Fatalism and the DMZ

It’s been a while, but I have a couple things to share. An interesting passage from a book I’m reading, and a trip to the Korean DMZ.

What follows is a passage from Arrow of the Blue Skinned God, published in 1992.  The insights into the US, self-determination as a philosophy, and India are interesting, though I cannot confirm or deny the latter, given that I’ve never even been there and I’m not Indian. It is one man’s perspective. With that, read on, and pardon the ellipses, as I’ve tried to trim the passage down:

Are Indians fatalists because they cannot change their lives, or can they not change their lives because they are fatalists? …In the elite cosmopolitan spheres of Bombay and Calcutta, fate is a four-letter word. Professors and professionals don’t like to think about it, seem faintly embarrassed that so many of their countrymen still cling passionately to a notion so out of step with the modern age. Predestination isn’t really a part of Hindu belief, they say, the West just has this tired old image of passive, hopeless Indians…

If the Indians did not have this belief they might be a little bit happier, and a great deal more sad. It comforts those who have few comforts in life, sustains a nation that has much to bear. It turns all  mishaps and hard times into pieces of a divine jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle that really does fit together perfectly in the end. It lets every street sweeper and beggerwoman feel linked to the rest of creation, for the crux of the credo is that nobody acts alone.

…For the first time in centuries, perhaps for the first time ever, Indians really can alter their lives. There has always been a limited degree of social mobility: a man running away from his village to establish a new identity, a woman marrying about her station and hiding her past, a tough, lower-caste clan gaining enough muslce to call itself Kshatriya nobility and paste all who objected. But never before could anybody, just anybody, dream wonderful dreams.

The worst part about dreaming is the part where you wake up. It is theoretically possible for any butcher’s son to become a rocket scientist, but very few actually do. …the possibility taunts him, laughs in his face as he slices the white fat from the greasy lamb shank. …The misery in life is not there as part of a divine plan. It’s just there.

It’s easy to see what one gains from modernity: the TV sets, the waterproof tin roofs, the medicines that work like powerful magic. It’s more difficult to see what one gives up.

There is nothing shameful about being a butcher. Or a street sweeper, a rickshaw puller, a woman who scoops cow dung off the street with her bare hands. At least, there had been no shame until now. If a person’s station in life is predestined it can bring no dishonor. But if one controls one’s own fate, poverty becomes a mark of failure. It virtually becomes a sin.

Opportunity makes honest work seem disreputable. If anyone at all can become a business tycoon, what does that say about the janitors and busboys? Americans look down on menial labor because we’re told that we can. We deem work at McDonald’s demeaning, barely even fit for teenagers, certainly a disgrace for any capable adult.

[the myth of America] From the New World to the Third World the idea has spread, perhaps the purest form of secular free will ever expressed.  It is an exhilarating concept, but a cruel one. Freedom creates winners, but losers as well. For every banker, broker, or lawyer there will be ten people to clean their clothes, mow their lawns, drain their septic tanks. “The poor,” Christ said, “are always with us.” Alger’s book Acres of Diamonds urged the poor to gather up wealth in bushels, but said nothing to those who couldn’t find a basket.

India is a poor country, and fate is a comforting doctrine. It lets bent-backed rice farmers and bent-backed garbage pickers maintain their dignity. In a Western, free-will view, society’s untouchables have only themselves to blame. They’re lazy, we say, they’re stupid, they’re incompetent, they have no get-up-and-go. But in the Hindu view, a man is not a failure for quietly doing the job he was born to do. In fact, he could be no greater success.


My last few blog posts have been about travel. There has been one trip that stands out that I have not included yet. I went back to South Korea (for work) and visited the demilitarized zone on my “layover” weekend. It was… a very odd experience. I couldn’t take a ton of pictures, but there was a train station headed to Pyongyang (closed), an observatory (can’t take pictures beyond a yellow line), gift shops with DMZ paraphernelia (!?)  and the prisoner exchange bridge (I am posing in front of it with my favorite hat). One thing which struck me wasn’t really anything about the DMZ, but an exhibit about a program that ran on South Korean television that was trying to reunite families separated during the war. They didn’t intend for it to run any longer than a normal show, but the response was massive and they ended up running the show continuously from June 30th through November 14th, 1983. [Learn more here]

I love visiting South Korea for work (LOVE it!), but the visit to the DMZ was a reminder there’s a long history behind the Korean peninsula. The pictures of elderly Koreans weeping during the infrequent “family reunifications” just kill me.

That’s all for now!


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