Have you thought about (HYTA) how our world is nothing more than a collection of beliefs?

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This crust of dirt we proudly inhabit is remarkably not normal. Not in the least bit. And it doesn’t require a profound observation. It just requires a suspension of what we accept as normal.

After all, isn’t our idea of eating at a dinner table nothing more than putting pieces of carefully arranged green leaves on lacquered stacks of wooden planks? Do we not take oddly shaped pieces of metal to puncture and saw away at slabs of finely cut meat? And when we have an entertaining conversation, aren’t we really just speaking gibberish? We point, reference and label something as something, and string together sounds to make a longer sound.

Our lives are a complex history of many disparate beliefs, some so connected to our core identity that we never once stop to consider them aberrant. But as any newcomer in a language class will attest, without any understanding of a targeted language, the sounds and symbols produced may as well be arbitrary nonsense. A language makes sense only insofar that the vast majority of its native speakers agree on its intricate grammar and pronunciation. But that’s also true of everything we believe and understand.

Religion holds scared truths and hidden revelations only to its believers. The grand finery worn by bishops and the subdued monastery robes of Shinto monks have only as much meaning as your beliefs are willing to go the distance. Yet, a grasshopper would not distinguish between a nun in vermilion robes or an overdressed ape. Likewise, an atheist would feel no more spirituality from being inside a ‘holy’ church than a Muslim would in a blessed tribal pagan ritual.

Faith holds sway only in proportion of the strength of its followers. Because governments give concessions to many religions, it is often taken that religion is in some way a valid truth vessel. Yet, if not a single person believed it, wouldn’t it be true to say that the pope who wears long, white and sleeved robes may as well be the biggest (and most successful) cosplayer in the world? With a generously endowed beard, he would make for a fantastic Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.

Power, however it is measured, is also proportional to the people who believe in it. Kim Jong-un only makes as much sense as he has because not only can he threaten military retaliation, his soldiers and government are built on a huge belief: that he is a deity, or if that fails, a powerful warlord. We pay attention to him because he can materialise the threats. Put Kim Jong-un in any other country and he will probably he your typical geeky South Korean gamer who eventually kills himself from gaming too much.

It’s not new really. As children, we played games of impersonations, pretenses and bad acting. But they worked out to be hours of simple childhood fun because the participants believed in them, albeit for a while only. But even at that age, we believed plenty: we point at a wooden piece and acknowledge that as a chair; we put on clothes because everyone believes it an offense if you went otherwise; as school prefects we follow instructions because everyone in the committee agrees to an accepted behaviour.

Depending on which country you reside in, being a plumber can be highly respected (and sometimes a well paid job) or a career that eventually ends up in the flush. In Singapore, you will hear people aspiring to give talks or to venture into science…but plumbing? Or a domestic helper? Not at all. Our collective beliefs are that powerful – to the extent that plenty of people have killed themselves over academic pressure, a failure to conform, or the inability to achieve success.

Even monogamous marriages, which are a recent social invention, reflect a powerful underlying belief – we now construct plenty of stories, poems and movies over undiluted loyalty to our significant other. In contrast, during Japan’s Heian period, court and marital affairs were the norm rather than the exception. Depending on the system of beliefs that reign at the moment, you can either feel really good about yourself or suffer an existential crisis.

And even if we understood our lives are predicated on nothing but fragile, whimsical and capricious beliefs, we still suffer crippling depression or feel great joy because it is that difficult to escape from this grand construct we call life. It is truly the game of life.

So have you thought (HYTA) about how your life is constrained by beliefs?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how your parents, for better or worse, influence you?

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They f**k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.

Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.

– Philip Larkin (truncated)


Larkin’s poem, particularly the last stanza, was spoken by Count Olaf, the main villain in A Series of Unfortunate Event as he lay dying a slow death, having just performed what might perhaps be his only good deed in life.

A murderer, treacherous and conniving, Olaf’s demise as he quoted Larkin, was a sober reminder that people are often forced to behave conspiratorially not because they choose to but because they have to. Olaf then, perhaps, might once have been a good person, if his childhood went better for him.

It’s a great refresher of what we already know about our behaviour and moral values: social norms, beliefs and our upbringing cauterise our understanding of the world, and nowhere can deeper roots be found than that of our family – those we share our life and obligations with.

We know that our parents, like the friends around us, influence us greatly, but we are mostly unaware of how powerfully they shape our unconscious self. How we are loved and nurtured determine our self-confidence and ability to set meaningful goals. It also determines who will love and how we will go about loving someone.

After all, as a baby, our first nervous foray into the wilderness of life must depend entirely on our parents. We are  completely helpless and possess no concept of what it means to live. Just as we gradually inherit a native language through mimicry, we also internalise our parents’ love toward each other and their moment to moment behaviour becomes models of emulation.

In families of repeated verbal (or physical) abuse, where fights and bouts of screaming are the norm, a child can grow up with low self-esteem – or to compensate – a fiery temper. Our parents’ tenderness for each other (or lack of) also affects how we think love ought to be. If you have never been able to recognise authentic love, how then can one be expected to ever find it?

Our parents are the flag bearers. And unfortunately, as Larkin succinctly puts it, they often go about it badly. Most parents happily transplant their religious beliefs, supernatural thinking and traditional rituals to their child, teaching them as truths. And if done rigidly from young, can make it almost impossible to escape from.

In competitive Asian families, these parents sometimes over-compensate for their failures and frequently expect their child to make up for their deficiencies. They either impose lofty expectations or offer little encouragement, if at all. Sometimes, the family is so devoid of warmth that a child develops a second personality, or looks elsewhere for the attention needed. Neither is healthy.

And it is especially hard to go against our parents. We are more inclined to take up their beliefs, imbibe their values and agree with them because we cannot risk becoming outcasts. It takes remarkable awareness and resilience to firmly position yourself away from what you may perceive as an incorrect belief or way of thinking.

Unfortunately, if research is any indication, our parents’ influence on our personalities and conceptions of the world are largely cast in stone, even if you are aware of it. Just as you cannot explain why you have a craving for pizza in the morning, what or who we unconsciously prefer, avoid and understand is beyond mortal ken to change. Our parents have left us lasting changes indeed.

The importance of our parents in our lives, despite Larkin’s pessimism, is of course, not so easily discounted. At the very least, we are given a place to call home and most parents, do try very hard for their children. But just like doing many good deeds doesn’t negate a bad mistake, Larkin’s poem remains a truthful, albeit disturbing generalisation.

So have you thought (HYTA) about your family’s influence on your life?

 

 

Have you thought about (HYTA)…sour grapes (self-deception)?

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A hungry fox saw some fine grapes hanging from a vine along a high trellis. He tried his hardest to reach the grapes by jumping as high as he could. But they remained out of reach. The fox, tired and still very much hungry, gave up and walked away with an air of dignity.

Pouting sideways, as if unconcerned, the fox remarked, “I thought those grapes were ripe but I am sure they are sour.”

                                            – Aesop, “The fox and the grapes” (Paraphrased)

This simple story is more than just a bedside parable. The main message has little to do with the fox failing to get a hold of the grapes but rather how he reacts to his failure – by lying to himself.

The fox’s dismissive statement allows him to maintain his pride with just a dash of self-deception. In doing so, he comes out the victor. We can criticise the fox for his dishonesty, but we can also celebrate his positive self-image.

In situations that are stressful, we do anything – often with little awareness – to maintain the positive self-image we wish to possess and share with others. The fox is therefore not exactly a fictional character but a symbolic vessel of how all of us react to preserve our ego and self-worth.

When our self-worth is threatened, we respond defensively or we go all out on the offensive. We will lie or twist our perceptions of facts in order to work around conflicting truths that harm our identity.

When we perform inadequately for the exams, we sometimes find it easier to accept the results if we console ourselves that the paper was exceedingly hard, or that in our class there were plenty who performed worse. Or that maybe, at the end of it, grades were not that important. Or maybe luck wasn’t on your side.

Falling out of love also brings out this self-defense mechanism of delusion. We will either convince ourselves (or through the efforts of our friends) that we were the better person.Or maybe neither the time nor situation was right. Perhaps it was never meant to be, and  feelings will eventually fade. Or one can find someone better.

There’s of course some kernels of truth to be found, but we are always apt to distort facts with a high degree of bias in making us feel better. It makes it easier to forget a significant person, terrible grades or aimlessness in life. It’s a necessary but costly mechanism.

Self-deception is also noticeably prevalent in religion. Cults that prohepsise the end of the world (of which there are many) often claim that the strength of their faith saved the world when their doomsday claims fail to materialise – admitting you were wrong just grounds your entire belief system into dust.

Even when led to logically concluding the problems of the prevalence of evil, or the whimsically masochistic behaviour of Yahweh wiping out earth’s population with a flood (hence Noah’s ark) or the absurdities of the Koran where Allah shows his benevolence by turning Jews into apes, religious people deploy self-deception as a defense against logical questioning.

You may be decried as an atheist who knows nothing of spirituality, dismissed as being the devil in disguise or someone who cannot understand God’s grand scheme. When Japanese Shinto was under criticism for being illogical, the scholars defended their faith as “because it’s illogical, that’s why it’s the work of the divine. Mortals cannot understand God’s words”.

Self-deception goes a long way, and chances are, all of us have built our lives on it. We may not have picked the right person, but we want to believe we have. Our religion may be logically incoherent, but we need faith for our lives to make sense so we give this inconsistency a free pass.

Perhaps it’s the only way to live in this world. By building upon a web of lies, we find life more meaningful. We can still pretend we are worth something. To move forward and not dwell on the past (a common motivation phrase) is to an extent, a healthy dose of self-deception.

Even those at the very peak of their career eventually settle to believe they are doing something grand. Self-deception becomes a convenient tool in dealing with morally questionable choices. “It’s for the masses!”, “Everyone does it so we have to” or “It’s business – that’s all.”

Our self-deceptions conveniently simplify life for us. It’s necessary, and I acknowledge that because I probably had to bear  a great deal of it myself too. Self-deception can take us on a grand ride, and may lead to novel, overwhelming experiences. But it’s dangerous when self-deception is done too often without our conscious mind at the driver’s seat.

Sometimes the truth is as it is: sometimes a person is truly irreplaceable; sometimes certain experiences, especially those we develop strong emotions for the first time, simply cannot be forgotten; sometimes, we are just that incapable; sometimes, our beliefs don’t hold up at all; sometimes a high powered career really wasn’t worth it.

Sometimes, we just need to admit it.

So have you thought (HYTA) about your own self-deceptions?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how we are not really the nice people we think are?

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To immerse myself further into my Japanese studies, I got around to watching Liar Game. Its premise, though not exactly original, is simple – an elaborately designed arena where contestants compete among themselves for a payout at the end. Losers are left hopelessly in debt so everyone, as the title of the show suggests, employs deception to remove their competitors.

Liar Game’s keynote, if watched to the very end, is simple: Ultimately, people can trust each other, and despite being incentivised to cheat, can work together for mutual gain – being nice and sincere eventually snags a victory. It’s not unfamiliar grounds. Schools have repeatedly drilled this moral precept into their charges – be nice, trust others and you will be rewarded.

But the other half of what’s missing is that it’s a rule that’s only conveniently followed. And that’s exactly how it’s done everywhere.

We cooperate for only as long as we can consciously or unconsciously sense a recurring benefit. It’s why we form groups. A financial company is a group. As is a class. Or friends. It creates a vision, a shared objective, a common belief. And you usually do not extend this courtesy to others who oppose or threaten your inner circle.

People can be as nice as they want to be only when the stakes are low. If you are an old man who needs help getting on the bus, then consciously or unconsciously, helping you is a quick way of getting a mood boost. But draw up the battlefields in a highly competitive class where everyone is benchmarked and compared against a bell curve, there is far more reluctance to share notes or go the extra mile to help a ‘fellow competitor’.

We are about as self-serving as we can be without tarnishing our public reputation of being a nice human being. And those who believe in absolute selflessness are quickly destroyed, and they too will learn to harden themselves. It’s exactly how it worked out in Liar Game too. Its protagonist, the naive Kanzaki Nao, only succeeds in unifying her competitors because she eventually learns to lie. Had she remained as she was, she would have stood no chance at all.

Also, we behave in seemingly nice ways because we very rarely chance upon strategies that would completely destroy a person and simultaneously bring us large gains. Unless we manage to completely obliterate a person, a recoverable injury  means we risk the worst possible outcome: revenge. Most strategies don’t work because we understand how powerful revenge can be.

Are we all then great strategists and descendants of Sun Tzu? Of course not. Most of us probably never really think in this way but we know why we won’t entertain certain options no matter how upset or greedy we are – either the full force of the law descends on us or we risk social alienation. If all restrictions were off, would we behave as nice people? Unlikely. Why do I have to buy from your store every day if I could just kill you with absolutely no repercussions?

Perhaps the most telling example that we are all sufficiently good at pretending to be nice is a simple comparison between who we are now against who we were. We can never survive with our childhood optimism of believing everyone is a friend. Such an approach invites volitional self-destruction. Now, we are still ‘nice’ but we are also more than capable of grievous retaliation, and as long as others agree to be nice and there’s a strong mutual gain, we too shall honour it.

Unless of course, the stakes are high, and an opening (with no chance of recovery) reveals itself.

So have you thought (HYTA) about whether we are the nice people we make ourselves to be?