Facing Reality

An old doodle by J, words by Y. Found this while archiving, Amps humour.

Grab drivers are slowly but surely taking over the role of taxi drivers in most areas, including dispensing folk wisdom.

Caught in a traffic jam around Ion Orchard, the grab driver observed that the driveways and taxi stands of Singapore shopping malls are designed to create traffic jams in and around the mall. And they conspire with the traffic lights and bus stops to achieve the maximum effect. He reasoned that according to the laws of Feng Shui, wealth, in the form of vehicular traffic, must always pause, linger, and be given the appropriate opportunity to deposit itself inside the shopping mall.

Throughout this treatise, he keeps it light by punctuating his analysis with "You see lor, we ourselves jam ourselves!"

He means to say that we create our own problems. And that we have no one else to blame. We jam ourselves.

I started reading Marilynne Robinson's The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought recently. In the essay "Facing Reality", Robinson questions the paltry Reality we have set up on the pedestal of what is material, can be acquired, is easily consumed as information in a world "of mere things" (and even in the digital age, we have the phrase "internet of things").

Robinson writes that the collective fiction we have adopted as reality is one in which the dominant public discourse and wider culture is marked by fearfulness ("Fearfulness assumes a hidden narrative - that we are ill despite our apparent health, vulnerable despite our apparent safety."); cynicism which she rightly defines as a disavowal of responsibility ("pretending they are powerless, disenfranchised individually and deep in decline as a society, perhaps to grant themselves latitude responsible people do not have or desire"); and anxiety ("empty of humour and generosity. It elaborates itself in the manner of phobia or delusion rather than vision or fancy").

If this sounds like a damning diagnosis, she writes that our anxiety and obsession with illness is itself telling - we fear yet paradoxically are driven to doctors and medication.

In Grab-driver-speak, yes, we jam ourselves.

But this is where a combination of Robinson's faith and alliance with fiction (and hence, compassion) ultimately informs her world view. She explains our anxiety and fear of sickness, the inability to accept that the body will eventually fail, and in fact, our culture's obsession not only with material success but "nonfailure", in this way:
Perhaps some part of our peculiar anxiety might be accounted for this way. Historically, cultures have absorbed these irreducible truths about the harshness of life and the certainty of death into mythic or religious contexts. The long miseries and vanquished heroics of Troy inspired the world for millennia, though there is not much in the tale to offer comfort except the spectacle of futility on an epic scale. I am not sure we have at that moment any notion of comfort in that sense of feeling the burdens which come with being human in the world lifted by compassionate imagination. 
If we are to face reality and the inevitable suffering that is life, Robinson argues that we essentially need these 2 things: we need God, so that we know, in contrast, that we are human; and we need stories, to be able to live with the vulnerabilities of being human, to laugh and to cry.

This compassionate, human voice of Robinson is clearest in her epistolary novel Gilead. The novel is written as a letter that a dying pastor in a small American town leaves to his young son from a second marriage.

I re-read Gilead recently. You may wonder why did I choose to re-read something that is shrouded in death. On the contrary, if this book was a painting or a room, it will be anything but dark and gloomy; it will be bathed in sunlight, filtered through a veil. Because it is a book written from the premise that the pathetic "hero" is dying, will soon die, it is a novel that is not shy of courage, love and much forgiveness.

The somewhat existential question "what is real" has been on my mind recently. It has seemed, for months, that because much of life is ephemeral, it is "not real" - which is not to say it is false or fictive - more like a fancy, a dream, and therefore, our experience is not always to be trusted. This leads, crudely, to the question "why then am I still alive - what should I make out of this?" These questions also arose out of an impatience with myself for how things are going, or rather, not going - not moving - not moving on. And I need to - move on. Because I know there is work to be done, people who care for me and for whom I really can do more, and oh, the stories and jokes to tell, plants to re-pot... a strange urgency in all this.

In the general spirit of the New Year you, too, may have similar questions.

I received from reading Gilead a wide, expansive field for these emotions and thoughts to rest, enjoy or indulge in even. But I received from an essay like "Facing Reality" a kind of loving rebuke. We must take responsibility, always, for our emotions and actions. And we must accept the fallibility of our humanity, but in that we should not accept our humanity as futile. Because we were first created in the likeness of God, and in that we have our imagination, humour, goodness.

So is there an answer to those questions in here?

Not specifically. But imagination, humour and goodness are perhaps the provisions we need to seek or make the answers.


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