One morning when I was driving to work, I heard the radio DJ commenting about how a number of the secondary school students aspired to become actors and actresses and if only these young kids knew how difficult it would be for them to get acting jobs and get paid. I guess we all may dream about what we want to do when we grow up and when we are old enough, most of us will get real and know that we need a job that pays our rent and our material needs.
I came across an official receipt for some tuition fee I paid for my daughter several years ago. The receipt was issued by Be Smart Learning Centre.The name is representative of all parental hopes for their children. It is the parents’ fear that their children cannot get into a good school and obtain some academic qualifications from reputable higher institutions and accredited universities so these children are sent to classes and tuition centres that apparently provide them the competitive edge to excel in examinations. Not every child is an ivy league candidate but it is important that the child gets a good college degree. The grown ups who think they know better debate about the kind of college degree which will set the child off to a career path that should guarantee material success. Amidst all the mad chase, we overlook the essence of learning and growing. In reality, grown ups do not know better.
When I was a student, I used to burn midnight oil and did all the cramming on the eve of the exam. Some friends used to say that they had not started their revision or they had not been studying. The thing is if you have not, you ace it, you must be smart. You do not want to be known as the one who has been mugging and not done well. I find that if you put in little efforts you might scrape through or even get lucky and score well. But the stuff you learn will be thrown out of the window after you have handed in the papers. Often, you do not need to know all the stuff you learn in school when you are a grown up, but it is still a waste of the opportunity while you have the chance to study them.
Because I did it at the very last minute just to get through the examinations, I did not remember all that biology, geography and history I studied in school. I learnt nothing. It was a waste of the opportunity but when I was young, I did not know then. It was immaturity.
Ideally we should focus on shaping each individual child into a compassionate and considerate human being and not just gearing the child to perform well at qualifying examinations as schools do not prepare us for life paradoxes and uncertainties. If only we could spend more time and energy cultivating tolerance and nurturing empathy, there might be better understanding of the human race and amongst the people from all walks of life.
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up The Goldfinch from WH Smith at Heathrow and set out to read it on the flight journey home. It is a compelling tale written by Donna Tartt who tells the story in the voice of Theo Decker about his growing years since the bombing accident when he was aged thirteen. On that fateful day, Theo and his mother visited the Met in New York and his mother was killed in the explosion. Theo who had survived the accident suffered post traumatic stress disorder and the tale is about his longing for his mother and his relationship with his reckless, largely absent father. The accident, his longing for his mother and his random act of picking up the small but priceless painting in the panic of his escape influenced the psyche of his growing years and his actions for years to come.
The fiction is narrated in Theo Decker’s voice and here is one narration that describes his tragic feeling about life that seems to be devoid of any meaning.
“Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and traveled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it . It was rotten top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home. It was better never to have been born- never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything…..”
Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am ? Why do I care about all the wrong things. And nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way:how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet – for me, anyway – all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?
A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.
Because – isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture-? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted --? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire ,is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being a better person? ……………….
The Goldfinch deals with life paradoxes and is another exquisite piece of writing that I am glad to have read recently.
|Amsterdam , September 2008|