Today’s Solutions: August 11, 2022

By: Jurriaan Kamp, Editor-in-chief

Nigerian novelist Ben Okri tackles the really big questions of our time: inequality, immigration, education and, yes, love. He does this by looking at the world and then deep inside himself until he touches the source of his own truth.

We live in an age when sound bites pass for communication, one-liners for wisdom, a time of polls and surveys that blur meanings and sway general opinion. Who in public life still dares to offer an honest view? How do we even know what we think and where do we find the courage to express it?
These are questions that Nigerian novelist Ben Okri is constantly asking himself. The answers that arise for him seem at odds with modern culture. He argues for careful consideration of all sides of an issue, the slow and deliberate formation of an opinion and, most importantly, originality. Secretly he wishes he could lean against a wall in an ancient Athenian marketplace and discuss the state of the world with Socrates, subjecting everything to deep scrutiny. For him this would not be an intellectual exercise in philosophy, but the only means to achieve freedom: by thinking for ourselves.
Not enough questions are being asked today, Okri believes. In the media, we hear the same voices again and again. This troubles him. He is a Nigerian living in London who finds it difficult to think of returning to his home country because his late mother will no longer be there to greet him at the airport. He is a Nigerian for whom the greatest freedom would be not to be a Nigerian, but to be merely himself: Ben Okri. Yet he argues that most African and Asian immigrants would much rather stay at home if only the world would give them a reason.
We meet on a Tuesday afternoon at a London market. The vegetable stalls are covered to protect against the autumn rain and wind. It may not be Socrates’ venue, but it is a market of many cultures. Okri, a friendly man who treats everyone with respect, banters with the vendors and apologizes for the antics of the photographer accompanying us. We have a bite to eat at his favorite Chinese restaurant. Wine? No wine. Later. It might interfere with his thinking. We do not talk about his latest book but about the division and inequality in the world, about politics and economics, and about, most of all, life. When I later finish his novel, I realize that for Okri, fiction and non-fiction merge. And his talent for well-turned phrases, in prose and conversation, duly impresses me.
With the tape recorder running, loosely guided by my questions, Ben Okri tells his tale.
“The problem of our world is not just that there are people who are ideologically unsound; Our problem is that there are too many people who are not properly fitted for their jobs. An important part of the political solution to many of the problems of our age cannot be found in the politics. It goes back to education and it goes back to the individual. Many people are in vocations that are at odds with their true natures. That is not the best way for them to contribute to this world. When you are at odds with your vocation, you acquire a skewed view of the world. And what you give to the world winds up being skewed too. Bad politicians lead to bad policies. Bad journalists lead to bad journalism. If only more people would be true to their sense of their vocations, we would have more happiness in this world.
“Education tends to divert us from our true selves. Education is not about putting facts into the heads of children. Education should help children discover their talents and their best qualities—no matter how humble or how exalted. I think it goes back to our parents. I was fortunate enough to have a father who at a certain point allowed me to go my own way. He wanted me to be a lawyer, but when I persisted in my desire to become a writer, he let me be. If you have parents who are over-determining, it will be too late before you discover where your best talents lie. They should let you treat life as a workshop in which you are working solely on yourself, working out who you are. Making your mistakes, stumbling along, it will eventually become apparent that you are better at this than at that. Or that you are feeling happier when you do one thing than when you do another. I think that is what enables good fortune. Allowing children to be a bit freer will result in them naturally discovering their vocations.
“Freedom is the big issue of the 21st century. Not terrorism. Not even religion. We think that freedom is the freedom to do just whatever we want. We think freedom is consumerism, that freedom is having unlimited choices. But I feel that this idea of freedom is too materialistic. The new freedom that we should take upon ourselves is the freedom of not delegating our thinking to some cultural figurehead or personality. People accept things unthinkingly. They assume viewpoints before thinking for themselves, before figuring out how they feel about issues. People must use their freedom to think for themselves.
“I believe this very strongly for one very simple reason. I believe that we all fundamentally share the condition of the artist. We all fundamentally share in the ability to listen and to sort out what is of value to us, what is good for us and for our children. And what kind of people we enjoy being with. This age of Internet and vox populi actually enables people to express themselves more than ever. But the essential thing that is missing is clear thinking. It is not taught in school; it never has been. It does not exist in any aspect of the curriculum, in any of the disciplines apart from philosophy. Thinking should be included as a subject in all schools. I have been to many classrooms and watched—often very good—teachers teaching and I noticed two things. Teachers rarely ask the right questions and children are shy about expressing themselves. It is either shyness or fear. Children can only learn how to think by learning to give answers to questions they are asked. We must encourage them to speak out at an early age. I think we lost something when we discarded the Socratic form of teaching, the Socratic dialogue.
“Once we acquire clear thinking, we don’t need all these people—including me—to come along and interpret the world for us. We are not free until we have cultivated the art of clear thinking, until we grasp the freedom to ask questions about all the things we assume about the world: about our history, about what we see with our own eyes and what we don’t. It is the freedom to venture behind the television and beyond the newspaper. It is the freedom not to believe what we are told anymore. It is the freedom not even to trust the evidence of our own eyes. Then we will no longer need others to make our decisions for us. We surrender too great a part of our destinies to our leaders and we sit back and let them make decisions for us. And then we pretend that we do not feel guilty about those decisions if, for example, they involve bombing other people halfway across the world for reasons that are not clear to us.
“It’s not healthy for people in the street to be wandering around not knowing what they think and then reading in the paper at home what others have to tell them. People should be able to hear what’s going on and able to discuss this amongst themselves. That way, better decisions are made. We have to raise the quality of thought and discussion and debates amongst all of our citizens. You know, you ought to be able to ask a 12-year-old if he or she thinks it is a good idea to get involved in a war anywhere in the world. That 12-year-old should be able to think about it and say, ‘Daddy, why are we getting involved in this war? Is this just? Is there a good reason for it? Are the people going to be hurt, are they our enemies or are they innocent people? Is this a one-sided war?’ These are legitimate, common-sense questions that a 12-year-old should be able to ask.
“We lack knowledge; we lack insight. I think it is a kind of imprisonment. We believe that people should only live in the place where they were born. As if you signed a contract with God: ‘I was born in Birmingham and I promise never to leave.’ This imprisonment has contributed greatly to the ignorance that exists throughout the world, to the prejudices that people have about their neighbors, the next country or another religion—and about ‘that tribe’ and people of ‘that color.’ If people were free to travel more… if someone travels from Birmingham to Thailand, it is not really traveling. That is tourism. But if you travel from Birmingham to Liverpool and live in Liverpool and then go to Ireland and live in Ireland and then come and live in London for a bit and then maybe do a spate of living in Paris and then you visit Africa and then visit Thailand, now that is traveling. Traveling challenges you to change your provincial perspective. Travel begins by altering your sense of the assumptions that you make about the world. Travelling enables you to see how different you are from your next-town neighbor, and how similar you are.
“That is why it is important to teach children to think clearly, but it is also important to travel with them. I think that moving children gradually away from where they originate is an important influence on freeing the mind and reducing the amount of prejudice. You must deal with the problem of racism in a manner that is not only political. You cannot legislate it out of existence. It is important to understand why people are that way and why they think that way. The problem is not that white people have not met black people. The problem is that people do not leave their neighborhoods. Real freedom for a Dutchman would be the freedom not to be Dutch and for an African not to be African. It is the freedom to expand your definition of what you think and experience constantly, always allowing new possibilities.
“It is the freedom to investigate your shadow side, the side that you disown. You need this knowledge in order to find your vocation. You do not just get up and become a photographer. You have to enter into the process. You have to learn and surrender and, at some point, mastery will come to you. There comes a point when your hands are broken, your face is broken and your spirit altered when you begin to sense the hidden laws of your art. Only then can you start to take photographs and write poems that will be of great value to this world. Only then can you transcend yourself.
“How does the world strike us? As a world in which a disproportionate amount of power is held by a disproportionately small group of people. The great majority of people are powerless, while a tiny minority is far too powerful and far too rich. This affects everybody; it bothers us. Whether we live in the West or in the East or in Africa or wherever, it bothers us. The West is paranoid and thinks that the only thing people in Africa or Asia dream about is coming to live in London or in Amsterdam or in New York. Actually, they would much rather stay in their home countries. They flee from the unfair distribution of wealth, the bad governments, and the bad roads. Life in Lagos or Accra is fun. Folks have a great time. However, in the media, all you read is that life in Africa is hell. Africa is demonized as a vast continent of asylum-seekers. That irresponsible view has inflamed racism. Europeans simply don’t understand life in Africa. Not all Africans are dying; there are many who are doing well. Most refugees can’t wait to go back. Not because Europe is inhospitable, but because home is nice. The only thing that Europe and the international community should do is to help these nations, to create conditions of fair trade, to stimulate a fairer distribution of wealth and to encourage better, more responsible governments in these countries. They should not help by giving aid, but by stimulating fairness and justice. If that were to happen, all the fear about asylum-seekers turning up every day would evaporate overnight. In fact, if this came about, in 50 to 100 years people in Europe will want to go and live in Africa.
“We all share responsibility for the imbalance in the world. We have allowed the American hegemony to come into existence. We always talk about America as if America were the single determining force of this Earth and this universe and of humankind. It’s almost as if the rest of us don’t believe in our own existence. How can we blame America for the fact that we have surrendered our own freedom? Our freedom to think, to disagree, to dispute. We watch the Hollywood movies voluntarily. Nobody puts a gun to anybody’s head to go and eat at McDonald’s. Nobody has crept along in your sleep and hypnotized you and said ‘When you wake up in the morning, you will watch only Sylvester Stallone and Julia Roberts.’ Nobody has said, ‘You have to buy these American soaps; otherwise, look, there is a nuclear bomb out there.’ Nobody has done that to anybody, for God’s sake. We have done it to ourselves. We bought the bullshit. We make these guys their money. We have accepted it. There is little reason to blame America. The next thing in the 21st century will be lawsuits, people saying, ‘You got me addicted to all these Sylvester Stallone movies, I’m taking you to court!’ The way they do with cigarettes already. But where does the addiction start?
“America is richer and has more nuclear weapons than any other nation on Earth, but does that mean that we cannot disagree with her? I don’t quite understand that thinking. I don’t quite understand how the rest of the free world has actually allowed itself to behave as if we’re in a Wild West movie where one guy has a gun and the other people don’t. Surely it can’t be like that. We are talking about our mental and spiritual freedom. We have to grow up and we have to enrich our spirits. We have to be able to enjoy movies from Africa, from Iran, from Holland, from India, from our own cultures.
“In the end, it is all about the love of humanity. At the bottom of freedom itself is love. Our challenge is to learn to love in this world. Most of us are pretty astonished when we feel love. I think we are astonished because we discover to our amazement that it’s not like what we thought it was, nor how the films tell us it is. It is different; it is richer. It’s very troubling and very chaotic. It turns our world upside down. It destroys many of our belief systems and our prejudices. But love also inspires the confidence to take risks with one another. You just don’t know what trust in another person can lead to. And love is about courage. Do we have the courage to smile at somebody we meet for the first time, the courage to be friendly and warm, the courage to venture into unknown territory and encounter other people, with common sense and a clear, awakened mind?”

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