Context & Interpretation: that which matters

Context: a prophet, first century of the Common Era, LJ Frank, artist

by LJ Frank


Context and interpretation?

In the late Spring 1971, while in my 20s I was mistakenly identified in Hong Kong where a man who thought he knew me from an experience in India, asked me about an encounter I had while visiting there. I had no idea what he was talking about. The thing was at that stage of my journey I’d never traveled to India.

Intriguingly, weeks later after crossing the Bay of Bengal by seaplane I landed in Pondicherry on the southeast coast of India.  And I then traveled by train across southern India where I met a woman in her 70s outside Bombay (now Mumbai). The woman was quite spiritual and told me as a young woman in her 20’s she had met Mahatma Gandhi and for the next hour our conversation focused on Gandhi and his thoughts. The situation was surreal given the meeting I had with the man in Hong Kong. I write about it briefly in a literary memoir, Writer in Exile (2023).

Weeks later after a series of other experiences open to interpretation I found myself a passenger in a vehicle with a dozen or so other locals in North Africa. I was one of two foreigners.  The man I sat next to told me he was originally from Lebanon. The vehicle was passing a crossroads when it was stopped by a group of armed military types that asked all of us to step out of the vehicle. We did as they requested. My passport was scrutinized and the “solder” who examined it didn’t ask me any questions and for whatever reason the Lebanese man and I were allowed to depart on foot. The other passengers remained behind.

As we walked away at some distance we heard a cracking sound, followed by a scream, we both jerked at the same time, “Let’s keep walking,” my companion said. To this day I have no idea what the event was about. There was no added contextual information and any interpretation would be difficult. Nor would I care to surmise other than what I experienced. Humans are always in battle with each other. Much of the time it seems senseless. The Lebanese man shook his head and he and I eventually parted company and headed in different directions. We wished each other luck and I walked on. I eventually came to a city about 15 kilometers farther down the road, but not without another event taking place.

Language. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so seems universal, until one witnesses an emaciated dead child in the arms of an equally emaciated dead mother (both dead from what looked like starvation) lying alongside the road and their bodies left to rot on the ground where they collapsed.

My skin never got thicker over the years. Tears came without effort – there never seems to be a last time for tears to be shed involuntarily.

Less than a day later I was lodging near the Mediterranean Sea.

My experiences were minor compared to others life and death contexts. Some more horrific than others. The author Elaine Scarry observed, “pain shatters language”.

Context and how we interpret our experiences within that context may point to the depth of our search for greater meaning or not. Why does there have to be meaning? Is compassion learned behavior?  Isn’t it a natural human genetic “gift”? Where, how and why do we gain or lose compassion?

There is no empirical proof of a life beyond this life and something better than what the current context of our existence suggests. Man invented language including that which he classifies as sacred or blasphemous in a chaotic world and universe. What may appear as beautiful from a distance, upon closer inspection is filled with gashes, wounds, cracks, and teeming cells below the “skin” seeking to adapt and survive. Language can inform or distort.

Life is ambiguous and humans among mammals uniquely have faith in that which is invisible and hold on to the improbable…though such wants are comforting for seekers.

Context and interpretation matter.