«Noi bisogna che lavoriamo il nostro orto»

by Baris Kastas


First of all, apologies are in order for the clickbait in my title: my second article will also be in English. However, it is written in the aftermath of a very Italian event, and I couldn’t resist asserting this background with a title in Italian.

As 2016 approaches its end, most of the people I know feel a certain sense of despair, especially in regards to all the political events that we have seen. Coming from a country as tumultuous as Turkey, I certainly share the feeling to a large degree. Many of you reading this article probably get the impression that the people have gone completely crazy judging by their choices in all corners of the world: not just the US but also the Philippines, not just the UK but also Italy.

I believe this feeling is largely rooted in the direction many of us thought the world was headed to before 2016 hit us like a ton of bricks. Our own social circles (which we soon realised were echo chambers) had certainly given the opposite impression about where we were going: we saw more people who were pro-Hillary than pro-Trump, more friends agreed with a Yes vote than a No, and confirmation bias be damned, we knew people were going towards progress, so how could this happen?!

And while I was going through this line of thought late into the night, it hit me: I remembered this story from somewhere. Somebody else had started out their journey with a feeling that they were living in the best of the worlds where everything worked out in the end, and they had seen all their hopes crushed by harsh reality as well. In fact, my indignation was not very far from what Candide had felt in Voltaire’s eponymous philosophical fairy tale.

The novel, first published in 1759, is a satire of Leibniz’s idea that we lived in “the best of all possible worlds”. This idea is, through the course of the book, completely refuted through various disasters and tragedies that befall its protagonist. Candide is chased out of his idyllic life in Westphalia, treated inhumanly in the army, traumatised by the loss of those close to him and the tragedies he sees in his travels, duped and betrayed in every possible corner, and in the end he has nothing but a small farmland in Istanbul and an ugly wife. To make matters worse, whenever he finds someone who seems happy with their life (like the rich senator Pococurente in Venice, or the six former kings he meets), it seems that they are not at all happy either. Whatever we think would make life happier, be it riches or power, Candide sees that they too are futile.

And while Candide’s subject treats “the best of all possible worlds” in a very individual sense, would it be wrong to say that we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we lived in “the best of all possible worlds” in a political sense? Perhaps it is high time we stopped speculating about how the world is continuously moving toward progress, that we are “on the right side of history”, and then get depressed whenever life proves us wrong? After all, we make it too easy to be proven wrong.

Does this mean that our political future is an inevitable dystopia that we will never be able to stop no matter what? Of course not. After all, the pessimistic view in Candide belonged not to the protagonist, but to one of the side characters, Martin. And while Martin’s blasé attitude towards human sadness and his acceptance of all the evil in the world helps shake Candide from his optimism to a large degree, Candide’s ultimate conviction is not pessimistic. Instead Candide ends the book with the phrase I had quoted in Italian in the title: “Let us cultivate our garden”. Candide (and by extension, Voltaire) offers a very practical solution to our despair: to focus on our immediate life, to focus on cultivating and improving ourselves before setting out to change the entire world. I believe this is a message that needs to be repeated as much as possible, especially in today’s world where everyone believes themselves to be capable of shaping reality just by arguing really loudly.

While social media has created within us an expectation for instant validation just for sharing our opinion, perhaps we should be more subtle in the ways through which we share our opinions. Showing someone what true acceptance of diversity means goes a longer way than asserting your support for it without substance. Acting through your principles instead of just expressing them makes them louder than they could ever be in words, written or spoken. And to be perfectly honest, it feels much better to know you’ve made a personal impact in the right direction than to learn about yet another negative impact in the world over which you had no control.

In that spirit the general advice I give to myself and friends who might feel inundated by negative news throughout the whole year is the following: Give up this idea that the world was supposed to be better, and cultivate your garden to do your part for things to get better instead. Easier said than done, I know. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find what exactly I can do.

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