Reflections on My Sixtieth Birthday
Reflections on My Sixtieth Birthday
Preamble ~ Decades ~ The physical side of things ~ On being impractical and worldly unwise ~ A diatribe against power and authority ~ Interests and passions ~ Peak experiences ~ The case of the shrinking vocabulary ~”One Equal Music”: the resolution of paradoxes ~ Comedy or tragedy? ~ Shedding of baggage ~ Epilogue
I turned sixty last week. I didn’t mention it to the folks at work until afterwards. They are mostly lasses who haven’t been around for that long but insist that they have – a few even complain that they are “old”, what at twenty-four or something. They showered me with good wishes, several hugged me and two of them even gave me a peck on the cheek. I was truly touched and felt mildly embarrassed. The more perceptive among them noticed my blush and remarked upon it. I said it wasn’t blush but hot flushes, which made them all laugh. It was blush all right. It welled up from the unearthly shyness which flows in my blood, something I am rather proud of. “It is surely discreditable, under the age of thirty, not to be shy”, wrote a well-known essayist three quarters of a century ago1. Today, it is rare to meet somebody shy at age 25. In my case, I remain as raw-skinned as I ever was. That means more than half a century of social exposure has not blunted my sensitiveness, something very precious indeed.
They presented me with a book voucher and a birthday card showing three geriatric men huffing and puffing on their wives’ bicycles. They asked me how I felt now that I had just joined the sexagenarian club. They didn’t actually use that antiquated word, of course. Looking at those fresh faces, what could I say? It was of course just social pleasantry: people asking how you feel do not expect a lengthy description of your aches and pains. But among colleagues who know one other well there might be a genuine wish to know. If I just say “I feel fine, thank you” I would be socially appropriate but truly false. Now to be false is the last thing I want to be, but it is not always easy to speak one’s mind either. As a Chinese poet2 puts it,
“When I was young I did not sorrow know
So up the tower I’d climb, I’d climb
And feign sadness for a lovely rhyme.
Now I have tasted sorrow through and through,
Much as I want to, I can’t tell, I can’t tell;
I might praise the autumn cool just as well.”
So I just said I wasn’t particularly interested in birthdays. They seemed surprised. “How can any one lose interest in birthdays?” one asked, her eye-lashes fluttering rather charmingly. How can….indeed? The implication is of course: has Lester lost interest in life? That reminds me of Dr Johnson’s verdict that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”3. It sounds terrible to lose interest in life, but such is the human condition that it is certainly possible to lose interest in this life. It would take some explaining though, if those young things are patient enough to hear. I think I shall indulge myself of an afternoon in retracing the thoughts I have had over the last few years when not just praising the autumn cool. It would do no harm, at least as far as I am concerned.
The 60th birthday would be considered a special milestone by most people by virtue of the significance of the decade. It is convenient to break the human life span into decades. Hence such terms as teen, score, score and ten, quadragenarian, quinquagenarian, sexagenarian, septuagenarian, octogenarian, nonagenarian, centenarian, jubilee and diamond jubilee etc. Likewise, there are special characters for the ages of 60, 70, 80, 90 and 100 in classical Chinese. The Chinese are well familiar with the legend of an ancient king who avenged his defeat and humiliation by spending ten years boosting his population and another ten years building up an army of hardy fighters. A proverb says that it takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred years to nurture a human being. The Dream of the Red Chambers, the greatest Chinese novel, took its writer ten laborious years to write. One ancient scholar described his idea of a perfect life thus: to devote ten years to reading, ten years to travelling and ten years to preserving and looking after the books and scrolls of calligraphy and painting in his possession. I agreed with Zhang Chao, a renowned writer of the Late Ming Dynasty, that preservation and arrangements of books and scrolls need not take ten years, and that twice or five times the period suggested would hardly be enough for reading. As for travel, I am not qualified to talk about it at all because I just don’t do it. To well-meaning people who remind me of the joys of travel and how it broadens the mind, I usually respond by saying that Shakespeare, Kant and Schubert hardly ventured out of their hometowns during their lives and no one dare say they were narrow-minded. But these are geniuses, of course. To the above-mentioned schedule I would add that I wish to devote ten years meditating to cleanse my mind.
It was, you’ve guessed it, Confucius who started the tradition of tracing a person’s development by the decade. Reminiscing in his grand old age, he claimed that at the age of 30 he began to stand on his own two feet; at 40 he ceased to be perplexed about things; at 50 he knew all about Destiny; at 60 he heard nothing that was disagreeable; and at 70 he did as he pleased and could do no wrong. Plato, too, set great store by ages, and often talked decades. In The Laws, an influential blueprint for the good society, he suggested that the minimum age for any public office should be 30 for males and 40 for females, and nobody should be a Prime Minister or Curator of Laws before the age of 50. Mencius, writing some two hundred years after Confucius, suggested that in a kingdom well governed by a benevolent ruler people over the age 70 be entitled to eat meat. The irreverent might query what good there is in having meat when one hasn’t got teeth to eat it any more.
The turn of each decade in one’s life is a special time for reflection and to take stock. The first three decades are busy with growing up, education, starting up home, and having children etc. Next comes middle age and then old age. There is gender difference in perceptions about age in all cultures. Not so long ago, Chinese people used to consider a man at 30 in full bloom and a woman at 30 something like a worn shoe. And there is a saying that a man who has not made his mark at 40 can safely be ignored. In Victorian times, an unmarried woman at 30 was a veritable spinster. Things are now a little different. The so-called “baby-boomers” have put up a fight and have had considerable clout because of their relative affluence. The pressure to stay young is however becoming more and more relentless by the day. Perceptions about old age have changed over the centuries. The elderly used to be revered for their experience and wisdom; they are now more often seen as a burden on society.
A few decades ago, three score and ten was a venerable old age, and a person of 60 like yours truly would have definitely been considered old 50 years ago, but in these days of longer life expectancy he would still pass for being middle-aged. After 60, however, it is hard to pretend that one is “young” any more. As E.W. Howe puts it: “After a man passes sixty, his mischief is mainly in the head.” It should be the same with women. But there have been exceptions. I read that George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) married for the first time at 60 to a man 20 years her juinior; and George Sand started a love affair with painter Charles Marchal (her “fat baby”), 21 years her junior, after a string of colourful romances with men obscure and famous, including consumptive Chopin.
So I find myself now, at 60, teetering on the brink of a “climacteric” (O what an ugly word!), and ruminating over the past and pondering the future. Not being a particularly guilt-ridden person I do not have too many regrets. I do find, however, that turning 60 is quite a humbling experience, considering how the bulk of good work of humanity has been done by people before they reach that age. Whole galaxies of saints and geniuses have already passed on before 60 (I must exclude here luminaries of the Chinese race whom English readers tend not to be familiar with, and who definitely warrant a separate listing) – Herodotus, Chaucer, John Constable, Leon Trotsky and Stephen Jay Gould right on 60, Montaigne and Dostoyevsky at 59, Dickens and Gorky at 58, Horace and Beethoven at 58, Shakespeare at 52, Virgil at 51, George Orwell at 47, St Francis of Assisi, Thomas Gray, Cezanne and D.H. Lawrence at 45; and even many decades before: Pascal, Chopin, Charlotte Bronte, Dylan Thomas at 39, Pushkin and Mendelssohn at 38, Raphael, Robert Burns and Van Gogh at 37, Byron at 36, Mozart at 35, Jesus Christ at 33, Alexander the Great at 32, Schubert and Georges Seurat at 31, Emily Bronte at 30, Christopher Marlowe, Shelley and Anne Bronte at 29, Frank Rampsey at 26, John Keats and Wilfred Owen at 25….
On the other hand, it is also a humbling experience to consider how many people at 60 or over are still doing marvellous work. At 60, for example, Verdi produced his Requiem and Isaak Walton published his famous The Compleat Angler (1653). Sophocles, Titian, Toscanini, Rubinstein, Yeats all retained their genius and artistry well into their seventies and beyond.
The physical side of things
What then are my thoughts about myself at 60? Despite being the ‘monist’ that I am, I shall here defer to the convenience of considering this under the physical and non-physical aspects. Physically, it would be interesting to first try to get under the skins of 25-year-olds and see what they feel about a man aged 60. “Definitely over the hill” is perhaps the most common thought. Not unlike a woman at 50 perhaps. Strength of body going, the sap drying up, wrinkles, baldness, varicose veins, arthritis etc – the ravages of ageing are well-known. As I am edging past 60 I suffer no debility yet, though there are signs that all that ‘living’ has taken its toll.
And of course I shouldn’t forget the sexual aspect totally. To the irreverent young, a 50-year-old woman is probably only half a woman, and a 60-year-old man only half a man. It doesn’t matter if the poor woman hasn’t yet lost her femininity though her ovulation begins to be erratic, and the poor man’s “manhood” is still intact although his secondary sexual characteristics are on the wane. I was of course young once. It seems only yesterday when:
“...Beholding in [my] dream a lovely face,
A beautiful complexion, or a form
Desirable and fair, are so aroused,
So stirred, excited, swollen, that the deed
Becomes reality, and a tidal flow
Pours out to stain the garment…” 4
And then before I knew, middle age crept up on me, which is described by a favourite Chinese writer of mine5 as [my translation]: “a dangerous age: either the mind is too busy and the sperms too idle; or the sperms too busy and the mind too idle…” By sixty, sex has increasingly become a reflective activity: it is no longer just a surge of hormones leading to a “shudder in the loins”, but more often than not brings the reflection:
Post coitum omne animal triste est
When I quoted this saying (in English) while talking to my young colleagues some time ago, I was greeted with incredulity. “Why should people feel sad after sex?” was the general reaction. I reiterated that it was “all animals”, not just humans. One quipped, “Sex is just fun.” What could I say to these hopeless hedonists? I could only wish them good luck: I wasn’t going to make them sad when they were that blissfully ignorant. But once the sadness is experienced there is no mistaking it. A sense of emptiness, guilt or revulsion may accompany it. To think that an animal should produce millions upon millions of eggs and sperms and go to great lengths trying to perpetuate the species, very often in life-threatening and even suicidal circumstances (Christmas Island crabs, spiders and the praying mantis readily come to mind). How wasteful and tragic! And why procreate, just to ensure imperfection and suffering continue endlessly in this vale of tears? The Romans are to be congratulated on being so perspicuous in making this astute observation of post-coital sadness: I searched in vain for something comparable in our Chinese classics. It is rather strange, for the Chinese are by no means less sensitive souls.
All things considered, one could easily appreciate Yeats’s sentiment at the door of old age:
“What shall I do with this absurdity –
O heart, O troubled heart – this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?”6
On being impractical and worldly unwise
Having somehow survived the rough and tumble of the world for 60 years, one could be expected to be reasonably “practical” and to have achieved a measure of worldly wisdom. For my part, however, I have always considered being practical a necessary evil, with the emphasis on the evil bit, and though outwardly I am doing many of the things practical men do I have not, at 60, lost any of my deep-seated disdain for things practical. I am just not the mechanic or engineer type. Give me a choice between theory and practice and I’ll go for theory any time. I had rather be a Don Quixote than, say, the most successful business mogul in the world. I refuse to have my feet firmly planted on the ground. “Airy-fairy idealist”, according to many. My eldest brother noticed this trait of mine early on. When I was a teen-ager he chided me for “opting out too early”, and all my other folks have since concurred with his assessment. I don’t know about opting out, for I have never really opted in.
I grew up in times of material scarcity, when people worried a lot about the next meal and had to be practical-minded. The tragedy, as I see it, is that many people can no longer shake off this mentality even when their material conditions have improved, sometimes even greatly, in later life. It is a tragedy because of arrested growth: practical necessity has closed the minds and souls of these people to a higher dimension of existence, and they linger on, slaves to the Money God, and ready to ridicule as idealistic fools any one who dares to differ. “What is wrong with being rich?” they would ask, “How is poverty superior, with its iniquities and the stark suffering it brings?” The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
Through the long years I have grappled with people’s attitudes towards money. Adam Smith and Karl Marx, respective champions of capitalism and socialism and poles apart in ideology, are nonetheless at one in taking a materialist world-view: that the world can be adequately if not solely understood in economic terms. The aspirations and behaviour of the greatest majority of mankind seem to bear that out. Just take a look at the twin scourges of advertising and consumerism. The rampant rise of greed and materialism ever since the end of the 60’s really depresses me. People fall for Mammon en masse. For example, the Reader’s Digest does publish many books of quality, but its marketing strategy in the last twenty years of luring potential customers with “sweepstakes” truly stinks, and has at least turned this one once-faithful “customer” away for good. When, a few years ago, I received junk mail from the Business School of Harvard University addressing me as “Dear Executive” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Et tu Harvard? The worse was yet to come. Since then, the professors of such prestigious universities have succeeded in inflicting upon the world inhuman economic rationalism and globalisation theories which “practical” “doers” have managed to put into practice, only too successfully. But my fury is of no consequence, of course.
Ironically, for all my fury about the Money God, I have for most of my 60 years been eking out an existence in the rat race like everybody else. I took qualifications, have worked all my life, raised a family, saved money, and even invested it. I have worried about material and practical things, at times more than most people, perhaps. But deep down in my heart I have always felt that this is unworthy of me; and this feeling is getting stronger as I grow older. At 60 there is little chance too that I’ll ever be worldly wise.
A diatribe against power and authority
I am comforted to know that at 60 I have lost none of my dislike for any form of abuse of power and authority, which stems from my misgiving about power and authority themselves and goes back a long time. When I first came upon Francis Bacon’s dictum that “Knowledge is power” as a youngster, that almost turned me against knowledge itself, so overly sensitive I was to power, even then. I believe with Lord Acton that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power takes many forms and so does its abuse: there are physical power, psychological power, economic power, political power, military power, religious power, ideological power, and power of the media etc, all subject to manipulation and abuse. There is power abuse in the family, in the workplace, in the school playground, in the community and in Government and institutions. The abusers may be parents, peers, the police, bureaucrats, media owners, educators, managers and anybody who has power and authority over others. There are despots and dictators of all descriptions and in all guises, Stalins, Hitlers, Maos, Pol Pots etc. In recent months we have seen an international bully in the name of the USA which thinks it can do what it likes with its obscene “mothers of all bombs” and aircraft carriers as long as the Empire State Building is tall. Shame on all humanity, for monstrosities such as these should have never been allowed to see the light of day.
I have come across a few bullies in my life. I could have met many more but for my reclusive nature. Most of the bullies I have met are petty officials and ignoramuses with inflated egos. On several occasions in my prosaic working life I was hauled over the coals by bosses for no wrongdoings on my part. In my younger days I tended to suppress and repress my feelings in such situations. As I grew older I became more assertive, that is, until recent years, when I have become increasingly philosophical while retaining my dislike of power abuse. I feel sorry for the bully with his ridiculous sense of self-importance. There is a very apt Cantonese metaphor for it – “a carbuncle on a mouse’s tail”. At the same time, I reflect upon my own self and sometimes find to my horror that I have, in my own way, been something of a tyrant too. I recognise that the danger is greatest when we least suspect it. Bleakly speaking, power abuse looks very much like part of human nature, hence my being philosophical. Never very skilful in handling sticky situations, there have been times, I must admit, when I did compromise on my stance on power and authority. But I could have done worse. I have seen too many 60 year olds that have lost all fighting spirit in the face of authority.
Interests and passions
Perhaps because of a somewhat deprived childhood, I have since adolescence been thirsting for “the full life”. I am, however, a “mind man” by nature, and so have had to try hard to achieve some measure of balance. I taught myself cycling and swimming at the venerable old age of nearly thirty, and was for some years rather interested in tennis (I even tried to play the game, and was fanatical enough to take “sickies” to watch the Borg–McEnroe finals on television three years in a row.) But basically, my interests lie rather in books and music. My bookishness has earned me scorn aplenty over the years, even from close relatives. Down-to-earth practical-minded people will dismiss my interests, even my existence, as being narrow and vicarious. And I know how true that is. I am too lazy, and do not have the verve, to physically experience the “world out there”, which holds less and less interest for me with every passing year. My social ineptness is brought home to me whenever I have to venture outside the castle I have built around myself. I have no sense of direction, and invariably lose my way. I rely solely on maps and printed guide, which quite often let me down. I have no desire to travel, unlike most “baby-boomers” of my generation who have in their financially secure middle age suddenly found the urge to “explore and experience the world”, and to have “fun”, which seems to me rather silly. I consider myself a far smarter traveller than these people are: I could, for example, traverse the universe in an armchair, and do that for free. I feel that after living for several decades the average person should have experienced all the basic things in life – sights and sounds, pleasure and pain, misery and happiness, and there should be no need to frantically try to make up for lost time and sample “new experience”. There is something unbecoming and inelegant about most such attempts. I know my attitude runs counter to conventional wisdom and the teachings of modern psychologists and educators who encourage people to always sharpen their senses and enrich their experience. But I am also nothing if not disillusioned with scientists in general and social scientists in particular.
For the kingdom of knowledge has room aplenty for the mind to roam. That the sky is the limit became literally true when astronomy became one of my early passions. For decades I was like a sponge ready to soak up any kind of knowledge: I could get myself interested in just about everything, with the sole exception of subjects related to money and business matters (not that I didn’t give them a try). I must hasten to add that this is just enthusiasm that has hardly borne any fruit. It is just a book-worm’s manifesto. I read philosophy, literature, history, the classics, and science, from A to Z – trying to grasp the basics of these divers realms and come up with some sort of synthesis. Such a breadth of interest in reading ensures that I am a generalist through and through. My affinity is for the Universal Man of the Renaissance rather than the modern specialist. To me everything comes under. But without the abilities to match the interests and enthusiasm, I am destined to be a dilettante, as predicted by an old-time colleague, who thought I was “journalist material” – a journalist too lazy to venture outdoors to investigate, that is. I don’t mind.
In recent years, however, there has been a shift in my reading habits. Now, mathematics is too much of a young man’s game for me, logic is decidedly sterile, and scientific knowledge doesn’t satisfy me any more. As for technology, however powerful it is, it can only help in the right hands, and only in the fringe even then, as in relieving famine and certain illnesses; but it can do little to address the essential human condition relating to happiness and freedom etc. Having been a diligent though amateurish student of science for thirty years, I am really jolted from my dogmatic slumber by such disillusionment, much as Kant was from his by Hume’s philosophy. My appetite for knowledge is now much tempered, as I find myself increasingly drawn to mystical contemplation. Rather than read astronomy I now find myself enjoying fables, fairy tales, mythology and even pure fantasy. At the time of my 60th birthday, I find myself immersed in a most enchanting book called West-Green Random Notes by Shi Zhenlin7 of the early Qing dynasty. It is a beautiful collection of stories of goddesses, demi-goddesses, poets, hermits, poor scholars, farmers and various men and women somehow “not made for this world” but nonetheless gracing it with their genius and sublime qualities.
It is fitting for the young to soak up everything like a sponge, and for the old to shed their baggage. One sees this clearly in the artistic evolution of just about every great master: Youth flaunts its beauty and exuberance, its art often flamboyant, elaborate, colourful, well-proportioned. The mature artist, having been all of this, moves beyond and settles on a simple, even “crude”, style, like Picasso and Qi Baishi8 in their later periods, though the simplicity and “crudeness” are all highly disciplined.
The great masters are all lean and unencumbered. They roam light, ready to take off, as it were, on a whiff of wind, like Lie Zi9. As Yeats said, “There is more enterprise in walking naked.”10
In the past several years, for reasons I will not go into here, I have gradually ceased to feel excited over things. To people from the “Joy of Life” school, the change must sound awfully depressing. I have had a few “passions” in my time, though the things I was passionate about tended not to be “popular” things. I still remember the excitement I felt when I bought my first long-playing record (It was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto played by some unknown violinist and had a beautiful dust jacket) or when I chanced upon Fowler’s Modern English Usage in a second-hand bookshop. I still have the Fowler with me and have since acquired two revised editions of it (see I am from the old school and have more enthusiasm for old Fowler, and even Eric Partridge, than, say, William Safire), but the Beethoven was long gone and I can no longer remember what happened to it. As a young man, whenever I had something exciting to look forward to, I couldn’t sleep for days on end. People said I was too serious. I felt rather lonely and often frustrated as well, as all “outsiders” do. Then one fine autumn day the mist evaporated and I had a mystical vision of harmony, the sort of thing Abraham Maslow calls a “peak experience”. The joy was intoxicating, somewhat like that of being able to swim and balance oneself on the bicycles for the first time. You tried and tried and couldn’t do it and all of a sudden you got it and didn’t know how. And the wonderful thing is that thereafter you will never forget it. One recalls a parable in Plato’s Republic, which tells of how cave men reared in the dark are changed forever after seeing light for the first time. The peak experiences were so delicious and intoxicating that I would have died to have more of them. The feeling became addictive as well. For many years I thought in my naïveté that if only I could have as many “peak experiences” as I could and string them together then my life would be full and fulfilled. Alas, how very misguided I was! I did not realise that by its very nature a peak rises only spasmodically. And if only peaks are to be valued then disappointment is assured – for with every rise there is an attendant fall, it’s simple physics. I now see that we simply can’t have the cake and eat it too, and have gradually come to the view that crests are no more precious than troughs. Wisdom, as I see it now, consists in harmonising opposites, resolving all paradoxes, and doing away with distinctions altogether. The right path is one that doesn’t deviate. In practice, of course, I still stumble and falter every inch of the way. It will perhaps take me a trillion re-incarnations to get it right, but with the right vision as guiding light “I” no longer doubt that “we” will all get there, ultimately (Note that “I” and “We” are only “constructs” in Samsara).
The case of the shrinking vocabulary
I am not a good talker, nor have I much facility with the written word either. However, I will call myself a word lover. I prefer words to actions any time, though I do appreciate the occasional good work done by real “doers” and would not deny that words can be a real scourge, wherein dwells much nonsense, hypocrisy, hubris, spite, venom and violence.
My romance with the written word began when I was two or three, and in more than half a century since it has not diminished in intensity. But it has undergone some odd change of late. When I was a young man I admired and emulated a floral and ostentatious style, using big and obscure words whenever I could. Then I realised it was no good and tried to be simple and concrete, though I remain firm in my belief that it is good to command a large vocabulary.
In the last few years, my vocabulary – both Chinese and English – has been shrinking at quite a remarkable rate. It is not a sign of Alzheimer’s because no memory loss is involved. I simply banish certain words from my active vocabulary, consciously. I discard them because I find them useless, misleading, meaningless, or distasteful. Some are words that I previously loved but no longer suit me. If I continue to use them people will misunderstand me. When I hear or read these words used by others, I instantly feel that they are operating on a different wave-length from mine; or rather, because I am the odd man out, I am operating on a different wave-length from theirs. Increasingly I am even investing common words with personal meanings. This obviously won’t do socially. But at 60, I have perhaps earned the right sometimes to say “so what” and feel that even the “won’t do” will do.
Among words which I find less and less useful are Hope, Luck, Fortunate, Worry, Progress, Relationship, Fun …. Hope, luck, progress now appear to me to be in some important sense delusional. Relationship has its legitimate uses but I tend to avoid because of its over-use and abusage. Fun used to be a harmless word until I came to identify it, unjustly perhaps, with activities that trivialise and stultify the mind. It’s supposed to be great fun, partying, night-clubbing and socialising for the sake of socialising, but I have no time for all this. People will say I am too serious and devoid of any sense of play and fun; but then they are usually those who identify sensual intoxication with enjoyment. So I guess I am not debunking real fun, but only that of the trivial kind. But since I cannot spell out this qualification every time I use the word, I might as well avoid it altogether.
“Soul-destroying words”: Top of the list are business and commercial words, such as Product, Consumer, Human Resource (I’ve never been able to figure out whether it’s resource or resources – I only know that I don’t want to treat others and be treated like a lump of ore and I shall stick to Personnel any time). Next come CEO, Executive, MBA and the like, titles symbolising success and power for many but in my bad books nevertheless. Customer, Client, Growth (as in economic), Development, Success, Competition are also words with proper uses but degraded by flawed perceptions or associations. Industry used to be all right until I heard some right-wing politician used the term “the Aboriginal industry”. Win-win, winners and losers, up for grabs etc are ugly words and will always remain so. Even Professional sounds awry: to me now a professional is often a narrow-minded over-paid automaton. So does Business, despite its obvious legitimate uses, particularly when I hear it bandied about in the hospital where I work. And the list goes on. What irks me about these words are the materialistic outlook and mentality they reflect and the greed and capitalistic abuses they help feeding.
Then there are words associated with power and its abuses: Power (even People Power by extension), Powerful, Empower (even used in connection with the underprivileged), Capabilities (which can only remind me of Donald Rumsfeld with his “nuclear capabilities”). I have always talked at length about this in the section A Diatribe against Power and Authority.
Words that over-emphasise the “self”: e.g. self-esteem (alas! too many “I”s in this piece of mine ); survival of the fittest; competitive etc.
New-age words: connectedness, bridge-building, etc. etc. Perfectly harmless, good and even noble words once, but with popular use they have become mere clichés. Team-work, I am sorry, is another one, for more often than not it is just mediocrity in disguise.
Most words associated with popular culture I find off-putting. Shows and talk shows hosted by “celebrities” like Oprah or Jerry Springer, for example. Light music and Easy listening are two others. Ignoramuses butcher Vivaldi, Mozart and even Bach, by chopping up and re-arranging their masterworks to be used as background music in shopping malls, and even for mobile phones. As if everything had to be “easy” and stupid.
Then there are tasteless words or terms that destroy the beauty of language, such as window of opportunity…. ; showy words like Super-…., Block-buster; tasteless words like Outcome….. academic jargons such as constructs, modernism, post-modernist …, and new crops of journalese, officialese and commercialese.
Such is (the beginning of) my hit-list. I can anticipate the reaction from various “professionals”. Psychologists will probably brand me pathological because I am withdrawing from the world. Educators will call me dogmatic and restrictive for daring to challenge the concept of self-esteem. Social workers will call me anti-social (for how can one not love “relationships”?). Gerontologists will pronounce me degenerative. Scientists will call me anti-science and perhaps obscurantist. Economists will laugh at my ignorance of the forces that drive their world machine. Logicians will call me contradictory (how can one debunk individuality and connectedness in the same breath?) The “Life-be-in-it” camp will call me desiccated and even “dead” for debunking “Fun”. And all will concur that I am aloof and cynical beyond cure. Their criticism may all be valid from their respective standpoints. I’ll only counter by saying that giving up those words is a most liberating experience whereby I am on my way to achieving true freedom through gradually paring down to the essentials, or “withering into the truth”, to quote W. B. Yeats yet again. It can also be seen as the first step towards resolving the great paradoxes the Zen way – a word-lover without words.
“One Equal Music”: the resolution of paradoxes
As I am moving beyond the sixth decade of my life, I begin to see that the transcending of paradoxes is essential to enlightenment. “The thinker without a paradox,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “is like a lover without feeling; a paltry mediocrity.” And not just the philosopher. I too have in the course of living experienced anxiety and frustration through the numerous conflicting issues. Then at last I have come to see that all paradoxes as only figments of the imagination or, more accurately, the mirages of delusion, and realise that fighting conflicts is just tilting at the windmills. This appears to be how the majority of mortals “progress” on the path to true wisdom, though very often growing old involves no spiritual progress and there are also cases when children are born always wise.
Paradoxes arise in every field of my experience. I have met them through opposites which refuse to go away. In philosophy: perennial opposites like Mind and Matter (despite Samuel Johnson’s protestation by stomping the ground), Freewill and Determinism, One and Many, Good and Evil, Religion and Atheism….. In art: Beauty and Ugliness, Classicism and Romanticism, Simplicity and Sophistication, the Concrete and the Abstract, Form and Content, Meaning and Technique, Message and Medium….. In science (and scientific method): Evolutionism and Creationism, Reductionism and Holism…..wave and particle (continuity and discontinuity)… In psychology: as seen in the ambivalence of emotions (“Been down so long it looks like up to me” – title of a novel by Richard Farina)…. In religion: “…early devotees are the likeliest apostates, as early sinners are senile saints” (Durant)… In perceptions such as of strength and weakness, good and bad, right and wrong …. In existential questionings (“to be or not to be”)…. Paradoxes also abound in language, confusing and delighting people with ambiguities and oxymorons (e.g. Noble savage, stunted Hercules, harmonious discord, gentle giant, witty fool, foolish wit, bittersweet, blissfully ignorant, happy mistake, cheerful pessimist, loneliness in a crowd, conspicuous by one’s absence, enlightened despot, make haste slowly, Time stood still, Heard melodies are sweet/But those unheard are sweeter, etc.)
The pairs enumerated are not necessarily true paradoxes in the sense of being both true and false – some may be just opposites as conceived by the human mind. However, all of them are seemingly incompatible and cry out to be resolved or harmonised. But they cannot be, so long as our mind stays in the mundane mode of self-delusion. With paradoxes comes tension, and the buildup is relentless until it is somehow resolved in a stroke of enlightenment. So the perception of baffling paradoxes is a good thing as well as necessary – which is another paradox. The beginning of wisdom comes, first, with the recognition that
“Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried…..
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The Place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.”11
At this stage, the opposites still exist but are somehow harmonised. Then ultimately, we are admitted to the realm of the mystics who have transcended the illusions of hope, despair, comedy and tragedy.
“And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.”12
Comedy or tragedy?
60 years ago began this journey. Since that time, I have experienced my share of the joys, pains and the ennui of existence. What do I make of it all? Is life a comedy, a tragedy, or else?
It all depends, I think, on whether one is optimistic or pessimistic, or else. Optimism and pessimism are related to temperament. It would be one-sided for instance to say that Mozart is an optimist just because of the irrepressible joy of much of his music, for his music can be heart-rendingly tragic as well. But there is no doubt that Mozart is angelic in his transcendence over human woes. By contrast, Beethoven fights every inch of the way, more gallantly than, say, Brahms but fight he does all the same. One could detect a measure of cynicism when he declared at Death’s doors that “The comedy has ended!” Homer and Shakespeare, on the other hand, are the most objective of artists, mirroring the human drama in all its nakedness and totality with almost total detachment.
Intuitively, and in elegant theory, any pair of opposites should be of equal amounts and should cancel each other out, just as action and reaction, particles and anti-particles, and the two poles of a magnet. Pain and pleasure, suffering and enjoyment, good and evil should be the same. But that is not my perception. I tend to see life as a stormy odyssey relieved only by occasional sunshine. It is bad enough to have the distinguishing faculty, i.e. to perceive opposites where there is really none, without the further distortion that equal amounts appear unequal in a faulty scale tipping always towards the down side.
In sixty years in this mortal life, I have seen and experienced enough pain to agree with Omar Khayyám that life is a vale of tears. There exist rare individuals gifted with perfect empathy; but for me it was suffering of a personal nature in the last 5 to 6 years that finally makes me identify with the pain suffered by all humanity. That has changed my outlook totally.
Not a sentimentalist by nature, I see myself as a wounded being amongst my fellows, and find myself, along with good company, increasingly “wearied” of this mortal life. I strongly suspect that most of those who say they would gladly re-live their lives are those who have a relatively good run (in this life) but are also blind to the suffering of the less “fortunate” (though I shouldn’t really use that word). Do they really want to come back – to be through this “sorry scheme of affairs entire” all over again? And to suffer, and see suffering in others, in infinitum, like Atlas and Sisyphus?
There are times when even the threat of Death has lost its potency:
“Inasmuch as I no longer cling so hard to the good things of life when I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, I come to view death with much less frightened eyes…” 13
When will it all end? Then I laugh at myself. I am no god or hero but a mere mortal, and nothing infinite can happen to me, either good or bad, while in Samsara. I draw strength from Chuangtse, Horace and Boethius, and forgive Kipling despite all his faults for giving humanity this timeless advice:
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors all the same.”14
Shedding of baggage
I have already mentioned above that I should like to pare down to the essentials. Here are a few more thoughts on the subject. I like to see myself growing old a gaunt man, travelling light and ready to take off any time. I no longer pine for excitement and exhilaration, for they feel too much like intoxication and always have their down side. I had rather emulate a beam of light in gravitational free fall. For far too long have we departed from the right path.
To shed our baggage is an extremely hard thing to do, so strong is our desire for possessions. First there are material things. Next come habits, so ingrained as to be second nature. There is also intellectual baggage, i.e. “intelligence” and all the “learning” and “education” which are commonly considered indispensable to “success” in life but which are ultimately a hindrance to our progress towards spiritual enlightenment. Then there are the emotions, desires, aspirations, even hopes. Finally, the hardest to shed, are the finest things in life, such as personal love and beauty. These things have once served us in good stead and have given us glimpses of Heaven, but – I know it is a terrible thing to say – I have now no doubt that they have all to be laid aside in the end. Proponents of Utopia and Heaven talk about everlasting joy, but this joy must be something different from the joy we normally think of in life, including the joy of listening to Mozart, for example. Like anything not perceived as a neutral state, “joy” presupposes the existence, somewhere, of its opposite, and who wants it?
“I…devoted three years of travel to forgetting all that I had learnt with my head. This unlearning was slow and difficult; it was of more use to me than all the learning imposed by men, and was really the beginning of an education.”15
True freedom will be achieved only with the shedding of all baggage. At a mundane level, the transcendence of each desire and “need” makes us to that extent freer and richer.
When I was a young man I tended to envy others who seem to be “happier” and “more fortunate” than I was, particularly when I was in tormenting situations that seemed never to end. But I have, of late, come to see things rather differently. I now see all human beings, whatever their present situations, as basically passengers in the same boat – tossed about on the unfriendly sea of universal suffering. I am having a bad run. Why me? But look at my so-called “lucky” neighbours. Do I not see misery, ennui, frustration, woes of all descriptions beneath the facades of “fun”, “joy” and “happiness”? Do I not see that sooner or later “misfortunes” will be visited upon every human being? Do I really want to be in anybody else’s position, or to be anybody else indeed, however “fortunate”? The answer must be negative. If I could free myself from envy that would be liberation indeed.
Talking about liberation reminds me of breaking through cycles or circles, a fascinating subject. Being perfectly symmetrical in geometrical shape, the circle presents as the only “perfect” figure to contemplative minds, suggestive of elegance, stability, order in an untidy, unstable and chaotic world. It is seen to even have a kind of permanence amid the flux of the universe. At the dawn of modern astronomy, philosophers tried desperately to come up with theories of the motion of heavenly bodies to explain the non-circular orbits observed. They came up with a complicated system of “epicycles”, which serves to show how strongly the circle figures in the human imagination.
I have asked myself the following question: Is the circle, for all its symmetries and esthetic qualities, all that good? I am now inclined to answer in the negative.
“Running around in circles” and “come full circle” mean getting nowhere (hence “nothing new under the sun”). “Reasoning in a circle” means assuming what is to be proved as the basis of the argument. “A vicious circle” and “a circle of violence and retribution” mean an endless chain reaction of two or more undesirables in a mutual cause-and-effect relationship. In these examples, the circle suggests repetition and monotony at best, and meaningless, flawed or vicious otherwise. In the life and death cycle we are all caught in, there is this sense of imprisonment like a gramophone needle stuck in the same groove. We must break free.
I am ten years short of threescore and ten. From the above ramblings, what sort of creature has emerged? A cynic, or an insipid bore tired of Shanghai (substitute London if you are English, and Sydney if Australian), bereft of passion and any sense of fun and humour; solitary, serious, desiccated, unfeeling, priggish, pedantic, snobbish, opinionated; and an obnoxious square peg in a round hole? In a better light, it’s perhaps someone who has done with trivialities and has an eye for the nobility and grandeur of spirit; “aristocratic” in the best sense of the word without the need or use of privileges; and above all acutely aware of the delusions that humanity labours under and the true freedom that lies beyond. Hence to the simple and modest I shall return. Instead of Shanghai, for example, my yearnings are with lesser towns like elegant old Suzhou with its myriad antiquated waterways, lanes and gardens, home to some of the greatest poets, genuises and the most lovely and soul-stirring women the world has ever known. Another advantage, in my case, is that I don’t even have to be physically there, for all the poetry and beauty are forever etched in my mind, indestructible, despite the onslaught of modernity and the perennial tragedy as the newly late Stephen Jay Gould saw it:
“I regard as the central structural tragedy in the working of any complex system, including organisms and social institutions – the crushing asymmetry between the need for slow and painstaking construction and the potential for almost instantaneous destruction.”16
The way I see it now, this sense of tragedy dwells in the very nature of human perception. That is, as long as we are stuck in the mundane mode, subject to the tyrannies and vicissitudes of Time and Desire, we will continue to suffer. It has taken me 60 years to begin to see that the right way to face the situation is Acceptance and Understanding, understanding not of the logical-rational kind but something that is supra-intellectual. It is hard, but then as Spinoza put it:
“Needs must [the Way] be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”17
I shall thus wind up on a somewhat mystical note. I am aware that what I have come up with is nothing but a pastiche of mostly second-hand ideas. But it will serve as a record of the state I am in at this rather special age of sixty.
1 Harold Nicolson (1886-1968)
2 Xin Qiji (1140-1207)
3 James Boswell Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) – 19 September 1777
4 Lucretius (circa 99-55BC) – The Way Things Are, The Great Books, Britannica Edition
5 Tung Chiao – (born 1942)
6 W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) – The Tower
7 Shi Chenlin (1692-1778)
8 Qi Baishi (Chi Po-shih 1863-1957)
9 Lie Zi (Lieh Tze circa 5th century BC)
10 W. B. Yeats – A Coat
11 W. B. Yeats – Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop
12 John Donne (?1572-1631)
13 Montaigne (1533-1582) – Essais
14 Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) – If _
15 André Gide (1869-1951) – Fruits of the Earth
16 Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) – Bully for Brontosaurus
17 Spinoza (1632-1677) – Ethics
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