Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In the Balance

I believe that kindness, social grace and civic consciousness can be taught just like how Maths, biology, chemistry and languages are taught in school. Although not everyone can master languages and be scientists, everyone should be able to learn the basic rules about compassion, cleanliness, thoughtfulness and etiquettes. However in reality, respect, kindness and thoughtfulness somehow elude us when we go about our daily activities particularly when life becomes too busy and the demands of everyday life is taking a toll on us. Often when we are so zealous in guarding our own interest that we are oblivious to the other people and their needs, we only pay attention to how we can reach our destination in the shortest time possible or how we can complete a task with as  few disruptions as possible so that we can move on with other aspects  of our lives.

To a large extent, everyone should focus on his or her own interest to begin with because if you do not learn to take care of yourself, you may become a burden to the people who care about you. We know that we have to take care of ourselves because it is so rare that anybody can do anything for you when you are unhappy about your life. Many people only care about reaping the most for themselves and you know that if you are not careful, you may be taken advantage of and you may subsequently become resentful when you feel cheated or shortchanged. Sometimes our fear of being victimized make us go a little overboard .It has taken me decades to finally acknowledge that few people think too much about the interest of others  let alone examining their thoughts or reflect about  why they do things the way they have done and why they say certain things and what they have said to others.

I notice that unhappy people tend to be spiteful and their words can be unkind and curt. I also notice that people have a tendency to expect certain kind of behaviour from certain people who are considered successful and they are pleasantly surprised  when these people turn out to be kind and modest. Why should we not expect that everyone to be kind and modest? Whether we are happy or unhappy, I believe that everyone could find joy in one way or another. Maybe if we  appreciate that everyone is coping with his or her own situation, we will give a little more thoughts about the others and try to think of ourselves less. When you think of yourself less does not mean you think less of yourself.  The problem is we tend to think of ourselves more and more and about how we fare in the eyes of others around us. Very often in our insatiable quest for material comfort and success, we look away from the injustice and sufferings  around us.
In Les Belles Images written by Simone de Beauvoir translated by Patrick O’Brian, the protagonist Laurence and her husband Jean-Charles are very protective of their daughters who are not allowed to watch television for fear that they will find out about unhappy and  ugly things in the real world that might upset them. But their twelve-year- old, Catherine has made a new school friend who is worldly, a child beyond her age and she tells Catherine sad stories that happen around the world. When Catherine starts having nightmares and ask questions about the world, Laurence has to figure out how to explain unhappiness to Catherine and to get her daughter to accept the fact that there are unhappy people and to believe that they will stop being unhappy.

‘I tell you what , we will talk about it tomorrow .But if you know any unhappy people we’ll try and do something for them. You can treat sick people, give poor ones money-there are masses of things you can do .’

‘Are there really? For everybody?’

‘Dear me, I should cry all day long if there were people whose unhappiness couldn’t be cured at all. Tell me all about it tomorrow. And I promise you we’ll find something to be done. I promise,’ she repeated, stroking Catherine’s hair. ‘Go to sleep now, darling.

Laurence knows that is a very rash promise, and her daughter’s questions make her evaluate  the good life she leads and how she has grown to be  detached from the happenings around the world.

Here is another  snippet of the conversation between mother and daughter.

Brigitte says that when people are wicked it’s because they are unhappy. Except the Nazis.”

“She told you that?” Laurence squeezed Catherine tighter. “No Granny won’t grow wicked. But take care when you see her ; don’t look as though you knew she was unhappy.”

“I wish you weren’t unhappy either, so I do,’ said Catherine.

Laurence agonizes about what to tell her daughter. The narration sometimes is in the third person and at other times is in the first person.

Essentially what Lucien said and what Papa said coincided. Everyone was unhappy : everyone could find happiness –the one amounted to the other . Can I explain to Catherine that people are not so unhappy as all that since they cling to life? Laurence hesitated. It’s the same as saying that unhappy people are not unhappy. Is that true? Dominique’s voice all broken with sobs and cries : she loathed her life, but she had not the slightest wish to die : that is unhappiness. And again there is that emptiness, that void which freezes your heart and which is worse than death although you are preferring it to death so long as you do not kill yourself. I went through that five years ago and I still feel t

he horror of it . And the fact is that people do kill themselves –he asked for bananas and a towel - because in reality there does exist something worse than death. That is what chills your spine when you read an account of a suicide : not the frail corpse hanging from the window- bars but what happened inside that heart immediately before.’

Laurence  sometimes feels like she does not belong to the group she is with. She is married to an ambitious architect who wants to send Catherine to a psychologist when her grades at school drop. One day in order  to avoid running into the cyclist who  shot in front of her car, Laurence crashed their car in the ditch. Her husband was upset with her for wrecking the car that would cost a large sum of money to repair. Laurence later reflected that Jean- Charles had something to cross about as he was sitting in the suicide seat. Laurence's mother, Dominique who is in her early 50s is not impressed with her father who has not advanced in his legal career. After their divorce, Dominique had a suitor who subsequently left her for a 19-year- old and she was devastated despite having a successful career. To Dominique,  a woman is nothing without a wealthy man in her arm.

Les Belles Images is a simple story about an upper middle class family living in Paris in the 60s. I read the book in the 80s and picked it up again over the weekend. Despite the fact that we are in the new millennium , the story in some respects are still very much relevant. The story is about how we may be at risk of becoming vacuous and vain as we  chase after  progress and material goals.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Optimism and Pessimism

In life one needs doses of optimism to stay hopeful and positive thinking. Unlike pessimists, optimists choose to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. Optimism helps us to interpret situations in the best possible light. Perhaps optimism plus a small dose of realism coupled with a dash of pessimism to know that failure can happen are probably the recipes for us to stay resilient through life.

I have often thought that I am an optimistic person until I did some optimism quiz  from some website sometime ago. I came to conclude that the pessimism trait must have  unsuspectingly crept up on me after having  stayed in the legal profession a tad too long. Unfulfilled dreams are quite a few, perhaps it is time for me  to seriously think about how to go about achieving them.

Celebrities make it seem like easy to reinvent oneself. I guess if you have already built a name for yourself, it is probably less daunting to move on to a new line of career that you want to venture into but even fame cannot guarantee success in your new venture. I am never comfortable with building a personal brand through Linkedin nor Skillpage as I find my professional life  ordinary though it is definitely in my interest to build myself a brand in my profession. Writing is what I care about though it has taken me a long while to let friends and acquaintances know that writing is my passion.

Writing helps me to articulate my thoughts and its creative process can be therapeutic. I read a great deal partly because I love to read. Reading definitely helps me to write better. I am eager to translate my thoughts into written words and I  like to tell stories. At night I write even when my mind is terribly exhausted. I make a coffee and I make Chinese tea with the hope that all these drinks will help me stay awake. I get excited in anticipation of watching some films and attending tennis matches at grand slams ( so far I have only been to the Australian Open ) but I feel far more excited just browsing around and finding books that are promising reads. I find that  life can be absurd and yet it is full of surprises that are not necessarily bad. I find the idiosyncrasies of  different groups of  people interesting and the ironies of life fascinating. I am constantly amazed how these published writers can capture the intricacies of life and make their characters credibly complex. 

The 100 Year- Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is an entertaining read. The Swedish author,Jonas Jonasson  is very clever in weaving a story with a backdrop that spins across several geographical locations around the world and also it takes you on a journey through some major historical events  of the twentieth century. These are some of the interesting facts about the protagonist, Allan Karlsson.

'Allan Emmanuel Karlsson was born on May 2 ,1905. The day before, his mother had marched on the May Day procession in Flen and demonstrated on behalf of women’s suffrage, an eight-hour working day, and other utopian demands.'

Allan’s father was of both a considerate and an angry nature. He was considerate with his family but he was  angry with society in general and one day he lost his job on the railways after punching a passenger who happened to announce that he was on his way to Stockholm with thousands of others to visit the King in the royal palace. Allan’s father left the country and emigrated to Russia where he started to waver in his belief in the blessings of socialism.

Allan was left to fend for himself at the young age of fifteen when his mother died by which time his dad had already been killed in Russia. At age thirteen, Allan was already accomplished in making explosions by mixing chemical ingredients and he continued to develop new formulas for making dynamites in his own company. He lived an isolated life.

'But what finally formed young Allan’s philosophy of life were his mother’s words when they received the news of his father’s death. It took a while before the message seeped into his soul, but once there, it was there forever:

Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.

That meant, among other things, that you didn’t make a fuss, especially when there was good reasons to do so, for example, when they heard the news about his father’s death. ……………

Allan Karlsson didn’t ask much of life. He just wanted a bed, lots of food, something to do , and now and then a glass of vodka. If these requirements were met, he could stand most things.'

When Allan is a few months shy of a hundred years old, he ends up in a nursing home where he has to abide by the mile-long list of rules and regulation including no smoking and no drinking. “Alcohol kills” is how Alice, the  Director of Malmk√∂ping’s  Old Folks’ Home has justified the “no alcohol”  rule. As it happens, despites his complaining knees and body aches and pains, Allan decides to escape just when the staff at the Old Folks’ home has started to prepare for his 100th birthday. He climbs out the window and embarks on a hilarious roller coaster journey where he meets eccentric characters and has the most unexpected windfall when a young man with long greasy hair and scraggly beard and a jean jacket asks him to mind his big, grey suitcase on wheels when the latter goes to the restroom to relieve himself . The uncouth young man does not seem to hear that Allan has a bus to catch and thus when the bus pulls up, Allan says yes to life and drags along the suitcase which he later discovers that it contains 50 million crowns drug money. Allan  becomes the target for the gangsters who call themselves “ Never Again” and also the  prime suspect for murder after some of  these gangsters are found dead.

While he is at the wrong place at the wrong time, Allan  seems to get lucky all the time and somehow things  work out for him. Allan is a larger than life character whose optimism definitely pays off even in his ripe old age. The story is very funny indeed.