On Love and Apathy

September the 3rd, 2017
Al Midrah Tower, Dhahran

Dear Adrian,

In the latter half of 1945, George Orwell wrote and published a piece in London, detailing an experience he had in Germany earlier that year. You are acquainted with Orwell – I am sure, or at least you should be, the genus mind behind Nineteen Eighty Four, The Animal Farm, and other anarchists’ classics; you certainly aren’t any less familiar with the year 1945 too, for it was the year that concluded the Second World War. That year, after the War’s end, Orwell was escorted under a journalist mantel to an Allied Forces-run prison, where his guide volunteered to show-case a dozen or so inmates to him. As Orwell describes, all inmates were laying on the cold concrete floor, covered by nothing but their shivering arms, and trying desperately to sleep away the pain of their visibly infected wounds. That, until the guard aimed a kick at a prisoner’s “horribly deformed […] clubbed out into an extraordinary globular shape” feet, waking him up in a state of mere dullness, suggesting this as a frequent treatment.

All of these prisoners were also former Schutzstaffel members, the most infamous unit in the Third Reich.

But for George, there seemed to be a disconnection between the man in front of him and what he represents. The broken and malnutritioned man looked more deserving – and in need – for a shower and psychological treatment than of the atrocities Orwell wished would engulf the Nazi party, all of which eclipse the act of kicking a sleeping man. Indeed, that punishing treatment looked inhumane and unnecessary, befalling a man looking no different than any other Orwell see in his everyday life “in London common lodging houses, [or] the Reading Room of the British Museum”. Witnessing the enactment of vengeance on an S.S. officer wasn’t satisfying in the slightest; or as he later titled his article: Revenge is Sour.

Analyzing his own feelings and discomfort at the situation, Orwell concluded that the abusive guard not be getting any pleasure out of his actions either. The guards action were a recitation of what he must have promised himself, while hiding in a bunker, to do were he ever to be in a position of power over Germans. Revenge is an act that sounds appealing only because of the powerlessness that accompanies its birth, and once the inability fades, the graphical nature of the fantasy becomes shocking, and it brings no satisfaction. “Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting”. Or so Orwell thought.

Fast forward more than half a century, and I am at work, waiting under the blazing sun for an important delivery that doesn’t seem like it will arrive. Frustration builds up as the driver and I fail to communicate with each other over the language barrier until he hangs up or loses signal. I am now covered in sweat, and going back to office at this state is a dreadful thought uneased by anything but fantasizing about what legends-worthy admonishment I will give him. The Illiad’s Helen of Troy was described as “the face that launched a thousand ships”, and therefore a milliHelen became a satirical unit of measuring beauty. One milliHelen is precisely the amount of beauty needed to launch one ship. I had then promised myself that one Omar would become a unit of measurement for amount of scolding necessary to fully erase one man from existence.

Eventually, he arrived, and I yanked the truck’s door out of place ready to fight. There, was a man of skin even darker than mine, and hair the harshness of years greyed before its time. He struggled to find the words, but layed what he found with a smile. “Sorry me late, you time important”. As my rage vanishes into embarrassment, and an urge to apologize to the man about what I haven’t even said yet, it comes to me that Orwell missed in important part. Powerlessness isn’t the only factor at play, for my hands were still tied by workplace rules, I wasn’t – yet – willing to lose my job for a momentary satisfaction. However, now that the driver isn’t an abstraction anymore, the idea of putting him down lost its appeal.

It seems that projecting hatred and spite into a human form of flesh and blood tends to lessen it. During the same war Orwell wrote about, a Japanese Kamikaze attempted an attack at the American battleship USS Missouri. The battleship survived the attack but the pilot didn’t, and his lifeless body landed on the deck. Despite all norms, the crew of USS Missouri still held a proper burial for the Japanese soldier, even stitching a make-shift Japanese flag for him as a coffin. In his death, the Japanese competent wasn’t an object of hate to the crew anymore, but merely a dead body barely distinguishable from their fallen comrades’. Truly, WWII was a Great one, not for its scale but for how deeply was it documented, teaching us a great amount about the human condition.

Dare I even argue further than that? Witnessing the humanity of a person is a deterrent, noticing how not so different they are. Cruelty requires a level of alienation before it is accessible, and thinking of others as hugely different historically went hand in hand with major humanitarian atrocities. Even when the existence of these carnages might bring to doubt the kindness of human being, it speaks volumes that a fundamental nature had to be bypassed by forming an “us vs them” mentality. Because otherwise, we can’t help but to sympathize with one another; and the image of a dust-covered hand under the rubbles brings pain to hearts regardless of context.

Sympathy to others is derived from similarities, even ones as minute as looks and mannerism. Over ages, generations, and colors, human beings are connected, and their experiences almost identical. You see this in the smiles of children and older folks, in the mutual savageness with which people devour food, even in art and poetry. 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho said:

Even in Kyoto, hearing the cuckoo’s cries, I long for Kyoto.

Carrying no more and no less meaning than what AlMutanabbi said:

و تشتاقهم عيني و هم في سوادها     و يطلبهم قلبي و هم بين أضلعي
و من عجب أني أحن أليهم فاسأل عنهم من لقيت و هم معي
Staring my loved ones in the eye, my heart longs for them
Sitting at the streets of my city, my heart longs for it.

Five centuries apart, never spoke each other’s tongues, and yet they speak of the same sentiment. Having shared this deeper connection, could Basho and AlMutanabbi really quarrel? We, mankind, are profoundly similar; and this resemblance prompts understanding and instinctively forces compassion when the alternative is called upon. It takes effort and great resistance to break nature and put down someone you must see a part of your humanity in; and luckily, particles follow the path of least resistance.

When a group is branded as “them”, another is also labeled “us”; for humans have a storage of compassion that they want to, have to vent out somewhere. Compassion that is built on noticing similarities between the receiver, and yourself or dearests. So go around life, make connections, get to know people intimately, and expand your social circle. As you do so, you’ll start noticing more of yourself and your loved ones in strangers; similarities soften your heart, and theirs should reciprocate likewise. Go love, and be loved.

With Love
Omar AlSughayer

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