WickedEye's Quotient

4/30/2010 at 00:37

BEND AND NOT BREAK (or, Swimming in the Hague)

Here's a disclaimer/warning/for-Pete's-sake-don't-read-this-if-you-don't-know-me:

This essay won't tell you much about international law or politics, or ethics, or science, or literature, or art of any stripe. It won't, in fact, tell you about much of anything except my life—a very great deal about my life and my thinking, actually, more than I thought I'd put to paper and certainly much more than I ever thought I'd make public.

So much for me making fun of people who make their diary entries public on blogs.

But having already served my guts up on a plate (my description of what it's like to publish poetry, and the reason I've never published any between high school and now) in SCOPE three days ago, I suppose I'm getting into the habit. So here, for the delectation of what is probably a very small number of people who actually care enough about me to take the time to read this—and thus an audience much smaller than my ego and/or fear has pictured—is an explanation of some of the rather...odd...things about me.

And why, for good or ill, they—I—will go on being odd.


Today I took a dip in 19th-century Switzerland for the first time in a long while. It hurt.

But then, it's always hurt.

I've been helping a friend with a paper on international humanitarian law, so I've been swimming in Hague and Geneva, Common Article 3 and Protocol I, for the last two days. Having a refresher, even a small one, in this body of very specialized knowledge was definitely a good thing. It's been a while since I took that dive, for several practical reasons.

But having done so, I was face-to-face once again with the uncomfortable suspicion that those practical reasons—medical school, law school—might have arisen for precisely that purpose.

I think—I'm fairly certain—that I'd want to be a lawyer or doctor even if I hadn't studied humanitarian law. I wanted both before I studied it, after all. But the about-face from studying international humanitarian law—a synonym for “the laws of war”, and thus for laws applied primarily in situations of atrocity, torture, and genocide—to studying the benevolent and practical application of science to individual human beings is profound and marked. They're far too divergent for me to have done it purely by accident or serendipity.

International humanitarian law is comprised of a body of historical fact, treatises, and treaties which date back to the Roman statesman Cicero (if not further); it includes works by early Church Fathers and Dutch jurists as well as modern-day treaties. Modern medical science, on the other hand, though the medical profession started in antiquity, began only with Pasteur in the 19th century; although the incredible bulk of information involved in learning medicine beggars description, it's a very young and relatively coherent field.

Studying international law, with its documents and thinkers by turns abstruse and archaic, is an exercise in cobbling together political philosophies in a way that might provide an opportunity for useful application by other people (like statesmen and judges). It's tessellation on a grand scale—no two persons' mosaics will turn out the same. Contrast this with the incredibly detailed practical application involved in medicine—application that is based on proven results and replicability, and comprised of skills and knowledge that are graded on a minutely calibrated standardized scale.

The plain fact of the matter is that after 4 years of undergrad spent studying all the worst things human beings do—have ever done—to each other, of talking to Holocaust and other genocide survivors, the opportunity to make other people's lives better in small but measurable ways—ways that can be seen and experienced every day—is my idea of a life well lived. And if that were the only revelation I'd had—the only conclusion I drew—my recent plunge into Geneva wouldn't have hurt at all.

But it wasn't the only thing that happened. I've always known that my undergraduate career dramatically affected my view of the world and how I relate to it—one of my professors, a brilliant man who advises governments on international law, looked at my transcript and asked incredulously if I were “majoring in atrocity”. That kind of study does tend to leave a few dents.

But over the past year, as I was surrounded by so many positive, outgoing, energetic (and just-out-of-undergrad) people, I found myself repeatedly explaining what I'd studied to colleagues as I grew closer to them—and even explaining it in detail for the first time to people whom I've known and loved—because it was the only way of explaining idiosyncrasies made glaringly apparent by the more typical behavior of my classmates.

Things like why I don't watch or like professional sports, or even watch school sports when I don't know anyone on the team. Like my aversion to joining clubs of any kind except human rights or cultural interests. Like why I won't watch movies based on certain subjects or themes, or with tragic endings. Like why I'm a skeptic when it comes to politics and religion—why I tend to view them as versions of each other. Like why I all but stopped reading modern literature for a very long time.

I was met with silence and respect for my point of view in all but one case. That silence had, on many occasions, a somewhat appalled undertone. But I couldn't ease it.

It is appalling. Appalling for them, because these things are truly frightening to think about. And appalling for me, because facing up to the fact that your own intellect and stubborn honesty might have done a great deal of damage to your own personality is a dreadful thing to have to do.

And here's the really awful thing—the very really most basically horrible thing: I didn't even know—had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was an idealistic 18-year-old, a victim of my own intellectual honesty and my interest in human rights. What I wanted to figure out—set out to study—was how to secure those rights. Figure out why such terrible things happened, and how to stop them.

And when I studied humanitarian law, and saw all it entailed—all the pain, both for those I studied and for me—I cringed. In horror, and the kind of hammering terror that makes you taste your pulse and jerk yourself awake...only to find that you already are.

And something in me whimpered. And now I think, I see, that maybe—quietly, gradually, inexorably—several things might have curled and angled and bent.

But I still refused to look away.

I would've been much happier as just an English major. No question. Which begs the question of why—curse my mental rigor and “truth is what makes us human” dogma—I'm still glad, despite all of this, that I chose to study a broader canvas.

Would I be happier if I didn't know about the worst things people do to each other, and why they do them? Absolutely.

Would I have fewer moments of fear as I see the small, near-invisible beginnings of avalanches of dreadful occurrences while reading about politics? Unquestionably.

Would I have less interesting nightmares, fewer images and stories and memories-that-aren't-mine of undiluted agony to haunt my dreams when I'm troubled? Undoubtedly.

Would I be a more social, more relaxed person—someone who could go to a game and cheer, sit around joking about how the other team sucks? Yes.

Would I be able to see this world as clearly—the skittering, cannibal darkness under its skin; the splendor, the thundering, limitless fire of its beauty?


So I'll continue to be a little different. A little odd.

A little bent.

Because—after all this time—I'll still take the pain. I'll take the beauty. I'll take it all—and yes, I'll bend.

And not break.

Blogger Calladus said...

Sumi, There are contrasts. Joy and sorry, hope and fear, nobility and atrocity.

You have immersed yourself in these contrasting media - longer than most people would be willing to do.

I hope that you'll be able to use this dark contrast to highlight the beauty and joy you experience in your life.

You've learned how grave is the human condition. Remember, we fight gravity with levity. A method that I have also been applying in my life.  


Blogger Scientiae said...

Cal, it's so wonderful to hear from you, and thank you for your encouragement and reinforcement.

Beauty and joy are the flip side.

My eyes are (literally) very sensitive to contrast--I see better in darker as well as lighter shades (and very well indeed in the dark). After years of trying to shut my eyes or to numb myself, I'm coming around to the view that seeing the darkness in humanity is the price I say for being able to keep my eyes open in the brightest of its lights.

And you're right about balancing gravity and levity as well. I've had too little levity in my life of late; I need to find some more. I'm working on it...do you have any suggestions?  


Blogger Calladus said...

Well, my first gut-bursting laugh that I enjoyed since my wife died this year was from watching the movie "Zombieland".

But then, I'm a guy, and I have been known to enjoy The Three Stooges too.

More seriously, (because levity can be such a serious thing) you need to make the time to do things that you love. Levity isn't just humor, it's contentment and joy.

And don't forget exercise - exercise is a natural mood elevator. (well, after you've finished. Beforehand and during it can be quite a bummer!)

Personally I find that getting out in the wild elevates my mood.It's hard to be down when surrounded by nature.  


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