Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Non-Binding Postulate

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to understand,
knocking on a door. It opens.

I've been knocking from the inside. —Jelaluddin Rumi

In the months that joined my freshman year to my sophomore, I faced a fairly typical crisis: I didn't know what on earth I wanted to do with my life, and my major (pre-med) didn't seem to hold my attention.

All I knew, really, was that I spent a good portion of chemistry class writing poems about the study of chemistry in the margins of my notebook. I'd already changed my major from pre-med to psychology once (and then back again, at my parents prodding), and I was especially entralled by a required writing class.

And then, later, I signed up for a literature class as an elective. That was it for me. I switched majors without telling my folks (they would've been crushed!), and I went from majoring in pre-med and taking humanities electives to doing the reverse.

Shortly after I filed the necessary paperwork, my chemistry professor asked me to meet him in his office after class.

"What's this I hear about you changing your major?" he asked through his thick Egyptian accent. "You want to study English?"

He stressed the word English with a bemused glimmer in his eye.

"You're my best student," he said. "Why would you want to do that?"

I was taken back, first of all, by his assertion that I was his "best" student, and I assume to this day that he was using flattery strictly in an attempt to keep me aligned with the sciences.

What he didn't know was that, prior to college, I was terrified of chemistry (in high school, after a lecture on how important it was to keep tabs on our lab keys, I dropped mine into a beaker of hydrochloric acid). Not to mention, I'd spent two entire weeks of this guy's class thinking he was talking about some chick named "Lynn" every time he'd refer to the natural log (ln) of something.

But that's besides the point. He told me how rewarding his profession was, how highly paid chemists were who worked "in the field," and how I'd make a "great doctor" too, if I'd only stick with it.

And I have to admit, his arguments were much better than mine. I have to imagine I sounded like quite the pansy when I said I wanted to switch majors because I wanted to read all of Shakespeare's plays, but in medicine I'd never have the time.

"You think there's not time?" he said, quoting something from the bard I've since forgotten. "You have to make time. I read Shakespeare. I read Rumi — you know Rumi?" he asked.

Rumi is a 13th century Sufi mystic whose poetry had grabbed my attention just a few months previous. My professor was Muslim, but I was nevertheless surprised to hear him so quickly refer to one of my favorite poets, even if they did share the same fundamental religion.

"You think about it," he continued, offering a few more words of disapproval. "Just be sure you make the right decision."
***
A few days later, there was a poetry jam on campus. The aforementioned professor showed up and read passages of old Arabic poems in their original Persian language. He scarely had to look at the pages, as he had so much of it memorized.

The central poet was, as you may have guessed, Jelaluddin Rumi.
***
So he'd proven his point. And though I stuck with English after all, I truly appreciated his efforts to keep me from straying to the "dark side" of the Arts & Sciences building. He'd shown more than modicum of interest in my future, something my own pre-med advisor (a biologist) failed to do.
***
I mention this chemistry professor not only because his interest in my future meant something to me... but also because I was never concerned with our religious differences — even when I did a class presentation on Sarin nerve gas, and threw in a quote or two regarding an Islamic faction. I mean, I knew he celebrated Ramadan, and I knew he had a white Christian wife. That was it. He was my chemistry professor; I was there to learn, and he was there to teach. Religion had nothing to do with it.
***
Years prior to that, during the first Gulf war, it never occured to me that the conflict was a battle between Western Judeo-Christian ideology and Islam. For me, it was the U.S. against Iraq (two nations, not two religions), and it had something to do with Hussein invading Kuwait (to reduce it to its simplest apolitical factor).

And for as long as I can remember, I found news of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East between the Palestinians and Israelis — and the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland — to be, for lack of a better word, disheartening.

I understood the differences between these various faiths, but I also understood their similarities. But in my teenage naivete, I didn't understand why they couldn't made progressive use of their shared ideologies. And that, even as I studied the political conflict underlying their mutual struggles.

But the fact remains that — even as the news frustrated me — I was still somehow removed from it. I felt badly for the people caught in the middle, but I was — and this is where I have cause to blush — I was primarily just so glad it wasn't happening where I lived.
***
Even with the bombings in Oklahoma... and the unabomber... threats to our daily way of life seemed to be primarily (though not entirely) domestic. Of course there was always the fear of that proverbial "other" (a la the Cuban missle crisis, the Cold War, etc.)... but for the most part we've had it relatively easy the past few decades — and I do mean relatively.

And then, of course, the events of September 11 serve as a rather profound interruption.

But if we can all agree that history is rife with sundry turning points, I'd argue that 9/11 was rather seismic, to say the least.
***
As though the significant loss of lives wasn't enough, the attacks also showed the American people that its government had a big gaping hole in its lines of defense. And our government, in an ego-maniacal knee-jerk, exploited this tragedy as an opportunity to strip away our civil liberties, one by one. But we were OK with this at first, right?

"If taking off my shoes at the airport will help us catch terrorists, then by-golly I'll do it!"

Right?

Right?!

This, my friends, is that "slippery slope" we studied in high school.

And as for Iraq, well... the expression "red herring" comes to mind. Or did we find bin Laden when I wasn't looking?

But this, too, is besides the point.
***
I don't know if it's because I'm older and wiser (stop snickering!), or if it's just a reflection of the impact September 11 had on me... but I find it increasingly difficult to distance myself from the daily news.

And even as I would say my faith in man is at an all-time low — even as I note just how terrible people are to each other even in the comfort of our comparably "peaceful" environs. Even as my blood pressure rises at the mere thought of daily traffic jams, middle fingers, crowded resaurants, threatening neighbors and my 53F apartment — I cannot help but feel a profound drop in my stomach (empathy) when I read stories such as this.

Imagine, if you will, how you felt on September 11. Now imagine if every building you went into, every bus you rode on, every school your children went to... carried with it the very real threat of an attack.

That, it seems, is the state of affairs in Iraq.
***
There's been a lot of talk lately about throwing more U.S. troops into Iraq and Afghanistan... and then seeing whether or not the U.S. Senate exercises its "power of the purse" in an act of protest. That could mean, in a word, sending more troops but giving them less equipment.

But here's what I want to know: didn't our meddling in Iraq significantly exacerbate the political unrest that has since thrust the Shiites and Sunnis into a civil war? Haven't thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians been killed in the resultant blasts? Aren't we the least bit responsible for that?

And here's the kicker: is washing our hands of the situation really the best thing we can do?

A majority of the American public agrees that we shouldn't have gone there in the first place. And a majority of the American public agrees that we weren't aggressive enough in Afghanistan from the onset (if we had been, wouldn't we be gone by now?).

But no matter how strongly we feel about these Promethean conundrums, we're all left holding our head in our hands when confronted with the next question:

What do we do from here?
***
After I read the aforementioned story yesterday afternoon, my thoughts turned to Rumi, and then my professor (just in case you wondered about the madness behind this tangential monster).

Rumi — like Christ, like Buddha, like Mohammed — was a purveyor of peace. His poetry focused on love of life, fear of death, human psychology, spirituality and his frustration with the often ruthless state of the world:

you have set up
a colorful table
calling it life and
asked me to your feast
but punish me if
i enjoy myself

what tyranny is this

Eight hundred years have passed since Rumi, but so little has changed.

What tyranny is this
— indeed.

6 comments:

Winter said...

Very profound.

Matt said...

Funny you should say that. For work today, I wrote a magazine article about science. I like science. I read about science. But, Sen. Matt, he is no scientist.

Matt said...

Tell me about blood pressure. I'm going to take my Xanax now.

disgruntled world citizen said...

Sometimes you just gotta go wif the heart, ya know? I like the fact that you are an analytic humanitist.

Great story.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Matt - To this day, I still love to read up on genetics, physics, anthropology and such. It's that old green grass cliche in action.

Now that I've made a living out of writing, I yearn for the sciences. Go figure I've turned concepts like mimosis into terrible poems.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

DWC - I was told once that I had a heart made out of coal. I think there's something to that.