By Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor of Cyrano’s Journal. [This article is part of the Cyrano’s Virtual University Collection. This collection contains articles the editors over the years have felt to be foundational and insightful in expanding understanding of concepts and issues.][From the Abu Ghraib series of Fernando Botero, courtesy the Berkeley Museum. Retrieved from The Daily Californian.] [I]t’s all so bizarre. No wonder our thoughts sometimes take such crazy turns. I started this piece on “comfort and ease” and spontaneously came back to the subject of torture. I recall once a few years ago I was sitting in the comfort and ease of my living room when on my TV screen appeared the infamous photographs of the American woman soldier with a cigarette hanging from her lips torturing prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq.
The contrast between that pleasurable day in the comfort of my home in the Rome countryside and what was really happening in the world only a few hours to the east was bizarre. I still can’t get out of my mind the image of the crucified, hooded Arab, the fingers of his outstretched arms attached to what look like electric wires. Then, again, I see the evil grin of the American woman apparently enjoying herself.
I once had a Professor of Polish culture who was a key figure in the Polish resistance in WWII. He was captured and was dying of starvation in a prison camp at war’s end, a skeleton, ill, terrorized, barely alive. The American government brought him to the USA where he had important things to do concerning New Europe. He was put up in a hotel in New York. It was ironic, he told me, that only six weeks later, he was complaining to the laundry about how they did his shirts.
It’s bizarre, he would have said, that we spend most of our lives in search of the pleasure of comfort and ease, convinced that happiness lies there. The truth is, comfort saps your real strength. Ease is treacherous and steals your ingenuity. The devilish pair robs your intuition and dulls your vision. I have mind also metaphysical comfort and ease, not only natural human desires for creature comforts which in practice, as we all know, are never enough.
Psychologists instruct us that there are only four things that people really need for their happiness: a feeling of security, a feeling of belongingness to a group, a feeling that people have affection for them, and the respect and esteem of others. That’s it. Basic needs are quite simple.
Real life is more complex. Try this for example: Each weekday you go to work, evenings you go shopping, you watch TV or work in the garden or wash the car, you take the children to the park, you think about paying off the car and the house, you talk about a vacation. Real life tends to point toward the future. Final happiness seems to depend on the future. In the meantime, your day-to-day life is comfortable and easy. Then, one day, you wake up as from a dream, you look at yourself in a mirror and realize you are thirty. Then another jump and you are forty, and you become aware that life has an end and you wonder who you are and what you are doing. You wonder if this is real life. And suddenly you want more from life.
If you’re lucky, you come to realize you need more than comfort and ease. Everyone has likely had the experience of dedicating much time and money to some project like, let’s say, remodeling your house. You draw up a plan, decorators or architects come, you arrange financing, the work proceeds, and you dream of the wonders awaiting you. The job is finally finished. Your dream has come true.
You sit down and look at it, content. A few days pass and you admire your work. A few weeks pass and you hardly notice any more the changes in your house. It hasn’t changed anything in your life. You realize you want more. It is something you can’t pinpoint. If you are lucky, one day you wake up and realize you want that part of life concealed under the mask of comfort and ease.
Does anyone believe that as we struggle to live life we need the assurance of our leaders that we are happy and satisfied in the comfort and ease of the American way of life? Do other peoples really envy us for it?
I believe people can bear up under the reality that it is not so. More and more peoples of the world consider America evil, distant from the rest of humanity. People do not need to be lied to. Most can take the truth. Most prefer it. Or they would prefer the truth after they get used to it; our minds have the task of distinguishing between true and false.
Still, it is bizarre that we can live our little lives inside our shell and have no idea of what is taking place on the outside. Only a thin wall separates our shell of comfort and ease from the world outside where torture continues.
Reality makes you wonder about where the human species stands in its evolution. You wonder if there is really some kind of historical determinism shaping our society that brought us willy-nilly to this point where torture is accepted as long as it is far away and disguised in euphemistic language. And what kind of determinism shaped our benevolent acceptance of lies about the superiority of “our way of life”?
Psychologists pose the question of the amoral person. At birth the human being has no concept of right or wrong. The newborn is like nature. It just is. The infant is a pure example of amorality. Then there is the grown-up infant who has not evolved from his early natural state. Society has not influenced his development. He has remained in a childish search for his own pleasure. The third level of amorality is the aggressive delinquent, who is hostile to all.
Then, standing alone, often invisible and undetected, are the normally amoral who only appear moral. They are psychopaths who wear masks of sanity. They can become prominent citizens. They manipulate others in order to achieve what they want in total absence of moral compunctions. Their only criteria are their own desires. Such people often become our leaders.
To achieve their ends amoral leaders infantilize the people, keeping the majority content in a shell of comfort and ease. Their weapons are ignorance and blindness, misinformation and lies, censorship and euphemisms … and the assurance of comfort and ease.
But even the minor goal of comfort and ease is a lie. As my Polish professor said, contentment is at the most transient.
If you stop and think about it, you have to find expressions such as “our values” and “the superiority of the American way of life” deplorable. How can I rely on those who have never been outside the shell of comfort and ease where exist four-fifths of the world? How can I trust those who do not know the meaning of social solidarity? How can I trust those who have never veered from the straight path of Interstate 95 and have never suffered physical pain or mental anguish for something greater than themselves?
Man was not content in the Garden of Eden. It was not enough. He wanted the freedom to choose. Out in the world he met injustice, acquired a conscience and felt fear and guilt. Therefore part of him has always longed for return to the security—and the non-freedom—of Eden. To peace of mind. That dichotomy—the desire for freedom on one hand and on the other the desire for the security of Eden—is the dilemma of the human condition.
Thinkers of all times consider peace of mind suspect for it implies non-freedom. For Nobel writers Czeslaw Milosz and Albert Camus despair is the natural state of the free man. Despair because of the divine in him that allows him to realize that he is living an existence that he will never be able to understand.
On the other hand, the much-pursued pair of comfort and ease removes and alienates us even more from reality. Comfort and ease is a golden cage. Retreat into the beguiling cocoon of comfort and ease erases the possibility of communication with the rest of mankind. It is a rejection of the reality of the world and man’s place in it.
A rejection of comfort and ease as a life goal is to choose truth over lie. It is to choose the way of extremism, of opposition to the lie. There are periods when truth exists more easily. There are other periods, mendacious and ugly periods, when truth rings seditious, subversive, revolutionary, when it however shines in its extremism.
In my mind, comfort and ease as a goal reflect anti-reality, anti-man, anti-life. For to live life, you have to accept and live with reality—in the desperation and despair it provokes. You have to learn to live without illusions. That is unpleasant at first. Uncomfortable. Uneasy. But, we can learn.[This is tricky. Most people can’t differentiate between “illusion” “hope” and “fantasy.” But if they abandon all hope, why should they fight? They will fall back into nihilism, or merely –in extremis–animal responses to acute pain, but no patient organized resistance that can really throw the system.]