Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Happy Holidays!

Alternatively titled "Let's Get Emo About the Last Christmastime of the Decade"

Yes. It’s that time of year again. You sigh because you know it. The decorations, from over-the-top fantastical to gloriously cheap and tacky, pop up like mushrooms in public spaces all over town. Non-Caucasian Santas and scantily-dressed Santarinas (Question: Santa is allowed to be an obese slob but his female counterparts have to be skinny and tall and wear mini-skirts? Feminism apparently never reached the North Pole) prance around malls. Those horrendous carols play over loudspeakers endlessly. The shopping areas are crowded and every place is shouting: SALE! SALE! SALE! Buy! Consume! Pay later! It’s the only way to show you love them: give them iPods, Nintendo Wiis, watches, books, ties, belts and jewellery you hope they’ll like. Everybody wants you to buy something for them, or to buy something from them.

Then there’s the food. If there’s one thing that says “Tis’ the season”, it’s the food. What will it be this year? Roast Beef from the Ang Moh Delicatessen or Roast Turkey from the 5-Star Hotel? You'll buy pies, pastries and cakes from the bakery with the French name you can’t pronounce. Calorie counter? Never heard of it. Vege? You’ll roast them, eat a few sticks to kill the guilt, then mash the leftovers with the dog food before it all goes off. The food consumed over these weeks will be regretted over till February, even as your New Year’s resolution to jog thrice a week crumbles as you stuff the last chocolate chip cookie into your gob.

If you, like me, are above 20 but don’t yet have kids to instill good values in yet, then you're probably sick of all this. The lustre of gifts and the hope behind the annual messages of goodwill amongst all men has faded and degraded into the cynicism and commercialism that you detest but somehow embrace as well. Two pairs for RM200? Forget about mum, I’m getting these for myself! Buy one perfume set and you get a small ugly bag you’ll never use? Heck yes!

You know that after all the excess eating, the drunken parties, the endless washing up and the dismantling of the plastic fir tree, you’ll have to start work again to pay off those credit card bills, and you’ll be utterly disgusted at yourself for all that senseless hedonism and spending. And you’re not the only one. I’m sick of it too. Everyone’s sick of it. In fact, we’re all sick of hearing about how everyone else is sick of it.

But admit it. Every year, there will be moments...
Moments, as the year comes to a close, when you will feel those double edged swords pierce your heart no matter how hard you resist, no matter how tough you are. Those two swords my friends, are called nostalgia and melancholy. They creep up behind your back, poke you in the ribs, and you shoo them away. No, don’t go there, you think. Then they come back again unexpectedly, in a wave, drifting to you as the smell of cookies baking waft around the house (the only time in the year the oven is used, right?). You cannot not smell the cookies. You cannot not think of the past. You cannot not look forward.

The timing’s is ripe for recollection and reflection, for taking stock and recalibrating, for reviewing and benchmarking and for just feeling sorry and/or smug. The decorations are up, festivities are in tow, you’re either on holiday or hoping you were, your family is getting on your nerves again,  another year has passed, and in this case, another decade (technically the decade should be counted as 2001-2010, but popular convention counts it as 2000-2009). You can't help but get a bit teary-eyed. It's not your fault.

So you think back on the year that was, and the decade that was. You look back at what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done, what you’ve become, what’s transpired both in your life and in the world at large. You look forward too, to what you’ll achieve, where you’re heading, where humanity is heading. Inevitably, the exercise will be a mixture of pain and regret, thankfulness and joy, bitterness and cynicism, hope and idealism, love and hate, trying to remember and longing to forget, coulda, woulda, shoulda. 

How do you measure a year, a decade? How do you measure you? In how much money you earned? In the promotions you snagged? In the friends you acquired (online and off)? In the friends you lost (to death, to jealousy, to quarrels, to new spouses, to the rat race, to other countries)? In the lovers you had? In the debts you repaid and the new ones you gained? In the books you read, albums you listened to, movies you watched? In the blessings you received, the gains you made, the losses you suffered? Or maybe the chances you missed, the deals gone wrong? In the dreams you lost and the wishes that never came true? The lies you told, the people you hurt, the promises you broke? The wounds you healed in yourself and in others? What about in the lessons you learnt? In the charity you performed? In the help you gave along the way? In the hope you restored? In the love you spread?

Looking back at 2009, personally, the year has been a long, tough one. I shall resist going into detail (or a rant), but suffice to say, it’s a year I never, ever want to go through again, for many reasons. But I survived it, despite it all, I survived it. And here I am, thinking about the path behind me and before me.

When I met the new millennium, I was 13. I am now 23 (duh). The time between has been one of transition, growth and maturity as I moved from the little boy I was to the person I am today (perhaps not quite a man yet, but at least a much, much bigger boy!). It has been a decade when external, physical growth plateaued (I have reluctantly accepted the fact that I will not be getting any taller), but internal growth leaped; internal in the senses of personal, professional, intellectual, spiritual, political and social.

It has been a decade of self-consciousness giving way to self-awareness, of understanding myself and finding my place in the larger scheme of things, of figuring out what I want and what I need (from myself, from family, from others, from God, from life), and the difference between the two. It’s one filled with personal triumphs and soul-crushing failures. It’s a decade of picking myself up again, learning humility the hard way, having faith, losing it, fighting to keep it, starting over, letting go, learning when to apologise (and when not to), forgiving and forgetting, accepting and learning to get along with others and with myself.

Yes, I’ve come a long way, and for the most part, I am proud of myself, but I am also infinitely more aware of my limitations, my weaknesses, my mistakes, my need to further grow, improve and learn so, so, so much more. I am still finding myself and my potential. I am still a work in progress, and I will be for a long time to come.

Of course, it isn’t all about me. The question arises: how does everyone and everywhere else look like right now? How do we make sense of this moment in time, where we are, individually and collectively? Is the world a better place now? Is the world a better place with us now? How have the events of the past decade affected us, our families, friends, communities, countries? How has it changed our outlook on life and the way we treat others?

In my opinion, the world we live in is as divided as ever, and dreams of peace are still dreams. The decade has been marked by terrorism and extremism, counter-terrorism, 2 (ongoing) major wars, civil strife and conflict in various regions around the world, elections gone bad, and elections gone right (for the winners at least), ongoing hunger and poverty, natural disasters, climate change and debate on climate change, imperialism (both Western and Eastern) and just a general sense of hopelessness. People die in the throngs every day from conflict, disease and hunger, and we’re used to it. It’s become perfectly normal. Mass, daily death is now acceptable

No, this is no age for optimism, no age for the dreamer. We are the post-9/11 generation. We live in an age of commercialised war, pre-packaged democracy, self-worth for sale, commodificated identity , sanitised death and rising sea levels. This is the age of socialism for the rich and free markets for the poor. This is the decade of looking out for number one. This the decade of F**K YOU! This is the decade of "What’s the point? WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE ANYWAY! Let's just play Farmville now!"

Yes, it’s not exactly been pleasant. Hate, greed, oppression, poverty, hunger, disease, strife, war, conflict, ugly politics—these have been reoccurring problems and themes over the last ten years, unfortunately overshadowing many of the great achievements of our species. Ah, what’s new pussy cat? As I went through personal discovery and growth during the past decade, my views and outlook on the world around me also widened and broadened while I confronted these very issues and saw how they affected me on a personal level. It is impossible to underestimate how much of what happened in the Middle East, in the States, in Britain, in Europe, in Africa and in my own country affected this process.

Maybe the better question is: how now brown cow? As you can imagine, the idealism of my youth is constantly being attacked and undermined. At times it is a daily struggle to have faith in myself and in humanity. Often, it is tempting to admit defeat: there’s really nothing we can do to change things, is there? If you can’t beat them, join them, as the adage goes. But the fact is, it’s far easier to be a cynic than an idealist. It’s easier to join the mob than to stand firm. It’s easier to stop fighting, throw in the towel, go home, sit back and drink a cup of tea. It's easier to criticise than to actually improve anything.

For now, I can say that I’m still holding on, however precariously, to hope and faith and love and peace and all the other pretty words you find on greeting cards this time of year. To me, it's not a question of taking the easy path, but taking the right path. It’s a question of what you want to achieve with yourself and your attitude. It’s a question of choice: how do you want to treat others and view the world? Yes, it may be a tough choice sometimes, but it’s still essentially a choice. For now, I choose to believe in others and in my own ability to produce positive change.

I say "for now" because I, like anyone else, can and will change. Perhaps, in the next ten years, these ideals and goals and dreams will fade and be forgotten. Perhaps they will corrode under the harshness of the "real world" (where exactly have I been living in?). Perhaps they will crumble and die.  Perhaps I will turn apathetic or cynical or bitter. Maybe in ten years I’ll be nothing but an alcoholic, self-loathing old git who kicks dogs and drowns cats for fun. Maybe I will be working 9-10 every day and have practically no life outside my office (very possible, this one). Or maybe I’ll be homeless and begging because I’ve gambled all my savings at a casino. Maybe I’ll give up corporate life, sell my possessions and turn into a hippie travelling all over the world, bartending and washing dishes for my next plane ticket.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll be a stable, grown up, grounded, well developed, balanced, sexy (haha!), suave, sophisticated and confident 33 year old who has found his place and purpose in the world and is perfectly happy with his life.

Who knows? Ask me again in 2019, just as I’ll surely ask you. (If we’re still around, God-willing). Perhaps the world will be a better place then, if we, the average joes on the street, hold on to what is good and what is right.

Have a great Christmas and New Year and a wonderful ten years ahead everyone. Remember, as Kierkegaard once said, "Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved."

Yours truly, 

P.S. This is probably the last of my “lengthy” posts for a while. Soon, I'll be putting on running shoes, a grey fur suit and will start to grow a tail. 


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