Life has given us the capacity to do good to others

If one wishes to be very simplistic about life, then life can be defined into two terms: life itself, and death. Life is a journey towards death and everything that lives will die. Simple.

But for some people, the question is not so much about whether we will die but about how we live.

There are many ways to live, but one that I feel important—and liberating—is to live our lives by doing good to other people. I am a firm believer that life is fair and every human being has an equal chance to do good. From bankers to construction workers, from religious leaders to corporate CEOs, from teachers to students, from homeless persons to persons with multiple houses, we all have an equal chance to do good.

Defined in this way, life is fair. No one is less able to do good than others since it comes back to the intention to do good and the action of doing good itself. A person does not need to wait until she becomes a professor, a CEO, an entrepreneur to do good. Nor does she need to wait until she gets a certain amount of money to do good. Of course, position, status, and wealth help in doing good—more people could be reached, more goods could be done. But a mere possession of these things do not determine that someone will actually do good. If anything, being a professor, a CEO, or an entrepreneur should be seen only as a side-effect of doing good, and people who genuinely do good see themselves as nothing.

I am giving a particular emphasis on “position” because I see many people (myself included) are not being proportional in giving priority in life, i.e. between what is possible and what is certain. Using myself as an example, undertaking a PhD degree normally comes with an expectation that it will pave ways to the possibility of a career path, which are post-doctoral researcher, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, professor, etc. In my case, however, not only I am a PhD student, but I am also a father of two little kids and a husband. I may be separated from my work but it is in no way that I am separated from my family. They are my blood no matter what. My family is a certainty to me whereas my work, my position, my career, is still a possibility. It will be a great miss if, in pursuing the possible, we lose sight on what is certain. A Javanese proverb says: “Mburu uceng kelangan dheleg”, pursuing a trivial thing but losing the essential.

This means that the doing of good should manifest, firstly and more prominently, in the way we treat the people closest to us: our family members. Do we have time for them? Do we care about their concerns? Do we listen to them?

I am not saying that one should take care of the family and forget the work. Nor am I saying that doing good is something we do once and for all. What I am implying instead is that we need to ask ourselves a question: Do I wait for something to happen to me before I can do good to others? Or, can I do good to others regardless of what happens to me?

I know it’s complicated and not easy. I have asked this question many times quite recently. And the more I ponder upon it, the more I see that a great person is not a person with positions, wealth, and possessions, but a great person is a person with a capacity to do good to others. A capacity, that is, not in terms of material and status, but a capacity in terms of time and action.

Possibility or certainty?

Intuitively, people choose certainty over possibility. Just like there is more appeal in the ‘certainty of help’ than the ‘possibility of help’.

But the problem is people are attracted more to what is visible than what is not. And the certainty of things are sometimes less visible than the possibility of things.

Humans are visible beings and they live under possibilities.

As possible beings, humans can only offer possibility. Yet their visibility makes possibility appear like certainty.

A Certain Being, in contrast, offers certainty. Yet His invisibility makes certainty appear like possibility.

And the guide is clear … 

“Behold the Book! No trace of doubt in it.

A guide to the pious;

To those wh believe in the Unseen; who perform prayer; and who spend from our bounty;

Those too who believe in what has been revealed to you; and what has been revealed before you; and who know for certain that there is an afterlife.

These are truly guided by their Lord;  these are truly saved.”

— Qur’an Surah al-Baqoroh (1–5) 

Dignity and tradition in our contested world

Dignity is an appeal to self-worth and/or group-worth.

But before making a step to appeal to worth, the notion of ‘self’ or ‘group’ must be defined. This is supplied by the notion of identity.

Worth is instilled by asserting value judgment to a particular identity.

Assertion of value has an appeal if it is ‘grounded’ to a characteristic (or characteristics) that is (are) shared with others (usually those with a similar identity).

One of the many possible grounds is tradition.

Tradition has multiple meanings. Here I will only discuss one of the meanings, which is ‘origin’.

The interplay between tradition and dignity can be stretched to explain the current political tendency that filled the headlines in the media. Dignity is asserted, rhetorically, by referring to tradition in the sense of ‘origin’ and ‘the past’. Public are presented with (and accepted) the idea that they can reclaim their dignity if they go back to ‘the origin’. This is usually accompanied by a contrasting depiction where the ‘natives’ are losing their worth due to the departure from the tradition (origin). Social tensions emerge when the discursive assertion of dignity for one group is coupled with the move to de-value the ‘out-group’.

But tradition in the sense of ‘origin’ is problematic since it privileges one point of origin over the many points of origin. For if origin is to be taken seriously, all must agree that our origin is something far from pompous—i.e. a sperm drop. Therefore, tradition as ‘origin’ is more precisely described as that ‘glorious origin’.

But dignity has a double ‘dignity-effect’ for both the addresser and the addressee. When a group discursively undermines the dignity of others, their own dignity is also, by effect, undermined in the eyes of the audience (who are outside the group).

By contrast, when a person or a group is willingly act to serve others (sometimes even to the extent to be a servant, or servant-like), the dignity-effect that is produced is not of a devaluation, but of an elevation. This act thus elevates, by effect, the dignity of the addressee and the addresser.

Shades of reading

Our ability to see is fundamentally defined by our ability to perceive differences. Our eyes can distinguish between black and white because we can perceive the difference between the two. We suspect that an engine is not running smoothly because we perceive the difference (of sound and vibration, perhaps) that it produces. Our appetite is aroused when we smell good food because we can sense its difference from the not-so-good food.

The same applies to reading: depending on each individual’s degree of sensitivity, there are as many shades of reading. And by reading, I mean the relationship between the reader and the text.

The first shade is to consider that there is a direct relationship between the reader and what is said in the text. Here, the content of the text is given a privilege. A reader’s attention is usually given to the different topics that are discussed in the text. Here, the text is treated like a flat surface---no other, and no deeper than a single sheet of paper. What is written in the text is what the text is.

The second shade is to consider that the text says as much about the author than the content of the text itself. At this level, a reader is able to sense the deliberation and clumsiness of the author in stitching together different thoughts. A reader is able to sense how the author may or may not follow a certain structure in organizing the text. What is written in the text starts to convey different senses of meaning through the different ways of expression.

The third shade is to consider that the text says more about the author than the content of the text itself. Now some warnings must be given since reading at this shade may lead a reader either to blind admiration or hasty denigration. For a reader to continue reading, it is important to suspend his or her disbelief and appreciate why the text is written the way it is. A reader’s value judgment of the text (in a simple term, either it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’) is not to seal off an interpretation but as an opening point to explore whether multiple interpretations are available. This is neatly summarized by the late literary theorist Umberto Eco. He asserts that to read (and to interpret) a text is “to decide whether it has a fixed meaning, many possible meanings, or none at all” (Eco, 1994, p. 23). In other words, our ability to sense why a text is written gives more depth to what is written and the ways it is written.

Throughout the three shades above, our perception of difference is sensitized from seeing text to say something about itself to seeing text to say something more about its author. The beauty of seeing is, of course, when we can perceive how different colors intermingle and complement each other in a harmonious dance.

Reference

Eco, U. (1994). The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Berkehendak untuk tidak

Perlu dipahami bahwa kekuatan itu, besarannya, bukanlah diukur dari besar kecilnya realisasi namun melalui bagaimana potensi dan kehendak itu berpadu.

Termasuk di dalamnya adalah kehendak untuk tidak merealisasikan potensi.

Namun kebanyakan manusia mudah terkecoh dengan mengatributi kekuatan hanya kepada sesuatu yang nampak, terlihat, dan terasa. Yang tidak nampak, yang tidak terlihat, dan tidak terasa dianggapnya tidak ada, tidak memiliki kekuatan. Padahal bisa jadi untuk membuat sesuatu itu menjadi tidak nampak dan tidak terasa membutuhkan kekuatan yang jauh lebih besar.

Potensi dan kehendak adalah dua hal yang mirip, namun keduanya perlu dibedakan. Kehendak bergantung pada potensi. Ketika potensi itu ada, maka realisasinya bergantung pada kehendak. Dalam keadaan ada kehendak namun tidak ada potensi, maka yang harus dipenuhi terlebih dahulu adalah potensi. If there is a will, there is a way tidak berbicara mengenai kekuatan, ia hanya menyinggung perihal jalan menuju potensi.

Betul, bahwa manusia memiliki semua potensi. Dan sudah semestinya manusia itu berkehendak untuk mengembangkan potensinya. Dalam kondisi ini, kita mendapatkan skema sederhana berikut: potensi –> kehendak –> potensi –> kehendak. Kita bisa meneruskan skema linear ini ad infinitum dan kita akan menjumpai hal yang wajar. Namun yang menarik adalah ketika kita mendapati skema berikut: potensi –> kehendak –> potensi –> kehendak untuk tidak. Di sini, tibalah manusia pada titik belok. Sebuah titik dimana terdapat jarak antara kehendak dan perbuatan. Titik dimana ia sedang bertransisi dari kekuatan kecil menuju kekuatan yang lebih besar.

Berkehendak untuk tidak bukan berarti tidak berkehendak. Saya berkehendak untuk tidak makan tidaklah sama dengan saya tidak berkehendak untuk makan. Yang pertama adalah niat untuk tidak, yang kedua adalah tidak ada niat.

Manusia yang berkehendak untuk tidak artinya ia berniat untuk mengendalikan dirinya. Niat itu selalu bersih. Kehendak belum tentu. Niat ‘jahat’ itu sejatinya adalah potensi yang dibakar oleh kehendak. Dengan berkehendak untuk tidak, tidak hanya kita bisa mengurangi kadar jahat yang kita lakukan terhadap diri kita sendiri, namun boleh jadi kita juga memberikan kebaikan kepada orang lain.

Structure, agency, and drums

Structure vs. agency is one of the oldest debate in the field of sociology. But this is not only a problem for sociologists with an interest in societies, organization theorists with an interest in organizations, too, have been debating the same problem.

Structure and agency are thought as the basic relationship of any society and organization. Structure refers to the way different positions are organized (or structured); agency refers to the people who enact such positions. Scholars debate on how exactly the two are interrelated.

Archer (1996) summarizes that there are three vantage points to this. First, that structure is what’s matter and it determines what an agent can do in a given structure. Second, that agency is what’s matter and structure is no more than a social construction—only exists in between people’s head and it has no real form. Third, that structure and agency are ‘instantiated’ at the same time (Anthony Giddens is the main proponent of this idea). That is, when an agent enacts a practice he or she is enacting a structure as well.

Okay, each point of view above departs from a different view of ontology (nature of reality). In a very rough dichotomy, an objectivist will resort to structure and a subjectivist to agency. But there is another way to explain the relationship between structure and agency that takes the two equally important without reducing them as one over another or that one is the same thing as another. And that way is by an analogy of drums.

I went home this afternoon while listening to one of my favorite drummers, Akira Jimbo. Now when he plays the drums, he plays so within a pre-determined tempo. The tempo, say 4/4 at 120 beat per minute, is the fundamental structure. But this tempo does not determine how Akira will play the drums. He could start by a very simple beat, or he could make an intro by a complex drum roll. He could make a pause in the middle, or he could make improvisation on every beat. The tempo does restrict him to play within such limit. He cannot abruptly change his percussion hitting activity to 3/4 at 80 bpm, or to disobey the tempo and hit the percussions erratically without making the listener confused. In such case, structure does impose a limit. But it also enables an agent. Because the tempo is set at such and such, Akira can do such and such (he has the potential to do it, though it is up to him to exercise it or not).

Agency plays role in the dynamic within a structure. Akira is unique since he plays differently than other drummers although they may play at the same tempo. The techniques that he demonstrates, his experience, his reflex, and his style, are all contributing to the ‘melody’ of each of his track. In such case agency is where the process happens. And within this process, it retains the potential to transform structure. Akira can make a transition from 4/4 to 3/4 in which the listener can follow. He may introduce a cue to signify change of flow. Or he can abide to the structure and make the track he is playing interesting by infusing an elaborate climax.

So, to conclude, structure and agency do not occur simultaneously. Yes, when we listen to Akira’s drumming both are present. But actually the tempo is set first before he plays. Structure is real but its presence doesn’t determine any practice. It imposes limits and potentials that can only be realized through agency. Agency is where the dynamics happen. Agents explore different ways to perform within a structure, including ways to transform it.

We cannot know whether a piece of music is enjoyable without experiencing how the very basic tempo of the music blends together with the instruments that envelop it.

Reference

Archer, M. S. (1996). Culture and agency: The place of culture in social theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

My ordinary, your ordinary

In life, there is something that I call as my ‘ordinary’ life. And so do you. For you, there is an aspect of your life that you see it as ordinary. As routine. As the usual. As what you expect to do and continue to do as part of what you have done and have been doing.

Yet, my ordinary can be extraordinary to you. And likewise, your ordinary can be extraordinary to me. My order of things can be seen as out of order for you, and your order of things can be a disorder for me. Both are ordinary, yet they are equally extraordinary.

That is when your life and my life intersect. When my writing intersects with your reading. When your point of view intersects with my own. We found resonance in some, and dissonance in others.

But this intersection lies on a slippery hill. Extraordinary does not mean better. Nor does it mean worse. At the very simple form, it’s just different. Better or worse—if we are to talk about it at all—is an image that appears from our lens of interest of that difference.

Seekers of knowledge are those who place themselves within this intersection. Their task is to understand the extraordinary as ordinary, and to understand the ordinary as extraordinary. Of course, it is not easy to be in this position. If we are to be placed here, we will often find ourselves confused, even alienated. Confused as we may be, it becomes irresistible that we pass quick judgements to what we see. Judgment is the way we make sense of it. It is a label to describe what we don’t understand. A label that makes sense for the functioning of our ordinary lives.

It is not, therefore, about making the world a ‘better’ place. Since two persons who disagree on what exactly a better place is may in fact make the world a worse place to live. And to make it more confusing, what seems to be a worse place to live may actually be a better place for everyone. At least, this is what Moses found incomprehensible when he set out to follow his mentor, Khidr. Khidr warned Moses that “My company, you cannot endure” (Qur’an 18:67). Yet Moses hastily passed judgments—a label that makes sense—when he saw Khidr’s actions to be out of sense. In Moses’ hasty insistence on ‘a sense’, trust and respect that are developed between him and his mentor are at risk. Yet these are fundamental for learning to ever ensue.

What I am arguing is the following. If we can defer our judgment a little later, if we can maintain our respect a little further, maybe there will be more chance to understand what is extraordinary from each other as part of our own ordinary lives.