Why Respecting the Elderly is So Important

From the youngest age, I was taught to respect those who were “older” than I was, and this “rule” or tenet was very curious to me.  Why should I show respect to someone simply because they are older, even if I didn’t know anything about them and especially if didn’t particularly like them?  This is a cultural tenet that is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and in many other cultures.  

When I visited China in my early 20’s, I saw something that has stuck vividly in my mind ever since –  the parks were filled with old people who seemed happy and content. They were exercising, playing chess, playing instruments, singing opera… Some were just sitting there, watching or chatting.  They didn’t particularly pay much attention to me as a foreigner because they were ok with whatever they were doing and enjoying the moment.  It led me to think hard about why old people in America seemed so much more isolated and lonely (at least, that was my impression at the time and still is in many ways).

To be happy, most of us need to be active and need social interaction.  As human beings, we recognize that other people are ourselves in some way – whether they are of a different race, a different color, a different culture, young or old.  But when it comes to old people, many of us shy away because we don’t want to see ourselves getting old, losing our physical strength and beauty and losing certain abilities to do what we did before.  It may feel more inviting to want to take care of a child because you can influence their growth and because they are naturally less inhibited and new to many experiences.  But I feel lucky every time I meet an old person.  It doesn’t matter if they are set in their ways or old or crabby.  And whatever their stories may be, they have something to share and to give, pieces of wisdom and of life.  

We all have difficulties.  But when we are young, we feel invulnerable. We know that we are physically fit and beautiful and have our whole lives ahead of us.  And then, as we grow older, we realize that our parents are visibly growing older.  We also realize that our parents have made mistakes.  They’re not invulnerable.  We may feel angry and disappointed when we realize that our parents are not the perfect people who we wish them to be and that they have a lot of say in our lives.  We also recognize, on some level that someday we will also be old, and, for many, find ourselves confronting our own emotions about our parents and about ourselves when we have children.  And some of us may had to confront our mortality, disabilities or limitations for other reasons.

I have met many old people who have very rich lives, whether they are rich or poor.  It is true that many of them struggle with loss of hearing or sight or have difficulty carrying their groceries, simple things that a lot of us take for granted.  Some of them reminisce a great deal about the past.  But their past and present is important.   I will tell you why – old people have lived and survived.  They have witnessed a great deal of change, whether in the larger world or on personal levels.  They have experienced many joys and disappointments, and they remain, in spirit, young and timeless. Despite their physical limitations, they are, in many ways, more accepting and wiser and have something to teach us.  

Perhaps you have observed that older people often become more childlike.   Sometimes they have less control of their emotions.  In some ways, they become like children again. I have observed grandparents with their grandchildren, and, often, it seems to me that grandparents are much more free in spirit and less uptight than the child’s parents. They care less about other people’s opinions.   They have learned to accept on many levels what simply happens in life – past, future and present – and recognize that the world changes, people change, in whatever way, that their parents and friends grow old and sometimes die.  And if you listen – they all have incredible stories to tell.  

But why is this important to us?  We can learn from older people’s stories and spirits so that we can recognize and become more accepting of change and that change in our lives is inevitable.  Most old people have worked very hard.  Many have sacrificed for their children. They have suffered, for better or for worse.  But if we don’t respect the elderly, in many instances, many feel their lives are empty and unimportant which also has an impact on their physical and emotional health and on our society. Isn’t it better if we help take care of the elderly so that they can continue to feel valued, stay healthier, share their wisdom, stories and spirit?  To do this, it is important to help people as they grow older.  We all need help during our lives but especially as we find our capacities diminished.  

In China and other cultures which place an emphasis on respecting older people (as opposed with American culture which tends to glorify youth), this respect for the elderly gives them a sense of well-being and makes for a more beautiful, rich and happier society.  When a person has a sense of respect and well-being in society, it makes everyone else around them feel good, whether you are young or old.   When I saw the old people in the parks, I was amazed and felt hopeful and good.  

I have to come to the conclusion that older people in China receive a great deal more respect from society (along with other factors, such as continuing to be an integral part of their children’s lives), and this respect helps make them feel less marginalized and healthy in all ways.  Unfortunately, for many elderly, this sense of well-being, which is good for all of society, is threatened in the face of the fast-paced demands of modernized society.  (Here is a link on the increased rates of suicides amongst the elderly in South Korea due to modernization.   I want to emphasize, by the way, that I don’t mean to post this out of any disrespect for Korean culture.  Much of the same is happening in China and elsewhere in the world where people are facing similar challenges.)  

Old people are often stubborn and often don’t want to accept help.  But it’s our responsibility to be proactive and take care of them because they have taken care of us. And for ourselves, in our old age (which someday, hopefully, you will be lucky to experience), as stubborn and independent as you may be, wouldn’t you feel healthier and better if you knew people respected you as an important part of society, for what you have given and can continue to give?  This helps elderly people to remain healthy and productive.  And this helps all of us.

In practice, this only means that we spend more time with elderly people.  That’s all it takes.  And society, not to mention our own persons, is better off because of it.

Cold and Spicy Chinese Cucumber

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Ok, I’m tired of this wintry weather (it’s snowing again here in New York), so I’m going to chase away cold with cold and a little 辣 (spicy)!  I am making 小黄瓜 or “small yellow cucumbers.”   If you like pickles or kim chi, you’ll love this dish/appetizer, but it’s not quite as sour or as spicy, with just a tickle of sweet.  It’s insanely easy to make, served cold and very refreshing, especially on warm, hot days or before a main dish.  (I personally like it on any day, at any time, but today, I’m using my witchy-witchy and wishful thinking in the fantasy that it’ll help bring about warmer, spring weather).  You can use Chinese yellow cucumber which is better, very crisp, but because I’m not trekking out in the blustery winds today to get yellow cucumber, I’m just using regular good old cucumber.  

This makes 2 servings:

  • 1 cucumber
  • Garlic (2 cloves) – very finely minced or 1 tbsn garlic paste
  • Soy sauce (2 tbsns)
  • Rice wine vinegar (also called rice vinegar) (3 tbsns)
  • Sugar (1 tbsn)
  • Salt (1/4 tspn)
  • Red pepper flakes or crushed red pepper  (1/2 tspn)
  • Sesame oil (only a few drops)

Cut off the cucumber ends.  Then keep cutting the cucumbers in half length-wise so you have long, thin pieces, about 1/4″ thick.   Put all the pieces together and slice vertically into smaller pieces, about 1″ in length. 

Put all the ingredients into a medium lidded container and shake vigorously to mix.   Be careful not to add too much sesame oil – you only need a few drops.  Taste and adjust for spiciness, saltiness or sweetness.  If you adjust, mix and shake, shake, shake again.  (I love this part.  It’s very invigorating.)

You can serve this right away.  Better yet, refrigerate for several hours to allow the flavor to sink in.  This also makes the cucumber a bit more tender.  To serve, strain out the additional liquid.  Serve in a small bowl or dish.  I personally just ate half of what I made without waiting.

P.S.  (I plan to post my next recipe on how to make Chinese “barbeque” chicken.)

The Life of A Concubine

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden Palace), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden City), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

“Shroud”

The ancient emperors had hundreds of concubines who were not allowed beyond the confines of the palace. Sealed off from the world, the women were captives for life.

Long nights,
in bound feet,
I dream of my
Majesty ap-
proaching.
When I walk,
I sway as a
willow sways,
delicately –
And the locusts
come, lustful
and horny, their
violent wings
covering the
gnarled limbs
of this old,
bowed tree.

I am copying this poem as I wrote it more than ten years ago after hearing a story about how a concubine, in ancient times, was put to death with her lover after their affair was discovered.  Under punishment and threat of death, these lovers took great measures to hide their affections for each other.  Her lover was a performer with an opera troupe that frequented the imperial court, so the two had the opportunity to meet from time to time.

After hearing this story, I was very curious. I asked, “How many concubines did the emperor have?”  The Chinese emperors had many concubines, numbering from the hundreds to thousands.  But what was the life of a concubine in the imperial court?

Traditionally, a concubine to the emperor was brought to the attention of the court because of her beauty or status.  She was not considered officially married to the emperor but was recruited to the court to bear the emperor sons and to entertain, usually at a young age.  Once a concubine was taken inside the palace walls, she had to leave behind her family, her friends, her familiar ways of life and was not permitted to see her relatives or friends or leave the palace without official consent. The parents would agree to give up their daughter in exchange for a secure life for their child.  However, giving up a daughter to be a concubine to the imperial palace was usually a heart-breaking affair, as it was considered a parting for life.  The concubines’ activities were generally overseen and monitored by the powerful eunuchs.  Of course, sex with any one other than the emperor was strictly forbidden.

Before the emperor would visit, a concubine was required to bathe and be examined by a court doctor.  With hundreds or thousands of concubines to choose from, a concubine was considered lucky to have a visit by the emperor.  Many of them, I was told, throughout their lives in the palace, barely had any contact with the emperor at all.  They had their own rooms, and their daily activities were filled with making themselves up, sewing, practicing various arts and sharing their time with the other concubines in the palace.  

There were varying ranks of concubines, and many of them engaged in ruthless struggles for power.  Indeed, there were some concubines who managed to become very powerful.  The most famous were Ci Xi and Wu Ze Tian who were very shrewd and eventually became two of China’s Empresses and rulers.  Still, for many concubines, they had to wile away their days, presenting themselves as best as they could and many leading very lonely lives.

Speed painting of Roger Federer!

I have watched this video so many times over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me.  

The spontaneity and freedom as a joyous process is so apparent, as well as the the process of having learned to pare down to the essential.  The seemingly effortlessness and simplicity with which the artist creates the piece brings up in my mind the essence of Taoism or “going with the flow.”   (Well, I think it takes a lot of work for most people to get to this point.)  

Three other things come to mind:  1) How do we perceive? (Blanchard is painting a large canvass where he cannot see the whole picture),  2) the process of creating and being, and 3) I bet this keeps the “old” man healthy in mind, body and spirit.  

Enjoy!

Poem by Li Bai (“Drinking Alone Under the Moon”)

Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang dynasty, in ...

Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang dynasty, in a 13th century depiction by Liang Kai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Li Bai (b.701 – d.762) is one of the most famous poets in Chinese history.  He was a contemporary of Du Fu (b.712–d.770) during the Tang Dynasty and the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.  He wandered from place to place for most of his life, drinking and writing.  Leading the life of a wanderer, a recluse and as a free spirit, Li Bai, in many ways, embodies Taoist philosophies.  His poetry, seemingly simple and effortless, is vivid, spontaneous, full of imagination and exhibits a childlike playfulness. (Du Fu, more of a realist, is regarded as China’s greatest historical poet. In my mind the two can be compared in some ways to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in their different styles.)

Below is of one of Li Bai’s most famous poems (please excuse my translation).  This poem illustrates Li Bai’s ability to seize the moment and transcend the world with nature.  

With a pot of wine amidst the flowers,
I drink without human company.
I raise my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, I and my shadow make three.
The moon does not share in drink.
My shadow only trails and follows.
Fleeting companions, the moon and my shadow.
Still, let us rejoice before the end of Spring.
The moon sways with my singing.
My shadow lurches as I dance.
While sober, we cheerfully celebrate.
After getting drunk, we part ways.
Our union beyond this earthly realm,
May we meet again, I and these two,
beneath the Milky Way stars.

Although he was a technical master of many classical forms of Chinese verse, Li Bai took great liberties and broke tradition often with these forms, a further illustration of his free spirit. As he wandered from place to place, he would meet and drink with other poets.  It was common during that time for poets to gather and celebrate their company and poetry with drink.  The poems, as they were composed, were often sung (sometimes while tapping the side of a table or boat or tapping chopsticks along with the rhymes, which older generations of Chinese still practice.)  Many young children in China can recite his poems.

The Shangyangtai, the only surviving example o...

The Shangyangtai, the only surviving example of Li Bai’s calligraphy, now housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing, China http://www.flashpointmag.com/libai10.htm . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Li Bai’s legend grew during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death.  Du Fu, who met Li Bai, wrote Li Bai on several occasions, and it was clear that Du Fu regarded him with great admiration and respect.  (Li Bai appears to have written Du Fu once.)  And in a fitting end, legend has it that Li Bai died from drowning because, happily drunk, he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water while sitting in a boat.  To this day, during the Mid-Autumn Festival when families have dinner, eat moon cakes, drink wine, and watch the moon, people think of and celebrate this poem by Li Bai and his life.

I came across this wonderful post about the artist, Ai WeiWei.

 

BunnyandPorkBelly

other than food and visiting the fam, the major purpose of our trip back to VA this past weekend was to check out ai weiwei’s exhibit at Hirshhorn Museum.

ai weiwei is a chinese artist, poet, architect, curator, publisher, urbanist, collector, blogger, and political activist.

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these names are the names of children died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. ai weiwei investigated government corruption such as the sichuan schools corruption scandals. all these schools collapsed during the earthquake because these buildings were poorly constructed.

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rusted steel rebar taken from the collapsed schools of sichuan
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he co-designed the bird’s nest Beijing National Stadium
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Grapes, constructed out of Qing dynasty wooden stools. the feet pointed outwards to protect a circle of power with build-in defenses.

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teahouse
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on the background, ai weiwei destroys a 2000-year old jar. these colored vases is a garish repainting of ancient ceramic shapes in modern neon.

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these are river…

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A True Story – How My Mother Became Interested in My Father

When my mother was in college in Taiwan, one day she looked at the chalkboard and asked her friend, “Who’s writing is that?”  You see, Chinese characters tell a lot about a person.  It’s a bit like drawing, and it can reveal many things about you – whether you’re playful, imaginative, disciplined, strong in different ways…  It turns out that the person who wrote the characters on the chalkboard was the T.A. in her class, my father.  And this is how my mother first became interested in my father – because of his handwriting.  

My mother and father came from very different worlds.  She was a social butterfly.  She had many suitors from China and Taiwan and from different places around the world.  They called her the “Black Rose” because she didn’t have the white, porcelain skin of classical beauty and because when a man tried to woo her, they would most likely be hurt.  She never lacked any confidence, and I think this is what made her truly beautiful.  She was a very kind, honest, generous, fun-loving spirit, but also immensely gracious.  When I was young, I was very shy around boys.  She told me, “Why should you be afraid or embarrassed?  When a boy looks at you, you should think or pretend they are nothing to you.”  But she advised that if I truly liked a boy, I should keep myself at a distance.  She said, “If you show your interest too soon, the boy will not like you so much.  But if you keep your distance, he will grow fonder.”  

At any rate, my mother, who had so many men courting her, eventually fell in love with my father.  Her mother objected because my father was poor.  He could hardly afford to eat and ate many bananas, which were cheap.  He had passed the rigorous exam to enter Taiwan University, but he could not afford the tuition.  Because he could not afford books, he studied what he could from books in the bookstores.  He tutored a young girl, took the exam again and passed, and her father eventually offered to pay for part of his tuition, and this is how my father came to be a student at Taiwan University.  

My father never told me these stories.  He is rather silent about his life, and much of what I learned about him came from my mother.  For seven years, my mother could not marry my father because her mother objected, but eventually she got the blessing of her father.  During this period, her mother passed away at the early age of 44 from stomach cancer.  After they married, my mother had a much harder time of things.  She didn’t even know how to boil water when they were married.  And the first dinner she made for his friends was a disaster.  She put a chicken in a pot and just let it cook and cook, and by the time his friends arrived, it had been in the pot so long that the chicken disintegrated so that they basically ate soup (with the bones).  

My mother was an amazing woman.  By the time I was a child, she was in America, sewing our clothes (she was also very talented in knitting), cooking delicious meals every day, taking care of the bills, taking care of the children, working here and there as a data processor or in the local library.  She wallpapered our entire dining room and one of our bathrooms beautifully.  I don’t know how she did this by herself or where she learned how to do it.  After coming to America, she had few possessions.  My first baby crib was apparently a cardboard box, and my parents truly struggled to make ends meet.  But my mother loved my father immensely.  The only person she loved more than my father was God. (She went to Catholic school in China.)  Her English was never as good as my father’s, not nearly, and she struggled with this all her life.  

They had few possessions, but there was one thing she kept in a bank vault.  These were the letters (aerograms) that my father wrote her every day after he came to the U.S. to study for his PhD.   It was not easy at that time for Chinese people to come to the U.S., and so my mother and father were separated for more than three years.  But every day, he wrote her a letter.  And my older sister who was only a baby at the time in Taiwan would jump with joy every time they got a letter from my father and say, “Papa’s letter!”  These letters were the most precious things to my mother, enough that she would keep them in a bank vault, and my sister and I now have them but, unfortunately, with our limited Chinese, we have a hard time reading and understanding them (especially because many of the characters are written in cursive letters).  

When I noticed later that my mother’s handwriting was quite similar to my father’s, my father did tell me something.  My mother practiced my father’s handwriting.

Long Shan Temple 龍山寺 (Taipei, Taiwan)

 

In February of 2011, I visited Long Shan Temple in Taipei. It was built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, China and is Taipei’s oldest temple.  As with many other temples in Taiwan, you can come here to worship Buddhist and Taoist figures, as well as various folk gods.  There are more than 165 gods or figures enshrined inside.  (In Chinese culture in general, there is no conflict with worshipping multiple gods and revered figures at once.)  Although it is the oldest temple in Taipei, when I visited, the temple also combined a slightly modern aesthetic with lighted sculptures or lamps to greet both visitors and tourists.  It has survived earthquakes, bombings and many fires throughout its history, raising its stature as a a historical site and place of worship.

When you enter, you are immediately greeted with the smell of incense, curling everywhere around you.  Even though there are many people and tourists, a sense of serenity pervades.  Typically, you take several strands of incense and bow a few times with the incense sticks in both hands as you wish for the well-being of yourself and others.  You can do this as many times as you wish.  There are beautiful, large iron pots where you can place the incense sticks after your tribute or prayer.   The temple also has many Chinese poems, carved into wood.  People kneel and pray or read from various texts and scriptures.  A multitude of flowers and offerings to gods and ancestors sit atop tables and are placed in the courtyards, a feast for the eyes and the senses.  Lit candles add to the aura.  The sound of uniform chanting of Buddhist scriptures coming from the inner temple resonates throughout, imbuing a sense of calm and wonderment.

There are three gates or entrances and courtyards, the inner ones lying within the outer, all ornately decorated.  The outer courtyard is the largest and has a waterfall, trees, tables and the sculpted lamps when I was there.  The second courtyard is where most people pray, either standing up or kneeling, bow with incense, read texts and make offerings.  The inner courtyard is the smallest and houses the heart of the temple, with carved ceilings painted in gold and with the main fixture being a statue of Guan Yin Buddha or the Goddess of Mercy.  This is the inner sanctum where people kneel and chant Buddhist scriptures, often dressed in dark robes. 

I cannot fully describe the magic of this place, except in part with the pictures I took.  If you go to Taipei, please take the time to visit.  All are welcome, and admission is free.  (The incense is also free, but you can feel free to buy incense there or make a donation.)

Albert Einstein, the Taoist

Albert Einstein lived at a time when technology, especially with regards to warfare, made advances with increasingly far-reaching implications.  He said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  He was not the only scientist who grappled with the questions of space, time and the rapid growth of technology and how humans would cope with these advances.  John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, as well as a colleague of Einstein’s who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, wrote a remarkable essay in which he tries to assess the course of humanity in the face of rapidly expanding technology. In this essay, written more than 50 years ago, von Neumann also foresees the impact of global warming on our political and social systems. (You can read his essay here.)  Von Neumann, however, does not delve into human nature as a potential answer as to how we can continue to exist with the expanding scope and threat of technology to our social and political systems.

Einstein, as a scientist and observer, tried to answer this question of how we can survive technology and preserve humanity by essentially regarding all things as being interrelated.  In short, he believed that as human beings, we and everything around us are integrated, governed by the same laws, while acknowledging that science may only be a measure in part of what we observe., i.e. what is measurable in scientific terms encompasses only part of the universe.  The nature of being human to him was best if we could come to recognize that integration of self with the universe is key to both individual happiness and greater peace in the world.  To him, science fell short in being able to explain certain truths, such as our wonderment of beauty and our mind’s ability to see beyond certain measurable realities.  Unlike Descartes, who famously said, “I think; therefore, I am,” Einstein did not endeavor to separate mind and body or existence into distinct parts in order to try to prove the existence of God.  To Einstein, to be natural, happy, and peaceful meant recognizing and surrendering ourselves to a greater whole, thereby de-emphasizing the ego and the importance of self, being able to achieve harmony with ourselves and with perceived external realities.  Creativity, imagination and a childlike state of curiosity to him are more important than knowledge and essential to our path to preserving happiness and humanity.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe … We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.  – Albert Einstein

In Taoism and Buddhism alike (which share an intertwined history in China), as well as in many other religions and philosophies of the world, there is a strong recognition of the self being part of a greater whole.  One of the aims is to be free from the self and be less slave to our emotions.  In this sense, it is quite antithetical to the Western idea of self, passion or ego, where we assign great importance to achievement by the individual (and, on the other side of the coin, assign great blame to individuals for their failures).  In the Western tradition, we separate ourselves from others, from ourselves and from the world in many ways.  This can lead us to believe that we are “better” than others and give us a sense of pride and security when we are doing well or lead to a sense of separation and isolation when we are not doing well.  

The separation of self can lead us to feel less responsible for the things and people around us and to assign responsibility for both hardship and wellness in our lives to others or to a higher power than ourselves.  You may be surprised, however, to learn that Taoism, Buddhism and other similar philosophies do not foremost advocate that we should feel responsible for others.  Rather, the basic philosophy in Taosim and Buddhism is to attain freedom from worldly attachment and the self.  Recognizing and accepting that suffering and death is part of existence and all worldly things as fleeting allows one to find peace, harmony and compassion.  In Taoism, there is also an emphasis on not struggling with what is natural and, in a sense, reverting to the simplicity of being a child.  If we do what is natural, harmony and compassion will follow.  Taoism and Buddhism also do not advocate that we should not try our best.  The focus is on the act of doing and of being in the present moment.  This, in itself, should give us a sense of fulfillment, and the results, success or failure, are, in a sense, irrelevant and left to “fate.”  Put in another way, if we expect success (and, inevitably, we cannot always be successful), we will often be disappointed and unhappy.

I love many other quotes by Albert Einstein.  I have listed some here and think they express a coherent (and, in many ways, Toaist) view of Einstein’s belief in humanity:

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.

Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Until this moment, I never understood how hard it was to lose something you never had.

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

Many times a day I realize how much my own life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.

Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.