Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Power of Forgiveness (Part 5)

The Light (taken in Kurialand in Kenya above my favorite valley)
I remember talking with a friend about forgiveness and she was skeptical of the idea because she thought it would make her weak. After all, the one who offended her might see it as weakness. He might continue to take advantage of her goodness. She reasoned that force must be met with force, not forgiveness.

In Alabama, an army of pedestrians rose up and defeated a powerful public institution in one town. Later, all across the South, thousands rushed to volunteer in this army, swelling the ranks of soldiers. This unarmed army fought against enemies who had on their side fire hoses, German Shepherds, guns, firebombs and perhaps most fearfully, the Law.

The battles raged on, but the guns and bombs didn’t seem to matter. That army could not be stopped because they were immune to the weapons of their enemies. The proverbial sword still slashed and still drew blood. But suddenly, drawing blood didn’t matter. It seemed that they possessed a far more subtle power, a deeper magic. They were made more powerful by their wounds. Like Obi Wan when Darth Vader struck him down, these brave soldiers gained power with every baton blow, imprisonment and dog bite. Every weapon of their enemies was powerless.

Those who opposed that Southern army thought that men are ruled by fear, that hatred and violence are the ultimate weapons. But that army knew something more powerful, more unstoppable than fear. They were ruled by hope. And to the despair of their enemies, they wielded the most powerful weapon of all: love. Consider the words of one of their generals:
...throw us in jail and we will still love you. Threaten our children and bomb our homes and our churches and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom.
This preacher started his statement the way he did because his family was threatened. His house was bombed. This man understood the secret and unstoppable power of forgiveness and love. Because he knew that secret, he did wear down his enemies by his ability to suffer, he and those he led. In the end, Dr. Martin Luther King and those who followed him were ultimately victorious (though skirmishes still persist today).

One of the great secrets of this life is that when we are hurt, we have all the power. We have the power to hold onto the offense, grasping it like a thumb screw in a torture device. But we may, if we choose, unscrew it; we may release the one over whom we have power. And by our mercy, we may gain a brother. Obi Wan’s post-death powers kinda sucked. But for us, when we are hurt, we gain the power to draw a person into our family, the Family of God, by forgiveness. If we hold onto an offense, two people are enslaved: we become enslaved to managing the debt, and we gain a slave by his debt. When we forgive, two people are freed: ourselves and our newfound brother.

And this is what makes heaven possible. Esau wanted to murder Jacob his brother; there would be nowhere on earth or in heaven where he would be free if he held onto his grudge. Heaven is a place for free men and free women; slaves of hatred or greed or lust cannot enter. And perhaps this is for the protection of the slaves; it would not be paradise for Esau to spend all eternity with his sworn enemy, now immortal and un-murderable. But after he forgave his brother, eternity with one he loved would indeed be paradise. The same goes for every grudge and affair and war.

Jesus sets the bar pretty high. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This is why Jesus was so serious about forgiveness being a requirement for heaven. A person cannot take a grudge past the pearly gates. If he is to enter, he must leave it at the door. A burden so large just won’t fit. In the end, Hell will have no veto on Heaven.

In Heaven (that is, when Heaven comes down to Earth), there will be many sets of enemies mutually present. There will be Romans and Vandals; there will be invaders and invaded; there will be the cheated on and cheaters; there will be Nazis and Jews; there will be white plantation owners and black slaves; there will be robbers and the robbed; there will be murders and the murdered; there will even be Dodgers fans and Giants fans. How can it be paradise for them all? Why won’t the joy of some of them cause the misery of others? How can all these enemies share the same space? Only through forgiveness.

And so we may all enter together into the Light of Forgiveness. We all have offended our brothers and sisters and friends and enemies and mothers and fathers and even God. When we ask for forgiveness, we can all have debts forgiven. And when we bind together others of our brethren, drawing them in when we forgive them, we may leave at the great gates of towering pearl, all our debts: those that we owe to others, and those that others owe to us. This great pile of unforgiveness, hideous, dark and stinking, will be left behind to be burned outside the City like refuse. Then we will stand there before those wonderful and shining off-white gates before the City of God, and they will open before us. And we will be dazzled by the Light of God, unencumbered by our own debts or even our heavy book of debts owed to us. And then, to the sound of trumpets, we will run together into that glorious Light, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty that we’ll be free at last.

"On Forgiveness" Table of Contents

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Vengeance Cancer – Why Forgive? (Part 4)

Mary Johnson’s only son was murdered by Oshea Israel. What would you do? How would you feel? How long would you hold onto the rage and hatred? I think most of us would probably hang onto it for a long time. But Mary decided to live our her faith. She forgave Oshea and now treats him like her own son. She said:
Unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son - but the forgiveness is for me. It's for me.
When we are hurt by another, it’s like we’ve contracted a cancer. It is a malignancy that grows inside us so long as we refuse to acknowledge it is there. As soon as we do, we must cut it out. If it is bad, we need to go through a long and painful process of chemotherapy, purging it from the multitude of locations in our life that it has spread. If we deny it exists, it grows. If we cover the symptoms, it grows. If we do anything but cut it out, it grows. We have no other options if we are to live. We must cut it out.

We think we should forgive others for their sake. After all, they hurt us. And forgiveness does indeed liberate others. But forgiveness also liberates us. We become free when we free others. Someone once said that revenge is a poison you drink thinking it will kill another. Perhaps the greatest benefit of forgiveness is that you can be free from the wrongs of others.

If you refuse to forgive, you are a slave to them. They, your enemies, cause you distress even after they’re done interacting with you. As a master over a natural slave, they are in your head, affecting your mood, influencing your behavior. And so we have a world of slaves, people unwilling to forgive.

Nelson Mandela, a powerful opponent of Apartheid in South Africa was in prison 27 years for his work. And doubtless he suffered terribly at the hands of his jailers. Upon gaining his freedom, he said:
When I was walking out of my compound for the last time, I said to myself, they've had you 27 years. If you hate them when you get through that door, they will still have you. I wanted to be free, and so I let it go.
We must forgive if we are to be free. We must forgive if we are to cut out the cancer. We must forgive if we are to have life, and to have it more abundantly.

"On Forgiveness" Table of Contents

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Straight and Narrow – What Forgiveness Is (Part 3)

Money! (Kenyan Shillings)

So what is it that we’re supposed to do? Being Christian, I’m going to start with the Bible (and if anyone wants to summarize another holy book in a paragraph, I’d happily post it here). Jesus tells us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. This is sometimes translated ‘trespass’, but I like the financial metaphor better. We (especially Americans) understand what it’s like to have debt. We’re told to pray that those debts we hold before God are cancelled, forgiven. And we’re told to give the same courtesy to those who have withdrawn from our goodwill. Peter once asked Jesus for an upper limit to forgiveness (John might have been getting on his nerves AGAIN and he was sick and tired of it). He tried to high-ball it and suggests, “Even up to seven times?” Jesus, with his usual wit, says the number is more like, “Seven times seventy times.” Jesus explains elsewhere that our forgiving others is a requirement for entrance into the Kingdom of God.

But what does it mean to forgive? The New Testament uses aphiēmi, meaning literally, “To send away.” Forgiveness is to count it as loss. If it is a debt, it is written off. It goes into the “business losses” for the year. It cannot be repaid because it no longer exists. You can never send a collections agency after it. It is finished. It is not forgotten, for you have a record of your generosity; a ledger recording your heavy losses. If it is a wound, it is healed. It is not tender, red, infected, or pussing. It is healed. And healed doesn’t mean invisible. Wounds, when cleaned, leave scars. But they don’t leave gangrene.

Consider the words of Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop who fought apartheid in South Africa and one who has great experience with wicked, wicked deeds:

Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.

Forgiveness is not easy. It may be the hardest thing we’re ever asked to do in this life. It’s one of those things we’re asked to do as Christians that we can only advance toward and rarely (if ever) fully achieve in this life. Or perhaps more accurately, we can achieve it fully only for a moment; the more mature we are, the more of our moments we can achieve it. I categorize it with Jesus ridiculous command to, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”. So if you haven’t mastered it yet, don’t get too worried.

What’s so hard about it? It means that you have to take what is your right, and give it up. You have to humble yourself to the one who hurt you. You are making your position equal again with the one who owes you; relatively, by lifting your debtor up, you no longer can stand above him. And for a proud person, this is simply impossible.

But I think the hardest part about forgiveness is identifying why something hurt. To clean all the dirt and filth out of a wound, we must wash the wound with the salt of self-examination. Some of the filth of the wound, and some of the pain, is our own. It was on us before the wound was made. We must scrub away all the blackness and scab and grime, until we get to fresh, clean blood. And this hurts.

So you were insulted. Why isn’t your own opinion of yourself before Heaven enough? Why are you placing your self-confidence in the mouth of your insulter?

So you were robbed. Why are you upset at financial loss if you have placed your faith in Heavenly things?

So your trust was betrayed. Haven’t you also betrayed others? What right have you to be self-righteous against your betrayer?

How do we know we’ve forgiven? I think a fair test is one proposed by Reformed theologian Lewis Smedes, “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”Love is a good proxy for forgiveness. I think also pain is a good measure, certainly for people early in their walk, maybe for all. If it didn’t bleed, you didn’t scrub hard enough.

Forgiveness hurts. Perhaps that’s one thing that all the countless animal sacrifices in ages past were meant to teach: forgiveness is messy. It’s costly. It’s bloody. But it must be. It’s much easier to pretend. Turning a blind eye to wrong is something that our culture seems particularly adept at. But as Tutu explains above, pretending to forgive, or avoiding forgiving are not forgiveness. And only by forgiveness will we ever find true healing.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Short Cuts – What Forgiveness Isn’t (Part 2)

Shortcut through a cornfield

Forgiveness. We say the word a lot, but I don’t think many people really believe in it. I suggested once that someone forgive her friend, I quoted Jesus’ advice, and said that it would help with reconciliation. She was skeptical and asked, “Sure it’s true. But it won’t work. Not in real life. Will it?” Forgiveness might be a nice concept, but what are we supposed to do? What is forgiveness? Is it practical?

Before we talk about what forgiveness is, I’m going to talk about what it isn’t. There are a lot of ways to short-cut forgiveness. These allow us to look really righteous without the hard work. Too many people, especially good Christian people, are far too quick to say, “I forgive you” or to apologize without forgiving and think the issue settled. When we take the short cut, we end up lost in a land of vengeance and hatred.

One way we can short-cut forgiveness is by partial forgiveness. In the story of the son who plundered the family business, most of us would probably go the partial forgiveness. We forgive enough to get him under our thumb as an employee. But we certainly don’t forgive all. The son knows forever more that he is inadequate. And we know that we’re justified in being his master because of what he did. And there is no reconciliation. We would prefer a slave to a son.

Another way we can short-cut it is to say something that counts as an apology, but isn’t forgiveness. You can say, “It’s OK,” or worse, “No problem”/”It’s cool”. “It’s OK” may be most accurate, “Our relationship is now mediocre because of what you did to me,” but that’s not forgiveness. When one person incurs a debt, it’s not even anymore. One owes the other. “No problem,” is almost always a lie, an escape from having to actually do the hard work of forgiving. It was a problem. It did hurt you. Pretending like it didn’t hurt is the worst thing you can do. It leaves the debtor unforgiven and now somewhat sorry that he asked for forgiveness in the first place (after all, it was “no problem”).

True forgiveness requires the debt be acknowledged. It requires the offended to realize that he was offended, and to honestly come to terms with how bad it hurt. This is often a very difficult step because it means we have to know ourselves and think about our feelings. This is hard for Americans, and downright terrifying for American males. But think about it: financially, you can’t write off “business losses” on your taxes without known how much your business lost (or you’re cheating on your taxes… which is not the subject of this post).  If you want to communicate about your imprudence in Vegas your statement, “I lost some money in Vegas” might mean “I lost 500 nickels in the slots in Vegas” or “I lost 500,000 dollars on roulette in Vegas”.

Like all human failures, there are plenty of great reasons to take the short-cut. First, we do it because it’s easier. Its hard work to hike down the straight and narrow trail of forgiveness; the smooth road of superficial apology is far easier. But there’s another great societal reason to take the short cut: Relativism. We’re taught from a young age that there is no such thing as sin or offense or debt: the feelings of being offended are imaginary, irrational constructions of a moralistic society.

The problem with this is that we cannot, try as we might, believe that Offenses are imaginary. Everyone, when he bothers to consult his own experience, knows that offenses are real. Even those who firmly deny an objective moral realm have the real subjective experience of being hurt, of being owed something by another. Whatever its origin (societal programming, human instinct, or from On High), we feel bad when another person hurts us.

And so we are stuck. We feel bad when we are hurt; we make others feel bad when we hurt them. And it doesn’t get better with apology. In fact, it makes it worse. With short cuts, we live in a world of make-believe, living like we have the sublime thing when we don’t. We settle for quick and superficial ‘reconciliation’ and give up hope on deep and lasting reunion.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

On Forgiveness: A Story (Part 1)

A son once disgraced his family. He publicly shamed his father and plundered the family business. He disowned his family and left home, taking the money that had taken two generations to accumulate, years of work by his father and grandfather, blowing it in a year (think Harry and Floyd in Dumb and Dumber if it were R-rated). At the end of the year, he was jobless, homeless and hungry. The economy had soured, and he found in a real financial mess.

Out of options and ideas, he thought about going back home. He considered applying for a job at his dad’s company. Maybe his dad would let him have a minimum-wage job. But at least he’d have benefits. His dad was a good employer. At least there he’d be taken care of. But how could he show his face there? He had spent the profits of the last decade in a single year. He had disowned his family and embarrassed them terribly. He figured he had nothing to lose, and made for home.

When he arrived, his father saw him. If you were the father, what would you do? Could you forgive him? Should you forgive him?

I think this question is at the heart of a lot of human problems. The more generous of us might grant his request and put the son to manual labor. He didn’t even deserve that, but we’re good people. Many wouldn’t even grant him that. He had his chance and he blew it. He made his bed; now let him sleep in it. He wanted to disown the family? Fine. Now let him be an orphan.

But why? Why would we treat him like we do? Because we’re all keeping score. The son has a debt to the family, and it hasn’t been paid. In his case, because of the debt is too large, it could never really be paid. And so we think he should be treated as what he is: a debtor; one who must work for us because he owes us.

But the story doesn’t end like we would end it. The father sees the son coming in to ask for the minimum-wage job. The son begins to ask, but the father cuts him off, hugs him tightly and restores his managerial position as if nothing had happened. He calls all the family friends to tell them that his son returned and invites them all over immediately to celebrate. He exclaims, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!”

 What is the old man thinking? What did he do? And why did he do it? He forgave his son. His property was lost.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Review – “Revolt in 2100” by Robert A Heinlein


If you love liberty, science, or good stories, you’ll love “Revolt in 2100”. What a ride! Great characters, compelling situations, great imagination and predictive ability (especially for being written in 1940). And in case you haven’t read my other book reports, SPOILER ALERT!

The setting is an America has become a (roughly) Protestant Theocracy that is oppressing the people. The protagonist is a naïve soldier who loves his country and his church who becomes disillusioned with it rather quickly as the book progresses, eventually joining the rebellion.

Reading the book was downright fun. Secret societies, military tactics and strategy (using military units that don’t yet exist), intrigue, betrayal, passwords, propaganda. It was a blast! It was able to communicate a message that, in the end, was contrary to my own opinion, but that didn’t stop me from having a good time hearing about it. This is the best of rhetoric, the best of persuasive writing. I hope to write someday like Heinlein. So I must say I enjoyed the book, despite the core message of the book being that people like me are what’s wrong with the world.

I must admit I really love the imagery of the “Church Militant” as GK Chesterton describes or in CS Lewis’ words the Church that is, “…spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”; the victorious Church which is able to go out like sheep to the slaughter in the first few centuries AD and the Church that is able to keep its doctrines despite the multitude of challenges throughout the centuries. Heinlein, intentionally I think, made me start with some warm feelings about his imaginary state, and then crushed them by showing how terrible a thing it would be when humans rule the earth in God’s name without His guidance.


One thing that surprised me throughout the book was how much I agreed with him. His criticisms of the corruption, the greed, the wickedness of the church in that imaginary world (and in this real one) are valid. Like reading Ayn Rand, I felt like I was in an ignored observer. Where was the rational Christian in the story? But I will admit that we’re not very common, and it might be possible for Heinlein not to have met one of us.

Nevertheless, there is much I agree with. I am ever growing in my support for a libertarian ethic of governmental non-interference. It seems that this is a good and effective way to run a government. And this is one of the dominant themes of the book. People should be allowed to live however they like so long as they don’t prevent others from doing the same. I think the sacrificial nature of the characters, the utmost respect for personal dignity and decision, and the value placed on individual human sovereignty were wonderful.


Heinlein argues for an agnostic faith and morality. No one has any access to God, and so anyone claiming to have it is probably lying. Therefore, all one can do is live one’s own life and not pass judgment on others. This is a pretty common conclusion, but Heinlein was actually able to build a world around it and communicate it freshly even to my mind. The only bad thing in the world is the one thing which I, a Christian, do: believe in objective morality.

Heinlein’s viewpoint here helps me understand some of my friends a lot better. It makes clear to me why public religion is so bad in their minds, and why evangelism is such a no-no: because, without revelation, it’s based entirely on the pride of those evangelizing. The trouble is that people with this mindset are especially hard to argue out of it. They believe that discussion itself is irrational, and so will tend to avoid it. And they think that every attempt to talk about it is some sort of power-grab or trick. Heinlein’s is a very well-insulating doctrine. This also may prevent relationships: you are the scum of the earth, the only real sinner. Relativism can incorporate all except the man who asserts Relativism is wrong. He is anathema. He is a heretic. And so, in the minds of many, I am anathema, a heretic. The same disgust that a Bigoted Southern Baptist has for a gay couple, Relativists have for me.

Religion, Sex and Nakedness
The idea that intrigued me the most was his views on public religion. His assertion is that one cannot know the mind of God, and so ought not speak publicly about what one believes. Though he makes a big point of defending the age-old doctrine, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” Zeb, his model Libertarian, gets really pissy when he’s asked about his religious beliefs. They’re private and should be kept covered.

But people shouldn’t be covered. Nakedness is something that should be public (or at least more public). Heinlein is unable to see any reason why we should cover up physical nakedness. Or for that matter, why we should be jealous about sex. And this helps me understand friends who are in Zeb’s position.

It is ironic that he reverses two things which have been pretty close to universal in human civilization: chastity (marriage and public modesty) and religion. For some reason, humans have decided that there are some parts of the body that should not be seen in public. There is a universal shame. There is a universal limitation on who one may sleep with and who one may not sleep with. And humans have decided that there must be some public way to worship God or the gods.

Heinlein doesn’t see any reason for these two things which are so close to the core of human identity. I think both of these stem from his disbelief in an invisible world. There is no invisible, mystical connection between man and woman in marriage. And there is no real being in Heaven that can be known. Essentially (as far as I can tell), because boobs are visible and God is not, the former should be uncovered and the latter should be covered. This explains the embarrassment or flustration (noun version of ‘to fluster’) when I share my religion with the non-religious. I’m dropping my metaphorical pants. I’m exposing to them the one and only thing that really should be kept private. And that’s just not OK in public settings.

These topics interested me, but I can’t say I’m persuaded. I’ve been thinking for some time about what marriage is (ontologically) and trying to (if it’s possible) translate that into something a Humanist could make sense of. And though it makes perfect sense on a Christian worldview, I have not been successful in translation. I think the God issue, on the other hand, is easy to respond to. Heinlein believes there is nothing to base a rational belief in God on. If God never spoke, then He’d be right. The question is: do we have any evidence that God spoke to us? There are a handful of contenders, but only one of them, the Bible, has sufficient evidence to verify the claim. The presence of explicit and confirmable prophecies and the inexplicable cryptographic features of the text show its supernatural origin. And this can form the rational basis of public religion. It has formed the rational basis of a public religion and has done so for nearly two millennia.

CS Lewis and Robert Heinlein

The most interesting thing about reflecting on this book was how many of the themes overlapped with writings of CS Lewis. With a bit of Googling, I realized they were contemporaries. They wrote on a lot of the same topics. They used fantasy to communicate their points. They were critical of totalitarianism. And perhaps the most intriguing difference is that they each thought the other’s philosophy would lead to totalitarianism. In both minds, the Great Sin is pride. Lewis believes it is pride before God; Heinlein believes it is pride in claiming to speak for God. Heinlein thinks there is no such thing as Justice, and so rehabilitative punishment (i.e. curing people of their neurosis that caused the wrongdoing) is all that can be justified; Lewis believes that there is Justice in the world, and retributive punishment (i.e. paying people back for what they did) is good and prevents the State from ‘curing’ dissidents.

They both presented their views of how society could degenerate in dystopian novels, Lewis in “That Hideous Strength” and Heinlein in “Revolt in 2100”. Lewis feared a calculating, bureaucratic, hyper-rational elite who would sterilize the world and conform all thought; Heinlein feared a corrupt, superstitious, power-hungry church who would proselytize everyone and conform all thought.

One of the most striking similarities between Heinlein and Lewis is their shared belief in 1940 and 1945 (in Revolt and Hideous Strength, respectively) that hypnosis and psychology will be able to be used by malicious parties for mind-control. It’s hard for someone today to see that as even plausible, as Psychiatrists have very little impact on anything today. I suppose it was an exciting time in Psychology, with the discoveries of the behaviorists and bold predictions about the expansive abilities of such practitioners. But it is shocking how wrong these predictions were. Usually sci-fi authors make mis-predictions, but it’s strange that these two would make the same wrong prediction for no good reason. It makes me want to read more about the expectations and accomplishments of psychology in the 1940’s.


Overall, I loved Revolt. First and foremost, it was truly a fun sci-fi book with interesting characters and a colorful world. Most importantly, it made me think about philosophy, justice, religion and politics. That’s what good literature should do, and that’s what it did. I think I agree with Heinlein’s politics almost entirely: a Libertarian government is best. But his metaphysics (or lack thereof), ethics and philosophy I think are based on false premises and so come to wrong conclusions. Nevertheless, his premises are common, and he was able to clearly communicate why I (and Christians) are seen in a bad light, all the while not making me want to punch him in the nose. And that, my friends, is what great writing is all about. So bravo, Mr. Heinlein, for this wonderful book. Thank you for sharing your vision for the world in so delightful a fashion.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Out of the Frying Pan

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Out of the Frying Pan…

Surgery Rotation Week 1: Complete

I had a lot of expectations. People told me a lot of things. It would be like boot camp. You’ll get yelled at. You won’t sleep. It will consume your life. It will consume you. You’ll love it! You’ll hate it!

Some of these things are true. Some of them may become true. But the strongest feeling I have is that it’s not as bad as I was expecting. Maybe this is the point of all the warning. Maybe we’re prepared for a horror and are relieved when it’s only terrible.

Last week I worked about 13 hours on the weekdays and 6 hours on Saturday with a day off on Sunday. That’s a lotta hours. But as I write this (at midnight on my first Sunday), my roommate just walked in having worked all day since 5:30 AM. And we’re supposed to also read the assigned 1200 page textbook in these 8 weeks. And do three sets of online modules.

And it’s also challenging physically. Standing hour upon hour is rather taxing on one’s feet and back. I think people who do this for a living adjust (I’d guess that some of it actually comes from bone remodeling, but I haven’t had time to look it up).

There’s a lot of machismo, people almost bragging about how little they slept or how much they work. There is rudeness, some of it necessary and some of it silly. It’s like visiting a foreign country with strange customs and peculiar traditions; you constantly need to be scanning to see what other people are doing, how they’re moving, how they’re speaking, what they’re doing.

On top of it all, I started missing meals because the work was so heavy. It was so busy, I didn’t realize I was hungry until after the mealtime had long passed. But after a few days like this, I figured out to eat in the little scraps of time between sprints, and to make up for it with large meals when I could get them.

The limits of human consciousness are being pushed.

Why is it done this way? Several ideas come to mine. It might be as a rite of passage. It might be because surgery has so much to teach and only 8 weeks to teach it in. It might be because they can get a lot of free work out of us. But I think the most likely is that it was done this way by the last group of surgeons, so why change now?

Whatever the reason they do it, it has this benefit: it tempers the soul. The finest steel comes through the hottest fire. I’ll know how far I can stretch, how fast I can think, how many hours I can work if I need to. It reminds me of one of my favorite songs:
It is not while beauty and youth are thine own,
And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear,
That the fervor and faith of a soul can be known,
To which time will but make thee more dear.
It is suffering that shows what a person is made of. Physical, mental, spiritual suffering. None of these are excluded from this rotation. And my character will be exposed.

The sermon at church today was about despair and darkness. And, for the first time in a long time, I heard something completely new (at least to me): one of the advantages of despair is that it proves to you that you’re not a mercenary, that you’re not worshipping God because of what you get out of it. Of course, God knows you. But you don’t know you.

And in an analogous way, I don’t know what I can survive. I thought it was less than this. I thought I needed more breaks and more food and more sleep than I’ve been getting. I thought I wouldn’t be able to focus after working so many hours. But I can. One week on surgery has proved to me that I am much stronger than I thought. And not just me. We all are. Human beings are. It’s just rare that we push ourselves to our limits. And if I survive these next seven weeks, I will learn an invaluable lesson: I am stronger than I thought. If I survive.

Travels to Tabod – Part III – The Man

We finally arrived at a trail that followed the contour around a ridge to the house. Fatimah arrived a few minutes of awkward incommunicability later, and caught her breath. Then she introduced me, and explained why I was there. The man agreed to talk to us on camera. There was a small house and a tiny shelter that served as a kitchen built into the 30o slope. The man and his wife were home, along with their toddler son. The two of them looked at our motley group without either joy or fear, just a mild interest and with some hidden sadness. He was lean and his face was weathered. The house he lived in was, like most houses there, bamboo-slats tied together, roofed with thatch.

I started rolling the camera and Fatimah translated for me. The man answered my questions directly, and without anxiety.

I asked, “What is a hunger season?” His response was much more perceptive than I expected. “This. Now is a hunger season. This small pot of roots is all that we’ll eat today.”

He opened up his little pot for me and I could see it. A pot of steamed cassava, wrapped in banana leaves.

I asked him, “Are there years that are worse than others?” I was trying to get him to talk about food insecurity, something I was taught as a Western-minded development person, to be concerned about. There are uncertainties in farming; the rats or boars that may come, the loss of stored rice to mold, maybe insects. His response was astonishing. “Every year is bad. Every year we are hungry.” I was trying to get at the uncertainty: we’re OK except when… But there was no uncertainty. His hunger was certain, year after year.

 “Do your kids go to school?” “Yes, in Imulnod.”

Imulnod? That’s where we had just hiked from. Maybe they go there occasionally, or for special events:

“Every day?” “Yes.”

Perhaps he misunderstood me. I thought of a different approach:

“Where do they sleep?” “Here”

His kids do what I just did. Every. Day. It’s wonderful that he’s close enough to send his kids to school, and that he wants to see them educated. But it’s not too many more kilometers before the trip really would be impossible. This family was on the border, the part of the highlands that still has daily access to the lowlands.

I stopped rolling the film and asked if I could look around. He consented, and, for the first time, I saw his view. The panorama was incredible. He had a small field of corn where the jungle had been cut back, allowing for an incredible 270o view of the lowlands and ocean. And then I saw behind the ridge: behind us, on the next ridge, houses and fields dotted along the interior, further on into the mountains. My heart grew heavy in my chest. As far as I could see, people lived as he did. That was our target. Starting with this family, and going on in: these were the people I had come to speak to. These were people who needed help.

 I thanked him profusely. I felt bad. I barged into his lunch unannounced and asked him some bold questions and now I was leaving. But what else could I do? I’d have liked to spend more time up there with him and others, but we had none to spare. And that is probably our own fault. Perhaps out of embarrassment, I gave him what would be my lunch (some crackers) and started back.

I walked back down the hill, keeping pace with our guide, reflecting on what I had seen and heard. We arrived back down and Fatimah went ahead of us. When we caught up, one of the villagers had climbed up one of his coconut trees, chopped down a few coconuts, and was bringing them back for us. He sliced a hole in one, and handed it to me.

Coconut water is an incredible thing. I’m not sure there is a more refreshing drink in the world. It has something like carbonation when fresh from the macheted coconut, and, I am told, has the same osmolality as blood (and in a pinch, can be used as an IV fluid). In any case, the liter or so of coconut water hit the spot. I lost a lot of sweat that day, and it felt good to put some fluids back.

After some more hiking, we arrived back at Imulnod. I was tired, but fulfilled. My melancholy job was complete. I had found a person in need, and documented his plight.

Travels to Tabod – Part II – The Hill

She began with the over-frequent “Sir,” and continued, “It is far.”

“I know it’s far. That’s why he’s probably in need. Can we make it there?”

“Sir, yes, but the trail is steep!”

A twang of fear shot through me. I was in shape, but maybe not the right shape. Could I make it? Who knows. It’s probably best to bluff: “I know. Can you take me there?”

And, perhaps hoping that I misunderstood, or maybe I would change my mind, she asked again:

“Sir, yes. But the trail is steep! Do you want to go?”

In many languages, repetition is a form of emphasis. In Hebrew if you want to say pure gold, you just say the word gold twice. It is especially whatever it is. I wonder if that’s true in Tagalog.

Fatimah didn’t look happy. She clearly did not like my answer, but I could not tell if it was simply a fear of hiking or if there was something else. I had been warned about such warning. People here don’t like to disappoint, so they’ll give some excuse for why you should or shouldn’t do something, without stating the true reason. I thought about this, but could see no immediate threats and I had a strong desire to talk to someone we might actually be able to help. And with some delay, I decided to answer: “Yes. I do want to go, if you can make it.”

The discontent in my guide’s face intensified, but she consigned herself to our fate. We were appointed another guide, someone who lived nearby, a real highlander. He started leading our group. And boy could he hike! I had a foot or two on him in height, and was barely able to keep up without jogging on the flat first parts.

The first part of the trail was hilly, but not terribly steep. My other guides were in the back of the line and lagged behind a bit. But after a coconut field, we made it to the edge of the jungle and the hill. And he didn’t slow down. Now, I’ve hiked quite a bit in the US in my day, but we have developed something that the Palawanos apparently have no need of: something called “switchbacks.” Instead of going straight up, the trails are angled so as to minimize the incline to something more manageable at the cost of increasing the distance. When I was a Boy Scout, I cursed them. Why can’t we go straight up the mountain? The answer is: because you can’t go straight up a mountain. It’s too steep for the average American. But not too steep for the average Palawano highlander.

It was just about like climbing a ladder. The trail was perpendicular to the elevation lines, and deviated around obstacles and between property lines, but ignored topography. Rather, it paid attention to topography but only to spite it.

The missionary who worked in the area once explained to me that a ‘steep’ trail was one where you could reach out your hand and touch the trail you were hiking on. I don’t think we had any sections that steep (I tried this and was 6 inches short), so I suppose it was an ‘almost steep’ trail. For the steep sections, there were foot holes dug out of the mud trail like a ladder that were quite sturdy. I thought about the trail when it was wet, and figured it must be impassable, maybe even for highlanders.\

After about five minutes, I was pouring with sweat, breathing hard, but keeping up. But then I looked behind, and couldn’t see Fatimah or her companion. I hadn’t thought that I’d be in better shape than anybody. Not wanting to get separated from my only means of communication, I knew I needed to slow down our guide. Knowing 3 words of Tagalog (none of them presently useful) and not one of Palawano, I tapped my not-looking-behind-him guide on the shoulder and gesticulated as best I could for him to wait. And I was apparently successful.

We stopped, and I got the sense that, if the humidity wasn’t around 100%, my guide wouldn’t be sweating. He certainly wasn’t breathing hard like I was. We didn’t have enough language to even have light conversation. So we waited. And the mosquitoes saw a target of opportunity. We were in a jungle now, and I remembered the anti-mosquito advice to ‘clear out all standing water’ and laughed inside: a billion leaves and puddles and holes were wonderful breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Fortunately and inexplicably, the mosquitoes were not aggressive. I’ve been in places where, perhaps for want of blood, the mosquitoes are ravenous: they will latch onto whatever arm you try to swat them with. With a bit of shooing, I was protected, but there were really enough to be described as a fog.

The other factoid that I remembered is that malaria mosquitoes (anopheles) only bite at dawn and dusk; it was just past 1pm. And I was taking my prophylaxis, so I probably wouldn’t get Malaria even if I was bitten. But, of course, Dengue is transmitted during the day. And there’s no prophylaxis for Dengue.

With those thoughts to comfort me, Fatimah caught up with us, and was exhausted. She needed to take a break. And so we four waited a while, kept company by the swarms of mosquitoes (which, I must admit, seemed to prefer my blood over the locals). My decision to wear shorts was now proving a bad one, as my attending to my legs made me aware of the diverse and noxious allergens that I had been exposed to while hiking; my legs glowed red in a psychedelic pattern of passing leaves and twigs.

Our guide didn’t seem to have a variable speed. There was hiking at full gallop, or there was resting. And so Fatimah and her companion caught up to us, and then rested, and then we bounded ahead of them again. After doing this for a few iterations, my guide pointed at the silhouette of a house on the hill. It was beautiful, peeking through the jungle after so long a hike. It took us maybe an hour to hike at this ‘pace’ from the group of houses below; with the steepness and the rests, I had a hard time estimating our pace.

Travels to Tabod – Part III – The Man

Travels to Tabod – Part I – The Journey

We arrived in Imulnod Proper, another of the areas we needed to scout out for our Malaria project. At about 10am and talked with the Rural Health Midwife, Fatimah, for a while. The three-room Rural Health Station was clean and well-organized. We talked a while about the medical needs in the area and the resources that were available. I thanked her and, after some discussion, she offered to guide me to the nearest sitio (village), Tabod, to talk to the people there. I was hoping to interview someone in their home to directly ask about the problems. I had talked to a number of people who were down from the highlands, but I had not seen anything that was not connected to a road. Tabod was across a river, and I was excited at the opportunity to ford a river and to leave the World of Rubber Wheels.

I’d like to consider myself a hiker, but if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I deserve the title. I used to hike quite a bit, but that was a long time ago. Nevertheless, I was in fairly good shape, so I thought I could endure a good hike.

We arrived at the river, and for the first day of the trip, I wasn’t wearing my Chocos (I had a meeting at the hospital that morning which required shoes). I had hoped the river crossing would be near the end of the hike. But in obedience to Murphy’s Law, it wasn’t but a quarter mile from our start. I surveyed the river, and it was about ankle deep for 25 meters; no way across without wet feet.

The sun was hot, and I had forgotten to shield my poor gringo skin with sunscreen. So I did like the locals and used an umbrella. I had changed into shorts, and I was able to stay somewhat cool for the first part. A soaked bandana on the neck helped immensely.

And then, about five minutes after crossing the river, maybe half a mile from the clinic, I was told we had arrived. There was a beautiful grass house outside between a corn field and a field of mature and profitable coconuts. Why so close?

I was introduced to the family and we began talking on camera. After a few questions, I got the sense that this family was not my target. I asked about bad cases of malaria, and through a mistranslation, the mother thought I was asking about the worse malaria species. Which she knew. “Plasmodium falciparum.” The kids were well-nourished, clothed, and visited the clinic as often as they were sick.

Being in development work is strange. A normal, well-adjusted person would be happy with such a report. But it has been a long time since I was a normal, well-adjusted person. In fact, I’m not sure I was ever a normal, well-adjusted person. A part of me (the human part) was happy. But, with it, I felt disappointment. I could not help this family. This family didn’t need my help. This family didn’t need help. And praise God!

But my job, for better and worse, was not to look for joyous stories. My job was not to be optimistic. I needed to see if there were ways that we could help. And that meant not focusing the lens where there was a nice picture, but, if it could be found, on where the image was upsetting.

It sounds almost perverse. But I suppose all excitement about work against the effects of the Fall are sick. It’s the same perversion that we all have in medicine, hoping for an ‘interesting’ case and disappointed when a cough is ‘only’ a cold, or a fever is ‘only’ the flu. Our work would be more challenging if the cough were TB or the fever leukemia. I’d guess good mechanics, accountants and artists experience the same thing. They want to engage all of their skills at solving a problem, not just mindlessly changing spark plugs, collating simple sums, and painting what’s already been painted.

So I ended the interview after a few questions. I thanked them profusely, and they seemed happy to entertain me. And I moved on, explaining to my guides that I wanted to talk to someone who was poor. The Palawano guiding us knew just the family. We hiked another quarter-mile and got to a collection of several houses and a spring box. After stopping to rest, my guides asked the people there for directions. They explained, and the midwife looked concerned.

Travels to Tabod – Part II – The Hill 

Adventure in Amas – Part II – The Penglima

It was about a 10 minute tricycle ride. Tricycles are the preferred mode of transport here. It’s a motorcycle with a side-car welded onto it. They’re not standardized body kits, so every one is unique; different places to grab onto and different pieces of unfinished metal to avoid getting sliced on. Like most modes of transport in the developing world, tricycles are usually crammed to their absolute physical limit. On the three wheels and pulled by the small motorcycle motor, I once saw seven people.

The village was beautiful. There was a network of hand-made rice paddies that lay at the foot of this village built on a hill. Houses made from bamboo and woven grasses were scattered about. All the walls were made of woven grasses, and I thought that such work might be in the shape of a basket and sit on a mantelpiece in any first world residence.

We climbed up the hill, passing a group of about 10 young men playing volleyball (as best I could tell). We arrived at the top of where the houses ended with one last, big house. And indeed, that was what it was called in Palawano: kela’ng benwa. Literally, ‘big house.’ It was raised about five feet off the ground, with a bamboo ladder-style staircase leading up to it. At the top waited Undu Apul and his wife, the penglima of the village. I talked with Dale about the meaning of the word, and very literally translated it means roughly “one whose vocation is 5,” but with a bit more poetic license you get something like “right hand man.” Linguistics aside, he was the guy in charge.

I slipped off my shoes at the bottom of the stairs, and walked up into the kela’ng benwa. The floor was made from 1-inch-wide bamboo slats lashed together with about a quarter inch of spacing between the slats. The cool bamboo felt good on my hot feet. The shade of the thatch roof and bits of flowing air on the soles of my feet were quite nice.

I was invited to sit down, and the interview began.

In my dealings with the poor, there is often an extreme deference or shyness, especially around (rich) westerners. But such was not the case with this penglima. He answered me both boldness and energy, far more energy than a lot of 78-year-olds I know. The confidence he had was well deserved. He had been the leader of his 200-something person village for most of his adult life. His position is a quasi-hereditary one (the oldest member of the ‘royal’ family, not necessarily the son of the present leader; i.e. his nephew was next in line over his son), so there was no campaigning or reelections he had to worry about.

I opened the talk with a few general questions. One of them was, “What are the problems your people face?” I had been taught that open-ended questions are better in general at the beginning. It allows for more un-influenced answers and answers that you might not have been looking for.

His response? “We have no problems.”

Come again? No problems? One of the poorest communities in the Philippines has no problems?

I didn’t quite know what to think. Maybe he thought things were OK when they weren’t. Maybe he’s just telling me things were OK. Maybe things really were OK. Maybe it was my Western arrogance to think that people living in grass huts are bad off.

I didn’t know what to think, so I went on to other questions. I talked about his crops, the water supply, the people, ‘kids these days’ and everything in between. We talked for four hours in that bamboo-slatted big house. And over the course of the conversation, it turned out that they did have problems (as all men). They plant rice, but it gets torn up by wild boars. I knew about these boars. The boars are sometimes hunted and, by all accounts, are not very friendly. They try to raise chickens, but they get eaten by wildcats. “Wildcats?” I asked the translator.

“Yes. You know. Like cats, but bigger.”

I had been warned about the boars (and a week before heading home, about the cobras). But about wildcats, I had no knowledge.

I held out my hands approximating a house cat, “This big?” I asked.

“Bigger,” said my translator. I had a picture of a mountain lion in my mind and reflected that we should probably add “Being eaten by a wildcat” to the list of risks of travelling to Palawan.

“How much bigger?”

There was some dialog in Tagalog or Palawano. After a much-longer-than-should-have-been-necessary-to-describe-a-cat’s-size discussion, the council ruled that it was not all that much larger than a housecat. I revised my mountain lion to a bobcat and ceased my worries about being eaten. At least all at once. Or by only one ‘wildcat’ (after all, they could be like raptors in Jurassic Park). Whatever its size, it ate the chickens they tried to raise. I suppose it didn’t matter if it were the size of a mouse if it killed chickens.

I continued my questions. They plant coconuts, but they get eaten by rats. They climb up the trees, pick a coconut, eat through three inches of coconut husk, and then eat out the sweet meat inside.

So no problems. Except the boars and the wildcats and the rats. It was explained to me later that it was common to hide problems from new visitors as a source of pride. Perhaps it was like covering up the shameful parts of one’s society with a metaphorical fig leaf.

Toward the end of the conversation, he started mentioning his parents. Or what I understood to be his parents from the translation. After a while I figured out that it was indeed his parents, and their parents, and so on, and so on. I had always assumed ancestor worship was similar to polytheistic worship in that you honor a being that is above or separate from you. But the aspect I had not anticipated was how the ancestors were spoken of. It was as if they were familiar and still alive, passing judgment on the decisions of this, by comparison, youthful 78-year-old. The penglima thought they were presently disappointed in the present society because they had left the traditions and grown lenient on the laws, particularly those regarding sexual relations.

The young people were ‘eloping.’ They were not going through the somewhat bureaucratic process of first requesting permission to marry from both sets of parents, then with that approval, taking it before the penglima and the council of village elders for approval. Then, there would be the payment of the dowry that would also need to be paid. All of these steps were skipped by young people who, not unlike western boyfriends and girlfriends, just move in together.

Is there nowhere that this is not happening? These people, in a single generation, have abandoned (proper) monogamy. I’ve seen this everywhere I’ve gone in the developing world: the traditional beliefs are strict monogamy or at least strict polygamy. But the young people have pretty well given up on that and take their relationships about as seriously as westerners take theirs.

As we talked, the penglima told me the story of why they lived in Macagua. Around 40 years ago, he persuaded the then-highlanders to take their homes and migrate down to the lowlands. “Why?” I asked. He said with complete confidence, “Because of the salt.”

I had heard of migrations for a lot of reasons. But this one was new to me. I got this through a translator, so I thought it might be an un-translated metaphor. “Does he mean literal salt?” I asked my translator. There was some dialog between my translator and the penglima. Nope. Literal salt. “Why did you come down from the highlands for the salt?”

“Because there’s no salt in the highlands,” he replied, getting confused about my confusion.

And I suppose he’s right. Isn’t the need for salt obvious? Hadn’t it been traded in parts of Africa pound for pound for gold? Isn’t a proper salt balance critical for human health? And isn’t salt hard to come by in a highland jungle?

So yes. An entire village packed up their things and moved to be closer to where the salt was. He explained that, of course, there were other benefits to the lowlands like markets and medicine. But mostly they moved for the salt.

As the sun began to get low in the sky, we said our goodbyes. As we were doing so, he shook my hand enthusiastically and kept repeating a word. My translator said it meant, “Nephew,” and explained, “He now considers you his nephew and hopes that you will visit him again.”

 “I hope so,” I said. 

Adventure in Amas – Part I – The Captain

It was our first day in the “provinces” as it is called, and we were ready to go. The provinces is the word used for the rural parts of the Philippines, and is perhaps an appropriate one. Like in most developing countries, there is a stark contrast between the wealth of the city and the poverty outside of it. In the capital cities, it seems there is a convergence to Western prices for food and lodging. And so it is somewhat accurate to draw a line between Manila and not-Manila; the city, and everything else (though I have heard there are several up-and-coming cities that have quite as high a standard of living as Manila).

Our first stop was in Amas, a Barangay of Brooke’s Point municipality in the province of Palawan. We arrived at the government complex where there were a dozen or so small buildings dotted a few acres of shaded grass. I’ve seen this rough plan in Kenya, and think it is far superior to the traditional office building, and I suppose, the result of a powerful government and/or cheap land. We were looking into working on Malaria, and our first stop was the Rural Health Microscopist, to see how Malaria was diagnosed.

The microscopist took a blood sample, and with as proper a procedure as can be, stained and smeared it, and viewed it, twisting the knobs on the microscope with an ease that comes with much practice. “No parasite seen,” said he after searching the slide. I would find out later that these “Barangay Microscopists” were villagers who received a month-long crash-course in diagnosing malaria. They look at malaria cases all day long, every day. And as they say, practice makes perfect. Well, not perfect. But pretty darn good. The Barangay Microscopists give the laboratory technicians (2 year post-college program) a run for their money. They are tested on occasion, being given ten known “cases” to examine. Villagers with experience do better than the educated without it.

I didn’t know all that then, and so I patronizingly watched the Barangay Microscopist examine the slide. “Isn’t that cute?” I thought, “He’s trying.” I suppose it is the prejudice of a schooled person to think schooled people are more important than the unschooled. But I should have believed what I already knew: experience, not letters, makes a person good at something.

We visited the Amas Barangay captain after this, and had a good interview with him. We sat around a table with the diffuse light of a cloudy day flowing in through the windows. Despite the limited funds available to a Barangay Captain, we were served refreshments: Coca-Cola and saltine crackers.

I’m not sure what the selection of refreshments communicates. Were we white visitors, so presented with the wondrous fruits of our homeland? Or was this considered the best? Or was this was all that on hand for our unannounced visit? In any case, it is unfortunate that high glycemic index is used to wash down even higher glycemic index, even if it be only on special occasions. Causes for the rise of diabetes in the developing world are not hard to find.

After hearing what we were planning to do, I stared asking questions about the problems in Amas. I was looking for work to do; if he told me there were problems, it meant we’d have work to do. We could come back. If there weren’t, then we smile and go home. I probed in various areas: health, education, economy. And in each of them, there were indeed problems. When I proceed robotically (as I am wont to do) from question to question, I forget how burdensome it must be to call to mind and to speak the multitude of problems, especially to a visitor. It seemed a sense of shame accompanied this social nakedness.

After listing all the problems, I was beginning to get excited about the opportunity. But the captain must have thought his Barangay’s case hopeless, “So do you still want to work here?” I smiled warmly and with sincerity said, “Yes. Yes I do.”

We finished the interview and decided to move on to one of the sitios (villages). We went to Macagua, and Dale left me with Norlita as he had things to attend to in town.

Adventure in Amas – Part II – The Penglima

Philippines Travel Blog

I spent most of last month in the Philippines on behalf of Rancho Community Church, the church I grew up in. There were reports of a very high child mortality rate and I had been sent with Rancho’s missionary to Palawan to see if anything could be done. To tell the end of the story first, we did find a great need in Malaria and have hired a Filipino team to begin addressing the problem. While I was there, I had time to write down two of the many incredible experiences I had, and will post these here. I hope you enjoy them!

Adventure in Amas – Part I – The Captain

Adventure in Amas – Part II – The Penglima

Degenerate Cultures, Cave Men, and Civilization

The now-dead script of Palawan

Experience in the Philippines

I recently travelled to the Philippines and found out about the Palawano people. My church in Temecula is hoping to help with the material needs (starting with Malaria). My guide here was a missionary who had spent the past two decades mastering the language and even developing a written language for the people.

When we arrived in Manila, he showed me some of his books. In one of them, I saw a strange lettering and asked him about it. He said that that was the way the Palawano used to write. There were a precious few old people who knew the cuneiform-like script. But none of the middle aged or young people were being taught it like they had been in the past; the culture was becoming illiterate. They forgot how to write. For thousands of years, they could write. But over the course of the past few generations, they forgot. One of the major things that defines human civilization is the ability to accumulate knowledge and communicate by text. It wasn’t just lacking in the Palawano, but it had been present and now was lost.

The tribal leaders I’ve talked to seem convinced that their ancestors are disappointed in the way things were being handled. It’s sort of an ancestor-worship version of the American complaint about, “kids these days.”

I noticed the same thing about the Kurians in Kenya. They remembered being able to make baskets, but only a few presently remembered how. They had memories of original music and dance, but the present is just a shadow of the past; it stands tall on the horizon behind, full of power and authority.

The Ancients
I think back to the wonderful stories of the ancient peoples. This theme comes up in good Fantasy and Sci-Fi books. Atlantis, Chtullu, the Numenorians, the Jedi are all ancient. The message is that the olden days were pretty much better in every way. And then there are these unexplained artifacts in the modern world: the Great Pyramid with its math, ancient cities with indoor hot and cold water, swords with aligned carbon nanotubes. Even the physical feats of old mountaineers, of arctic explorers, of Roman legions and of European knights are hard to believe. We describe the generation that fought WWII as the “Greatest Generation”. We are certain that olden-days people could do stuff that it would be challenging or impossible for us to do today.

I was shocked when this idea was validated by GK Chesterton in his masterful historical apologetic for Christianity, “The Everlasting Man”  (free text). Chesterton argues for the moving of the Sprit of God in pagan man (!) and then His animation of the Church with her power and vitality. The book opens with an account of primitive man. While having no argument with the biological evolution up to humans as humans, he argues that there is no evidence for evolution of human institutions. The idea of a development from rude tribal organization to more civilized ones is utterly without empirical foundation.

(I’m about to quote the 1925 work directly where Chesterton describes tribal or indigenous people as ‘Savages’. Be aware that this is the word used in 1925 from a root meaning ‘woods’ and is not a statement about the people’s humanity or worth. It would be inaccurate at this point to recite the catchy line from the Disney’s Pocahontas song: “Savages, savages, barely even human” ; I’m quite sure that Chesterton has a higher view of their value than any Modern who uses the politically correct ‘indigenous people’.)

If we want to get rid of half the nonsense about nomads and cave-men and the old man of the forest, we need only look steadily at the two solid and stupendous facts called Egypt and Babylon. Of course most of these speculators who are talking about primitive men are thinking about modern savages.
But it has appeared to a good many intelligent and well informed people quite as probable that the experience of the savages has been that of a decline from civilization.
It is therefore absurd to argue that the first pioneers of humanity must have been identical with some of the last and most stagnant leavings of it.

But this is in contrast with the ‘scientific’ account of our past: a gradual climb up from lower life forms. I say ‘scientific’ because the account is eminently not experimental. It’s part of a worldview and valid insomuch as we think inference valid. But as Chesterton points out, we never observed prehistoric people. It is an astounding feat of extrapolation to impute people who lived 5000 years go with the characteristics we observe in tribal peoples presently.

The scattered bits of evidence I’ve observed are that tribal cultures are in a state of decline, not stasis (and yes, I did say ‘decline.’ If you object to the use of the word, please, I invite you to write an argument that one cannot make a value judgment on “illiteracy”. Once you’ve done that, you might begin to appreciate the value of writing). And if we are to extrapolate (always dangerous), we should do it based on the albeit small bit of data we do have. And the data I have directly observed shows a downward slope. If we extrapolate this back a few thousand years, we arrive at something like Numenorians and the Great Pyramid, not cave men.

Before I am accused of being a racist, let me flesh this out a bit. If there was not a decline, then illiterate jungle-dwelling people were always illiterate jungle-dwelling people. If there was, then who can know what civilization was once present. Perhaps dialogues greater than Plato's were written, or art that surpassed the Renaissance, or benevolent governance to rival Athens or Philadelphia. If there was a decline, then these cultures might have been comparable in these fields to our own. But if there was not a decline, then they are only equal when there is no value; if we allow relativism to equate the Mona Lisa with a finger painting or Notre Dame with a mud hut, then these cultures are equal. But if there was a decline, and their history was lost, there really may have been an astonishing culture in the past. If we desire to aid them, we don't have to give them the choice between the Western Way or misery in their present state of poverty. We can re-awaken the memories of their own glorious past, beyond the reach of written history, and have them truly develop without simply mimicking the good and bad in the West.

Perhaps they were in stasis for a long time. But if so, why now? Maybe it’s because of population growth. Maybe it’s because of Western influence. Maybe 5000 years was just too long to write (wouldn’t you get tired after 100 generations?). Or maybe something bigger and more mystical is happening; maybe it’s because 2012 is coming up, or maybe it’s the End Times, or maybe it’s in preparation for the next Hegelian step. Or maybe it has been a constant decline from a glorious civilization that could stand against Babylon and Egypt, and after millenia of the candle burning down, the flame of writing was finally snuffed out.