What’s your view on the meaning of life?

A student asked me:

What’s your view on the meaning of life?

I believe that existence is suffering. It might be emotional or physical pain, or even existential agony. Whatever it is, we cannot escape the pains of existence. Every new encounter, new experience, new knowledge changes us, transforms us. And so we are constantly experiencing and living out the death of our present-selves-now-made-past. To paraphrase the philosopher, Martin Heidegger: One lives one’s death; one dies one’s life.

Given the constancy of suffering in our existence, I prefer to think of pain and suffering as the white noise of our existence. That inescapable noise that haunts our being, that bothers us most when our minds go idle.

I don’t think pain and suffering is a bad thing. If anything suffering is a double edge sword. It has the potential to bring out the worst in us, amplifying our self-centredness as if we are at the centre of the universe, as if we are the only one experiencing the agony of life; OR, it has to potential to make us more human and humane as we recognise that everyone around us also suffer pain in their own way.

I like to think about my own sufferings in the latter way. My suffering reminds me I am human and not divine; that I am weak and not indestructible; that I al vulnerable and not invincible. My suffering teaches me empathy for others who suffer in their own way. My suffering reminds me that I am connected to everyone around me with this invisible bond of pain.

Yes, existence is suffering, and while pain reminds me that I exist, it reminds me that there is so much more to life than merely existing. I want to be fully alive. And to be fully alive, I must fully actualise my potential as a human being, which is realised through the lessons of how to be human and humane through my own sufferings.

This is my meaning.

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

A student asked:

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

Interestingly, the best and riskiest decision I made were one and the same: the decision not to pursue Computer Engineering (something which I already knew back then I could do well in), but instead I chose to take the plunge into Philosophy in Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). It was quite risky and scary because I was always a science stream student, and writing essays were not my forte. In fact, I did very badly for every humanities-related subject I ever did back in school.

I switched from Computer Engineering to Philosophy because of my time in National Service, and because of the freelance work I did. I found that I really hated sitting in front of a computer writing code for hours to solve other people’s (or other business’s) problems. It felt very meaningless and boring to me.

I thought to myself that if university was going to be my last chance to study something, I should do something meaningful, and have my last shot at doing something I really like doing. Was I afraid of switching to FASS and doing badly? Yes, I was very afraid. And though I had people assuring me it would be ok, I was not given any guide of any sort. Nor did I have a plan or clue on how to survive or do well. But I took the plunge because I knew I didn’t want to do Computing anymore. So it was by far the riskiest decision I ever made.

Why was it the best? Because I enjoyed doing everything I did for the four years of my undergraduate days. It was tiring and I struggled a lot (even went hospital thrice in one year), but it was so worth it. I grew so much and my thinking matured so greatly in those four years.

A good example of all these can be seen in my writings, especially in the Q&A that I have written in response to your queries about a variety of matters. My ability to think clearly, and process issues in their complex nuances without oversimplification, and to present and reason my thoughts with you here in a systematic manner – these are the fruits of my education in Philosophy.

I am painfully aware of how I used to write before I studied Philosophy, and it would look very much like those obnoxious entries/comments you’d find on online platforms like NUSWhispers, where I’d pontificate based on my own feelings rather than clarifying it with reason and empirical support. I used to be that kind of person.

Philosophy changed me, and made me a much better person who could actually reason systematically about complex issues. So I’m very glad for that.

What is happiness?

A student asked me:

What is happiness?

I prefer to think of happiness more as a state of being rather than a feeling. Because in my own experience, you can be happy or even content about your current situation in life without necessarily feeling positive emotions. Besides, we don’t always have feelings stirring in us 24 hours each day (that will be quite destabilising).

I like to think that a happy person is one who is fully alive, realising every potential that is within his/her own being, whenever possible. For that to happen, one must be willing to embrace challenges beyond one’s comfort zone in all aspects: socially, professionally, academically, technically, etc.

In other words, one must be constantly aiming to grow and develop one’s self. Stagnation not only breeds complacency, but it eventually makes one feel very directionless, and you eventually lose your sense of purpose and meaning. I have not met anyone who enjoys being in this state. So I don’t think you can ever be happy (I definitely have never been happy when I feel that I have no sense or purpose).

My greatest inspiration is Captain Ho Weng Toh, the 100 year old WW2 veteran and the pioneer and “father” of pilots in SIA. I interviewed him over 9 months to help him write his memoirs. And he is very happy at the wonderful age of 100. Even now, he has been challenging himself to grow. He sets up initiatives to help others. He makes it a point to keep in touch with everyone in his life – he even tries to meet new people. He learns to use new technology. He makes sure he is still kept up to date on current affairs (and he even talks to people young and old to understand their perspective about the matter). He has never let age be the reason to not get out of his comfort zone. He even has a girlfriend!

People like him truly exemplify what it means to be happy, what it means to be fully alive. And that is how I view happiness.

Was your wife your first girlfriend?

A student asked me:

Was your wife your first girlfriend?

I’m happy to share this because I think there are some good life lessons from this:

No, she’s my second girlfriend actually. But we both agreed that we really dislike the first a lot. Lol…

I learnt many things about relationships from the first by way of negative example. Back then, I was driven by a very romanticised idea about the qualities that the ideal girlfriend would have. When I was still very young and naive, my criteria comprised wholly of very superficial qualities about what a person does, rather than about the person herself (of course, no matter what age we are, we’d like to believe that we are very critical and rational about our decisions).

So what was the major lesson? That a person who meets all our idealistic criteria may not necessarily be the person who can make you happy. It was very dissonant for me to discover that certain ideals that we hold may not actually make us happy once we encounter concrete particular instantiations of them. The things that we like in other people are simultaneously double-edge swords that can one day make us miserable, and compel feelings of indignation for the other. So… To put it in a more familiar slogan: Be careful what you wish for.

While I certainly didn’t like the experience at all, it did made me wiser about relationships. Since then, I’ve been extra cautious about ideals and romanticisations. Not just about relationships, but about the way I work with people. Ideals and romanticisations, while no doubt lofty and definitely feel-good, can blind us from perceiving people and situations as they are.

Would you consider yourself quite an open person?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Would you consider yourself quite an open person? You seem quite okay with letting your students know about your private life on Instagram.

So here’s my reply:

Yes, I’m a very open and trusting person. I think it’s easier to live life this way. Significantly less drama from my observations of other people. Lol…

I’m very happy to share many aspects of my private life with people. And I think this is largely due to how I grew up. I’m the youngest child in my family, and my brothers are both 12 and 11 years older than me (yes, I’m probably an accident). So I spent most of my formative years alone at home with nothing but the Internet. In those days, we used to chat on this thing called IRC. Everyone’s anonymous. With no one else to talk to anyway, I spent many hours in my formative years sharing about my life and all that. I found that it makes for very interesting conversations with people.

I still choose to share about my private life in this era of social media because I don’t always get the chance to interact with people very much. And I am quite a socially awkward person (I know, hard to believe right? But I do feel socially awkward all the time: I just pretend that I’m not when I’m teaching). So I don’t always connect very well to people in a face-to-face setting. Thus, social media is my way for people to get to know me for who I really am: don’t judge me based on your first face-to-face encounter where I struggle with the social awkwardness. Rather, judge me – decide whether you like or dislike me – after you’ve encountered me online where I don’t struggle with awkwardness.

The Six Lessons I Learnt This Week

The past seven days has been nothing but an intense learning journey for me.

From my thoughts and experiences on my 24-hour plane ride, the materials I read, to the discussions I’ve had with people both in and outside a recent international workshop, I have been overwhelmed by just so many insights and interesting lessons on so many issues covering so many different aspects of life.

So allow me to share with you six of the most interesting lessons I’ve learnt over the past week. I’ll list them here in the order of light-hearted interesting facts, to heavier philosophical insights.

 

1. Chopsticks

It turns out that the Chinese invented chopsticks because, unlike eating with a fork or spoon, chopsticks allow you to experience the fullness of flavour when you taste your food. The presence of the fork or spoon in your mouth affects the way the food interacts with your tastebuds, thus the taste does not present itself in it’s fullness. Hence, the reason why the Chinese invented something so counter-intuitive to use, and it has since been the preferred utensil for eating.

(After I heard this, I felt like I should try to eat everything with chopsticks just to experience the difference)

 

2. Intra-mouth Cooking

A Japanese explained to me that many Japanese dishes require you to do the final mixing in your mouth. E.g. you dip a piece of food into a sauce, and put it into your mouth. Or you mix the liquids from two (or more) cups into your mouth. It’s part of a Japanese philosophy (of food), which sees the mouth as the final point where the flavours are harmonised within the mouth of the consumer.

This has been something I’ve long thought about in the Chinese philosophy of cooking, that harmony is not just about the harmony produced in the dishes alone, since one must be able to taste and perceive that harmony within the field of one’s own subjective experience. But it seems that the Japanese have taken it a step further in their understanding of cooking, and made it more explicit. The final touch lies in how much sauce you add to the dish, harmonising the amount of sauce and its flavours with the piece of food, and most importantly, with yourself.

 

3. Sakura Cherry Blossoms as the Image of the Beauty of Corruption/Decay

When the Japanese sakura flowers (cherry blossoms) blossom, they beautify the trees. But this process of beauty does not end there. Beauty continues to persist as the sakura flowers corrupt and decay, shedding petals onto the ground, beautifying the land on which it grows.

This image of beauty persisting before and during corruption/decay is a very strong image that informs many of the Japanese’s outlook of the negativity of corruption and decay. I like how the Japanese use this image of the sakura flower as a framework for seeing beauty in corruption and decay in many other situations and aspects of life. For would, for us, appear as horrifying ugliness, is seen through a sakura “lens”, and the ugliness is viewed instead as beauty that continues to persists in another form.

 

4. What Makes Your Life Good?

It’s interesting how for so many centuries, philosophers have asked: What makes a life good? And then they prescribe it as a universal prescription for all to follow. And it’s interesting how in many ways, many of us have lived our lives following after certain abstract models of what the good life is about, e.g. lots of wealth, honour or power, etc.

But a more interesting project would be to reframe the question, and instead ask people: What makes your life good? What makes your life good enough that you’d continue living like this?

This question was inspired by a person who was so intrigued when he saw how happy people were despite living in the slums. He had never seen happiness to such a degree anywhere else. Perhaps we’re mistaken in some ways on our ideas of happiness or at least what would count as a good life, subjectively.

Perhaps we should really examine the lives of many people and ask them, what makes their life good, and that might inform us on the things in life we should value and cherish instead. Perhaps this might lead to a more interesting formulation of the good life.

(If you are willing, please share with me what makes your life good in the comments below. I’d like to hear.)

 

5. “I know each other so much less well now.”

A few days ago, someone said: “I know each other so much less well now.” The context was that if a meeting goes well, then people will come to realise just how little they know each other. He was suggesting that future meetings should be structured in such a way that by the end of the event, we’d all realise just how little we know about each other.

I think it’s a good quote and one that serves an essential reminder that we can never fully know a person too well.

One of the big obstacles in a relationship with another human being is to think you know him/her so well. And then when conflict arises, you realise how little you know of that person, and then proceed to revise your view of that person as having all these bad traits as the underlying characteristic. And voila, we conclude that we know all that we need to know about him/her.

The person is then judged and condemned for good (as someone who stays forever in this way, as this pathetic person). Strange how we always think we know a person so well.

Stranger still that we always assume that we know ourselves so well, as if our character and person remains the same over the years.

Yes, every good meeting with people should always leave us realising how little we know about each other (and maybe, how little we know ourselves too). I think that should be a good goal to seek. Not every single time we meet up with people, though. That might be too exhausting. But every once in a while would be nice.

 

6. “Beauty will save the world”

Not fear, not violence, not any technocratic revolutions. “Beauty will save the world.” This was a quote by Dostoevsky. In the novel, The Idiot, the protagonist, a naive prince undergoes tremendous suffering. Yet, it was in his state of ignorance and naiveté, that he comes to a clear realisation of reality:

“What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?”

And thus the conclusion that beauty will indeed save the world.

It is beauty that draws a person to curiosity and to love. It is beauty that removes fear of the unknown to have reverence for the mysterious. It is beauty that lifts up the human spirit from the darkness of pessimism and cynicism, and raises it to the heights of hope. It is beauty that unites the hearts and minds of people. And it is beauty that will bring people together to make a change.

It is such a beautiful idea and ideal.

Truly, “beauty will save the world.”

2014 Year-End Review (Part 1) – A Gap Year of Exploration

Wow… Time really flies, perhaps faster than ever before. It’s hard to believe that a year has passed because I still have very vivid memories of all the events that happened in the past year (and even further back in time).

I’ll have to say that the year 2014 has been the most challenging year ever. Yet, despite all these challenges and occasional set-backs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and gained a lot of insights. And to top that off, I’ve met a lot of profoundly inspiring and amazing people, many of whom have restored my faith in humanity, and given me new lenses with which to see the world.

It’s amazing!

In order to make sense of 2014, I really should talk about it in the context of 2013, only because 2013 was the year that I made a few major decisions on what to do with my life, and it’s only in 2014 that many of these decisions began to unfold in interesting ways.

(I realised, having written so much, that it would be unrealistic to cram all my year-end reviews in a single post. So I’ll split it into several parts. Here’s Part 1…)

 

A Gap Year of Exploration

At the end of my undergraduate life, I decided to take a gap year from study, so that I could take a step back to explore my options and discover what I might want to do with my life.

I was quite burnt out in my final year of university, to the extent that I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of writing papers night after night. It seems that the experience was so bad that it has developed in me, a small yet powerful dread of writing, to the extent that I don’t enjoy writing very much. In the past, I could just sit in front of the keyboard and words would flow from my mind through my fingers onto the screen. But now, I’m always confronted with a dread and a kind of mental block. Words don’t flow so easily, and it takes me some time to settle down and calm my mind to overcome that psychological obstacle.

Much as I love academic philosophy, I always had this nagging feeling that I might not want to pursue this, or at least not in the way that I encountered it in my undergraduate life. I love the learning, I love reading, I love the process of growth, but I just do not enjoy the painful process of writing academic papers. (But as I slowly come to realise: three positives versus one negative, maybe that’s not too bad? There is no career that is 100% enjoyable, is there? Well, that’s something I still need to discover for myself)

So, instead of plunging myself into graduate school like many of my peers. I figured it would be better to try other things. But I had a lot of reluctance because I couldn’t seem to find a first job that really interested me. Moreover, I was quite afraid that I’d end up doing mindless, meaningless tasks, no more than a cog in the machine.

That all changed one day when I met a professor for lunch one day. (Some introduction to the professor:) This was Prof. Lo Yuet Keung from the NUS Chinese Department. I never thought I would sit in for a class taught in Mandarin, but I did back when I was in my first year (2009). It was the only Chinese philo module that was offered at that time. Though I didn’t understand Chinese very well, I was blown-away by what I could understand. But most of all, Prof. Lo made a very deep and profound impression on me. He was the first person I encountered whom you could call a junzi (君子 gentleman). I looked at him and told myself: this is the type of awesome person I’d like to be. I wanted to study Chinese philosophy the way he did, to be transformed by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, as he was.

Anyway, many years later, I was very touched to find out from a friend that Prof. Lo remembers me (even though I never interacted with him during or after class in any of his modules). So I decided to drop him an e-mail, asking if it were possible to have lunch. And we did. It was by far, the most life-changing lunch appointment ever. I shared with him my hesitations on applying for a job, and told him that maybe I should take up a course or some certification class. In reply, he said something that changed my reality for the better:

Prof. Lo said: “Why bother paying money to learn a skill, when you can be paid to learn?” He went on to elaborate that I should perceive each and every job as a course in itself. Lessons and insights to acquire every step of the way (and you get paid as well – a double bonus!).

That changed the way I looked at the world, and it helped me with my search. With great confidence, I set out to apply. I eventually landed with a job at an electronics company, handling both the marketing of electronics and training the people who used it. It was a lot of fun.

Half a year later, I got a call from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They heard that I was looking for a research-related job, and they offered me a position to co-develop a course on Chinese philosophy with the Dean of the College, who was also quite a big name in the field of Chinese philosophy. It was an opportunity too good to miss. And I figured this would be ideal, as it might help me to decide whether or not I should pursue academia as a career.

I said yes, and it was by far the best decision of my life.

It’s been 10 months since I joined NTU. There’s been many challenges and difficult moments. But every step of the way has been meaningful, and it’s been great.

The greatest highlight of my time in NTU was to be involved in a project exploring ways to overcome the East-West barrier, how Chinese philosophy might help to enrich complexity thinking in the sciences (and social sciences), and how the two might just be related to each other. As part of this project, we organised two surveying workshops and invited several prominent researchers, directors of research institutes, and top public servants from around the world. It was amazing sitting in the midst of great and brilliant people.

This very experience gave me two very deep and profound realisations: (1) Firstly, it made me realise that my training in academic philosophy was insufficient in enabling me to comment on policy issues or matters of current affairs. I could listen and critique the ideas of others, but I’ve been unable to formulate anything positive on my part. This has been important to me as I’ve always aspired to be a public intellectual, using my philosophical skills to comment or critique pressing issues of society, or provide ideas, solutions or insights into certain matters. I always felt a sense of this inability, and in some ways, I’ve struggled with trying to write about such matters. But it was during those discussions that this inability became strongly apparent. Here I was, struggling with my training, knowledge, skills, and insights, yet what could I say? I could only speak theoretically (and naively even) about ideals, and I was unable to translate or connect it back to real events or issues. It was a challenge.

(2) Secondly, I came to the realisation that when you study philosophy along with several other disciplines, you will gain very interesting insights that you would not have acquired simply from the study of philosophy alone, or even from a mere interdisciplinary study of philosophy with one other discipline. No, it’s not just about one or two disciplines coming together. It is about bringing several disciplines together like a complete package (e.g. studying these disciplines together at the same time on a particular issue: philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, history). It is through this approach, that one could see certain issues very differently.

These two insights have changed my priorities and objectives. While I would still like to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, I would nonetheless like to branch out and study something else, maybe related to philosophy, but also related to other disciplines, as a good stepping stone in enabling me to address the two realisations above. I’m applying now for a Masters programme. But I’ll say more later once I’m done writing the proposal. What I can say now is that I’m going to take a rather unconventional route, but it seems that this choice will open more doors for me, and lead me to far greater growth.

With 2014 coming to an end, I realised I exceeded the time frame I gave myself when I took the gap year. I expected myself to have started graduate studies by now, or at least to move on to begin building my career.

For a while, I felt rather guilty, but recently, a very brilliant person commented that we all have cycles of activity and cycles of recuperation. Rather than to be worried about not being in the active cycle, I should instead focus (and not feel guilty) about my recuperation period, to recover and prepare myself intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for all the great challenges and obstacles that will come my way once I begin graduate studies.

There should always be progress, but progress is to be made in the context of cycles of activity and recuperation. When such cycles are disrupted in the name of “progress”, it is not progress but haste. And it is in haste that we lose all insights and direction, and it is because of haste that we tire easily and burn ourselves much sooner than we expect.

In that case, I look forward to prepare myself slowly yet steadily for the changes to come next year.

With a new year starting, I think I now have a sense of what I’d like to pursue, at least over the next few years. In so many ways, I’m glad I didn’t simply rush into graduate school. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities and life-changing insights. In 2013, I struggled so much trying to find some solution as to what to do next with my life, and thankfully, in 2014, I think I found the answer.

It has been a good year.

Needing Contemplation

Recently, a philosophy professor mentioned that philosophy only advances when one engages in three things: reading, discussing, and writing.

This is so true.

Sadly, ever since I graduated, I rarely had the time to write. As you can see from this blog, I don’t write that often.

But the actual root of the problem is this: in order to have the time to write something significant and profound, one must also have the time to think, to contemplate on issues. I finally understand one aspect of what Aristotle meant when he wrote the Ethics. Aristotle said that the best life to live is the life of contemplation, where one is able to contemplate and marvel at the truth, goodness, and beauty of things. But such a life, as Aristotle acknowledged, is a luxury, and it can only be sustained if one is spared from chores and other matters of life that would rob one’s time and energy from fully engaging in contemplation. (Unfortunately, Aristotle’s solution to grant people that luxury of time and energy to contemplate, was to maintain a slave class in society do handle all those chores.) But anyway, yes, I see why he said that.

Working life is just so exhausting, with so many projects and deadlines. And it gets more hectic when one has other household matters to deal with. Gosh… Sometimes I feel like I’m just firefighting every single day. The alarm blares out loud in the morning, and then I rush to work, and a million and one things come up throughout the day. And before I know it, the day is over. Evening sets and I am fatigued, often too exhausted to do anything else but to function like a statue on the sofa, sometimes functioning like a plant, staying firmly rooted on the couch, while I “photosynthesize” before the television screen.

No time for contemplation!

Thankfully, I do get to enjoy a good hour in the morning to read as I commute to work, and fortunately, I have the company of philosophical friends with whom I get to discuss issues that I read or toyed with at random. So… Reading, checked. Discussing, checked. Writing… Nope!

I have been trying very hard to write. Every day I face a blank white screen with the text cursor flashing. What shall I write? What shall I write? Nothing flows from my mind. It is quite frustrating. Call it a writer’s block if you will. But I think the trouble comes precisely from the lack of contemplation. Not enough time to properly connect the ideas in my head into something coherent, and so the thoughts do not flow smoothly nor coherently enough to form something decent.

I need to contemplate.

Having said all these, here is my firm resolution: I resolve to set aside time each day to contemplate. It’s something I stopped doing, and it is something I definitely want to keep doing once again.

Wish me luck!

Waking Up After September Ends

“Wake me up when September ends…”

Well, ok, it’s October now. Gosh… I actually can’t believe I haven’t been blogging for slightly more than two months. It felt like eternity.

I’ve been so ridiculously crazy over the past two months. Somehow, when the semester began, I found myself flooded with a never-ending stream of activity. It was exhausting and stressful, but it was amazing.

The past 2 months have so far, been the greatest high points of my life and career here in NTU.

I never would have imagined so many amazing events to have happened in two months, but it did! And now that the high tide of activity has subsided, I can breathe a little easy now, recollect, and can’t help but feel like the past two months were nothing but the most amazing beautiful dream that I’ve had.

So, what did I do?

I spent the entire month of August writing a paper for an academic journal. It’s my first paper for an academic journal. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s not the previous post (if you’re wondering, the previous one had too many problems and too little textual material available to make a solid case; I had to write a different paper). In many ways, it was reminiscent of my undergraduate days. In some ways, it was nostalgic.

Anyway, the editor got back to me. The reviewers’ comments were: It was very very interesting. They loved it! But, major revisions required. Oh dear…

In addition, I participated in a small workshop that involved several directors of research centres around the world (including the UN), discussing issues about East-West boundaries, and problems in science and policy making. It was inspiring to sit in a room filled with one of the most brilliant minds in the world. I want to be like them! They spoke elegantly, conducted themselves in the most gentlemanly manner, and most of all, they were full of brilliant ideas and insights.

Those were the mast amazing 3 days of my life. I grew a lot and I came out a changed person.

Not too long after that, in September, I had to fly to China alone, on my own, for the very first time in my life. I made two trips, each trip lasting a week. If you did not know, I’m involved in the production of a massively open online course (MOOC) in Confucian Philosophy. A MOOC is an online course complete with video lessons, online readings, and online quizzes and assignments, which can earn you a lovely certificate by the administering university.

I won’t be the one conducting the lessons in front of the camera. Rather, I’m the one who does all the behind-the-scenes stuff, such as going to China to get government clearance to film lessons in historical sites in China, among many other matters.

Anyway, the birthday of Confucius was coming up, and we wanted to film the Grand Ritual to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in his hometown in Qufu. But that’s not the only thing we wanted to film. There’s a lot more, but I won’t spoil it for you – at least not now. Anyway, all these things required administrative clearance from the Chinese authorities. It was a learning experience, as China has a very different work culture.

But perhaps the greatest eye opener and learning experience was to experience Confucianism as it was lived and practiced by the people of Qufu. Perhaps, it’s because Qufu is the hometown of Confucius that Confucianism is strongly practised till this day (I can’t make the claim for all of China since I’ve only been to this small town). Imagine this: everywhere you go, you are met with the most sincere, authentic, and friendly people ever. Doesn’t matter where I go (and no, it wasn’t special treatment because I was a foreigner, they all thought I was a local – they were very surprised when I told them I was from Singapore). Human affection and close relationships are the number one priority. Everything that is done is done for the sake of deepening the friendship. Even if you are doing business or working, the close friendship is of utmost importance.

It is no wonder the first line in the Analects is so strongly featured in Qufu:

有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?

For a friend to come [visit you] from afar, is this not a great joy?

Analects 1.1

I guess you could say I returned from China a convert, a strong fervent believer of the teachings of Confucius.

It was so refreshing to meet sincere people interested more in friendships than in being able to suck something out from you. It’s a tragedy because nowadays in Singapore, there are just far too many pretentious people who lie that they’re interested in being friends, but actually want to gain something from the friendship. (Seriously, I’m ok if you just say point blank that you want something from me – I don’t like this kind of hypocritical bullshit where you can’t voice your true intentions, but have to keep going around in circles.)

That was a wonderful experience.

Anyway, the second week, my professor and the filming crew came down to China, and it was, for me, a really stressful week as I encountered administrative hiccups here and there. The Chinese authorities do not operate as efficiently as the Singapore civil service. So I had to run around China, making phone calls to various offices just to find alternative solutions or to fix the problem. It was the most stressful week. On the bright side, I was able to pamper myself with delicious foods while I was there, so I was quite happy.

I just came back from China last week, and spent the past couple of days recuperating from the two months of madness. I think I’m now properly rested, which means I should be able to work very efficiently and I can return to blogging regularly. Yay!

So stay tuned for more!

Back from a long break with good news!

Wow… It’s been about 8 months since I last blogged! Unbelievable! And it’s amazing how many things have happened in my life in just 8 months!

I do apologise for not posting anything for the last 8 months.

I had to undergo the biggest lifestyle change in my life that has made it very difficult for me to blog.

What was it that kept me away from the keyboard? WORK!

At the end of the day, when you’re just so dead and tired from a long day, the last thing you want to do is think!

During my first month of work, I would come back home exhausted and do nothing but watch mindless cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants and laugh like a madman. The last thing I wanted to do was to watch a show that was intellectually stimulating. Seriously… Who in the right mind has the energy for that after a long tiring day?

I have new found respect for parents: they spend the entire day working like crazy, they come back – probably as exhausted as me, if not worse – and then, they still have children to look after. How do they do it? Where do they get the energy for that?!

I’ve gotten the hang of things, and so my evening activities are not simply about watching mindless cartoons. But I’m still usually too tired to do very much.

Well, it’s been 8 months! But I guess I have enough guilt festering within me to want to make a change and do something about my blog.

So, here’s the summary of my life over the past 8 months:

In Sep 2013, I got a job as a Marketing Communications Specialist for an electronics company! Haha yes! A philosopher decided to go into electronics. Well, if anything, it was to prove (on my CV at least) that as a philosopher, I’m capable of many things. And at least, to have a try at electronics (something I gave up in university in favour of Philosophy). It was pretty fun. I got to meet many inspiring people along the way, and I got to design a lot of things! Oh, I even got featured on CNET! It was good fun!

In Jan 2014, I proposed to The Girlfriend, and she said… YES! So The Girlfriend has now become… THE FIANCEE! We plan to get married some time in 2015. (So exciting!)

In Feb 2014, I got a job offer to work as a full-time researcher in classical Chinese philosophy at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). It’s a very rare opportunity! An offer that I couldn’t miss! In fact, working in an electronics company, though electronics was something of a hobby for me, made me realise that I had a huge thirst for philosophy and I needed something with an intellectual challenge. So that strengthened my resolution all the more to make the switch back to philosophy.

So here I am! I won’t exactly say that life has been a bed of roses, but it’s been interesting and certainly most exciting trying out all kinds of stuff.

Of course, I’ll do my best to blog about all the wonderful things in my life – hopefully on a once in two days, or at least once a week basis.

Till then, thanks for reading!

The Consummation and End of My Undergraduate Life (and What is to Come)

I’ve finally graduated!

After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!

Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy  finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.

My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)

The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.

Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.

That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!

Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:

Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed - all 41 pages of it!
Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed – all 41 pages of it!

 

Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.
Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.

 

The finished product: complete with binding!

The finished product: complete with binding!

 

It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.

With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.

But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.

Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.

But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).

Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.

Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).

Name tag for the conference. It's such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!
Name tag for the conference. It’s such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!

 

Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.

Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!

The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.

Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It's a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It's perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!
Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It’s a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It’s perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!

 

The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.
The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.

 

It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!

The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.

WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…

Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.

The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!

Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:

Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?
Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?

 

Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):

OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!
OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!

 

You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.

But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.

So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”

But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.

It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.

The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.

I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.

But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.

It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.

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!!!

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.

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 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.