Irrational Life


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Island where all becomes clear.
Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immermorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzling staight and simple.
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

By Wislawa Szymborska
From “A large number”, 1976
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Copyright © Wislawa Szymborska, S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Life can be characterized as the struggle between the rational and the irrational. This is true at a social level as well as at the individual level. This is also what differentiates humans from the animals.

For many human beings, irrespective of caste, race, nationality or any other division you can think of, life means love and faith. Read any of the great works of literature, see any of the great piece of art or watch the movies considered world classics. What you will find common in all of them is that they speak about love, human suffering and faith. Ofcourse I am generalizing a bit here but most of the classics of art are about these subjects. On one level these are very irrational feelings.

Let us take the feeling of love: The love of the mother towards her child is instinctive and this love is seen not only in human beings but in the animal world as well. In the animal world though this love tapers off as the child grows into an adult but that is not the case in the human land. Strictly speaking this love seems irrational. Mothers go to any extent to protect their children. Each of us can cite cases wherein the mother defends her child inspite of knowing the child is in wrong. You just need to watch the reaction the mothers of convicted killers and rapists to know how deep this bond is. It is just not possible to explain this irrational behavior. Pol Pot, when he ruled Cambodia, decreed that all children were the property of the state. As soon as the child was born, it was separated from its mother and the state would take care of the child. On a certain level it may look logical but as we can expect this had disastrous consequences.

Infact we can claim that every other form of love is irrational as well. You can also add friendship to this list of irrationality. Most of us become friends because ….. Well, there is no reason for most of our friendship. It could be because we were neighbors, we were colleagues, we got introduced in some function, we met in a bus and myriad other causes but friendship in many cases just happens. We do not rationally think if the other person fits into a certain mould so that we can bond with him or her. Similarly why we fall in love is a mystery as well. We may try and justify that we liked that person’s smile, the way she looked at you, the way dimple appears he laughs, the confidence with which she carries herself and so on and so forth. Yet, if we look logically, there would be enough and more people around us having similar characteristics. It is just that ‘something happens’ and you come to a stage that you cannot share your love with anyone else other than that special person.

Faith is equally irrational like love but most people cannot live their live without faith: faith in something or the other. Religion is the biggest faith that mankind has and from a rationalist’s point of view, nothing can be more irrational than religion. Given that existence of God itself is not provable how can people believe that Lord Vishnu took ten avataras? How can people believe that God send his son to earth? How can you believe that God spoke only to a certain prophet and told him how people should live on earth? To a rationalist, religion is the biggest fraud in the history of mankind and is also the source of lot of problems that beset us. This faith leads to people believing in superstitious nonsense and this faith also leads to people killing each other for the cause of their religion. Those who have faith in their religion counter it by saying that religion has provided lot more solace to people and if people are not going all out and killing each other and are being civilized, religion has a major role to play in this. While the rationalists would point to the religion wars the destroyed people, the religious minded would point out that the number of people killed by non-believers like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot etc during the twentieth century show that being an atheist and being a humanist are two different things.

Ofcourse faith cannot just be restricted to religion. It pervades every aspect of our life. So it is not surprising that the history of science shows us that lot of scientist had faith in theories which were proved wrong. Many have fought for their theories tooth and nail amidst growing evidence against it. It makes perfect sense if we realize that though they deal with rational science they are also human beings first. (Let us make an important distinction here between science and scientists. Scientists may have refused to accept new evidence, may have refused to change their theories but science has no such qualms but that acceptance also may take a torturous route due to the fact that scientist are the ones who do science!!!)

Love and faith are just aspects of life with which I wanted to illustrate the irrational ideas present in our life. There are many more emotions: jealously, kindness to strangers, anger, sympathy and more which belong to this category of irrationality.

Why are we irrational? Why can’t we be rational? I feel that we are irrational because life is irrational. We cannot explain many of the things that happen. I heard from a friend on twitter that a 20 yr girl was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer just twenty days after giving birth to her first child. How do you explain this? A healthy 38yr old man collapses suddenly and dies? How do you explain this? How do you explain the fact when some natural disaster like tsunami washes away your loved ones and leaves you without anything? In life there seems to be no relationship between what you do and what happens to you. You are constantly reminded of your own mortality and the fickleness of life. In order to deal with the irrational behavior of life you turn towards irrational things like religion. For science still cannot explain to you all the vagaries of life whereas religion gives you hope and some explanation (however irrational) and love gives you the reason to live.

Wislawa’s poem asks an even deeper question. Are we ready to give up this irrationality? Do want science to explain love rationally, to say that it is a chemical reaction in some part of your brain. Do you want science to rationalize faith? Do you want science to explain away all that you hold dear:your kindness, you sympathy, your individuality?  Majority would shudder at this thought. They don’t want a rational explanation on why they would give up their life for their friend or for their country. They don’t want a scientific explanation on why they love their children. For many of us, such explanation is akin to entering hell. That is why, as Wislawa says, no stays in the island. It is an island many of us fear. We don’t want the peace the island gives. It is not our Utopia. Paradoxically the island of complete rationality is rejected by us and we jump into the turbulent waters of life, which is indeed our Utopia. The conflict between human thought and human emotion will continue for a long time. I don’t see this ending anytime soon even though science has made tremendous progress. We have landed vehicles in Mars but the interior of the human heart is still unfathomable. That is why there is a famous saying in Telugu, “What the Sun cannot see, the poet sees”. The Sun illuminates all the objects whereas a great poet illuminates the human soul. Wislawa was one such poet.

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