In the end we are our choices

I was practising making posters with the app ‘Canva’, and I needed some text. This favourite quote of mine by Jezz Bezos, founder of Amazon, sprang to mind. It was 2010 and Bezos was speaking to a group of students at Princeton.

The older I get, the more this quote resonates with me. To me, its beauty lies in the fact that it can be interpreted on different levels. It can refer to career success. But it can also refer to what kind of person we want to become.

These days, more and more people squander their lives by playing the blame game, or by living in a reactive manner. “I’m doing this because THEY ….”; “There’s nothing I can do before THEY ….”; ……

Yes, as Alain de Botton asserts in his famous TED talk, there are just too many unknown variables in life so that sometimes bad luck does happen to conscientious and hardworking people. But much of the time, we can still choose how to act and how to be. We don’t always have to allow ourselves to become victims of circumstances.

In the end, we are our choices.

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Life

四年前的今天,我在臉書寫道:

她是我的舊學生,受訓為英語教師,卻原來在本科主修英文時,已經是數本愛情小說的作者,你也可能讀過她的作品哩!早一陣子看見她在臉書上的感觸,突然很希望她可以重拾筆桿。她的二月是這樣開始的:
「消失的日子,每天都在忙,像自閉的人一樣,工作完了去睡覺然後周末煮下飯發下傻。當然,都依然為患病痛苦的你祈禱。然後,今天出席了好上司的喪禮,心情難過。這兩個月來都在思考人生的意義和態度…然後,突然,工作終於忙完了,又可以準時收工了。然後,突然,今天吃了第一個生日蛋糕。然後….二月開始了。」

四年後的今天,我又突然想起法國作家莫泊桑對生命的感受:

「生活不可能像你想象得那麼好,但也不會像你想象得那麼糟。
我覺得人的脆弱和堅強都超乎自己的想像。 有時,我可能脆弱得一句話就淚流滿臉;有時,也發現自己咬着牙走了很長的路。」

Finding out what it’s like to go through 8 days without mobile data

三天前上網月費數據快要用盡,維有向供應商購買臨時額外用量,但在其網站的寫法是增加數據公平使用量,我攪不清這是否等於即時使用的數據。原本可以打電話查詢,但突然想到,本月的截數日期還有八天,就索性嘗嘗沒有流動數據的日子吧!
我原本和大部分香港人一樣,乘地鐵搭電梯走路時眼睛一直盯着手机,什至驾車時,等轉燈的一分鐘也要拿手机看看。但現時三天過去了,原來沒辦法隨時上網也有好處,也沒有什麼實在的損失。我會堅持多五天,然後變回典型的香港人。

Self-serious people

Learnt a new word from a FB friend’s update yesterday – ‘Self-serious’. The word reminds me of 2 pieces of advice about life I read in a book the other day.
– Don’t judge others too harshly.
– Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Most of the time, we have an inflated ego. We think we’re the cleverest, most perceptive, most ‘correct’ person in the world, so we sneer at people who think or act differently.
It’s OK to have our own thoughts and stance but much of our unhappiness stems from our taking ourselves too seriously. Happy people are those who can laugh at themselves – and for that, I’m easily drawn to them.

How free are we?

Someone posted the above quote on Facebook, originally by another FB user, Kate Northrup.

Don’t we all want to lead this simple life? Yet, the irony is that such a simple life has become a big luxury in present-day society.

Yes, we all need to make a living. But how many of us would stop when we have earned enough money for basic survival, in order to start living?

Invariably, we continue to busy ourselves with doing more, so that we can ‘achieve’ more. That is our conscious choice. Yet, once in a while, we  envy the life which allows us to sit by the window to read when it rains, and paint because we want to, not because we have got something to prove.

Are we living in a free society? How do we define ‘being free’? We’re supposed to have the freedom to choose. And yet, we don’t choose the life we envy. Instead, we follow everybody else’s footsteps.

Yes, we would claim to live in a free society. We have many kinds of freedom, and yet we squander away the most precious kind of freedom – the freedom to live the life that we really want.

Choose to feel good

早上在街上碰到一個街道清潔工人,他看來有七十歲了,但精神奕奕,很開懷地推着木頭車,看見我時,還微笑和揮手向我打招呼。這在一個寒冬的早上,對我是一個很好的提醒:愉悅的心境,很大程度上在乎個人的選擇。

Hamlet vs The Simpsons: Revisiting the pleasure principle

And why should we still have faith in humanity when we are seeing so much injustice, evil, and cruelty around?

And why should reading Hamlet be a ‘higher’ pastime than lounging on a sofa watching re-runs of the Simpsons?

And why should the two questions above have anything to do with each other?

It so happens that this morning (being the third day of the Lunar New Year) I had nothing special to do, and all my family members were still in bed when I got up, and I sat at a quiet corner table in a fast food restaurant, ate a simple breakfast, and continued to read Justice by Michael Sandel, which I had started earlier a couple of weeks ago.

It turned out to be a most gratifying experience: the reading much more so than the breakfast.

In the chapter in which he explicates the premises of utilitarianism, the belief that the greatest pleasure for the most people should be the over-riding factor for human beings in deciding what worldly actions to take, Sandel cites one objection to the theory, which is that it is impossible to line up all kinds of pleasure on a unitary scale of measurement. Many people believe that different pleasures can be qualitatively different. In fact, some pleasures are ‘higher’ and ‘nobler’ than others, so that, for example, we can obtain higher pleasure from reading Plato than from reading a Japanese manga.

But can we prove that? Die-hard disciples of utilitarianism will only accept that some pleasures are quantitatively superior: if you find going to an opera more pleasurable than tasting a cup of Blue Mountains coffee, it’s only because the former brings about more sustained gratification.

To find out how people really think, and act, Sandel would test his students at Harvard this way:

‘I show the students three examples of popular entertainment: a World Wrestling Entertainment fight (a raucous spectacle in which the so-called wrestlers attack one another with folding chairs); a Hamlet soliloquy performed by a Shakespearean actor; and an excerpt from The Simpsons. I then ask two questions: Which of these performances did you enjoy most—find most pleasurable—and which do you think is the highest, or worthiest?’ (p. 54)

I think you can more or less guess the outcome of the test. I did:

‘Invariably The Simpsons gets the most votes as most enjoyable, followed by Shakespeare. (A few souls confess their fondness for the WWE.) But when asked which experience they consider qualitatively highest, the students vote overwhelmingly for Shakespeare.’

But can we actually put some sort of instrument inside our brain to measure whether reading Shakespeare will trigger a ‘higher’ pleasure than viewing The Simpsons? I really hope that one day our scientists will be able to demonstrate that scientifically  (so that we English teachers will have an easier time coercing students to read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens: ‘See! Reading Virginia Woolf will give you 83 happiness points; watching yet another episode of America’s Next Top Model will only bring you 49 points.’

 In the meantime, we can only rely on people opining on which activity will result in higher, worthier, nobler, satisfaction.

But hang on, this morning in the fast food restaurant, I did experience a higher satisfaction from reading Michael Sandel’s Justice, than from eating the breakfast, even though the breakfast was not bad in today’s standard. Was it a real experience, or had I been educated or socialised into thinking that reading a book on philosophy should be more pleasurable than eating?

Pi Patel asks: ‘So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’ (The Life of Pi, Yann Martel, p. 424)

Should we still have faith in humanity when we are seeing so much injustice, evil, and cruelty around? Should human beings believe that there is a higher, worthier, and nobler, way of living? In doing so, will it bring us more happiness?

I’m glad that at least for some of us, we have chosen to believe in what we believe in.