The Hours, the Days, and the Years

The Matrix (1999)

The Hours (2002)

There are no computers and no kung fu fights in “The Hours”; and when people fall out of buildings, they don’t get up again.  And yet, like the denizens of the apocalyptic world of “The Matrix”, many of the characters seem to live in an invisible prison – one they cannot “smell or taste or touch”.  And some of them, like Neo and the other inhabitants of Zion, choose to confront the reality of their world – even if it is unpleasant and dangerous, even if it threatens their very sanity.  Virginia Woolf has no use for the comforting retreat of the suburbs, and precious little patience for the well-intentioned efforts of others to “take care” of her.  She, too, prefers “always to look life in the face, and to know it … to love it, for what it is.”  She is a red-pill person.

But there are many kinds of prisons.  Mental illness – Virginia’s depression, Richard’s schizophrenia – can also be a prison.  Sometimes the only way to exercise your autonomy is to have some say (as Virginia says) in your “own prescription”, just as Neo must choose for himself which pill to take.  (Or like Richard, who simply takes too many pills.)  The choice is in your hands; but once the choice is made, you must live with the consequences.

I live alone, and spend a great deal of time in my own company.  Often, this blog is the only conversation I get during the day.  It’s a strange conversation, the one you and I are having:  we do not meet face to face, and with the exception of a few friends who read my blog, we are probably strangers to each other.  All you know about me is what you read here; and all I know of you is the anonymous statistics collected by SiteMeter.

Sometimes I have a certain feeling – as if something is wrong, it’s not fitting together somehow, and it’s not a problem that’s definable, and it’s not a problem that is fixable.  As if no matter where I go or what I do, I’ll always be surrounded by this invisible membrane that keeps me separated and locked away from the rest of the world, from humanity, from life.  I don’t even know what name to call it; I don’t know if it has a name.

I do know that I can make my own choices.  I do not want anyone making them for me.  I don’t want anyone telling me how to live, or what to read, or what to listen to, or how to think.  I don’t want anyone feeding me pre-digested answers like some kind of processed food.  And I do not want to be stuffed into some kind of mental coccoon and told that it’s for my own good.

We do not get a choice whether or not to die.  That decision is made for us, and in the end, without exception, it will always end the same way.  The choice we do get is whether to face each and every day.  Sometimes it is not an easy choice.  Even the most fortunate among us may inhabit prisons invisible to others.  Freedom from fear does not, alas, bring freedom from suffering.  To choose, consciously, to live each and every day that is given to us – to say, “Today is not the day” – this is the real test of our humanity.

We are at our most when we forget ourselves.  Clarissa is sustained through the difficult years – which seem to go on and on – by her duty to her old lover.  (“When I’m gone,” Richard mockingly reminds her, “you’ll have to think about yourself.”)  Neo can fulfill his mission only after the Oracle convinces him that he is not “the One”, the messiah of Zion.

When Virginia walks into the river, she makes a choice that many of us have contemplated at one time or another.  Perhaps, like many people who make the same choice, she is no longer the master of her own actions.  Do such people sin by this act?  Perhaps that is for the Righteous Judge to decide.  What we do know with a certainty is this:  That just as the actions and kindnesses of others have affected our own lives, so too do we affect the lives of others, even in ways that are hidden from us.  We have the choice to extend and accept such kindnesses – whether in the form of a fancy dinner or a simple cookie – at every moment we draw breath.  By choosing kindness and love, we also choose conflict and suffering; but we choose life.

Originally published 2005 May 6.

The Radical

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam‘ by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Daveed’s book interested me because his journey in some ways paralleled, and in some ways mirrored, my own. And I believe there are also important lessons to be learned about identity, will, and the spread of radical Islam today.

Daveed was born in 1976, into a liberal, secular Jewish family in Ashland, Oregon. They lived at what he describes as “the hippie end of a hippie town” and embraced a spiritual, multicultural ethos. In his activist college days, he became friends with al-Husein Madhany, who would provide Daveed’s introduction to Islam. Before long, Daveed embraced the Muslim faith and converted.

Al-Husein’s mystical, universalistic, Sufi-oriented brand of Islam appealed to Daveed. But as he became more deeply involved in Islam through the Al-Haramain Foundation, he quickly became exposed to a very different side of the faith – one bitterly opposed to the message of people like Al-Husein.

I recommend reading the book to find out how Daveed found his way out of radical Islam, and came to embrace another faith.

I found DGR’s book fascinating on a number of levels, some of them personal. Like Daveed, I’m a convert, but not to Islam or Christianity. Born in suburban New England about half a generation earlier than Daveed, I grew up in a home that, apart from my family’s lack of Jewish roots, sounds similar to Daveed’s in a lot of ways. My parents were nominally Unitarian Universalists, who had broken away from their conservative Christian upbringings and met in a Unitarian church. As a young adult I became interested in Judaism, learning Hebrew and attending Jewish services (first Reform and Conservative, later Orthodox) from my late teens to early twenties. At 25 I had an Orthodox Jewish conversion.

But I want to get back to DGR’s book. Reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam’, I was struck by the way the fanatical Salafi stream of Islam drove out the milder Sufi and Nashqibandi strains – and I was reminded of my friend Michael Totten’s book ‘Where the West Ends‘. Totten traveled throughout eastern Europe and western Asia, along the fault-lines of cultures. He witnessed many things, including the inexorable advance of radical Islam against the moderate forms of the religion. In my review of the book I wrote that

There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. …

The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav – and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.

It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not – as Westerners sometimes imagine – a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.

And I think that that’s the same thing Daveed Gartenstein-Ross witnessed in his time in the world of Islam.

My own relationship to religion is complicated and better suited to another post. But I do want to bring up Natan Sharansky’s central insight from his book ‘Defending Identity‘:

The enemy’s will is strong because his identity is strong. And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own.

The widely-accepted fallacy is that “conflicts arise because of religious dogma, so if we get rid of religious dogma we’ll reduce conflicts”. But the danger in having no fixed set of doctrines is that you can easily get drawn into all kinds of crazy stuff. And that’s as true today as it was when Daveed was in college.

Devotion to a good doctrine can give you the strength and the faith to reject bad ones. What you believe matters.