Have you thought about (HYTA) how “If only I did / didn’t…” is not as simple as it seems?

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          In his sublime poem, Maud Muller, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about a maid and a judge having met, fell in love with each other. But neither takes an active hand in voicing their thoughts and they go on their separate ways to marry entirely different people – she marries an uneducated farmer, while he takes a wife who loves his money more than him. Memorably written, if not somewhat comedic, Whittier concludes with a well-known quotation: Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”

          We may not be as poetically attuned to language as Whittier, but we’ve invariably found ourselves at many key points of our lives wondering if we have made the right choice or how things would have played out had we taken a different path. And some choices are so influential that it feels like being in a choose-your-own-adventure book. However, and something we regularly overlook, is that even seemingly trivial decisions like which friend to spend more time on or who to love more, have the cumulative potential to snowball and become major decisions.

          This is not uncommon in psychology where it’s often understood that simple everyday (and deliberate) decisions like consciously showing just a bit of kindness, love or attention, can greatly impact the quality of interaction between individuals. We rarely think more about our minor decisions but they go a surprisingly long way in showing that we care about someone’s existence, or that something is worth fighting for. Small decisions matter as much as the big ones, and that’s important to remember during moments of reflection when we wonder how things have gone wrong or become better.

          But inevitably, when it comes to the big stuff, we eventually find ourselves wondering along variations of the lines “if only I…” or “what if…”. How would life play out then?

          Among one of the more fascinating possibilities explored in Science (also greatly popularised, if not inaccurately, in the runaway anime, Stein’s Gate, as well as the phenomenal Bioshock Infinite game), is that of the multiverse theory. Supposedly, there exists a separate universe for every decision we’ve made. That is to say, there exists a world where you choose not to fall in love, or maybe take up the job offer to Africa. In those worlds, it’s also possible that any of the infinite choices may have resulted in an early demise.

          Although more philosophical than scientific, the multiverse theory suggests that we do fully live out all combinations and permutations of our decisions, and that it is possible to imagine alternative scenarios just like how we find ourselves inclined to when the mood takes us. 

          While the conditional phrase ‘If only I did / didn’t” suggests a clear dichotomy between doing and not doing, or rather a choice between a simple yes or no, that’s a very dangerous mental trap to fall into. Despite what laws and religion try to tell us, our choices in decisions are as complex as that of morality – neither can be confined to a fixed category and both are best understood on a continuum. In fact, every choice we commit to comes with a remarkable gradation. Exactly how much or how little will you do or not do something? 

          You may look back at your life and lament how if only you didn’t give up something important. But exactly how much more would you have done? Perhaps in the end, you wouldn’t have tried that hard anyway and the consequences of the decision would still remain the same.

          Also important to remember is that we have a very unfortunate habit of imagining ourselves as the sole agent of the universe, that is to say we think that we have the luxury of making our all-important decisions and everyone else will later react accordingly. But the truth is that arriving at decisions isn’t like a game of chess. We don’t have two minutes to decide on a move, hit the chess clock and wait for our opponent to make his/her move. In reality, all actors are always simultaneously making their moves. When you delay, hem or haw, the others around you may already have completed their moves.

          This means that even if you could choose differently, the outcome may in some cases either be the same or worse off. Because even if you picked an alternative path, the other players in your life will also pick something different in reaction to your new choice, and may still end up obstructing you anyway. You may think it’s your decision that matters, or that it’s entirely your fault for making a bad call, but when push comes to shove, perhaps none of the choices at that point of time could have made the slightest difference.

          In the end, the ‘what ifs’ are not as important as the decisions we choose to commit to now. So what if life could have told a different story, or so what if you could have saved more money had you waited for the stocks to rise? Every decision good or bad will serve to teach us something, and life is primarily nothing more than an aggregation of experiences both good and bad. Right now, as long as we can properly justify, by heart or mind, through memories or feelings, who or what should be a part of our decision making process, we should spend more time living with the choices we’ve made rather than dwelling on what could be.

So, Have you thought about (HYTA) how “If only I did / didn’t…” is not as simple as it seems?

Have you thought about (HYTA) when to give up?

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         Perhaps far more important than giving it your all is to also knowing when to give up. This might sound counter-intuitive to the well-heeled advice of visualising goals, overcoming setbacks and to never, never throw in the towel, but knowing when to cut our losses is a sorely underappreciated life skill.

         Most of us probably draw inspiration from someone who exemplifies staunch perseverance. Consider someone like J.K Rowling who wrote the manuscripts of Harry Potter while simultaneously living in poverty and struggling through divorce. It’s easy to assume that as long as we persevere, we will eventually receive a reward commensurate with our efforts. But in singling out a few examples (and they are few indeed), we’ve completely missed out on the quiet (and under-reported) graveyards of those who tried over and over, but were still doomed to failure anyway.

         Getting what we want isn’t just a matter of perseverance and blind effort. It’s also heavily (if not entirely) dependent on luck. And it’s not just blind fortune per se, but also the whims of people and society. Vicktor E. Frankl, the psychiatrist who gained international renown for his riveting book, Man’s Search For Meaning, wrote in his preface that among the dozens of books he had previously authored, he found it peculiar only this one was a success. But it wasn’t surprising: Given the social and political climate at that time, there was greater interest in the meaning of life, so it was his book many took comfort in.

         But when the wind does not blow favourably and it becomes hard to visualise a positive outcome, we should learn to encourage ourselves to let go. It’s not as bad as it seems because giving up can be important for our mental well-being. It may well be that the job we are in will never amount to anything despite what we do; or perhaps we are trying so hard in a relationship and receiving so little in return that we are best off investing in something else entirely; and in some cases it is probably better to not care than to care. The alternative – holding on desperately – can at times be so effortful and at once both worrying and taxing that we risk great harm to our inner selves for so little in return.

        Letting go isn’t easy and difficult to act on when we most need it. In doing so, we will lose hundreds, if not thousands, of invested hours, deeply significant memories and even a bit of ourselves. But stemming the bleed at some point of time is better than bleeding to death.

Have you thought about (HYTA) why children should be protected from religion?

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            It has always struck me as peculiar that while we have basic laws protecting minors from drugs, alcohol and abuse, no such protection exists for religion. The rationale for drafting up the former set of laws is sound: children are unable to fully assess the consequences of their actions so the government intervenes on their behalf. But for the latter, religion is an indoctrination of the impossible and absurd, carried out at a time when a child has difficulty differentiating between her imaginary friend and reality. Shouldn’t laws protect children when their minds are at the most vulnerable?

            In a study (published in Cognitive Science) carried out by the researchers of Boston university to find out how religious exposure affects a child, they concluded that religious children have a much harder time differentiating fact from fiction. After all, if you believe Muhammad flew on the back of a winged donkey or that talking snakes are real, surely goblins and fairies had to be true. Religion severely impedes the ability to detect bullshit and fries the mental circuits of critical thought. Ironically, if there was an infection that targeted young minds and impaired their ability to reason, religious parents would scramble desperately for a remedy – but they will fail to see their faith as the disease.

            Additionally, it’s hard to be optimistic about religion: Mainstream religions like Islam and Judaism encourage the inhumane practice of male / female genital mutilation because it is seen as being in line with their religious ‘morals’; the hostility towards abortion, climate change and other religions is exacerbated by the increasing Christian fundamentalist sentiment in America; and all religions are terribly allergic to reason and logic, and therefore hostile towards the scientific method and those of a ‘sinful’ sexual orientation. Shouldn’t young minds be protected from such divisiveness and bigotry?

            Because children are yet to develop higher order thinking, many religious organisations hold conversion ceremonies disguised as social outings and festive parties because they KNOW it’s far easier converting a child than an adult, and if you can get them young, it’s easier to keep them trapped especially since religion has become supremely good at social blackmail. Don’t want to come for church? All your church friends will alienate you or spam your phone with messages begging for your return. Don’t want to pray at a temple? Well it will be hard for our leaders to help you if you are not on the same spiritual level as we are. These predatory practices should be outlawed. It’s nothing short of mental molestation.

            The call for children to be protected from faith is not new. Richard Dawkins has advocated for schools to openly protect children from being indoctrinated by their religious parents. Given the existence of faith schools, it’s doubtful how such a suggestion can ever be carried out. But there is another reason why such an implementation will not go through: Any intelligent leader will recognise religion as an important tool for controlling the masses. That it is absurd or highly likely to be false is of no concern as long as each citizen believes their lives to be meaningful so that they can keep working till death for the glory of the government and country.

So, Have you thought about (HYTA) why children should be protected from religion?

 

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) whether we can reject social and cultural norms?

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            There’s only one requirement that must be met in order to fully enjoy any magic show, circus side act or film. And it has nothing to do with popcorn. Commonly referred to as ‘suspension of disbelief’, it refers to a willingness (often unconscious) to suspend your critical thought in order to accept something unbelievable, incredible or jarring. If absent, it’s impossible to enjoy a superhero flick or an enactment of war when you are keenly aware that most of the special effects are often in direct violation of the laws of physics and biology. Stephen Chow receiving a punch that knocks him back 20 meters and leaves him slightly bruised, would in reality, outright kill anyone instantly. Clearly, a key part of immersion is just letting go and not dwelling on the absurd – a profound statement that acutely exemplifies how we live in society. Living well and finding meaning in life is directly dependent on how much you are able to suspend your disbelief. Because social and cultural norms often do not make sense.

            A simple example to start things off is how we perceive national service and war. Whether it’s necessary self-defense or justified invasions, war still amounts to nothing more than state sanctioned mass murder, with national service being a pivotal moment to stamp out any lingering ability to reason or doubt. Most military training rely on instincts rather than reason, simply because thinking can indeed get you killed very fast on the battlefield, but combined with patriotism and a belief that the side you are on is either that of the victim or hero, you soon find few qualms in holding down the trigger of a machine-gun. However, as All Quiet on the Western Front poignantly illustrates in a touching narrative, our enemies are every bit as human as we are. Is it then not disturbing that medals of honor are given out as an achievement count for each dead body you leave on the battlefield? But few will ever see it this way, with a majority believing that service and dying for the country is one of the highest honor ever attainable. To effectively fight on the front-line and to partake in national security, you must suspend your disbelief: the sniper who bags fifty victims is a revered war hero while the guy who smokes drugs secretly at the back of your neighborhood finds himself sentenced to years of imprisonment.

            Even eating, the simplest of daily affairs also requires disbelief, but this is one we are so practiced in that it’s almost scary. Our appetite for food is so great that we give out Michelin stars to designate culinary prowess, and write up recommendations on blogs and videos to celebrate the rich diversity of cosmopolitan food. Yet, from the perspective of the creatures we are devouring, there’s something disgustingly sick when we excitedly talk about the countless ways to prepare their meat, ranging from braising to filleting, or the expert techniques of separating organs from flesh with a knife. Even as our molars grind away at the meat, and as our forks and spoons make short work of the food in front of us, we merely laugh away with our friends without the slightest sense of guilt. However, if the tables were turned on us, and human beings could be prepared a hundred different ways for a bountiful feast, and if you had to watch your mother have her organs eviscerated and bones forcefully removed in order to make meat patty, wouldn’t you feel absolute horror and fear? You might ask how is it that these slaughterers can still smile, laugh and talk without feeling any remorse? But isn’t that what we already do? In this, we have suspended our disbelief so expertly that food is an art onto itself, and saying anything less would only elicit hard stares from everyone.

            And when you consider the scope of the visible universe, much of it still unknown to us, it is so infinitely huge that in cosmic terms, Earth is only a speck of dust. There are planets and stars so far and so bizarre (and also so huge) that even if you could travel at the speed of light (approximately 300,000 km/s which means light travels around Earth 7.5 times in one second) you would still take tens of thousands, if not millions, of light years to reach. Even if Earth ceased to exist, not even the slightest of ripples will be felt in the universe. What we do and who we are is of such supreme unimportance that we may as well not have existed. Here is where suspension of disbelief kicks in, for without it, life is ultimately truly meaningless. Using man-made belief systems like religions and cults, we make ourselves more important than we have any right being, and try to forget how isolated and meager we are in the eyes of the grand cosmos. From Susanoo the Japanese wind God to Shiva the Hindu Destroyer, these religious beliefs are now incorporated within cultural norms. Is it true that ringing the bell helps to ward ghosts away? Does a lion dance promote prosperity or can Fengshui’s harmonisation of Ying and Yang help your mental well-being? Nope, they are all total rubbish, convenient myths built to give false purpose and distinction in their respective societies, and while we have valid grounds to reject them, to do so is to be an outcast or to be branded a mentally ill person. Suspension of disbelief is once again necessary.

            And even love which most consider unique to the human species, is only meaningful when you are willing to ignore many of the unhappy (and unavoidable) realities of its true nature. Ever watched a nature documentary of birds courting each other? Human beings do the same, except instead of brightly plumed feathers, we sport various clothing, makeup and hair styles. Like animals who use all manners of showy displays for courtship, we reply on language, music and intelligence to win desired partners over. And whether you are male or female, both genders are armed with various tools of sexuality in order to manipulate, charm or control each other – we flirt, gossip, test waters and play coy. And in the animal kingdom, alpha males – those who possess a universally prized quality – easily have hundreds of females in their harems, again no different from say, Wilt Chamberlain, one of the best basketball players who admitted in his autobiography that he bedded more than 20,000 women, claiming that his tremendous fame meant many women were happy to throw themselves at him. Towards the end, though he admitted having only one woman would have been more satisfying, it still doesn’t change the way we are wired: love is not really anything special but an evolutionary directive (one that you have no control over) to reproduce optimally and secure your genes for the next generation. Failure to suspend your disbelief here means love is nothing more than a shallow mating game. Maybe it is.

            Though there are many more examples to be had, the question must be asked: Can we truly reject all social and cultural norms? The short answer, and maybe the only answer is no. To do so would be to foray into some degree of nihilism – the belief that no principles are meaningful or true. As it is, simply rejecting some social constructs will already make integration into society extremely difficult. Imagine if everyone is singing a school song and you recognise this process for the artificial sense of identity it’s meant to foster. Once you no longer suspend your disbelief, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about anything else that follows. Even if we can accept that we are living in a smokescreen, there are definitely times, especially when we are feeling dejected, that we notice what we do might be far less noble and far less meaningful than we otherwise assume. In the end, life’s nothing but a grand illusion, right?

So have you thought about (HYTA) whether we can reject social and cultural norms?

Have you thought about (HYTA) who or what we owe a debt of gratitude to?

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          On the day we are born, we start off our helpless first steps being in debt to others. We chalk up massive loans of goodwill and accrue various deficits of gratitude that seem all but impossible to repay.

          Our debts are many. A rational analysis would suggest that we owe our parents something, and let’s not forget our generations of ancestors whose efforts at keeping the family line going is the key reason why any of us even exist. If we owe our entire ancestry something, how far back do we go? All the way to ancient evolutionary times when we began as a single cell?

          And it would appear we owe our country and society something too. The existence of these superstructures have allowed us to benefit greatly in shape and form. There’s also our schools and teachers to be thankful for, and also the occasional stranger whose unexpected act of kindness changed our perspectives.

          Additionally, if you are religious, you would owe a spiritual debt to a ‘benevolent’ God who lovingly handcrafted a world with enough toxic elements, poisonous plants and dangerous animals so that your first and foremost lesson in life is to not eat or touch anything brightly coloured.

          Even if you wanted to forget it all, we are always reminded to pay back what’s due. Every school we go to, from kindergarten, primary, secondary to tertiary institutes, or even the companies and clubs we find ourselves in, they have all invented their own songs, pledges and vain principles to enforce in us a subtle loyalty to give back, preferably for the rest of our lives. It’s cunning but effective.

          And countries have always encouraged as much blind patriotism as possible, often with the media in their pocket to remind us of ‘true’ people who gave everything they have for their beloved nation. Those less willing will ‘discover’ their love for their country through compulsory national service where the nation has limitless opportunities to forcefully drill anthems and pledges into young, unthinking heads.

          But are we obligated to pay anything back? The problem comes first with identifying to whom or what you owe the larger debt too. That seems impossible to rationally determine, and even if you gave your entire adult life away, you would never be able to pay it back fully. So we must instead decide on who or what we want to focus on giving back.

          Also, whether we have any obligation to pay back our debts depends on whether you believe life goes on after you die. It is possible that all of reality and consciousness – the entirety of the universe as we know it – ends after our demise. If so, there is no merit to repayment when we should be maximising our own time and pleasure in this limited existence.

          Even without subscribing to such a view, are all our debts equal and worth paying in full? Not really. A country, society and company, are ultimately faceless entities, and at best creatures we will only superficially know, so what’s wrong with paying the most minimal of obligations? After all, when they make decisions, we are not thought of as unique individuals but are necessarily seen as numerals waiting to be crunched and bell curved efficiently, so why should we be expected to do more? Being employed is already compulsory and sufficient payback – it’s either that or to live out on the streets.

          On the other hand, those who are repeatedly the most visible in our lives, the most likely to be appreciative and receptive, are perhaps those we should focus on returning favors to. Our ever watchful parents, our romantic partners (if we are lucky enough to find someone who can complete us fully), and even giving ourselves a treat every now and then, are all perfectly valid areas of focus that we should be able to over-indulge to the exclusion of other debts without judgement.

          While the great philosopher Socrates would argue that we ought to honor certain debts more than others (particularly the privileged relationship we have with society), his is an extreme example that led to him accepting his state’s death sentence as a necessary debt of life he owed to Athens. While it is true that we owe our existence to many things, isn’t it also true that many things also owe their existence to us?

          Have you thought about (HYTA) who or what we owe a debt to?