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31 Oct 2019 | 16:16 | San Basnayake

Live this life - Not the next

It may be because most religions, if not all, give undue emphasis to the afterlife that most of us find it difficult to live this life to the full; always fearing what happens next. Perhaps, it is a justifiable fear, as some religions, prescribe eternity after this life. After all, who wants to end up in eternal hell, if there is one? Worryingly, where you end up in eternity, hell or heaven, depends on how your actions are interpreted by an unknown, unseen being or force; virtually a throw of the dice. To add to our problems, though there is a consensus, generally, as to what is good or bad, nothing is absolute. Sometimes what may be considered heinous by consensus may be an act of glorification on religious interpretation. Killing another human being cannot be considered good, even in the extreme where a soldier kills a terrorist to preserve the integrity of a nation; it is an act of necessity all other avenues having failed.

However, in some religions killing non-believers, even those belonging to different sects of the same religion, is a meritorious act rewarded with heaven! Even today, in the 21st century, legal systems of some countries allow the passage of death sentence for changing the religion, which clearly shows how much organized religion is afraid of free will. So, why should we be scared of religion and not live this life?

May be religions were introduced at a time when the average level of education was not high, when the fear of a bad afterlife was used as a means to make the general populace virtuous. It may have started with good intentions and was appropriate then, is it of relevance today? It certainly is not and using fear, instead education, can no longer be justified. Therefore, the place of religion in the future is uncertain. Though most youngsters are disillusioned with religion and attendance at places of worship is falling, unfortunately, there is a worrying trend; a tiny minority of the youth showing an increasing tendency to embrace extreme interpretations of religion. What we do not want is a world where extremes of religions clash with each other and it is incumbent on the leaders of all religions to ensure that their religion does not lead to the path of extremism. What is the point of religion if it leads to the destruction of humanity?

Some infectious diseases like small pox, which claimed around 300-500 million lives in the twentieth century, and Rinderpest, a viral disease affecting cattle and other ungulate animals, have been eliminated.

To live well in this life, we need physical as well as mental health. With the rapid advances made in medical as well as in other sciences, many diseases hitherto untreatable have become amenable to treatment. Most cancers are no longer the killers of yesteryear; there are cures for some and effective treatment for many others though a few still elude treatment. Some infectious diseases like small pox, which claimed around 300-500 million lives in the twentieth century, and Rinderpest, a viral disease affecting cattle and other ungulate animals, have been eliminated. Poliomyelitis, another viral infection which leads to debility more than death, is on the decline and almost close to elimination but for the persistence of endemic cases in three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Unfortunately, malnutrition has taken an about turn: from starvation, to obesity. An epidemic of obesity is sweeping the world due to fast foods and the ready availability of cheap sugary drinks and sweets. As Coca-Cola and McDonalds are the flag carriers, one may call this the ‘American Curse’. Whatever it may be, overeating seems to be creating more problems now, than starvation, though this is not completely eradicated yet. We waste mountains of food while some are starving.

A mixture of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and some meat, preferably white, makes a healthy diet which is essential for physical and mental health but most of us eat more than what we need. We watch television and gulp food down mechanically. Instead, if you appreciate the taste of each mouthful, you would be eating less and girth will not increase. Regular exercise is equally important but that does not mean enrolling in an expensive gym. Walking is the best exercise and it is free. A brisk walk for half an hour, at least three times a week or equivalent is the ideal but any exercise is better than no exercise. We used to walk to school but children today are transported huddled into vans, like cattle. We used to eat rice with pol-sambol or kiri-hodi but today’s children go for burgers or pizza. Wonder whether they will reach our age!

More important is mental health, which is more difficult. We all have reasons to worry, but should we? After all, worry has never solved any problem and it is far better to be mindful of problems so that you may find a solution. Mindfulness meditation, introduced by the Buddha, is one of the best supports of life. Starting with a few minutes of meditation each day and making it a habit, ultimately leads to being mindful all the time. Techniques derived from mindfulness meditation have been shown to improve performance in school children, workers in offices and even the attitude of criminals. Again, it is free!

For those of our age group, most feared is dementia and the best way to keep dementia away is by exercising the brain. Unfortunately, scientists in the past have misled us by telling that the brain cells atrophy with age and nothing much can be done about it but this is not true. Though we cannot increase the number of brain cells, we can continue to increase the number of connections, which more than adequately compensates. Time to discard the Sinhala term ‘Heta Penala’, (over sixty) which implies that you are a write-off at sixty! Instead of doing nothing and depending on others for everything, retirement should be taken as the beginning of a new life.

There is plenty of data to show that the best way to keep the brain active is by learning new things. It may take longer to learn but it can be done, if you care to try. Learning a new language has shown to be the most effective. If Sinhalese learn Tamil and Tamils learn Sinhala, we will have better brains and better understanding too! The British Empire was replaced by the dominance of USA, making fluency in English an advantage. With the increasing importance of China, which is likely to snatch the dominance from the USA in around a decade, maybe it is time we started learning Chinese.

Interestingly, you can learn new things from the most unexpected sources. Sometime ago, my good friend Dr Haritha Jayatilaka rang me to ask whether I heard about the actress of Wonder Woman supporting two Sri Lankan girls who were cosplaying and got cyberbullied? I was completely lost and it was Greek to me though I had some idea what cyberbullying meant. He suggested I read the news item on BBC on-line, which started as follows:

"Hollywood actress Gal Gadot has thrown her support behind two young women in Sri Lanka after they were cyber-bullied for cosplaying as Wonder Woman. The two had become the target of a wave of online memes, body-shaming and harassment.

Both Gadot, who played the character in the recent blockbuster movie, and its director Patty Jenkins tweeted support and encouragement. The case triggered a fresh debate about online bullying.

When Amaya Suriyapperuma and fellow cosplayer Seshani Cooray decided to dress up as Wonder Woman at the Comic-Con 2017 event in Colombo, they were not expecting it to send them on a rollercoaster ride of demeaning online memes.

After the first day, photographers at the event began sharing their pictures online and photos of the two women were picked up by Facebook groups mocking them for their appearance."

To understand this news item, I had to learn modern terms I am not accustomed to. I wondered what Cosplaying was and found that it was a contraction of the words costume play. It is a hobby in which participants wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character, in this instance Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, bullies now reign cyberspace and had started ridiculing these two girls for an innocent act. I simply could not imagine what sort of pleasure they derive. Fortunately for them, there was an unintended consequence, bringing them to the attention of the ‘Wonder Woman’ herself. Well done Girls!

Though Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme", in his 1976 bestseller "The Selfish Gene", which refers to an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, it has acquired a new dimension with the internet. The majority of modern memes are captioned photos that are intended to be funny, often as a way to publicly ridicule human behaviour, as happened in this instance. Other memes can be videos or verbal expressions and some may even have philosophical content.

A new field of study called ‘Memetics’ has emerged. It is suggested that memes may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution and do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviour that they generate in their hosts. Richard Dawkins has characterised internet memes as one deliberately changed by human creativity. Well, as there is a lot to learn about memes, I may have to put on hold learning Chinese. In any case, it is a tough job as Chinese is a group of languages but, fortunately, there is a ‘Standard Chinese’ which is a standardized form of spoken Chinese based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, which is the official language of China and Taiwan.

There is so much to do and learn in this life. Therefore, why worry about next!