A Farewell to My Grandmother

March 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

On Monday morning, I said goodbye to a woman who’s seen me grow up for the 26 years of my life. She lives in the apartment next to mine. In fact I didn’t really “say goodbye”. She left this physical world in the wee hours of the morning, when I was at my laptop typing away.

I can blame myself for not having spent more time with her, but I won’t.

I still remember that in the days of Chinese New Year I spent with her. No pesky distant relatives, the kind that only came once a year or not at all. Just grandma and me. Til the end she was reaffirming the things that mattered to her: having her grandchildren around her. If not for my dialect- incapability, I would have said more to her. All I could to was to affirm the belief that I was and always will be her grandson.

Towards the last few weeks, she was racked with depression: she refused to get out of bed at times, refusing to eat at others. Her mind fled her, before her body did. When visitors came on the first day of Chinese New Year, she didn’t get out of bed to greet any of them.

She was a proud woman. As her health deteriorated and her walking abilities declined throughout the past several years, we had difficulty getting her to accept the cane, then the walking frame, and eventually the wheelchair.

Growing old is a challenging process, even in this modern age of medicine and computers.

She had been around for much of my life so far, that it seemed an unspoken promise that she would be around forever- a foolish thought that I had, that I could keep her for long. It is such times that I ought to have been reminding myself that loved objects will surely leave us, or are already leaving. Whatever life has granted us, it is really loaned to us.

The typical eulogy will state that “he/she had gone to a better place”. Sure, I will allow myself to think that, but I’d prefer the analogy that she was freed from a prison of discomfort.
“Why forget” I ask myself, “that death releases one from suffering, where one returns to a peaceful state before birth?”

Tradition and superstition binds us to the belief that death is fearful and should not be talked about, but death needs to be talked about – all the time.

A friend said that in these moments, the mind will be filled with “But I was going to…” and “If only I …” It matters not how much I had spent time with her, or how much her absence will be felt. What matters now is the presence she had been in life, that she played a significant part of my existence. That my life would have been lesser without her.

The recollection of her memory will eventually become pleasant to me, even if it is bittersweet. I had the good fortune of having a grandmother close at hand, even though fortune denied me the presence of a grandfather.

“Fortune has taken away, but fortune has given”

The remembrance of my grandmother serves to remind me to cherish those with me while I have them.

I will look to the time when the recollection of times spent with her will become a pleasant memory for me. For now, these memories taste somewhat harsh even if there is some pleasantness in it

“as in extremely old wines, it is their very bitterness that pleases us”

And her passing tells me to love those around me as if I should one day lose them, so that when I have lost them, I would have them still.

forsan et hæc olim meminisse iuvabit

 

What Philosophy is, and used to be

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

If there is ever a good reason why I would not further my education in the field of Philosophy, it would probably be because the field is no longer taught nor practiced the way it was meant to be, in its original conception. Academia seem to be more preoccupied with the history of philosophy, than Philosophy itself.

The late Pierre Hadot, who was a French Professor Emeritus, College de France, compares Philosophy during the Classical period with what it is today, and puts it this way:

“…the conditions of the teaching of philosophy were very different from what they are now. Modern students study philosophy only because it is a required course; at the most a student may become interested by an initial contact with the discipline and may wish to take exams on the subject. In any case it is chance that will decide whether the student will encounter a professor who belongs to a particular “school”, be it phenomenological, existentialist, deconstructionist, structuralist, or Marxist. Perhaps, someday, he will pledge alliegeance to one of these “isms”; in any case, his adherence will be intellectual and will not engage his way of life, with the possible exception of Marxism. For us moderns, the notion of a philosophical school evokes only the idea of a doctrinal tendency or theoretical position.

Things were very different in antiquity. No university obligations oriented the future philosopher toward a specific school; instead, the future philosopher came to attend classes in the school of his choice as a function of the way of life practiced there. Once led into a classroom by chance, however, the student might unexpectedly become converted as he heard a master speak.

This was the story of Polemo, after a night of debauchery, entered Xenocrates school one morning on a dare with a band of drunken comrades. Seduced by the master’s discourse, Polemo decided to become a philosopher, and later became head of the school. No doubt this is an edifying fiction; nevertheless, it could appear to be completely believable.”

Pierre Hadot “What is Ancient Philosophy?” (Translated by Michael Chase)

photo by Samantha Decker

The Best Defense Against Melancholy

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

photo by Ranoush

I might have found my ultimate defense against loss and grief. Its adoption and use though, is much more difficult than expected. Still, it is arguably the best balm to grief, anxiety, and sadness.

Every now and then, I get migraine headaches- the kind that leaves you with numbing cranial pain on the side of your head.  You’d have to be resting in a quiet dark room to feel any better.

Prior to the actual headache occuring, most migraine sufferers would experience visual distortions (dark spots/scaly bright patterns) that serve as premonitions. These premonitions are a sign of what’s to come, and have a downer-depressive effect. It has often left me in throes of helplessness and depression for a short period of time.

Ultimately, my psyche has found a remedy. It wasn’t pills the doctor gave though. It was the acceptance of and preparation for the inevitable headache that was to come, that brought relief to the pain of denial and anticipation. It amazes me how confronting our fears and worst possible scenarios brings about tranquility.

“Of course you are Pain- pain which the gouty man scorns, the dyspeptic suffers while he indulges himself, the girl endures in childbirth. You are mild if I can bear you and short lived if I cannot.”
-Seneca

This little trick is also an excellent strategy with life’s tribulations.

A note to self:

You worry yourself about with expected and unexpected misfortunes that will come to you in the future. You dread an event over the horizon that will bring you discomfort and unhappiness. Thus you suffer in advance, for an anticipated future you believe will be wretched.

You’ve been trying to teach yourself this idea of acceptance of the Worst Possible Outcome. To get rid of anxiety, expect whatever you’re afraid would happen, to happen in any case. Visualize the outcome as real as you can. It may give you some of the expected pain and unhappiness, but its magnitude and duration, will be less than you feared it to be.

This suppsed training to become “fearless” isn’t as pretty as it sounds. This develops in you, the ability to see things for what they truly are, and not color events with your own judgements.

“The discipline of Perception requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are…

It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of Perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”
-Gregory Hays, introduction to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Contrary to popular belief, positive thinking and unfounded optimism is disastrous and harmful: it leaves you unprepared for the lashes and torments that life hurls at us. Prepare yourself for whatever Fortune has in store for you.

Another often practiced, but harmful attempt at a solutin you must avoid is the use of Opiates.

Sometimes we divert our minds with social activities and potential time-wasters: spending every spare moment with friends at the bar with a few beers, the latest movies, facebook, youtube, and whatnots. In the midst of these distractions are the reminders of your grief and loss.

It is better to conquer your sorrow, than to deceive it.

If merely cloaked under pleasures and busy-ness, our hunted minds eventually come back at us stronger than ever.

“But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed forever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long and pleasant journey abroad, or spend alot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All these things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief, but hinder it. But I would rather end it rather than distract it.”
-Seneca

It is true then that by facing it, the Truth sets you free.

Remarkable Verse: An Unbearable Emotion

December 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

misero quod omnes
Eripit sensus mihi; Nam simul te
Lesbia aspexi, nihil est super mî
Quod loquar amens

Lingua torpet, tenuis sub artus
Flamma dimanant, sonitu suopte
Tinniunt aures, gemina teguntur
Lumina nocte.*

-Catulus. LI, 5.

 

*How pitiable I am. Love snatches my senses from me. As soon as I see you, Lesbia, I can say nothing to you, I am out of my mind; my tongue sticks in my mouth; a fiery flame courses through my limbs, my ears are ringing and darkness covers both my eyes.

 

Taken from Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays, On Sadness.

That is what one would say, when one needs to express an unbearable passion.

Serendipity In Hanoi

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Recently, I spent 10 days in Northern Vietnam, most of which I was helping to manage student volunteers at a local orphanage. After my responsibilities were done, I was most lucky to spend time with Vietnamese friends in the beautiful highlands of Sapa.

Hanoi in the fall certainly feels different than when I was here last summer. It is 21 degrees Celsius. I am wearing jeans, t-shirt and a sweater, instead of t-shirt and shorts, and flip-flops. Instead of blue skies I get mostly grey. But everything feels much more at ease than in summer. I can stroll along Hoan Kiem without breaking a sweat, keep hands in my pockets, sit down on a nearby bench to people-watch. Even Fanny’s ice cream tastes unique in the fall. No thirst to slake, no heat wave to cure. Just simple enjoyment of frozen Franco-Viet delight.

It is during this fall in Hanoi that my thoughts do ramble to many who say that “one week in Vietnam and you’ve seen it all.”

This is a city where you will be punished with frustration, confusion, disappointments, dissatisfaction, dry mouths, and god-forbid, boredom.

All you have to do is be impatient.

If you have a checklist of things you want to do, see, and buy in Hanoi, you will not leave here feeling happy and satisfied with your holiday. Even if you’ve managed to tick off almost everything on your list. Simply put, this is not a place for you to “get things done”. And that is a good thing. Because it means serendipity has a greater chance of befalling upon you.

serendipity

1. An unsought, unintended, and/or unexpected discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident and sagacity.

Serendipity is god’s gift to the routine-weary, to-do-list tied, 9-5 grounded life of any aspiring traveller.

Hanoi is not Singapore. Hanoi is not Bangkok. Hanoi, is Hanoi.

If you want a different experience from what you’ve been having back home, you have to live the Vietnamese experience. The overused but somewhat appropriate cliche here is “When in Hanoi, do as the Hanoians do”.

That means taking two hour lunch breaks (includes one hour of siesta), spending forty five minutes with your iced drip coffee while you amaze at the shoe-shining skills of street shoe polish-guys, who are masters at the art of making your shoes shine as bright as mirrors.

I don’t want to lose my national identity and cultural habits of a Singaporean. I only ask to become self-aware of them. So that I can shed them when it’s beneficial to do so. After all, aren’t I here in Hanoi for some rest and relaxation?

The mind must not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions. Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest

-Seneca

Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher was a great critic of mindless wanderlust and hurrying from place to place, however. That the drifting from location to location in pursuit of various sights and experiences is a sign of a hunted mind, weighed down by emotions and troubles. One is still harassed by the tossing and waves that hit us from the daily routines back at home. So instead of putting our burden down, we carry them wherever we go. It is something worth noticing in ourselves, when we travel.

Of course it sounds easier said than done, and the ideal form of travel (with the intention of relaxing) would of course have a deep immersion into land, people and culture. In fact not many of the tourist trails can provide this. One must then choose his travel companions carefully. Will my fellow traveller remind and reinforce habits and trappings of life back home? Will I be harangued by things I want to put down, even if just for fourteen days? How can I have a tranquil mind if at all times of the day my manner of action, speech, and thought is no different from what I experience back home?

“But I have no friends or family in these places I visit!” you say. Ye of little faith in Serendipity, I reply.

What’s the worst that can happen if you’re alone in a foreign land? That you may spend the entire trip alone? There is much that you can experience yourself in a place you don’t know. After all, the joke goes that if you can’t stand the company of yourself, how dare you inflict “you” upon others? Be prepared to be alone most of the time. Love companionship, but be at ease and be prepared to do without it.

Yet no one is truly alone in a foreign land. You will have to sharpen your senses of empathy and social being to look for directions, buy necessities, and find a restaurant. With experience, you will make new friends and acquaintances. Can you withhold judgment on others’ practices and habits? Would you be curious about them instead? Why aren’t men usually seen in the kitchens of Vietnamese households? Why are the streets of downtown Saigon eerily quiet on a Monday between 12 to 2pm?

Earnest curiosity and an appetite to learn from locals brings rewards in spades most of the time. Maybe you’ll receive warm hospitality beneath apparent wariness and coldness from locals.

Serendipity came knocking when I had no plans for my weekend in northern Vietnam, when I couldn’t help but notice the dedication of a few local volunteers who helped out our group of students, who were volunteering at a local orphanage. Serendipity knocked thrice when curious conversations and genuine attempts at friendships ultimately gave birth to a weekend with guided locals in her beautiful highlands hometown of Sapa.

Serendipity also made sure it was more than an amusing diversion or relaxing trip: the time in Sapa became an unforgettable dream.

A Parallel Between Travel and Life I’ve Nearly Missed Out On

November 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

photo by photobunny

Of all the traveling I’ve done, I haven’t learnt one of its most useful lessons, until recently when I sat down with a friend to discuss ( and of course me getting a second opinion) about life and career choices.

In independent travel, we often say that we “have the destination in mind, but not knowing how we’ll get there”. This is the novel and excitement that independent travel brings. The way I travel, say if I want to get to Bangkok from Singapore, I wouldn’t be the type to look for air tickets six months ahead. The way things are going in my twenty-something life, I can never exactly know what would happen in six months. For now, I wouldn’t want it any other way either, but just leaving it to the logos, and not fighting it.

So back to the Singapore to Bangkok example: there are many ways to do this. If I wanted to truly enjoy each step of this journey north through West Malaysia, I could take the Malayan Railway (KTM). And still within the KTM there are choices, of either the standart West Coast route that runs through Kuala Lumpur or Penang, or the more exotic Eastern Jungle route, which runs at snail’s pace but provides for an amazing sightseeing experience through the Malayan jungle. Both the Western and Eastern routespass the Malaysian-Thai border at Hat Yai. Here I might add that the alternative choices to rail (I’m a big fan of the rail, wherever I go) would be to take buses, ride a bicycle, hitch a ride (if you’re so inclined). All can and have been done before.

If I took the overnight sleeper train in Penang, I could reach Bangkok in the next 24 hours, hitting sights such as the Bridge over the River Kwai (aptly renamed by the Thai authorities). But if I was in no hurry to reach Bangkok, I could take buses from Hat Yai to the heavily touristed Phuket and Koh Samui.

All else failing, I still have the choice of simply buying an air ticket from Kuala Lumpur / Penang to Bangkok. The destination and journey remains the same: Singapore – Bangkok. The adventure and meaning lies in not planning out exactly how I’ll get there, but to actually do as the situation and circumstances fit. What if I make new friends along the route and decide to explore Koh Samui instead of rushing to Bangkok? I can do that.

I wondered why I never thought of life in those terms: of having a destination in mind, yes, but realizing that there are a multitude of possibilities to get there. Maybe its because I’ve always preferred to think of life not as a destination, but more of a piece of music, not intent of getting to the end, but enjoying every moment of it, whatever it may give. The analogy of life as music and dance hits me hard and I would love to write more about this someday.

The more I put thought to this, the more I realize it is the best and possibly the only way of avoiding what Robert Greene calls “tactical hell” when living out one’s own life. To think of the larger plan, the grand strategy, rather than being mired in the miniscule battles and events that we deal with everyday.

Not every battle needs to be fought, not one particular mode of travel needs to be taken for me to get to my destination, to achieve my “grand-plan”. I pick and choose my battles, can do them at a later time, or avoid it completely, as long as they all bring me somewhat closer.

If I can just keep this in mind I might just save myself the grief and pain of worrying about career  and life choices I make. I would still put thought into them, but instead of worries, all I need to keep in mind is: Whatever I choose to spend my time and effort on, so long as it puts me closer to where I want to go at the end of the day(s).

Life is too short to be spent worrying.

(Thanks to Shannon Low for inspiring this post)

The Meaning Behind Setback and Suffering

October 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve had a topsy turvy week. One filled with moments of ecstasy, but ultimately it was topped off by what I had long expected to be coming. On Halloween night.

Oftentimes when dealt with unfavourable circumstances, my self-criticism mechanism kicks in and begins asking the questions “Why did things turn out this way?” or “Why wasn’t this experience what I expected it to be?”

I have been resisting all temptations to blame, to kick, shout and scream. If I am honest, I saw it coming, even if good advice came somewhat too late. My thoughts then focus on disappointments (on self and others), the foolish mistakes one had made, up to the point of setback, failure or suffering. Which of course could have been real or imaginary!

I found all my plans in disarray, like a spanner thrown into the works.

Since my plans have become derailed, the easiest danger and mental next-step would be to ask “What now? How am I going to deal with the future?”

It then dawned upon me that I was filling my mind with trivialities. For if I truly looked back at what I had achieved and worked on, I should be proud of doing things I never thought I had the courage to do. Yes, I have failed in many ways, yes, in hindsight I could have done in better, smarter ways. But now the bare fact of the matter remains:

I did it. I toed the line. Nobody can take the experience and lessons from me.

I might have had a few regrets, but I won’t have the regret of not giving myself the chance of doing what I eagerly wished to, even if it was a daunting challenge. In time, these sufferings will seem even more trivial, the stuff worthy of a bar-room or dinnertime joke. But for now, these experiences and pains are far too important to be wished away or ignored. I will stick with the pain, I will stay with it. For  there will be no “ignoring (the pain) or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism”. The advice  and warning I got, that came too late (my fault) is beckoning me to put them into practice, to crystallize them.

“There is only one thing I dread- not to be equal to by sufferings.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

What might have led to my failure, setback and a little suffering? There have probably been times when I tried too hard, spoke too much, flaunted excessively, about things I believed in, knew, and wanted to do. Youth, hubris and innocence make up part of the explanation and cause for this. For those of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. But the realization kicks in that I can only grow stronger and add to my wealth of experiences for this. What might have taken others ten years to learn, with these combined knowledge and experiences might take me much less.

If pain exists now, it comes from not being able to look into the future, of not seeing a goal or exit in the time ahead. Not that one doesn’t exist, but I am probably trying too hard to look into its finer details, much of it trivial concerns which fill my headspace.

The solace I will give myself is the old Stoic adage: I can no more control the tempests of circumstances lashing upon me, but I have every freedom and ability to choose my attitude to deal with the fates.

Again: The details don’t matter too much. The questions to ask myself are:

What do I want to make of all of this?

and

What am I looking forward to?

The latter is important, for it becomes a balm to suffering. Viktor Frankl, in his Man’s Search for Meaning mentions Spinoza’s Ethics:

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

Understanding that I can no more share this experience in life with any other person. All I can do is communicate it to them in my words. Much is still expected of me in life, of contributions I am to dedicate myself to. And therefore it is time to find it.

When I was but just a boy of 8, I would lose my belongings often. And each possession lost I learned the twang of pain. But I couldn’t help think to myself that losing things (and eventually people) seemed inevitable, whatever precautions we may take. Does that mean that I was fated for many bouts of pain as long as I lived?

I found solace in the balm of philosophy.

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”
-Seneca

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