The Curse of Optimism

The problem with me is that I don’t give up.

No, i don’t mean that in a humble-bragging kind of way. There’s supposed to be an element of underlying awe, respect and homage paid to someone when you say that a person doesn’t know when they’re beaten. This isn’t it.

The problem with me is that I have always been too slippery for that. In most cases, I have managed to smile my way into, or slip my way out of, sneak my way around, or climb over the lines, boundaries and walls that have been put up. With a few words, some patience and some cunning, I have usually managed to make things work.

It always took me some effort to colour inside the lines, even as a child. I abandoned colouring books very quickly at a young age. They smelled too much of dusty severity. Once, when I was eighteen, a sports/rock-climbing activity during PE challenged us to try the hardest way up a rock wall. I tried and I tried and I tried until my fingers failed me. I couldn’t feel my fingers for days after. During a fast march as an officer cadet I stupidly drank too much water too early during the event, and ended up puking all the way to the Ferry Terminal. But I ran the the last kilometre in Full Battle Order, even as my stomach heaved itself out. When a big, imposing Man with a big, imposing moustache yelled at me and told me that I couldn’t just go up to interview bus drivers, I simply smiled and walked past him to talk to another bus captain sitting at another table eating his lunch. The problem with me is that I can’t give up.

I’m usually awfully lazy. But when something catches my imagination it takes a lot to dislodge that electricity.

This is, I guess, a problem that has worsened with my undergraduate training as a historian, as a student of the humanities. You learn that very often, frontiers and boundaries are often long, poorly patrolled ridgelines which can be sneakily breached/bridged; either that or they are dashed lines in an otherwise featureless sea. Gridlines are often (colonial) constructs in a region where mandalas used to emanate from the personage of the Sultan or Raja. Labels, theories and distinctions exist – but when you peer at them closely they start sweating and dissembling. It came almost as an existential shock to me when I learned that even ‘zero’ as a concept was problematic. Heck, “zero” didn’t even exist until the Egyptians came into the scene! Even in! Mathematics! Zero!

I’ve come to see that short of the ones exerted by the physical world, many limits are liminally porous.  I don’t encounter absolute lines often, and I’m used to breaching/sneaking/ bypassing all the others. The concept is alien and unfamiliar to me.  What’s consequently emerged, like mould growing on a pillow, is an irrepresible, interminable, elastic fire that is incredibly difficult to quash.

I suppose it’s something you also come to acquire after climbing mountains for a time. On a 6-hour summit attempt, one cannot simply decide to give up halfway. You just keep going, and find reasons to keep going. And then when you can’t find any more reasons, you keep going, simply by brute mental strength. I have a wellspring in me that bears perhaps the greatest human poison: hope.

It has gotten me to the strangest places, to meet the queerest people. But that also means that I am poorly inoculated (psychologically) to the idea of death; to anti-possibility: no-hope, heat-death, absolute-zero. Always I am sneaking and seeking and searching for the crevices, the recesses, the secret passages hiding in plain sight, seeking another way through. I have learnt that rivers bleed into every opening, and that there are many ways to the sea.

And thus, because I am so rarely confronted with a completely smooth Cube: dark and completely inscrutable; an utter Dead End – i have no idea how to turn back when I am told that all is dead. That I should simply cut my losses. It is a long time, only after having exhausted myself and all my options, and believing that I have exhausted all my options, that I finally break camp, and break my swords, and break my ploughshares, and go home.

Being an optimist is a curse. Being able to see faint stars even in the darkest night, overfeeding on Motivational Quotes and actually assimilating them; being audacious enough to challenge every ‘no’, being atheist in my disbelief of Denial – it is perhaps the most tiring thing of all. Hope animates all my long-dead endeavours and dreams (so they become zombies).

Sometimes I wish I was a pliant, blinkered animal. It would save me plenty of effort, grief and burnt bridges. It would have saved a lot of my loved ones that kind of grief.  Mm Kam Wang, my dad would lament, after I ask him “but why” for the umpteenth time after being grounded. “Iron-tooth!” My grandmother would complain after I kept up my nonsense.

Learning to live, and let live, is important. But I am still learning, and re-learning, how to live and let die. Death is part of our daily experiences. And that’s the problem with immortality, and zombies – they are unfamiliar with endings, they understand them only as pauses. The problem with me is that I don’t give up.

But I suppose this time, I must.

“CHORONZON: I am a dire wolf, prey-stalking, lethal prowler.

MORPHEUS: I am a hunter, horse-mounted, wolf-stabbing.

CHORONZON: I am a horsefly, horse-stinging, hunter-throwing.

MORPHEUS: I am a spider, fly-consuming, eight legged.

CHORONZON: I am a snake, spider-devouring, posion-toothed.

MORPHEUS: I am an ox, snake-crushing, heavy-footed.

CHORONZON: I am an anthrax, butcher bacterium, warm-life destroying.

MORPHEUS: I am a world, space-floating, life-nurturing.

CHORONZON: I am a nova, all-exploding… planet-cremating.

MORPHEUS: I am the Universe — all things encompassing, all life embracing.

CHORONZON: I am Anti-Life, the Beast of Judgment. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds… of everything. Sss. And what will yoube then, Dreamlord?

I am hope.”

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes



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