Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely?

A student wrote in to ask:

Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely? Especially when the person has hurt you a lot a lot. I tried to recall back the painful past and tell myself to let go and move forward but it’s so hard. But then a lot of resources on the Internet tell people to let go, move forward so you can have a better future and all. Do you agree? For me I feel like me having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again. However sometimes I feel like that just makes me a person stuck in the past, full of hatred.

This was a very heartfelt question, so I took quite a long time thinking about an answer:

Thank you for having the courage to ask this question. I know it’s not easy. And I want you to know that I too am going through a very similar situation as I’m writing this. So, I totally feel you on this matter!

Firstly, the advice to “forgive and forget” is complete bullshit. It is not forgiveness if you forgot the event. There is nothing to forgive if you cannot remember it. It is perfectly ok to remember the hurt and the pain. We are the sum of our experiences. All the good things that has happened to us, as well as all the hurts, betrayals, tragedies and dramas. The good and the bad: they shape us to be who we are.

What’s more important is to transform that pain, that hurtful memory into one of loving acceptance: this is me now, this is who I am, and I’m ok with it.

How do we do that? We need to give ourselves time and space to grieve, to cry, to emo, and also to process it. The reason why hurt and pain linger for so long (and maybe even fester in our hearts) is because we haven’t given ourselves the chance to let the emotions run their necessary course, by bottling it up, or simply avoid facing up to it.

So let me reiterate: It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to emo and cry. It’s ok to feel the hurt. Let it flow through you and out of you.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know what you mean by “having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again.” It sounds like one of those gongfu movies. You know, the kind where some villain came and slaughtered your entire village when you were a child, but you were spared because you were hiding inside a cupboard or something. So you spend the next 2-3 decades of your life cultivating that hatred in you so that one day you can have the satisfaction of revenge.

My question for you would be: What is the emotion that’s driving you to do better? Is it anger? If it is, that’s not healthy. You can’t maintain anger throughout all your life. It will affect how you interact with other people, and it will affect your mental/physical health. You still can be just as motivated if you allow yourself the chance to grieve and process the hurt.

I’ll say one more thing. Time does heal all wounds – physical and emotional. I used to do a lot of shit in the past. And it never ceases to amaze me how, after 2-3 years later, many of these people don’t hold my past failings against them. I was incredibly relieved. The experience of being given a second chance by other people was such a moving experience. And it did inspire me to do likewise. If I like and desire to be forgiven and given a second chance, then I too should do the same to others. It is only right.

But you need to be clear what you mean by forgiveness. Minimally, forgiveness (and not forgetting) means you won’t hold their past faults against them. It is akin to saying: I know you have hurt me, and you might hurt me the same way again, but I am going to give you a second chance and I trust that you won’t let me down.

Sometimes, giving the person a second chance doesn’t mean a chance at the same thing. E.g. if it was a bad romantic relationship, then don’t go back to a romantic relationship – a second chance can just be the chance to be friends again. Or if you’re unsure, at least the second chance means a chance to reconnect and see where you go from there.

But give yourself plenty of time and space. There is no hurry to forgive. We all recover from our hurts at different rates.

I don’t have any friends in my major. Is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Is it okay to spend the rest of my school days lonely, studying, and taking classes alone? I saw your previous answer on loneliness, and yes, I see why you will be more or less “lonely” because you’re taking on various challenges and more of them are research work/publishing books.

However, for me, I’m still a student in NUS. And I still have a few more years to go. Yet, I don’t have any friends in my major. (I do have friends in FASS, just none in my major) I really don’t have anyone to go to when I need help (I go to profs instead) is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

Here’s my reply:

Hello, I think it’s not healthy to spend the rest of your school days lonely and taking classes alone. It’s not good for your mental/emotional health.

It’s very important to recognise that learning is a social activity. A lot of learning takes place when you’re talking to your friends about the stuff you’re learning outside the classroom (and that is the whole point of university – to give you all that time and space to do that).

I’m usually the quiet kid who sits at the corner all the way at the back in class. I didn’t make friends until my second year when I finally decided to just say hello to the people sitting on my left and right at lectures. Was it awkward? Yeah! It was so freaking awkward! But you know what? We had lots of fun, and we started hanging out a lot more. Many of us are still in contact with each other after graduation.

It’s important to remember that everyone around you wants to make friends but are just as shy to do it. If you read the stuff that’s on Reddit/NUSWhispers, you’d realise how many people are in your shoes, lonely and have no friends. So be the brave one and say hi. They’d appreciate this kind gesture.

The friendship you make in university will last for a long time, and many of these friendships will prove useful when you go out to work.

My recommendation is to make friends with people of all ages, and not just people in your age group. Make sure you have at least one friend in each age group. The multiple perspectives will help you easily identify the bullshit that circulates within our own age group. (E.g. if you don’t do X, you will not me employable, etc…) To quote a friend: “Humans are vessels of experience.” That’s her reason for wanting to befriend everyone.

For some strange reason, I have a number of people I regard as friends from age 70-100. It’s very fun talking to them, learning the kinds of insights that they have, and of course, having them as important role models. Somehow, our generation doesn’t give these bunch of people enough credence. There is so much to learn from their stories, from their successes, to their failures, to their (mis)adventures in life.

Do you have any thoughts on love and relationships in general?

A student wrote to me:

Sometimes it seems like others are finding love so easily, whereby the person they like is also single and/or just so happens to like them back. For me, such incidences of fate have never materialised and I wonder how some just have it so easy. No real question, just wondering. Do you have any thoughts on these sentiments/love in general.

Here’s my reply:

I totally feel you! I was once in your shoes for a very long time. I had been friend-zoned a couple of times, and on one occasion, I confessed to a girl, and she rejected me on the grounds that I’m of a different socio-economic class (that was so WTH!).

Looking back, I realised now that I had missed the subtle advances of some girls back in my teenage/young adult life. I was just totally oblivious to it. I think a lot of us are oblivious to noticing the subtle advances of others.

Well, to be fair, confessing and taking the friendship to the next level is a high stakes game. Both guys and girls are incredibly afraid and anxious about it: What if I get rejected, what then becomes of this friendship? And because both parties are often so afraid, none dare to make any obvious moves for fear of rejection.

So let me share with you an advice I got when I was in NS, and it is advice that helped me a lot. If you are interested in a person, but unsure whether that person likes you, treat every non-negative response as a sign that he/she is interested in you. If you ask the person to hang out with you and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If you said you wanted to initiate a phone call and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If the person messages you or initiates outings, even better – that’s a really really good sign of interest! Over time, the more you think this way, the more confident you will become around that person. And confidence is an incredibly charming and attractive quality.

Nothing screams – “MARRY ME AND GENERATE SPAWNLINGS WITH ME!!!!!” – more than confidence. You can be fugly as hell but if you have confidence as great as Mount Everest, people will still be incredibly attracted to you. This statement is true for both males and females. If you don’t believe me, when COVID is over and we don’t need to wear masks anymore, go sit at a cafe and watch the world go by, i.e. people watching. There’s a lot of unattractive people who are very much in loving relationships. You might wonder how that’s possible, or disapprove of their coupling because it looks like a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. But hey, they’re happy because all they need is that one person to be attracted to them: their partner.

Have you ever kissed your best friend?

A student asked me (because it’s an anonymous Q&A platform):

Have you ever kissed your best friend?

Here’s what I wrote in response to this question:

No. The fact that this question is even conceivable is revealing of two major problems with our culture today:

(1) Almost everything is hyper sexualised and romanticised. It’s very revealing in our culture, e.g. close friendships between men are now characterised as “bromance.” I really hate that nowadays, there’s even a term to refer to colleagues of the opposite sex who work closely together – “work spouse.”

And, (2) many people don’t know how to develop intimate non-sexualised friendships these days (regardless of the gender of the friend). So many of us don’t question what it means to be a friend, or how to be a friend. Maybe it’s shyness or social awkwardness; maybe it’s because of past hurts due to bad friendships; maybe social media is screwing up the way we relate to others. Nonetheless, what’s scary is that more and more people these days are reporting that they find it difficult to have a heart-to-heart talk with someone.

And because many people have not had the opportunity to experience close friendships, of the intimacy of deep heart-to-heart exchanges, that it becomes so easy to confuse that experience of an intimate bond as sexual attraction.

(1) really gets in the way of (2): This hyper-romanticisation and hyper-sexualisation of things around us really gets in the way of us forming intimate friendships, or even just friendships for that matter. I find it very worrying that in today’s world, you can be nice to someone out of the goodness of your heart, and that person can misinterpret your actions as flirting.

However, I wouldn’t attribute (1) as the cause of (2). I think that the inability to form intimate non-sexualised friendships is due to a lack of exemplary role models. I don’t know when it happened but many parents have stopped being role models and educators to their children. They outsourced it to teachers in schools. But few teachers actually bother enough to be role models to their students (because to them, it’s just a job, not a calling).

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Thanks for asking! :)

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.

Do you trust someone easily?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Tell me, do you trust someone easily?

Here’s my answer:

Yes I do. I believe that it’s better to start off trusting someone (even a stranger), unless there are red flags that indicate that I shouldn’t trust the person. And only if the person violates that trust do I then reduce my trust in that person.

A lot of people confuse trust with revealing your most vulnerable self to another. The process of revealing your vulnerable self to another is a process for establishing intimate friendships (includes romantic relationships too).

Yes, trust is a necessary prerequisite for intimate relationships. If you cannot trust someone, you won’t want to open yourself up to reveal your most vulnerable true self, with all your worries, insecurities, etc. BUT, it’s very important to recognise that trust and revealing your vulnerable self to another person – these are two very distinct things.

So, you can trust people – and I do mean trust in a very deep sense – without necessarily having to make yourself vulnerable. Trust, after all, is the fabric of society, and it is the invisible connection that allows us to work with people and do all kinds of things. You don’t need to reveal your vulnerable self to others to establish good professional working relations with them.

Of course, this probably isn’t your primary concern with the question you’re asking (I’ll address it soon enough). But the reason why I made the distinction between trust and vulnerability is that people who have difficulties being vulnerable to others conflate that with the notion of trust, and they thus have difficulties trusting people even in a professional working relationship. And this becomes a huge problem for them. The inability to trust others fuels their insecurity, and this actually leads them to act in very toxic ways without being aware of it.

Let me illustrate with an example: In times past, I used to work with a team of students, and in that team were two students who had major trust issues. They were so awfully toxic, that they almost destroyed the cohesion of the team by spreading false rumours. They just couldn’t trust others. They found it hard to believe that people actually genuinely wanted to help them. So they perceived attempts at helping them as malicious personal attacks on their weaknesses. It baffled me how they couldn’t accept that people just wanted to help.

The point I wish to make here is this: Don’t conflate trust with revealing your vulnerable self. See the difference so that you can learn to trust others. Otherwise that mistrust will be destructive to yourself and to everyone around you. It isn’t pleasant working in an environment where everyone’s suspicious of everyone, and it sucks to be in a situation where you feel that you can’t trust anyone to be on your side. But they didn’t realise that they were responsible for creating that environment for themselves and everyone around.

Now that I’ve covered trust, I can talk about intimacy and revealing our vulnerable selves. I like to think of human relationships in terms of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. This idea came from the German philosopher, Schopenhauer. In the winter, hedgehogs will come together to stay warm. The problem with hedgehogs is that they are very spiky, so the closer they get to each other, the warmer they felt. BUT, they also began hurting each other with their spikes, and so they keep apart. But the process repeats because they are cold and they need the warmth. So the hedgehogs are in a dilemma: how do I stay warm without getting hurt? The answer is: You just have to learn to get close to others so that you don’t hurt and be hurt.

Humans are like these hedgehogs. We want the warmth of love and friendships, but when we get too close (i.e. when we begin revealing our vulnerable selves to them), we hurt or be hurt. It’s part and parcel of this hedgehog-like existence. So we have to be ready to embrace the hurts along the way. It’s a risk in relationships. But at the same time, we have to learn how to avoid hurting others, and how to handle others so that we don’t get hurt. It’s going to be a very prickly affair, and one of much trial and error. And of course, we can learn a lot from the good practices of others.

Easy to say, difficult to do. For starters, I think we just need to learn to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to the people around us.

How did you know your wife was the one?

A student sent me this question:

How did you know your wife was the one?

Here’s my reply:

To be honest, I don’t. I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is the perfect one or a soul mate. These are very dangerous ideas because, every real concrete person will always fall short when compared to the perfection of the abstract ideal. The person you have might be beautiful, but there will always be someone more beautiful. The person you have might be inspiring, but there will always be someone more inspiring. (On a side note, this is the same problem whenever you ask yourself whether you are happy. You could be happy, but when you compare your concrete experience with the abstract and perfect ideal, your experience of happiness will appear to fall short.) So if we are unaware of this, we’d be forever chasing an impossible dream of the perfect partner.

I do have some minimum requirements: (1) Must have mutual affection and attraction; (2) Can click well and talk about anything like best friends; (3) Are actually the best of friends; (4) Can still love me when I am most unlovable; (5) Inspires/Encourages me to be a better version of myself; (6) Is willing to fight with you and for you.

If someone satisfies that criteria, I would resolve and commit my existence to that person, as I have done with my wife.

Now, I’m not saying you should follow this set of requirements. It’s your life and your relationship. But I want to talk a bit more about (3) and (5).

On (3): From time to time, I hear people say, “You shouldn’t form romantic relationships with friends, that you should only date strangers outside your social circle. Friends are friends, and love is love.” And I have come across some people who do that to their spouses (they’re rarely happy). They confide in their best friends more than their spouse. I find that to be one of the worst advice for long-term relationships. Your partner is supposed to be someone whom you share your most intimate self – who you really are in your state of vulnerability, in good times and in bad. And that requires a great deal of trust and friendship. You can’t even get there in a romantic relationship if you don’t even have that trust to begin with.

On (5): I want to be clear that what I mean here is that the other person makes you want to improve yourself. The other shouldn’t try to change you or boss you around to become a better person like you are some personal pet project. That robs you of your autonomy as you improve as a person. You change not because you actually want to, but because you are forced to. And that creates the conditions for great resentment that will manifest itself eventually. What you want is someone who gives you the reason to fight hard to be a better version of yourself every day BECAUSE you know that it would make your partner happy and benefit him/her in the relationship.

Being Human

The Chinese character for man (male and female) is 人 (ren)

In Chinese culture, ren (人) does not refer to the biological understanding of man. Rather, it refers to what a man ought to be – what makes a man a fully human person. One big difference between Western and Chinese philosophy is that in Western philosophy, the major question is “What is man?”, whereas in Chinese philosophy, the major question is “How to become one?” (为人)

And so, it is essential for a every single person to learn how to be a man (为人), so that he/she can become one (成人).

This is realised/fulfilled through his relations with others. Hence, the importance of ren (仁, also translated as humanity or benevolence). The etymology is quite simple. It just means two (二 er) persons (人 ren).

When two people can live in harmony with each other, only then can both fully realise what it means to be a man (二人为人 eren wei ren).