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Weekly Commentary - January 18, 2021

Humbly and respectfully share what you know: that’s the foundation of wisdom

Many years ago, when I was still in college and one of the subjects of study was Greek, at that time I went to visit my cousins in Uruguay and when walking along a beach I noticed an interesting inscription on the door of a house. Then, I said, “Zoé. Life”, and I kept walking.

A few steps later, I stopped and discovered my cousins were still in front of the door of the house, looking at the same inscription in Greek that I had seen a few seconds before, but amazed that now someone had finally "deciphered" the mystery of that inscription.

They told me then that for years they had passed through that place almost daily, always noticing those strange three letters in front of the house, but not knowing what they meant. And one day, I arrived and suddenly I clarified the meaning to them. But the truth is, what was “almost a miracle” for them was simply the result of a few years of studying Greek in college.

I remember that anecdote every time I meet someone who assumes that I know what I know (practically nothing) because I have absorbed it from some strange source, and not because I have dedicated decades to study.

In other words, I have no superpower and there is nothing magical or supernatural in my (almost non-existent) knowledge. In fact, many of those who, before or after me, traveled a similar path of study have reached levels that I can only dream of. And situations like the one I went through years ago with my cousins put me back into my own ignorance.

For this reason, when I meet someone who amazes me with what they know because they know it spontaneously and share it without boasting or arrogance, I enjoy it greatly.

A few weeks ago, for example, I met a friend to deliver something to him. Due to the pandemic, we agreed that I would not get out of the car, so the transfer of the package was made with me inside the vehicle, and my friend and I both with our arms outstretched.

After receiving the package, my friend told me “That doesn't sound good” and, using only the sound of my car running, he accurately detected a problem that otherwise would not have been detected in time and it would have costly to repair.

I can read and understand Greek, but I can't hear and understand cars like the person I just mentioned. There is no point asking my friend to translate Greek and there is no point in asking me to diagnose a car problem by listening to its sound.

But it does make sense to share that knowledge when it is prudent, necessary, or possible. After all, sharing knowledge with others in the right circumstances and at the right times is the very foundation of wisdom, both personal and collective, with the humility of knowing that you don't know and respecting those who know.

It is time to wake up from the dream of believing that we are already awake

It could be said that throughout history, great thinkers and mystics share the same and urgent message for each of us, regardless of our culture, language, nationality, or other personal factors. And that message is: Wake up!

In current times and moments (chronological times and kairological moments, a distinction that we have already lost), we live asleep and believe that we are awake and therefore never wake up and remain as asleep as before, confusing our mental fantasies with reality.

Already in ancient times Heraclitus complained about those who lived asleep and, therefore, were unable to connect with others and with the universe, living -without knowing it- within a confinement of self-destruction that at the same time destroys the lives and futures of others.

Then, in his famous Allegory of the Cave, Plato graphically helps us to visualize that life of living asleep believing that we are awake, mistakenly assuming that the reality we know is all reality and the only possible reality. Thus, we prefer the permanent chains of ignorance to the temporary blindness of seeing the light for the first time.

Centuries later, Calderón de la Barca reminds us that "The king dreams that he is king, and he lives with this deception, commanding, arranging and governing." In that well-known expression of Life is a dream, Calderón emphasizes the word "deception" and rightly warns that the person who clings to that "deception" will wake up "in the dream of death."

Last century, Borges wrote somewhere (I don't know where) that the person who really begins to wake up will wake up more times than he went to sleep and began to dream. In other words, if you dream that you dream and in your dream you dream that you dream and so on several times, when you begin to wake up you will wake up more times than the dream levels you had.

And that is necessarily so, I add, to avoid the pernicious self-delusion of believing that because one has already awakened once then one is already awake. The levels of consciousness and self-consciousness are so many that awakening is both a single and multiple act, as Ksemaraja taught in his Doctrine of Recognition a thousand years ago.

Only a few years ago, the well-known trilogy The Matrix exemplified the possibility that our entire existence could come to be lived as a kind of technologically induced dream. A platonic, but technological cavern, where we believe we are autonomous humans, but we are just mere batteries totally manipulated by intelligent machines.

Be that as it may, we are still asleep. Perhaps in some moments we managed for a few seconds to half open our eyes and see reality briefly. But immediately, thanks to strong social and cultural conditioning, we close our eyes again. So, we "live" believing ourselves in control when we are controlled and accepting all deception as if it were true.

But can we really wake ourselves up from our own sleep? You find the answer. 

The more connected we are, the more unconnected and fragmented we become

The great paradox of our time is that the more connected we are through all the technologies now available to us, the more fragmented we are within ourselves and, in fact, the more separated we are from others, from nature, from the universe, and even from ourselves.

It has been rightly said that the question is no longer "Who am I?", But "How many am I?", Because our "I" (which in reality does not even exist) is no longer one, but many. And those “many”, in a kind of enhanced neurosis, are so many that we no longer even get to know them all. And nothing unites them, except that “we” meet each of “them” every day.

Am I who I am at work? Or the one with the family? Or am I the one who is alone, and no one sees what I do? Am I the one who goes to church services every week or am I the one who passionately watches sports? I certainly am not the one who posts messages on social media.

The tragedy is that now that I can see live what is happening in remote countries and I can participate in unexpected and profound educational experiences on the other side of the world (recently, for example, I participated in an online seminar with a German teacher teaching from Egypt), I can't communicate with myself.

This "connection with everyone" is thus deceptive because it is a connection that disconnects, that fragments, that divides and that, ultimately, separates. It is a connection that, by forcing me to put on a mask (that of an employee, a religious person, a friend, or whatever) prevents me from maintaining a genuine and authentic contact and leads me to forget myself.

Obviously, I am not against technology (although I dislike what is seen and published on social networks), nor do I dislike the possibility of "connecting" with the world.

But that connection is so fictitious that the person on the other side of the screen during a video conference wants me to believe that they are in the mountains or in space, when in reality they are simply in their office. In other words, in order to communicate, we must even hide where we really are.

And where we are is separated from nature (we consider it “natural resources”), separated from others (there are no “others” in a hyper-individualistic and narcissistic society), and from ourselves (we are the product of a culture and a history in which we never think and act according to how the market manipulates us to which, voluntarily or not, we contribute).

Although we have more access to information and faster than at any other time in history, we are not wiser for that. And although we can directly or indirectly access the most brilliant minds in history, we no longer think, but merely calculate. In this way, the future closes and we fall into the worst addiction of all: we become addicted to ourselves.

Why do I need to prove to a robot that I am human and not a robot?

With certain and annoying frequency, to access websites I am asked to prove that I am not a robot and, therefore, to verify that I am human. They then show me mixed images of various elements or places and ask me to select a specific element or place.

The interesting thing about this is that I, a being human, must prove to a robot or artificial intelligence that I am not a robot or artificial intelligence and to do so I must go through a simple test that any artificial intelligence would easily pass in a matter of milliseconds.

Perhaps, then, it is my slowness in selecting the correct answer that makes me human. Or maybe it's the mistakes that I make because if when they ask me to select all the mountains that appear in the image, I must also mark those that for me are simply hills.

Be that as it may, due to delay or ignorance, either of these two options seems to be enough to convince a non-human intelligence that I am human. But there is an even bigger problem: if I want the robot to prove that it is a robot and not a human, I have no way of doing it.

Obviously, I can ask a direct question, like "Are you a human being?" But that does not guarantee that the answer "Of course I am" means it is a human, since the robot could have been programmed to describe itself as an artificial human and respond, without lying, with "Yes, I am".

Any other question I ask could be answered in the same way, so that, without being untrue, artificial intelligence reveals its "humanity" without revealing its "artificiality." But there is an even bigger problem: you never ask robots to identify themselves as such.

We humans must prove that we are human, but we do not require robots to do the same. Think about the well-known and popular chatbots, which, with current technology, can have a full, complete, and coherent conversation without us ever suspecting that we are not conversing with a human.

This asymmetry in the need to verify or not the humanity of the interlocutor leads us to suspect that we are using artificial intelligence as a mirror in which to see our own humanity, but without caring how dehumanized it is to see ourselves in that mirror.

We kneel in front of our own creation and ask it to humanize us, to recognize us as human. And that is dehumanizing because the human being, as a life project, does not have a fixed essence, much less a definition. In other words, my humanity doesn't need to be verified by artificial intelligence for me to be human.

Before, as a measure of humanity, we compared ourselves with God or with gods, or with angels or demons or animals. Now, we compare ourselves to the artificial and we thank you for considering us human. It’s an unacceptable mockery of our own humanity.

What’s the point of looking at the Moon if we should be looking inward?

I recently published in a well-known social network a photograph that I took of the moon at midmorning, with a blue sky and, therefore, with the moon of that same color. Shortly afterwards someone asked me, in a good way and with the desire for dialogue, why it was necessary to look at the moon.

My immediate response was that we look to the moon as a way of reminding ourselves that there are elements beyond our control and beyond our reach. Obviously, we do not dictate to the moon which path it should follow. and, with very few known exceptions, human beings are far away from the moon.

In turn, my interlocutor's response was immediate: if we look to our inner self, we will also find elements of reality that we neither control nor are totally within our reach.

I thanked my interlocutor for his correct observation and the dialogue ended there. But the truth is that looking up and looking in is, ultimately, one and the same movement. Since ancient times it was taught that "As above, so below". Or, put another way, human beings are a microcosm.

It could also be said that who does not see himself/herself when looking at the moon, will not be able to see the moon when looking inside himself/herself. Or, in other words, whoever does not connect with the cosmos will not be able to connect with himself/herself.

That’s nothing new. Heraclitus already said that "The way up and the way down is one and the same." Looking at the moon, or, if you prefer, looking at the immensity of the universe "outside" us, and looking inwards, at the universe "inside" us, is, then, a single movement, a single path.

And although some insists on perceiving them as two, even so, they are inseparable, as Kant indicated when he spoke about the "starry sky above me" together with "the moral law in me." Kant said that the contemplation of the starry sky and the moral law filled his "soul" with "admiration and respect."

For this reason, it can be said that looking at the moon (or the stars, or the universe) is an invitation to rediscover oneself within the framework of our universal existence. Or, if you like, it is to transform our identity from a “personal” identity to a universal identity (identification).

And looking within is an invitation to rediscover the universe within each one of us, to become conscious of our consciousness, to awaken to our true being to find that being turns into nothingness, as Keiji Nishitani explained last century. (But that “nothingness” is not the nothingness of a “not a thing”.)

It is unfortunate that my interlocutor considered that looking at the moon and looking inside are mutually exclusive when in reality they are a single movement of the soul (or of the spirit, or of the mind.) After all, what one "bounds" in the heaven is "bound" on earth, as someone already taught two millennia ago.

Have we human reached our maximum bandwidth capacity? Yes, it seems

Spanish philosopher Marina Garcés maintains, and with good reason, that we humans have renounced (abdicated, I would say) our responsibility to be and become better. In other words, we have renounced to the future, or, if you prefer, we no longer seek to expand our consciousness or our experiences.

Having given up being better and precisely because of having done so, the future has become a perpetual repetition of the present (that is, a constant nightmare and punishment) or a grim apocalypse that can only be avoided by returning to the past. In this way, "salvation", however it is understood, is no longer connected with a future hope.

In other words, we live without living, trapped in an uncertain present that, by constantly changing, never changes, longing for a past to which we will never return no matter how hard we try and unable to access a future that, regardless, it presents itself as threatening and destructive.

In a few words: we are zombies, the living dead who roam the world disconnected from the world, walking without going anywhere, looking for what they cannot find, irrational and incorrigible, without consciousness of their own or of others. 

We are, as Garcés says, posthumous. We abandoned the narrative of history as constant progress, but with nothing to replace it. No history and no future for us. 

But how and why have we reached that sorry state in which neither the future of the planet nor the future of humanity moves us enough to assume or resume our responsibility of being better? How and why do we prefer to live in a world of fantasy, fiction, and trivia rather than living in a world of responsible adult humans?

One possible answer, which has been offered hundreds of times over the past two decades, is that humans have surpassed our ability to process stimuli, data, and information. The "bandwith" of human perception has limits and we have exceeded them, overwhelming both our brain and our mind, now unable to understand the world and reality.

Many experts claim that modern technology and specifically smartphones (in fact, portable microcomputers) are responsible for having pushed us to the limits of our ability to process data because we now literally have more information in our hands than we need or that we can access.

It could be said that technology has trapped (almost) all of us within an immense virtual enclosure similar to those well-known casinos in Las Vegas where the senses are constantly stimulated to the maximum, to the point that people lose track of place, day, and time.

Or, in other words, we are inside the Platonic cavern, although with more lights and with a better show. Also, physical chains were replaced by wireless connections. But the result is the same: we have so zombified and infantilized ourselves that we have forgotten who we are or can be.

As Garcés says, the answer is to reactivate our critical thinking, a challenging, difficult task in today's world.

Time to give thanks to our fate, and not for our friends?

The famous Thanksgiving Day is celebrated this week in the United States and, leaving aside any explanation about its origins and customs, it is clear that this year an element of that celebration has changed: Latinos no longer give thanks to God or for their friends. Actually, they do, but not at the same level as before.

According to a recent national survey published by LifeWay Research, Latinos in the United States are the group that is least grateful for their friends. Only slightly more than half of Latinos express that appreciation, compared to three out of four people in other groups who are grateful for their friends.

But perhaps the most important change compared to previous years is that Latinos are the group most likely to thank fate, and not God or family, for what happens to them or for what they have accomplished.

In fact, on a general level (regardless of the group in question), the family has displaced God from the first place on the list of whom one is grateful. In the context of the current pandemic and after a long stay-at-home time, it makes sense to feel closer to family members. 

But among a significant number of Latinos, and more so than in any other group, neither family nor God tops that list, but fate.

That choice of who (or what) to be grateful to in the first place and above any other person or entity could be analyzed and explained in numerous ways, obviously including the well-known fatalism that has been a part of mindset, actions, and decisions of Latinos for centuries throughout the Americas.

It could also be said that the decision in 2020 to thank fate arises from the arrival of a pandemic that seems to arise and arrive almost on a whim and impersonally, that is, in the same way in which, it is believed, fate acts. In other words, we are where we are because fate wanted it, even if fate cannot really want anything.

But there is another possible explanation: understanding "fate" in the sense of one of the constitutive pillars of Western culture (if there is a “Western culture”) that now, feeling that culture is collapsing, seeks to recover to give it back. solidity to something that staggers and is about to fall.

Two and half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that, "for the human beings, their character is their fate." Here, "character" is "ethos," the Greek word that later gives us "ethics." And fate is "daimon", which has nothing to do with the demon, means the "true self" or the "higher self".

For Heraclitus, therefore, the most human “thing” about human beings (anthropos) is to establish a way of life, a dwelling (ethos) that allows us to connect with our true selves (daimon) and live according to that connection. In other words, our "fate" is to become what we already are.

Perhaps that is why we should give thanks for those who still thank fate.

“You are a legend in this city”, they told me. They are wrong.

Recently, at the end of a presentation on community issues, a participant told me: "You are a legend in this city." Although I appreciate the kind words of that participant, the error of that appreciation is not only obvious, but serious: I am not a legend, nor do I pretend to be it. But that sentence got me thinking.

If I understand "legend" in the sense of someone famous, known, or prominent (for example, of "a sports legend"), I certainly am not and will never qualify for that category.

But if "legend" is understood in a more literal way, that is, returning to its etymological meaning, it could then be said that we are all a "legend" or we are invited to be it, because "legend" comes from Latin and means something like “Things that can or should be read”. Now, we are not talking about reading books, but about another type of reading.

"Legere" in Latin does not mean "read" in the usual sense of that word, but rather "collect." In fact, “collect” is related to “lecture”. The root “lec” means something like “to gather in such a way that what is gathered can be understood and interpreted”. In turn, "lec" is connected with the Greek root "log", as in "lógos".

In this context, "legend" refers to those elements of reality, material or immaterial, real or imaginary, that have been gathered and connected in some way that become intelligible, or at least that is how we perceive them.

This interconnection between the different elements of existence is not immediately evident or patent, that is, it must be “read between the lines”. And that ability to read (legere) between (inter) lines is what we call “intelligence” (inter-legere). The connection between "legend" and "intelligence" is clear.

The legend, then, is the result of having read the reality between the lines until it is comprehensible and, in order to share that reality, the “reading” thus done becomes a narrative, a story. When that story is repeated from generation to generation and, therefore, guides people's lives and decisions, it becomes "legend", or mythos in Greek.

In other words, the legend, when we analyze it in some depth, is not a story of the past without any basis or a lie repeated throughout history. Nor is it just a cloak of fame or popularity that everyone talks about. “Legend” is having “read reality” until finding its interconnections and making a story out of that reading.

Perhaps because of my work as a journalist or as an educator (that is, because of my storytelling work) someone, with the best of intentions, has assumed that what I do is “legendary”, and to some extent it is, if we understand it as find and share those connections that only exist “between the lines”. But I am not a legend.

One thing is certain: as an old man once taught me. one begins by reading books and ends by reading people. In that sense, we are all legend.

“You can only see the moon at night” and other falsehoods I learned as a child

As a child I learned that, just as the sun is only seen during the day, the moon is only seen at night. Until one day when I went to the backyard to enjoy the sunshine and, when I looked up, I saw the moon. What I had been taught (even unintentionally) was patently false, but that was not my first thought.

When I saw the moon by day, I first thought that I was seeing wrong. Maybe it wasn't the moon. Maybe it was something else: a reflection in the sky, a kite, a plastic bag, or a balloon carried by the wind.

As Mark Twain said: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? " My eyes were lying to me, I thought. There could be no other explanation: trusted adults taught me the moon could not be seen during the day and therefore, contrary to what my eyes showed me, what I saw could not be the moon.

But that there was nothing wrong with my eyes and that the object that I saw was the moon. So, I had to look for an even more "catastrophic" explanation to reconcile what I was seeing with my beliefs: something was wrong with the universe.

Perhaps the moon had gone out of its orbit. Or the earth had stopped rotating. Perhaps there would be a collision between the moon and the earth. Something in the heavens had stopped working overnight and now, as my eyes confirmed, the moon was visible by day and we were all in danger.

But if that were so, how could it be that everyone around me was so calm? And why were the media not talking about the impending catastrophe? For a moment I thought that I was the only one, or at least the first one, to see the danger. But I soon discarded that hypothesis, because it made no sense to think that I was the only one looking at the sky that day.

Then there was only one option: that teaching that the moon was only seen at night was false. But it was very difficult to accept that option because then it would be necessary to admit that those same adults who had taught me that the moon was only seen at night could also have taught me other falsehoods.

Over the years, I finally accepted that indeed that was what had happened: relatives, teachers, religious leaders, counselors and many others, with or without the desire to deceive me, in any cases, they had deceived me into believing that what they said it was true, when in fact it was not.

Getting rid of that past of obvious (and not so obvious) false teachings, acquired from others or by myself, was not an easy task and, in fact, it still continues because I still do not know how many other beliefs that I previously accepted as true will change next time I look up to the sky.

Maria walked 2700 miles through four countries. But that’s not the story

Maria (the name and the story are real) worked her entire life as a teacher in her native Central America. But work did not generate the minimum income to meet the basic needs of life. So, one day, she decided to do the unthinkable: walk from her city to the United States. But that's not the story.

María is one of those people who dared to walk 2700 miles and on that road she faced numerous dangers, slept next to rivers or under trees, ate every other day, and had no clothes to change or a place to wash herself. Eating fresh food was clean hands was a luxury. 

But that's not the story either.

On the way, María suffered all kinds of circumstances, excluding physical assault, but including the theft of her few belongings, extortion to cross certain places, persecution by immigration and law enforcement officer and by gang members, and many moments without knowing if she would have the necessary mental and physical strength to live one more day.

But that's not the story either.

At the border with the United States, María managed to show that her family was waiting for her in this country and, therefore, she was able to enter legally. Maria then traveled, also on foot, the distance from the border to the home of her relatives. Once there, her own relatives told her to leave and María was literally left on the street. She was homeless for a year.

But that's not the story either.

During her time experiencing homelessness, with no other available resource but her determination, Maria visited numerous community centers, charities, churches, and pro-immigrant groups to ask for help. And in all cases, reasons were given not to help her. María, legally in the United States and in a major American city, continued to live by rivers and under trees.

But that's not the story either.

What then is then the story of a woman who walks thousands of miles in some of the most dangerous places in the world, and who is betrayed by her family and rejected by those who are supposedly dedicated to helping people like her?

The story is that Maria made all that long six-month walking journey and experienced that long year of helplessness with her severely disabled 20-year-old son Ruben. Maria made the dangerous journey to give Ruben a better future.

Recently, just before a snowstorm with historically unprecedented low temperatures arrived, Maria found a place to stay and a group of people who are helping her and her son in different ways. She is no longer living on the streets, but she and Ruben still face many challenges before achieving a minimum of stability and independence. 

Maria has long since stopped praying to God, but she never stopped crying for her son. As a mother, she intuitively knows what the Talmud teaches: the gates of heaven are sometimes closed to prayers but are always open to tears. And that is the true story.

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