Piece of paper without a date


[From a piece of paper without a date, but with a calendar for April 2006 on the back]

“You played out your happiness on a piano that was not infinite.” [from the movie, The Legend of 1900]

Photography” [the second part of my poetry collection] says observe, take notes, try to understand, and express what you see, what you have come to understand, and what you still fail to comprehend.

* * *

The full quote from the movie, The Legend of 1900:

The man known as “1900” explaining why he did not leave the ship and never will: “All that city… You just couldn’t see an end to it. The end! Please, could you show me where it ends? It was all very fine on that gangway and I was grand, too, in my overcoat. I cut quite a figure and I had no doubts about getting off. Guaranteed. That wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t what I saw that stopped me, Max. It was what I didn’t see. Can you understand that? What I didn’t see. In all that sprawling city, there was everything except an end. There was everything. But there wasn’t an end. What I couldn’t see was where all that came to an end. The end of the world. Take a piano. The keys begin, the keys end. You know there are 88 of them and no-one can tell you differently. They are not infinite, you are infinite. And on those 88 keys the music that you can make is infinite. I like that. That I can live by. But you get me up on that gangway and roll out a keyboard with millions of keys, and that’s the truth, there’s no end to them, that keyboard is infinite. But if that keyboard is infinite there’s no music you can play. You’re sitting on the wrong bench. That’s God’s piano. Christ, did you see the streets? There were thousands of them! How do you choose just one? One woman, one house, one piece of land to call your own, one landscape to look at, one way to die. All that world weighing down on you without you knowing where it ends. Aren’t you scared of just breaking apart just thinking about it, the enormity of living in it? I was born on this ship. The world passed me by, but two thousand people at a time. And there were wishes here, but never more than could fit on a ship, between prow and stern. You played out your happiness on a piano that was not infinite. I learned to live that way. Land is a ship too big for me. It’s a woman too beautiful. It’s a voyage too long. Perfume too strong. It’s music I don’t know how to make. I can’t get off this ship. At best, I can step off my life. After all, it’s as though I never existed.”


Putting together a worldview – work that enables


Several thoughts on 2006 (and the rest of my future) come down to one principle: You can use your imagination and your intellect to achieve a better life.


My whole began to disintegrate twelve, thirteen years ago.* Since then I have been working hard at putting the pieces together again in such a way that I can stand back and say, “That’s good. It works. I understand … not everything, but I understand enough to function.”

* Christian worldview: everyone and everything has a place, a role, a purpose, a story, and a specific value. This one said what? It’s because he is X. That one said something else? No wonder. She is …

I had arranged and lived my entire life according to this worldview, but then the explanations and answers started getting thinner and thinner, and I increasingly recognised the hand of humans in their development.


On the way back from the Carrefour, I realised: Exactly ten years have passed since my Christmas of macaroni boiled in a kettle, cheap cheese sauce from the convenience store, and a two-litre bottle of powder mix beverage – oh yes, and a tube of garlic polony.

The climb from that point has been tough. And although the summit is still some distance away, I am much, much closer.



The playing field can never be the same for everyone. The struggle should be to make it more equal than it is now.


Years ago I asked: How can I follow my own passions and interests and pursue my own agenda, and still stay alive, afford a place to live, pay bills, and so on. My first answer was simple: You become rich. Then you buy a house, furniture, a TV and a computer and a stove and a washing machine and a refrigerator, and you continue working on whatever you want to work on. Later I reckoned you need a trade of some sorts, something you can do or something that you can produce for which there is a market, from which you can then generate an income without undermining your main job too much.

This afternoon I thought of another possibility: undemanding work. You can pursue your own agenda by earning money in a job that is not too demanding, something that does not take up too much of your time, something you can do while your attention is still more or less on your agenda work – like me writing this note, and formulating this idea while I am earning money teaching an English class in Taiwan.


Inside every person is the seed of life, and every person carries the seed of death. Each person can be an agent of life. Likewise, every person is a potential agent of death.


Two extremes – get up and walk


Our existence is to some extent an expression of free will. That we came to exist in the first place was, however, not our choice. By the time we realised this “thing” we were experiencing had a name, and that it was called “life”, we were already fully-fledged beings-in-existence.


I spent the past ten to fifteen years caught between two extremes: a cynical world where everyone fights for himself (and maybe his family) and where everything can be justified as long as there is money involved; and the “Feel God” Christian response, which is so popular among modern Christians.

I hate that people will lie and cheat and step over other people and then justify it by talking about a tough world and “every man for himself”, or the justification that it was done for the welfare of the family. I have also developed a growing aversion to the anti-rational, anti-intellectual, emotion-driven direction that many so-called Christians have taken.

What are my options? I do not want to become a disciple and/or victim of cynicism and the blind pursuit of material gain, and I do not want to find comfort in the arms of an anti-rational, emotion-driven religious community! What to do …

* * *

[On the back of a telephone bill]

“Personal Agenda” follows the second self-imposed socio-economic exile of a white, male, Afrikaans-speaking South African in Taiwan (the first “exile” being two years spent in South Korea, also as an English teacher). The main character/writer examines over a period of six years the reasons for his self-imposed exile and the possibility of returning to the country of his birth. In the process he questions his identity, the meaning and possible purpose of his life, and the accepted truths and ways of a life with which he had grown up …


If you do not get up and walk, you will end up flat on your face. People – friends, family, and some strangers – will help you up to a point. But after a while they, too, will continue their own journeys. That is simply how it is.


A life that serves a purpose – intelligent, creative agent – or agents


I need for my life to have purpose. To this, some people may respond in a somewhat sceptical fashion. “Purpose?” they’ll ask. “Purpose in life is a primitive religious concept. It supposes things that cannot be proven. It also implies that your life is worthless unless it serves a purpose.”

My reply: Say you have two men, Mister A and Mister B. The latter has no desire to feel that his life has purpose. His focus is mostly on himself, and his own material and emotional needs. He works – because he needs the money; he marries – because it’s better than being alone; and he makes friends – because he likes the feeling of being liked, he likes the companionship, and it relieves his boredom. His life thus consists of family, friends, work, and doing things he enjoys. He does not actively strive for any action or participation that would make him look at his life with the conviction that he has served some (good) purpose. (Chances are that he inadvertently does serve and has served a good purpose, but for the sake of this argument it is important to illustrate his case as one where no purpose is actively and deliberately served.)

Mister A, on the other hand, is one of those people who believe merely existing – working, having a family of his own, being a friend and having friends, and doing things he enjoys – is not enough. He feels a strong urge to serve a good purpose – something that would give his life more value and meaning. Say he chooses as his purpose in life providing legal aid to people who do not have the means to obtain this type of assistance when they need it. Over the course of thirty years he provides legal assistance – directly, or indirectly through an agency he founded – to hundreds, even thousands of people. (It might be that he pursues this purposeful life as an adherent of some religious belief system, which will also give him the satisfaction of knowing that his service is sanctioned by his particular religious community. It might also be that he is an atheist, and that he is motivated by the self-respect his service inspires, and by the respect and gratitude he gets from other people. Religiously motivated or not, his choice of pursuing a purposeful life would have the same end result for the people who benefit from it.)

Let’s say both Mister A and Mister B were born in the same year, in the same city, with similar cultural backgrounds and socio-economic standing, and let’s also say they die in the same year after short illnesses. Mister B’s life was a good one. He will be missed by his colleagues, friends and family. Mister A also had a good life, and he, too, will be missed by colleagues, friends and family. What is the difference? Mister A’s life benefited hundreds, even thousands of people. His life had value far beyond the value of the life of the average individual who does not actively pursue a purposeful life. He dies with the satisfaction that his life served a purpose. He lived his life with the satisfaction that not only his inner circle of colleagues, family and friends but many other people benefited from his life and the choices he had made. Mister B lived without this satisfaction, and he died knowing that beyond his inner circle no one really benefited much from his existence. Hopefully this would not have mattered to him, since he had professed early on in his adult life that he does not feel the need to serve any purpose nor for his life to have value and meaning beyond that which it has or had for himself and his inner circle.

Then my partner-in-dialogue responds: “So it’s about personal satisfaction? Or is it about numbers – the one guy affecting hundreds, even thousands, the other guy maybe twenty?”

My reply: One guy’s life positively affected the lives of two dozen or so people. The other one positively affected hundreds, even thousands. What is exactly is your question? [*]

Partner-in-dialogue: “Say I tell you there’s a new drug on the market that has no side effects, is very affordable, and it contains a natural component that provides your brain with exactly the same feeling as the satisfaction one would derive from a purposeful life. It will thus give you the same kick, without the effort!”

Me: And the people whom I may have positively affected stay unaffected. Very real results of my intended actions would remain unfulfilled. I’d say no thanks. I will stick to the effort.

* [Question is perhaps this: Is affecting two people better than affecting just one? How about affecting 2,243 versus affecting the lives of 2,242 people? How about one person positively affecting the lives of 50,000 people and the other person positively and constructively affecting only 76 people’s quality of life?]


For many people the idea that there is no intelligent, creative agent behind everything that exists is the most preposterous thing anyone can imagine. What, or who this agent is – or what or who these agents are, is something that people have pondered, argued about, fought and died for since the dawn of human thought. We have given this supposed agent – or these agents – names. We have given him/her/them human-like qualities. We have even imagined the gender and appearance of this supposed agent – or of these agents. Many people have settled on a simple term: “God.”

We can continue to contemplate, argue, fight and die for particular beliefs about this agent – or these agents. It is apparently in our nature to do so, and if it gives us a sense of purpose, security and meaning in our lives, then I guess it makes sense to some degree that we continue to do so. One thing remains certain: for many people, nothing will ever take anything away from the idea that an intelligent, creative force is the only reasonable explanation for our own existence, and for the existence of all other forms of life.

Why this supposed intelligent, creative force caused our existence, whether or not our existence serves a purpose, and even the possible nature of this supposed agent – or of these agents, these are questions that will remain as fascinating as they have always been.


Reducing years to a statement


I lived in Korea for 22 months and three days. Today I say: “Yes, I was in Korea. It was okay.” It takes me 4.5 seconds to make this statement. And yet, there was a time in my life that “I am in Korea” was lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and then again 24 hours … and again, and again. All that time in which I breathed, ate, slept, worked and spent with friends and acquaintances has now been reduced to a statement: “Yes, I was in Korea …”

For most of my adult life I was not involved in a relationship with anyone. Loneliness and solitude were inevitable results. It was such an overwhelming experience that until recently it had defined my life to a large extent. For the past nine months I have been involved in a relationship with a woman who can only be described as an angel (and I do not play around with these terms). Today, when I am asked about it, I will say, “Yes, I was alone for a long time. Sometimes it was okay, and sometimes it was pretty crap.”

What lasted for years and became a defining aspect of my life is now expressed in a seven second statement. “Seven seconds?!” I want to scream. “We’re talking about days and nights and weeks, and months, and years! Seven seconds?!”

I have been working on a book project – a collection of essays and notes – for more than two and a half years. The Afrikaans text is almost done, and I am already in the process of translating it into English. I have also spent a huge amount of time on other projects. No tangible success has so far come from any of these projects – neither recognition nor any significant financial gain; only some encouragement, and a little money from one textbook.

Sometimes this lack of fruits of my labour bothers me. But I believe that this situation, like the Korean example and being alone, will also reach a point after which I will refer to it in the past tense: “Yes, I had to put in quite a lot of time before I could taste the first fruits of my labour.”