I hope you disagree with me.
This has, as usual, been an interesting week. I’ve learnt many things, and re-learned others. One of the things I have re-learned is a fact about myself: little things can get me down, and feeling things I should not be feeling. In this particular instance, it was an ambiguous mix of melancholy, faint envy, and mild distaste, after learning that a distant batchmate of mine had made a name out of some failure of democracy competition they had worked on. News coverage, even!
Moments like this always get you wondering about what you are doing with your life.
Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, seventh Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had captured Constantinople after a 53-day siege on 29 May 1453. He was 21! Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold medal in 2016. He was 21! And someone from your cohort (or perhaps even younger than you) has already gotten some news coverage! They did something Newsworthy and Commendable! Look at them shaking hands with a stuffed suit! And that lengthy testimonial! They’re giving talks! Starting start-ups! Offering inspirational quotes!
And here we are, sitting there: not exercising, lost in our hum-drum, mundane little daily existences. Ho hum; life is great. I guess. There’s melancholy and envy mixed into the moment, even as you struggle to be happy for the person. I mean, that’s the correct feeling and outward reaction right? Anything else would be met with dirty glances or admonitions of “stop being so sour and salty”, as if you were a $4.00 bowl of watery tom-yam soup from virtually every foodcourt in Singapore.
Tom-Yam Soup: Sour & Salty
Occasionally, like in this instance, there’s also mild distaste. “But that’s not who he is in real life,” I complained to a friend who didn’t mind tom-yam soup. (Actually, nobody really minds tom-yam soup. They just pretend they do, because that’s Socially Acceptable. Slurping tom-yam soup everyday loudly is Not Approved. Anyway.) “What a front, what a political animal” I whined, “Now I understand why some people can’t stand Hillary Clinton.” And then my friend pointed out that that must be what (at least) half of SJI must have felt when they read my Senior Josephian citation, and virtually every accolade I had won in the past, in full public sight. How fake you must have appeared, if not been too, my friend remarked. This is why they refer to you as chooruizhi, by the way, she observed incisively.
I blinked. This was a moment. I had never considered things in this light. But it was a necessary moment – that moment when you realise you are everything you complain to be.
The Joy of Growing Up: Meeting Oneself
I used to complain in the past about growing up. That I wanted to be a creative, active child all my living life. Growing up – with its labours, burdens and expectations, was terrifying. Some grown-ups, with their Demands for Respect and their utter lack of respect in the opposite direction, offered a lukewarm preview of the kind of creature I might one day become. As a child I never wanted to grow up.
But growing up also means we get a chance to look back. It means we accumulate enough experiences to acquire some distance and perspective. We learn to see that not every little criticism entails the end of the world. Growing up can be difficult, even in a modern industrialised society.
But in that struggle also lies the greatest promise, the hope for the greatest treasure: the possibility that perhaps one day, we will find ourselves, our own voices.
The sublime poet Derek Walcott describes it as “Love after Love” (a poem that I had always wanted to write for myself) when he declared that one day,
“The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome” | Derek Walcott
Another great poet, Pablo Neruda described it in darker shades, when he opined that
“Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life.” | Pablo Neruda
And I think for this 24-year young me, finding myself has been at times the most frustrating, most lonely, most painful thing to do. Childhood ostracism can open your eyes very early on to how easily people can be frightened, cajoled and coerced to going along with the flow. Children can be cruel to themselves, let’s not romanticize innocence. “Come, let’s all not talk to Ruizhi for the whole day okay!” And they did. And then everybody would laugh at Ruizhi for being green-faced, the sullen little boy again. As usual. Vicious cycles.
But being the outlier also means that you find your individuality a little earlier. Loneliness can be liberating, you just don’t realize it at the time. If you are used to people occasionally not talking to you for no reason at all, it’s actually not that big a leap to say something so people actually have a reason to give you dirty looks. You gain a growing, glowing awareness for how afraid people can be, and how easily they can be convinced into doing the most cruel things. Like Terry Pratchett once wrote somewhere in Small Gods, the man in the mob stoning the adulterer isn’t angry at you; often he’s just glad he isn’t you. And you can decide you don’t want to be that kind of bovine animal. (Do you know, sheep are really silly animals? I threw a carrot chunk at one once and it fled)
All this isn’t to blame my childhood and begin a long psychoanalytic tirade, nor to paint me to be some martyr. Goodness knows, I must have been one disagreeable, ornery kid. But that winding road hasn’t gone nowhere. I think it’s taught me that being different is alright. I think it’s shown me that being different can, in the long run, pay off handsomely. Individuality is lonely – but loneliness also means freedom. The freedom to chart one’s own course.
The Path to Independence: Dissent & Resistance
I think that individuality don’t come when we start to agree with what the smart, the rich, the exclusive, the intelligent think (I would put quotation marks on all these groups, but I am too lazy, so here’s a comment in parentheses). I think individuality begins when we learn how to depart from these paradigms and perspectives. When we begin to see the frameworks, monstrous monoliths and anomalous artifices which have been put in place to keep us pliant, obedient and submissive.
To keep us scoring the best test scores. To keep us saying the right things. To keep us believing the right things. To keep us striving for the admirable, the laudable. These days, aside from awards, testimonials and compliments, there is also the Internet, the emerging global ecumene by which imagined communities of niche interests can now be created and entrenched. In the past you had the Bible, you had your Mummy, you had your schoolteacher to instruct you on All That is Just, All That is Pure, and All That is Lovely. Now you have the Internet which will contribute to the Naming and Shaming. In Singapore, the prevailing values are things like “Multiculturalism” or “Be Nice to NS Boys” and “Don’t be a Meanie. Try a Little Kindness”. This means even in “intellectual communities” like USP, we have even devolved to tone-policing. It all looks very innocent – but there’s a system at work here, teaching us quietly what is un/acceptable.
And yet, this isn’t a ‘Wake Up Sheeple!’ moment. In large communities (=cities, countries, nations). there must be ways to discipline and unify perspectives. If we are to live together, perhaps an inevitable result is that we must agree to a rough set of values, beliefs and behaviours. Perhaps it’s inevitable.
What isn’t so inevitable, what I think we can fight back against, are these feelings of fear and anxiety when we feel we aren’t measuring up. When we beat ourselves up over the fact that we aren’t doing the things other people are doing. Oh my GOODNESS I haven’t made my first MILLION DOLLARS, like that motivational speaker has done (probably by overcharging people in seminars on How to Make Your First Million)! I’m not even interested in start-ups! Heck, I can’t even start-up my panic to revise for my Finals. I haven’t had an Epiphany where I start distributing Olive Oil! I haven’t travelled 194 countries and Seen the World! I only have 2 likes on my Instagram post on the Latte Coffee I had at AS8!! OMFG.
And LITERALLY the WORST: Istanbul (Constantinople) can’t be conquered anymore!!!!
Inadequacy: A Potential Antidote
I have made these points before in previous posts, and I will make them again. This is a blogpost to myself, but also to you reading this, whose mental landscape must inevitably be coloured by background melancholy, disappointment, anxiety and fear (why else would you be reading this, as you procrastinate from whatever more ‘important’ task you were doing?). My points overlap and interblend and imbricate. But because the English language is what it is, there is no way to satisfyingly illustrate this in a textual form:
Mediocrity is Okay
Success is a construct. How will you define success? By what the institutions tell us? By what your parents say you must do? By the grade you cannot get? By the money in your bank account, so that you can lord it over your irritating relatives every family gathering? Who the hell cares about what they think anyway? The sight of their faces falling in shock is amazing, but there are other things that are amazing too. Like childhood biscuits. And a whole day chilling in your own room. Displacement = 0. Enjoyment: over 9000.
My point here is: let’s be aware of the artifices and the lines and the circles which have been drawn around us, to keep us not only from doing things, but even thinking them. The elephant which has been conditioned to stay in one spot will never contemplate leaving its spot, even with the gate open.
Equipped with smartphones, with access to books and ideas, we are not jungle elephants. If we chose to be, we can be authors of our own lives, as ridiculously cliched as that sounds. I promise: i didn’t take that off an Instagram influencer.
We can actually take the pen, and start colouring or drawing obscene genitalia between the lines, rather than continuing the paragraph. Heck, we can choose to snap the pen too, if we wanted.
Freedom is not the wherewithal to continue writing in the same book. Freedom is also deciding whether you even like reading and writing. Or if you actually like skydiving. Or moscato. Or praying mantises.
Freedom comes from defining our own values, even as we try to live in a world which is everyday trying to make us into its own, incoherent self-image.
Sour Grape Resistance
At an award ceremony earlier this way, whilst waiting to go onstage to collect my Book Prize for being “Top in This Exam”, I posted a quick note about how we remain in lockstep to institutions if we allow ourselves to be solely defined by the standards established by these institutions.
“But you still collected your prize anyway right,” was a disgruntled rolled-eye comment of a senior who read my post. “Make so much noise for what.”
Well, yes, because having $$$-vouchers to buy books from Kinokuniya is always awesome. But to have said it when I hadn’t won, would have opened myself up to accusations of sour grapes.
So this is the sour-grape follow up. I’m making noise because we needn’t and we mustn’t let ourselves feel small simply because we didn’t meet the standards and targets some strange institution set for us. To put it creatively and to embellish it: i’d say that’s resistance in its own way too. That’s Doris Lessing reacting to her Nobel Literature Prize win (“The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered,” she’d missed the first announcement cos she had been out shopping). That’s Bob Dylan ignoring the repeated calls to his residence to inform him that he had won the same award. Prizes exist because someone had the money to sponsor the prize, and the publicity of it. And so i think…
We needn’t be entirely proud and smug when someone tells us they want to reward us. You win awards for doing some thing. For jumping through certain hoops. For wearing things a particular way. For saying things that make people clap their hands in glee. Is that really something to be proud of, to have someone you may not even know say, “Hey, I like your stuff because I see some of myself in you”
And what good does it do anybody, to simply conform? Sure, it’s a nice fuzzy glow, once in awhile – but then what? Attention can be addictive. That’s why I maintain a Facebook, an Instagram(s), and this blog. What good does it do when we colour so neatly within the lines?
The Inch of Freedom & the Joy of Resistance
And so: even raised, caught and living within the tightly interwoven nets of social expectation and decorum, there are still corners, still inches for us to not only be free, but to fundamentally define what freedom can mean to us.
Hey mantarui, hey you, reader: it’s alright to feel glazed, disheartened, when surveying one’s own lives. It’s alright even to compare, and then start complaining (although that’s a very quick road to low self-esteem). But happiness does not lie there.
Happiness lies in resistance. Happiness lies in disagreeing, in our own small ways, with whatever people, institutions, books say we must say, do, feel, think. Happiness lies in contentment – and contentment lies in how we choose to think. If you can draw your own lines (even in crayon, even rudely and rudimentarily) – then I think you can start deciding for yourself how you are going to populate, create, and shape your internal landscapes.
Hey but that’s just me, of course.
I hope you disagree.
“My mother said I broke her heart…but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…but within that inch we are free.” | Alan Moore, V for Vendetta