By Douglas Anele
This Christmas season I had intended to engage in a critical investigation of religion given the powerful theological significance of the controversial purported birth of Jesus on December 25.
But I changed my mind at the last minute: it just occurred to me that it would be better to begin the new year with acknowledgements and gratitude to those who in one way or another made positive impact on my life in the year that just ended.
The much-needed critique of religion will definitely be undertaken very soon: the blizzard of religious intoxication that is steadily corroding the ability of Nigerians to think critically about the universe and events happening in their individual lives needs a well-reasoned response from an atheistic philosopher.
That said, committed readers of “Perspectives” can testify that for some years now I have consistently devoted one or two essays every January to thank and appreciate those that helped me navigate successfully the turbulent conditions of the preceding year.
The reason for doing so is simple. Life is a hard school for every human being in different ways, and without others no single person can cope successfully with its vicissitudes. Moreover, as an Igbo I understand why my people emphasise the practical utility of gratitude, as captured in the aphorism, ekelee onye akidi ya gwota ozo (if the person who cooked a local delicacy called akidi is appreciated, she will prepare another one).
Now, in acknowledging the “I…We” conception that prevailed in traditional Igbo worldview, one must emphasise the role expressing gratitude plays in cementing the bonds of togetherness that make social cohesion possible. Cognisant of the cliché which says one good turn deserves another, it is of utmost importance for beneficiaries of a kind gesture to express gratitude to their benefactors because it tends to motivate people to be kind and render help to those that need assistance in future.
But one does not have to give something big or do something unprecedented to deserve gratitude, or receive an expensive gift in order to appreciate the kindness of others. Every act of kindness, every expression of willingness to help no matter how small ought to be appreciated by any civilised person. It can be said that gratitude is the oil that lubricates the wheel of kindness and solidarity.
2019, like every other year in human history, has come and gone and 2020 is already five days old. Again, like previous years it is pregnant with possibilities and opportunities. For every human being on this planet irrespective of where you live, how you live, your age, gender, ethnicity or race, religious affiliation, socio-economic and educational status among others, last year was a mixed blessing, as it has always been and will continue to be unless humanity becomes extinct either as a result of an unprecedented natural cataclysm or due to extreme stupidity by political and military leaders of powerful countries.
According to existentialists, human life is existential, meaning that as humans we are constantly faced with the vicissitudes of life, with the question of what we are to do from moment to moment. That is why when my religious friends, especially those that attend the new-fangled miracle and prosperity peddling churches pray that God should remove all problems from their lives, I know they are asking for the impossible.
As I stated earlier, human existence is basically a hard school where each and every one learns the lessons of life by facing problems that rear up from time to time. One can say that problems in a multitude of forms are the stuff of which human life is made. Almost always, these problems require the cooperation of people working together harmoniously to resolve them. But there few that strike at the very core of what it means to be a self-conscious being that can only be solved introspectively by the individual himself or herself.
Fundamental questions such as, what is the meaning of my existence? What should be my major priorities in life?, and What kind of human being do I wish to be and so on are issues that each individual must deal with personally because no one can shift the responsibility for his or her life to another person. That is why the Christian doctrine that Jesus died for our sins is not only absurd; it is morally repugnant as well.
Each person bears ultimate responsibility for the way he or she lives. Therefore, human life (and its inseparable Siamese twin, death) cannot be outsourced on a franchise: it must be lived existentially by each individual because, as Martin Heidegger points out, the moment we are born we are already dying. It follows that 2020 presents another opportunity for us to begin again so that we can improve on our practice of life by adding value to ourselves, to our families, friends and, indeed, to everyone we encounter in our everyday transactions.
It is one of the unfortunate aspects of contemporary life that most people carry on with a blissful forgetfulness of the inescapable fact that we are living a dying life; that each day, week, month and year brings us closer to our mortality.
This insensitivity to the phenomenon of death as a central event in each person’s life reflects lack of philosophical attitude towards the fundamental precariousness of life on earth as emphasised in the original Buddhist teachings. And because in their forgetfulness of death, a lot of people tend to live without an overarching expansive purpose, necessitating sublimation by excessive indulgence in what the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, called the lower pleasures. Contemporary humans are distracted too much by obsessive pursuit of material objects and comforts, based on the false belief that the more material things one has the happier one would become.
There is ample evidence to suggest that bulimic materialism is a symptom of mental imbalance, the manifestation of cognitive dissonance triggered by existential anxiety and psychological disequilibrium. In other words, those who hanker after material things obsessively have dysfunctional psychic centre of gravity, which is why they think that mere acquisition of more and more things will fill the existential vacuum at the core of their being, whereas the reverse is the case.
People with genuine spiritual insight since antiquity to date have taught, correctly in my view, that pathological acquisitiveness is unhealthy and that the more a person acquires after a certain point is reached the less the person becomes in terms of spiritual wholesomeness and personal integrity. In short, the idolatry of material things is always a symptom of mental illness.
Concerning calibration of time into quantities such as seconds, minutes, hours, days and so on, most people do not realise that designating a period with a number representing a particular year, 2020 say, is a matter of convenience. The most widespread calendar in use today is derived from the calendar reformed by Gregory XIII in 1582.
That we are in the first month of the year 2020 is not a natural fact or universal phenomenon imposed on humanity either by geography or astronomy. Rather, different peoples and different civilisations calibrate the passage of time in different ways.
Traditional African communities, the Muslims, Chinese and other non-European communities divided time in accordance with the totality of their life experiences and culture. It just happens that Europeans powers which dominated the world from the Middle Ages onwards adopted the Gregorian calendar and spread it across the globe. Even presently, traditional societies across the world have their own unique ways of reckoning time side-by-side with the Gregorian calendar.
Like every other human being, I faced several challenges last year, the most exhausting being the accident which left my mother in-law bedridden for almost a year now. Nevertheless, I managed to surmount most of them because of family members and friends who served as pillars of support for me. Despite the uninspiring mediocre leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari and his cohorts which has made Nigeria the global poverty capital, I am optimistic that this year will be better than 2019 if Nigerians work together cooperatively as brothers and sisters.
There is no doubt that for majority of the masses Buhari’s government is a colossal failure, but they cannot do anything to bring about the much-needed positive change due to indolence, cowardice and divisive ethno-religious sentiments exploited by the political elite to divide the people and prevent them from rising up in unison against their oppressors.