Sunday, October 30, 2005

pragulka v chuzhikh zapogakh (a walk in someone else's shoes)

Knowing now what you know, experiencing what you have experienced, reading what you have read, whether now it amount to great things or insignificant, with your memory fresh of events like the bombings in London, the Twin Towers, and the train in Spain, would you, if encountered by suspicious events, shine or diminish? Would your world end as T.S. Eliot puts it, "not with a bang but a whimper?" If your personal fortitude strong enough to judge even-handedly, you might say yes, but quite possibly no, and either of these answers would be driven by several emotions, among them fear, unsurety, and respect for others, to name a few. Imagine now that you are sitting on a bus, and you see in front of you someone you have never seen before, who looks unlike anyone you have ever seen before. His dress is outlandish, his hair pasted and laquered and chopped. He carries with him a large black indiscrete bag, and is quietly cradling a small electronic device that is unfamiliar, you've never seen before, that infrequently beeps and vibrates. He presses buttons on it and slips it into a pocket on the bag at his feet, and then the strange man bows his head in pensive rest. And this is the point of testing. Perhaps you would sit back and wonder, even after all you've heard on the news, is it worth doing anything to risk disrupting this man's privacy, afraid to be wrong and embarass yourself, and unsure what or who this man is, but supposing he must have a purpose here and now. Or you might take all you know to heart, and from fear of death, from unsurity of the unknown factors, from respect of other people around you, many of whom you know, arrest the man and demand explanation for the electronics, the bag, the suspicious appearance. Does propriety of your actions depend on the outcome or the motive? If in the end, you are justified: the man is evil and a terrorist; are you more correct than if he was not? Or being driven from pure motives, is it right to do something, even if you are not justified in the end?

This happened to me on the bus to my village this week. But I was the suspect, and a man in my village was the hero. Although ignorance and a clouded judgement were determining factors, his motives led him to grab me by the neck because he thought I might blow up the bus. The rest of the bus was instantly in an uproar. "What are you doing?! That's the English teacher! He teaches our little children English in school! Let him go! He's from America! He works here for free and lives in our village! What are you doing? What, do you think he's a terrorist? Hahahaha!" Once he realized his mistake, and I showed him my perfectly normal (harmless) cell phone that was doing so much beeping and vibrating earlier, he apologized, although that didn't relieve much of the tenseness in the atmosphere - at least on my part. He then began asking me lots of questions, and it even progressed to the point, thanks to the sporadic input of the babushkas on the bus, that the man asked if I would meet his daughter and marry her. From terrorist to bridegroom in 15 minutes. That was an interesting ride.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

pocket of evil

"Again, many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society – some particular school, college, regiment or profession where the tone was bad. And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal (“Everyone does it”) and certain others as impracticably virtuous and quixotic. But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our “normal” was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing, and our “quixotic” was taken for granted as the minimum standard of decency. What had seemed to us morbid and fantastic scruples so long as we were in the “pocket” now turned out to be the only moments of sanity we there enjoyed. It is wise to face the possibility that the whole human race (being a small thing in the universe) is, in fact, just such a local pocket of evil – an isolated bad school or regiment inside which minimum decency passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection."
– C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.