When I was 17, one of the readings I had to do for my Higher English (essentially Literature) course was read Albert Camus’ ‘The Stranger’. It was at once both the most infuriating and most attractive text I had experienced up to then. Short sentences. No emotions. Facts. This happened, so this. And so on. I was confused, and certainly was not the only one. My teacher, Mr. Olwande, told the entire class that it may help for us to read a certain short essay, also by Camus.
‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/msysip.htm
More accurately, we were to read the last chapter. It was this same website that I was reading from on a Thursday evening, 9.00 pm. I remember considering whether or not to game instead, but some feeling or other drove me to pursue this action instead. I read its words, mesmerised, and it was right after I finished reading the last paragraph that I slumped back into my chair and started laughing.
I giggled with ecstasy, cackled with a desire to share this revelation with the rest of the world, chortled and croaked as I got up and paced around, desperately repeating the mantra I had found within that short read. “There is no God. We must all take responsibility for our lives.”
That feeling lasted 5 minutes, and ended with me feeling refreshed. It was not a refreshment about being alive though, of tearing apart illusions and finding truth. Nothing grand like that. Back then, I was studying in a Methodist school even though my family is a freethinking one. I had been struggling to reconcile my fascination and desire for some God with my inner rationalising and ‘voice’ telling me that it was ultimately kind of foolish for me. This read had cured me of that. It had said something that I had wanted but dared not to. It was akin to the times when I had gone up to my father crying and asking him for his advice and him comforting me, steadying me.
I had experienced one of the most important things that everybody needs. I had experienced what it was like to have someone’s inner thoughts and position be given voice and validated.
I became fascinated with existentialism and did my extended essay of 4000 words on Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’. I remember I had walked into the room of one of my old teachers, Mr. Cobb (who I must thank for teaching me latin in private for free every Tuesday recess. It sparked my love for languages) and asked him on authors similar to Camus. I had randomly picked one, had randomly picked a play he had written. Once again, I was fascinated by this utterly absurd writing. A play in which the structures of beginning, middle, and end meant little. It would perhaps be the beginning of a love of systems.
My ideals strengthened, and for the idealistic person I was and still am today, that was my life. But now, I had the force of history, the force of other people backing me up. Everything would be okay. I recall a period when there was suspected cheating going on in another school which was leading to inflating of scores. This was leading to increased boundaries for the scores needed to get into university. I didn’t care about that last part. They had cheated. “The exam organisation will look into it and fix it, right?” I asked Mr. Payne. I asked several more questions in the same vein, desperate for an affirmation, desperate for the knight to slay the evil dragon and save the day.
Finally, “Oh, come on, don’t be naive nemo. Think about it…” I can’t remember what he said afterwards. It was that moment which has stuck with me. He didn’t say it harshly, but he did do so firmly, and it was a short glimpse into the fact that my ideal world wasn’t quite reality.
Life continued. I graduated, and waited to serve the mandatory 2 years of military service. I was excited. Finally, at long last! I will finally be in a hierarchy, be in a system, oh the beauty! How amazing it was that so many small things could come together and create something so much larger than them! I may not be able to see the whole picture, but the orders given will obviously have meaning behind them. They will be for the greater good. If I had been ordered to lay my life down right there, I would have done so.
It is a good thing the order was not given then, for I entered basic military training and came out of it confused, anxious, unbearably sad and alone. I had studied in an international school and in a sense had to learn the colloquialisms and mannerisms of the people. This I would not have minded, and I certainly did find amusement and happiness when I figured out something new, except that I thought them lazy and uncooperative (some genuinely were). This I did not mind either if things had gone according to plan and they had been punished appropriately and they learnt from their mistakes.
Alas. I would come down 5 minutes before we recruits were told to, ready for parade, morning exercise, and breakfast. But as an ironic karmic balance, there would always be at least someone who was consistently late by 5 minutes. And every time, the entire platoon would be ordered to knock it down and do push ups. Or maybe we would get breakfast last. Or maybe we’d go home over the weekends on the last ferry home. “Why?” I asked myself. “Why is it that people weren’t learning? Why is it that they didn’t see that they were inconveniencing others? Why is it that I was being punished alongside these assholes, I who came early all the time, I who was willing to lay my life down for them?”
It was painful, and I continued to struggle with questions similar to these in the army. I was forced to confront a fact I found undesirable and hurtful, but was present nonetheless. I had been forced to confront the fact that my ideas and ideas did not confirm entirely with the real world. With this lesson, I attach a caveat. I realised also that the real world neither cared nor did not care. It was simply there, a fact. A fact I had to learn to live with.
I have many stories I can tell about that period, most involving me being emotionally vulnerable in some way. I would love to tell them, but for this story, they do not matter. Suffice to say, things became better, and one of the many happy truths I was glad and relieved to have affirmed was that everyone had the same worries. I remember when I was sitting with a comrade waiting for the daily bus we had to take (there’s a ton of waiting in the military). He asked me what religion I was. I told him I had none. He looked surprised and baffled as a Muslim. He asked me what there was to stop me doing bad things. I smiled and gave a reply. I can’t remember what I said. I only remember feeling happy that this person, who had never even completed middle school, had asked a question that I had asked myself.
I would continue to learn this lesson over and over again as I found little things here and there that tied me together with everyone. With this soldier, we shared music and I loved his art. With that one, I admired his dedication and tenacity. With another, we discussed future university plans. With everyone, we wondered what the point of the army was. I have become friends with many of them, and strive to keep in touch with as many as I can.
I learnt many things during that time. Lessons I did not want to but had to learn eventually. But what I have just described to you is, I think, another truth which transcends any external factors. I had experienced what it was like to talk to another person with whom I thought I had no connection with and find certain traits I could admire and other traits I could be disappointed with. I had learnt that everybody was trying to answer the same questions, but that everybody had a different way of expressing their answer.
In a way, the army was a microcosm of the existential crises we all face throughout our lives. But that did not matter much as I completed my service and had more important things to do. Things like entering university and studying the subject I liked. At last, after all these years, I was finally going to do philosophy.
The first year was amazing. I was in a land I had only visited as a tourist but had citizenship to. I was to finally experience how the Western life was like compared to that of Asia. It was giddying to meet people from all over the world and we were all bound by the common fact that we were first-year students about to experience something new. I quickly learnt the vocabulary and language I would need to thrive. Some people liked clubbing. I would be asked to go out, but would usually decline and ask about their experience afterwards. Others desired to find this or that little out of the way place, and I asked what it was all about and whether it lived up to their expectations. Sometimes, I wouldn’t grasp the technicalities, but I always appreciated the expertise and knowledge they had.
I made friends easily, quickly. Endless energy, great smile, curious about everything, a little batshit insane. How could I not be? I had just been out from 2 years of doing something I did not wish to do, I was a bird released from its caged, and I raced like lightning to do things I wanted to. But I always, always kept my sense of tradition. I juxtaposed and contrasted what I had learnt and this new land I was in. I would go back to my student halls and enter one of my hallmate’s rooms and just chat, talk about things, talk to the friends they invited over. I was shown off and I liked it, but in return, I got to observe more about how people reacted to events, what one could find important, whether this fit in with the general ‘feel’ of the population that I was getting. Enter, observe, synthesise, conclude.
It was so much fun, and I loved everyone as I had learned to do in the army. With people I had a clash of character with, I relished and thanked them privately for the competition and opportunity to be defeated and grow as a person. In philosophy we debated, argued, disagreed but laughed over it, worried over exams, helped each other with weak points.
The first year was a beautiful tapestry woven by the personalities of thousands. It was a symphony of instruments playing altogether to form some melody that I could not hear clearly but enjoyed drowning myself in. I would pretend that I was conducting, and there certainly moments where I did make my mark, but in the end the melody was bigger and greater, and I allowed it to be so. I didn’t want to go home. I only had 3 years here. Why would I want to go home? I was free here, free to do the choosing that I had learnt as a 17 year old idealistic boy. Free to finally put into place what I had wanted.
I did not overtly learn anything new like I had done in previous periods. But there was one thing I think that has changed me. A lesson that would be best illustrated with my friends and I sitting together in a room in comfortable silence, drinks in our hand during the early hours of the morning. “This will end soon…. won’t it?” I sighed to myself. So I took it in. I had slowed down enough to appreciate the moment.
Then the summer holidays came, and everyone went home. With it came old friends, the comfort of home food, the playing with my siblings. I started getting comfortable, and it dawned on me that I would not stay in the new land permanently. It was fascinating, but it wasn’t a place that I could call home.
Still, time passes and it dragged me with it as it passed by. The second year started, and as I have vaguely detailed in my rushed first post on this blog, the plans I had formed for this year fell apart. Let me count the ways.
My friends had moved all over the place, and I now lived alone. Everyone could choose the modules they wanted to, and I did not see them all as I did before. My social life I had from last year had crumbled somewhat. The martial art I had started taking up in the first year, fallen in love with, and desired to continue through life was abruptly halted because of medical reasons. My sense of self had been hit. The timetabling and goal planning I had wanted to keep up I stopped doing. For some reason, I suddenly could not find any meaning behind any of it. I could not figure out why I should keep on trying to become an investor when I could choose to become a polyglot instead. I could not figure out why this or that choice, a choice that I made, would be more important than the other. Yes, I had learnt long ago that life was given meaning from my choices, but if even my choices had no meaning, then what inertia did it have?
I felt lonely, and I reached out to my friends, but each time I did I would learn something new about them that indicated that their life was moving on. A new guy that I did not hear about from last year’s gossip, inside jokes I could not fully appreciate and which needed explaining, a breakup which had occurred. I felt lonelier and lonelier. I tried to reach out to my family, but I knew that even though they loved me very much, they would not be able to fully comprehend what I was going through. Besides, there was the whole issue of the flat which my father was fully focused on, and I regret to say that I lashed out passive-aggressively against him. Appointments with other contractors weren’t booked until the last minute, questions about this or that situation in the house I read but ignored. I think I was trying to subtly get him to ask me what was wrong. As I said above, my father had comforted me when I had problems. Here, though I didn’t clearly know what was wrong, I think my subconscious pulled away on purpose in an attempt to get attention.
Games distracted me. Homework distracted me. Cooking distracted me. But after each event was done, the same question remained. What was the point? The final straw came for me when I went to Canada for the December holidays. I was living with my best friend and his family, a source of great comfort to me. But after the initial relief from the first few days, the same apathy returned.
But though this complete apathy was new, I had learnt from my previous experience that my feelings were trying to tell me something. I reached out once more to my friends, this time on a platform I had grown up with. On a computer. On Facebook. I wrote a note at 2 am on the morning of boxing day, finished it at 3.20 am, expecting few to read it and fewer still to reply.
I awoke the next day to messages upon messages on my feed. Messages from suggestions to return to martial arts training because it had helped him when he felt down, to the ones which said they had no idea either but kind of knew what I meant. The best came from the year senior than me. Again, I have a love of hierarchies and was taught to respect those with more experience than me. In this case, though some may be younger than me, they were still in a senior year. I felt relief from this reassurance.
I am not sure when exactly I ‘clicked’, but after reading enough messages I just… knew. I did not know what exactly had happened then, but now I do.
All the lessons I had detailed above had been turned upside down. My inner thoughts and position had several times been validated, and I had been given the opportunity to be free to choose as I had always desired. But they did not fulfil. The world neither cared, nor did it not care. It simply was a fact, one I thought I had come to terms with, but had suddenly seemed scary and frightening, cruel in its own apathy. I knew the questions of life, and I had my own answer to the questions, but I could not justify why my own answer was more valid than the other. I knew I had to appreciate the moment, but it seemed like just another distraction. It mattered little, insignificant in the face of the inevitable future, the death that would befall all my actions and my being.
There was one thing I had forgotten, or rather, I had not fully learnt. In my quest for freedom of choosing, in my desire to be completely independent and strike out on my own, earn my own money, earn my own achievements, make something of myself, I had forgotten that the price to pay was everything that had made me what I am today. In my quest to be ‘me’, I had given up everything that made ‘me’ in the first place.
I had desired so, so much to break free from what I saw as constraints to my independence. In a sense, I did break free from it as I gamed less with my brother and spoke much less than I did with my parents, and I did not think of my old friends as much, though I yearned for them to cure my loneliness. I had been fully focused on making my choices here and now meaningful. In return, there was no other thing for me to latch on. I had no compass to point me to a specific direction. The man who knows of gravity but wishes to fly without help will be sorely disappointed.
This lesson has saved me. I had forgotten that my own boundaries structure my life. In a world without answers, this boundary, as an answer, had been given to me, and I had chosen to ignore it. I had forgotten my own strengths, my own weaknesses. Choice matters, but only as much as it stays within boundaries.
I hope that my story, all the stories that I write on this blog, and all the arguments that I give both subtly and overtly, help you in your own crisis. My life may be my own, but it has spoken to me, teaching me of my own strengths, my own weaknesses. Often, they are the same. My lessons too may also be unique to me in its expression. I leave you with the following questions and, though I do not normally do so, statements. Most use negative examples, but more often than not, people think of positive instances only. I want to accentuate the negative expressions.
- What do you perceive is your greatest weakness? What do you perceive is your greatest strength? Often, they are one and the same, and if they are not, they only seem to be so. Even being a ‘greatest failure ever’ takes great skill and strength to succeed.
- Ideals and reality rarely conform entirely, and sometimes not at all. Understand that this will continuously happen, and that to fight it will change nothing. We must face it and accept it. This will require strength and will, two traits you may think you do not have within you. You are wrong; everyone has both, but again everyone expresses it in a different way. Think of a moment, or a few moments, where you felt strong. Perhaps it is the moments you managed to stand up against the world. This could take up several forms, like a cleverly woven deception you have created for both others and yourself. That strength and will can be extended to all forms of life. When I was younger, my dad taught me several simple philosophies of life. ‘Put yourself in other people’s shoes.’ ‘Never be too happy or too unhappy, because life will keep going up and down.’ and so on. What statements do you live by? How have they helped you through life?
- Everyone wants answers to the same question, and as such, you have the power to connect with others even though you may disagree with their answer. Think of a time when you appreciated another for a trait or skill they had, even though you did not understand anything technical, or disagreed vehemently with the way they used this skill. There is a reason why stories can portray expert thieves and murderers as anti-heroes, because even though morally they may not resonate, it is much easier to acknowledge their skill.
- At the same time with 3, figure out your boundaries by describing how you feel about this or that situation. You may feel horrified and disgusted by a murderer’s actions. ‘I am horrified and very angered by this’. Then dive into why. Maybe as a young child your friends made a promise to never leave each others’ sides, but their lives were tragically stolen when he was shot for his money. This step is complicated, and there can certainly be many causes to a certain feeling, but the important thing is not to judge the feelings, and if you do so instinctively, to note that down and to ask why you do that too.
- The anxiety you feel may be from the desire to be validated, to be affirmed without judgement. That is understandable. Understand also that if you feel these people do not exist, that you have not met them yet, even in the best of psychologists. Little comfort, I know, but they are there.
- Finally, remember that everyone has felt, is feeling, or is yet to feel this same anxiety, but it always, always expresses itself somewhere, even distorted. Judge not. Never judge. You were there, you are there, you could be there, in that position. Everyone wants to be validated and listened to without being judged. Maybe you could be that person to someone else. My family and friends certainly were to me.
Thank you for reading,
Yap Jun Hong, Nemo.
5 January 2015