Sunday, April 21, 2013

Through the Looking Glass

Brighton, England

I do not wish to be an overbearing parent because I believe that I should  let my children have the liberty to make decisions on their own. I want to encourage them to have trust in their own judgments and abilities and  I hope that they do not succumb to peer pressures and depend on the online response from their friends on Facebook. They must know that one’s self worth is not dependent on the number of followers or friends he or she has whether in cyberspace or the physical world. I want to impress upon them : “ The World is Your Oyster” and when in doubt, listen to your inner voice.

While self-esteem may not be exponential of self  confidence, perhaps the least each parent must do is to do all they can to ensure that their children’s self esteem and self belief are intact. I try to be mindful about what I say to my children and at the same time I must not be trying too hard to make them feel better when things do not go well. One tough aspect of growing up is to be always self assured to make up your own mind. Maturity is about coping with the harsh realities that we do not often make the best decisions or get what we want and through trial and error, we have to become adaptable and flexible. Ideally we should all be doing what we like to do and not doing what we are told or what we think we should do. However free will comes with possessing strong sense of individualism and non-conforming takes strong conviction and insurmountable boldness and courage to see it through.

A parent sometimes misses the years when the child was still a baby. When the child was a baby, his or her parents would moon over him or her and coo-coo to every single sound and smile the child exuded. Sometimes, parenthood gives less, not more, pleasure through the years as the child begins to have a mind of his or her own and become an independent person in his or her own right. My late father once expressed his disappointment in me as he lamented, “ You have changed.”

I never asked what he had meant. Can an individual change over the years? I was probably not the person he thought he had come to know or what he wanted me to become. Apart from the inevitable changes that occur in our physical appearance due to aging, our outlook and attitude change due to what we have experienced and we may even reinvent ourselves from time to time to cope with changing circumstances and surroundings. However I do not think we can alter our make up.  Over the years, wherever we are , however the others perceive of us , I believe our cores or our essential self remain the same. Every person has qualities that may seem irreconcilable in the eyes of those around you but we must realize that the outsiders cannot be privy to your real emotions and thoughts yet we care how others perceive of us. Perhaps who we are really comes down to those around us.

In his book ‘The Self Illusion’, Professor Bruce Hood wrote that whether we like it or not, we are all members of  groups of people and because no man or woman is an island, we all belong to the one very big club: the human species. Throughout our lifetime we either hang around with or fall into different groups by default or otherwise. We are all associated with the groups we have been assigned to by birth and through assimilation. Some people do not want to belong to the respective groups they have been assigned to based on their religious or cultural backgrounds because they have difficulties discarding all the prejudices and biases that are attached to those particular groups. Few of us can live as hermits, hence most of us do things that are acceptable to the society they have been assigned to by birth or the culture they have been brought up in. Sometimes we no longer recognize who we are as we are much caught up in the value system of the groups or the community we live in. What we think matter to us are actually what we are told that matter.

 We think we have made our personal choices but  choices are never our own because we are constantly surrounded by conscious and unconscious processes. For example,  it should not be our possessions that define us but the advertisement industry tells us we are what we own and therefore seemingly define who we are. Luxury brands sell simply because they project prestige and material success and we live in the world where wealth matters and hence our vanity is constantly exploited by the advertisers.

Professor Hood wrote : ‘Our self exists in the reflection that the world holds up to us. The American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “the looking glass self” to express the way that the self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us.” Apparently everyone holds a looking glass up to us every time we interact with each of them, that probably explains why I find that some people make me feel elated while some people make me feel extremely uncomfortable or drained when I am around them. Cooley summed up the notion of self illusion in this tongue- twister of logic, “ I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”’

It is our human nature to pigeonhole others and in turn be labeled ourselves, if only we could stop appraising the others and at the same time care less about how we could fit other people’s perceptions, we would perhaps be comfortable in our own skin and watch our inner thoughts good or bad,  for each of us is unique in our own imperfect and flawed ways and each of us is entitled to his or her own views to live by. Nothing is what it seems.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

C'est La Vie

Margaret Thatcher died this week at the age of 87. She was a controversial British leader who pursued her political ambition and held strong convictions about what she had wanted and could achieve for her country. She left behind a legacy called “Thatcherism” and by reason of  her  formidable stand and the policies which were implemented during her reign, her death was mourned by some and feted by others. The baroness would go down in history as an icon. One of her famous quotes  is“ In politics, if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”  And during the start of the Falklands War in April 1982, she was quoted as saying, “ Defeat? I do not recognize the meaning of the word.”. The one I love best is “ I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.” The iron lady’s sharp wit and strong determination are qualities that we women can certainly emulate but perhaps not her virility and her coiffure.Like what US President Obama said, “She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.”

From the little that I know, the only female British Prime Minister was patriotic and she had the interests of the people at heart. Although I do not know much about politics but I know that when politicians are vying to win at a poll, apart from fulfilling their own ambitions, they must have visions and know what  is  best for the country. Politicians must know if and when they are elected, what  they want to do for the people and the impacts of their rule may change lives and  the order of things for generations to come.

Whenever someone passes on, mortality hits you right in your face whether it is the death of a renowned political figure or a celebrity or someone you know. Every mortal being who has lived till old age will leave behind some kind of legacy even if you are  just an ordinary man on the street. We all know about the mortal sufferings of every human and we know we must face life and brutality of death as it confronts you and makes you ponder. 

In “Everyman”, Philip Roth wrote how the protagonist whispered back to an elderly woman’s husband at the funeral. The short plump elderly woman wept uncontrollably and her husband 'turned unbidden and impatiently asked,You know why she’s carrying on like that?” “ I believe I do,” the protagonist whispered back, meaning by this, It ‘s because it is for her as it’s been for me ever since I was a boy. It ‘s because it is for her as it is for everyone. It’s because life’s most disturbing intensity is death. It’s because death is so unjust. It is because one has tasted life, death does not seem natural. I had thought-secretly I was certain-that life goes on and on.”  But the woman’s husband said flatly, as though having read his mind. “ She’s like that all the time. That has been the story for fifty years,” he added with an unforgiving scowl. “ She’s like that because she isn’t eighteen anymore.”'

Whether you are the dutiful son or daughter, whether you are successful or unsuccessful parent, we all have our fears, regrets, stoicism, panic and loneliness. And yet we want life to be continuing and as Philip Roth wrote “And to have it all all over again."

The former British Prime Minister suffered poor health in the past decade. So as  what Philip Roth wrote in his novel  Everyman” : “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” May  Baroness  Thatcher rest in peace.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Optimist @ Pragmatist

Several months ago, I paid a visit to my late mother’s sister who was in her 80s. I was concerned that she would not recognize me after being told that she had dementia. To my relief, when she saw me, she immediately called out my pet name and talk in her  usual manner. I understand that Alzheimer patients remember about things in the past but not recent events. Seemingly everyone I know has come into contact with or know someone who suffers from Alzheimer so much so that I have become particularly conscious of my own absent mindedness when I misplace or cannot recall things. I have to prevent myself from becoming a paranoia as I feel worrying affects one’s mental fitness and instead of making progress one may regress unknowingly. Growing old is not easy and definitely not  a curious case of Benjamin Button.

Woody Allen has been famously quoted to say, In my next life I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people's home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, then you are ready for high school. You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then Voila! You finish off as an orgasm!  That is wishful thinking indeed. 

I had a fabulous time counting down 2012 and welcoming 2013. The month of January was highlighted by catching some of the great display of tennis matches at the Australian Open on television. The said month was also marked by the departure of a family member who lived till the ripe old age of 92 and followed by funeral rites and rituals. I was glad to go on a vacation during the Lunar New Year season. When Chinese New Year came and gone in February, I tried not to feel panicky because I still had not done much writing although I could say I had my office work to attend to and a routine to get back to. While January had not been uneventful, February  had been fun and leisure most of the time, as the last hour of February slipped by, I felt I was not exactly having a phenomenal start for 2013 because I had not got on track with  my work and made progress  in what I really liked  to do in the new year. My wish list remains a wish list.

Then came March when I found the hot and muggy weather almost unbearable, I was  still far from settling into a writing routine. The odd thing about air-conditioning is that it does not work well when you need it most . When you are all bothered with the heat, you are just bothered with the heat until you consciously snap yourself out of it and ask, “ Is it really the heat that is bothering you or you are just making excuses because you know you cannot focus?  After all if  the weather gets too cold , your brains freeze and the brains cannot work  either.”

The April month will not go uneventful. Following the dissolution of the  parliament last week, the town will soon be plastered with ugly election posters, politicians will be blaring out promises in their speeches so loudly and fervently that you sincerely hope they will keep . Surely they must know that actions speak louder than words.

A couple of weeks ago, a close friend and her partner returned to Penang for a visit. They decided to quit what they were doing abroad as they were not happy doing what they were doing.  They had not quite figured out what they would like to do next. Then on a short notice, his plans had to be put on hold as his mother had been admitted to the hospital and he had to fly home. I tend to believe that often when things happen, they  somehow lead us to the next thing that probably will have some connection with where you are meant to be. However   our optimism cannot be at its optimum when we are clueless as to what will happen next.

The point is, as our resolve begins to crumble and patience is weighing thin, when we no longer believe that life is infinite possibilities, we should perhaps just live in the moment and take one step at a time. In the novel “Dance Dance Dance” written about a protagonist who was trapped in the advanced capitalist mayhem, Haruki Murakami wrote : “Dance, the Sheep Man said. Dance in tip-top form. Dance so it keeps spinning.” Haruki wrote : “ My awareness of things around me had sharpened. I was moving forward intently, one step at a time. I had a focus, a goal. Which somehow, quite naturally, lightened my step, almost gave me soft-shoe footwork. This was a good sign. Dance. Keep in step, light but steady. Freshen up, maintain where this was leading me to next. Had to make sure I stayed in this world.

A pragmatic mind can be peppered with some optimism so that the reality is far from bleak. Since I cannot fast forward and see what is in store , while nobody is going to slip a million ringgit into my account and I will not have an uncle who has left me a vineyard in France , I might like to hold on to my dreams for they are necessary indulgence.