Eventually, we will all experience a profound sense of loneliness. We will realise that however close we are to others, we will still suffer intimately, excessively, alone. This assumed isolation from others may drive some to despair and others to desperation; we seek and thirst for attachment. Yet, what isolation do we know of when we have already acquired language, and through language, meaning and association. What loneliness do we speak of when we can already see, hear, speak and write. The multitude of blind, deaf and mute cannot begin to express their sense of separation from the rest of the world. They cannot even assert their loneliness as superior to ours, for we do not know them at all.
“It is characteristic of many neurologists (and patients) that they mistake intransigence for strength, and plant themselves like Canutes before advancing seas of trouble, defying their advance by the strength of their will. Or, like Podsnaps, they deny the sea of troubles which is rising all around them: “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!” Neither defiance nor denial is of the least use here: one takes arms by learning how to negotiate or navigate a sea of troubles, by becoming a mariner in the seas of one’s self. “Tribulation” dealt with trouble and storm; “Accommodation” is concerned with weathering the storm.” – Oliver Sacks, Awakenings
In our lifetime of troubles big and small, we must learn to accept and manage every situation as it arrives. It must be done so with as little ego as possible, for trouble is trouble enough.
“As we suffered with a friend his deep moments of loneliness and grief, that awful renunciation of life itself, we each of us acquired, almost instinctually, a deeper and richer capacity for joy, for humour, for laughter. When you have so little you find joy in insignificant things.” – Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling
It is common for us to tell ourselves, “I can’t do math.”, “I can’t write poetry.”, “I can’t etc…” and it is only so because we are limited by our environment.
I refer to environment strictly from the viewpoint of an average middle-class citizen of a first world country, as it is not the purpose of this post to consider those limited by poor circumstance.
For most average middle-class citizens, our lives flow in general monotony: work – home – work – home. We live in a structured economy and society that enables us to have regular incomes, regular spending and regular lives. This is why we have become quite regular too. We are predictable, functional and exceedingly normal. Our environment has shaped us so.
Hence we shudder to consider acquiring new skills or knowledge that demand commitment or a leap of faith. How many of us will start learning piano in our 40s or even in our 20s? We have work to do and money to churn. How many of us take up a new sport in our 30s? We have enough exercise running after our kids.
To take this inertia further, I propose that we have an inability to create new skills and knowledge.
Consider this: You are locked in a cell, and have absolutely nothing to entertain yourself with. Day after day, you edge on the madness of boredom. In order to occupy your mind, would you turn over what you have learnt and create something, anything?
Such was the experience of Brian Keenan, an Irish teacher who was unfortunately kidnapped in Lebanon. Together with journalist, John McCarthy, they devised elaborate hand signals to communicate with two Americans in an opposite cell. How many of us consider it possible to devise a method of communication? (and without Google’s help)
In our safe and comfortable lives, we deny ourselves the possibility of learning, creating, of becoming so much more than we can. Yet, what is there to complain of, when we are not imprisoned; or are we?
A sense of morbidity is healthy; for the ponderance of death informs life.
Most of us live in relative monotony and take comfort in the lack of change. This sense of continuity causes us to take for granted – life. We deny the possibility of sudden death as that would be too impossible to happen to us, right? Yet we all learn from the news, that young men die in marathons and good folks pass away in accidents. It is definitely possible for us to die without reason.
Hence, blessed are those who know when they may die; and the rest of us should maintain some fear of dying. We should ask ourselves, “If I were to die tomorrow, would I be satisfied with life?”, “If I were to die after we part, have I told you that I love you?”, “If I were to die tonight, have I left a mark?”
This world is a growing pool of
humans: labels and numbers. The increasing use of technology allows data analysts to put us like points on the map, record our behaviour and for what purpose? The predominant answer is profit.
It was and is still true to say that ‘money makes the world go round’. Data analysts use our charted behaviour to find our trend of spending, and sell this data to corporations that can afford it. These corporations then work in stealth to influence and coax our spending. Of course, governments use big data, to monitor and supervise our behaviour, and rules change without us really understanding why.
One must question if anomalies pop up on these charts. If yes, then are these the ones who are left out, marginalised and vulnerable in our society? Then do we do anything with this data, to help them? If anomalies do not show, then are we excluding people from our view, our consideration and our humanity?
In the book, Awakenings, late Dr Oliver Sacks propounds the folly of medicine to reduce complex human experience to data, and warns of our reduction of humanism:
“The whole of this book is concerned with these questions – ‘How are you?’. ‘How are things?’ – as they apply to certain patients in an extraordinary situation. There are many legitimate answers to this question: ‘Fine!’, ‘So-so’, ‘Terrible!’, ‘Bearing up’, ‘Not myself’, etc.; evocative gestures; or simply showing how one is […] All of these are intuitively understood, and picture for one the state of the patient. But it is not legitimate to answer this metaphysical question with a list of ‘data’ or measurements regarding one’s vital signs, blood chemistry, urinalysis, etc. A thousand such data don’t begin to answer the essential question; they are irrelevant and, additionally, very crude in comparison with the delicacy of one’s sense and intuitions.
[…] Folly enters when we try to ‘reduce’ metaphysical terms and matters to mechanical ones: worlds to systems, particulars to categories, impressions to analyses, and realities to abstractions. This is the madness of the last three centuries, the madness which so many of us – as individuals – go through, and by which all of us are tempted. It is this Newtonian-Lockean-Cartesian view […] which reduces men to machines, automata, puppets, dolls, blank tablets, formulae, ciphers, systems and reflexes. It is this, in particular, which has rendered so much of our recent and current medical literature unfruitful, unreadable, inhuman and unreal.
There is nothing alive which is not individual: our health is ours; our diseases are ours; our reactions are ours – no less than our minds or our faces. Out health, diseases and reactions cannot be understood in vitro, in themselves; they can only be understood with reference to us, as expressions of our nature, our living, our being-here (da-sein) in the world.”
Hence with our increasing reliance on technology, we must not forget the importance of paying attention to human experience. We must view with circumspect, our progression towards non-humanism, towards exclusion of people in need.
Living in a conservative, practical-minded and serious Asian family leaves little room for humour. My encounter with humour as a growing child was limited to “Just for Laughs” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. Occasionally, my father who is possibly the only humorous one in my family, would crack a joke that only I would laugh to.
Then one grows up and watches Anchorman, Borat, Tropic Thunder, etc. and even begin to like Amy Schumer. What I’m saying is, it is great to laugh and not take life too seriously. It is in fact, important for survival, especially for people who are going through hard times in life.
In the moving mini documentary of people suffering from Usher Syndrome, Danny showed his incredible sense of humour. As he suffered from tunnel vision, his perception was limited to a small rectangular frame. He described it as looking through two cardboard toilet rolls. Despite his condition, he made the following hilarious comments about the time when President Clinton requested to taste his cajun cooking:
“The secret service came in and checked me all out, and made sure that I didn’t put in too much spices or to burn it. Now I forgot to put the tabasco sauce in the basket and I didn’t know whether the president liked it spicy or not, so I made it mild. And finally in the distance, we saw three great big black limos, and up on the buildings there were all these sharp shooters and they were pointing their guns at us. They came to the airplane. When President Clinton got out, he shook my hand. President Clinton has got a really big head, and he’s a tall, tall guy and he told me he loved cajun food.”
In a conversation on using the sense of smell instead of sight, he brought up a funny example:
“There was this woman who was losing her vision and she had the keenest sense of smell. It was funny because there was this one time she gave a person a hug and she smelled him, and then she gave another person a hug… and through her sense of smell, she realised that these two persons were having a sexual relationship.”
If persons suffering from disabilities can be humorous, we ought not to take our lives too seriously and learn to laugh at ourselves.