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.


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