Have you thought about (HYTA) what death means to you?

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When asked about death, most people I suspect, rightfully do not give it much thought. After all, there’s plenty more happening now than to try imagine the inevitable (and lackluster) end. And there’s something a little pallid and depressing to be had in broaching this topic. But death is quite the curiosity. If you think about it from a different angle, it seems that on the very day we are born as a noisy, crying baby, we are simultaneously given both a life to live and a death sentence to obey. When and how we die is not made known to us, but we know we will die and must die.

Yet, most people I have met are unfazed by this ambiguous and silent countdown. They rarely consider this topic, and when pressed further, give a dismissive shrug saying “it’s what it is”. Though death is often far from our minds, and though we are often taught to practice optimism by thinking happy thoughts, death clearly matters a great, great deal to everyone. It’s why religions, the supernatural or the occult (they are all the same, really) will always find worshipers, and will likely continue to exist indefinitely.

Whatever our religious subscriptions, the promises of living beyond death through a soul or vessel or by means of repentance, offer us a flicker of hope – that not just us but those we love will be able to transcend mortality. After all, during the 2011 earthquake in the Philippines, survivors in overwhelming droves immediately flocked to the churches to pray; and we have known of last minute deathbed conversions of the dying with the hopes of finding a ‘place’ for them in the afterlife. And even if we are not particularly spiritual, we sometimes plead with something, anything, just to postpone the grim finality.

Call it coping if you will, but there is something a little contemptible about a man who has to cling to tribalistic and mystical fairy tales in order to deal with death; and there’s something to be said about the funeral industry (and religious ‘services’) that preys on a person’s most vulnerable moment by levying exploitative and exorbitant fees. It’s no different from missionaries doing charity work with a Bible in hand – it’s manipulative, unsympathetic and disgusting. Yet it’s again a reminder, and a stark one, at how death really troubles us. We are not as unfazed as we think we are.

What we believe about death may seem very innocent and irrelevant. It’s not. It spills over into how we live this particular life. And you don’t have to look far to find contemporary examples: Jihadists believe feverishly (and blindly) that their deaths and suicides in their ‘holy’ war will result in a great reward of riches and a special place of recognition next to their God. How else would you get a person to willingly discard their present life? The promise of what comes after must be better.

Our outlooks on death will invariably determine not just our ability to cope but also how we approach moral and ethical situations. If you believe this life is the only life worth having, and there can be nothing beyond, then you are more likely to cherish it, more given to contemplative mulling, and more likely to value unique individuals and moments of deep significance. Knowing that death is always near doesn’t take away from living nor should it warrant desperate religious appeals. Yes, life can be brutishly short and painfully unpredictable, but it makes our personal promises more alluring and future meetings worth anticipating for.

It makes you wonder.

So have you thought (HYTA) about what you believe about death?

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) what you believe in?

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Most of us end up with beliefs the same way an overly energetic toddler gets a glaring bruise – that is to say we often believe in many things without much thought; and a great deal of these are likely an unconscious mirroring of our family, friends and authoritative figures. And they are, despite good intentions, likely to be wrong. Aside from very specific situations, we are rarely required to justify why we do what we do.

Yet, where we clearly stand on an issue is very important. Our answers to “Is downloading music illegally acceptable?” or “If God created everything, who created God?” determine a great deal of what sort of person we think we want to be. And these cross examinations don’t require profound academic knowledge nor sagely wisdom – all it needs is a willingness to take a deep breath and think.

However, thinking about an issue is often an inadequacy. It’s even more difficult to fully embody our beliefs, and even harder to realise when we need to take a more insistent (but open-minded) approach. Staying silent or choosing to abstain often leads to a worse outcome – it’s often (and rightfully) understood as quiet approval.

I once had a deeply enriching conversation with someone who stated that though she wasn’t religious and found the doctrines nonsensical, rather than state her arguments, she would opt to merely walk away if someone became pushy with their beliefs. But walking away is a deflection, and a nod to religious proselytisation. Though I never found out if her opinion(s) differed later on, it’s clear that we need to know more than just where we stand on our beliefs. How should we act?

Despite how we choose to validate a belief, we are very likely to, sometimes paradoxically, hold on to comfortable mental conflicts. Someone who preaches constantly about living a moral life can very well be illegally torrenting (downloading) copyrighted material; a person who believes in the sanctity of marriage may at the same time, be unaware that his responses invite the wrong interests and intents; sometimes we want to be loved by others but we mock the concept of trusting people.

How we choose to act, and what steps we take to reconcile these conflicts are for every individual to discover themselves. These answers cannot be given, but must be happened upon as we continue to live and dwell on our lives. It’s less rewarding than living life by default or that pretending we have all the answers, but there is at least an admirable satisfaction in having undertaken this painful labour.

So have you thought (HYTA) about whether your beliefs can be justified?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the curse of first experiences?

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Though our memories have far more in common with a rusty kitchen sieve than a video camera (can you remember what you ate during lunch five days ago?) they do faithfully reproduce our most meaningful experiences. And some of the most powerful memories that continue to influence our everyday thoughts, perceptions and behaviour in subtle, almost inaudible whispers, are those of our first experiences – the powerful emotional highs and lows we encounter for the very first time. And such experiences are few indeed, and neither repetition nor imitation can recreate the very first raw sensory experience that, for better or worse, cut us very deeply.

Vividly, with an instant rebound of emotions – a surge of thrill, a heady burst of longing, or a crestfallen cringe, we easily – too easily – remember the first time we drew very closely to a person and became deeply embedded in his or her presence. It’s the first time, and perhaps the only time, that we realise we want someone more than having something. Or perhaps we remember the first time we were mocked at by others,  to be broiled alive by the slights and taunts of those who thought we would never amount to anything much. We remember, always.

Or perhaps as we were growing up, we realise how difficult it is to attain the affections of our parents. We remember the first hurt, the tears and the neglect. That one moment alone in a corner, sad, broken and hollowed out. We may also remember donning the mantle of someone whose influence swept us away – who opened our minds in ways never thought possible, who initiated and reinvigorated us in ways unexpected. We remember, remember, and cannot forget, even if we try our hardest. These first experiences live on in us. They have taken up residences inside us against our will. They define us.

And there they reside: immutable, silent, but omnipresent. They remain unconscious points of reference, a lighthouse of sorts if you will, on how to navigate the past, present and future. Though we are the sum total of all experiences and memories, these particular landmarks, by virtue of being the first to leave such indelible marks and significant scars on us, become the basis – the very first template – we use to gauge everything around us. And they inform us of what might be, could be or should be. Someone who had a great conversational partner begins to look for similar, if not better, features to have in another; Someone who has been abused shuns features reminiscent of the attacker; and so we keep looking, and often we are disappointed.

And that is the curse of our first experiences – they can telegraph expectations, standards and hopes that we might perhaps never be able to match – or perhaps never be satisfied with. But one must admit: whether to sip from the golden cup or to be wrenched down into the spiraling abyss, these first experiences will both instruct and inform us, and sometimes, just sometimes, move us closer to what we really need but never knew was essential. It’s unfortunate that…forgetting is impossible and like the stubborn ripples in the pond, they continue to reverberate away in us. We always remember.

So have you thought (HYTA) about the first time you encountered something emotionally overwhelming?

Have you thought about (HYTA) why people oppose homosexuality? (Orlando mass shooting)

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Growing up, we are often taught to avoid giving into stereotypes. Just because a person’s skin colour is different, or because he’s handicapped, or because she’s socially withdrawn, we shouldn’t snap to behaviour that discriminates. It’s generally sound advice. Yet, when we are told that someone has blown himself up, why is it that we can be so sure of the following: that the person is a Muslim? Worse, why is it then when a person professes unbridled hatred for homosexuals, we can be almost certain that this is a product of his or her religion?

That’s not to say atheists don’t commit crimes. They do. Though if we examine non-religious convicts, it’s difficult to say if they were atheists to begin with since there’s a difference between being unconcerned about spirituality and not believing in one. However, when is the last time an atheist committed a series of mass killings in a church or temple specifically because he had a secular axe to grind with religious people? Left alone,  and assuming a healthy mental psychology, people do not translate their discomforts into suicide vests or attempted crucifixions. For that, you will need religion.

Such a statement runs the risk of generalising every religion out there for which indeed there are some obscure faiths that are truly peaceful. But they all still require absolute fealty from its believers in the incredible, unprovable and mystical. And there lies the problem. When a pastor declines helping a homosexual because it goes against his faith, or when a Sikh soldier opposes army attire regulations for his right to wear his turban or when an employee says he can’t work on certain days because of his religious observations, what incredible evidence do they have to backup their religious claims?

None. None at all. Ironically, and almost laughably bad, identifying yourself as an atheist gives you no special calling card. Everyone else gets to play the loony ball, but as an atheist, you are considerably screwed if you were hoping to get a cut of special atheistic discounts. Given that religions are still being invented as this point, with Scientology being the most controversial (and has celebrities like Tom Cruise among their flock of sheep), exactly what is going to happen when valid newly founded religions begin expecting society to make concessions for them? Today we have to plan with halal food for the Muslims, and tomorrow perhaps we have to cater non fish products for Catholics who decide to bring back an expired injunction.

At one point, BBC covered a Christian debate about whether the bible condemns homosexuality. I am sure that to most rational thinkers, that was probably the most underwhelming gathering of very stupid adults in a room. Harsh words, yes, but consider this: the entire debate went back and forth between lines quoted from the Bible with each team trying to explain why it needed to be interpreted in their own special way. Not only were the interpretations vague as they always are where religion is concerned, evidence was unsurprisingly absent, but worse, they had the audacity to insist that their interpretations were moral laws to follow to be a good Christian. The entire debate was such an intellectual flatline – Hitchens would have had an aneurysm halfway through.

Homosexuals cannot choose nor change their sexual orientation anymore than we can choose who want to fall very deeply in love with. All human beings want the same thing: to know that out there someone really, really cares that we exist; to be loved for our imperfections and for our transgressions to be laughed away; to be listened to with joy and spoken to with unvarnished tenderness. And no people, religions or governments have the right to take that away. Life is already hard enough as it is without people going the extra mile to purchase discrimination points simply because their holy book(s) said so. The effort funnelled to oppose homosexuality is no less than the same idiots who insisted a woman’s job was to stay at home. Nor is it below that of the murderers who used Christianity to justify the slavery of black people.

We learn very badly from the past, if at all. If the relationship between James Randi and Deyvi Peña is anything to go by, married homosexuals lead far more fulfilling and satisfying marriages than heterosexuals. Despite a massive age difference of more than 30 years, Randi and Deyvi, in the superbly crafted documentary “An Honest Liar”, show more honest love and awareness towards each other than most ordinary couples. It’s not hard to see why. If you waited your entire life to marry a person (the state finally recognised homosexual unions recently) and you had to overcome so much stigma just to keep the relationship going, you learn to treasure what was impossibly difficult to achieve.

Though the Orlando shooter’s father has insisted the killing had nothing to do with religion (Islam) and more to do with his son being mentally disturbed and physically abusive, I am certain the root of the idea can be traced back to his faith. How else would he have been angered by watching two men kiss? Without religious incitement, observing such a behaviour may at worse, produce some discomfort. Perhaps it’s time to be honest. Terrorism or extremism, however you wish to look at it, let’s at least admit that there are some very bad ideas in all religions when they make unprovable authoritative claims. We already mock North Korea for its cult indoctrination of its citizens. Shouldn’t we make the case for a movement towards secularism?

So have you thought (HYTA) about your views on homosexuality?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how we aren’t always in control of ourselves?

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Are our lives truly an open book? We commonly ascribe many things we want – the ideal job, the ideal lifestyle and the ideal marriage partner – to the widely held consensus of “if you set your mind on something, you will eventually obtain it”. It’s not hard to see why such a write-your-own-adventure approach is comforting. It assumes that the means to succeed is innate but laziness (among other vices) often holds us back. It also unfortunately, and too conveniently, simplifies every human being into equal opportunity clones with the same potential but varying levels of diligence.

The belief that we are in control of our lives is also an important argument in religion – that we are given, by means of divine intent, the ability to choose how we want to lead our lives. For most religions, this would necessitate copious prayers and choosing to follow a strict and somewhat nonsensical knee jerking around what food to avoid or what sexual behaviour is deemed appropriate. But clearly there are many things we can’t control: we know homosexuals can’t override their behaviour just like psychopaths can’t stop themselves from hurting and manipulating other people.

Not only do we have no choice over where and whom we are born to, we also have completely no say in our biological reward system. Barring some rare cases, our brain greatly rewards us for survival and reproduction. As anyone who has the slightest brush in mutual love will attest to, we are certainly more than motivated when we are drawn deeply to the right person. And if a separation ensues, the severance leaves one incomplete, if not hollow. And yet, these reward and penalties were not for us to choose, nor were they administered by choice.

It’s difficult then to say we are in control of ourselves when we cannot explain why we feel so exceedingly good in the company of those we love. We are also unable to account for where our desires or urges come from. Sometimes we feel like eating a grossly over sweetened desert, and other days, nothing’s better than having a large slice of pizza with generous cheese toppings. While these inclinations are likely influences from the food we enjoyed in our childhood, these cravings are not within our ability to control. It would appear that food, like love, is a ship that has already sailed. We know what we want, and we can’t reason it out.

If our reward system has already been pre-determined by our genes and childhood parenting, what control do we have left? Einstein I am sure, definitely found immense pleasure from working nonstop on his theories even as his family imploded around him. In a letter he wrote later in life, he said, “What I admire in your father is that, for his whole life, he stayed with only one woman. This is a project in which I grossly failed, twice.” It would appear that our strengths and weaknesses correspond to our biological reward system  – which can go as far as determining whether we are able to stay faithful to a partner.

Finally, recent scientific research has yielded important insights: the bacteria in our gut that aids in digestion can influence our mood and even how much we want to eat; brain tumours can cause unexpected abnormal behaviour; and viral infections can sometimes change our personality. But even without these scientific tidbits, there are many things for which we cannot account for. Why do we feel more studious when entering a library? Why do we universally concur on the traits that comprise beauty? Why are some people more likely to fall into depression? There’s a great deal happening behind the scenes but none of the answers are factors within our ability to control.  

So have you thought (HYTA) about whether you are in control of your life?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how our losses and gains are the same?

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I was once asked a simple question by someone who had lost a close family member: How does one get over a person who’s everywhere and anywhere in their life? I didn’t have an answer at the ready so I paused – mostly because she looked quietly unhappy and very much in pain – but also because I wasn’t sure how to phrase it without coming across as cliched, callous or both.

Rather than formulate a perfect, and probably overly exact answer, I settled for a simple principle: There are always equal losses and gains in any given situation. Did we not give up our simple and happy childhood naiveness for higher reasoning, abstraction and some measure of unhappiness? Doesn’t a professor for all his academic expertise, often become unable to think from the perspective of a layman? A single scenario does not come in obvious shades of colours.

Someone who takes the rein of leadership is paid well and respected, but may in the process, over-commit to work, become less empathetic and disconnected from family, friends and peers. Likewise, meeting failures in life may present perspectives that were otherwise absent; having only a limited number of days to live takes away from the humdrum and tedium of life’s repetitions.

It’s no different with the death of someone close to us. Death is meaningful because it allows new life to take root. Its frequent visits force us to rethink our life and to periodically revise our goals. That’s not to say it’s a pleasant experience but to be beholden to despondence hardly seems like a fair contest. If you look hard enough, there’s much silver lining to be had even in the bleakest of moments.

Much of it comes down to how our minds interpret a situation,  and for that we have the power to make alterations and arrive at new realisations. In moments of great turmoil and irrationality, it becomes that much harder but the choice is always ours, and that’s a point worth remembering.

So have you thought (HYTA) about reexamining your perspectives in life?