On the Importance of Storytelling

Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was 22, when he landed in Asia Minor with an army of 50.000 soldiers. Once he put his foot on shore, he symbolically stuck his spear on what for him was Asian ground and said: this land is mine”. This is the incipit of one Alessandro Baricco’s memorable lectures on the vital importance of storytelling and, of course, he chose a great story to tell in order to get his point, so let’s keep on with the narration.

First of all: why did a Macedonian king claim those vast Asian territories named Persia, the greatest empire of the time? It could seem like madness at first glance, but he had a powerful reason: to save the honour of the Greeks. Long time before, the Persians had invaded Macedonia and Greece, a war which was won eventually by the Greeks, but at great expense for the people. Everything had been destroyed: villages, houses, temples. As the Persians had come there and burnt their temples, hence it was his right to conquer their land and burn theirs. Alexander had inherited this pan-Hellenic project from his father, who had hired Aristotle himself for his education. When his father died and he was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch the campaign for the conquest of Persia.

By the way, it was a crazy enterprise. He arrived with “only” 50.000 soldiers, a small bunch of men if we consider that the Persian empire was inhabited by millions of people who could be recruited any time by Darius, the King of Kings. Wherever he went, the Persians could have put together an army three times his. Something more had to be done, that’s why Alexander’s story of conquest and revenge took necessarily the form of legend. He wanted his people to see him more like a God than a king. That is why he started his conquest of Persia with three symbolical actions. First of all, he went to pay homage to the tomb of Protesilaus, who was the first  to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war. That was the destiny of any “first” man who put his foot on Persian land according to a prophecy. Alexander, wanted to be the first to touch the ground, but he didn’t die, thus proving that predictions didn’t work on him as he was a God.

Then he went to visit the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus along with Hephaestion, his life mate. Achilles was among those legendary figures of the war of Troy, the one and whose values he identified himself the most and he was a demigod, after all. Finally, he felt the urge to do something apparently nonsensical. He risked his life and that of the comrades who followed him to reach the Libyan desert to ask the oracle of God Amon  the following question: ” Am I Amon’s son”? Alexander must have had a monumental ego, this is a matter of fact, but all this was to make his story more appealing. They were about to fight a war, which would subdue Persia under the Greek dominion and the only one who could lead them to victory couldn’t but be a God. Gods are no losers.

Well, they won. Alexander won because he had an appealing story to tell, made of dreams, legend, conquest and his people followed him to victory. He had understood the immense power of storytelling. Can we give a definition of storytelling to make all this clear? Of course. Reality = facts + storytelling, namely, it is the reality devoid of facts and a fact without a storytelling does not exist, it is not real. Only those facts which are part of a narration are true.

At this point of Baricco’s lecture, I understood. Those large movements, which are growing worldwide, are fed with storytelling and they will never be stopped by facts. The facts of the unattainability of electoral promises or the evident incapability of this or that politician, these are facts, but they can’t be a barrier to what is mostly irrational and emotional. It is a sort of collective automatic response, an indomitable stream. It follows man’s animal instinct, the one which makes you believe to absurd things. Alexander wanted to conquer Persia, as they had destroyed the Greek temples 150 years before. Never mind if they were not exactly your temples, as Alexander was Macedonian, it is a meaningless detail compared to the power of the storytelling.

That is why, as long as we want to oppose those movements taking the evidence of the ineptitude of leaders or the folly of some election programmes, with facts, we are in the wrong. Facts do not appeal masses. We need to find a new storytelling; and soon.

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Another Brick in the Wall?

Since the dawn of humanity, when the first men started to colonize this planet , there is one thing that we have never ceased to do: move. Peoples have always moved from one place to another, driven by the need to find better areas where to find or grow food or even by that innate curiosity to explore and break any limit reason places, whatever its nature might be. Peoples have always moved; and whether you like it or not, they’ll keep on doing so, despite the walls short-sighted government mean to erect. These walls will be destroyed, this is what any history book has taught us.

Even the strongest wall cannot resist the blows of the most powerful, dangerous drive: survival instinct. If we, western cultures, accustomed to live such a pampered life where it has become hard for most of us to distinguish our needs from our wants, weakened by the certainty of our welfare, dazzled by the superiority of our technology, believe to keep our status erecting walls, I’m afraid we are just deluding ourselves.Think about the Romans, for example, they had power, armies, technology, a very refined culture, but their rich, sophisticated world fell under the blows of the rude, illiterate tribes of the barbarians, who were driven by stronger needs.

It cannot be denied that immigration is a great issue of our times and for this reason governments had better avoid selfish policies and work hard on shared solutions.The majority of those who eventually manage to land on our coasts are driven by that kind desperation that makes them stronger despite their physical weakness and slight statures, as they are ready to defy any danger even death to change their lives. We, fortunately, have lost memory of what that means, but this makes us vulnerable. Furthemore, they are many and they will be more as they make children, so in a possible conflict among races even mathematics is on their side.

Hence, what can be done if we don’t want to end up just like the Romans? Since walls are no effective solution, I can only see two possible reasonable ways:

1. developing genuine integration policies thus making of immigration a resource;

2. helping them make a productive system in their own countries. Very difficult to be achieved in the short-term, by the way, as it should be planned with the local powers.

However, now that I think of it, there would be another way to go in the case the two solutions I mentioned above could not be effectively pursued, only, that would not be a choice, but a consequence of myopic policies. As immigration cannot and will not ever be stopped, the only thing left to do it to “exterminate the brutes“. (Conrad, Heart of Darkness)

The Helpless, the Intelligent, the Bandit and the Stupid.

I’ve always been of the opinion that since very first human beings have made their presence known on this planet, they have always shown a very high opinion of themselves. Religion has given its contribution, of course, stating that we were the elected who had been made with the semblance of our creator and the only one endowed with that super power called reason which allows us, sons of the Enlightenment, to make the future we imagine come true. We believe ourselves to be as a sort of demigods. However, if it were so, is this the kind of future we had imagined? There must be a fault in this divine scheme, or more than one as my dear friend Jonathan Swift had cleverly pointed out in his Gulliver Travels, otherwise, our present wouldn’t be so full of contradictions and oddities. I cannot clearly make out where we are going or if the demigods we have elected have in mind to take us to a place different from the one called “disaster”. I am convinced there must be circuit breaker somewhere.

So while I was thus immersed in what the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi called “cosmic pessimism”, my attention was drawn by an essay written by Professor Carlo Cipolla : “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” and magically everything became clear. Professor Cipolla aimed at discussing the following facts:

1. the stupid damage the whole society;
2. the stupid in power do more harm than others;
3. the stupid democrats use the elections to keep the percentage of stupid people in power  high;
4. stupid people are more dangerous than bandits because reasonable people can understand the logic of bandits;
5. Reasonable people are vulnerable to stupid because:
* generally they are surprised by their attack;
* *they fail to organize a rational defense because the attack has no rational structure.

Having thus said the Professor formulates the following five laws:
1:Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. I know, it sounds ungenerous, but it is a matter of fact that too often those who once we judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid and think about it, how often have we been harassed in one of your activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments? It is impossible to fix their percentage, however, any number would be too small.
2:The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. Education, race, status or gender( sorry, Mr Run😙) have nothing to do with it. In fact, you will see that the fraction of stupidity is exactly the same among blue-collar workers, white-collar employees, students, administrators, professors, men or women.
3: A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
4: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
5 :A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The corollary of the Law is that: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit, a statement which leads to the core of Professor Cipolla’s theory. Individuals can actually be divided into four types four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid.
The Helpless are those who with his action tends to cause harm to themselves, but also create advantage to someone else.
The Intelligent tend with their action to create an advantage for themselves, but also create an advantage for someone else.
The Bandit , of course, create advantage for themselves, but at the same time damage someone else.
The Stupid are those who cause harm to another person or group of people without at the same time realizing any advantage for themselves or even suffering a loss.

Professor Cipolla also states that intelligent people are generally conscious of being so, the bandits are also aware of their attitude and even the unfortunate people have a strong suspicion that not everything is going right. But stupid people do not know they are stupid, and this is one more reason that makes them extremely dangerous.
If it is so, I start to suspect something and I cannot avoid asking myself a painful question: am I stupid? Even if tests had proven my I Q, I know  these tests would not mean anything.I am often told  I am intelligent, but even this proves nothing. These people may perhaps want to hide me the truth, or, they might be trying to take advantage of my stupidity with a harmless flattery or they could be as stupid as me.
Then another question comes, am I aware of how stupid I am (or was)?  And I can proudly say, yes, I am.😑
And this proves that I’m not completely stupid.😏

Is There a Future for Teaching?

April September is the cruellest month. It smells of sirocco, which with its warm breath and threatening clouds confounds the bright serenity of summer days thus foreshadowing the coming of autumn. There are still a few good days to be enjoyed of course, few, but they have the bitter taste of the awareness that something is just about to end. I guess this is the sort of melancholy which affects those who, like me, live by the sea, love the sound of the waves and looking out at the horizon. We are accustomed to live outdoor so many months of the years that home seems like a prison when September comes.

April Sempember is the cruellest month. In such a miserable state of mind the month begins with its most terrible mortal blow: teaching staff meetings. I believe that any teacher in any part of the world would agree with me if I say that the most salutary effect of summer vacations is: forgetfulness. Only few weeks and you realize that you have almost forgotten everything: papers, passwords, the inevitable conflicts you had in the past.  I am sure that two or three colleagues of mine must have given me reasons to get on my nerves last year, but actually, I can’t remember why at the moment and so I just say hello to them with a smile. That’s why before the first teaching staff meeting there is always a certain cheerfulness and excitement in the air, we are all tanned, friendly, light-hearted. Before.

April September is the cruellest month.The reading of the agenda of the meeting has the immediate effect of quickly awakening minds from the summer slumber and in that very moment illusory forgetfulness gives its way to memory and harsh reality. From the list of the issues to be discussed, school appeared to be a cautious bureaucratic system with no real identity or goal different from satisfying the wishes of families, who have actually become our customers and we know that customers must always be satisfied. So, if we don’t want to lose ground in the competition with other schools, we have learnt in time to dedicate a lot of our efforts in creating and customizing learning products, with the hope our customers might find them appealing, we have become travel agents, project makers, data analysts, advisors and what more! Is this what we wanted to be when we started?

April September is the cruellest month. After at least two hours of an endless discussion on school trips, on which destinations even the closest stations to go, hadn’t been all of us fully in such process of metamorphosis into somebody/thing we don’t know yet, had we had a shred of dignity left, we should have stood up and say, what has it all to do with me? And quit the assembly then. My friends, teaching once was a sort of romantic, generous job. Teachers were those who had the task of transmitting knowledge or better the curiosity of knowledge to generations. They made the difference, but now, if the nature of the activities we are involved into are often so very far from teaching, is it still so? In a time when information can be easily got on the web, if teachers no longer make the difference, why should society need them?

There are already apps with avatar trainers who teach how to work your glutes, abs, Pilates, Yoga, cooking etc. , I’m sure very soon they will be programmed to teach Latin, Math, History with customized lessons and looks as well. It seems that one of them has already been tested. His name is Will. So, my dear friends, if we accept to give up making the difference not only September will be the cruellest month, but also October and November and all the months of the years as the teaching system, as it is now, will have no reason to exist.

 

 

All Sentiment and Tender Heart

I’m often told I’m not dog friendly or pet friendly in general. Well, on this occasion I would like to say publicly that it is true, I am not, only, I would like to point out that I don’t actually feel this sense of aversion towards animals in particular, but rather towards their owners. I know that for many of them a dog, for example, may represent the company, the friend they need or for somebody even a child. It is family, I understand, but what you have to understand as well that for me it is only a dog: an animal. Therefore, I am annoyed when they are without a leash and run freely in the street: “Don’t you worry, it is harmless” said to me smiling a pit bull owner once, while that delicate beast was on the point of attacking a paralyzed me. Harmless? How should I know it? Furthemore, I don’t like to see dogs in places where food is sold or served like bars, markets or restaurants.

I remember one day Mr Run and I were in a restaurant, when a couple with a beautiful, big, majestic dog arrived. Everybody welcomed it with common deserved admiration and it did receive our praise too, till we saw that the couple and their dog approach the table near ours and sat there. We couldn’t say anything as that restaurant allowed dogs in. By the way, I couldn’t but laugh, when I was saw the hairy tail of the dog at least half a meter long wagging and tickling the head of my husband while he was about to eat. On one side it was hilarious but on the other it was irritating as for the couple that was a normal behaviour. We had been totally ignored. Of course, we had to say to them to place their lovely beast somewhere else far from our heads at least.

Animal lovers are used to flooding their Facebook walls with lovely pictures of their pets which usually receive hundreds of likes and sweet, heartwarming comments. These people are loving and caring indeed, in fact, every time they come across some little foundlings they are organised in a way to find the little creatures nurturing and a house as soon as possible. That is why I felt enraged when on one of these walls I read this post :

“If I land in any foreign airport and I do not have the documents in order I cannot put my feet out of the airport. Nobody tells me that I am held prisoner. You cannot enter any foreign country ignoring the rules. This must also be applied to the illegal migrants of the ship”Diciotti”.

Wow, so the fact that nearly 200 people, who had been rescued from the Mediterranean on 15 August and trapped on the Italian ship Diciotti in Catania in terrible unhealthy conditions, as Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had denied the coastguard vessel permission to disembark the majority of them until the EU would agree to distribute the migrants across other countries, could not arouse any feeling of compassion in them or shame, because as Italian I feel deeply ashamed .

This reminded me or some lines from the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales when Chaucer describes the moves and the attitude of the Prioress:

“As for her sympathies and tender feelings,
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding.
And she had little dogs she would be feeding
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread.
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart,
She -was all sentiment and tender heart”

Of course “She -was all sentiment and tender heart” with her animals, but Chaucer doesn’t say anything about human beings. Maybe he forgot about it.

The Importance of a Good Mattress

This morning was scrolling down my reader, when my attention was caught by an article of a blog “romandispatches” (whoever would like to venture to Rome even in such “desperate” times I heartily recommend it). The blogger, I guess his name is Peter, had exhumed a post about recycling that dated back to five years ago to strike the actual situation in Rome for what concerns garbage collection. To his eyes, at that time we Romans looked very attentive to recycling, he had actually used the word: “obsessed“. “Obsessed?” Had we been truly obsessed with recycling there would have never been such environmental degradation in spite of the manifested incompetence the administrators who have been sitting in Campidoglio in recent years.

The truth is that about six, seven years ago each Roman family received a recycling kit made of a pretty bin for wet waste and four of five bags, I can’t remember now, where  paper, glass, plastic had to be properly sorted. The bags were so popular, actually, that one of my colleagues, who clearly doesn’t suffer from shopping addiction like myself, loved them so much that decided to use the entire set even to go to work…… to school😳. One day she came with the bag for glass and the next with the bag for paper. I am sure she had never experienced such extravagance of habit in her entire life.

There was also a booklet included in the kit with all the instructions so that everybody could have his chance to become a good, caring citizen. I may say that it worked at the beginning. Even those who lived in small flats like myself of about 60 square meters were proud to sacrifice almost five of them to the 5 big bags destined to garbage. So all the Romans started the recycling adventure. Everybody went to the dumpsters and diligently emptied those bags in the way they had learnt from the booklet, it was good after all to have 60 square meters back for a while.

Problems turned up when we, diligent citizens, started to find the dumpsters full as they had not been emptied. At first we didn’t mean to give in and walked till we came upon one empty and this soon became part of a fitness routine for many of us I dare say, but if it rained or you were just too fatigued, you couldn’t but carry your full bags back home. Till one day, since the dumpsters were constantly full, I guess somebody, fed up with sorting uselessly garbage every day, must have chosen to follow a shortcut, that is, putting the paper, for example, in the first empty dumpster he found, while somebody else started to think that it was high time to exhume the old polluting plastic bags, so that, if necessary, they could be placed next the dumpster and the redirect the usage of the other bags to other purposes. I guess my colleague was one of them.

Sooner or later all of us have fully or partially followed these shortcuts.So this is how everything started and it cannot but getting worse as there is not a plan, any realistic plan for what concerns separating collection of waste. Administrators cannot be of any help and this can be easily understood  just reading this tweet of Virginia Raggi, who has been Mayor of Rome, the capital I would like her to remember, for more than two years now:

This morning the mattress, which had been abandoned in Viale Filarete in Tor Pignattara  by a couple caught red-handed thanks to a videotape made  by a citizen who, like most Romans, cares about the city’s decorum, has been removed.

 

Wow, I feel much better now and more hopeful for the future. The wind is changing.

Wilfrido or On the Necessity of Education

Some years ago, my husband and I had the great opportunity of joining a program of long distance adoptions in Paraguay. The idea of helping the minors of the poor countries and  their families providing them with an economical help so that they might receive the primary goods, education and the medical care they need, made us feel, I don’t know, better people, if this makes sense. Once subscribed, after few weeks, we received a letter with all the personal data of the adopted child, which, unexpectedly, turned out to be a very exciting moment, because we hadn’t been given the name of the kid yet. I still remember my husband slowly unfolding the letter, looking at the picture and saying with a big smile: “it’s a boy”.

His name was Wilfrido. In the picture a little brat of about five was doing his best to show us his gratitude with a big toothless smile, even if he seemed a kind of uncomfortable in his brand new school pinafore, maybe too large for his age. Once our adopted son had materialized in that pic, we started to be pervaded by a strange sort of excitement. We began to imagine how many things we might have done for him, as providing him with a high school education and even more if he proved to be talented, Harvard, Stanford, why not? At a closest inspection of the picture, actually, the boy didn’t really look like the student type. His eyes were so lively and that pinafore he was forced in could barely discipline his free spirit. Maybe I was wrong.

I was not. Wilfrido didn’t pass the first grade that year. We were shattered, but the following years went much better. He only needed a bit more time to get used to that pinafore. When he learnt to write he began to send his own letters. He always thanked us, of course, but he particularly enjoyed telling about his life and his family. He said that it took seven miles to reach his school from where he lived, which he did on foot or on horseback when his father allowed him. He also added that he liked studying after all, but I did not believe him very much on that point, it was a sweet lie full of gratitude.

One day, Wilfrido and his family left the village never to come back again and I have never heard from him since then. I was disappointed, I felt I could have done something more for him, as if I had not been able to fulfill my task. Few years later I would have seen the whole experience from another angle. I  was in Costa Rica and I needed some directions. One boy offered to write down the address for me. He picked a pen and slowly started to move it on a piece of paper as if he were drawing. It took him five endless minutes to write that piece of information and even if we were a little annoyed at first, somehow we felt we didn’t have to hurry him. Eventually, he handed me the note. His handwriting was incredibly neat and elegant and when I met his eyes I could clearly sees a sparkle, I saw his satisfaction, pride and dignity. He might be one of the many Wifrido that people the world. Maybe I had done something good after all.

In a week time I will be back to school and I needed to tell this story to remind myself in such distressing, absurd times why I teach, because I think education can make people conscious, stronger and free and even because I feel useful every time I can see that sparkle in the eyes of one my students.