas in coastal regions, point toward changing of global climate.

One surprising aspect of State of Fear is that, it was published on December 7, 2004. And one of the main episodes of the story was related to a massive tsunami. The same year the book was published, in fact only a few weeks after, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred on 26 December. The resulting tsunami from this earthquake was one of the most devastating episode of our lifetime, when close to 280,000 people died in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and 11 other nations.

Michael Crichton's conspiratorial plot seems to me far fetched. Yes, in human history, human beings have shown the lowest of the low depravity and unimaginable cruelty to fellow beings. However, human beings have also learned from history. There are wars and violence, and there will be more local wars and violence, but the global financial dependencies that world's nations have now, possibly is a natural deterrent for any widespread self defeating conspiracy that Michael Crichton has described in his book.

Having said my above argument against the conspiratorial view of State of Fear, I would like to point out to the Appendix of this book, where the writer provided two historical examples that clearly demonstrated the danger from the deadly combination between science and politics. First example was eugenics, that was supported by leading scientists and writers of early 20th century, up to the end of second world war. Here is a graphic quote: "The Germans were admirably progressive. They setup ordinary looking houses where "mental defectives" were brought and interviewed one at a time, before being led into a back room, which was, in fact, a gas chamber. There, they were gassed with carbon monoxide, and their bodies disposed of in a crematorium located on the property. Eventually, this program was expanded into a vast network of concentration camps located near railroad lines, enabling the efficient transport and killing of ten million undesirables."

Michael Crichton gave the above example to point out that the leading scientists of the time was supporting eugenics, though they didn't have any good knowledge of gene or DNA. "The eugenics movement was really a social program masquerading as a scientific one. What drove it was concern about immigration and racism and undesirable people moving into one's neighborhood or country. Once again, vague terminology helped conceal what was really going on." Like the author, I also found it most distressing that the "scientific establishment in both United States and Germany did not mount any sustained protest. Quite the contrary. In Germany scientists quickly fell into line with the program. Modern German researchers have gone back to review Nazi documents from the 1930s" and found "active role scientists themselves played in regard to Nazi race policy where research was aimed at confirming the racial doctrine...no external pressure can be documented."

Though a very controversial subject Michael Crichton used for his State of Fear novel, for which the mainstream scientists agree that there is a serious problem that need urgent global attention and practical actions, the writer reminded in his Appendix note that the past history of human belief is a cautionary tale. "We have killed thousands of our fellow human beings because we believe they had signed a contract with the devil, and had become witches. We still kill more than a thousand people each year for witchcraft. In my view, there is only one hope for humankind to emerge from what Carl Sagan called "the demon-haunted world" of our past. That hope is science. But as Alston Chase put it, "when the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power." That is the danger we face now. And that is why the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination, with a bad history. We must remember the history, and be certain that what we present to the world as knowledge is disinterested and honest."

This is where I found a resemblance in Ian McEwan's novel Solar. In this novel a Nobel prize winning physicist falls into the trap of self deceptions, and outright stealing of his graduate student's research ideas and using it as his own. The idea that this anti-hero protagonist named Michael Beard stole was to devise an artificial photosynthesis process to create cheap renewable energy. The hyperactive selfish genes makes Michael Beard unable to feel any remorse to his wrong deeds, or love toward his beloved. His delusional rationalization of every dishonest action led toward his ultimate collapse, but the troubling part that Ian McEwan showed and strikingly shared with Michael Crichton's State of Fear is that Beard's crimes remained unnoticed by everyone, the court, the law enforcement entities, and even his lovers and ex wives did not have any clue of his wretchedness. It was the aura of his personality and his Nobel prize winning name kept everyone in the dark until the very end.

Ian McEwan's Solar and Michael Crichton's State of Fear are both excellent read as fictions, though one may not agree with all the speculations and sometime overarching tone.