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Fear is the Mind-Killer

Recently, The Girlfriend and I went to Batam for a short holiday. We didn’t plan this in advance, but it turns out that part of the itinerary included a visit to a place that does flying fox jumps for only S$6!

It isn’t very much, but it’s about 4-floors high.

 

The only reason why we were there was because it was part of another couple’s tour package (the tour group put us together in the same bus since our itineraries were almost the same). Since we were there, we thought – why not?

Now, here’s the thing… I’ve always had a paralysing fear of heights since young. Well, to be more exact, it’s not so much the fear of heights, but the fear of falling FROM heights. It’s so bad that when such a fear strikes, I can’t move. I’ll tremble in fear and grab on to the most stable thing I can find up there.

I remember that when I was young (before entering nursery school), I was at a particular playground with a suspension bridge (the Indiana Jones kind), and when I reached the middle of the bridge, I realised how high (for my age) I was. I was so paralysed by fear that I clung to the bridge’s suspension chains with all my life, crying for helping at the top of my voice. My parents had to run to me and carry me out of the bridge. The bridge wasn’t really that high. My parents could just lift me out from the bridge by standing next to it. That’s how low it was – but it felt like I was up in the sky at that age.

Anyway, over the years, it got better. I could climb ladders without worrying about dying or be paralysed by fear. So I thought, maybe I’ve outgrown that fear. After all, I’ve changed quite a lot over the years as I age. There used to be so many things that I used to hate eating. Today, I love eating them. There used to be so many things that I was afraid of. Today, they don’t bother me so much. The fear of falling from heights? I’ve not experienced that fear in a while, so I guess it’s gone. Right?

Well, so we paid our S$6, and walked up the steep flight of stairs up to the fourth floor. I asked The Girlfriend to go first so that I could take photos of her going down the flying fox.

Ready?

 

Go! Wheeee!

 

It definitely looked like a lot of fun! I really wanted to jump off and experience the thrill.

Then came my turn.

The operator signalled to me to stand at the edge of the post as he fixed the safety cables on me. As I stood there, I saw the vast horizon before me. Worse still, I made a fatal mistake – I looked down.

Immediately, the once familiar fear of (falling from) heights returned in full force.

My legs felt like jelly and I pretty much freaked out very badly. The operator kept asking me to position myself in a seating position so that he could push me off the post (you need to get into a seating position so that the safety vest around your hips and groin wouldn’t suddenly tighten because of the fall and injure your crown jewels). At that point, I kinda lost it. I freaked out and started yelling: “TAK BOLEH!!! TAK BOLEH!!! SAYA TAK BOLEH!!!!!” (Translation: Cannot! Cannot! I cannot do this!!!)

Anyway, the Operator wasn’t very helpful. He kept trying to push me off the post. He said something (in Indonesian) along the lines of, “Don’t worry, it’s safe!”

Hmm… Pushing someone off while telling him that everything’s gonna be alright, while the poor guy’s holding on to stuff to save his life DOES NOT assure him that things are alright. It just freaked me out even more.

The operator gave up and allowed me to climb down the post. Unfortunately, that was quite a horrible ordeal. Now that I’ve been paralysed by fear, going down the super steep staircase was really a challenge. I think it took me about 15-20 minutes to crawl my way down.

It was pretty embarrassing.

Anyway, gosh… It looks like I’ve still not overcome this fear. To think I told The Girlfriend that we should do para-gliding sometime in the future. Looks like that option’s out.

It’s amazing how powerful fear can be. Someone recently mentioned that people are driven by two things: (1) the things they desire, and (2) the things they fear.

We all have our fears and insecurities. But it’s easy to forget how our fears can shape our perception of the world by taking something that’s value-neutral and transforming it into something dark, wretched, and/or scary. It’s easy to forget that fear has the power to paralyse us, and even to make us act so irrationally even if we have been assured or seen enough empirical proof that everything will be ok.

This fear of (falling from) heights is quite ridiculous. But equally ridiculous are the fear of being ostracised, the fear of failure, and perhaps worse of all, the fear of loneliness.

Though ridiculous, I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. We all have such fears. I admit that I too am driven by such fears occasionally.

The Chinese philosopher, Kuo Hsiang (郭象) said that people are basically what they are not – they’re constantly driven by what they lack. The one who feels most unloved will be driven by the fear of loneliness to be as popular and loved as possible. The one who feels unsuccessful will be driven by the fear of failure and constantly work towards success.

Ironically, it’s the ones who are so popular, friendly, and successful who tend to be the ones most plagued by such fears. The ones whom we think are the most ok in life are the ones who, ironically, are the most broken people in the world. But that being said, everyone is driven by at least one fear in their life (usually more, though).

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It does motivate us to do something about our lives.

BUT, sometimes, we can be soooooo paralysed by our fears (just as how I was paralysed by my fear of heights), that we can become so terribly blind to see that we already have what we’ve been searching for. Or, we can be so blinded by our fears to see that things are actually ok (of course, it’s hard to be convinced in such a situation).

And of course, when the fear becomes too much to handle, sometimes bailing out seems like the best option (just as how I felt it was for me when I couldn’t do the jump).

I’m not going to say, “Fight your fears!” I think that’s rather cliche. We all know that we should face our fears.

But I’m writing this so that we learn how to be more human – so that we learn how to be more understanding of others, including ourselves.

There’s this odd misconception that being strong means not having to struggle with fear. I think that’s a problematic mindset because it makes us afraid of admitting to our fears, or daring to show any. Sure, courage is a virtue that’s highly commendable. But part of being human is about struggling with fear. We all have our fears. It may not be a healthy fear, but it’s still a fear nonetheless, and it’s part of the human condition, a part of our human experience, a part of what it means to be alive.

I know most people would laugh at my ridiculous fear of heights and my whole freaking-out incident. It’s amusing, I’ll grant you that. I think so too (on retrospect).

What touched me the most was the fact that The Girlfriend came to hug me after the incident because she remembered that I have this bad fear. And I think what made her most understanding about it is the fact that she too has her own paralysing fear of some creature-that-cannot-be-named.

I used to think that her fear was rather silly. But this episode was very eye-opening for me because after my freaking-out over the heights thing, I understood that we’re both the same and very human in many ways – we both have paralysing fears over stuff, and that it really isn’t easy to pluck up the courage to be strong in the face of our fears (it’s not impossible, but it takes a loooooooooot of moral strength to be able to do it – it’s not like anyone can summon it anytime they like; it doesn’t work that way).

Just as how we are struggling with our own fears in life, I think it’s useful that we recognise that everyone around us are struggling with their own fears too – whether they show it or not. They’re just as human as we are – we have our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows. We crave and yearn for a super hero to save us, but deep down, what we really seek is someone as human, as frail, as ridiculous, as we are. Because it’s only with such people are we able to best understand each other thanks to our shared similar experiences in life.

And I think when we begin to understand that we’re all struggling with our own fears, that we become more understanding of other people and the seemingly-irrational things that they do.

That’s what makes us human.

Death as the Ultimate Climax of Life

One of the best lessons I’ve learnt from one of the professors here in NUS is about the Chinese view on death.

In Chinese culture, there are two words used to describe death: (1) 死 (si) which simply means termination of life; and (2) 終 (zhong) consummation/finale. Of course, zhong also holds the same meaning as si, which is why it is taboo in Chinese culture to give someone a clock as a gift (to give a clock is to 送鐘 songzhong which sounds exactly like 送終 songzhong, which means to send someone off to the grave).

But what’s so unique about the word 終 zhong is the emphasis on death as the consummation, the very climax of life; it is where you wrap up your story with the most awesome ending possible.

Interestingly, I found the perfect illustration of this idea from a movie, entitled “It’s a Great Great World (大世界 Dashijie).” It’s a Singapore production, with several short stories about life in Singapore during the 1940s, revolving around an amusement park known as the Great World. The last story was the most touching and emotionally powerful story I’ve ever come across. It’s beautiful.

The story goes like this: There was a wedding banquet in a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, that night, the Japanese were invading Singapore. Their planes were dropping bombs all over the island. The wedding guests weren’t aware of it and they thought that it was merely fireworks outside (it was an amusement park after all). The chef and his assistants decided that most of them would probably not live to see another day, or if they did, life as they knew it wouldn’t be the same forever. So, that night, they decided to cook all the food in the kitchen and give them the best wedding dinner ever. What was beautiful was how the chef and his assistants poured out their entire heart and soul in preparing every good meal to ensure that everyone had the best time ever. The acting was beautiful as it looked as if they were performing their last dance.

The father of the bride was the one who was going to pay for the bill. He was quite upset when he saw all the expensive dishes being served. He stormed into the kitchen wanting to complain, but learnt about the Japanese invasion from the chef. Immediately, as a good father, he went out and made sure everyone dined happily and had the best night of their lives so that they would remember that night.

This is by far, the most beautiful illustration of wrapping up one’s life. It climaxes in the biggest, boldest, and most courageous effort to showcase the best that one could do even in the face of death – to die with dignity, to spread happiness to others, and to give all that one could ever give in one’s final moments. Everything that one has experienced in one’s life leads up to that one final moment – death.

It is like the final dance in a performance (or an action movie). Everything right from the beginning leads up to that final moment where it climaxes with the greatest showcase the dancers could perform before the curtains come to a close.

Admittedly, it is difficult since many of us do dread the thought of death. Perhaps we dread it because we think of death merely as the termination of life. But I think when we begin to see death as the ultimate climax, the ultimate wrapping up of one’s life, where the multitude of one’s personal experiences lead up to that one final performance, I think the idea of death becomes very ennobling and empowering.

I really like how the Chinese (especially Confucian thought) emphasises the importance of dying with dignity. Every one and every thing dies. But as humans, we have the option of choosing to die with the greatest dignity as a human being.

I remember watching “Confucius: The Movie” and the one scene that really struck me was this: One of Confucius’ disciples was in a state invaded by a foreign state. Unfortunately, he was fatally wounded by arrows.

In that situation, the best way for him to wrap up his life was to ensure that he passed on orderly and not in a chaotic manner. All the lessons and values in life that he learnt and experienced led up to that one moment. It would have been a shame to cast away all those years simply because of pain. And so, he made it a point to endure the pain and conducted himself in the greatest possible performance that would consummate all that he learnt in life: he picked up his hat, slowly put it back onto his head, adjusted it so that it was in proper order; he re-adjusted his clothes and his belt to ensure that they were tidy, and slowly yet reverently fell to his knees, closed his eyes with gratitude for all that he has experienced and learnt in life. And there he passed on.

In that short yet simple final performance of his life, he showed great mastery over himself and that he was not a slave to his passions. He showed that as a human person, there are things more important than pain and death, and that it is possible to continue being civil and human despite feeling great pain.

That is what death should be about – dying properly, honourably, and as a consummation of all of the lessons, values, and experiences in life in that final performance of life.

These deaths are beautiful because they show us the beauty and strength of humanity, which we don’t see too often these days. It happens here and there – most of them quietly without much publicity. But I think, whenever we encounter such beautiful deaths, we gain the inspiration not just to live, but to live well, so that we too may go just as beautifully.

Lunch with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan

Wow… This has got to be one of the most exciting events before the year ends! A few days ago, I received a comment on my blog by Dr. Balakrishnan, saying how he enjoyed reading my blog and would like to have lunch with me. (Dear Dr. Balakrishnan, if you’re reading this, hello!) For those who don’t know who he is, Dr. Balakrishnan is the current minister of Environment and Water Resources.

Wow… A minister enjoys reading my blog! What a surprise and an honour!

For the days leading up to our lunch, I’ve been wondering why he’d like to have lunch with me. In fact, I was very curious as to how he found my blog. Was it because of my blog entries about the rising cost of living, or about the cost of housing? The Girlfriend joked that he probably found my blog while searching how to use Whatsapp for Mac (it’s the most popular post I have – it generates at least 500 hits a day!)

Well, surprise surprise! He did discover my blog searching for instructions on how to use Whatsapp for Mac! WOW! So cool!

Anyway, he invited me to invite a few friends so that we could have a nice chit chat session, and so I did. We had lunch at a Penang eatery along Thomson Road. For someone who never had the opportunity to meet a minister before, it was quite an experience (and somewhat intimidating one too!) seeing body guards. There was an advance party of security men who came to scout and check the area, and later, there were body guards escorting the minister into the cafe.

My friends and I were excited and nervous at the same time. I mean, it’s a minister! What do you say to a minister? And how should one behave?

Well, surprisingly, Dr. Balakrishnan was very friendly and approachable! In fact, he was quite down to earth too!

Usually, the media portrays ministers as people who are so high-up, that we forget that they are ordinary human beings just like us. But during that lunch meeting, I was very impressed.

Sitting before me was someone as ordinary and as human as we are, sharing similar interests and likes. Here was someone who was as passionate about technology, food, and chinese culture as I am. Here was someone who was curious to learn how to make Whatsapp work on his computer just like the many technophiles around me. Here was someone who loved both Singapore and Malaysian food that he would talk just as passionately about food just like many Singaporeans here. Haha… I told him that I looooved Malaysian Char Kway Teow (it’s very different from the Singapore one), and immediately he replied, “I think it’s the lard that makes it so tasty!” A few minutes before he came, another friend said the exact same thing! He also shared with us his food trips to Malaysia. So cool!

What I loved the most was just how genuine and sincere he was with us. We were very amazed with his sharings about his own personal life and especially about his family.

The one story that left the deepest impression for myself and my friends was his sharing of the time when he first held his first-born child in his hands. Wow… You could sense just how emotional he was as he recounted the experience and the thoughts and feelings that went through his mind during that event. He shared how during that one moment, he suddenly understood the love that his parents had for him, he suddenly understood what parental love was – it was a love that would often be unreciprocated and yet, you’d still want to continue giving your love to your child no matter what. He shared with us how as a parent holding his baby child for the first time, he realised just how vulnerable and dependent the child was on him, and how he had to do whatever was possible to ensure that she would grow up well. He experienced parental love for the first time and that was a great learning experience for him.

Just hearing him share his experience made me feel like wanting to have a child as soon as possible. Wow… I’d like to experience what he experienced.

As it turns out, the lunch was really a lunch with no political agenda. My friends and I have been speculating if he had something in mind (after all, why would politicians ask people to have lunch out of the blue?), but it turned out to be nothing more than a friendly chat over a meal, just as how friends would sit around a table to eat. I did ask him why he wanted to have lunch with me, as I was very very curious. He replied that this was something he likes to do. He finds a Singaporean online who’s interesting, and he extends an invitation to have a meal with him because he just likes meeting interesting people. Pretty cool. I know most people reading this might be skeptical (afterall, these are words coming from a politician), but rest assured, all of my friends and I agreed that he was very genuine and sincere about this.

Anyway, we did chat about issues on life, relationships, and philosophy – especially since my friends and I are philosophy students. It was interesting as he did bring up some interesting philosophical issues for us to consider in the area of politics. (I’ll discuss them in another blog post)

I think it was really great of him to engage us philosophers intellectually on such issues. In fact, I like how he has such great respect for philosophy. It’s rare because we philosophers often encounter people who think lowly of philosophy only because they think it’s impractical (can’t make money) and/or pointless. It’s very interesting how he framed policy-making problems as philosophical problems. For example, one of the problems governments face is the issue of trying to balance justice with equality. E.g. an equal distribution may not necessarily be a just distribution because some need more than others, and on the other hand, a just distribution is often regarded as unfair since not everyone is treated equally (e.g. why should married couples get more subsidies than singles – why can’t everyone be treated the same way?).

It is a difficult balance and it does seem that both values are contrary to each other, and regardless of which way governments decide to emphasize, there will always be complaints of unfairness. I think that was eye-opening!

Anyway, I guess it’s inevitable that when having lunch with a politician, the issue of politics will be discussed.

I will say that after our lunch together, I have a profound respect for Dr. Balakrishnan because he’s the first PAP (Peoples’ Action Party) person who articulated why the government does what they do, in a very convincing and thorough manner.

It’s sad, but the media and many PAP politicians do a bad job in communicating the rationale for their policies. It’s either too simplified that it sounds ridiculous, or the person speaking assumes that we’re on the same channel (and see the world the same way as him/her) and makes too many assertions that many of us consider questionable.

I’ll be honest and say that while I don’t agree with some of the things said, I am nonetheless glad to at least have the opportunity to hear the justifications for many of the things the government does. When you read the gross over-simplifications in the news, you sometimes wonder if the country is run by rational people. But after our lunch discussion, I am glad to know that a lot of thought has indeed been put into their policy-making decisions. Of course, there is always room to debate the policies, but given the way they have framed the problems, the solutions they have conceived do indeed appear to be the necessary solutions.

The real question then is, has the PAP government framed the problems rightly? Should many of these national issues be framed in light of economics? Of course, I don’t know enough nor have I thought enough about these matters as of this moment. But I think these are indeed worth discussing.

Dr. Balakrishnan mentioned that one of the failings of the PAP was that they’ve been really bad at communicating policies. Seeing how the picture provided by him is more rational and worlds apart from the picture presented by the media, I wonder if the people who communicate these policies to the news ought to be shot for grossly oversimplifying things. (Personally, I think I can do a much better job than them if this was indeed the case) Of course, skeptics will question how is it possible that state-run media can do such a bad job. I don’t know.

Nonetheless, this is exactly what we need in our public discourse – a thorough discussion of why policies are what they are, with all the fine details included, making no assumptions that we necessarily see things from the same point of view. I do think that if ministers (and the media) make it a point to thoroughly discuss the fine details and all just like what Dr. Balakrishnan did at lunch, we can begin to have fruitful debates about our public policy. We may not necessarily agree, but at the very least, we can start to see why such a decision or proposal could even be rational at all. Too many issues are presented in a simplistic manner (in the news) that it seems more like badly-made decisions rather than well-thought decisions.

Once we begin to see that the other guy is rational (and not a moron), we begin to respect the other, and we can proceed with fruitful dialogue. I think this is what we urgently need in Singapore today, especially in the wake of increasing polarisation among PAP and opposition supporters.

When we begin to fight for our political parties like soccer teams, we cease to be rational, and democracy becomes no more than just a tyranny of the loudest – whoever shouts the loudest wins. This kind of democracy is not productive nor is it truly life-giving.

Anyway, I am glad that we had this lunch. We had good food and good food for thought. Thank you Dr. Balakrishnan! You’re amazing! My friends and I would love to have lunch with you again.

Research, research, research…

The second week of school has just ended, but it has already been quite an intensive week for me.

I’ll be officially starting on my honours thesis next semester. However, my supervising professor will be away for a while during that time, and it would be quite inconvenient to attempt a thesis under such conditions. So, I figured it’s better that I begin my research now while the hell of assignments hasn’t yet been unleashed onto me. I hope to finish as much research now, so that I have the luxury of time to write and do more stuff when I begin my thesis officially.

This was how my table at the library looked over the past few days:

img_3508

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. One of these books has Chinese words! I’m researching on an ancient Chinese text known as the Chung-yung (中庸, famously known as the “Doctrine of the Mean” or more accurately as “The State of Equilibrium and Harmony”). It’s written in classical Chinese.

What I’ve been doing the past week, was simply reading through the entire book in its original text, and comparing the various translations that I could get my hands on. Classical Chinese is a unique language in that it has a lot of ambiguities (it’s a unique feature of the language that allows the author to do a lot of amazing things, e.g. embed several different meanings onto the one same phrase). The problem with translations is that authors will have their own subjective biases, which affect the interpretation and thus, the translation of the text. In each translation, you’ll have different things missing while the translator focuses on one interpretive key. Hence, the importance of comparing translations along with the original text.

I’m glad I’ve made quite an effort over the holidays to work on my Chinese. I used to fail Chinese (or just barely pass it) back in secondary school and junior college. Now – I’m quite surprised at myself – I am able to read the entire text in Classical Chinese. That’s quite a marked improvement.

Well, with the week over, I’m more or less done with one little portion of research. Reading the original text and its translations is just the first step. More books and journals to read in the coming days. I expect my usual table at the library to be stacked with even more books.

READ ALL THE BOOKS!!!

A Philosophical Gift

I just got this gift from a friend as a belated Christmas present:

If there’s one thing I learnt from my study of philosophy, it is this: the questions matter more than the very answers themselves. Why? Because the question kicks off the entire process of inquiry. It is the process of figuring out the answers that we learn a great deal about the subject matter in question, and about ourselves.

The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of misery

In the days leading up to the end of 2011, I’ve been thinking back about the most important lessons that I have learnt throughout the course of the year.

Interestingly, one of the most important and useful lesson that I’ve come to realise is that the pursuit of happiness is as good as pursuing misery.

At first glance, it seems rather odd, but there is a lot of truth behind this principle.

One of the worse things we can do to ourselves is to ask the following questions: “Am I happy?” or “What else do I need to be happy?”

The reason why I say that the pursuit of happiness leads one to misery is due to the problem of language.

Perhaps it would be useful to provide an illustration of the problem: If I tell you that the sky is cloudy, what comes to your mind? Most people will say that the sky is grey. But is the sky really grey? Well, not always. You can have a blue sky despite it being cloudy. And for that matter, if it was night, the sky would be black. Unfortunately, when we use the term, “cloudy sky,” we carve out a particular conception of the sky which does not fully exhaust other possibilities, and for that matter, that conception may sometimes include other things which are simply not relevant to our own situation.

This has been a huge problem to Taoist philosophers, as highlighted in the Tao Te Ching:

道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。無名天地之始;有名萬物之母。故常無欲,以觀其妙;常有欲,以觀其徼。此兩者,同出而異名,同謂之玄。玄之又玄,衆妙之門。

Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
“Absence” names the cosmic horizon,
“Presence names the mother of ten thousand natural kinds.
Fixing on “absence” is to want to view enigmas.
Fixing on “presence” is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that “fathomless.”
Calling it “fathomless” is still not to fathom it.
… the door of a cluster of puzzles.

Tao Te Ching (道德經), n.1, trans. Chad Hansen (2009)

Therefore, when we ask ourselves the question, “Am I happy?” or “What must I do to be happy?”, we carve out a particular conception of what that happiness entails (and what it means to be unhappy), and use that as the benchmark for measuring our own happiness. But little do we know that that idea of what it means to be happy has its own flaws. We might already be happy, but as we compare our present situation with that ideal, we begin to see just how far away we are from that ideal of happiness (and see just how many of our present experiences are classed under “unhappiness”). And the more we do this comparison and see just how far we are from that “happy” ideal, the more miserable we feel. The conclusion, at the end of the day is – “Oh! I’m not happy.”

Whenever I’m busy concentrating on something, some people have a tendency to misinterpret my facial expression as that of feeling depressed. There used to be this moron who used to come up to me everyday asking me if I was really happy with my life every morning. What a way to spoil one’s day. I was actually feeling quite fine – serene and calm – with absolutely no tinge of negative emotions or thoughts. But when I was asked, “Are you happy? You look like you’re not.” I began comparing my present state with the ideal of what it means to be happy. And after a while, I became very very depressed.

It was only many years later when I started studying Chinese philosophy that I looked back and realised just how stupid I was in carrying out such a comparison. Of course I’d be miserable. And for that matter, anyone who does such a comparison will just end up feeling depressed, as one becomes convinced that one is far from happiness.

(While typing this, I realised that when we ask such questions about happiness, we unknowingly accept a fatal assumption. “What must I do to be happy?”, implies that one is currently unhappy and wants to get out of this situation. “Am I happy?” doubts the possibility that I am actually happy right here, and right now.)

And of course, the misery doesn’t end there. When we begin asking ourselves what we need to do to be happy, we try to force ourselves into a particular mold, doing our very best to fit into a vision of happiness.

But surely – one may ask – one could arrive at the destination and finally attain happiness, right?

Well, no.

The problem is that happiness is an ideal, an abstract concept with no detailed specifications of the final end. No matter how much one tries to fit into that ideal mold, when we try to compare our present state with that ideal vision, the present state will always appear to be far away from the ultimate goal.

Yes, we can be excellent in achieving something. But as long as that achievement exists in the real, concrete world, there will always be some imperfections. It is precisely because the ideal conception of happiness is so abstract, the fine details are stripped off (left out, as it were from the conception of happiness which we have carved in our minds). And because it lacks the fine details, it will always appear perfect, pure, unadulterated, and of course, infinitely better each and every single time we compare our present state with it.

And so, no matter how much one tries to chase after happiness, the comparison of the present state with the ideal is inevitable. And the more one dwells upon it, the more one thinks one is unhappy.

Happiness begins when we stop asking such questions, and start realising just how happy we already are – right here, right now. It is possible to be happy right here, right now! In fact, we may not realise it, but we are already be happy (even though it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the abstract ideal of happiness in our minds).

I might currently possess some negative feelings, such as sadness or loneliness, but that doesn’t mean that it mutually excludes happiness. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

And when we begin to realise just how happy we are in our present state, we begin to discover that the question, “Am I happy?” or “What must I do to be happy?”, are simply irrelevant questions – traps that we set for ourselves to make us depressed.

Happiness is now.

And since that realisation, I’ve been significantly happier than before.

Tips on Writing

I just came out from a really awesome tutorial about how to improve on one’s writing. Many of the points were familiar, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget them. In fact, when I was reminded about them today, I realised that I have committed a lot of mistakes which I should not have in the first place.

So, for the benefit of all who may need to write non-fiction, here’s a series of important lessons in writing that I’ve picked up over the years. Practice them and you will be on the path to awesomeness! Haha… I’m still not that awesome yet, but I do know that when I follow these pointers, my writing improves in its clarity. I hope that you’ll learn and benefit greatly as I have from this. =) One thing I know is that if you practice this regularly, it helps to clarify your own thinking as well. =)

 

#1: Define the problem.

Good writing is focused. It does not try to cover too many things. No. It focuses on just one thing, and one thing alone. But how do you ensure that your writing is focused? Phrase your problem as a question. If your question is vague, clarify it further. Is your question clear? If not, refine the question by narrowing what it is that you are asking.

Another good way to determine if your scope is sufficiently focused is to say what you want to prove in just ONE short sentence. No, long sentences filled with a myriad of punctuations are not allowed here. If you cannot phrase what you want to do in one short sentence, i.e. you have several sentences or just a long sentence, it’s an indicator that you are trying to say more than one thing. The general rule is that a single idea is best expressed in the form of one sentence. Long, or multiple sentences are indicators that you have too many ideas running around in your head. In this case, it’s an indicator that you’ll need to re-articulate the problem with a much narrower scope.

 

#2: Introduction.

An introduction states clearly what it is that you want to achieve in your paper/article. It provides a brief introduction into the matter, the problem, your solution, and how you will demonstrate it.

Avoid writing fancifully as it can be a distraction. Not everybody is a literature major. Few will therefore be able to understand what it is that you are trying to say if you were to do that.

It is also useful to define terms, and to discuss certain limitations which you are unable to handle in the paper/article. Sometimes, we are constrained by a word limit, and very little can therefore be accomplished. Sometimes, covering a related topic will make the paper lose its focus, and so it is better not to talk about it.

 

#3: Presenting Other People’s Claims.

Sometimes, you may need to say what so-and-so has said. It is always important to ensure that you have provided a very faithful account of what the other has said. If the person’s points sounds ridiculous, the problem is usually not with that person, but with you. It should be an indicator that somehow, there has been some misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

The best rule of thumb is to always provide the best interpretation possible. Especially in philosophy, do the opponent a favour by giving him/her the strongest interpretation possible, without distortion. This way, you (and the reader) will know that you are not doing injustice by presenting a straw-man argument, that is, a caricature of the actual claims.

 

#4: Refuting an Argument.

Before talking about how to refute an argument, it is important to understand how an argument works. An argument is not an explanation. Explanations assume that X is true, and provides an account of it. Arguments make no assumptions, but instead attempt to prove the conclusion.

Arguments are made up of premises that lead to the conclusion.

Here is a standard example of an argument:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: THEREFORE, Socrates is mortal.

When ALL premises are true, the conclusion is NECESSARILY true. This is how our reasoning operates. We believe certain things to be so because they are supported by other facts/premises which we know to be true.

When refuting an argument, arguing against the conclusion does absolutely nothing. Let us assume that our imaginary friend, Bob, has the following argument:

Premise 1: A [True]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, true]

Arguing against C, i.e. not-C, will have no effect against Bob. Why? Bob still believes in the truth of premises 1 and 2, and therefore he is compelled to believe in the conclusion, C.

The first move is to weaken the argument, by introducing doubt about the certainty of such an argument. This can be done by showing that one of the premises is false. For example, I could argue that Premise 1 is false. When you do this, this is what happens to Bob’s thinking:

Premise 1: A [False]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, not certain about the truth of C]

By proving one of the premises false, your opponent will not be compelled by his argument to believe that his conclusion is 100% true (unless he/she becomes emotional, in which case, there’s no point proceeding).

Once you have introduced uncertainty into the true-ness of the conclusion, you can now proceed to prove the conclusion false, i.e. not-C. You will need to supply your own argument, not merely assert that C is false.

There are other strategies in arguing against the opponent, but I will not cover them here. Nonetheless, the main point of this advice is this – you do not refute your opponent just by arguing that his/her conclusion is false. You need to first weaken the argument by showing a problem in one of the premises.

 

#5: Examples.

One important rule when it comes to examples: NEVER USE EXAMPLES TO DO THE JOB OF ARGUING. Examples are meant to support your arguments, to give it greater strength. This includes raising thought experiments. These things show something, but they do not prove anything. In fact, examples are always open to interpretation. And therefore, you must contextualise your examples by arguing your point, and proceed to show how the example strengthens your claim.

It’s also important to note that stating a list of facts does not constitute a valid argument. Facts are always open to interpretation. Telling me that everyone in this room has black hair doesn’t say anything. People can interpret it in many ways – “There are many Chinese in the room”; or “Everyone in the room has dyed their hair.” One must say what’s significant about these things to make a valid point.

 

#6: Sentences.

Here’s a simple rule for writing – express only one idea in a sentence. If your sentence is too long, it’s because you have too many ideas. And when you try to cramp too many ideas into one sentence, it becomes confusing. If your sentence is longer than 3 lines, you should seriously consider rephrasing them for clarity.

 

#7: Planning the Body.

In #1, I mentioned how one way to focus your writing is to phrase it into a very specific question. This question is like your final destination. But before you can reach the destination, you will need stepping stones to cross the river to get to the other side. You can do this by specifying mini-questions that will act as guides to lead to answer your specific question. Here’s an example:

Specific question: How is X useful in the field of Y?

Mini-question 1: What is X?
Mini-question 2: What is Y?
Mini-question 3: How is X related to Y?
Mini-question 4: In what way is X useful to Y in that relation?
Mini-question 5: How useful is X in that regard?

These mini-questions form the stepping stones that will lead you and the reader to the final destination.

 

#8: Body Paragraphs.

Body paragraphs should contain only ONE idea, expressed in ONE sentence, to answer ONE mini-question. If you cannot state your answer in one sentence, that means you have more than one idea. In this case, you might want to redefine you mini-question(s), and even the specific question accordingly.

This has nothing to do with being intellectually dishonest, where one changes the hypothesis to suit the data. Usually, the problem is that we have failed to narrow our specific question enough. This exercise reveals the ambiguity in our thoughts, and makes us aware of just how far away we are from writing a clear, concise, and focused paper.

Each paragraph contains one sentence which answers the mini-question. And in the subsequent sentences, you will proceed to prove why your mini-answer is true. Examples are used to support the claim. But remember, they must never be used to do the job of proving your point.

 

#9: A Fair, Balanced View.

A fair, balanced view does not mean sitting on the fence. It means that you have considered the other perspective, and yet found that their arguments are problematic. How do you present a fair, balanced view in your paper? You can do this by raising objections against your own points, or defences for the opponent which you have attacked. After which, you should proceed to defend your position.

Once again, this can only be effectively proven by considering a non-trivial objection to your position. This demonstrates to the reader that you have not cheated by constructing a straw man argument.

 

#10: Conclusion.

A good conclusion makes no new points. Instead, it reiterates the points made thus far as a short one-paragraph summary.

This is optional, but sometimes, people find it useful to mention what else could have been discussed had the article not been limited by its scope or word limit. This can be useful in showing the broad application of your arguments in other circumstances. But be careful not to make new arguments at this point. You should only raise matters that are worth discussing, but could not have been done in the paper/article.

 

#11: Sign-posting.

This is a very useful strategy. Sign-posting is the use of certain words to make your important points visible to the reader. Sometimes, the main point does not appear as clearly as you would like it to be. So it helps to put a huge literary sign board there which says: “HEY! LOOK HERE! THIS IS THE POINT THAT I WAS TRYING TO PROVE IN THIS PARAGRAPH!!!”

For example, if you wanted to show that Bob had contradicted himself, you could say: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X.” But this might not occur to the reader that a contradiction has taken place.

So, for greater clarity, you can put a sign-post there: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X, BUT THIS CONTRADICTS WITH WHAT HE HAD SAID.” The meaning of the statement doesn’t change, but the point that you wanted to make becomes clearer.

 

#12: The Evils of Passive Voice.

Passive voice are sentences where the subject is on the receiving end of the action (verb).

Here are examples of passive voice (The active voice is indicated in brackets):

Bob was murdered by Tim. (Active: Tim murdered Bob)
The dog was bitten by the man. (Active: The man bit the dog)
The cake was eaten by somebody. (Active: Somebody ate the cake)

Passive voice is evil! Do not use passive voice unless necessary.

There is a disadvantage in using the passive voice. Active voice is easier to comprehend. Passive voice, however, usually involves more words and more prepositions, which can lead to confusion, and even a slower rate of comprehension.

The bigger problem with passive voice is that the actor of the statement can be ambiguous. I can say: “The cake was eaten.” But who ate the cake? When sentences are expressed in the passive voice, we make the assumption that the reader knows who the actor is. This can introduce unnecessary ambiguity into the paper, as the reader is left unsure of who did the deed.

But this can also confuse the writer, as it makes it easier for the writer to take for granted that he/she knows who is doing the deed. One should therefore avoid this ambiguity by refraining from using passive voice as much as possible.

 

#13: Making Comparisons.

Comparisons should always be about two things that are as similar as possible. You’ll need to compare apples with apples, and oranges with oranges. You cannot simply choose two things that have merely one common feature to do a comparison – there is no clear focus on what is being compared.

Furthermore, the two cases used must be justified. Anyone can simply pick two things out of the list of infinite possibilities. At the very least, you’ll need to justify why you have chosen to compare these two things instead of other things. This gives greater weight to the comparison made, and makes for a more credible argument.

There’s probably a lot more that can be said, but I think this short guide is already sufficient for the writing of a clear, focused, and awesome paper/article/essay. Hope you found it useful!

Macbook: Powered by the the Tao (道)

Not too long ago, I got a new laptop because I destroyed my previous one from excessive typing. So, I took the opportunity to replace it with a MacBook Air.

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Considering the number of books I carry with me for research, I figured it’s better to get the thinnest and lightest laptop possible. But I wasn’t happy with having a glowing apple logo. So what did I do? I cut a piece of card to cover the logo. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you… the MacBook Tao!

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Here’s a close up of the logo:

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Haha… It’s so Confucian! A glowing Tao (The Way) = ming-Tao (明道), which translates to: to illuminate The Way.

There’s a passage from the Great Learning (大學), which is one of the greatest Confucian texts. It says:

大學之道,在明明德,在親民,在止於至善。知止而後有定,定而後能靜,靜而後能安,安而後能慮,慮而後能得。物有本末,事有終始,知所先後,則近道矣。

What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence. The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end. Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.

[The Great Learning (大學), 1]

To ming-Tao (明道), to illuminate The Way, is to demonstrate The Way of Great Learning, to illustrate illustrious virtue, and to renew the hearts of the people! WOW! So beautiful! I love this line!

Anyway, I wasn’t content with Tao-ing my laptop. So… I decided that I should Tao-ify my iPhone and iPad too! How do you Tao-ify these things? Let me show you! Haha… I did this today just now. It’s not that I have too much free time, but it’s just that I’m kinda brain-dead at the moment after doing so much reading and writing.

Look at the home button! It now has the Tao on it! Cool right? =D

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Here’s a close-up of the Tao on the iPad:

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If I have more free time, I might consider re-doing the Tao button. But thus far, it looks pretty awesome.

What’s with those keys at the bottom? Oh… My iPad functions like a type-writer. The fact that you can’t multi-task facilitates concentration. It’s very good for essay writing. Anyway, I didn’t expect to upgrade my laptop to a MacBook. It just happened. It’s unavoidable when my fingers of fury are capable of typing my laptop to death.

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In case you’re wondering, I was only able to pay for all these things because of many long excruciating hours of part-time work. Nonetheless, I’m quite happy with my investment. Productivity has sky-rocketed. And the best part? I have awesome Tao-technology to work on my Chinese philosophy stuff!

Anyway, here’s a series of electronics that Confucius would definitely have loved. Since Confucius loved the Tao, he would definitely have loved these!

Haha… There’s a saying that Confucius had the Tao, and that’s why he didn’t talk about it. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu didn’t have the Tao, and that’s why they talked so much about it. They were probably jealous that Confucius had such awesome gadgetry!

The Sceptical Catholic

Is human life always this bewildering, or am I the only bewildered one? Is there actually any man, or anything in a man, that is not bewildered?
(Chuang Tzu, Chapter 2, trans. Brook Ziporyn)

What man knows is far less than what he does not know. The time he exists is insignificant compared to the time he does not exist. It is because he tries to exhaust this vastness with this meagerness that he bewilders and frustrates himself.
(Chuang Tzu, Chapter 17, trans. Brook Ziporyn)

The Sceptical Catholic.

To the eyes of some people, the combination of “sceptical” and “Catholic” is enough to send alarm bells ringing in their minds.

More often than not, many understand scepticism to be a ridiculous extreme, of irrationally declaring to the world, “I can never know what is true!” When this is applied to the context of religion, scepticism is perceived as a threat to one’s faith, demanding unreasonable proofs for the justification of God’s existence that go beyond the limitations of human reasoning.

While there are such people out there in the world, this is not what I mean by the term, “sceptical.” You see, there are three kinds of scepticism: (1) doctrinal scepticism: I cannot know X; (2) recommendational scepticism: I should suspend my judgement of X since I cannot be completely certain about it; and (3) methodological scepticism: how can I know X for certain? (a method of inquiry meant to introduce doubt about X).

Philosophers, like Socrates, often employ the use of methodological scepticism to cast doubt on the very things which we imagined to know with complete certainty. Socrates, for example, went around Athens asking people if they knew what “justice” was. The very people he asked were the ones who thought they knew very well what “justice” was about. And yet, when Socrates began questioning them, they soon came to the realisation that they didn’t know very much about it at all.

Even today, many of us are like the men of Athens. We think we know many things well. Sometimes, we don’t just think we know them well, we believe strongly that we’re 100% certain about it. And yet, we do not need a philosopher like Socrates to reveal to us just how mistaken we can be sometimes. We make mistakes about the assumptions we make, about our calculations, and even about our beliefs. Mistakes happen all the time – and they happen even more so when we think to ourselves just how certain we are about the matter.

A few days ago, I attended a discussion about the objectivity of scientific research, one professor shared a story of a plane crash that happened several years ago. No one knew why the plane crashed until the flight data recorder was found and studied. It turns out that the pilot had flown the plane in the wrong direction, making it fly so high up into the air  that the engine had stalled. Yet, the entire time, the flight instruments were accurately measuring the status of the plane, but the pilot was so certain about what he was doing,  he refused to believe in the readings. And even after the plane’s engine had stalled and was dropping down from the sky, with the instruments indicating precisely what was happening, the pilot chose to ignore all the warning indicators, believing himself to be right the whole time – until the last moment when the plane crashed into the sea.

The point is that, more often than not, we feel ourselves to be absolutely right in certain matters that we choose to ignore everything else. Even if we have warning lights flashing in front of our eyes, such feelings of rightness and certainty – even what seems to be well-supported ones – can blind us from seeing such warnings.

Sadly, this problem appears to be even greater when it comes to matters of Faith and religion. Yes, as Catholics, we profess our belief in one God; we profess our belief in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. But there’s one thing we do not profess in our Creed: we do not profess belief in ourselves, we do not profess that belief in God and the Church makes us equally infallible.

It’s precisely because we are so prone to error that we put our belief and trust on an authority.

And yet, for some strange reason, many of us, having read just a few books on Catholicism, philosophy and theology, or having served in a ministry for years, or having done all kinds of Churchy things, have come to imagine that whatever things we have in our minds about God, the Church, morality, etc., IS the Absolute Truth, and anyone who says or do anything contrary to this Truth is either a heretic, a liberal, a modernist, a heathen, or simply irrational. Just where on Earth or in Heaven did we come to develop such a strong sense of certainty about the beliefs in our head?

Yes, we believe that what the Church teaches is true. But the problem is that our understanding of this Truth may not necessarily be an accurate reflection. If anything, it could very well be distorted. Perhaps I might have misinterpreted or misunderstood what has been taught. Or perhaps I do not yet see the big picture. And yet, the last thing we question is whether or not our own beliefs are actually a correct reflection of what the Church has taught.

Furthermore, coupled with this unjustified belief that we are so completely right, is often the privileging of everything Catholic, or more specifically, everything that seems “Catholic” from our perspective. If I see myself as a traditionalist, everyone who does not fit into my Catholicism is wrong. If I see myself as a liberal, everyone who does not fit into my Catholicism is wrong. And the list goes on.

To further complicate matters, this leads us to develop a tendency to ignore non-Catholic (both non-Catholic and non-“Catholic”) views. We need to recognise that believing in the Truth does not make us Truth itself. We can always be wrong. And for that matter, Truth does not belong to anyone. An atheist can also speak the truth too. 1+1=2. It doesn’t matter who tells me that. I have no good reason to ignore him just because he’s not a Catholic.

As Catholics, we believe that God is Truth, and that God will ultimately lead a sincere seeker of the Truth to Him in due time. And therefore, there is no reason why valid criticisms towards Catholicism should not be heard and addressed – the doctrines, the philosophies, the theologies, and even the practices. And for that matter, there is no reason why we can’t learn anything good from others.

It is worth noting that the Church teaches us:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.
(Nostra Aetate, 2)

What atheists and non-Catholics have to say – their criticisms – should be taken seriously. I have noticed that the many criticisms are not direct attacks against the Church. Their criticisms are against the false teachings that others have propagated, and against the bad practices which has been done thus far (nothing doctrinal, but just really bad ways of doing things, including the scandals, etc.). Many of their criticisms are valid, and are indeed the warning lights.

But if we choose to remain committed to our false-belief that we are absolutely right in everything, then we will continue to be blind to the merits of their arguments, and come crashing down into the sea, while bringing others along with us, if we are not careful.

We need some scepticism. At the very least, we need to recognise that we can be mistaken and are indeed fallible. We believe in the Truth, but that does not make us the Truth or possessors of Truth (as if Truth is some thing that we can own). We learn from the Truth, but we are still prone to misinterpreting the Truth. If anything, we need to be aware of our own fallibility, and be open to correction.

In Memoriam

A few days ago, a friend of mine passed away.

I think more often than not, we commemorate the passing of great people so much that we forget to commemorate the passing of ordinary people. In the eyes of a few, an ordinary person is looked upon as someone far greater and far dearer than a personality, like Steve Jobs. It is truly a pity that we do not reflect upon the extraordinary lives with which these ordinary people had lived, and learn from those little marvels that tend to escape our attention.

For some strange reason, we seem to believe that the true mark of greatness involves the accomplishment of many great things. But the mark of greatness can be seen nonetheless in the accomplishment of not so great things. It’s so ordinary that it escapes our attention. And yet, it’s only when people, who have been near and dear to us, are gone, that we begin to look back and recognise that greatness in these people, only to sigh with regret that it’s only too late to appreciate the wonders that they have done.

One thing that I’d like to just focus on, as a tribute to my friend, Sally, is the profound influence that she has had on me, though I do not know her very well, nor for a very long time.

It recently occurred to me that our judgements about humanity in general is greatly shaped by the experiences we’ve had of people in our lives. People who declare, often with bitterness, like Thomas Hobbes, that “human nature is evil,” have more often than not, experienced so many hurts and disappointments in one life time that it’s hard for us to believe that good people do exist. If we were to come across someone who seems selfless, we can’t help but feel extreme skepticism about the person’s intentions. How can such a person ever be so good? What does he/she want out of me? Surely there’s an ulterior motive!

While it takes many horrible people in our younger days to give us a bad taste of humanity, it only takes at least one extraordinary individual to give us the hope and belief in the goodness of humanity, to be able to declare, as Mencius did that, “human nature is good!” It just takes one human person to do it – to show us the potentiality that is present in each and every individual to rise out of our wounded human condition to be so awesome and inspiring. When we have experienced the virtue of a person, when we have seen for ourselves just how possible it is for a person to be so loving, so compassionate, so forgiving – we know that it is possible for each and everyone of us, no matter how horrible we may be, to have the capacity to do just that. All we need is just one chance encounter with such an individual to change our lives forever. For once we have met such a person, we not only believe that it’s possible – we too are inspired to want to be like that person! No matter how many disappointments and hurts we have experienced, we will never lose our positive outlook of humanity.

I must say that I have been most fortunate to have had the encounter of a handful of inspiring and awesome individuals who have proved to me, in so many ways, the various aspects of human excellence. And among these handful of people, Sally was one of them.

As I have said earlier, I do not know her very well, nor have I known her for very long. But the short moments that I knew her was already quite an inspiration to me. My encounter with Sally made one very lasting impression that has influenced me greatly.

The first lasting mark Sally gave to me was that she was so closed to her daughter, that the two of them looked as though they were best friends rather than mother and daughter. This isn’t very common in Asian cultures. While it’s not impossible to treat one’s parents the same way one would treat a friend, it just doesn’t cross the mind of many that one could do that. Somehow, our culture has made us feel very awkward just thinking about that possibility. We may be close to our parents, but we will never be as close as to treat them the same way we would treat our friends. But that encounter was indeed an eye opener. And it has made me want to be as close to my parents in the same way Sally and her daughter were.

It’s really amazing what both mother and daughter did together. Like friends going for an overseas holiday, or participating in an activity, I’ve seen both Sally and her daughter do so many great and wonderful things together. So many great memories, so many awesome opportunities for laughter and for a chance to bond. I’m sure there are also bitter moments, when they have argued, but they were always able to patch up and resume doing so many things together.

More often than not, when our parents are old or have passed away, we begin to lament their loss, and wished that we could have done more for them, or spent more time with them. But it’s usually the case that we’re either too busy with our work, or too busy with our own friends that we neglect the very people under our roof. So near yet so far, as they say.

No, I do not want to be one of those people who will later say, “Gee… I wished I had spent more time with my parents/children.” I really want to be like Sally and her daughter, who have found the healthy balance of being with both family and friends, loving all, and neglecting none. I am sure Sally and her daughter, with all that time spent together, do not have that as a regret. If anything, Sally has left her daughter a treasure of beautiful memories of warmth and laughter.

Yeah… I think that’s the best thing one could ever leave behind – beautiful memories.

Regrets are the worst thing one could ever hold. It’s very painful especially when the person passes away, since there’s no more opportunity to do what you wanted to do with him/her or promised him/her. I know personally how regret feels because I had such an experience. I once visited this person who was terminally ill and promised to bring something for him. But then my school work got the best of me, and eventually I started procrastinating. Soon after, I got word that he had passed away. And then, the opportunity to fulfill that promise just disappeared into thin air. My heart was heavy for months. Not fulfilling one’s promise is bad enough. Not fulfilling one’s promise and to say goodbye to someone who was going to pass on – that’s worst! I still regret that mistake, though thankfully, the weight of the regret doesn’t feel so great now that so many years has passed.

Tomorrow, tomorrow! We can always do it tomorrow! Sure, we can do work tomorrow. Even if you are gone tomorrow, the work will continue since someone else will take your place. But when it comes to people, tomorrow is only probable. And unfortunately, people can’t stand in for you or for that other person. If we procrastinate our decision to spend the time with that person, one fine day he/she will just go, and we’ll hold that painful regret for a long time. Or we might be the one on the brink of death, only to regret not doing the important things with the people who are important to us.

The point is that regrets are just bad. It’s not worth having any – if possible. If anything, the advice to live with no regrets is probably the best advice on how one should live one’s life.

The best gift one could ever give to others would be the gift of beautiful memories. And who better to receive such a gift than the members of our family – parents, siblings, and children.

Thank you Sally for being awesome, and for being a beautiful example to me.

May you rest in peace.

Reflections Along the Singapore-Malaysia Railway Tracks

The railway tracks functions very well as a metaphor for a person’s life.

 

Sometimes, we have to walk the journey alone. But that’s ok because we’re surrounded by the beautiful blue sky.

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But sometimes, the journey of life can be very scary – gloomy, even. At times, we have no choice but to walk through these moments of darkness – alone.

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There are times where the darkness of the moment overwhelms us. Sometimes, we can’t help but feel severely burdened by the pain of walking alone.

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Some unfortunately lose their soles because of this.

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Jean-Paul Sartre said that, “Hell is other people.” But when we suffer from such dark moments of loneliness, we become our own hell. There’s no one to get in our way. There’s no one to annoy us. And yet, we feel so trapped, so imprisoned. It is as if our whole wings have been clipped, and our feet chained to the ground. In moments like these, we begin to crave for freedom like never before.

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But what kind of freedom do we really need? Is it the freedom to go off the tracks? Or is it the freedom to touch the sky?

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The darkness can be confusing. We know we want freedom, and yet we often don’t understand what it is that we truly need. And so, off we go chasing after a freedom which may not necessarily be the answer to our darkness.

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But what does it profit a man to gain the world, but to lose his sole?

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The greatest freedom comes when we begin to open our eyes to realise the many people – friends and strangers who are not yet friends – who are and have been walking along-side with us in such moments of darkness.

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In such moments, the darkness doesn’t seem so dark anymore. When we begin to accept their friendship and help, the journey becomes more pleasant. The journey will still be rocky, but at the very least, we’re surrounded by fellow companions who are on the same journey. Soon enough, with their help, we find ourselves reaching the end of the tunnel, back out into the light.

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Successfully perservering through such moments is like crossing over a bridge. It can be scary, but we can rest assured by the fact that we have friends waiting for us at the other end of the bridge.

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At every moment of our lives, there is always at least one friend who accompanies us on our journey – whether we realise it or not.

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As we continue walking on this journey of life, we’ll eventually meet the love of our life.

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And at that beautiful moment of marriage, two tracks converge into one. But marriage isn’t just a merger of two lives. It brings together many many more! Friends and family from both tracks begin to walk along with us on that single track, chatting with us, annoying us, cheering us, working with us.

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I think it’s important for us to always remember that the journey of life is always rocky. The ground is never gentle and smooth.

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But no matter what, there’s always a beautiful blue sky covering us, watching over us. It’s a beauty that’s always there, but we rarely notice it. The secret of life is to always take a step back from the mad frenzy of life, look up, and contemplate the sky’s subtle beauty.

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Destiny (命)

命 (ming) is often translated as fate, destiny, decree (Heaven’s Decree 天命), or even Divine Providence. But regardless of how this word is translated, and regardless of whether we really believe in fate/destiny/Providence, there is an important lesson that we can learn from 命 (ming).

There are many things in life that are beyond our control, and these things play a part in shaping the course of our future, as well as the successes and failures of our endeavours. Our beliefs about what led things to be that way (e.g. fate, Providence, chaos) doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we have to remind ourselves – time and time again – that there are things that are beyond our control whether we like it or not.

The fear of the unknown is one of our greatest fears. (It is most certainly one of mine!) It is this fear that paralyses us and prevents us from going forward in life. It is this same fear that makes us even more obsessed about being in control of things.

We want to be in control, we want information. After all, it’s my life! We probably wouldn’t worry so much if life was like a game with a reset button. But there doesn’t seem to be one! And so it seems as if there is very little room for trial and error. This is probably why we are often so worried about what happens to us in the future.

Here’s where one of Confucius’ famous sayings can help us a lot:

“不知命,無以為君子也。”

(translation mine:) The person who does not know 命 (ming) can never become a gentleman.

[Analects, 20.3]

The reason why such a person cannot become a gentleman is that this person ends up being ruled by his/her fears, and acts irrationally as a result. We all have similar experiences of this. When things don’t go our way, we get very upset, and we sometimes go to the extent of finding someone (or something) to blame and vent our frustration at for the failure. If not, we’d probably give in to our fears and desperately try to make sure things go our way, OR we do not even dare to do it, but instead opt for a safer route where in the end, we never really learn to live our own lives and be ourselves.

Sometimes, all it takes is for a friend to gently remind us that we can’t possibly be in control of everything OR just to take a step back from all that frenzy, to realise that we’ve been acting quite irrationally (and possibly, rather childishly).

So… What does it mean to know 命 (ming)? I think Fung Yu-Lan has a really good explanation:

To know 命 (ming) means to acknowledge the inevitability of the world as it exists, and so to disregard one’s external success or failure. If we can act in this way, we can, in a sense, never fail. For if we do our duty that duty through our very act is morally done, regardless of the external success or failure of our action.

As a result, we always shall be free from anxiety as to success or fear as to failure, and so shall be happy. This is why Confucius said: “知者不惑,仁者不憂,勇者不懼。 The wise are free from doubts; the virtuous from anxiety; the brave from fear.” (Analects, 9.29) Or again: “君子坦蕩蕩,小人長戚戚。 The gentleman is always happy; the petty man sad.” (Analects, 7.37)

[Fung Yu-Lan (馮友蘭), A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: The Free Press, 1948), p.45]

 

One of my friends puts it very nicely:

To know 命 (ming) is to sit back and let the world take its course, and not be a control freak. For when you seek to control every aspect of your interactions with others you will be disapproved as a jerk. (And yes, its out of your control anyway.)

This is why 命 (ming) is currently my favourite word. I even wrote it and hung it at my door so that I’ll see it everytime I leave my room. This is to remind me that there are many things beyond my control, and so there’s really no point getting upset or anxious.

What’s more important is that I do the things that I have to do anyway. If it’s meant to be, then it shall be. If not, then 算了吧 (let it be)! And if we still find it hard to go through life like this (don’t worry – I struggle with it too), then we’re probably still trying hard to be in control of things beyond our control.

A Preface to Philosophy

Here’s something I wrote about Philosophy which I am quite passionate about. It’s meant as an introductory paragraph for another document:

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, begins with wonder. This is a wonder of all the amazing and beautiful things about life. So great is that wonder of life that it sets the lover of wisdom on a quest to curiously seek out the answers to the important questions of life. In that quest for answers, nothing is taken for granted, no stone is left unturned. Everything is challenged and questioned for the sake of gaining insight into the very things that truly matter, which ironically, have been most neglected by everyone else. But when that lover of wisdom begins asking questions, the philosopher soon realises that it is the process of finding answers to those tough questions that are more exciting than the answers themselves. Such is the joy of philosophy, where lovers of wisdom burn with a fiery passion to discover and unravel the mysteries of life. Such is the way of the philosopher.

A Wounded Love is the Key to Healing a Wounded Soul

Sometimes, whenever it comes to romance, we can’t help but hold on to an ideal romantic picture where all is warm and fuzzy, where everyday is always a day of smiles and never will there ever be a day of sadness. Yet, the reality is that hurt is unavoidable.

What I’d like to do in this entry is to explain why hurt is, FORTUNATELY, a necessity for any relationship to blossom. Yes, that’s right, it is not a typo error. Hurt is indeed a blessing when it happens in a relationship. It is painful and should rightly be avoided where possible, but there is something beautiful about it when it does happen when we least want it to occur.

Whether we like to admit it or not, deep in the depths of our very heart and soul, we all hold on to some hurt. We have been wounded at some point of our life – either because of rejection, insult, or neglect. But whatever it is, it is unfortunate that these incidents have left us scarred such that we develop insecurities and self-hatred in varying degrees as a result.

In those moments where we have experienced unkindness, we pick up lessons that we shouldn’t have: we begin to “learn” that there’s something about us that makes people dislike us.

Ironically, two seemingly contradictory things take place. The first is that we begin to dislike/hate those parts of ourselves that we thought to have led to those insults, rejection, and neglect. As a result, we end up becoming ashamed of those aspects of ourselves, and we try our best to hide them thinking them to be ugly and hideous. The second is that having thus been wounded by unlove, we become all the more desperate for love.

Yet, such painful moments of hurt have made us to believe that nobody will ever love us for those ugly parts of ourselves. And so we try our best to hide them, and yearn all the more for people to love us for those parts which we beautify. This is why we invest a lot of time and resources just to give others a good impression. But try as we may, deep down, we all know that behind that smile or look of confidence which we show, is someone who is weak and lonely.

While we may have many friends around us, we will continue to remain lonely because we are not looking for someone to love our beautiful side. What we really want – from the depths of our soul – is for someone to love us entirely – to love both the good side, but more so with our most ugly and detestable side.

It’s always easy to love that which is lovable. We know this because we all practice this. But because most people simply love our lovable sides, we are unsure if they truly love us for who we really are. At times, our insecurity drives us to question the sincerity of the person’s love since it has never ever been tested before.

Only when that detestable side has been revealed will a person’s love be tested. Yet, the irony is that we are afraid to reveal it. We have been enslaved by the chains of the fear of rejection. It’s already painful enough to be hurt once. The last thing we really want to go through is a repeat of that same hurt.

Yet, what we are thirsting for is that our detestable side be loved. All we want is for someone to experience both the best and the worst of our selves, and yet, tightly embrace us, saying, “It’s ok, I still love you.”

Or so most people think. But is that really sufficient to heal a wounded soul?

Actually, that’s still not enough. A person has yet to experience the worst of ourselves to the point that that beloved person has been hurt by us. That is when we have removed the mask which we have put on all along, and revealed our darkest inner-most part of our most hated self.

When that friend experiences first-hand, the hurt from our darkest, inner-most self, that is when that friend experiences our true self. It is at that very moment, when that friend is able to forgive and say, “I forgive you, and I love you,” that our darkest side, which now exposed, begins to experience the loving warmth it ceased to experience a long time ago when it was locked away at the first encounter of hurt.

This is when a wounded love begins to heal a wounded soul. As strange as it seems, it is the wounds of a broken heart that holds the key in unlocking the chains which has, for a long time, left us enslaved to our own self-hatred and fear. This is the love which liberates us and brings us to true freedom – a freedom more sweeter and more liberating than all other kinds of freedom.

Because we have finally encountered someone who loves us fully for who we are – the good, the bad, and the damn bloody ugly. Moreover, we begin to hear the truth about ourselves which we have surpressed for so long: that every bit of ourselves is wonderfully lovable.

It is unavoidable that hurts will occur in relationships. Human beings are like porcupines (or hedgehogs depending on which animal you prefer). Eventually, when we’re not careful, we will end up hurting or being hurt by the other. With strangers, we are extra careful. But with the people we love, we begin to relax a little because we trust that the other will not flee at the first accidental prick.

That is why we should consider ourselves most fortunate and blessed when we are hurt by the other. It is a sign of a relationship that is growing closer and closer, and a sign that the other has started to trust us more that he/she is more confident in trying to unveil a little more about himself/herself without the fear of rejection.

While we still try our best not to accidentally hurt each other, we will slip, and reveal that most dreadful side of our selves, thereby providing such opportunities for a wounded love to heal that wounded soul. (Of course, if the person constantly hurts you and has little or no respect for you, it’s different. That person is a jerk, and it’ll probably do both of you more harm than good.)

Of course, healing a wounded soul doesn’t mean that hurt will forever be completely terminated. We will still accidentally hurt one another time and time again, but with each moment comes the opportunity to renew and remind each other of the liberating and healing love that we can give to each other, that no matter what, no matter how crappy we are, we will be there for each other, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, and we will love and honour each other, every single day of our lives till death do us part.

Are Things Really Black and White, or are they Grey?

At some point in our life, we have probably heard or said something like this: life (or some other matter) is not simply a case of black and white, it is grey. And for that matter, many different shades of grey!

However, there is one question that is worth asking so as to get a better understanding of the issue’s complexity.

What makes it grey?

There are many ways in which a thing can appear grey. A dim white light can look grey when compared to a brighter white light. A wall is grey in colour because grey paint was used. Grey appears in newspapers because of a mixture of black and white dots.

In like manner, it’s not sufficient to say that so-and-so is very complicated. To resolve the issue, one must know how it is that the situation becomes complex. Just as how one can derive grey in many ways, an issue can be complex because of so many factors.

But thus far, I’ve never heard anyone explain why so-and-so issue is grey/complex. Instead, what I do get is usually a look of resignation as if the issue is unresolvable.

This is perhaps the reason why everything nowadays seems grey to everyone (How boring! We need more colour!). The ancient Greeks and Chinese never had such problems. It’s not that they didn’t ask the tough questions. They did! Moreover, they made it a point to consider what made the issue complicated. That formed the first stepping stone to resolve such complexities.

Personally, I strongly believe that things are grey not because there is no black and white. Instead, things appear grey because of the mixture of black and white dots like those greyscale images on a newspaper. Some appear as darker greys because there are more black dots on white. Some appear as lighter greys due to fewer black dots on white.

The T’ai Chi Diagram. Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yin_yang.svg

The ancient Chinese understood this very well. In the t’ai chi diagram (the yin and yang symbol), there is no grey. Rather, there is a black half and a white half, and in each is a seed of the opposite colour. The line which seperates the black half from the white half is curved to show its dynamism – the black can and does move into the white, and vice versa. The complexity of grey consists of a mixture of black and white in each other. To further emphasize its complexity, they went further with the diagram by showing how black can become white in certain situations and vice versa.

As humans, we have a funny habit of wanting to classify things. Things are good or bad, right or wrong, liberal or conservative, traditional or modern, etc. Whenever we come across something new, we immediately try to slot it into one of these categories. Why? Because this process of categorisation makes it easier for us to understand things – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand things better.

When we come to that realisation that things are grey, what’s happening is that we discover that there are things that cannot be easily slotted into those categories. It’s not that the thing needs a whole new category called “grey” to be slotted into. Rather, it is the realisation that parts of the thing belong to one category, while other parts belong to another. We can’t fit it so nicely into one category. This dilemma therefore wakes us up to the discovery of the thing’s “greyness” – that its complexity is due to the mixture of two opposing categories, due to the mixture of black and white dots. Hence the surprise.

But why should we be surprised?

Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. As members of the human species, we should know better that even our bodies are very complex. Natural cycles and systems are complex. Everything is complicated!

The reason why science doesn’t seem so complicated despite the many complexities of this world is because in science, we reduce things into simpler models so that it’s easier to understand them.

However, not everything can be properly understood when we simplify things. And the reason why we are so surprised is that in this age of technology, the scientific way of simplifying things to understand better has been so pervasive in our culture that, without realising it, we try to use that way on everything!

Some of these complex issues can only be better understood without such simplifications, but as it is and through its complex relations with other things/issues.

This is what the humanities does, and it is an art because it is a skill that must be cultivated over time. It is a skill that enables one to understand the complexities of things as they are in relation to other complex things.

But this is not to say that the sciences are useless. No! Both are just as important. There are things where we need the scientific approach of simplifying things for better understanding, and there are also things where we need the humanities approach of understanding things in its broader context and relations.

The point is that our technological culture has influenced us to such an extent that we try to simplify everything and attempt to categorise everything. And so we become very surprised (and even resigned at its complexity) when we discover things that cannot be simply fitted into one category. As I have said earlier, we categorise things for an easier understanding, but it does not necessarily lead to a better understanding. Besides, we do not need to categorise things to understand them. We can – and should – understand the thing in its entirety, in its mixture of blacks and whites, and then proceed to see it in its relation with other things.

I believe that this will give us a better way of working with the issue instead of simply shrugging our shoulders saying that things are grey, and then not doing anything about it. I will admit that the solution proposed above is not detailed. It is difficult to give details on how one could achieve this. It is, afterall, an art which requires some training in the humanities. This doesn’t mean that everybody needs to take a course in the humanities (though I think that would be ideal). The least one could (and should do) is to read widely on works in philosophy, literature, and history. Regular exposure to such works will at least make us familiar with the way these people think and it will teach us how to handle the “grey” issues.

So the next time we realise the complexity of an issue that we want to declare it a grey issue, perhaps it would be productive to consider what makes it so grey in the first place. And instead of trying to categorise it, it might be better for us to try to understand it as it is and its relationship with other things (i.e. the big picture). That should make the situation less grey, as we begin to zoom in on the blacks and whites in it.

On Personal Relationships and the Hedgehog’s Dilemma

Human beings are like hedgehogs. We want to love and be loved. Yet, whenever we get too close to each other, we end up hurting and being hurt by the other. There is perhaps nothing worst than being hurt by the ones you love, or hurting the ones you love.

Sometimes the hurt can be so bad that it seems best not to grow close to people. Yet, we desire to be close to others. But the fear of hurting/being hurt is enough to prevent us from doing anything at all. And so, we often find ourselves living a life of contradiction – of yearning for closeness yet shunning away from it. At the end of the day, we hurt ourselves even more as a result of this internal conflict.

But we think it is alright to live like this. Why? Because we sometimes think like this: It is better to hurt myself than to hurt others or be hurt others. At least the hurt which I inflict towards myself is less painful than the hurt which comes from the ones I love.

We have all been wounded at some point of our life. Nobody has gone through life unscarred. At some point, we have been betrayed, backstabbed, disappointed, ignored, insulted, teased, and even rejected by family and friends. How could they do something like that? They’re supposed to love me, right? They do love me, don’t they?

That is what the hedgehog’s dilemma is about: We meet someone for the first time. Not knowing whether or not we will be accepted or rejected by the other, we try to look good. After being accepted for some time by the other, we begin to feel comfortable and relaxed, slowly and slowly, we begin to remove the mask and show bits of our true self. Yet, like the hedgehog, our true selves are, unfortunately, full of spikes. But the mask functions as a shield covering our spikes so that no one will be hurt. It also covers our vulnerable selves so that we won’t be hurt either. But as we begin to grow closer, we begin to slowly remove that mask to reveal our true selves. We expose our vulnerabilities and expose the sharp spikes which could hurt someone.

And so, there will come a point in time where we get too close to each other and our spikes come into contact, thereby wounding each other in that dangerous embrace of friendship.

A friend of mine commented that the name, “hedgehog’s dilemma”, is quite a misnomer. Hedgehogs don’t get injured when they come close to each other because they know how to withdraw their spikes when coming in contact with their own kind.

If that is the case, can we still consider ourselves analogous to hedgehogs? Oh yes! Definitely! We are very clumsy hedgehogs: Firstly, we don’t realise we have spikes until we have wounded and have been wounded. Secondly, even when we know about our spikes, we have difficulties controlling them. Thirdly, sometimes we can be so absent-minded that we can forget that our spikes are out.

But just like the hedgehogs, we can learn not to hurt and be hurt by learning how to master our spikes. Unfortunately, this learning requires the courage of enduring some hurts from each other until we get the hang of it.

This is why the best and closest of friendships are those where both parties have survived a really terrible conflict. There will always be a point in any relationship where the other begins acting like a retard, annoying the crap out of you, and/or pissing you off as if he/she had been paid to do it (or has an axe to grind). This is the point where the mask has been removed and the spikes have come out. This is the point where we begin to hurt and be hurt by the other.

Unfortunately, sometimes, some of us cannot endure it any longer, and the relationship ends. However, when we begin to accept that he/she has these spikes, and there’s very little we can do about it, that is when we begin to learn how to avoid being hurt by the other, and avoid hurting the other despite the closeness. That period of conflict is the learning stage. Once both have learnt it well, the storm dissipates and both are able to grow closer together.

Of course, periods of conflict will arise time and time again. That is part of the package in being a “hedgehog”. As we grow closer than before, we need to learn how to master our spikes in such new situations of closeness.

Such mastery of our spikes gives us the ability to develop long-lasting relationships with people. We can be comfortable being ourselves with such people. There is no need to wear protective masks, nor do we have difficulties embracing them without hurting/being hurt.

It is interesting to note that traditional Christian marriages never wish couples a “happy marriage”. Instead, the Church wishes them that they may remain as “one flesh”. In Chinese culture, one concept central to the culture is 和 (he), which means unity, harmony, and even happiness. I’m sure other religions and cultures have something similar to say.

Nonetheless, the point is this: since ancient times, people have recognised the problem of the hedgehog’s dilemma. People have known (since ancient times) that a happy relationship free from hurt is not a real relationship – it is either a fantasy or there’s no closeness at all. There is no happy marriage or friendship where no one gets hurt. People will hurt one another. It is an unavoidable thing in life.

The goal in any human relationship is to learn how to be so close as to become like “one flesh”. It is this harmony and unity that is a pre-requisite to happiness. Once we have learnt how to handle hurts are we then able to develop close and happy friendships.

Love is not just about loving the good parts of the other. It is also about loving the person’s spikes. These spikes are part of our being. We too have a deep desire for people to love us and our spikes. It’s easy to love the nice side of people. But a lot of effort is required to love those spikes. That is why we really appreciate the people who can love us despite seeing our ugly side. But it’s not just for the effort alone. We appreciate such love because such love embraces our whole self – not just a part, not just the mask – but a love which embraces the very core of our being.

But we’re all in a deadlock waiting for someone to do that to us. Everybody’s waiting.

So, to put an end to the deadlock, allow me to get the ball rolling by saying: Thank you for being my friend. I may have experienced, or have yet to experience your spikey side. But rest assured, I may initially be shocked, annoyed, and even hurt – but that will not mean an end to the friendship. I accept you and will still love you as my friend regardless. And I apologise for the hurts which my own spikes may have caused. We just need time to learn.

Let us, with courage, strive for deeper, closer friendships!

The Problem with Questions

Asking questions is a good thing. It is what enables learning, it helps to clarify doubts or ambiguities, and more.

Today, however, after reflecting about some things, I came to the realisation that questions are like a double-edged sword which can either be constructive or destructive.

It can be very easy to tear apart something by firing a series of questions one after the other. Answering them, however, can be very very difficult. But it is important for us to remember that a lack of an answer does not equate to a successful demolition of a point. There are many possible reasons why no answer can be given. Either the person is unprepared (or does not know enough); the question has indeed found a hole in the argument; OR the question is unreasonable precisely because the question makes some unreasonable assumptions that makes it difficult (or prevents) good answers from being formed.

What many of us do not realise is that every question assumes something.

If I were to ask, “How do you know X?”, I am assuming that you already know X, and I expect an answer in such a direction.

Were I to ask, “Why did you do this?”, I am assuming that you did it with a purpose in mind, thereby expecting a good reason for your actions (or else…).

If I asked you, “Who did X?”, I assume that some human person did it, and I do not expect the possibility of an animal or some natural cause to have caused it to happen.

These are but some examples to demonstrate the assumptions made when asking questions.

Most of the time, the assumptions that are coupled with the questions are reasonable and we have little problems giving a straightforward answer.

It’s not too bad if the assumptions are inaccurate because answers can still be given, though probably, more explanation is required to justify the answer so as to meet the expectations of the question.

But sometimes (or for some people, all the time), the assumptions are just so far off or bizarre that no straightforward answer can be given. Some times, the assumption may be invalid to the extent that no answer whatsoever could ever be produced.

An exaggerated example will be: “Have you stopped beating your wife today?”

The question assumes that you have been beating your wife in the past. The question makes a very unreasonable assumption which puts you in a tight spot. Regardless of whether you answer yes or no, you unfortunately end up validating the assumption. You could save yourself by giving a long answer so as to prove that you have not been beating your wife, but you’d probably end up sounding very defensive thus proving the assumption right by your defensive tone. Furthermore, a lot of effort is needed to debunk the false assumption, especially if the questioner strongly believes in it. Only when that assumption has been debunked will the questioner be opened to your answer.

But even if you do get around the question with a long answer, the question may not be satisfied because the expectation of the question was not met. So, in the mind of the serious questioner, the given answer may not be fully acceptable.

When it comes to the hard questions about life, sometimes we feel as if we have hit the dead end. We ask a series of questions and we find no answers or no satisfying answers. It is frustrating. Surely, if a question can be asked, we should be able to get some sort of answer, right? Even if it’s a negative (e.g. no), it’ll still be an answer. But time and time again, many of us fall into what seems to be an existential crisis because we seem to find absolutely no answers to the important questions about life.

But perhaps one possible reason for not being able to find answers (or satisfying answers) is that the assumptions made in the questions are invalid, either because they are inaccurate assumption, completely wrong (or bizarre) assumptions, or wrong assumptions made due to a lack of understanding of the situation.

Perhaps the next time we have faced with a question which, for the life of us, we are unable to find an answer, rather than getting distressed over the lack of an answer, it might be useful to clarify the question, examine the assumptions made, and see if these assumptions are indeed valid in the first place. Because if they aren’t, no answer can ever satisfy the question requirements.

Modernity

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It’s amazing how much Singapore has developed over the years.

2011, and all around are tall skyscrapers and beautiful city lights – the hallmarks of modernity and its success.

Yet, what never ceases to amaze me was that all these changes, all these re-developments, only occured since the 1970s. It was only in the 1980s that re-development went into full throttle, changing every single thing on this island.

It’s amazing how the powers behind its development have made it what it is today – in so short a span of time.

Such is modernity.

Cold Blows the North Wind

北風其涼、雨雪其雱。
惠而好我、攜手同行。
其虛其邪、既亟只且。

北風其喈、雨雪其霏。
惠而好我、攜手同歸。
其虛其邪、既亟只且。

莫赤匪狐、莫黑匪烏。
惠而好我、攜手同車。
其虛其邪、既亟只且。

Cold blows the north wind;
Thick falls the snow.
Ye who love and regard me,
Let us join hands and go together.
Is it a time for delay?
The urgency is extreme!

The north wind whistles;
The snow falls and drifts about.
Ye who love and regard me,
Let us join hands, and go away for ever.
Is it a time for delay?
The urgency is extreme!

Nothing is redder than the fox,
Nothing blacker than the crow.
[Nothing is more true than I].
Ye who love and regard me,
Let us join hands, and go together in our carriages.
Is it a time for delay?
The urgency is extreme!

《北風 – Cold Blows the North Wind》from 《詩經 – The Book of Poetry》. English translation by James Legge (modified).

Such a beautiful poem!

Philosophy is meant for life!

Socrates thought of philosophy as something that came from life and was meant for life, not something that came from books and was meant for books. And this thing (philosophy) that meant “the love of wisdom” he called “a rehearsal (melete) for dying.”

Peter Kreeft, Before I Go: Letters to our children about what really matters, n.42, p.70 (United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007)