Comparing ourselves: an exercise in futility

“We do not deserve our place of distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part on fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

I often compared myself to others, in looks and in intelligence. I am mixed race – Malaysian and Irish – yet I’m told that I don’t look very “Asian”. I have fair skin, I go red very easily, my hair is thick and curly. The few things that give away my Asian heritage are the shape of my eyes and my black hair.

I had a friend who was like me – half Asian and half Caucasian. She was perhaps what one would expect a mixed race woman of South East Asian and European origins to look like: very delicate features – almost feline – high cheekbones, straight dark hair, a slender figure. Everyone would comment on how exotic and beautiful she was. I always felt inadequate next to her. Plus, I was chubby so I was always known as the “fat one” and she the “pretty one”.

When I was studying to become a barrister, I constantly felt stupid next to my class mates. They seemed to understand the mechanics of the law so much quicker and better than I ever could. They could articulate complicated reasoning with such simplicity; they were able to excel in exams and competitions whilst at the same time landing themselves the top jobs.

Looks and intelligence were the areas where I compared myself to others the most. And I would say that most of us do the same.

I tried affirmations in the hope of eliminating my entrenched beliefs. But as I did so, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling any better about myself. I wasn’t ‘brighter and better‘ every day. In the morning, I didn’t ‘look in the mirror and see nothing but pure beauty‘ staring back at me. I felt less attractive and more stupid.

It looks like I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman cites a study by the psychologist Joanne Wood. Wood had an inkling that people who use positive affirmations tend to be those with low-self esteem. She was also under the impression that since affirmations were at odds with what these people really felt about themselves, repeating them would make them feel worse. The study proved her inkling right: that for those people with low self-esteem, positive affirmations produced the opposite effect.

Nonetheless, I carried on regardless: making more of an effort with my appearance; studying harder for my classes. I did not necessarily feel better; I just got on with it.

The nail was finally hit on the (my) head last year, when I did an online course on political philosophy with my Dad. In one particular lecture we learnt about the American philosopher John Rawls’ theory on moral desert and justice. He asserted that we cannot claim credit for our talents, it just so happens to be our good luck that we were born in good circumstances and that society at that moment places a high value on them. As he states, “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place in society.”

What John Rawls had said was liberating. The way that I am – my talents, how I look – are not my doing and whether they are prized or not are dependent on how society tends to value them at any given moment. This is the same for people who I thought were better looking or smarter than me: they were born that way, through no fault or doing of their own, and society just happened to appreciate more their attributes.

It was from this point that I could finally and fully accept my flaws and deficiencies for what they are. I stopped comparing myself to others because it appears to me that life is just one big lottery. I cannot change what I perceive to be are my limitations. Instead I can focus on how to maximise the attributes that I believe I have.

John Rawls believes that we should allow our talents to flourish. Yet, he powerfully asserts that justice and the good life lie not in whether we deserve the rewards for our talents, but rather in how we use them to help those less fortunate than us. The American philosopher Michael J. Sandel sums up perfectly in his book ‘Justice‘ the truth upon which Rawls’ theory of justice relies: “The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be.”

Let’s not forget it.

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The gift to be simple

” ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…

– Traditional Shaker Tune

Christmas is the season of gift-giving. If you are anything like me, I loathe having to buy Christmas presents. It’s not the act of giving the present itself that I loathe, it’s the whole rigmarole that goes on before this final act: choosing who to give presents to; thinking long and hard (certainly for some people) about what they would like; then having to traipse round the shops with hundreds or thousands of other people doing the exact same thing; the stress of back-up ideas if the shop just doesn’t cater for your first choice present; the queuing; the spending of lots of money. That’s why I generally don’t give presents at this time of year. If I do, it’s just for immediate family and it usually comes in the form of chocolate. “If you can’t eat or drink it,” chirps my Mother, “then don’t bother.”

I accept that I’m pretty rubbish and/or lazy at giving gifts, well duty-given gifts (i.e Christmas presents) anyway. I guess everyone is different, but I prefer the gift of someone spending time with me and filling me in on their news and adventures than a tangible gift. This is not to say that I am not grateful for presents; I am, and I am touched by the thought and consideration that the person has put into choosing this gift. But since I am much better at giving my time, I prefer the gift of someone doing the same.

There have been occasions when I would give out of obligation or with the expectation of something in return. I remember once when I had showered a friend with gifts in the hope that he would sponsor me for a cause. He didn’t and I did hold some resentment towards him. Only much later did I realise that my actions in the first place lacked moral worth, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant would have sternly told me so. I was using the gift as a mere means, not as an end in itself. Now when I give, I give without any expectation (and I think this also includes the expectation of gratitude) and I feel much lighter and better for it.

I go on about myself a lot on this blog. I do harp on about my achievements and I trumpet my milestones. But I would not have been able to do any of it without the gifts of my friends and family: the gifts of their time, sympathetic ear and unconditional love; the gifts of precious gems such as books, clothing and trinkets; the gifts of furniture (including my comfy Swedish couch) and woman-power from friends when I was moving into this flat. These are gifts which I hold dear and which it is not easy to return the compliment.

Gift-giving is not about expecting something in return. And receiving is not about giving in return. Gift-giving should be done freely and without strings attached. Likewise, if I want to give something in return, I do it because I freely choose to do so.

This will be the last post of the year. I want to thank you for the gift of your time in reading my blog, and that of your support and loyalty in encouraging me to keep going. My present to you is one of endearing gratitude.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I will see you in January 2014.

My mini-oven

To say that trifles make up the happiness or misery of human life is to voice a cliché no less true for being one, and no less worth remembering.”

– A.C. Grayling

I’ve decided to cook more. I could make a decent chicken curry, an ok spaghetti bolognese, and a pretty fluffy omelette. But, I was really scared of cooking. Inviting friends over for dinner was always quite a fearful prospect. I would dread the thought of what to cook, how to cook it and whether it would taste any good. So I would normally opt for my chicken curry and stir-fry vegetables for one dinner and then spaghetti bolognese for the next. I didn’t have many dinner parties.

It’s not that I was a bad cook; my fear meant that I just didn’t particularly like cooking. And the thought of making dessert was even scarier. I had in the past tried to make a Curly Whirly cake, a cake of such unimaginable sweetness from tonnes of sugar, chocolate and vanilla essence that what resulted was a dewy, gooey consistency with the vanilla icing being absorbed into the sponge. It looked awful and one teaspoon of it sent you into a psychedelic trip that would last at least three hours. I had made it one Christmas for the family. It couldn’t be saved nor turned into something else. It was left in the fridge for days, with me trying a little bit every day in the hope that it would taste that little bit better, as beef bourguignon tends to. Despite my wishful thinking and sending positive vibes to my Curly Whirly cake, it was still awful and hence abruptly discarded.

I spent my early childhood living in Malaysia. In Malaysia, it was fairly common for middle class families to have maids who did all the household chores: cooking; cleaning; washing and ironing; not to mention the child care. Our maid, Kakak, came with us when we moved to England back in the early 90s. I never cooked nor was I ever bothered to want to try. I took some cooking classes during secondary school. I remember making a clementine cheese cake of which the taste reminded me of a fridge – cool and sterile, with a slightly pongy whiff.

Looking back, I sort of wonder how I’ve managed to live a pretty healthy lifestyle after leaving home considering my deficiency in the cooking department. My repertoire (including the bolognese and it’s variations – shepherds pie, cottage pie, chilli con carne – and the curry and its variations – vegetable curry, beef curry, mushroom curry, prawn curry, egg curry) has served me well. But I really envied people who could whip up dishes pretty easily. My best friend would often invite me over for dinner. I both marvelled at and felt intimidated by her culinary expertise. But to her, it was nothing extraordinary, “Since I’m cooking it anyway, you might as well come over,” she’d say and would then summon up a sumptuous butternut squash and goats’ cheese risotto. Simples.

Last Thursday, as I perched my newly-bought brand new mini-oven against the ledge in the metro station, waiting for the metro, looking out over the car-park of a Carrefour hypermarket; the grey, drizzling, over-cast day did little to dampen my spirits. I was awash with emotion. It felt like my mini-oven was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to my happiness. I bought it – with my own money. I carried it – by myself – to my flat, a flat which I furnished myself, which I pay for – myself. With that oven, I would continue to learn how to cook well – for myself.

The previous paragraph probably sounds terribly melodramatic but I was brought up in an environment where many things were done or provided for me. Kakak was always there, cleaning up after me. When I was starting out my career in London, I lived in a house furnished by my parents, who were also my landlords. It is not easy to write about this without feeling some sort of guilt for my privileged upbringing. But I remain ever thankful and grateful to Kakak and my parents for the help, support and care they gave to me.

One of the first books that introduced me to philosophy is The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life by the philosopher A.C. Grayling. The book is based on his former weekly column, ‘The last word‘, in the Guardian. He divides the book into three parts: ‘Virtues and Attributes’; ‘Foes and Fallacies’; and ‘Goods and Amenities’. The last piece in the last part is called ‘Trifles’. He writes, “There are at least two senses in which something can count as a trifle: one, by being small and unobvious, and the other, by being ordinary, familiar or mundane. In both cases it takes observation to single it out and see it for what it is.” He says that we should not lose sight of the importance of the small things because then we understand better the significance of the big things.

My mini-oven is in relative terms, a small thing. It’s a mundane and ordinary good. But it’s significance has much greater worth. My mini-oven is my trifle. What’s yours?

P.S There will be no post next week but Living room philosophy will be back the week after.

Do what you can, according to who you are

“First, we must ask ourselves who we are before we know what we can do.”

– Robert Bilheimer

October 18th is the European Union Anti-Trafficking Day. On this day, I attended a screening of the film documentary, Not My Life by Robert Bilheimer. This was an evocative yet distressing film mainly showing the lives of children who have been trafficked and coerced into labour in Nepal, Senegal and Ghana; prostitution in the United States, India and Cambodia; and into combat as rebel soldiers in Uganda.

The film showed the magnitude of what constitutes modern-day slavery and what it is used for: sex work, menial work and war. It is beyond belief what people can do to one another for money or power, and particularly abhorrent what grown adults can do to children: stashing them away under the floorboards or in the roofs of brothels to evade police raids; kidnapping them from schools to train them to kill; selling them into prostitution for the services of paedophiles.

According to Robert Bilheimer and Cecilia Malmström (the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs), there is no global anti-human trafficking movement. It is hard to detect and prevent human trafficking and it is even harder to know what it is –  the film gave varied examples of trafficking which was intertwined with slavery and child grooming. Also getting tough on slavery may be bad for business. In times of austerity, consumers are lured by even cheaper prices, companies are ever-pressed to be competitive yet profitable.

At the Q&A after the film, it was asked what young people can do to help tackle the issue. Robert Bilheimer used the example of the actress Glenn Close, the narrator of the film. Faced with the magnitude of this human rights violation (it has been conservatively estimated by the International Labour Organisation that 21 million people worldwide are exploited for labour and sexual services), she humbly said that what she can do to help this cause is to lend her voice to the film. He advised young people to take a small, first step in helping the cause: share the film through social media.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years. Aristotle was of the opinion that some people are born be slaves, since it is in their nature to be so. Although he was (unfortunately) a proponent of slavery, he was not a proponent of those who were forced to be slaves: anyone who was coerced into slavery suggested an unnatural fit and it was therefore unjust.  Today, all slaves are forcibly (not to mention illegally) coerced into work which is not suited to their nature. It is unjust.

All of us can have a role to play in fighting injustice. But as Robert Bilheimer said, we first need to know ourselves so as to know what we can do. We have to figure out what our qualities, talents and limitations are so that we can make the best use of them. Our role can be large, it can be absolutely negligible, but this is beside the point.

For a long time, I had struggled to work out what I could do to make the world a better place.  I realise that doing my bit is probably not going to be particularly remarkable: it might just be in telling the story and spreading the word.

I encourage you to watch the film (password: nml123) and spread the word.

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?

Identity as our moral starting point

In June 2003, I flew from Belfast to Washington D.C as part of a programme called the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP). A programme that brings together young people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington D.C to work together, play together, break down prejudices and pre-conceived ideas about one another in the hope of building and sustaining peace in Ireland.

I always felt a bit different to the rest of the group. I am Irish-Malaysian. I was born in Ireland; I spent my childhood in Malaysia; my adolescence in England; and my young adulthood in Ireland. I found it hard to relate to the troubles of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the South. To boot, I have an English accent, which made me feel very self-conscious about having any claim to Ireland at all.

When I first came to Brussels, I was invited to a few events organised by the Irish Embassy. There, I met fellow Irish interns but I always felt uncomfortable being around them because I felt like a fake. When asked where I was from, I would say Dublin and name the area where I lived during my University years. I would then explain my accent, which ended up being a recount of my life in ten seconds. I always got the impression that they didn’t really believe that I was from Dublin. The truth is, I didn’t believe it either.

When I decided to not let things matter so much and be honest with myself, my Irish identity was one of the hardest things I had to grapple with and understand. The first thing I accepted was that I am not just Irish: I am Irish, I am Malaysian and I am – in a way – British too. Once I accepted that, I decided that I had every right to go to Irish events and to be considered Irish. But, I would be honest about who I was. Since taking this approach, I have felt more at ease and open at these events. I’ve made more Irish friends and I have felt – strangely – more Irish.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes about our nation’s history, culture, our ancestry and our family as constituting our moral starting point. He writes in his book After Virtue that all these circumstances and characteristics are in part – he quotes – “…what gives my life its own moral particularity“. It is from this moral starting point that we can move forward and figure out “the good life”.

My ancestors, my mother, my father, my birthplace, my nations’ histories and cultures all provide the framework of who I am. As I flip through my WIP scrapbook of ten years ago, I finally understand this touching note from one of my classmates given to me just before leaving D.C: “You have an amazing story – let the world hear it!! Be a foreign ambassador for us and Ireland. You go girl.”

As we continue to understand who we are and where we come from, we continue to move forward in figuring out our concept of the good life.