To be remembered

SUNDAY, 20 FEBRUARY 2000

Tradition was a hallmark of the high school where I spent my teenage years. And as it befits a school priding themselves on tradition, photographs of six decades of first rugby teams hung in a place where every young boy would be confronted with the possibility of his own face against that same wall. Sometimes, if you were curious enough and you had time, you could pause for a few minutes at a photo to put names to faces. If one had this opportunity, you’d notice a strange term appearing here and there, among all the John Steyns and Louis Bothas: “Another One”. I could never figure out how it could happen that the names of these guys were somehow forgotten, for they must surely have had names! This notion that not everyone was remembered, stuck with me.

A person is born, and as time goes by, he begins to discover the world he lives in. He starts learning how things work, what he must do to survive, what he shouldn’t do to stay out of trouble, and what is generally expected of him. Eventually this person realizes that everyone is, to some degree, like him; as he is, to some extent, like everyone else. Everybody eats, wears clothes, brushes teeth, gets angry sometimes, laughs and speaks in languages that most people in the vicinity understand. He realizes if he wants to survive and stay out of trouble he should follow the example set by others. He should fit in with his surroundings. He must try to be like other people who are part of his world.

As life is, at some point he also becomes acquainted with the phenomenon that people die. He sees, and possibly experiences, the great grief: people crying, and an atmosphere that hangs over the house that he has never before encountered. This young person can certainly not be blamed if he thinks this is how things are going to be from now on – a member of the family has died, and no one will ever see him or her again. But, the weeks and months pass, and he realizes that his mother and father have again started laughing every time the dog does something funny, and the lawn still gets mowed every other Saturday. The life of this youngster also continues in a way similar to his life before the Big Event.

These occurrences make a deep impression on the young child: Someone who had always been there, was one day no longer there, and life continued.

The same thing might happen again – this time a grandmother or grandfather or an uncle or aunt, perhaps even someone who had been running around on the playground with him the other day. The same drama plays itself out again: people cry, whispered conversations, and the silence that muffles even the dog’s barking. But once again it does not escape the child’s attention that the adults still go to work every day and every evening the family still eats dinner – just like before.

The impression that people die and that the world continues without them – like a train that offloads passengers before continuing its journey – is entrenched in this youngster’s mind.

At this point, it’s only a matter of time before the child realizes that he, too, will someday not be here anymore. And as with all the others who have died, the world will also continue without him. Then, too, someone will read the news on TV, someone will crack a joke somewhere, and all the dogs in the neighbourhood will continue barking at anything that moves during the night.

As the child grows older, he’s also exposed to the names of people long dead, but for some reason remembered. In one community, it’s Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.; in another, Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe; and in yet another part of the world, Bruce Lee or Mao Zedong. The child realizes that there are some people who didn’t just die to be forgotten after a while. He realizes some people do things during their lifetime that causes them to be remembered. They’re remembered in school books, in magazines, in newspapers and on TV. Perhaps they’re preached about Sunday in church. Someone might talk about them on TV or around a campfire. And he may read in a magazine how people still celebrate their favourite singer’s birthday decades after his death.

The child looks at himself and at those around him, and the time comes when he wonders where he fits into this Hierarchy of the Remembered. Will his face someday appear on stamps? Will people still remember his birthday, years after he had died? Will his name still be mentioned in the occasional conversation?

The average person knows he or she is important to a small group of people. They know the woman who reads the news on TV won’t shed any tears when they die, but their parents and siblings will certainly be sad for at least a few months. For some people that is enough – to know they will be remembered by a small but significant group of people. Others hope at least a few hundred people will one day pitch up at their farewell party. And then there are people who won’t lost any time thinking about these things, but whose funeral will bring an entire city – even an entire nation – to a standstill.

On one side of the spectrum, we have the man who was a capable leader, perhaps the hero of a political revolution, whose ideas will still be studied centuries after his physical demise. This man may have co-produced a few children who may have given him many grandchildren and great grandchildren. The man on this side of the spectrum may die at an old age surrounded by his large family. His ideas and his well-documented words and deeds will live on in institutions, libraries, and as part of people’s general knowledge. On the other side of the spectrum we have a man who had no brothers or sisters, he never married, never had any children and not many people called him a friend. He never wrote any books, never produced any musical hits, never built anything, and never designed or invented anything that would still be useful long after his death.

The one person’s name will live on. He will be remembered. The other guy will be remembered as … just another one. People would later refer to him as the one who worked in Capacity X in Office Y, or as the man who lived in the Red House. Ten years after his death not many people will still remember his name.

Many of us cherish a desire to be remembered for things that we value. But is this anything more than a quest to feel good about ourselves? Some would say it is precisely this desire that drives humans to do things never done before, or to accomplish something that requires a lot of hard work and dedication – something that will ultimately have value for more people than just a single individual wanting to feel good about him- or herself.

What is it that makes people seek recognition? Why do people hope to be remembered long after their seats on the train had become cold?

Whatever it is, it drives people forward. It drives them to break new ground, and sometimes to give hope when others need it most. It motivates people to acquire skills that put them in unique positions; to improve their own lives and perhaps also the lives of everyone around them, as well as those who will come after them. Unfortunately, this quest for recognition is also the fire that drives people to unleash wars, and to destroy rather than to build.

Let there be consensus: let those who deserve it, be rewarded with a postage stamp after their death, and let their birthdays be remembered. And let the names of those who seek fame in destructive ways (and in some tragic cases find it) be remembered as the result of the dark side that sometimes overwhelm the light.

Shall we say seeking recognition is a good thing then, as long as it produces a mostly positive legacy? To thus be remembered for a good contribution – whether a heroic deed or a life of devotion to a good cause.

Each one of us is ultimately confronted with questions: Where in this Hierarchy of Being Remembered do you fit in? Where do you want to fit in? And finally, for what do you want to be remembered?

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Icarus journal, entries # 13 ~ 15

SATURDAY, 14 AUGUST 1999

# 13

Life is a struggle – a struggle for a higher existence. Your daily life is a series of actions and choices that result in you either advancing to an improved existence, or where you increasingly go backwards. Every position in which you find yourself at any given period of your life is either better or worse, or the same as before (in terms of what you experience with your senses, not necessarily in philosophical terms or even physiological terms). The concrete meaning of this higher existence varies from person to person. The process of defining your specific Higher Existence is part of your struggle.

# 14

The meaning of life lies in this pursuit, this struggle to do better, to attain a higher level of existence.

To learn anything regarding universal truth, start by searching within yourself. Look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself questions. Get to know yourself and you will begin to understand the truths of life.

Is it not true that a person, without necessarily thinking about it, is constantly changing things and trying to do things better once he or she discovers a particular way of doing things is causing them harm, or fails to bring them fulfilment, or is simply not good enough to bring an endeavour to successful completion? Of course, you get people who continually make the same mistakes. Their struggle will inevitably be much longer and much more difficult.

* * *

A man sits on his porch smoking a cigarette. He’s contemplating life and asks himself The Question. He has long since abandoned the doctrines of his youth, and now looks at his own life experiences and all the knowledge he has gained so far to see if that can offer him any answers. He will find it: in his own experience, the knowledge he has acquired, in himself, and in other people. For just as he searches, from the essence of his nature and driven by his instincts, so others are searching, as well.

Perhaps no one has perfect knowledge, but listen to a hundred people, and you will receive a hundred pieces of information that form part of the whole. Many pieces of knowledge will overlap, and there are many people who simply recite what they have been taught. Then there are libraries filled with books written by people generations or centuries ago, who had some degree of knowledge of the Truth, even though this knowledge has become obscure or has even been lost and forgotten over many generations.

Sometimes you’ll find someone – through a personal encounter, or by reading a story or an article or a news bulletin, or by watching a movie or listening to someone’s music – who has contemplated his or her own experiences for long enough to have obtained what can be called More Profound Knowledge. In the same way, if he is sincere in his search, the man on the porch will also find peace about the meaning of his particular life.

# 15

I do not know about “God”. This does not mean I do not believe in “God”. All I’m saying is that everything I thought I knew about “God” has been given to me by people. At one stage in my life, it became clear that many of these people were either not worthy of my trust in what they had to say, or that they had simply told me what had been told to them, which they had decided to believe for their own personal reasons.

Fact is, I have never seen “God” – if “God” can be seen in the conventional understanding of the word – so I have to settle for other people’s opinions or doctrines about “God”. The problem? These people have also never seen “God”! They simply believe what they have been taught to believe. Or they base their belief on a combination of what they’ve been taught and their own personal experiences – which still means this person’s truth is subjective.

Another thing: knowledge – or “truth” – that is carried over from one generation to the next does not even always remain the same! Cultural practices change; the world in which we live sometimes undergoes profound change; when these things happen, subtle alterations are made to doctrines and personal beliefs.

So I’m not saying I do not believe in “God”, I’m just saying I do not know about “God”. I know what others think they know, but I cannot believe in something just because others believe in it. I must seek the truth on my own time and in my own way.

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New insights, February 1999

Monday, 15 February 1999

To be free and independent, I have written more than once in the past few months, is my great ideal. Superficially considered, it was about not having any financial obligations to any creditors. But it stretched deeper than that: I did not want to have any obligations. My ideal life was that of a bachelor, a “Steppenwolf”. No commitment, no obligations – to anyone.

About a year ago I identified “commitment” and “belonging” as fundamentally sound ideas, even for myself. What I did not realise was that I had two horses in the race. And I tried to ride both. I wanted to belong and commit, but I also wanted to be free and independent. What I did not apparently understand at first was that you cannot commit yourself to something whilst crying “Freedom!”, that you can’t belong somewhere and simultaneously suggest that you are independent.

The idea of a family of my own was never something I could work into my ideal lifestyle of freedom and independence. Now, this wouldn’t have been a problem if I weren’t yearning so much after these basic joys of life.

It dawned on me that to love a woman and to raise children with her would be much more of a restriction on my freedom and independence than the obligation of owing some banks some money.

When I realised this, it was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. I felt relieved. I could relax because at that moment I knew that total freedom and independence were not what I wanted! If this was what I had wanted to achieve, it was possible! It’s not an illusion. It’s not a dream that can never be fulfilled. It’s a dream I don’t want! It’s a path that I would never have wanted to walk to its endpoint, because I wouldn’t have been committed to anything, and I wouldn’t have belonged anywhere. And I want to commit myself to something. I want to dedicate myself to something. I want to strive for something, and I want to feel I belong somewhere.

In Johannesburg I wouldn’t easily have gained this insight because there freedom and independence were concrete short-term ideals, even desires, that I had confused with an ideal life. I needed to come to Taiwan to realise that if I wanted to be free and independent, it is doable; it is an ideal that can be realised. I had to know that it is a life that I can pursue and achieve, if that was indeed what I wanted to do. But it is not.

Of course I still want to pay off my debts as soon as possible. I hate living under the sword of debt. I believe that to owe someone money is to be that person’s slave. It’s not the same as loving someone and fulfilling a financial obligation to that person out of love.

In financial terms, I still want to be free and independent. But I also want to achieve a different ideal – I want to belong somewhere. I want a home in the full sense of the word. I want to love a woman and be loved by her.

To finish off this notebook then, which first tasted ink ten months ago in Stellenbosch and that experienced Johannesburg with me, the following: I want to commit myself to an ideal the realisation of which has already begun, namely to be a writer. And I want to love and be loved, and thus belong somewhere.

I am committed. And one day, I will also belong.

______________________

Last thoughts before Taiwan … First thoughts in Taiwan

Last thoughts before Taiwan

Tuesday, 29 December 1998

I sit here and wonder if there were alternatives, all the way back in April. Not because of regret, just kind of as a necessary mental exercise.

Do I regret anything? It’s tempting to say “yes”, but it wouldn’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny. So, no. Here are the reasons. I have taken the most important step conceivable by facing my creditors. Within a few days after returning from Korea, I was attempting to negotiate reconciliation. I have seen most of my acquaintances and friends, and I have made the acquaintance of some new ones. I spent six weeks at home, and then for six months I worked for a company that is mainly focused on making money. I have experienced first-hand what I have always thought of corporate life. I worked and lived in Johannesburg for six months, forever alleviating my ignorance about the place. I truly feel more informed and more experienced because of this period. I have also seen many places and experienced things that I had missed during my “isolation” in Korea.

But that is to paint a pretty picture for the sake of not regretting anything. For the sake of honesty, I also have to flip the painting to show a little bit of the other side.

In terms of power – which I once again define as the ability to make choices and to act on these choices, and to not be dependent on other people, I was a big time loser for the past seven or eight months. Big time. In actual fact, I’m embarrassing myself by still trying to fight back, by continuing to insist on defending my dignity.

The awful truth is that I am currently more powerless than I have ever been in my life. For all the importance that power, independence, dignity and pride had for me eight months ago, it’s ironic that I have lost so much in all these areas! For this reason, and this reason alone, I would say that I regret that I did not try to get another EFL job at the end of June.

But, there’s no point to regret, so I’m not going to waste time on it. I did what I did. I learned some things, and a few times I was knocked to the ground. But at least I came out for the fight, right? Even though it was reluctantly, and even if I don’t exactly look like a hero at the moment.

What’s next?

I have seen, in case I had forgotten, what financial powerlessness looks like. Not again. Not if it depends on me. Taking everything into account, this year has been one of the fullest and richest years of my life, even though I am leaving it injured and poorly armed. (One can almost say that I came into the year like a German soldier in 1939, and I’m going out like a Russian soldier in 1917.) A lost year it was not, for I struggled too much and survived too many skirmishes. The rest of the thousand mile journey that I have started will continue. Two steps forward and one step back. But I shall certainly continue.

Long live my own revolution!

First thoughts in Taiwan

Wednesday, 27 January 1999

Fengshan City, Kaohsiung County

On the subject of commitment: If you devote yourself to a Single Cause, it must be part of your life on a daily basis otherwise your dedication will start fading. You have to devote yourself actively to this cause on a daily basis – not necessarily exclusively, but actively.

Later more about Fengshan City, Taiwan …

______________________

Not a perfect life, but …

Wednesday, 2 December 1998

Someone with my background – middle class, tertiary education – basically have two options. One is to accept a job at a company or institution and to start working on a career and building up financial security, the other is to start their own business. I am not prepared to work for a company or institution on the long-run. That’s just how it is. I have also once again confirmed that I cannot commit myself to a business of my own. It will provide some satisfaction for a little while, but then what?

What are the other options? One is Foreign English Teaching: one-year contracts; good cash flow; you don’t need to live on debt and credit; relatively good living conditions; you don’t need a car; you don’t need to have a good credit record to get to a telephone; you live in a foreign country with a different culture than your own; life experience of a different kind; and finally, financial empowerment.

A perfect life? No. In more ways than you can count on one hand, it’s a terrible life. But it is a life in which you can empower yourself – in more than one area.

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