Friday, October 28, 2011

On Suicide and the Incredible Gift of Life

I couldn’t sleep and started reading a book I had recently ordered from the US. ‘The Longevity Project.’

I skipped the introduction and went straight to the chapters I was most curious about. The book is built on a life-span study of a large number of people that were born in the early 20th century. –on how they lived, how they thought and how they died. ‘Comprehensive’ is the word!

The book aims to find keys to a long and healthy life, but in the process it also deals with the negative image. Darkness of the mind, timidity, self pity and self destruction; early and violent deaths and the inevitable, suicide.

The book makes reference to a brilliant suicidologist, Dr. Shneidman. Dr. Shneidman did not think too highly about chemical instabilities in the brain as a general explanation to suicide, but was with staggering (and almost spooky) accuracy able to predict personality traits and thought patterns that would culminate in a self-staged goodbye. The chapter went on to describe poison-pills and people who blew their brains out; but also people who lived long and relatively happy lives with few regrets, and who’s only real regret was not to cease more opportunities while they had them.

1 a.m. in the morning this may not be the average choice literature, but whatever you think about it, it is very captivating. Many years ago it would have probably have scared me in the dark of the night, but this time around it’s different.

I have seen enough dark sides of life myself and also through others, to distinguish some of these patterns and personality traits when I come across them. Very briefly we could categorize suiciders into the emotionally motivated and the rationally motivated. There is always an element of emotion; and if we agree that action requires thought, one could even argue that there is also always a rational–or if you will–pseudorational precursor to a suicide.

I used to quarrel a lot years ago with people that claimed suicide to be fundamentally selfish. I still believe that ending yourself is so desperately destructive that one cannot talk about a general rule of self-enhancing selfishness, but with time I have managed to see become aware of some of the grey-zones. There are incidents when I believe a certain degree of selfishness can be claimed if you leave behind strong obligations you have chosen not to complete, but leave to others. But even in these situations the core element of the decision is usually not to pain someone else.

Emotional. Rational.

Emotional can be swift. Something happens and the consequences seems too dire. I heard about a guy who crashed a very expensive car his family owned, plus did a few other small things. His friend who heard the shot told me about it. I am sure his parents would rather want a messed-up son, than one who couldn’t face the bill and ended it. It is strictly not rational and the time-frame it all happened within confirms it. I would call it emotional.

The rational I find easier to understand the mechanics of. It–I believe–is more predictable. It poses as intellectual, but often isn’t. It is like highly selective reading to undergird a very subjective argument in an essay. I know a man who says: “you can always find evidence for what you believe in!” There’s an emotional direction to such thoughts, but the thoughts claim loud and clear: “My name is reason!”

What really struck me tonight was something new.

When you see through the fog you don’t know what the lines on the horizon are; hills, mountains, canyons, valleys? But if you stand there and study every little glimpse of light and shadow the fog gives up, your mind can eventually draw a map of the terrain ahead of you. I have done this myself, after sundown in the winter to match my surroundings to the map when I’ve been lost in the mountains. It works.

What could be more different than emotion and rationale? And do the two have anything in common in a dark and self-destructive mind? I think the fog has let go of so many glimpses of light by now that I’m starting to sense what’s out there. You survive long enough, you watch long enough, you pay attention long enough and you’ll start to see a face–a will. One very determined, tangible evil who once poses as emotion and other times as reason. Gripping the same fundamental weaknesses and lonely parts of the human soul–however different they are–and leading them to the very same place: Life => End, full stop.

Whatever potentials you had left just ran out.

As you start to see him your hair may rise, your pulse increase and fear may come upon you! But it shouldn’t. If you suddenly can distinguish enough of the mountain through the fog, you will know where you are on the map in an instant.

It is encouraging and reassuring! The long-living people in the control-group that were compared to the early suiciders had one regret; all the chances they did not take. The more I see the evil, the more tangible the devil becomes, and he loves hiding! But the stronger you see the shadow, the stronger you see the object who cast it and the light behind it.

Tonight, while not being able to sleep and randomly reading a book, I was reminded about the possibilities of life! –And how some of my own biggest regrets also were not taking more chances. –And that, if there’s a negative and dark image that imitates reason in your life, there’s an even greater God! –And that, when you chose to live, your hindsight will tell you in many years from now, that not living while living was a bigger crime than crashing cars, breaking up, being stupid, failing-while-trying and hoping for the best while the world came crashing down on your head.

15 years ago I spent a year in boarding school of a particular type we have in Scandinavia, while doing a backcountry and sports course. I was rather active. I led the student union, was steeply into the student politics of the school, used the dark-room regularly, sang in the choir, ran off to the nearest mountain for off-piste skiing whenever the snow was falling, had my own keys to the library to prepare work for the union… and distinctly remember regretting after the year was over–at age 17–not taking more chances and getting to know more people.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Seen on Twitter

Famous Last Words:

1. "Hold my this!"

2. "What's the worst that could happen?"

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Eurozone, Solidarity for Sale and the Ghosts of Currencies Past

Last Summer I started writing on an essay I intended to put here on my blog. It was going to be a critique of the EU’s Eurozone. I picked my condensed copy of the Maastricht Treaty off the shelf for the first time in many years, and wrote around seven handwritten pages in preparation.

The arguments were going to be built against these points:
1. The Treaty states that the union works to promote “solidarity” between member states. That can for instance mean monetary aid.
2. I got my copy of the treaty in 1994 and it then stated that the member states should work towards a system of one currency. The Euro that we now have. The intellectual architect of the Euro, Robert Mundell, once famously said: “the optimal number of currencies in the world is an odd number, preferably less than three.” He doesn’t seem so clever now! –though I was never a fan before.

The arguments were going to be that:
1. True “solidarity” should monetarily speaking be helping your neighbour attain his best possible position in the marked. That is not done by feeding him with the surplus money from your own industrial production, in a large scale or on a regular basis. It is done by creating a system where he has access to every competitive advantage that every one else has access to!
2. Just think about the massive competitive advantage Greece would have right now if it still used the Drachmas! The country is, monetarily speaking, currently just worth a few buildings and antique monuments. The labour force is hardly employed, so there is very little work that creates monetary worth. Naturally, every high-fly industrialist in Germany wants to bail them out. At the moment, there are a lot of things that are slowing down the growth in the Eurozone, but Germany is not one of them! As it stands, Germany is earning lots on the Euro, combined with very clever politics of course; and Greece is bleeding because of the Euro, but would in spite of slightly bonkers politics still produce goods under private initiatives if it had a proper competitive advantage. That advantage would be called ‘Drachmas,’ and if they still existed they would be so cheap that you could sprinkle your ice-cream with the coins and decorate your sandwiches with the notes. Goods would sell, people would be employed, money would be earned and the people of Greece could get on with cleaning up some of its government offices. I’m not saying everything would be perfect, but they would be a lot better! –and more importantly, growth could eventually become sustainable! Germany would possibly have to work a little bit harder to compete, but Greece would be allowed a position to sell more… sorry, sell anything at all!

An investor and financial analyst was asked on a recent BBC programme if he thought investors would return to Greece if the planned bail-out package is received from Germany et al. He replied that the bail-out package would eventually run out and the willingness to provide credit to a country with close to no marked confidence would be very low. Spot on indeed!

The interviewer mumbled something about the feasibility to return to the Drachmas and the expert nodded and might have said something containing the word “possible.”

I have never liked the word “solidarity” and I think there are many other words that do a better job. It has become old and worn, and it has been applied in too many situations to make sense to any one situation in particular any more. But whatever specific and nice meaning we have been convinced or fooled into believing that it holds, we have learned another less flattering definition as of lately. You see, between nations in close alliance it can also mean: “Pay your neighbour so he forgets he is broke!” –But you should still keep him from employment.

I like that old word even less now!

So, I was going to write an essay as captivating as a thriller on the topic! And believe me, it was going to be grand! It would be flamboyant! It would be sharp and funny like Shakespeare! –Epic like a gothic knights’ tale! It was going to paint a picture of a scarily real farce; as frightening as your least favourite politician and as much a farce as the management at Fawlty Towers!

But I never got there, cause someone beat me to it! The EU beat me to it!

(Way to go!)

A Walk in the Woods and the Next Ten Years

I’ve rigged a small music studio setup by the window in one of the living rooms here in Norway. Double speaker sets, a couple of Macs and the necessary extras. Sis came over to have lunch with dad today and I joined them in the kitchen. Afterwards I was gonna sit down to do some admin at one of the computers but the view was just too beautiful. I forgot to tell you, there’s a window with almost panoramic view over the city and surrounding hills in front of me when I’m on the computers.

I was dreaming of mountain trekking, but haven’t had the big push to go do it lately. Just been dreaming of the sceneries but I’ve been spending time in the woods instead. It takes less commitment and can be more spontaneous, as it is just a quick drive away and requires no equipment.

I didn’t know whether I was gonna end up in town or in the woods so I left the house in rather normal clothes. No backcountry stuff. I really should be working and writing e-mails, but there was no way I would be able to focus with a crisp frosty view of the hills bathed in sunlight in front of me.

First stop was the hills I can see from the window. The road up the last leg of the hills was icy. I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to get all the way up but I was in the end. The car started sliding a couple of times, but I managed to correct it quite quickly.

I got a surprise when I reached the car-park, right under the timberline. I couldn’t believe how many mountains on the Eastern horizon was already covered in snow! I mean, it’s just a drizzle for now and you can’t ski on it, but from a difference it doesn’t make a difference. –Just that this looks distinctly like Autumn and not ski-season! Deep green valleys with towering white mountains above, flushed in midday sunlight. I took a couple of pictures, but having just a phone it was impossible to capture the impression of grand mountains as far away as the Swedish border. It was worth a try though…

When I started to walk I realized city shoes and cotton socks were probably not a hit after a frost-night, but the road was nice and it soon became warmer. I stopped a couple of places alongside a lake. –Just sat on some rocks for a while looking at the day. The sun was shining and in the hillside the temperature was getting more comfy. At the second place I stopped I saw some cranberries by the side of the track. There ain’t many left now, but you can still find a few good ones. Oooh, and then I saw some more up the hill. –and then some more… and so it went. And then I realized I was almost up on a small ridge and guessed that there would be really nice view up there. Besides, I shouldn’t be too far away from one of those little roads that criss-cross up the face of the small mountain to give access to the army’s installations, and for Summer maintenance of the ski lift. I was sure it would be nice up there!

A few minutes later I was sliding down three steps for every step I took forward and was revealing hitherto unknown layers of wet dirt under a beautiful top-layer of Erica and grass. I saw my light brown suede shoes change colour, to a colour I didn’t like. It was actually quite ironic! I always used to walk around in funky light trekking shoes before I left Norway. They were fashionable in Norwegian cities and I was always prepared when the day presented me with a challenge. How many other people’s shoes have I messed up by the words: “oooh, come check this out!” It was the mountain’s ironic revenge on me and my life! “Wahaha! –have you become a city boy while abroad? Payback time for all the crazy things you’ve made other people do!” Ok, I got it! You win! And it was actually quite fun. Besides, the ridge was just a few more steps away now!

The ridge that looked so nice and dry turned out to be some old brown grass with a marsh behind. On the other side there was no smooth descent into the woods, but a small cliff with a very steep hill under. And as for the little road I had dreamt of, I was far away and there was another marsh and another leg of woods between it and me. I was not too happy about the marsh-idea on behalf of my shoes.

Counting the way I had come up I could now:
A. Chose the lesser of three evils.
B. Chose the most fun of three evils.

Fun is good! There had to be a way through the cliffs!

There was!

After a while I came to a flat plane in the hill under the cliffs. It looked like someone had chipped it out of the rock at some point and I thought “what a lovely spot to put a cabin.” I reckoned that was probably what it had been used for once. I made my way through the thick branches of some threes, and voilĂ ! –there I stood facing right into the wall of a small cabin!

I could vaguely remember the place from many years back. I don’t know who owns it, but it looks like it could have been quite nice at some point. Now woods were enveloping it and someone had ungraciously removed the front door. The cabin’s days were numbered. It looked so sad! Looking like a little 1950’s holiday pearl, it had been left to die. I do think about that quite a bit these days. How things die and give space for something else. Chiefly things like innovation and initiatives. It says about King David that when he had served his generation he went to be with his fathers. His generation! Anything with the word “generation” in it is often surrounded in hype, popular culture or political disagreements on care of the elderly. But more fundamentally, generation means something “finite.” –A timeline cut in both ends. A birth and a death. That’s the first historic consideration you can make out of it: “What’s the container?” –and only then can you ask: “What is it filled with?” Time-container: 1642–1651, filled with what: E.g. The English Civil Wars. We’re all gonna die, and how sad it may be, this once lovely little cabin had served it’s last guests. But the track had not! Countless footsteps that had once trafficked the hill still left their mark. Once nature has accepted a trodden trail it does not give it up very fast. I later found more of these old trails that I knew. People don’t know them today, and they went out of use before my time, but I once used to know them before they closed up too much. Now they manifest in wet grooves in the terrain filled with pebbles or as open rock in a wet hillside. Nature is slowly swallowing them, and you won’t know what they are unless you know what you’re looking for. Anyway, my shoes and I were grateful to all the people that had once walked up and down the hill. We had had enough mud for a while.

I was back on the road again. I didn’t want to follow it all the way to the end, so I decided to aim for a small hill before the vast marshlands that lead you down towards the fjord on the other side. I sat up there for a while enjoying the view and taking some half successful camera-phone pictures before walking back.

I used to visit places like this, sometimes several times a week. And I would live for the snow and mountains on the horizon. I’m looking back at an era and I’m not really sure what I’m doing in Norway yet. I like being home more and more, but last time really lived here I was this active little trekking-guide/ skier kid. I don’t think I had realized fully how much older I had become, until I looked into some familiar old mirrors I knew here in Norway this Summer. I’ve often felt older than I am, so I might just be younger than I think… as usual. But still…

After a while I came back to the car and tried to shoot some more pictures of the snowy mountains on the boarder to Sweden. Big green woodlands and a grey/white horizon under a blue sky. Really nice, but the mountains were too far away to catch them properly in the frame of a phone-camera.

Next, I set sail for the sea and decided to drive around the hills down by the fjord. Picturesque was the word, but I was just driving right through it all, catching every impressionist’s impression in the same big bag. –Like a little kid with an insect net in the wind. It’s like “good view = happy, period.”

I thought of the mountain treks I had lead and all the people I had introduced to the outback, the youth works and organisations I had taken part in, and the free spirited crazy things I had loved so much and wondered if I had left anything lasting? Karen Blixen’s words played in my head in Meryl Streep’s voice a couple of times: “If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me?”

I was 17 and wanted to climb everything with a slope, ski everything that was white and paddle in every little stream the rain left. I used to think of all the fun I was gonna have the ten next years; now, the last decade. Looking back, I got almost everything I dreamed of and a whole lot more. But with time I have stopped asking things like: “will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?” or whatever would be the Norwegian equivalent of Baroness Blixen’s African adventures.

The King’s writer was right that David only passed on when he had completed the task of serving his generation. But no matter how learned the writer was, he didn’t have the benefit of our three thousand years of hindsight. People that go above and beyond in serving their generations usually leave a much more far-reaching legacy. Do you carry dreams of how society, your family, your city, your school or your business should look like? If you give it heart and soul, the next generation may still not sing a song of you, but they’ll be lifted up on the shoulders of your work. My grandparents left my sister and me some of their savings. Not little and not a fortune, but they invested what they could in us. They had been gone for roughly ten and fifteen years when I was a mid-twenties student in Singapore with urgent need for a very expensive Mac to mix music on. For the rest of my life I’ll know that some of my most important skills were obtained, and some of my most important essays were written on the back of the work invested by my grandparents. Proverbs 13:22 says that, “a good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children,” and thus we see that he is allowed to serve more than just his own generation.

I hope the next ten years are less defined by who I am and what I do, but more defined by what I leave.