Ushering in the New Year With Immense Gratitude

I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.

This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)

Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

46246762_10161209870105472_4076905810607734784_n

The Bleak and Macabre Art of Francis Bacon

To commemorate Halloween, here are some surreal and often creepy paintings by Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

Although known for his bleak, existentialist worldview — which became more somber and macabre following the suicide of his lover — he was actually quite energetic and charismatic in person, and spent much of his middle age eating, drinking, and gambling in London’s leisurely Soho district.

Source: Wikimedia

Another Ebola Outbreak Speaks to the Cruel Randomness of Birth

An Ebola outbreak has reported in the Congo, and may be spreading to larger cities where it will become more virulent. The horrific disease, which is sometimes known as the death of a thousand cuts, is endemic to the region; only a few years ago, a similar outbreak, this time in West Africa, claims tens of thousands of lives in across three of some of the world’s poorest countries.

I cannot help but contemplate the sheer randomness of the human condition. By a mere accident of birth, millions of people are at risk of dying in one of the most awful ways imaginable. Hundreds of millions more find themselves born in places rife with disease, natural disasters, poverty, and/or political repression.  Continue reading

The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

220px-come_and_see_28poster29

The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

Continue reading

The Cop Who Threw Himself at a Suicide Bomber

Afghanistan’s reputation as a lawless, war-torn place is perhaps surpassed only by its reputation for rampant corruption (which doubtless accounts for the intractability of many of its other problems). Yet millions of Afghans risk their lives everyday in the hopes of creating a better society for themselves and their children, and tens of thousands more have died toward that noble and seemingly distant end.

One of them was 25-year-old Afghan Police Lieutenant Sayed Basam Pacha. He was a hardworking and ambitious cop who despised corruption and the widespread distrust of the country’s security services. He even dreamed of being a high ranking police officer or government minister so as to do more good for his country. He ultimately gave his life in accordance with his noble and virtuous goals.  Continue reading

How Can We Help Those Who Suffer?

I hate feeling powerless to help others through their suffering. I know it seems selfish – after all, said suffering is the bigger issue – but the idea that human misery is indomitable and inevitable, and none of us are really equipped to handle it ourselves or alleviate it for others, is difficult to come to terms with, no matter how prepared one feels.

Stoicism (my instinctive reaction), in its fatalism and detachment, feels too cold and inappropriate; sympathy too inadequate; kind words and reassurances, secular or religious, like empty platitudes.

Perhaps it depends on the preference of the person being consoled or on the nature the situation. Perhaps none of it matters, or maybe what matters is the intention regardless of the effectiveness. Maybe most people are happy just to have someone care and be there, period. I know I do.

I might just be too cynical or defeatist at the moment. I don’t really know.

What are your thoughts?

The Good Life Around the World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental group of 34 mostly developed countries, is seeking out the answer to one of humanity’s most fundamental questions: what makes the good life? Most people across the world would probably answer that it is a combination of things, such as good health, adequate leisure and social time, and a decent income.

Based on these relatively universal assumptions, the OECD’s Better Life Index tries to answer the questions by analyzing the average well being of its member states (plus other nations such as Brazil and Russia) based on 23 factors across eleven dimensions, including health, financial wealth, civic engagement, social support, and work-life balance. Continue reading

Roger Ebert On Kindness And Death

The iconic film critic, who died in 2013, redirected his talented writing from film to public reflections on his own mortality. His thoughts are relevant to any one of us who has ever contemplated the inevitability of our demise and how we come to terms with it, especially within a secular worldview (as Ebert himself prescribed to).

The following excerpt from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir”, courtesy of Salonreads as an ode to the humanist approach to life and death.

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing”. I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.

Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.

Zen Pencils has an excellent and touching comic told through Ebert’s words on kindness. It is well worth giving a look.

Needless to say, as a self-identifying secular humanist, I subscribe to wholeheartedly to the idea that a contemplative, ethical life is the one most worth living. Regardless of one’s theological or metaphysical views about the nature of our universe and our place in it, trying to make the world a better place in any way is a relevant and life-affirming cause. It fills us and others with hope, meaning, and happiness, and allows us to face the prospect of death with greater courage — a life well lived makes death less scary, for we can die knowing that we did the most with our finite time on Earth.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Video: How We Think About Death And Honor Life

It is long been observed that it is not so much death that scares people, but the act of dying. Whereas the moment of our demise is, far as we can tell, painless, the hours, days, or even months leading up to that point can be painful in both a physical and emotional sense.

To that end, palliative care expert and physician BJ Miller leads a powerful TEDTalk that challenges us to think about how we handle those approaching death — namely, by making the medical system less focused on curing diseases and more oriented towards the overall wellness of patients. That means providing more comfort, dignity, and even “play” to the lives of the dying.

The seminar is well worth viewing in its entirety below.

To read a transcript of the above TED Talk, click here.

Given the rapidly growing ranks of the world’s elderly, who will make up the bulk of those requiring palliative care, Miller’s point could not be any more salient. I imagine that as populations around the world continue to age, matters of death and how we ease into it will become more prevalent topics of discussion.

What are your thoughts?