It’s interesting to contemplate the effect that families have on individuals. I’m born to a Hindu tamil family in Singapore, which culturally sits at an interesting exchange point between East and West. It’s become pretty clear to me that the concept of the individual as an autonomous unit is a fairly recent construction, maybe a few hundred years old at best, and not at all ubiquitous. For most of human history most humans must have lived in small groups with incredibly close ties. Groups of 10, 20, 50, up to 150, with everybody working together with others. There would be conflicts and tensions and difficulties, of course, and maybe sometimes people would hurt each other, kill each other and so on – but the group identity was a very strong one. We’re still incredibly tribal in many different ways, but it seems to be much more diffused now.
A lot of the frustrations of modern life in a place like Singapore, I think (and maybe this is generalisable to the experience of modern Asians around the world, or some other group of people) is that young people think and feel very differently from their parents and grand parents. I’m sure there’s a ton of nuance that I’m missing, and things like class and race and gender modify the picture tremendously – so much so that it’s very hard to generalise. But what I’m trying to get at is – life is annoying and frustrating because different people want different things and see the world in different ways.
Everything is incredibly fragmented. We can’t all agree on much – we agree for instance that violence is generally bad, that murder is wrong (but the death penalty is fine I guess?), that charity is good (probably), that infidelity is bad (why though)… so scratch that, it’s a miracle that anything actually works or happens considering how much people disagree on everything. On taxation, on welfare, on the role of government. On the utility of regulations and restrictions. And most of us just keep within the lines that are drawn for us so we don’t worry too much about it. I find myself thinking now about how difficult life is for LGBT folks because they’re so ignored in the eyes of the law – they aren’t allowed to get married and buy subsidised housing the way straight Singaporeans are. They aren’t allowed to be Next-of-Kin to see their dying partners in hospital. It’s so sad. And yet there are probably hundreds of thousands of people in Singapore who think that LGBT folks are less than human, are somehow filthy, immoral. What a hideous mess, and what a tremendous amount of pain.
But even say, straight women. A young modern woman in Singapore who wants to live her own life on her own terms, date who she wants, sleep with who she wants, pursue the education she wants, get married or not, have children or not, dress how she likes – all of those things are incredibly difficult to do because of the tremendous amount of pressure she’ll face from family and society and peers and so on. And you can ask, how do you know what you want, anyway? How much of what we want is programmed into us? Or rather, more subtly, how much of it is influenced by conditions that were controlled for us without our consent?
That’s so much of life. I remember thinking about how ‘wrong’ it is to have pets at all, in a sense, because you’re forcing these animals to live in your home or household, to be dependent on you for food, and there’s just this ugly stockholm syndrome thing going on. But we’ve domesticated these animals and they’ve grown dependent on us – they wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild any more, if the wild even exists any more. If you care about animals, you could spend your whole life just trying to make sure that strays get sterilised, that animals get adopted rather than put down, and that’s just a never-ending problem that’s probably not going to get solved in our lifetime.
And if you’re willing to concede that as humans we’re probably wired to care more about humans than animals (even this is debatable; we tend to care about our in-group and sometimes think about our out-groups as less-than-human, worse-than-animals), then you have to start thinking about all the people in the world who don’t have access to clean water, who don’t have access to education, who experience a tremendous amount of violence, who get killed in drug wars, who suffer from the legacy of slavery and racism, who are killed by mosquitos. The poor and the broken are systematically getting fucked over just as they always have, and this too is a problem that we’re probably not going to see solved in our lifetimes unless everybody decided to get up and do something about it. But there’s a prisoner’s dilemma there – people would join something if it were massive, but it wouldn’t get massive unless enough people started something, and few people start anything at all because it’s too small to make a difference. We’re left depending on the renegade iconoclast types, which has its own cost.
Anyway I pursued this train of thought just to point out how messy and broken everything is, and how much pain and suffering there is everywhere. Syria, most recently – something that most of us can’t realistically do very much about. And if we thought something like, oh, we should do something when we see people suffering – well, what about all the suffering happening around us all the time? Friends, family? There is a tremendous amount of suffering even in the seemingly pleasant and happy middle-class existence, I truly believe this. Most of us struggle to be honest with one another and with our families. Can we ever truly be at peace? Does it require withdrawing inwards into ourselves and getting all detached and transcendent? Do we take solace in the fact that ultimately we’re all tracings in the sand, and everything gets washed away?
The most we can do is our best. So what’s the best that I can do, and how do I get to that state, and what does it look like? It requires me formulating a new view of myself, a view of my world, and a plan of action, a way of seeing, a way of being, a way of relating to others. This is a project that goes on until death. If there is to be even a glimpse of defragmentation, of coherence and consolidation, it has to begin within the individual.