Have you thought about (HYTA) how hard it is to act morally? (Wikileaks and Democratic party scandal)

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“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ”

George Orwell, whose literary influence has seen a number of his words and phrases such as ‘doublethink’ and ‘thoughtcrime’ make its way into the English Language, continue to prove that the criticisms he levelled against political manipulation continue to remain relevant long after his death. Consistently, predictably and repeatedly, people lie over and over, and those in positions of power to make the largest changes rarely behave in laudable ways. Perhaps for as long as money, fame and power continue to fascinate us, being moral, which only requires fairness and minimising hurt, will remain a lofty dream.

After the bombshell dropped by Wikileaks which saw the release of over 20,000 private emails by the democratic party (DNC) in America, there has been a great deal of outrage over what is blatantly a rigged election in a country that often screams democracy. The emails are particularly damning: in a party that’s supposed to be neutral, these emails prove overwhelming bias towards one candidate (Hilary Clinton), collusion with all forms of media to severely undermine Bernie Sanders and finally, repeated lying to the general public by feigning surprise or denial.

There’s of course plenty more to be scandalised with, among which is a correspondence between top party officials on how to use a person’s disbelief in God (atheism) to seriously damage their reputation. That in itself is wildly discriminatory against atheists and insinuates that in order to hold a political position, one must believe in God – a divine being proven real only by sheer imagination and childish peer pressure. But maybe it’s not too much of a surprise. America’s largely a Christian nation. And in many American polls and studies, atheists are among some of the least trusted people and rated as the least desirable group for a potential son or daughter-in-law.

But it is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the DNC, whose behaviour really hits the home run. Through her ‘breakfast meetings’ and various high level contacts, she subtly removed journalists and various opinion pieces that have criticised her party for exhibiting prejudice during the election. She repeatedly denied any such wrongdoing and became livid when proven otherwise. She lies despite knowing she’s lying. She commits election fraud even though as she’s well aware of the rules. And that says a lot. How does she reconcile this moral contradiction? What does it take for a person to wake up in the morning, pretend to be neutral and sincere, and yet is always lying all the time?

Such individuals aren’t exactly uncommon. The Vatican has had a long history of child sex abuse and many human rights organisations have rallied against how the Vatican quietly hides these offenders rather than turning them over to a court. These criminal priests and pastors also lie straight up. They pretend to preach about human morality through the Bible but are themselves in violation of the very ‘truths’ and ‘standards’ they so constantly try to uphold. Psychology has a good explanation for such behaviour: often, when it comes to ourselves, we are less likely to identify our own lies. We believe we are the moral agents of our personal narratives – a sort of hero, and there’s when morality flies out the window.

However, and more troubling, is how likely we are to conform to the pack mentality. Debbie Wasserman did not act alone. Her top officials all colluded alongside her. They leveraged their political might to ‘persuade’ news outlets to fashion the sort of news that they think the general public ought to receive. Not a single person spoke out actively against it. There wasn’t even a hint of protest. We had to rely on an anonymous group (supposedly in Russia) to hack their email database to force Debbie Wasserman to resign. And even then, the speculated motivation behind it was to support Donald Trump, the opposing candidate who by all records, is likely is to lead America to a new age of racism, bigotry and economic depression.

And just like lying almost always brings about consequences more dire than being truthful, the inability to break away from the pack mentality is equally damaging. But maybe this is what teamwork really is about: the point often missed out on in leadership camps and corporate workshops is that teamwork can sometimes (or often) cost you individuality, honesty and initiative. When corporations demand the ability to work as a team on a resume, what they really mean is whether you are prepared to do anything as a group to achieve their goals, whatever it maybe. And perhaps something that most of us learn late is that it is a mistake to dedicate your life to a corporate entity. Entities are souless.

If every farmer in the world agreed to let their herds graze at a fixed time and rotation so that the grass can replenish, the world would be infinitely better. However, all it takes is for one selfish farmer to compromise the entire goodwill sharing. Doing what is right and fair is by no means easy. It’s an uphill task, with the odds stacked against you, especially when going the other way is so much more rewarding, so much less frustrating. 

However, since moral behaviour is a deliberate and conscious choice, I believe Orwell did get the last word on this, and I leave one of his finest quotes here:

   In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

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) 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 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) the memories in your life?

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Defining human life is eminently difficult. To think deeply on it seems to fall within the province of would be dreary philosophers; to put it in lean terms might be an affront to many who – without a choice – traversed the cruel marshes of human poverty and horrific sickness; and to be expressed through faith is an intellectually dishonest simplification. Living is both complex and simple, and will not yield to being so simply captured in a phrase. It has a right to be stubborn.

For me though, life is nothing more than the acquisition of memories. From the day we breathe, it has been a grand treadmill in which memories are ceaselessly produced, one more vivid than the other. Life is but a dizzy swirl of memories, a deeply personal repository of dreams, a limitless hinterlands of what we were and will be.

Don’t memories define our personalities and decisions? When we are hurt, we learn from the first painful memory how to avoid it as best as we can. We use memories to look back at ourselves and define a new point for us to aspire towards. To be a better person must first depend on our memories of failures. As such, we live by memories and die by them. Nothing is more contemptible than to be robbed of memories through disease or age.

But there is also nothing more pleasurable than holding on to unique memories. Perhaps it’s the first time we are drawn very closely to someone we bind very deeply with and we go through a mighty struggle to make sense of it all; if not, maybe it’s the thrill of something forbidden – the more it’s not allowed, the more we want it, the more we crave for it; or it might be the first taste of genuine power, the drawing of first blood, and it becomes richly intoxicating.

These haikus of memories are waypoints for our future decisions. As we filter through them, decisions are narrowed. Based on these pillars of memories and with a little reflection on the side, we kind of figure out what we want in a friend, job or soulmate. And memories never really fade. Even traumatic memories that are deliberately left unpacked and forgotten continue to nudge us, ever so slightly, towards what we like and should avoid.

Life then is a train of memories, always moving forward, always charting new vistas and tracking the lows and highs. Who we like, who we love, what we become, and what we decide to do for the rest of our lives, is perhaps not the mystery we might believe it to be. We need not look to the unknown stars in the dusky sky or the vast firmament of our imagination for answers. We need only to look within the rich albums we already have.

Isn’t life nothing more than the acquisition of memories?

So have you thought about (HYTA) what memories are especially important to you?

Have you thought about (HYTA) who is most significant to you?

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The answer seems deceptively simple and just like it’s easy to mistake the sparkling, quiet reflection in the lake for the twinkling stars in the heavens, who’s most significant to us may not necessarily be our parents or our immediate close friends.

We are influenced by many people and influence runs deep and far, swift and relentless, and branches into numerous scintillating rivulets. We are the sum total of all accumulated sights seen and missed, people met and forgotten, love lost and given.

However, scattered amidst the iridescent colours, one ray, ethereal and majestic, flows brighter, stronger and more independent than the rest. For this single pulsing ray of light, the heart listens a little longer, beats a little faster.

Sometimes in our lives, we encounter a person who gives us the key to our own heart, the voice to our own identity and provides us a flourishing hanging garden for self-growth, self-experimentation and repeated adventures into life. We see things clearer, think better and are better poised to live life on our own terms.

Such a significant person has influence that roots itself deeply in our thoughts and actions. Our every gesture, our every laugh, our every perception is as a consequence, interpreted through the lens of this person’s influence, even if we never ever realise it.

Sometimes such a person might be an unusual thinker, perhaps younger or older, perhaps a maverick or conformist, or perhaps possessed of something indescribably different. Sometimes, it can’t be explained. And in this person’s company, regardless of time spent, we change for the better, and we allow ourselves to be changed.

Eventually when we are ready to anchor ourselves on the stage of life, we realise that even if this person no longer exists, or even if our memory fails us bit by bit, piece by piece, we will bear the remnants of this person’s complex, absorbing influence till the day the curtains fall.

Such a person is a precious commodity, a significant barter of immeasurable worth, and rarely, sadly, do they last. But we will always echo their influences, even if we don’t remember them, or if the fates are unkind. One thing’s for sure though: life is infinitely poorer without this person’s existence.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) who is most significant to you in your (until now) life?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what it means to gossip?

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We have all been there before: someone walks in as words tumble out of our mouths. This is followed by the ensuing awkward silence, the uncomfortable fidget, a slight blush. Eyes are averted and relationships are often irrevocably strained.

To gossip is to talk about someone who if they were present, would not appreciate what we had to say. Though we may revel in it, we do feel a slight twinge, almost as if our conscience is reminding us that we are engaged in an activity that’s potentially harmful.

Gossiping therefore, is a moral act. Words can hurt people and break bones. Every sentence we utter lines up with our convictions. Our voices, our words, our conversational gestures, they all seek to reinforce our core beliefs – to persuade or dissuade others. Words change minds. Words revise opinions.

Because we use gossip to establish intimacy within a group, it also means some people will be excluded. We take pleasure in affirming our moral code repeatedly. And we usually position ourselves as nigh infallible – we seat around a scared round table from which our judgements are handed down unkindly.

Perched from our haughty stone towers, we hope to feel superior – after all, there’s safety in numbers, and the larger the crowing flock, the greater the comfort. Such an act is a fine example of groupthink: our tendency to act, think and speak differently when we are with a crowd.

The worst kinds of human behaviour always begin with groupthink. Look no further than religious persecutions or political rhetoric.

Yet amusingly, though we do not wish for others to gossip about us, we rarely use that as a base to justify why we shouldn’t talk bad about others. For most people, it completely escapes them that the very act of a conversation (not just gossiping) is a great moral force.

Gossiping should be done intelligently and like criticisms, should be handled with a set of ethics that recognises that every person and every situation is different. We should pay close attention to the words we say because just like looking deep into a person’s eyes can snare one for life, so too can what we say lift a person up high, or hurt them very deeply. And we should blunt our knives even at the worst of times.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) what gossiping means to you?