Wednesday, January 20, 2010

First we must improve ourselves


January 20, 2010
First we must improve ourselves
By A. Gaffar Peang-Meth 

Despite the highs and the lows in 2009, the old year has come to an end and left us at the starting gate for a new one, from which we can build our new future using our productive, creative talents. Or we can choose to walk a familiar path of worn-out patterns and fossilized thoughts and actions.

The new opportunity should boost our spirits.

Some pleasant things did happen last year. Members of a group of Cambodian expatriates in America's northwest, none of whom I have ever met, read my column in the Pacific Daily News and wrote to discuss the failure of the United Nations-supported Khmer Rouge tribunal to bring justice to the Khmer people.
Thus began a long-distance relationship. It was heartening to read the group's online discussion of old Khmer traditions and sayings, how and why they are, or aren't, useful in the 21st century. I saw critical thinking take root.

I was captivated by their discussion on an old Khmer saying, "Ngeuy skawk, Aown dak Kroab," or, "Vertical rice plants bear nothing. Leaning rice-plants bear grain." I contributed my ideas. And when the group's forum brought interested expatriates together to discuss another old saying, "Don't emulate a teacher's behavior; follow his teaching," I was asked for input and was pleased to respond.

Our relationship flourished. I have quietly enjoyed and softly encouraged their continued activities, which helped develop productive and creative thinking and keeps them connected with the Khmer culture.
The topics brought memories of my mother, who barely finished elementary school but taught me that it was not weakness to rely on others, even upon those who see the world differently than I do; and of my father, who endlessly preached "humility" in long after-dinner conversations, as if I didn't have anything else I would rather do. Roll my tongue seven times before speaking, eat a sappy green banana or pull weeds when I "itched" to argue or to fight, and to thank God and pray to God.

Only later did I learn of the thesis-antithesis concept, of the Chinese "yin yang," and understand the Buddhist concept of things in pairs, like day and night, happiness and suffering, war and peace.
Yes, opinions differ; thoughts differ. Disagreement is natural, but gentlemen can disagree without being disagreeable. A saying goes, "Empty vessels make the most noise."

A recent blog comparing "the lively" exchange on Internet to a welcome developing step in democracy has its antithesis: Those "anonymouses," inclined to cut others down, establish exclusiveness and hurl insults are engrossed in licentiousness, lacking in legal and moral restraints, and feed and strengthen authoritarian rule. The growth of democracy needs fair play, equilibrium, inclusiveness and a responsible dialogue.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights asserts "the right" of man to "hold opinions" and values "freedom of expression," but its exercise "carries with it special duties and responsibilities" and may "be subject to certain restrictions ... provided by law and are necessary (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or public order (ordre publique), or of public health or morals."

Come to mind are Eleanor Roosevelt's words: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."

Specialist Tim Hurson describes a person with a "monkey mind," who jumps from one thought to another like a monkey that cannot stay on one branch. He's natural at "aimless thinking"; he "roams aimlessly through half-formed images" or "wanders into an endless stream of unanalyzed associations from (his) unanalyzed past."
Hurson urges us to learn "how to think," to develop "quality thinking," for it helps prepare us for a better future and survival in the 21st century. Focused thinking is hard, as it requires us to observe, remember, wonder, imagine, inquire, interpret, evaluate, judge, identify, suppose, compose, compare, analyze, calculate and to think about thinking (metacognition).

Carl Rogers, a psychologist in education, said, "The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn." British Dr. Alec Bourne said: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated." And German playwright Johann von Goethe said: "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."

Roosevelt's example of "ideas" discussed by "great minds" takes me to President Obama's Dec. 10 Oslo speech: "We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth."

This "work here on Earth" belongs to every man and woman, old and young, and to you and me. The first place to begin is to improve ourselves.

Confucius said: "To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; To put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; To put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; And to cultivate our personal life we must first set our hearts right."

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at


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