Wednesday 22 August 2012

Living and learning - DEAN JOHNS

Of the myriad prescriptions that I’ve encountered for living life to the full, one of the most compelling to me is Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortation to “live as though you die tomorrow; learn as though you’ll live forever”.
But unfortunately I find it impossible to put into practice for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that, as applied to any one moment in time, this wisdom is hopelessly paradoxical.
azlanTake today for example. If I was to realistically contemplate the prospect of dying tomorrow, I would almost certainly not be sitting at this keyboard trying to rattle out my weekly column criticising Malaysia’s ratty ruling regime.
Nor would I be as distracted as I actually find myself from this activity by the confusing alternative prospect of writing academic essays for the two courses I’ve commenced at Sydney University in an effort to learn as though I’ll live forever.
But what I’d be doing instead I have absolutely no idea, as my entire psyche is saturated with the spirit of futurism that so sadly characterises the society in which I’ve lived my whole life.
Since the day I was born I’ve been indoctrinated into, and hopefully if not happily gone along with, the pressures both implicit and explicit in the Judeo-Christian and Western capitalist traditions to sacrifice the unsatisfactory present in favour of a better, brighter tomorrow.
This spirit of a never-ending quest for more prosperity, more security, more pleasure and indeed more, more, more of everything around the next corner, over the next hill or in some chimerical after-life paradise is so all-pervasive, at least in Western society, that it is even enshrined in the pre-amble to the US constitution as the ‘right’ to the ‘pursuit of happiness’.
And, as much as I’ve come to resent such encouragement to mis-spend most if not all of my life postponing the enjoyment of the present in favour of pursuing unattainable dreams, chasing unreachable mirages or fulfilling airy-fairy fantasies, I just can’t seem to focus on the present as the priceless gift it truly and literally is.
mahatma gandhiBut nor, unfortunately, can I achieve the feeling that by spending my days in intellectual pursuits that I’m learning as if I’ll live forever. In fact while I’m sitting here contemplating yet another way of criticising the crimes of Malaysia’s Umno/BN regime, all I’m learning is how futile it feels.
Just as I fancy the great Mahatma himself would feel, if he hasn’t already in some conscious reincarnation, to learn that after he died his name was stolen by the so-called ‘Gandhi’ political dynasty that has so corruptly and ineptly ruled his beloved India almost ever since.

Paradoxical exhortation
The original, genuine Gandhi’s exhortation to “live as though you’ll die tomorrow”, as spiritually as it was intended, remains a starkly practical prospect for countless millions of India’s poor and oppressed.
And as for learning as though they will live forever, it sometimes seems as though the voters of India, like those of Pakistan, Russia and dozens of other kleptocracies posing as democracies, will never learn.
azlanA thought that inevitably brings us to Malaysia, where, despite 55 years of object lessons in the evils of being ruled by an increasingly racist, religionist, corrupt and outright criminal regime, a great many citizens have yet to learn how much better off they would be if they voted this pack of crooks out.
And in fact millions have yet to learn the wisdom of registering and turning up to vote.
Not that I’m suggesting that Malaysians are stupid, or at least any more so than I am, for so failing to live as though I’ll die tomorrow as to sit here wasting a day every week writing a column criticising their apology for a government.
In fact it’s altogether possible that most Malaysians are much smarter and wiser than I am in being able to find satisfaction in living for today rather than figuratively, let alone literally, dying for a more fortunate future.
In any case, as attractive as Gandhi’s “learn as though you’ll live forever” sounds or seems at first sight, this part of his paradoxical exhortation turns out to be a problem in itself.
Because of there’s one lesson that life and my continuing studies has taught me, it’s that the more you learn, the more you realise you have yet to learn and surely never will.
A point that I recently learned that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates made much of almost 2,500 years ago, with his trademark assertion that he knew nothing but that in doing so was superior to his peers, who didn’t even know they knew nothing.
So perhaps I and my fellow critics are being altogether too hard on Umno/BN politicians in accusing them of pathological lying.

Perhaps it’s the case, for example, that in claiming they know nothing of Ops Lalang, Project M, the Scorpene submarines purchase, the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu or dozens of other alleged regime crimes, they aren’t so much lying as showing their Socratic wisdom.

NONEJust as Wanita Umno chief and former minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil (left), in her repeated pleadings of ignorance of her husband’s bid for the National Feedlot Centre project may not be so much lying as saying she knows so much about it that all she knows is nothing, which is more than the rest of us do.

But not all falsehoods can be passed off as philosophy, and sometimes what could appear to be Socratic wisdom can be plain, old-fashioned stupidity. Witness Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s recent claim that crime-fighting was “not seen as a need” for the government until only recently.

It causes all us sceptics to wonder if the police had been so busy committing their own crimes, and aiding and abetting Umno/BN politicians and cronies in committing and concealing their misdeeds, to be bothered with petty offences against ordinary citizens.

And it has confirmed me in my long-held conviction that, with apologies to the late, great Gandhi, the motto of the Umno/BN regime must be something along the lines of ‘Live by stealing today as though there’s no tomorrow; and learn nothing forever, or as long as you can get away with it’.

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