The following essay was the final blog entry posted by Jaako, an Epicurean friend who died in recent years. His blog Being Human: secular sermons for free minds is preserved in archive form. We are posting it here as a way to celebrate his memory.
The Being Human -blog that you are reading just now is at the moment a collection of 434 smaller and larger essays. Their subjects range from the nature of our universe to things like the reasons why masturbation is seen as a sin in Christianity. I started this blog in December of 2007, and this blog has since had over 860 000 visitors from all over the world.
During all these years, I have told very little of myself. My aim has been to air my ideas and not promote myself. This blog is not weblog, but a collection of little essays. Not a single posting has been tied to a particular daily event or happening. They try always to be reflections on ideas on a bit wider perspective. How I have succeeded in this, remains for my readers to judge, of course.
Things are about to change. Just now I see a need to record some of my personal history also here in this blog that has always been the favorite child among my blogs. The basic reason for this is that was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in November of 2011. Cancer was by then already deeply embedded in my liver and lungs. It simply cannot be removed from liver without destroying the liver also, anymore.
I am still here thanks to chemotherapy that has given me an additional year and a half, but the therapies were terminated a week ago because their ability to fight my cancer has waned off. I am on my own now, but nobody knows how soon the end will come. However, it is quite certain that I will not see my 56th birthday in January of 2014.
However, numbers are just numbers. Of the 55 years that I have had, the last seven ones have been the happiest, most calm and productive period of my life. Most of all, I have loved the thousands of hours that I have spend writing and editing this blog.
A firm base for my current happiness is that we bought a house in 2011 with a fantastic garden. The hours spend in the garden have given me immense pleasure. I also got my own little hideaway, when we built a the old garage into a modern working-space.
This is my very own little world. In there, I can sit in weekends into five in the morning sipping some brandy and watching amazing videos from Beyond Belief -conference or TED-talks. Besides I can be working on any of the eight blogs in two languages and nearly 40 Facebook -fan-pages for secular philosopher, writers and scientists that I have created during the last few years.
I have been a full-time journalist in our local newspaper for 21 years. Besides it, I have been also running a little computer-maintenance business for the last ten years. I have fixed the computers of good inhabitants of Lohja at a very suitable rate of two or three a week. This has kept me in the picture with the digital world. Making a dead computer alive again gives also a great feeling of accomplishment.
There has been also very hard times in my life. After abandoning my university-studies, I had a period when I had, for example, work in chemical factory where even gas-mask was at times unable to protect one from the strong fumes. I have slept in hallways of strange houses for a week, I have been for a while a jobless half-drunkard just drifting around and much more. Happily, I did find a steady career in journalism and soon I had steady jobs again.
Then I found Marjaliisa. We have been married nearly 22 years. She has been the balancing power in my life. In fact, she is the solid base on which my whole life lies. Without her strong prompting we would not have this house, and without this house and the new kind of working environment that it provided there quite probably would not be this blog, either.
(The following was added 16th of April, 2013)
My life was changed on another lever just after we had bought our current house in 2004, when I was quite innocently listening in my car a CD that contained talks from an IT-seminar. I used to burn such CD:s as a form of entertainment for the long drives that my work in newspaper sometimes required.
Suddenly there was a speech by some atheist fellow called Sam Harris. This happened even if I had picked up a podcast that had promised views on latest developments in the field of information technology.
I was really surprised when this man told in public the same things about religions that I had been thinking secretly for decades. I remember shouting “Yes, that is just so” (only in Finnish….) with a raised fist every time he opened up a new argument. I listened to that CD at least four or five times in a row.
I also Googled him right away when I got to home and ordered his book “The End of Faith”. Very and soon I had also the books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and many other “new atheists” in my bookshelf.
It was not a moment of religious conversion. In fact, I have never believed in any kind of religion or a religious dogma for a single moment of my life. Even in the elementary school I treated religious teaching as a form of story-telling that adults do to keep children happy and occupied.
Soon I had an urge to have a deeper understanding of the subject and a bit more scientific books by people like Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran and Daniel Dennett did end up in my reading list. I did read every serious book I got hold of on the subject.
However, at this point it should perhaps be told that I was a quite fanatical IT-person at that time when I bumped into Sam Harris. We had bought our first computer in 1997, when my wife needed one for her studies at nursing school she had just started.
The sturdy Packard Bell cost 13 000 Finnish marks or 2200 modern euros. It had 150 megahertz processor, 16 megabits of central memory and 1,6 gigabytes of hard disk… The first night after we got our compute unpacked already went to wee hours. I wanted to know this thing worked. The next day I went to the library and loaned every book I could lay my hands on the subject of computers. In fact, I did also read them from cover to cover them during the following weeks.
The thing got so serious in a couple of years that I started my own computer-related column in our newspaper. In this by-weekly I told column readers about my recent adventures in the world of computers. A bit later (in 2001) I was walking our first dog Osku (a sheltie) when the idea hit me: “Bittitohtori”. In English it could be “A Doctor for Bits” or something like it. Before the walk was over, I had decided to start a firm that would repair the home-computers of good inhabitants of Lohja.
I decided from the outset that it would not become my main occupation. I would do it on the side as much as time would permit. The next week I registered the “Toiminimi Bittitohtori Jaakko Wallenius” officially and started distributing leaflets advertising the new service in our neighborhood.
I have cured about thousand computers during the over ten years that this little operation lasted. The firm did lay waste for a year, as I officially ended it two days ago because of my ongoing illness. (see http://www.bittitohtori.com )
When my condition improved after chemotherapy I started it again early in 2013. This little enterprise gave all these years a good additional income also with its help we could finally afford to buy our current house.
There was also a funny situation where I was for years at first chairman of local journalists union chapter in our newspaper and then the shop steward, but also a private entrepreneur at the same time. I will not dwell on this subject much more, as there would be no end to computer-related stories I could offer. However, I’d like to say (even if it sounds a lot like bloody self-advertisement) that it soon became apparent that the main satisfaction from the computer-repair business did come from the happy customers.
I soon learned three main rules that kept my business going for ten years and made customers return time after time.
1) Never promise something that you cannot do.
2) Always build the timetable for work so that you can do the work faster than customer expects.
3) Always give customers something extra.
The last one was easy. I always installed an extra software-pack. It consisted of free programs, but it made possible to use computer right away after repairs in a home in all typical uses of computer at home. As I said, I could babble on the subject of computer and computer-repairs endlessly, but I must return to my other passions.
After the phase described in the beginning I soon was an extremely vocal and passionate atheist. Besides reading a bookshelf of related books, I did also watch every single video on offer of the fantastic Beyond Belief-conferences and, in fact, every available video-lecture in the Internet and all too many blogs and much, much more.
At this point, I perhaps must explain one thing; why I seem to have so much time on my hands? The answer is simple: during the last 20 years, I have not watched television much. In any case, dwelling in atheism alone soon felt restricting, and I started to explore a little wider. I soon found out that humanistic thinking did offer a sound foundation for an atheist world-view. Then I found Epicureanism and Stoicism or the last and most advanced big schools of philosophy that were not contaminated by the Christianity.
One thing led to another. Soon I was knee-deep in philosophy. My bookshelf took a new direction with books on things like history of philosophy, Epicureanism and similar subjects by fellows like Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper and A.C. Grayling.
Now I would like to call myself a “Secular Humanist Epicurean Stoic Russellian Popperian Democratic Socialist Global Solidarist” if that would be possible. Atheism needs not to even mentioned as it just given fact for me. Atheism it is not a world-view, but just rejection of certain types of superstition and dogma.
That a person is an atheist does say very little about him or her. An atheist can build a world-view based on other important ideologies like humanism, socialism, libertarianism or feminism. A human just always needs higher goals and even if I think that just telling others what atheism is and how religions work is a good hobby, but thinking person needs to have real ideals too.
Things like Humanism, Epicureanism and Stoicism offer a good base for a worldview. However, things like furthering true equality, a sustainable and balanced society, freedom of speech and most of global solidarity of all humans are goals that I just now need have to keep me going. Ah, that all sounds much more pathetic than I though. However, I will let it pass as these sentences really tell about the feelings that I now have at this stage of my life.
(The following was added added 17th of April,2013)
My name is Jaakko, and I am an addict. I am addicted to reading”.
I have written this little piece over my life with all honesty that I have mustered. In the face of death, the need to hide away things seems just to evaporate. I feel free now to tell even the darkest secrets of my life. The other side of coin is that I now feel that I can finally drop all the modesty that has made me not to mention certain facts about my life before. These things simply would sound look like idiotic boasting and self-advertising, if I would tell these things in any company.
However, I finally feel that I have the willpower to do even this disservice for myself now. I will tell this also because I feel that this background is needed to understand my current standing in my creative work. I did learn to read at the age of six all by myself. I probably just looked how my 11 months older “nearly-twin-brother” did it. Suddenly I just saw what these little markings did mean.
The first book that I did read was the ‘Helmikoristeinen kirjanmerkki’ by Hjalmar Nortamo. It was a regular novel for adults and probably it was just the first book in our bookshelf at my height. This bookshelf was an immense one. Every single member of our family of eight was a voracious reader. My journalist-father also did get large amounts of books every year for review. We had also a cellar full of books….
At the second class at the elementary school I did read the 600 pages of “Historian Pikkujättiläinen” or “The Pocket History of the World”. This kick-started my still ongoing love-affair with history. After the second class of elementary school, in the middle school and high school I did not do my homework not even once. For the exams, I did sometimes read the relevant passages the night before in mathematics, physics and the like, but in most subjects I did not do even that.
At his point, I should perhaps tell that I was also once in summer-school learning mathematics before I was allowed to proceed to the next class. I passed the test with the lowest possible grade or 5- minus after a harsh month-long training with a private teacher. Mathematics just was something that I did not ever get. I know now that I can not ever learn it, no matter what I do. Still, I am very good at basic arithmetic’s….
All in all, I graduated from high school with the second highest ‘Magna Cum Laude Laudatur’ as my overall grade if I remember right. It could have been a ‘Laudatur’ also, as I faintly remember it being in a border-case, but I don’t know where the diploma is… I did this without opening a single school-book in the three years of high school and without any preparation for the final exams. This was mostly because the things that were asked in exams I knew most of them already from other sources.
All in all, classes in school were always a severe form of Chinese water-torture for me. Time passed immensely slowly, when the teacher mumbled at the blackboard about things that I so often already knew very well. I developed a kind of utter numbness to endure the classes. I saw that they were the price I had to pay to get to my loved books waiting patiently in home.
When I got home I could read 7-8 hours in a row about the wonders of our world and our universe. Non-fiction was always my priority number one. However, I consumed also a lot of novels. I simply loved the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Miguel Angel Asturias, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Mario Vargas Llosa and Italo Calvino. In fact, I did read most of the ‘Keltainen Kirjasto’ or ‘The Yellow Library’ that did publish the best modern novels of that time.
I faintly remember counting once that had read over one hundred books from this series. However, I must admit that the more esoteric ones were often left unfinished, as I could never stand just playing with words for the sake of it. I now notice that I loved crisp and straight-forward writers. By strange (or not….) coincidence all my most favourite writers seem to have been agnostics or atheists also, even if I did not know it then….
My first love was Mika Waltari. His novels that were set in medieval history made a deep impression to at the age of 8 or 9. I did naturally read all of the big Finnish authors. I did read Väinö Linna’s ‘Tuntematon Sotilas’ or ‘Unknown Soldier’ for 10 or 11 times at least. In fact, we do quote this book very often still in daily situations with my wife. She has just the same kind of relationship with this book as me. Strange co-incidence is that I courted just this woman for many years and did not give up until I got her, is it not?
I must admit that the lectures in university were similar painful torture for me as school-classes had been; they were just longer and often even duller. Of course there were a few interesting lectures also, but they were few and far between. However, the library of Turku City and university-library did open up all new vistas for me. I simply had consumed all of the interesting books in my little hometown library by the time I was 18 and new books did arrive painfully slowly.
Especially during my bouts of severe depression I now spent all my free time with books. In the worst days of depression I did go nowhere but to and did read 15-16 hours a day. I consumed all interesting books on history, autobiographies and all kinds of books on science.
Science fiction was also near my heart and I now also bought my first books, as the paperback science fiction was cheap. With a student-loan I had my real amounts of my own money, the first time in my life.
But now, now, I quite forget; I had paid employment before, as I had worked all three years of high-school in the newspaper where my father worked, I worked for 1,5 hours a day five days a week. I did answer the phones and I did write a few little news-stories every night that were stolen from the Finnish news agency STT.
I just tape-recorded the 17.30 -news and wrote 4-5 stories from this material and the STT never got a hang of this activity, as I changed the style of the stories always a bit. However, the newspaper paid a pittance for me also for this service. In any case, I did spend it mostly on stamps that I also collected at that time.
At this point, I would like also to tell about my hobbies. They were also an important part of my education. I did learn English when aviation and modelling were my hobbies, German when I collected stamps and Swedish when I was an enthusiastic follower of track and field -sports.
At the age of six or seven, I found a series of books called “The Fighters of The Second World War” from a cupboard at our home. My eldest brother had left them when he moved from home. During the following years, I did read them time after time and every time I understood a bit more, until 5-6 years later I could read them quite well.
Of course, I did learn English also at school at the same time. I started also a hobby of modeling and did build a dozens and dozens models of aeroplanes with my nearly-twin-brother. Btw. I still know that a Messerschmitt Bf-109G-6 had a 1475 horse-power Daimler-Benz water-cooled engine, a 20 mm cannon and two 13 mm machine guns and a top speed of 390 miles per hour…
As a militant pacifist nowadays it is sometimes hard to admit now that military history has been always been one of my pet subjects in history…. German was the lingua franca of the stamp-collecting world. The major catalogues or the Swiss Zumstein and a German big catalogue Michel were published in that language. I just had to learn the basics to be able to use them.
This was a bit more troublesome. I had had no classes in German before high school and I just had to jump into the cold waters of that language with no aid. In the end, I did write a ‘Cum Laude Approbatur’ in German also in the final exams, and that is all thanks to stamp-collecting.
Track and field was my other hobby for many years. The only good year-book with good statistics in this sport was a Swedish one and reading all the existing 30 year-books a few times did help me learn also Swedish, in spite of the fact that I detested it as a subject in school with all of its idiotic and irrational grammatical rules. Btw. Swedish is a compulsory subject for all Finnish people in school as it is minority-language here, even if only 6 per cent of Finnish people speak it at home.
However, Finland was part of Sweden for over 600 years. The ruling elite was largely Swedish-speaking even after 100 years of Russian rule in 1917, when Finland become independent. So, Swedish language did became a sacred cow that was given a position that no minority-language has nowhere else in the world.
Back to the main story. After dropping out of the university after four years of ups and downs, I had varying time to read during the next decade. I had some periods of unemployment also, when I did spend 10-16 hours just reading again. Even when I was in the windy west coast town as a reporter in the 1980’s I did not have any television, but I did go to library two or three times a week. I did not have one when I spent the unfortunate year in Tampere studying journalism.
History, biology, geography, space exploration, travel, you name it. I did read anything which told about the real world and had a factual base. I did grow out of fiction for reasons that I don’t really know. The awful bouts of depression caused me to avoid things that did come too close to my own reality, as learning new facts was also a way to escape my own life that was just miserable at times.
After Marjaliisa finally accepted my desperate courting 22 years ago and after finding a steady job 21 years ago in Lohja in the local newspaper as economics editor, my reading habits did not change much. Marjaliisa and I found a balanced situation where she could watch the things in television that she liked, and I spent my free time reading in the bedroom.
However, reading did give some (or a lot, sometimes) room for computer-maintenance after I started that side-business ten years ago. Blogging in eight blogs and maintaining my 40 fan-pages for secular greats in Facebook took some time off my favorite pastime more later on. Also, the source of reading matter did change, when we got out student loans paid and economy on a stronger footing. I finally started buying new books instead of loaning them from the library.
Now I have a good library of my own in the subjects I most like, even if I have started ordering Kindle-books also for my Samsung Android-phone. I can now read them when sitting and waiting for a doctors appointment and the like.
I freely admit this addiction, but at the same time I think that this habit offers a firm base for my current activity as a thinker and writer. I have always loved to read about out real world, our real societies and our reality. I think that this offers a solid base for a thinker and writer who wants to explore from new points of view how all this works.
My name is Jaakko and I am an addict. I am addicted to reading”.