On Life in General

However you might view it, it is quite apparent to me that I have had a very fortunate life. One of the reasons I would make such a statement is the number of marvellous people I can have called friends. One such person is Brian Turnbull. I first met Brian more than ten years ago on the Board of the Beacon Foundation. Brian had played a hand in the formation of that body, dedicated to helping disadvantaged youth into employment. He is a man of some considerable achievement and has experienced more than his share of trauma. And I suppose it is form those very exigencies of life that people of character are able to manufacture wisdom. He is someone always worth listening to.

Shortly after being introduced to my blog site he e-mailed to say how he enjoyed my little weekly essays. Attached to his e-mail was a document he had titled “On Life in General” which summarised his views over a range of subjects.

His essay is a little long for a single blog, so I will share some of it with you all this week. I do so with his permission. Brian is the author of the rest of the text below.

“I have put together the following thoughts since 2005, after I was diagnosed with cancer and it is has now become much more apparent to me that I face mortality just as any other person. Before that time and that occasion, I was of a different mindset, and somewhat unprepared to consider how I have lived and how I might leave this world.

My choice of subjects is somewhat eclectic, and covers those things which have been important to me throughout life, but becoming more so in recent years

There is no doubt in my mind that apart from the nuclear family, religion is the major philosophical force driving the world. Religion has been defined by many great thinkers, but must always be a relatively subjective term. It has been rare in history and its writings that a totally objective view has been taken.

In my attempt to remove the subjectivity, I believe one should stand outside the boundaries of conventional thought and take the “ab initio” view. In this position I would define religion as follows:

A system of beliefs, values and codes which have been derived by men to meet the neesd of groups of humans for a framework within which to live and co-exist.

It is useful to discuss how this need and the answers to it have evolved in the different civilisations. Whilst the first determinant of that evolution has probably been the geographical distribution of the groups, there is of course ample evidence that religions have been influenced and modified by interaction with each other as the isolation has been overcome and broken down. The spread of Buddhism from its origins in India into China, and the emergence from Judaism of Christianity and subsequently Islam are examples.

With few exceptions (Shinto?), religions feature the existence or recognition of a superior being or beings, sometimes a deity in the image of kingship, or otherwise in the veneration of the religion’s originator, as with the Buddha, or the Bab in the Bah’ai faith. Why is this?

There is no doubt that this, ie the installation or acceptance of an originator or leader, is the single most common thread to all religions. Muhammed, Jesus, Buddha, Yahweh, and the many appointees or disciples of these figures are the ones which come to mind. There are few religions that have continued to exist without this cornerstone. My own belief is that it is embedded in human nature to need or to accept that there is always going to be someone who is “the superior being”. We see this in sport, politics, the military context and commerce. Most of us seem to have a need for this, and a few the capacity to fulfil that need, hence the hero cult sometimes apparent in our various societies, and in the derived cultures and organisations.

In the absence of scientific expertise or fact-based reasoning, it is highly probable that the concept of the superior being was the first and easiest explanation of the otherwise unexplained phenomena of sun, tides, weather, heavenly bodies and other events not able to be controlled or explained. The story of humankind is replete with examples of how individuals within groups have sought to advantage themselves by the manipulation of others through the power of suggestion, magic and the presentation of a plausible explanation of certain events. A cynical view would hold that this has reached its ultimate and current form in the institution of politics within the nations of the modern era.

In stating the above, I do not attempt to denigrate those who have a religious faith, conventional or otherwise, nor would I attempt to change their position. I accept that if it works for them, without penalty of any sort to others, they should adhere to it for so long as it does.

What I do not abide is that any person, from a religious or other standpoint should seek to convert another to his or her way of thinking, apart from a healthy and robust debate. The coercive methods employed by some religious institutions and leaders are to be deplored.

The artifice of opulence used to impress the gullible is a feature of many of the world’s religions, notably the Catholic faith, viz. the treasures of the Vatican. This is to be deplored, and must represent an anachronistic attempt to control people.

Churchill is reported to have said “democracy may not perfect, but it beats the hell out of the next best thing!” I would agree with this, although it should not prevent us from refining the form of it.

Politics to me is a necessary part of the human existence. While it appears to be the refuge of those who would seek power under the pretence of doing good things for their fellows, I feel this is a necessary price to pay for the benefits of having strong minded people at the helm of the human ship. Without this the ship would run aground, or seek shelter at all times, without daring to challenge the unexplored and the unexplained.

I m not one who considers politicians necessarily to be persons of the highest moral standing, or the broadest credibility, within our society, but I do accept their existence, and their mandate within the democratic framework. There are of course those who are called to that profession by the profound realisation that their talents are desperately needed. Those I admire, so long as they continue to rise above the too frequent grubby and egocentric actions of their lesser companions.
I believe that the days of the nation state as we have known it, are numbered. The convergence of cultures, the power of communication, the expansion of trade and the understanding which flows from these things are powers which will inexorably lead to a world in which the higher values are shared and the lower ones eradicated.

The other power for the integration of the peoples of the world is that our knowledge and understanding of each other is becoming much greater as the years move on. As an Australian, I am firmly of the view that the progress we have seen recently in reconciliation with our own indigenous people, and the acceptance of refugees from very different cultures will allow us to realize that we are all of the human mould and that there are many more things binding us than there are dividing us.

This is not to say that is no place for the maintenance of the discrete and wonderful diversity of cultures in the world – we could not continue to enhance our lives without preserving and embracing our differences.

I look forward to the day in which any person from any part of our world will be able to travel, and to meet and converse without fear, any other person. I believe that some of our global institutions are striving towards this goal and I sincerely hope that success is not too far away.

It is useful to consider the origin of nations in arriving at their current attitude to war and peace.

United States of America

The US has had a history significantly more bloodied than Australia’s, for instance. Its origins were cast against a regime of long term oppression and aggression, resolved by a war to assert and achieve its independence. Its development was a moving tapestry of lawlessness and territorial conquest. I note that it was not until 1959 that the most recent of its States was joined to the Union, albeit peacefully, notwithstanding the forced annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century.

In addition, the Mexican incursion, the “Wild West”, the Civil War, the Indian Wars the Spanish-American War, all further developed a national mentality of survival, conquest, and rule by force which persists to this day. Even the activities of the Chicago gangsters and the Mafia were allowed to flourish in this ambience. Of note in this respect is the following quotation:

“ …..Summing up, our policy should always be to support the weaker against the stronger, until we have exterminated them both, in order to preserve the Pearl of the Antilles”
Major-General of Volunteers JC Breckinridge on the Spanish-American War, 1898.

Who would deny that US foreign policy is tethered to this principle to this day?

And another:

“War with Spain would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad, it would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate every branch of industry and domestic commerce”

Senator Thurston, Nebraska, advocating the declaration of war with Spain, 1898.

Who would deny that that American industry is still an advocate of war as the primary instrument of its own survival and progress?

Whenever there is a threat to their nation, perceived or otherwise, the American reaction is to respond in a militaristic and brutal manner. They do not have a natural inclination to negotiation, relying instead on their superiority in arms.

Today, this reliance is not abated if the threat is simply of an economic origin. There was a time early in its history that the Americans, having had enough of war, considered that the primary national goal should be the maintenance of the country’s economic well being. Alexander Hamilton was the leading proponent of this after the War of Independence. His influence has been lost.

I observe also that the provision of the US Constitution allowing citizens the right to bear arms, conceived by necessity during the War of Independence, does nothing to compel US citizens to seek solution by negotiation first.

The way ahead is tied to the ability of US administrations to “de-couple” itself from the industrial-military complex, recognizing it as a betrayal of the country’s founding principles and democratic values. They must review their own history and recognize that the Declaration of Independence is still valid as the touchstone of democracy, and concentrate on preserving those stated values

Of even greater danger than the US predilection for achievement of its objectives by force is its elitist attitude. The US claims the role of world ‘peace keeper’, but at the same time preserves and promotes its own economic interests: a curious and dangerous combination of self-appointed referee, and player on the field.

The establishment of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in1921 is testament to that. The CFR defines itself as “A research center dedicated to understanding the world by better comprehending global trends and contributing ideas to US foreign policy”,
( www.cfr.org ) but in reality it seeks to advise the US Government on ways in which the US can establish and dominate a world in which nation states are no more and there is a single and undemocratic world government. The CFR was the driving force behind the establishment of the United Nations.

Notwithstanding all of the above comments, I believe that the founding principles of the US are the most elevated, ideal and commendable of any nation on this earth today, and it is a great pity that the dichotomy between intention and method continues to inhibit the human progress of that great nation.

It is to be hoped that the Obama Administration is capable of overhauling US commitment to achieving power through the barrel of the gun and move to a period of negotiation and co-operation to achieve its implied objective of a better world for all people. In the reasonable hope that Obama himself may be the best thing to happen to the world in a long time, he may be able to light a beacon for the future of our planet.

Australia had a birth in a very different adversity to that of the US, and has achieved its greatness through persistence, with founding principles very similar to those of the US, but has had the good fortune to have done this generally in an atmosphere of peaceful negotiation without resorting to wholesale lawlessness and violence.

It puzzles me to a degree that Australia has not been able to detach itself from the US policies particularly in respect of Israel and Iraq, but has blindly followed the “me too!” attitude so eloquently expressed by Harold Holt in his “All the way with LBJ!” speech in 1966.

The British story is a different one again. In common with its contemporaries, it sought military and commercial dominance over other peoples, and used any and all means at its disposal to put those peoples into positions of servitude and oppression. That nation has finally realized that it has not been able to sustain a rule by force, and has had to capitulate to the need to negotiate with others on an equal footing.

Nevertheless, it continues to follow the US lead in most areas.”

Thank you Brian for allowing me to share this with my readership. I will include the remainder of your essay at another time.

13 Replies to “On Life in General”

  1. There is much to comment on in this essay. Thanks Brian I really enjoyed it and look forward to the next installment. I will restrict my weekly comment to the bit I found most interesting: The identification of the human need for leadership or a superior being. I have not thought about this before but it does seem an accurate observation that all societies crave leadership. Perhaps it is also one of the things that make us uniquely human. From nations of billions of people to a few survivors on a life raft leadership seems to always evolve. The best leaders though seem to be the reluctant ones. People who seek leadership are generally doing it out of ego. Those who have it thrust upon them and take it on reluctantly as a service that people want them to perform and then happily stand down when the need is gone have my vote every time. Problem is they are few and far between.

  2. Greg

    I would suggest reading ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius, the somewhat reluctant but successful Roman Emperor from 161-180 a.d.

    One of the world’s best leaders.

    My personal library copy is an original 1887 translation by Jeremy Collier.


  3. Greg’s comments remind me of something Noam Chomsky once said: “If someone tells you they want to be your leader, you should immediately distrust them.”

    On contemplating Brian’s insightful observations, and specifically those on nations, my thoughts go to the question of whether a nation can have an attitude, as Brian suggests. I think not, but I don’t think Brian intended for his words to be interpreted literally.

    The attitudes are ours. So, although we espouse and aspire to moral virtues and the universal rule to ‘do unto others’, it is less common for people to understand how these go beyond ‘me’ to ‘we’. I am thinking of the looming federal election and regressive policy declarations on asylum seekers, under the illusion of a ‘security threat’.

    It seems that we live in a state of disassociated complicity, knowing what nations do, understanding that as citizens we have rights and obligations to our fellow human beings, but making excuses not to act when we observe arbitrary powers compromising our humanity. This is perhaps the greatest sadness of our preoccupation with individualism. A preoccupation that is manufactured and conditioned, rather than natural.

    In my life, I have not experienced an innate need to identify with a superior being as such, but I do think most of us would rather not suffer the experience of inferiority. This seems simply to be the desire to be one with something other than one’s self.

  4. On Life in general?

    You can only play the cards that you are dealt.

    But, dib, dib, dib.

    Do Your Best.


  5. How wonderful it is! I have been away a couple of days and of course I come back to find some of my most regular and insightful correspondents have commented on Brian’s treatise.

    Today I presented a workshop on the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type instrument). Participants questioned me about the influence of their particular type on their behaviours and asked was that the major determinant of how they behaved. And of course it is not for many of us. MBTI, at least according to Jung’s theory of types, is a genetically prescribed framework that is a platform for the development of our behaviours. But socialisation provides another dimension. Life experience delivers for those who are our wisest the most telling influence. The good Dr Phil often says when you go through trauma make sure you come out better and not bitter. How often do you hear people say that “Joe Blow” is such a tremendous bloke despite of all that’s happened to him. My contention is that “Joe Blow” is such a great bloke because of what’s happened to him. He (or she) has been able to assimilate all that experiential learning and make a greater sense of this existence that we are all partaking of. Those who have learnt well from their life experiences are those who are worth listening to. That is why I felt it appropriate to give you Brian’s musings on the world. He is a great exemplar of those who have dared to live and learnt from the outcomes.

  6. Good to see somone tackling the questions!

    Regarding religion, perhaps the 10 commandments contain the clues. Why shouldn’t we shag our neighbours wife? Dogs do it all the time! Like dogs and people, the human state seems to be one of interdependence. Our neighbour is likely to get very cross, and if everones’ neighbour is very cross then it might be a bit difficult to do all the things we need to do that depend on each other. Its a micro vs. macro thing.

    On the matter of politics, can I indulge in a para of one of my own more controvertial newspaper columns…

    “Room 101 at Flinders University was where social science students handed in written work. The main character in George Orwell’s 1984 faces his greatest fears in an identically named room. Interested by Rick Wakeman’s 1981 concept album, I read the book while studying an elective in Contemporary European History. It’s a love story set against an omnipotent fascist regime. Fascism needs war. The war on drugs, the war on terror, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, SARS, Swine Flu, Climate Change and the GFC. Are we not perpetually at war? The bureaucracy pretends to protect. Stupid home ownership policies were undermining the financial system. Not exposed by media, bureaucrats, or corporate executives, financial markets revealed the truth. Despite that and thousands of years of evidence, the administration now claims that markets don’t work. They say more regulation (that they will administer), is required. Be careful. Regulation combined with unaccountability deprives society of liberty. It is a combination at odds with Christian principals which provide for maximum liberty …as long as individuals accept the consequences of their actions.”

    Thanks for the read.

  7. Spent some time in Zurich on my return.

    Took the opportunity to visit the haunts of one of my favourite mystics.

    Purchased some books from the Institute.

    Visited the family grave which gave Carl no prominence.

    No doubt at his wish.

    Making a new Will tomorrow.

  8. ‘There are many creeds and beliefs; there are many ways of leading your life; there are many roads to Oneness with the world. But there are other ways too, and these are all about us. There are those who worship money and success. There are those who do not care about the suffering of others, as long as they are all right. There are those who think that science and mastery of the physical world will bring us happiness and save us at the end of the day. I cannot agree with any of these. I do not think that science alone will deliver us from the consequences of our greed and our stupidity – it is science that has made the various things that are poisoning our world. I do not think that material success will neccessarily make us happier – the faces of the rich tell us that; I do not think that a big car or a big house makes a big man. I think that the measure of whether a life has been a good one is how much love there has been in that life – love both given and received.’

    “The Double Comfort Safari Club”

    Alexander McCall Smith

    Highly recommended.

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