154. Out With The New, In With The Old

I realize that we all spend our lives following and repeating a strict 3-Act structure in the way we conduct ourselves. We all start of explosively, full of energy and excitement, if in want for some focus and direction; we then wind down into a casual pace, but still keeping a snappiness in our step, the energy slowly wearing off as obstacles after obstacles are thrown our way; and somewhere around the 75% mark, we get thrown a curveball, and we spent a great deal of time and emotions bringing resolution to everything that has built up so far. Finally, we spend the last 10% of our time only properly enjoying what we have.

This is true, I find, for both the human lifespan and the Gregorian year.

You could also say that our lives play out in a 2-Act structure. We spent half our time doing things and making things happen without thinking through their consequences, and then we spent the other half of our time reacting to things that happen to us, also bearing the full weight of our actions, and resolving them as well as we reasonably can.

In many ways, I think that the further we go in life, the more we desire to backtrack into a time when things we simpler and the days were blither. On a macro level, this of course refers to the evolution of thought through the aging years. But I realize that the year also repeats this cycle every time it comes around, albeit on a smaller scale.

Every January, we wake up earlier. We eat healthier. We exercise more. We’re kinder. We’re more patient. We’re generally better behaved, nicer, more magnanimous, and generally all-rounder better people. The year starts off red-hot, passion blazing, excitement buzzing. It cools off over a period of months, and it’s usually about April or May that we begin to cut ourselves a little bit of slack. Come July, we’ve already set ourselves into a routine of normalcy; and by October, God help whoever pisses us off on a bad day.

Then, of course, the Christmas season comes around and revives our spirits all over again, so that we may repeat the cycle.

So when the new year rolls around, what we do isn’t so much of throwing out the old things and bringing in new things. It’s more like a costume change from our winter wear into our summer clothes. We’re going back to the person that we were at the beginning of the year – that kinder, nicer, motivated person. With every year that passes, our resolutions and promises to ourselves mostly involves going back to the person that we were 5, 10, 20, or 40 years ago – the person who was younger, healthier, and happier.

So to those of you whose new year resolutions involve reinventing yourselves, fret not – you don’t have to do anything so difficult. Only remember what you were before, and roll back into that previous version of you. It’s really easier than it sounds; and since everyone is doing it, regardless of whether they realize it or not, it’s also more acceptable than it sounds.

As 2014 rolls around, I say out with the new, and in with the old. Here’s to the old us.

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153. Faust

I got hired today, and I don’t know why the hell I even agreed to it. I guess it sounded like a good idea at that time, but after a few hours of realizing what I’d just done, I just feel like stabbing myself. With a fork.

If intelligence is in the brain and love in the heart, then passion must be in the soul. The reason I went for the interview in the first place was because I was told the pay would be good; and now here I am. I’ve sold my soul for a little bit of money. I’ve pawned off my passion for a gold-plated, hollow career.

All this is, again, needlessly dramatic. I’ll get over it. But there’s that sinking feeling that I’ve just betrayed myself and everything I said I believed in. I said I believed in living a life that I’m passionate about. I said I wanted to write, even if the pay is shitty and the hours are long. I said I’ll never want to do a typical office job.

Just take a look at me now.

Part of me wants to kindly tell the good man that this all has been a terrible mistake, and I cannot bring myself to take up on his offer. However irrational, it would help ease my conscience and end this cognitive dissonance. But at the same time, I know I’ll be disappointing a lot of people if I turn back now. It’s probably best that I be the one disappointed instead of them.

12 hours later, I still feel like stabbing myself.

This is bullshit. I’ve done every reasonable thing I could: I threw myself into the world of entertainment; I’ve read the books; I’ve done the homework; I’ve done the preliminary works; I’ve met the people – what am I missing? Why isn’t life turning out the way I imagined it to be? Far from the perfect picture, this is everything I’ve consciously rejected this whole time. This is the leap off the slippery slope.

Unfair, unfair, unfair. Why is it that, after trying so hard and doing so much, I still find myself in this place, as though it was all for nothing? People have gotten much further without working nearly as hard.

Maybe is the adult in me making a sensible choice for once? It’s not as though I received any other offers; and hey, money. With an unemployment rate of 3.3%, there are some 100,000 Malaysians wandering around with no jobs. I grabbed the opportunity when I saw it, and I can always move on if and when a better offers comes rolling by.

My rational mind is appeased, but my damn heart simply won’t let go of the picture of Faust striking his fateful deal with the devil, giving his soul away in one hand, and receiving riches in the other. I’ve never asked for fame, or riches, or beautiful women (although they would be very nice to have); only that I be allowed to tell stories and make a living out of it. It’s apparently too much to ask for.

Work starts this Thursday, January 2nd, 2014. I am become Faust, and I cannot find my soul anymore.

152. The Reason For Faith

(I suddenly realize that I missed this week’s Fiction Friday. I blame the erratic year-end schedule)

These are difficult days to be a person of faith.

Having been raised in a very Christian home, I have been attending church and practicing the faith for as long as I can remember. As I open up to the big, big world out there and become more and more aware of the views of others, it appears that most of the world has put aside the notion of faith in favor of rational thought and science; and in doing so, the predictable

On one hand, there are those firmly planted in the world of rational thought, ridiculing those who hold on to faith for believing in fairy stories. On the other hand, there are those anchored into the bedrock of faith, refusing to relent, and referring to the rational thinkers as sinners caught in the ways of the world whose souls are doomed for eternal damnation.

(this, of course, is an oversimplification; but to fully portray the views of both camps will take time that I am not willing to spend, so just roll along with the idea that the two sides do not get along with one another)

Having been exposed to both sides, the only thing that can be said is this: rational thinking is the rational choice. But that’s like winning at a game in which you set up the rules on your own. Faith, of course, is not the rational choice – because faith is its own answer. Just like how I cannot demonstrate how to play poker with UNO cards, you cannot explain the idea of faith in rational terms.

Allow me, however, to attempt to reconcile these two ways of thinking.

I have a friend who loved the Final Fantasy series of games. As we all know, however, liking to do something doesn’t always equate to being able to do it well; and watching her play the games is kind of like following political news: depressing, painful, but you cannot help but watch and laugh.

When the internet gained popularity in the early 2000s, she found (at that point in her life) the discovery of a lifetime: game walkthroughs. An encyclopedic guide to the game, listing down every item, route, monsters, abilities, and solution to the game’s challenges. Armed with the walkthrough, she found every secret, bested every boss fight, and beat the game with great satisfaction.

All while my other gamer friend watched on in disgust. “That’s not the point of the game!” he would protest. “You’re supposed to immerse yourself into the experience – figure things out! Get caught off guard by the surprises! Discover the secrets by actually searching for it!”

To which I imagine she answered: “I have better equipments than you, noob.”

(I never actually remembered what she said in reply. It was probably something much more mundane, like “whatever”, or something similar to that. I, for one, like the version in my imagination better)

I, as a gamer, agree completely with the gamer friend… Until I get stuck for over an hour on a seemingly impossible puzzle, at which point I’ll just open up the walkthrough, so that I can get on with the rest of the game.

This former friend of mine, who attends the same church as I do, have compared the Bible to walkthroughs on more than one occasion. “The answers are all in there,” she would say, “All you need to do is to look for it, instead of trying to figure everything out on your own.”

There’s some undeniable logic going on there. But if I could make an argument for the reason for faith, using mathematics as an allegory, it would go something like this:

Life, in all its complexity, offers us a number of things to figure out – to solve. Let’s say that one of these things is to find the answer of 5 multiplied with the square root of 4. Some of you have already figured out the answer, some of you will take a little longer. Tell a little child who has no knowledge of square roots, however, and tell him that the answer is 10. He’ll believe you, and he’ll go on to tell other people that the answer is 10, no questions asked. The same thing happens whether you tell him 10, or 9, or 12. This is faith: suspending disbelief, putting trust into something or someone before the evidence is presented.

Science, you see, is in the method of discovery: determining that the square root of 4 cannot be anything but 2 (hey, it could also be -2, but let’s keep things simple for now), and that 5 multiplied by 2 cannot be anything else but 10. Evidence presented, proof irrefutable. The process of eliminating the impossible to find the infallible truth – that’s science.

But science does not disprove nor causes faith to be obsolete. Neither is faith the enemy of science. They are simply ways of seeing and interpreting the world. Ways of thought.

Back to my friend with the walkthrough and the other gamer friend. One just needs the answers quick so she can get on with the game without panicking with every new feature. The other wants to take time to discover the mechanics that governs the world he has chosen to immerse himself into. You may agree with or prefer one over the other – but who’s to say which is nobler, or better? They are both making the best out of their gaming experience.

So the same it is with faith and science. Some enjoy the process of uncovering truth. Some prefer to have the answer, no need for the steps taken to discover the answer.

So here is the main problem with faith: what if faith’s answer is wrong? What if 5 multiplied by the square root of 4 isn’t 10, but is in fact -10? Those who take faith’s answer at face value would be wrong their whole lives, but go on believing that they’re right, simply because faith said so.

In my secondary school days, I’ve always dreaded a maths problem that typically goes like this: “Prove that x=1 and y=1 in the function x^2 + 2xy + y^2 = 0”

(the smart alec in me had always wanted to write “no”; but my desire to get good grades have always overridden my desire to make snarky comments)

Because faith typically presents an answer within a premise, all that’s left is to test it out and see if it works. If the walkthrough says that there’s some secret loot in the corner of the map, the only sure way of knowing is to travel there and find out. Faith essentially presents the maths problem, except minus the bit where it asks you to prove it – only to believe it and run with it.

The only reason that I have kept the faith for so long, I think, is that I have found it to work for me. I do not know the steps in between – perhaps the premise is all wrong. Perhaps everything that I’ve experience is only the placebo effect in motion. But what I know is that through practicing this faith, I believe I have grown to be a better, more wholesome person than I would otherwise be. I have tested faith’s answer, and found that it works.

Science has debunked superstitions of faith many times before, making some very religious people feel very silly. At the same time, it has also bridged many premises and answers put forth by faith, making some very religious people feel very clever.

Rational thought, at first glance, may seem antagonistic to the notion of faith; but in time, perhaps we’ll come to realize that science can help us to discover the steps between the fundamental questions of life and faith’s answer. At the same time, perhaps faith would be useful to us – ignorant as we are – to help suspend disbelief about the fundamental truths about the world, until we either discover the steps of logic in between, or disprove faith’s answer entirely.

151. Achieving Immortality

There’s something primal about the fear of nonexistence. Sure, spiders and ghouls and demons are creepy and all; but there’s just something deeply vast and dark and disturbing about total emptiness. In fact, nothingness is so incomprehensible – so alien to the human brain, that you will literally begin to go crazy.

Orfield Labs’ anechoic chamber in Minnesota has grown famous as “the quietest place on earth”, and for good reason – it blocks out 99% of all external sound. It doesn’t sound very quiet at first glance, but just take a moment right now to listen to the sounds all around you. If you’re in a house like mine, there’s the ticking of the clock on the wall. There’s the hum of the motor running in the ceiling fan. There’s the whirring of the hard drive in the laptop. There’s the distant sounds of a dog barking. There’s a faint buzz of factory machinery working late into the night. Now imagine all that sound gone – and chances are, if you’re like me, you’re imagining a sharp ringing sound in your ear in the absence of all that background noise.

Our brain is so comfortable with stimuli that it actually freaks out in the absence of it. Ironically, it takes a lot more effort to imagine absolutely nothing than anything else. Researchers have also found that if you tape halves of ping pong balls over your eyes – just enough to cover them and shut out the light, while still allowing you to open your eyelids – you will begin to hallucinate. The brain just cannot take it.

It’s perhaps something inherent to the universe we live in. Even that which we call a vacuum is not completely empty. As incredibly empty outer space is, there is still that odd hydrogen atom floating around. Think about it: our universe has objects so dense that even light cannot escape its gravitational field, yet nowhere there exists a perfect void. We have supernovas bright enough to blind you from billions of miles away and hot enough to liquify our solar system before our brains can even register that it’s happening, yet there is nowhere that is in absolute darkness, or in absolute coldness.

Try and imagine the nothingness before creation – you can’t. Your mind rebels against the thought. Just as difficult – if you don’t believe in heaven, hell, or anything in between – is to imagine an emptiness after death.

Imagine that: Nothing. Forever. The time in between the birth and death of the universe is indescribably small in the enormity that is eternity. The universe can live and die a billion times a billion times, and it still wouldn’t be long enough to be anything of significance in the scheme of forever. What is a human life, compared to these things?

Maybe this is why we strive so hard for immortality.

Regardless of what you believe in or what you call it – heaven, significance, legacy, empire – everyone who has ever lived have strove to live on beyond their deaths. Some believe in a spiritual place where the souls leaves to rest after the physical body has perished. Some believe in leaving something behind on this earth, whether in words, in music, in ideas, or in physical constructs. Realizing how fragile, how short, and how pathetically insignificant life can be, the primal fear of nothingness after death drives us to create. To work. To do whatever it takes to live on, even if it’s only for that little bit longer.

But what does “immortality” even mean? Does it literally mean to live forever? To live beyond one’s natural lifespan? Since the suffix “im-” translates to “not”, we can safely say that “immortality” covers any grounds outside of “mortality”. What, then, does it mean to be mortal?

The word “mortal” comes from the Latin “mortalis”, which means “to be subjected to death”. Death of what, exactly? Of the physical body? Of the soul? Of the memory?

The eminent Isaac Newton, a great scientist (who called himself a “natural philosopher” at that time, because the word “scientist” wasn’t coined yet), was very much into alchemy. The study of transmutation. Of particular interest to him was an object called the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary artifact which could, among other things, turn lead into gold, and grant immortality.

Needless to say, Sir Newton has since passed on with his quest unfinished. While his physical body has been buried, rotted away, and broken down into chemicals; can we say that he has, once and for all, truly died?

There’s a saying that every man dies two deaths: the first when he breathes his last, and the second when his name is uttered for the last time. Sir Newton have died the first death, but he lives on: in our textbooks, in our historical records, and in our memories of the great scientists. He lives on, his memory passed from one mind to the next, whenever someone learns about Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. He lives on when someone, somewhere does calculus. He lives on whenever the story of the falling apple is told.

Even Mr. Shakespeare took a jab at the subject – a very romantic one, to boot, in Sonnet 18. Recall the final lines of the sonnet: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

It appears that while most of us have given up on defying the first death, we still try out hardest to struggle against the second death: the death of our memories. So we give. We live altruistic lives. We sow seeds of ideas into the lives of others. We do good unto our neighbors. We attempt to do great things. We share our thoughts. We teach our children to follow in our ways. Our earthly shells must and will return to dust, but we have found other ways to be immortal.

Now consider this: every word that you have uploaded into the internet will survive for as long as the server does. Every picture ever taken of you will likely outlast you. Papyrus scrolls have been discovered with their writings intact even after thousands of years, and there’s no reason to think that your diary won’t last at least as long. Your government has a file with your picture and information in it, and they will continue to keep that file long after you have passed on. If you give good advice, your advice will live on for generations. If you have children, part of that child’s DNA – and every child that comes out of that – is uniquely yours.

We all strive to leave something behind. We all want to believe that there is some form of life after death. We are all in the pursuit of immortality in a world full of mortal things. In our quest to defy insignificance, to rebel against nothingness, to fight against death – there is something that we’ve missed, or have forgotten:

We have all already achieved immortality.

150. Wednesday

I am continually amazed at the ever-rising post number. Was it only a few months ago when I started with the first post? It feels like only a week or two had passed since. Yet with an average of 500 words per post, today’s post marks the 75,000 word milestone on this blog.

(now if only I had that kind of commitment towards the novels that I’m supposed to be working on)

Time, like money, leaves you with change after it’s spent. After the hours spent updating this space, I think I’ve grown at least a little bit as a person. As a writer. My horizons have expanded that little bit. I can see just a little bit further. I can think just a little bit clearer. I can write just a little bit better.

But a little bit is good.

(with an average of 30 minutes spent on a single post, this one marks 75 hours spent writing for this space. Only 9,925 hours more to go before my writing becomes world class. We can also infer that 20,000 posts will equate to about 10,000 hours; which means that to be world class, the aspiring writer should have written 10 million words, given by 20,000 posts multiplied by 500 words per post)

Wednesday is the day in the week where you’re not quite starting out, and at the same time you’re not quite ending – stuck in the middle. The folks whom I work with in the church media team have their progress report and planning meetings on Wednesday mornings – kind of cool, because it gives me time to recover from the weekend and finish up the week’s task in the time remaining after.

Wednesday is the day that you’ve fully gotten into the spirit of the thing – or at least have gained all the momentum you need to produce work at that perfect balance between minimal effort and maximum quality. Wednesday is the day that you just do the things you do so effortlessly, because your mind isn’t occupied by anything else – not the weekend past, not the weekend to come.

At 150 posts, this is Wednesday for this blog and I. I’ve gotten so comfortable with this space that I’ve stopped doing spellchecks. I’ve stopped fretting over the hits this site gets. I don’t even bother with brainstorming for new post ideas – I just sit down in front of my laptop, open a tab to write a new post, and I hack and slash away at the thing until something that resembles a post appears. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; but most of the time it does.

I’ve even stopped worrying about pacing the writing and making it perfect for the public eye. When inspiration strikes, it strikes. When it doesn’t, I write anyway – a point that I’m particularly proud of, because this was the very reason I started this project in the first place. I cannot say that I’m concerned – but what’s of importance as I write these days is simply to let the ideas flow. To let the words bubble up from my brain, course down my nervous systems and into my fingertips, and appear on the screen.

I’d say I hit a milestone. It’s something, but there’s still a long way to go. Tomorrow begins a new day in this journey.

149. The Centipede’s Dilemma (and The Trouble With Free Will)

There’s a story that goes like this:

The centipede is an interesting creature. See its hundreds of legs all moving in rhythm and synchronization with each other, all working to move the organism forward, forward, ever forward. One day someone asked the centipede:

“How do you know how to coordinate all your legs? It must be so difficult!”

“Oh, it’s actually really simple, I don’t even think about it,” the centipede replied. “First, you’ve just got to move the left legs first… Or was it the right legs? Okay, the right; no, wait, you need to alternate between the two… Wait, what?”

And so the centipede sat there, crippled by its self-awareness until the end of the day.

It’s an interesting allegory for the dangers of overthinking an otherwise simple thing. Breathing. Blinking. Keeping your mouth closed. Scratching an itch. These are things we do pretty much by default; and it’s when we become aware of it that we start to mess it all up.

After completing the epic video project, I have slowly been made aware to the fact that I have more free time than I can handle. I don’t exactly want to do anything that even sounds like work right now, so that’s out of the question – but there are only so many ways a person can keep himself entertained and occupied with so many hours to burn in a day.

See, when I was editing the different segments of the video, time became this blur in which work was done. In fact, I was hoping that the hours would pass slower so that we could have more time to fine tune the devilish little details; but time seems to shrink in direct proportion to one’s desire for it to expand.

(perhaps if we harness the power of the deadline, we could make time machines work by the powers of time relativity?)

I’ve recently installed Borderlands 2 on my home computer, and on my shelf sits the pile of book that I’ve accumulated over the past year. I suppose there are things that could fill up my time, but I’ve grown so accustomed to ignoring them that I hardly even notice they’re there anymore.

It’s a problem unique to those privileged enough to choose what they desire to do with their time – a first world problem, some would call it – the trouble with free will. When one only has so many options, the direction is clear, and the course is set. But allow one to do absolutely anything he wants – leave one to his own devices on how to fill up his time, and he will break down for a little while, staggering in the sudden freedom. It’s like being freed from the Platonic Cave, I guess; and the more I try to think of what to do to pass the time, the more undesirable these pasttime activities seem to get, when they had been so attractive only weeks ago, when I was busy.

(I am of the opinion that the best thing you can do to a writer complaining about writer’s block is to bore said writer out of his or her mind, but that’s a post for another day)

I guess free will is simply a strangely frightening thing. To be responsible for one or two relatively smaller things is simple; but to be responsible for everything is just another ball game altogether.

148. Xmas

(contrary to popular belief, Xmas is not a secular effort to remove “Christ” from “Christmas” by X-ing out his name; but simply an easier way of writing the word, much like how you would write DNA instead of Deoxyribonucleic acid. From our trusty source, Wikipedia: ‘The “-mas” part is from the Latin-derived Old English word for Mass, while the “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός which comes into English as “Christ”.’ The more you know)

And now, in the most eloquent way, I will condense the obligatory Christmas statements into a single paragraph:

Gifts and meals are great. Family and friends are better. The true meaning of Christmas is Christ, for this is the day we celebrate our savior’s birth. Peace and goodwill to all mankind. Let the yuletide usher in the new winds of the new year.

Now on to what I really need to say:

It is done. The video project that I’ve been working on since August (July, if you count planning). The thing that I passed up on singing for the Christmas services in order to make time for. The process that took, in total number of hours, more time that I spent on both of research papers combined. It all amounted to a 30-minute presentation, sandwiched in between other presentations in a celebration service that lasted about 2 and a half hours.

It is done. It is over.

Perhaps this is a fraction of what Christ felt as he breathed his last upon that old rugged cross. After everything, here is the grand conclusion. It isn’t nearly as spectacular or as flashy as it could possibly be, but I rest satisfied knowing that the video did what it set out to do: to inspire both thanksgiving and excitement in its audience.

(though I nearly cried when I spotted a typo at about the 3-minute mark, where “would” was mistypped as “woulld”)

Arriving home after a relatively quiet lunch at 3P.M., I fell right into the embrace of the lover I’ve neglected over the past two weeks or so: sleep. We laid in bed together for about 4 hours, making up for lost time.

Now after dinner, the rain pours outside; the LED Christmas lights blink away; my parents are watching a Korean soap opera on TV; and I’m waiting to be picked up to join a game of risk somewhere in Subang USJ. There is simply contentment in my heart.

It isn’t nearly as spectacular or as flashy as it could possibly be. Last year, there were a series of parties and festivities – this year, such things were so scarce that I almost didn’t feel Christmas coming. In fact, it feels surreal that we are already here in the final week of the year that was 2013.

But there is contentment here. Happy? Can’t really tell; but the feeling certainly isn’t elation. I am satisfied.

I have done what I had set out to do.