Humanity always wins

Among humanity love is the natural force that defies the natural law of entropy.”

– M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled

“WILL HUMANITY GET ITS ACT TOGETHER?” cries a discussion group on LinkedIn’s Philosophy Network. The author is dismayed at the world we live in: we are a mediocre species – he bellows – our leaders are corrupt, we have no goals and we are killing the environment.

The last couple of weeks have not been great on the humanity front. The terrorist attacks in Kenya, sectarian violence in Pakistan and Iraq, the shootings in Washington D.C. One could argue that devastating news has not just been pervading our consciousness for the past few weeks, but rather months, or even years.

The world does seem to be a scarier place, doesn’t it? Acts of terror have mutated to such forms that there are no depths to which fundamentalists will not go to to achieve their goals. States and corporations have us under constant surveillance, increasingly invading our privacy. The economic crises leave us in a precarious state of anxiety: pensions being eroded; high youth unemployment; the end of jobs-for-life. Our planet is dying: we are heating it up; killing eco-systems; and endangering habitats and species for our own greed.

It’s a very natural response to ask ourselves, “What is the world coming to?” and to think that it’s all downhill from here. Yet, as depressing as it all seems, I believe that the world is getting better.

In his book The Science of Fear, Dan Gardner makes a strong case for the fact that we are living in a much safer world than we used to. He claims that since we tend to act more immediately from our gut instincts, we perceive risk more highly, and unrealistically. He gives the following example of terrorism:

The safety gap is so large, in fact, that planes would still be safer than cars even if the threat of terrorism were unimaginably worse than it actually is: An American professor calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, a person who took one flight a month for a year would have only a 1-in-135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking–a trivial risk compared to the annual 1-in-6,000 odds of being killed in a car crash.”

He doesn’t dismiss gut instinct, but he does call on us to use our heads, to think rationally and to remember the bigger picture. He writes, “Put all these numbers together and what do they add up to? In a sentence: We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.”

In The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck argues that whereas natural law should determine that we go into decline, we are going against such law and we continue to evolve as better people. He writes back in 1978:

The notion that the plane of mankind’s spiritual development is in a process of ascension may hardly seem realistic to a generation disillusioned with progress. Everywhere is war, corruption and pollution. How could one reasonably suggest that the human race is spiritually progressing? Yet that is exactly what I suggest. Our very sense of disillusionment arises from the fact that we expect more of ourselves than our forebears did of themselves. Human behaviour that we find repugnant and outrageous today was accepted as a matter of course yesteryear.”

If we look deeper, we can see that things are getting better. Bobby Ghosh at Time Magazine claims that 9/11 was the beginning of the end of islamist terror. Al Shabaab’s barbarity was one of desperation, not of dominance. The Prism scandal has the European community calling on the US to be held to account. We are becoming more concerned about our carbon footprint, about where our food and our clothes come from. The economic crises are forcing us to be more creative, to become entrepreneurs, and become less greedy. We realise that our planet is precious and that we do not have a blank cheque to do with it as we please.

When the world seems a terrible, dark place, we have to look for the light on our doorstep. We have to remain committed and faithful to all the good that happens in this world, which the media doesn’t have the time to portray: the young woman who suffered from depression writing letters of love to strangers, the Malay man who runs a shelter for stray and abused dogs (dogs are considered filthy in Malay-muslim culture), the rickshaw driver who donated all his earnings to fund the studies of poor students.

As I returned to my flat last night, a book entitled ‘All You Need is Love’ was perched on my doorstep. It was left by my neighbour, as a parting gift. We did not get a chance to say goodbye. This act of kindness touched me.

When we feel that sometimes all seems lost, we must never forget the humble, loving, everyday acts around us. They are the living proof that humanity is getting its act together.

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When he’s just not that into you

Menthey say they’ll call; they never do.

Grace, ‘Grace Under Fire’

We walked together along the bank of the river, the sky an indigo-orange hue as the sun was setting. What had turned out to be an introductory cup of coffee turned into a leisurely three, followed by a stroll along London’s Southbank. We mused over interests (we both loved musicals and valiant causes); he laughed at my jokes. We marvelled at the vibrancy of the riverside: the bars brimming with rambunctious laughter; live music ringing out over the Thames; interactive art displays inviting Londoners to recklessly abandon inhibition.

Suddenly we were across the road from Waterloo train station where he had to depart. He told me had a great afternoon and that he would see me soon. He gave me three sweet pecks on the cheek.

That was three years ago and I am yet to hear from him.

This is a hard post to write. It’s hard because I try to keep my blog quite gender neutral – as in I think the lessons I’ve learnt have universal appeal and application. But this post – and I’m sorry male readers – is about men who are just not that into the women they date. Now, I know there are women who are just not that into the men they date as well, and blow them off in similarly spectacular fashion, but I think the effect on the rejected party is different. I believe this is true from experience: my own and that of my friends; from reading Dear Mariella, Private Lives, Baggage Reclaim; from watching talk shows; films and Oprah. Unlike men (and I know there are exceptions), women tend not to take these rejections easily. In fact, sometimes they take them quite badly.

When I was 25, I told myself that things had to change. I had just fallen for another guy who was just not that into me. He gave me scraps of his time. He was always too busy to call. When I called (and it was almost always invariably me who did the calling) I tried to be cool: “So what if he’s not calling me, nor making a solid arrangement to see me?” I’d assure myself, “He’s really busy: he’s just started a new course, he’s in a different city. He’s a guy – they can’t multi-task. Besides, I’ll be that cool girl that doesn’t bother him. I’m breeeeeezy!”

The truth is, I wasn’t that cool girl. I couldn’t be breezy. Because deep down, I was hurt. I was hurt that the person I liked didn’t really like me that much. So instead of walking away and letting him be, I tried to make him like me more. And guess what? That didn’t work.

It was shortly after this episode that a friend lent me the book, ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. I decided that if I had any decent chance of finding a great relationship, I would have to start separating the wheat from the chaff (figuratively speaking) and figure out pretty quickly how to do this.

The book made me laugh and cry because it was so true. Every man I dated who was just not that into me was an example in it: the guy that was just too busy to call; the guy that I asked out first and then he went cold on me; the guy who couldn’t do long distance; the guy who didn’t want to call me his girlfriend; the guy who was still into his ex-girlfriend. They were all in there (sometimes they were the same person). I made excuses for them all: they’re scared; they’ve been hurt before; they are going through a difficult time at the moment; they are intimidated by me, blah blah blah.

No. They just weren’t that into me. Or they may have been. But either way, the outcome was the same.

I want to return to what I said above about how women tend to take this type of rejection hard. Blame evolution; blame living in a patriarchal society; blame our body clocks; blame absent fathers. There could be a whole host of reasons as to why we take it badly. But, whatever social or scientific reason may be the cause, the sole consequence of it all is this: we don’t love or respect ourselves enough. It’s because of this deficient self-worth that we are made hostage to accepting very little.

What I’ve learnt from both this book and experience is how to read the signs, accept them and move on. Most importantly, I know that it’s not personal. That these men are human. They are somebody’s friend, brother or son. They are not evil, nor arseholes. They are just trying to get on in this world just as much as I am. And once I realise that it is not a reflection on me, I am able to let go.

In the big, bad world of dating, it can be exhausting not to feel upset when another guy is just not that into you…again. Yet, I must strike the balance of following dating etiquette and putting myself out there. So yes, sometimes I’ll ask the guy out, sometimes I will buy the drink, sometimes I will make him a French mix tape. And I don’t regret it! But as soon as I get that feeling: that sinking pang of disappointment when I am waiting for his call because he said he would, or when I don’t hear from him after three days and I end up texting him, or when he says he really cares about me but does not love me; then I know. I always knew but now I’m braver at admitting it, and faster at moving on.

So here I am, just me and my standards. Of course, the better person for me may not come regardless of me and my standards. But, perhaps by breaking the status quo, by expecting more and not accepting less, I am at least nearer to finding him than I was before.

And surely, I cannot ask for more than that?

The perfect role models

“You have been looking for the perfect Pepsi. You’re wrong. You should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis.”

– Howard Moskowitz

In his Ted Talk Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce‘, Malcolm Gladwell exalts Howard Moskowitz for changing how the food industry thought about food. Moskowitz, a market researcher and pyschophysicist, was hired by PepsiCo to find the perfect diet Pepsi. When charting all the preferences of consumer tastes according to the artificial sweetness of the cola, he was confused as to why there was no one preferred level of sweetness. The chart was an uncorrelated mass of results.

Later on, through his breakthrough with spaghetti sauces, Howard Moskowitz democratised the food industry. Like with diet Pepsi, he realised that there was not a perfect spaghetti sauce, but rather there were perfect spaghetti sauces. He believed that neither variation of spaghetti sauce was more superior to the other; and that there was no universal notion of how a spaghetti sauce should be. Howard Moskowitz taught us that since we have different preferences, to apply universal principles to food would most likely bring our total happiness down.

Watching this Ted Talk got me thinking about role models (bear with me). There has always been a sense that we should follow “one” role model to lead our lives. When faced with dilemmas or decisions, one of the most common questions people ask themselves is: “What would (insert most inspiring, outstanding or upright member of society here – e.g. Jesus, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Immanuel Kant) do?” When we were children, we were asked which famous person do we want to be like when we grow up. In our careers, we are often advised to seek out a leader in our field to aspire to.

As commendable as these approaches are, I don’t agree that they are entirely realistic or at times helpful. These outstanding members of society are, well, outstanding and unfortunately, not all of us are blessed with such ‘outstandingness’. Secondly, can we really look to that one role model to guide us through the multi-faceted aspects of life? And to top it off, we are not them (the role models), but us (me and you) – and because of this, we need different people to help us with the different parts of our lives.

It is widely reported that there are not enough female role models and that such role models can have a positive impact on women’s performance. I whole heartedly agree. But I would like to share the view that role models closer to home – in their many, and either female or male – have just as much of an impact.

I have certainly benefited from having role models who correspond to the many roles in my life: be they the unattainable ones or those that live next door. What I have found however, is that the latter have had a much greater impact on me: I follow a female colleague’s example of effectively managing expectations and setting boundaries at work; I look to the erudite and laid-back manner of an old professor when figuring out the ways of the world; I look at my best friend’s loving partnership when trying to set the standards of my own; I am spurred on by my mother’s relentlessness to always see things through, even when the going gets tough.

By testing different types of spaghetti sauce, Howard Moskowitz taught us about happiness. “That is the final and most beautiful lesson of Howard Moskowitz,” says Gladwell, “that in embracing diversity in human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.” Following the spaghetti rationale, we ought to embrace the wisdom of the many perfect role models in our lives. That, I believe, is a sure way to true happiness.

Where have all the polymaths gone?

“Knowledge is power.”

– Francis Bacon

It is of late that I have admitted to myself that I have many interests. I like writing; singing; reading; public speaking; acting. I enjoy practising languages; getting my head around psychology, reading philosophy; reflecting upon spirituality. Even within these areas, there are so many sub-categories that really engage me. Whether I am good at any of them, I hope time will tell.

My recent trip to London turned out to be a bit of a philosophy tour. It sort of started as I was walking in Gray’s Inn Gardens off Chancery Lane that I was reminded of a plaque with two quotes from the English philosopher Francis Bacon, situated at the back of the gardens. Have a read:

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, situated in Gray's Inn Gardens in London.

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, from his works ‘The Advancement of Learning’. They have provided much encouragement to me during some difficult times in London.

Sir Francis Bacon, as he is better known, was a polymath. As well as being a philosopher, he was a lawyer (he served as Lord Chancellor and Attorney General), a politician, a scientist, orator and author. He wrote works on science, philosophy and religion. He is reported to be the founder of  British empiricism. Empiricism holds that all the knowledge of this world derives from the senses; there is nothing in the mind that we have not already experienced through the senses. Empiricism was first put forward by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

Here I am with the big fella:

Sir Francis Bacon and I in Gray's Inn square.

Francis and I in Gray’s Inn Square.

Visiting Francis spurred me on to visit another great English philosopher, Jeremy Benthamthe founder of the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, otherwise known as utilitarianism. In short, this principle states that the morally right act is one which maximises the total amount of pleasure to all who are affected by the act (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). He qualified as a barrister but decided that his calling was in leading social and legal reform, rather than in practising the law. Thus he was a lawyer, a reformer and a philosopher: a polymath.

I went to visit him at University College London:

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That's him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of his head did not turn out so well so it's a bit gruesome.

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That is really him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of it did not turn out so well, so it’s a bit gruesome to look at.

My next stop was King’s College London, where I stood beside Confucius. Confucius was a teacher, politician, editor and philosopher. I am not so familiar yet with his teachings, but he is arguably a polymath.

Like me, Confucius likes his tea. Just my luck to stumble on a great quote of his about tea at the Twinnings shop nearby: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.”

The sage and I

Finally, I stopped at Parliament Square in Westminster, where I stood by two inspirational leaders, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. As well as being a courageous war-time Prime Minister, in his lifetime Churchill was an artist, historian and writer.

Alas, Nelson Mandela would probably not have been considered a polymath; not that it matters in his case since he has lead such an extraordinary life.

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: "Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it."

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

Just before my London trip, I read a book about early Islamic civilisation: that during the Middle Ages, Islamic science and philosophy in the East was thriving whilst Western civilisation had appeared to come to a standstill. What amazed me about this book was how many Islamic innovators, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers were polymaths.  As the book’s author Ehsan Masood notes, they switched effortlessly from science to philosophy to poetry. The original polymath was Al Kindi – known as the ‘Philosopher of the Arabs’ – who was a mathematician, physician, musician and of course, a philosopher.

Learning about all these polymaths lead me to this conclusion: that being one is a good thing. However, where are they in today’s world? We have been primed to such an extent to be specialists that we forget that the greatest pioneers of Western and Eastern civilisations were those that loved doing different things, and not just doing things differently.

Why don’t we seek knowledge in different areas, enjoy the variety and complexity this world has to offer and see what we can create out of it? Being or trying to be a polymath opens the mind; the senses; and the faculties to the endless perspectives of this world and undoubtedly, it extends our creativity.

My London trip assured me that my varied interests are invaluable and that I should never stop seeking knowledge. As Prophet Muhammed once said, “Even if you must go all the way to China, seek knowledge.” On this trip I didn’t quite go that far, but I feel like I am on my way.

I would love to hear your thoughts – are you a polymath? Do you think they are becoming extinct? Do you think it’s good for society to be one?