Category Archives: Culture, lifestyle and emotions

Thought #32. Invisible to the naked eye.

Human beings possess an extraordinary quality invisible to the naked eye: the ability to imagine how someone else feels in a difficult situation. The word that describes this quality is sympathy and we must not confuse it with empathy, which has a broader meaning and includes also understanding feelings of people who are in a better situation.

When you have the power of understanding another person’s feelings, you are also the owner of a fantastic quality intrinsically attached to humankind: the faculty of producing mental images of what has not been experienced. It is known as your mind’s eye or imagination. Sympathy and empathy, both need this power to exist.

In layman terms, sympathy is feeling sorrow and compassion, but also showing charity and humanity. Empathy, on the other hand, is purely and simply putting youself in another’s shoes, whether those shoes were luxury or humble.

But, why do humans feel sympathy? If evolution was supposed to favour those who are fitter, where is the need to feel the misfortunes of others? Does not sympathy make you weaker, at least emotionally? In my opinion, social intelligence is one of the cornerstones of humanity, being empathy, but more importantly sympathy, the driving force of social intelligence.

Without being sympathetic, and thus showing a genuine interest in other causes, solidarity or sustainability would have never been considered. Aloofness does produce the contrary effect: meanness, hostility and lack of understanding about the essence of life. The big problems that our societies face can only be solved by using our mind’s eye to imagine how it would be to have a better world.

Without being sympathetic, and thus showing a genuine interest in other causes, hatred and intolerance pop up. In consequence, we cannot expect nothing but war, poverty and a plague of inequalities. And this is the reason why social intelligence is the force to be reckoned with, so we had better praise sympathy. Maybe, one day, these invisible forces will take over the world. Sympathy and empathy are highly evolutional traits that deserve attention and care.

Thought #28. Knocking on heaven’s door.

Is heaven in the sky? Who can say? What we really know is that heaven could be on earth. In fact, I think the reason why life is so exciting lies behind being mortal. It is only by knowing our days are literally numbered that we will do our utmost to live life to the fullest.

Do not try to knock on heaven’s door because no one has as yet ever answered. If you want to achieve happiness, remember that good things come in small packages. Who needs more than a handful of people that really care for them?

In a world of rampant consumerism, it is easy to lose the plot and believe that money brings happiness. Do not allow yourself to live in a fool’s paradise. Fortunately, time has a way of showing us what really matters as some people can be a bit slow on the uptake.

From time to time; occasionally…

Every so often I need
a laugh to stay sane.
Every so often I need
to catch just a plane.

Seldom do I receive
more money than I need.
Luckily, I do perceive
savings run people to seed.

I love living to the fullest,
every so often and more.
I will not bite the bullet,
I would rather hit the dance floor.

A good chat and a hot meal
is everthing that I need.
I would like to issue an appeal
to the public to be agreed.

If it does not make sense,
do not blame me.
I would not take an offence
if you disobey me.

…be true to yourself. Do not let you down.

Thought #25. On free will.

One of the big questions of philosophy is whether free will is tantamount to free action or not. People’s perception of freedom blurs the distinction between will and action because, unless you have lived in a dictatorship or any other kind of system based on the deprivation of liberty, you may not have been confronted with any situation that could undermine your sense of being in control of your thoughts and actions.

Free will is the power of acting without constraints. But will is not action. No matter how much effort you were willing to put in on sunbathing, it would be literally impossible in an overcast winter morning. Many distinguished scholars and renowned philosophers have been trying to unravel the secrets of freedom, and yet the discussion remains inconclusive.

On the one hand, the theory of determinism speculates that everything that happens is predestined to happen in a particular way and nothing could be done to avoid the fate. Should determinism be a sound theory, will would have never existed and, consequently, we should not make value judgments about others’ actions however good or bad they were. Consequently, being morally responsible would be impossible.

But in my opinion, the future, unlike the past, is not yet written; it can be changed. Only in this way  can we set the building blocks of will, actions, and responsibility. Yesterday I read an essay by George Orwell entitled “Shooting an Elephant”. It just so happens that after reading Orwell’s narration of the elephant’s assassination I ended up a bit shocked. Was he trying to convey the message that sometimes people do not have any option but to act against their own will? I have slept on this question.

“Shooting an Elephant” is, like “1984”, a must read. I do not want to spoil your appetite for an excellent essay so I encourage you to actually give it a try. Personally, it has made me reconsider some of my unatoned sins. Sometimes, people are somewhat forced to act unwillingly. Orwell’s essay is full of clues to understand the message he is trying to pass on; if I had to choose a single representative quote from the text, it would be this one:

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”  — George Orwell.

However, to err is human and you can always make the effort to change your ways.

Thought #21. Identity crisis.

What do people need to forge their own identities? Is there any method (scientific or not) to know if you are on the verge of an identity crisis? These are silly questions, perhaps?

Identity is what makes a person (or a group) different from others. Our world is in dire need of finding common ground, and yet having your own identity might be more necessary than ever. Think about, for example, the political crisis that is facing the UK after the Brexit referendum. Are not the British struggling to understand their role in today’s world?

However, I am far more interested in personal identity crisis. In my opinion, the only way we have to know who we are is by asking ourselves whether we are happy or not. Simple as this question seems, it is easier said than done. In fact, inquiring into yourself is one of the most difficult, repetitive and sometimes Herculean tasks you will ever have to undertake. It is an eternal referendum.

In this referendum there are not winners or losers, though. You can be either or both. It all depends. At the ballot box there will be a single vote: yes, no or so-so. You must not allow abstentions because you have a stake in your well-being.

You will find those who argue that such an existential question is not their cup of tea. I prefer to run the risk rather than to avoid it. The reason why knowing your grade of happiness is worthy lies in the paramount human need to overcome difficulties. Why on earth are you going to improve if you do not know that something is not working?

By looking at your reflection in the mirror while asking “The Question”, you may be able to realise that you have nothing to fear from yourself. Chances are that you will feel ridiculously well after casting your ballot and realising that despite the fairly dismal future, you are more than happy. If it turned out to be the contrary, you would have a golden opportunity to ring the changes on the malfunctioning part of your life.

Last but not least, be yourself. It is all you have.

Thought #20. The power of an infectious grin.

Six o’clock in the morning and your alarm clock went off. Last night, you did not sleep a wink, tossing and turning all night long. You felt wretched by those nagging problems. A pile of things to do awaited you at work. On the radio, the weather forecast did not look promising. To top it all, you remembered that the car has broken down. Obviously, your patience was wearing thin at 7 a.m. and you were on the brink of a nervous breakdown. About to quickly abandon your apartment, wishing not to exist, thinking why on earth you are on the receiving end of life… Suddenly, you stumble upon the boy next door. A gentle and broad smile spreads over his face and your dismal day is over. The smile healing powers have emerged.

Smiling is also the universal language par excellence, a beautiful language shared by human beings, a gift from the gods and ultimately, a force to be reckoned with. However, all that glitters was not gold. According to a Scientific American column, the origin of grins and smiles goes back to our ancestors’ times. Through detailed observations of chimps and other primates, biologists and anthropologists have shown how baring one’s teeth denotes, in fact, an explicit threat or a show of unquestioned authority. Further investigation of ape’s smile has produced unexpected results: apparently, the display of a teeth-held grin is more a sign of submission than a show of power. The general consensus among experts is that it is precisely the submission trait what we have inherited.

Smiles and grins have been deeply ingrained in people since the advent of humanity. As any language, this one consists of carefully arranged building blocks; teeth, mouth, face and eyes are involved in the process of smiling. Luckily, evolution left its submissive character behind.

Thenceforth, we learned to combine those pieces to build a splendid array of expressive gestures. We can wear all kinds of smiles. An occasion may arise when you can wear a bright and broad smile because you are proud of something. You could also force a toothless one at your boss if he vetoed you taking any more time off. Just as revenge is sweet, a mocking smile or laughter might be sometimes pleasant. A flashed disarming smile could end up in hasty marriage. The most well-known method to convey an apology is certainly the apologetic one. A polite smile serves as an opening gambit in most speeches. An enigmatic smile may have puzzled you in the past. You should remember the reassuring smile that your parents used to give you. As you can imagine, this list would be never-ending.

One lesson about grinning and smiling is that despite all the beneficial effects, it is normally offered totally free of charge. Take advantage of this feature. Although you should always be dismissive of feigned or forced smiles (disavowal is, in this case, allowed), this must not prevent you from beginning each day with an infectious grin. Promise me!

Thought #18. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Writing a comprehensive essay about beauty is far beyond my ken. I am a mere observer and a simple listener, one who can smell, touch and taste. I am sensible hence I am able to perceive the senses, and not by any stretch of the imagination could being sensible describe me as an expert in the art of unveiling the mysteries of beauty.

I have mixed feelings about beauty. I often feel the urge to take pleasure in delighting myself with something alluring, but at the same time, more often than not the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Maybe this could somehow explain how being in the mood is the key to enjoying beauty in all shapes or forms.

Having said that, I allow myself a dose of insanity and hereafter you will find four different approaches to the concept of beauty. I hope I prove myself and eventually show that there is method in my madness.

One: being ignorant friendly. All that glitters is not gold or how you can hear the ocean in a shell. Do you remember how blissful you became when, trudging through the sand on the seashore, you stumbled upon a big seashell? I bet you would end up holding it up to your ears in an effort to listen carefully to the ocean. What you really hear, pardon me spoiling the enchantment, are the surrounding sounds, but isn’t it beautiful anyway?

Two: being ephemeral friendly. The feast of blossom in spring. Rambling through the field and lanes in the countryside can be of great pleasure, especially on the brink of spring, when bushes and trees are in their splendour. But, sooner or later, autumn will hopelessly arrive and, before long, only silhouettes of bare trees will remain, clear against the winter sky.

Three: being ambiguous (and adverse) friendly.  “La Traviata” or The Fallen Woman. This opera composed in 1853 by Verdi tells the terrible story of Violetta, a prostitute, who ends up agonising while swearing with her beloved Alfredo to live together. Unfortunately, time is up and she breathes her last breath as she remembers the beautiful days lived with Alfredo. The extreme beauty of the music in this Opera makes you believe that you are in front of a comedy. But as life, this opera is a drama, and yet beauty is allowed every now and again.

Four: being true to yourself (self-friendly). I like the picture on the top. I really like it. I love my creation. It shows a boy inside a box, artless. For want of a gorgeous landscape or an appropriate lighting, I simply took the picture at a relatively low speed considering that the little boy was in movement. I panned the camera slowly across the scene, not even seeing through the viewfinder but staring at his soulful eyes, and triggered the shutter gently. This boy did not have any toys so he made do with a box. Isn’t it beautiful? Is not there something magical in his soulful eyes? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Thought #17. A companionable friend.

I soothe myself by having a warm and mind-refreshing bath. Far from agitation and disturbance, far from annoyances and other niggling thoughts, I do my own thing. Sometimes, especially in the past, I would feel as if I was an alien. Not now, not today, maybe not even anymore. I allow myself to take a deep breath, to exhale profoundly, to wander.

All our senses are interlaced, tangled as a stiff and attracting spider web. However, I guess I would not be able to stand a hearing loss. I can now close my eyes, a skilful classical piece of music could do the trick when needed. This one is Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, a masterpiece written for violin and piano. The A tonality is unable to unveil the minor character except for when it is essentially unavoidable, creating an increasing drama in each turn and twist.

A first movement full of energy and tragedy provokes the soul, awakening any hibernating creature. Then comes the energetic and invigorating second, this time apparently for want of drama, able to warm up like the blazing sun of midday. Mid-movement and nostalgic thoughts are triggered again. Before you end up miserable and wretched, a blissful and charming melody takes over. Then it is time for the finale, a hasty but controlled third movement where a sense of unambiguous direction would lead the listener (restive or not) to a charming F tonality. The end. Afterwards, music is silence and silence, your companionable friend.

Talking about musical tension and drama is tricky. Take notice that I have invested literally thousands of hours listening to classical music, and yet I find the experience extremely difficult to unravel. Maybe each person does feel something totally different. In fact, I became fond of this particular piece on 2003. Since then, my response has been metamorphosing like a worm when it becomes a butterfly: from awe to deep love, from enthusiasm to a faded and almost dismissive hearing (observe that I am not saying listening).

Nonetheless, The Kreutzer remains invariably in my “Classical Musical: The Essentials” playlist as though it was a building block of my own existence. I will make a confession, it is aimed at the pastoral reader whose sentient idiosyncrasy or delicacy could have surely been provided with good judgement. When emptiness appears and zest for life wants to run away, I never kowtow to other than Beethoven.

Among the treasures of his vast collection of opuses, Beethoven’s works for Violin and Piano shine and sound with a special and characteristic feature: they can raise me from the grave. A gloomy day, overcast and ice-cold. I feel depressive, Beethoven comes and I let the music interact with me until I am calmed down, resuscitated, alive and soothed.

Thought #7. Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Had I been invited to choose my Desert Island Disc, I would have undoubtedly gone for Bach’s Goldberg Variations. By no stretch of the imagination could I have picked other than the 1981 Glenn Gould recording of them.

Glenn Gould was not fond of live performances. Indeed, he went to great lengths to make it abundantly clear by publishing an essay titled “Let’s Ban Applause” in which he stated that “the purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity”. I totally embrace the message.

The problem of live performances is that more often than not, some audience members cough, whisper, and even yell during events. As if that were not bad enough, they dare to hastily resound the concert hall with premature cheers and applause. Yes, I know I may sound pernickety but silence and sound are inseparable parts of music. Next time you went to a classical music concert, enjoy the silence at the end of each movement (including the last, for God’s sake).

Let’s drop the subject and return to the aim of this post. The Goldberg Variations are a set of 32 pieces: an Aria, 30 variations and a repetition of the Aria. On one level, it is a simple beautiful piece of music, on the other an icon of Western music.

As a self-taught aficionado musician I was able to play the Aria by heart. Unfortunately, I cannot sight-read and my fingers are not ready for counterpoint. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding pieces I have ever learnt.

The music from the Goldbergs is contructed symmetrically. On each variation the cohesive discourse seamlessly advances, creating a charming and moving listening experience. I virtually get hooked with this flawless work by Bach.

Why Gould instead of Murray Perahia, Angela Hewit or András Shiff? Probably because I know that Gould will have never been pleased enough for any of his own recordings. Horses for courses.