Have you thought about (HYTA) whether we should be loyal to our country?

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          Loyalty to our nation is a given. If you are born to a country, you are expected to toil its soil, bring forth glory, fight its wars, and if necessity arises, to die on its behalf. Most people explain that love for a country is compulsory since the nation provides stability and comfort. Reciprocity is required, if not demanded. You must love your country in return. But why is that a must?

          While growing up, I cannot remember how many times we had to do National Day poems, eulogies or songs, or the repeated refrain that we had to include some kind of national love in our projects or organised plans. Not once, during my more impressionable years, can I recall a single person, either friend or authority, who took up the role of the contrarian and asked why we had to praise and love our country. In fact, the entirety of national service in any country is always one repeated whoop of exaltation. Loyalty to the nation goes uncontested. And that’s wrong.

          After all, isn’t a nation a corporation, with a political party for a face and an appointed leader for a soul? Yet the sum of its parts are ultimately inorganic and sterile. Decisions made at a national level are necessarily impersonal, subjected to the whims of the powerful few, and concerned with furthering a much broader agenda we may never be aware of – we are only privy to what we need to know. Running a country isn’t easy, but it must, as a function of performing at such a level, be secretive and manipulative.

          I am reminded of Chinese and Japanese history where loyalty to the country is deeply entrenched in their culture: many eminent generals and even ordinary villagers will sacrifice their families, friends and careers to unquestioningly serve their nation. And such acts usually entail some kind of brutish murder, slavish torture or terrible bloodbath. Apparently, murder on behalf of the country is a special kind of killing that no-one needs to lose sleep over. And in all documented instances, these people are heroes: there is nothing more noble than putting your country first.

          Yet, I highly doubt they understood what they were fighting for.  What makes up a nation? The culture? The government? The people?  Why fight for an entity that has its own  motivations? These heroes are patriotic to a fault – an unsurprising result from having years of their education being instructed incessantly that they must love their country – and at times, I find such undiluted patriotism (or nationalism, if you prefer) eerily similar to religious fanaticism: one dies for a god, the other dies for a country. Both are considered saints, given accolades and share the same flawed (and hopeless) superiority complex.

          Loving our country comes with a price. We inevitably believe that our nation is superior in a certain way. Don’t many Americans consider their country to be the foremost moral police of the world? (an ironic and contradictory point) Don’t the citizens of Saudi Arabia think that its variant of Islam is be the right way to seek enlightenment? Don’t Singaporeans take pride in its unique cultural language and traditional family values? An unfortunate consequence of loving something is that – as someone once pointed out to me – you become incorrigibly biased. And I do not see how loyalty to a country helps promote a larger love for mankind.

          During an interview by the Saturday Evening Post on October 1929, Einstein said that “Nationalism and any guise of patriotism, is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. It (patriotism) leads to unjust and pernicious privilege and position.” And he’s correct. How many disputes, either about territory, recognition or privilege, have come about because many citizens on either side of the conflict feel chivalrously entitled to some sort of respect?

So have you thought (HYTA) whether we should be loyal to our country?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what religious harmony means?

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          Religious harmony, a friend of mine once quipped, was proof of concept. He was referring to my country of birth, Singapore, as an illustrious example of a melting pot done right – religions could co-exist with little fuss. He had forgotten though, that our past was colourfully blotted with numerous incidences of racial and religious tensions. And often, racial conflicts are usually rooted in religion. Different races often believed in different gods, and religion presented more reasons for unnecessary inflammation.

          Yet, could religious harmony be possible? Looking at how Saudi Arabia’s top islamic council issued an unrepentant fatwa (holy order) on the banning of Pokemon GO because it indirectly promoted the theory of evolution; or the recent declaration by a Muslim leader that many emojis were unislamic; or a Christian faith healer declaring that modern medicine is forbidden since it goes against God’s design of deciding who lives and dies, I find it more likely we will find a way to live on the sun than to achieve religious harmony. Religion, as evidenced above, seeks to interfere in the lives of believers and non-believers alike.

          Still, Singapore, among several countries, does seem to have made religious harmony a possibility. But that’s only because no-one (at least not publicly) truly follows the holy scriptures to the letter, nor does the government invoke them as a moral compass for its citizens or policies. Doing what’s right doesn’t require a certain verse from the Bible or a quotation from the Hadith – our default moral positions come from secular values. Given the amount of bigotry, unbridled violence and misogyny in these holy texts, it’s hard to ever justify using religion as a lighthouse for ethical behaviour.

          For such peaceful coexistence of faiths in my country, the religious have to pay lip service to their holy books when they are in fact, acting upon secular values while conveniently ignoring the countless paragraphs used to justify the horrific tortures of the inquisitions or the ‘god given’ mission statements of ISIS. So, and this is an important point: the less religious one becomes, the more likely some form of human harmony becomes an attainable concept. And the converse, by extension, is true. As religious fundamentalism increases, peace becomes a distant mirage.

          However, I suppose one might add that people of different faith do help each other, even in times of heated religious conflicts or ongoing war. And there are indeed examples of such selflessness and heroism. But that is an appeal and an argument for humanism: a rational outlook that focuses on human importance rather than supernatural matters. At that moment, these people acted on secular values, not religious tropes. They saw their victims as human beings in need of help, and they offered the corresponding response. Anyone, religious or not, would have done the same.

          Even with the prevalence of a main religious ideology, one would think that surely some kind of unity has at last been met. But that’s not true. Even within the same faith, there are minor variations in beliefs. And these variations are often enough to start brutal rampages of murdering each other’s children and skewering different body parts in euphoric delight. Shia and Sunni Muslims still continue to zealously slaughter each other, and the Protestants and Catholics can doubtlessly be counted on to set each other’s homes on fire. How then, does religion even unify people? Those within a common faith cannot even amicably agree on how to interpret their holy texts.

          I am reminded of a very competent (and well-loved) Science teacher who advised another colleague to stay away from Photoshop and all other forms of drawing. Only God has the right to create and change humans, he said unabashedly, and our hands were meant for worship not emulation. His intentions were not malicious, but clearly, his common sense had run afoul of him – a sad consequence of surrendering your mind to religion. Ordinarily I have never cared about what a person does with his life, but it’s mortifying that children are often the target of such deranged beliefs.

          Wherever you go, religion is a terrible multiplier for bad thinking, tribal behaviour and inherent prejudices, with each group claiming theocratic right. I have met many sane and nice people across a variety of professions, and yet, when pressed further, it’s all too easy for their prejudices to bubble up. Every believer speaks of the opposing faiths in the subdued undertones of the bigot.

          Depending on which group you take up residence with, one of the following is true: the Christians eat defiled pork and worship the wrong redeemer; the Muslims wipe their buttocks with the wrong hands and have an irrational hatred for all things porcine; Jews have filthy beards and drink the blood of children; Buddhists are all about intentions and going nowhere; doing Yoga is a blasphemous worship to the cow-loving Hindu pea-brains; homosexuals are a moral blight on this world. The list is endless.

          How, if I may so kindly ask, can religious harmony be possible?

So have you thought (HYTA) about religious harmony?

Have you thought about (HYTA) why some people prefer to die than to live?

 

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          Life and death have always been the two impossible to miss revolving doors. At any point, you are either at one door or the other, not both, and while you can transition from one state to the next, few would voluntarily wish to die. Yet going by statistical data, more and more people are choosing to die and within certain age groups, suicide is among the three leading causes of death.

          Within a single lifetime, we may know a few people who choose to take their lives, whatever their reasons are. Death then, must be a pleasant enough release, for it to be so preferable over living. Or perhaps the reverse is true: living is so painfully taxing, dreary and void of meaning, that the alternative is more alluring. For most cases, I suspect the latter holds true.

          The causes of suicide are numerous and together, they span enough categories to humble a modern dictionary. Yet, if we were to discount some difficult to explain disorders and various genetic predispositions to mental illnesses, the main reason for suicide is probably not difficult to understand. A key part of happiness (and a meaningful life) is wanting other people to depend on you.

          Put simply, the more people depend on us, the better we feel about ourselves. It makes us feel just a bit more important, and perhaps even arrogantly, we secretly hope others cannot function properly without our existence. I believe even the most passive and laid-back individual can at least feel this much. We want to be noticed.

          It’s no secret that most doctors and lawyers (among other jobs) find their work fulfilling. It feels good knowing that many patients (or clients) depend on them in order to find direction in their life. These elite careers require the possession of an uncommon ability, so much so that though one isn’t a God by any means, it’s as close as it gets to role-playing a deity: the quality of a life is in your hands.

          Another way of looking at it is that these jobs are dependent on how much suffering there is in this world. The more people that suffer or incur injustice, the more meaningful (and profitable) it becomes. A doctor may very much wish to heal a patient, but likely won’t mind if someone becomes very sick. It lets them improve their diagnostic and surgical skills. How else would they find fulfillment? How else would they get better at their jobs? We feel important when people need us.

          This need for self-importance also extends to other situations. A missionary doing religious conversions feels reassured knowing that her God has tasked her to carry out his work. Her God depends on her. She feels wanted. Similarly, a spouse is far more likely to cheat if they repeatedly feel unacknowledged and unimportant. In such cases, they may feel that whether they are at home or not makes no difference. Their existence is painfully invalidated.

          If someone else values them for something, anything, even if the primary motive is raw animal lust or materialistic ambitions, it doesn’t matter. They feel wanted for something, even if it means throwing money away or knowing their actions will likely lead to a disastrous scandal. Would it be wrong then to seek attention in the arms of someone who can provide more and better? The answer will probably remain contentious at worst and morally ambiguous at best.

          In Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, a timeless classic popular among adults and children alike, the Skin Horse gently suggests to the Rabbit that having someone who loves him for who he is, who values his very being, who really, really cares for him, will make him real, whole and complete. That little bit of insight is remarkably lucid and makes for wonderful literature.

          On the surface, it’s sound advice for friendship or romantic endeavours: hold on to the rare few who embrace our vulnerabilities and see us for who we truly are. But it may also be understood that to be a real human being, we want to be part of another’s equation for happiness. We want to be the primary reason for which someone feels happy. Then, we are complete, and only then do we feel spiritually important and useful.

          Wanting others to depend on us might also explain why the green eyed monster, jealousy, lingers in our hearts. In deeply significant relationships, we sometimes deliberately create moments of pull and push, all perhaps for the sole reason of ascertaining and measuring how important we are to the other person. Does this relationship affect him as deeply as it affects me? If I do this, will I measure up to someone else she knows? Will I be forgotten easily? Do I matter?

          Somehow, I suspect there’s a perverse pleasure to be had in knowing that one has left an indelible mark on another’s life – because the opposite is worst. Who wants to spend years together and feel like they aren’t even able to weave their existence into the fabric of someone they value deeply? It’s exhilarating and egotistically fulfilling, even if it is also psychopathically selfish, to know that we are vital to another person, that they depend (or depended) upon us first for everything else.

          When we are made to feel like a nonperson (stripped of status and not recognised), living becomes a hellish tar pit. There’s little reason to wake up today, let alone tomorrow, and you are left sapped of motivation, with a silent emptiness that’s so loud and invasive, it’s almost impossible to function purposefully. Death then, I suppose is a valid albeit short sighted response to a long standing problem.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) whether you enjoy having others being dependent on you?

Have you thought about (HYTA) a few simple truths?

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I am by no means someone in a position to present truths, but over the years, there have been a few simple points I arrived at as they occurred to me, or as I read the brief literature across various  disciplines.

As such, what I have here are largely aphorisms, (with extended descriptions where I think it helps) and are open to interpretations, and subjected to disapproval.

It’s a short collection, but each point has always been something for me to mull over, and I hope it gets one started on thinking a bit more.

 


Everyone, without exception, behaves in especially disturbing ways.
Our private lives and thoughts are often highly scandalous: we indulge our fantasies through erotica or more; we may take drugs or have an affair on the sly; or we may secretly be thinking about someone in ways we shouldn’t. Really, the list goes on.

We spend our lives fulfilling the expectations of others.
We live not for ourselves, but for others, that their opinions and ambitions should somehow have more weight.

People do get away with their crimes.
Though it’s comforting to think that evil will get its comeuppance, that little detail can only be found in movie scripts. Those who lie, cheat and subvert, do go on to live thoroughly fulfilling lives at the expense of others.

We behave in ways that deliberately inflict self-misery.
To improve a situation, we sometimes just need to forget a person we loved, study harder or have more realistic expectations. It’s easy on paper, impossible in most cases.

Lying, especially self-deception, is compulsory to cope with living.
It’s the only way we can pretend we had few regrets, or to justify otherwise morally questionable decisions.

Religion is mankind’s darkest shadow.
The purging of ‘heretics’, the perpetual conflict with science and rationalism, the belief that one does God’s work, have all have seen many, many intellectual sparks extinguished on the altar of faith.

Life is a series of perpetual comparisons.
Happiness only makes sense in the context of pain and suffering. Your success depends on others failing.

It’s impossible to fully understand one’s self.
Observers are more accurate at pinning down our personalities or spotting our errors.

We have a great deal of unconscious prejudice or bias towards a race, group or individual.
Neutrality doesn’t exist.

What we believe is right or wrong is all a product of culture and instinct. Few people sit down to justify their beliefs or positions. Mostly, they don’t have the time, or can’t be bothered.

Suicide (and consequently mental illness) is common.
Present statistics hold it at 16 per 100,000.

Pretending we are normal or trying to fit in is the most important and useless acting skill at our disposal.
The price you pay is individuality but most can’t handle being snubbed or judged.

News outlets focus on interesting topics, not necessary substance.
It’s why you rarely have opinion pieces on religious criticisms but plenty when Madonna adopts a stray dog.

Good listeners and great conversations are rare.
The person we can see ourselves talking to for several hours without pretensions or an exercise in caution is someone to hold on to. For life.

Romantic love is situational.
Who we fall in love with depends on what we are missing most of our lives, or what we badly want in the immediate moment. The more a person has the capacity to provide an intimate answer for these needs, the more likely love will transcend race, age and language barriers.

A good friendship necessitates effort.
Often, one person is doing most of the work.

Rationality will always take a backseat to emotions.
We were never fully rational to begin with, and where love, revenge and hate are concerned, they are especially gratifying because it’s a departure from playing by logical rules.

Too much of any good thing leaves one hopelessly wanting more.
There’s no need for envy.


So, have you thought about (HYTA) whether these aphorisms hold true for you?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the limits of human empathy?

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Even before taking our first steps, we are already in acquisition of a profound language that requires no prior training to learn. This language has no words, forms no sentences and yet weaves emotional backdrops that would be the envy of any storyteller. I refer of course to our ability to, in a single glance, instantly read the subdued tones of anguish, boredom and ecstasy in a person. Unlike a snake’s unblinking gaze at watching its eggs getting smashed, we react with identifiable pain and horror at many different forms of tragedies. Unless we are impaired in some way, this area of non-verbal communication and emotional sensitivity is one in which we all start out as geniuses.

When an infant begins her exploratory journey around the playroom, amidst the occasional bumbling and wide eyed curiosity, she will sometimes look back at her mother for emotional cues. If the infant senses encouragement and security, she is reassured and continues her navigation. Likewise even as adults, we learn much about how another person feels about us by merely looking deeply into their eyes and combining that abstract reading with action and body language. A trembling voice, a silent stare or a sad smile is enough information for us to get by. Assuming we aren’t speculating about strangers from a distance, we can reasonably infer the quality of our friendships, families and those we are attracted to.

All these allow us to develop a more complex emotional quality that’s more nuanced and heightened: empathy – the ability to put ourselves in another person’s position. Without it, we would have little motivation to help someone, much less care for another species or the environment. Empathy is precisely what stops us from going all out in a burst of vengeance, or the incentive to do a bit more for those who have fewer opportunities. It doesn’t stop there. Highly empathetic individuals form tremendously powerful and loving relationships – being sensitive to the needs of your significant other greatly reduces quarrels, fosters tenderness and continuously generates feelings of goodwill. Empathy is also perhaps the one quality that everyone assumes they have because they think they’ve understood it.

Empathy is not simply the capacity to feel but also emotional knowledge of when to act, or sometimes, not at all. There are moments when sympathy and advice can do far more harm by enabling damaging behaviour. More importantly, there are considerable limits to empathy. Try as you might, you will never be able to understand how it feels like to have a terminal illness, to see the slow wasting of the body as it languishes and chokes. Those who lead normal lives cannot grasp the torturous mental imprisonment brought about by schizophrenia. Neither can we truly comprehend the slew of horrendous injuries a soldier can suffer (or less commonly, be forced to inflict on others) in a war. In these cases, an apology or muttering ‘I understand how you feel’ is not particularly helpful.

However, it’s not just moments of crises where empathy is stretched raw. Remarkably powerful experiences such as that of familial love or attraction can also fall short of our ability to understand: A father who, against conventional common sense and expectation, gives up anything and everything to take care of his dying child; someone so deeply drawn to another that he is brought down to his knees; emotional wounds and etched memories that never heal even with the passage of time. As bystanders, it’s easy to cynically mock such experiences as huge personal blunders, or to dismiss them as impossibilities and exaggerations, but we forget that in a single spectrum of experience, there will always be those who reside in the extreme ends.

Because the narrative of every individual’s life branches with complexity, unpredictable variation and irrationality, it’s safe to say that we can never fully empathise with another person comprehensively. But that admission is all that matters. It means we are more likely to work towards humility rather than being brashly dismissive, and less likely to rush to undue (and unfair) judgements of people. Empathy is a precious commodity, but even more inestimably valuable in the hands of those who recognise its limits and applications.