Speaking to Ancestors: Dialogue with a Younger Self

Would your 17-year old self be proud of you today?

It’s certainly sounds like one of those Buzzfeed, Trash ThoughtCatalog kind of articles. You know: the ones where you take a quiz, or some half-baked writer who thinks s/he can string together a sentence deigns to prescribe to you ‘How You Should Live Your Life’, or “Why You Should Not Date a Girl Who Reads”. But the question is a fair one, and a useful means to pause and reflect. Have you grown up to become the person you once wanted to be? Are you a nest of failures now, or would your younger self be proud?

A good friend texted me this question a few hours ago, just as my thoughts randomly (and treacherously) wriggled into the older, darker recesses of the past. I had been reflecting on my very first ex, and the very first foray into “romance”. What would a teenager Rui think of the today’s Rui?

I will be annoying. I think too much, and so I took the question apart like a dutiful USP student, and realised there was no real way to answer it simply. We like to think of histories as objective accounts of the past – but the myth of objectivity is the most powerful and seductive myth of all. It was my epiphany to realize that histories are written from the viewpoints of the present. The concerns and priorities of any narrative are more a reflection of the aspirations and anxieties of the writer, than it is of the event. Consider: your grandfather would tell his grandfather story differently from how you would tell your hipster story. There will be as many accounts of the past as there are witnesses to the past. And so the past is a very slippery fish. It’s rare to find anyone who would tell the story the same way (unless you’re telling the Singapore Story of course; that one you just follow the doorstop book One Man’s View of the World, can already).

Likewise, answering a question such as: would the 17-year old you be proud of the current you?” obscures the fact that it’s not a 17-year old you answering the question. It’s an x year-old you pretending to be a 17-year old you, evaluating the current you and seeing if you are satisfied with yourself.

But let us suppose I could ventriloquize for a Self nearly a decade ago, a Ruizhi with his own system(s) of meanings, his own sets of iconographies and symbols and emotions and experiences. Let us suppose that the Ruizhi of today, sitting in the NUS Central Library using his third laptop could put himself in the shoes and skins of the Ruizhi before his shameful surrender on Gunung Liang; before his proud summit of some Javanese volcanoes; before he commissioned as an Officer of the SAF on a rainy evening; before his disgrace on the cold plains of Waiouru; before his late-nights in Cinnamon College, whining about his essays. Let us suppose we can piece back the ship of Theseus after it has been continually replaced over the decades and the centuries … but of course we can’t.We can only look back uncertainly.

But let us suppose for a moment that older, younger Ruizhi (so fresh he could be a tasty sashimi) could gaze across the gulf(s) of Space and Time and Change, to lock eyes with the Ruizhi (so salty he could be a preserved fish) who is now typing this on an overcast day in 2017, at Kent Ridge; loaded to the gills with the hubris and arrogance of an undergraduate historian about to graduate (hopefully)…

Would my teenager self be proud? What would he have to say?

I think the question isn’t a question about the past. It’s a question about the present. But it is a useful instrument for time-travelling; to examine our current predicaments and circumstances from another angle. Or, to borrow from Michelle Branch’s 1990s hit:

“Could you look me in the eye [of the past], and tell me that you’re happy now?”

I think our answers to such questions are more reflections of our current mental states than they are of any past selves. We change. Minutely everyday, but incrementally over the weeks and months and years. Like spacecraft travelling at tremendous speeds across the abyssal infinities of space, small things make their impacts on us. Our skins: whether emotional or physical or intellectual, are pitted and pockmarked by the scars of a myriad minute asteroids collisions. In tiny ways: a meal, a thought, a phrase, a moment – all these things alter our trajectories. We are the sum aggregate of all these fractional experiences.

So the answer is:

No, I don’t think 17-year old Rui would be proud of current Rui.

And why? Not because he would be ashamed. But more in the way a two-dimensional comic-book character could never contemplate the aspirations and anxieties of a three-dimensional personality. In the same way someone from a different culture would struggle to understand someone else from across the oceans, across the galaxy.

It’s always instructive once in a while to look at old photographs, to read old journal entries. You don’t look back at yourself so much as another person, who was coloured and marinated in a different-tasting, different-coloured stew. So the Ruizhi of 2009 – brash, impulsive, emotional, offensive and unpolished – my ancestor, in many respects – would never have been able to understand the Ruizhi of 2017: brash, impulsive, emotional, offensive and unpolished. Of course, the two individuals are linked. After all, they possess the same identity cards, lived in the same house, had the same set of familial and social relations.

But I understand now why there are coming-of-age rites in certain cultures; why new names are chosen or taken on at a certain juncture of one’s lives. Why someone who has ‘grown up’ by the standards and measures of his context assumes a new identity. They literally have become new people – socially, but physically as well, because your cells die off and are replaced.

The assumption is not symbolic. In many ways it is literal (yet, could we truly draw such clear lines? Words have power. “Spell” connotes magic as much as it denotes the act of forming words). Today-Ruizhi is linked to old/younger-Ruizhi by the thinnest of red running threads.

“Romance” carries a different meaning now, as do “mountains”, and “fundamentals”. The smell of fresh bread, of burnt coffee on a cold Austrian morning; the savage coring hunger and exhaustion from a whole day of walking. The unexpected disappointment of reaching a shrouded mountaintop. The dark electric thrill of an unanticipated, forbidden kiss. The fearful anxiety of feelings, dawning on the horizon. The growth of hard shells hidden behind laughter and cynicism. The great walls nobody suspects, hiding behind deeper pools of yearning and confusion. Sarajevo in the early morning light. A bowl of pho in the Hanoi dawn. The immense, echoing silence of the Aswan desert. The devastating bitterness of rejection and condemnation. The search for oneself; the uncertainty of finding another. The itch of adventure and escape.

All these things – and so much more, i have since discovered, in the years that followed a surprise birthday cake in the main hall of CJC, by someone whose name would mean much more (and then some more) in the following weeks and months and years. Who knew what the years would have held in store for me?

Who knew what the years ahead heralded?

I think if we did know our futures, even the good bits, we would not have the courage to wake up to face the future. And so the blindness of what-is-to-come is perhaps the only thing keeping us from utter madnes and fright.

Time is a strange thing. Even before I became preoccupied with the idea of history, the idea of the present was a perpetual source of fascination. How did people remember; why was the texture of reality so different everytime we tried to re-live the past?

The past is not just a foreign country; it is a million foreign countries, and each time you go back to a slightly different universe. We are Chrestomancis or Lyras or Petit Princes, traversing worlds in search of some meaning.

But we have also come from a past, into another present which we now occupy. This is perhaps a promise that the future will always hold better things. Perhaps I am privileged to live in a cocoonal bubble of happiness, and maybe the future doesn’t always bear good things. But the future is always uncertain, and so unformed, and so embryonic. The future opens up to us worlds and horizons we would never have expected when we first start out.

It would certainly be interesting to meet our past selves, and measure how far we have come. It would be fascinating to confront future selves, to see how differently the flowers of our lives have blossomed; what strange colours they have bloomed into. We choose our own myths, the complexion of the bubbles we want to live inside. It is inevitable. Our worldviews are reflections of ourselves.

Phrased differently, “Would your past self be happy with where you are now?” is actually a question about your present, and how satisfied you are.

My past self was a nutcase. My current self is also a nutcase, albeit one more at peace with the nutcased-ness of his own complexity. I’ve come a long way, by a series of strange, unexpected paths.

But what a rollicking adventure it has been. What a rollicking adventure it will continue to be.

“Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” | Bob Dylan


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