The Virtues of Rama

Dino Spouse and I celebrated Valentine’s Day last week by going to a couple of second-hand shops and having an early dinner at a Korean restaurant. We have watched so many Korean movies thanks to Netflix that my husband was eager to try Korean cuisine, my own knowledge of which is limited to the bibimbap at the salad bar place near my office and kimchi. Given the wide availability of Korean salads in Almaty, I was surprised that he’d never tried kimchi before. But I digress.

During the shopping portion of our Valentine’s Day celebration, we visited a downright Gucci Goodwill in Annandale. I cleaned up on clothing there and found two things I really wanted to read: a 2007 novel about office life called Then We Came To The End (read it six years ago, wanted to read it again) and the Ramayana. Actually, it was an abridged prose “translation” of the great Hindu epic by an obscure American dude in the 1950’s with illustrations that would have been better suited to student copies of 1970’s album cover art. It is not the kind of literary translation I favor, but I am ignorant of Hindu epics and I have abandoned many august scholarly translations of ancient epics in my reading life. For 99 cents, I figured I could do worse.

I could definitely have done worse. Now I want to find his version of the Mahabharata. (Maybe it’s on Amazon’s loser imitation of Oyster – something’s got to be there besides vampire romantic fanfic, for the love of God. I need to remember to cancel my membership.) It was readable and it has a summary of the hero’s virtues which I love so much I am going to post the whole damned thing here.

Rama’s nature was quiet and free. He didn’t give good advice and tell others what he thought best and show them their mistakes. He knew when to save and when to spend. He could judge men finely and keep his own counsel. He could read hearts. He knew his own faults better than the failings of others. He could speak well and reason in a chain of eloquent words. Half a benefit to him was more to him than a hundred injuries. Bad accidents never happened near him. He could speak every language and was an expert archer who shot golden arrows; and he didn’t believe that what he preferred from himself was always best for everyone else.

Rama was kind and courteous and never ill. To harsh words he returned no blame. He was warmhearted and generous and a real friend to all. He tried living right and found it easier than he’d thought. He collected the King’s taxes so that over half the people didn’t really mind paying him. He was a remarkable prince and every Kosala loved him except for five or six fools. He was hospitable and spoke first to every guest in welcome words. He was a quiet strong man; he could bend iron in his hands or fix a bird’s broken wing. He would not scold the whole world not take to task the universe, and so his pleasure and his anger never went for nothing.

Rama would not work very long without a holiday; he wouldn’t walk far without stopping to greet a friend, nor speak long without smiling. His entertainments and dances were the best in the world. He loved Sita well; he lived his life for the sake of her being a part of it. He would often find a new gift for his friends. He did not fear to pass a whole day without work. Whatever he did, he ennobled it by how he did it. Rama’s way was noble.

This all sounds like a life well spent to me. At least some of these sound like virtues to which I might aspire. I even read this aloud to my children Friday morning. And then I step back and wonder whether this will have the same aftertaste as when I thought James Altucher was, like, deep. Virtues which serve a supernatural king who bests demons in combat and hangs around with talking bears and monkeys may not be of much practical use to me as a parent or a public servant. It’s probably a lot more effective to speak softly when you’re actually carrying a big stick than when you just wish you were.


Who Owes Who What Now?

There are people who believe that the world owes them fairness, however one defines “fair.” Then there are people who feel sort of queasy and/or irritated at the notion that the world owes one anything. (Then there’s the reality of the people, most of us really, who fall between those extremes. But I digress.)

I’m one of the queasy types. Chalk it up as you will to nihilism, a conviction that true fairness is determined by an ineffable justice which surpasses my understanding, or resentment toward the self-actualization of others. All of these things may be true. Whatever the reason, I find it easier to tally up what I owe to others than to articulate what others owe to me. I also find it easier to be lenient with others than to be lenient with myself. In practice, this doesn’t so much govern my actual behavior as it governs what I feel guilty about.

My psychologist recently challenged me to define what I am owed. I spluttered indignantly about the world not owing anyone anything, then defaulted to access to food/clothing/shelter, then just sat there opening and closing my mouth. I owe it to myself to – to what?

I put the question out on social media, where I learned that I am owed a pedicure, wine, oxygen (please put on your own mask first before assisting others), a chance at happiness, and fresh blood (like the human heart, which must be fed in order to feed the rest of the organism). None of this is wrong (especially if I define the pedicure and vino/blood more broadly as self-nurture) and all of it is agreeable. What it doesn’t tell me is whether I am owed intellectual stimulation or adult companionship on a regular basis more than I karmically owe my physical presence and attention to family members. How much does a debt to myself weigh relative to a debt to my children or my husband? And what is a reasonable debt to oneself?

Let’s say that the purpose of human life is to glorify the Lord and celebrate His works. My faith life ranges between nihilism, a conviction that the mysteries of faith are ineffable and surpass my understanding, and uneasy fear that if I don’t just do what’s in my catechism, I’ll screw everything up for myself and everyone else in my attempts to freestyle. In practice, this doesn’t so much govern my actual behavior as it governs what I feel guilty about. Sound familiar? Well, what would He have me do once the boxes are all checked? He would have me forgive others; would He have me forgive myself when, go as I might though the motions of loving my neighbor as myself or not coveting her ass, I decide to quietly disengage from my neighbor* because she wants to take her side in a community association dispute where she’s wrong and the stress is making me pull my own hair out in my sleep? What about when I mute her on Facebook so as not to see more pictures of her ass patiently giving donkey rides to disadvantaged children while mine is kicking down the fence again?

*Not using this neighbor to represent any actual person, honestly. Really, I swear. If you own a donkey, I am totally happy for you, especially if it is good-natured enough to handle attention from kids. Sure, I would love to own livestock and land, but that is not the point. There is no neighbor. There is no ass. There is no community association.

Help me, imaginary friends on the internet.

I feel good about taking my biology class because I feel like it has practical value above and beyond my own pleasure in learning and because I feel like it does not unreasonably deprive my people of attention. I can’t find it in me to feel good about doing things that I know would significantly help my physical and emotional health without providing any tangible benefits to my helmets at home. How much personal growth and satisfaction do they owe me? It’s hardly as if they try to stop me from seeking it out, it’s just that they don’t actively want them on my behalf. (“And why should they?” chides a voice in my head.) In the case of the biology class, it took me telling Dino Spouse that I needed him to want it for me before I finally got off my duff and registered for the class. I’ve been wanting to take it for six or seven years now. Why did I need him to intervene before I could give myself permission to do it?


(Before I commence ranting about the horrors of modern academe, a word about this article about how smart language choices contributed to overcoming anti-cyclist “bikelash” in Seattle: is there a way to successfully apply this – if it’s true – to discussions of discrimination? I’m thinking of “When Talking About Bias Backfires” and the argument that talking about bias may encourage more bias.)

(Also, this is a PSA for parents of adult-looking teenagers: check if the kid has his/her ID card before leaving home for two-hour drive to visit kid’s friend in hospital instead of halfway down I-95 to Richmond. It was a long day of driving today. Thank God I called the hospital to check once I realized that Podrostok hadn’t brought his learner’s permit or school ID with him. They totally would have turned his 17 year-old hiney out of there without some identification!)

The wee hours find me once again doing my biology homework. My main complaint tonight is that I have to use a spreadsheet graphing function to complete a lab report. I know, boo hoo, but I hate making charts and graphs and graven images of all kinds using 21st century technology. I don’t hate making data tables, but the only way I can think through the process of turning data points into pictures is by literally plotting dots on a piece of graph paper. The art of graphic design – hell, the art of superimposing a headshot of myself onto a cartoon dinosaur body – passed me by in roughly 1987. I got through most of the first chart tonight by trial and error, so now I understand enough (hopefully) to get through the rest of my rebooted undergraduate career. Still, ugh. Boo. Hiss.