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.

Let me begin by defining how I think about love. I once came across this quote: “To love is to delight in the existence of the other.”

And because I delight in that person’s existence, I want that person to exist more fully, to grow and to develop to one’s fullest possible extent in every aspect. In this way, I can delight more richly and wholesomely in that person’s very existence.

It’s such a delightful thought, isn’t it? :)

Now all that said, I totally understand where you’re coming from! I was once in your shoes for a very 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! :)

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 do I know if the person I’m dating is the one?

A student sent me this question:

How do I know if the person I’m dating is the one?

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.

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.

I will end with one remark.

Life has a funny way of being unpredictable even if we think we are so sure about it. There’s always this worry that we might have chosen to devote our lives to the wrong person, or that the relationship doesn’t last. Even if we find someone who ticks all the right boxes for a long-lasting and stable relationship, we can never be too sure.

Does this mean that we don’t try?

My ex once asked me this at the start of our relationship. I thought about it for some time, and I answered: If we’re sure about being together now, then it’s worthwhile that we join each other on our adventures. We’ll make memories and we’ll learn and grow together. And if, in the future, we find that we have to part ways, we’ll just thank each other for being such a significant part of our life’s journey and for all the wonderful memories and experiences that shaped us to be who we have become. And that’s still pretty worthwhile.

We were together for 9 years. It sucks to part ways in the end, but we’re both very grateful to each other for all the experiences and memories that we’ve had with each other. And we’ve had no regrets about being together. (Just so you know, we’re still on cordial talking terms.)

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.

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.