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Weekly Commentary - APRIL 6, 2020

The opposite of education is not ignorance, but poverty

It has been said, and quite rightly, that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The reason is clear: both love and hate are in a relationship, be it positive (love) or negative (hate). But in the case of indifference, there is no relationship, and there is no attempt to connect, even negatively, with the other person.

In the same way, the opposite of education is not ignorance, but poverty. The reason, again, is clear: both education and ignorance have a relationship with knowledge, positive or negative. But poverty (understood in the broadest sense of this idea) eliminates all relationship with knowledge because (as it is obvious) its existential urgencies are different.

That is why Gandhi said that poverty is the greatest act of violence that a human being can impose on another. Poverty takes away the dignity of a human being and reduces it to a mere living thing, without a past or a future, immersed in an endless present of suffering.

In another context (but at the same time), the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis (1914-1970) defined "poverty" not as the lack of material resources, but as the inability of one generation to prepare the next generation for the future of that next generation.

In other words, for Lewis, poverty is the highest intergenerational failure and, in fact, the maximum intergenerational indifference for not being able or not wanting for the next generation to have its own future, being unprepared to response to the challenges of that future.

But if indifference is the hostile and conscious lack of relationship between people, what relationship is lost due to poverty or, better still, due to poor education? What are we indifferent to as a result of impoverished education?

We are indifferent to history and, therefore, we live trying to return to a non-existent past and to escape from an overwhelming present.

If we manage to break out of the predicament we have now entered into and which we have built ourselves, it remains to be seen whether current education (worse than the banking education fiercely combated by Freire) has succeeded in preparing the next generation for challenges unthinkable greater than a virus.

Ignorance of the past means that, in the midst of the pandemic, people nonsensically repeat that "Something like this has never happened before", when plagues and pestilence have plagued humanity for countless millennia. And ignoring the present leads to ignoring the warnings of those who, by paying close attention to the present, can already see the future.

If education is not education for the future, then it is not education at all, but rather it is indoctrination, a mental and emotional closure that makes us believe that we are free only because we have the Internet and social networks.

Young people already know that they have no future. Now the "educators" should learn it. Perhaps they will if they abandon their indifference, that, if they stop preparing students for a test and begin preparing them for life. 

There is no going back to normal if the Damocles’ sword hangs over our heads

Over and over again I heard these days the phrase "I hope this will soon be over so we can return to our normal lives." Although that phrase reflects a well-intentioned feeling, it seems to forget something important: there is no normality or return to normality when Damocles' sword hangs from a hair above our heads.

According to history, in the 4th century BC, Damocles so flattered King Dionysius II of Syracuse that the king invited him to change places for a day. Damocles accepted and promptly sat on the throne, only to find a large sword hanging above his head from a single horsehair, with the possibility of the sword falling at any moment.

As Cicero later recounted, Damocles learned his lesson and immediately cast aside any claim to be king, even only for a day. But the one who did not learn his own lesson was Dionysus himself, who remained a tyrant as he always had been, or even worse. 

The current crisis (better said, meta-crisis) created by the pandemic can, metaphorically, be understood as two Damocles’ swords, because, on the one hand, after achieving everything we always wanted (technology, science, capitalism, globalization), now that we are forced to look up, we discover how fragile and vulnerable we are.

And, on the other hand, as South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has already warned, the lessons the virus could teach global leaders and politicians are unlikely to be learned, thus (hopefully not) causing the most dehumanizing and fierce version of capitalism that we have known to emerge. 

That is why we said above that we are not in a crisis, but in a meta-crisis, that is, a crisis where numerous crises simultaneously converge, from what could be considered (from a certain perspective) the first truly global pandemic, to the evident ineptitude of those in charge of responding to the crisis, up to the failure of the global model implemented up to now.

It seems that we like to live with Damocles' sword above our heads because, as children do, we believe that if we close our eyes and don’t see it, that sword will no longer be there. And those who, like Dionysius, got used to living with the sword, continue to do so without amending their lives to dedicate themselves to living virtuous lives, as Cicero asked.

But Damocles' sword is real and it's not just one. As Israeli historian Yuval Harari has indicated on more than one occasion and long before the current crisis, our generation could be the last (or one of the last) before the extinction of humanity (probably to be replaced by intelligence artificial.)

Should we then lose all hope? Of course not! But we should not fall into the temptation of self-deception by believing that it is possible to return to the normality of the past, because there was nothing normal in that normality, as the present makes clear. It is time to co-create a new future, a new beginning, as Bonhoeffer imagined. 

Refusing to see reality does not transform reality: it just hides it

"This is not happening," a friend told me emphatically and full of confidence a few days ago. "This" obviously refers to the global crisis that now affects humanity. But what is not so obvious is what does that mean of "…is not happening", because all the evidence indicates that the crisis, whatever its origin or purpose, is real.

Perhaps feeling my doubts about his expression, my friend repeated "This is not happening", to make me understand that he had not said "This should not be happening" or "This could have been avoided" or "I don’t like at all what we are facing and I'd rather not think about it."

Rather, he clearly proclaimed something absolutely counterfactual: "This is not happening," despite the inevitable conclusion that the crisis is actually happening.

Counterfactual expressions are usually expressed conditionally. "If my grandmother had not died today, she would be alive," my grandmother said every time someone said anything foolish. But, in that case or in similar expressions, the “if” at the beginning of the sentence implies an acknowledgment that the sentence itself, although it goes against the facts, does so intentionally.

But when saying "This is not happening", without any additions (such as "I wish this was not happening" or "I cannot accept that this is happening”) there is no acknowledgment that something totally contrary to reality is being expressed.

In a more direct way: my friend refused to see reality. Obviously, he cannot be accused of anything. In fact, refusing to see reality, to accept adversity, tragedy or challenge, is a clear indication of mourning, that is, of feeling and knowing that something has irretrievably changed and what follows will no longer be the continuity of what it was before.

I sincerely believe that, like my friend, we are all still in a moment of global mourning, of massive disbelief, in which we do not yet accept what is happening to us, because it is painful to recognize and accept our fragility, our mortality. We don’t like receiving the "inconvenient news" that we are ephemeral.

Therefore, we believe that the monster disappears when we close our eyes. Or that it is just a nightmare. Or that someone is hiding something from us. Or that “this” is the same as “that other thing” that has already happened “long ago and in my town”. All those are expressions of denial and mourning, but of self-deception.

And making decisions about a crisis and about the future based on the self-deception of believing that we know everything and that we can do everything is precisely what led us to the crisis.

Meanwhile, the individual and collective mourning continues. We have wasted the past and we have lost the future. And because we know now that the "saviors" (politics, science, technology, money) can no longer save us.

But there is still one more question to be answered: What is the "this" that is “not happening”? Is that “this” something real that we still don’t understand or accept? 

The real crisis is a crisis of personal and collective maturity

Let's be honest: we live in an immature society. It is nothing new: Milan Kundera already proclaimed it decades ago in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Heraclitus already lamented it more than two millennia ago, as his fragmentary writings attest.

To the immaturity typical of a relatively new species in the long history of this planet, we now add our personal and collective immaturity, powered by technological advances that take away our own initiative, by social networks that limit our thinking, and by institutions dedicated to perpetuating the past and continue with the status quo.

Not only do we not think, we don't even think we don't think. It is a double forgetting: we forget to think, and we forget that we have forgotten to think. So, not only does everything become a problem, but everything becomes a big problem. And, since we don't think, we want to solve everything with “things” (money, for example.)

Creative thinking (accustomed, for that reason, to living with the finitude of life) has been removed and replaced by calculating thinking, which does not seek to create, but seeks to obtain results in order to become fictitiously immortal. And in that fiction, we get caught up, telling stories just to appease our ego and massage our narcissism.

The real crisis is not the economy, global pollution, climate change, overpopulation, scarcity of resources, destruction of the planet, educational failure, wars, or pandemics and epidemics. The real crisis is the collective immaturity that perpetuates childish thinking for decades in people's lives.

And it is not an exaggeration. In fact, that’s the reason we have amusement parks that bring fiction "fantasy" to "real life". In these well-known amusement parks, adults enjoy the visit more than children because they never stopped being children. Some researches believe that “maturity” is reached now at 40, twenty years later than a few decades ago. 

It is true that we face great challenges. In a few days we experience more changes than people 200 years ago experienced in their entire lives. And those changes of yesteryear were so slow that sometimes they were not perceived and, because they were slow, people have time to adapt. Today’s changes are sudden, unforeseen, profound, irreversible.

In addition, each day we receive more information than the average person 100 years ago received in their entire lives. And we interact daily with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people almost anywhere in the world, something that until the beginning of the 20th century was considered only science fiction.

And our brain doesn’t know and cannot respond to these challenges. As the American biologist Edward Osborn Wilson said in 2009, we have a paleolithic (prehistoric) brain in a context of medieval institutions and with advanced technology. In other words: we are cavemen and we pretend to be gods. We deceive ourselves to believe we are gods.

In the meantime, nothing is ever solved and, worse still, old solutions to new problems are attempted, a very clear sign of immaturity.

A reduced world of sophisticated science and devalued magic

That little “black mirror” that we have almost constantly in our hands, in front of our eyes, or close to our ears, far from being just an innocent smartphone is, in fact, a world reducer. Every time we use it our world becomes smaller and smaller and, because the reduction is associated with forgetting, we don't notice it.

I hasten to say that I am not against smartphones and I do not intend to return to the time of handwritten letters or clay tablets written in cuneiform. But I am against the fact that it is so easy to reduce our personal world ("world" in an existential, not geographical sense) to only a sliver of the whole human experience.

We not only happily accept that reduction, but we become addicted to it: we can’t pass up but a few minutes before checking the phone to see if we have new messages. And we don't put aside the phone even when driving or when we are with other people next to us.

If the horrifying experience of seeing a driver on the road more interested in looking at the phone than driving his car was not enough proof that the smartphone is an efficient reducer of worlds, then the experience of seeing a young couple sitting next to each other texting instead of speaking should be the definitive proof. 

But why don't we see that reduction in our own world? For the superposition of a twofold self-deception. First, we believe that the smartphone helps us connect when, in fact, it disconnects us. Second, we assume that the only way to access our world is precisely through that smartphone.

The opium of the people has been technologized and it is so addictive that we even grant it magical powers: if the smartphone is not close to us something bad can happen to us. In that way, one of the most advanced technologies the world has ever known is transformed into an amulet, a devalued version of ancient magic.

I think that neither George Orwell nor Gene Roddenberry could have imagined a more unhappy ending for humanity, although both 1984 and Star Trek present suggestions for the narcotic function of technology. At the same time, Arthur C. Clarke already warned that advanced technology leads to this strange fusion of technology and magic.

Nietzsche said that the "last man" only blinks. And that is exactly what we do: we blink at the “black mirror” (and at any other screen) hoping that the next message or a new “Like” will give our life some meaning, or that the next image will make us smile, or that the next “quote” will fill us with wisdom.

As the philosopher Byung Chul Han says, in our time, each one exploits himself/herself and we call that self-exploitation "personal development" or "success". or the name we want to give it. We exploit ourselves and we give magic powers to technology, all meanwhile we live inside a smaller and smaller world. 

How many absurdities can we tolerate in a single day?

Recently an update was made on my computer and soon after a message appeared on the screen: "You have a new notification." Then, I opened the message and read it: "Your computer is not configured to receive notifications." And I literally didn't know what to do.

Let's analyze the issue step by step: if my computer (by my decision) is not configured to receive notifications, why do I receive a notification? Can I get some respect for my desire not to receive them?

And if I receive a notification, even though I don't want to receive them, what is the purpose of notifying me my computer is not set to receive notifications if I just received a notification?

No matter what perspective is adopted or what you want to say, it is an absurdity taken to the extreme. But that absurdity (a notification that informs me that I cannot receive notifications) is only a symptom, a sample, a preview of an immense network of absurdity in which we are so trapped that we even consider it both normal and real.

"That's the way things are," people often say. Another real example: I received a message from the telephone company telling me that the monthly payment had not been made and that if I do not immediately pay the incredible sum of zero dollars with zero cents I will have to pay interest on that amount .

So, I called the company and asked them how it could be possible that if my debt was zero, they would tell me that the payment was late. And if the debt is zero, what will they charge me interest on?

Without departing for a moment from his script, and without paying attention to my impeccable logic, the representative of the telephone company merely told me that I should pay the amount due, even if it was zero. "That's what our records say," he explained.

That is the level of absurdity we have reached and which, unfortunately, grows incessantly. But it is an absurdity that neither has the wisdom of the Zen koans nor the humor of Yogi Berra's sayings.

When a koan asks "What is the sound of one-handed applause?" or "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody listens to it, does it make noise?", the goal is to create the "great doubt" that leads, well understood, to rethink our own thinking.

And when Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra (1925-2015) says " No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded." or "You can observe a lot by just watching", those sayings reveal an unusual confluence of humor and sarcasm so, although absurd, they contain a truth.

But none of that happens with the absurdities of today's life, which neither invite us to think the unthinkable in thinking what we think nor help us to feel the truth involved in nonsense. When technoscience develops its own history, separated from human beings, absurdity prevails and neither Yogi Berra nor Buddhist monks can help us.

Clinging to the "present" does little to build a new, different future

Too often through social networks I get messages inviting me to no longer talk so much about the future and to concentrate on the “present”, the “now”, since, according to those who send me those messages, the “now” is what really exists and, therefore, dealing with the past or the future is, at best, an unnecessary waste of time.

These messages, generally well intentioned, include beautiful phrases like “The ‘now’ a gift. That is why it is called present” or “If you feel anguish, you are in the past. If you feel anxiety, you are in the future. But if you feel peace, you are in the present.”

These phrases and similar ones, although inspiring, reveal a fundamental ignorance of human temporality and a only superficial reflection on time, since, at the same time that the “present” is confused with the current moment, it is affirmed that neither the past neither the future exists and, therefore, we should not pay too much attention to them. 

But that approach fragments and wrongly divides an experience that we existentially feel precisely as undivided because we live time all at once. We remember the past in the present and we anticipate the future in the present. And both the past and the future endure (although they change constantly), while the present vanishes.

Augustine of Hippo rightly said in his Confessions that in the same way that there is a memory of the past there is also a memory of the present and, even more, there is also a memory of the future. And he is right, because "memory" and "remembering" are not the same.

"Memory" comes from the Latin word “memoria” which, in turn, comes from the Latin "memor", which meant "full consciousness", especially constant awareness of something important that, precisely because it is of high interest, deserves our constant attention.

Only in the 14th century "memory" began to be associated with the faculty of remembering and only in the 16th century “memory” was defined as the set of observations from the past still present in our minds.

But long before the meaning of "memory" changed, memory was associated with creativity at its best: arts, thought, science. Among the Greeks, Mnemosyne ("Memory") was the mother of the Muses, that is, of all the inspiring forces humans access to create.

Assuming that talking about the future is a mistake because the future does not yet exist is itself a mistake because it means ignoring that the future already exists in its present future form. In the same way, to "forget" the past is to ignore that the past still exists as the present past.

Believing that the present is the only thing that exists when, in reality, it is the only thing that does not exist, is to cling to the non-existent. And that is the nihilistic ground of anguish and anxiety.

Therefore, to conclude, as the Spanish writer Enrique Santín said, “You remember the past. You live the present. You think the future”.

Somebody wrote an academic paper and quoted me

For several years now, I have subscribed to a site of academic publications and every time a new study is published on a subject of my interest, I receive a notification. But the notification I received last week was different because it was not a specific subject, but a name: mine.

According to the notice, a researcher in South America had written or quoted "Francisco Miraval." I must confess that at first, I was really confused. After all, who could have any interest in writing about me or quoting something I have said?

But then I reflected that I have been sharing my thoughts for many years (in fact, decades) and that perhaps someone, for reasons unknown to me, found in that pile of nonsense something of interest, perhaps because it strengthened an idea presented in his monograph or maybe because it contradicted that idea.

In other words, it would not be the first time that, when using me as an example, someone uses me as an example of what not to do, think, say, or believe. Be that as it may, someone had written an academic research paper and my name appeared in that document. I decided, then, to see the details.

It didn't take me long to discover that the research was indeed focused on what Francisco Miraval had said and done, but not me. The paper was about a lawyer of that name who lived in Spain in the 14th century. (Perhaps my ancestor, but I don't know.)

Then I discovered something else and, I think, something of greater importance: I had fallen into the trap of allowing my ego being played with, of my vanity being encouraged, of my self-deception being perpetuated as if I were an important person. 

In short, I saw my name and thought that the paper was about me, as if I were the only one with that name (which I share with my father and my grandfather) or as if I were unique. And I did not like that discovery because it revealed to me that, no matter how many years one dedicates to philosophy and meditation, everything can be lost in a moment of vanity.

And it is no excuse to say that we live in an era of exaltation of vanity, of exacerbated "Likes", of "Wake me up when I am a celebrity." If we cannot see that deceit and that illusion, if the simple fact that someone uses our name makes us believe we are important, then we are doomed to live trapped in out addiction to narcissism.

That is why, although I do not know the author of the study on "Francisco Miraval", I thank her at a distance and without her knowing of my gratitude because she wrote about "the other" Francisco Miraval, the historical, so influential that 700 years later people still talk about him.

I, for my part, received another lesson on how close stupidity is to wisdom. So close, they always go together.

What can we sow today that could be successfully harvested in 2000 years?

In a recent report in the specialized journal Science Advances, it indicates that seeds that remained in the soil of Judea 2000 years ago were successfully cultivated, growing and bearing fruit. Although this is not the first experiment of its kind, the result leads to the question: what are we sowing today that can be harvested within two millennia?

Let's be honest: most of what we do is so irrelevant, so superficial and also so trivial that even we forget that we have done it. Therefore, hardly anything we do today or say will become of interest to archaeologists and anthropologists of the future.

But we can ask ourselves, what made six seeds of the past could be grown in our time? The answer is simple: they had been kept in such a way that not even the passing of the centuries made them lose their ability to germinate.

Another recent report, in this case disseminated by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii (Italy) indicates that the aqueducts built by the Romans 2000 years ago so that the rain fallen in the center of that ancient city was discharged into the sea are preserved in such good state that now, two millennia later, they are used for the same purpose.

Recall, as is well known, that Pompeii and other nearby cities were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. However, despite this catastrophe and tragedy, the aqueducts continue to function. Why? Because they were built to last, contrary to what happens with the vast majority of the things we have access to today.

In spite of the many negative things that can be said of the Romans, there is no doubt that they excelled in construction because they were building proof of the future, without the idea so common in our time of an obsolescence program to favor inhuman capitalism.

So, what can we build that is so well built that it will last for many years precisely because it is built to last beyond tragedies and catastrophes? And what can we preserve so well guarded and protected that, when the appropriate conditions arrive in the future, what we have saved and protected germinates and flourishes?

Maybe it is not about building something or safekeeping something, but about giving something and, because we give it for the future, give it now in advance so all those we will never meet (and probably will know nothing of us) can enjoy.

To give something for the future is what is called forgiving (for-giving), not in the superficial and devalued sense that word has today, but in the sense of creating a safe and secure environment today, so well built, that it will allow the humans of the future to become fully human. The Greeks had a word for that kind of forgiveness: agape.

Agape is also a devalued word, whose deep meaning, unknown to many, is not to be explained, but lived. As somebody beautifully said 2000 years ago, agape will remain. 

Just because you don’t see the road you can’t assume the road is not there

A few years ago, driving back home on a local road, a truck traveling in the same direction caused such a splash that my windshield was filled with mud, preventing me from seeing the road. The incident was resolved immediately. Nothing bad happended. But those few seconds seemed longer than they really were.

Why this temporal distortion? Because of the “anguish” (so to speak) of not seeing the road, and, at the same time, knowing that I had to continue traveling along that road. And among everything I thought at that time (how to quickly clean the windshield, what to do to keep my lane, how to avoid a new splash), there was something I didn't think: that the road no longer existed.

In other words: it’s absurd to think that just because I can’t see the road (because of the mud attached to the windshield), the road no longer exists. But, if we are honest, that is exactly what we do in the way of life. When we no longer see the road, for whatever circumstances, we believe that road no longer exists.

But why was the mud against the windshield problematic? Because, as is obvious, the windshield is made to look through the windshield, and not to look at the windshield. In other words, if the windshield becomes present (because it’s dirty), then we are in trouble: we no longer see beyond that glass.

The same thing happens, so to speak, with our ideas, beliefs, creeds, and opinions. Most of the time we don't pay attention to them. We don’t see them. In fact, we see reality through our ideas, but we don't see the ideas themselves. But if life muds our journey, those ideas become opaque, become visible and we need to "clean" them to see our path.

However, in many cases (perhaps in most cases), we do precisely the opposite: we cling to "muddy", opaque, closed ideas, beliefs, creeds and opinions. And we say and proclaim that if we do not see the path, that path doesn’t exist.

Because we don't see beyond the windshield of our ideas, our world is reduced. And a reduced world forces us to close our mind, our heart and our will. And then the world is reduced even more, and the cycle repeats itself with smaller and smaller worlds.

When that situation becomes intolerable (and sooner or later it will happen), instead of cleaning the windshield, instead of cleaning the ideas, we adopt a very dangerous attitude, that of self-deception. Not only do we believe that we are right, and others are not, but we also believe that we know more than others and that we are smarter than others.

At that moment, the downward spiral intensifies and then we begin to look for guilty people and scapegoats. Our contribution to the social field of negativity is intensified and, even worse, we infect others with the disease of self-deception, thus increasing the social negativity. 

Meanwhile, life’s way goes inexorably on.

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