How we should respond to acts of mass violence

I feel incredibly distraught over the shootings that happened in Christchurch last night. I’m sure many others are unsettled as well. Two close friends that I was having dinner with last night said that they won’t be visiting the Melbourne CBD anytime soon (they live in the suburbs). I can relate to their sense of terror, and feeling like public spaces are not safe anymore.

If someone like me who isn’t Muslim or geographically close to Christchurch at the time of the attack, feels this disturbed, I can only imagine what my Muslim and Kiwi brothers and sisters are going through right now. Earlier today I attended a rally protesting Islamophobia in the city. Some people were weeping openly, and the sense of grief was palpable.  It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to potentially be targeted for murder solely on the basis of your religious beliefs. The acts of one person can cause so much suffering around the world.

I couldn’t help but spend a bit of time thinking about what causes people to commit acts like this. And while obviously things are complex and there aren’t simple explanations to why these incidents happen, I believe a large part of why the attack happened is because the perpetrator believed, on a fundamental level, that the people (if he even thought of them as people) he killed were different from him, and that their interests, values and goals are fundamentally at odds with his own. In the document the terrorist in question posted (I won’t go into too much detail because I am personally in two minds about whether or not the material should be read or not) went on about Islam “taking over” European/”white” lands and that being a huge issue. And that really strikes me as something that only someone who doesn’t have many friends would say. Because if you go out there and actually talk to people, especially those who ostensibly seem different from you, you realise that we are pretty much the same. We all want to be healthy. We all have dreams. We all struggle with issues. We all want to be happy. We all want to be part of a community that loves us and keeps us safe. We all want to love and be loved, and to feel like we made a difference during our short time on this planet. There are far more things we have in common with each other than the things that separate us.  Your happiness is my happiness, and mine yours.

That is also to say that the shooter probably lived an incredibly isolated and painful life, so devoid of any other sources of meaning and purpose that he felt that the most important and meaningful thing he could do with his life was to shoot up a mosque full of strangers he didn’t know.  This is a person with so few meaningful social connections that the only people he could discuss his plans with were anonymous strangers on message boards, and had no one else to talk to besides the faceless void he livestreamed the shooting to. Is it easy to feel compassion for this person? Probably not. But does this person still deserve compassion? Yes. My teacher in secondary school who was my public speaking coach always reminded me that people who deserve love the least need love the most. Because as much as all of us feel angry and sad and so, so exhausted, the only way we can stop cycles of violence and conflict is to empathise and understand those we perceive to be our worst enemies, for that faint glimmer of hope that they will one day return the favour. Love, peace and intimacy all require us to be vulnerable, to trust, even if that trust might sometimes be undeserved.

So yeah. Be kind to a stranger, and let them know that they are loved. Because even if it might not be obvious, our fates are so intractably linked to one another.

May you all be well.

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Limbo, anxiety and being stuck

I think I first started developing anxiety when I started university. I would just spend hours and hours watching Starcraft in my dormitory room and pass entire days that way barring going out for dinner and lunch. I never used to think of that being a symptom of anxiety, but it seems fairly obvious to me now. I was scared and anxious being in a new social environment, and I would just watch videos as a form of escape from the uncertainty of the real world. The uncertainty on the screen I could actually control, and there was a narrative structure that was familiar and repeated in every video. It was easy and comfortable to just turn on my computer and type in “you…” to go to that same familiar website and to look at content that pretty much the same as what I watched the day before, but marginally different enough to trigger my brain’s novelty receptors. Unfortunately that is also how I developed a reliance on watching videos as a means of escape.

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If everyone in the world were to be divided into people into (1) people who are angry, and (2) people who are scared, I would very comfortably fit into the second category. I’ve always been a jumpy person – I am very easily startled (even today), and I’ve always had a tendency to deal with conflict by avoiding it, rather than escalating the conflict. Since i was a child, I always have had a very instinctual urge to hide – whenever my parents would come back home from lunch I would immediately find a spot (behind the door? behind the sofa?) to hide. I still have those tendencies today. Another thing that absolutely terrifies me is conflict. I can’t have a verbal argument with someone else to save my life, and anyone even mildly raising their voice at me sets me on edge. One of the most terrifying experiences I have had in recent times is when someone I was close to shouted at me for a few minutes over something I had done. I felt so terrified that I could hardly believe that what I was experiencing was real life. I kept wishing that everything I was going through was a dream. Weird, really, imagining a 25 year old adult man just crouched over on a bed quivering from fear. Seems strange to think about it but it did happen, but it really did, and thinking about the incident still makes my palms sweat.

It’s kind of surprising that it took me so long to realise that I have issues with fear and anxiety. For one, I’ve always known that some members of my family, whether in my immediate or extended family, display traits that a stereotypically associated with anxiety. I suppose it’s always easier to recognise things (especially negative or undesirable things) in other people rather than yourself. I’m even a little anxious writing this blog post right now, because I am still quite self-conscious about how my writing comes across, even though I am less self-conscious than I used to be.

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This is all to say that the past 2 years of my life have been particularly stressful and anxiety-inducing for me. Between graduating and the uncertainty over finances, my ability to get a visa, repeatedly failing language tests that I *should* have been able to pass on the first try, managing a relationship, worrying about jobs, worrying about jobs and worrying about jobs, I’ve slowly felt my sanity fray at the edges and unravel in ways I never thought possible. Managing all that while trying to maintain a regular social life and keep up the appearance that everything was sort of fine was exhausting to say the least.

I’m not even sure where this piece of writing is meant to go. I didn’t really start writing this any form or structure or purpose in mind. Am I better right now? Sort of? I’m trying out new things and I’m trying to rebuild my confidence on a daily basis. I’m taking my medication, trying to exercise regularly and trying to eat well again. Am I confident that things will be better in the future? I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to let anyone who reads this and is going through something even remotely similar to what I’m experiencing that you are not alone, and that it is okay to not feel okay.

Hello world!

I write this passage with a lot of trepidation but also a lot of excitement because
I am taking the first few steps in a long time to actually start writing again. I actually have a physical smile on my face – this is surreal and so exciting and all the words blah blah blah

Anyway, hello everyone! And most of all, hello me! I look forward to saying more things here soon 🙂

“Happiness”

At this point in history, when faced with the question, “what do you want to achieve in life” (or any similar variations of the question), I would dare say that many of us would answer simply- “to be happy”.

“Happiness” is the most intuitive goal that anyone can have- even the phrase “I want to be happy” seems circular and tautological- to be happy is to live the way you want to, isn’t it? One cannot possibly “want to be unhappy”- if being “unhappy” is an individual’s overarching aim, isn’t being unhappy just a means to the same end? 

At this point I am convinced that the phrase “I want to be happy” is meaningless, but a better question lies ahead- why the obsession with happiness?

Here I propose an answer- (a largely unrigorous and callous one, but an answer nonetheless): human “happiness” is but an evolved decendant of animalistic “pleasure”, which is a critical survival tool. I would venture to say that us conscious beings are here today because our biological ancestors have incredibly developed sytems of pleasure which help them to survive. Our obession with “happiness” is but a biological accident. One only needs to think about the pleasure that a monkey (presumably) get when it fills its empty stomach with a ripe banana, giving it the nutrients to live on and procreate; or the displeasure (or unhappiness) that an antelope has when it sees a tiger, which then causes it to flee, and to survive. “Happiness”, in these cases, is not a philosophical end, but a highly effective, purposeful system- a faithful boat which has carried the genes of our ancestors across the vast, deep seas of time.

At this point, it is impossible for us to verify if animals think about happiness just as we do- but what we can be sure of, are two things. Firstly, we can think about happiness; and secondly, “happiness” is no longer necessary to survive. This means that happiness is no longer a necessary system we need, but a choice we can choose to make or not.

For the first time in known history, we can try to deviate ourselves from “happiness”. The faithful ship that our ancestors relied on has hit the shore, and we are free to walk in any direction we choose.

Journal Entry #6- Truth

Jonathan made an eloquent and much needed attack on one epistemologically disturbing trend which sorely needs to be addressed. To quote him:

It is a commonly held perception in civilized society that we are required to respect the opinions of others, regardless of how absurd and nonsensical they are.

The human mind may be well-trained and naturally inclined to handle pleasure and pain, but I thoroughly believe that its faculties are flawed when it comes to truth. This relates to the important, main point of this week’s journal: that which is desirable is not necessarily true.

There are some things which just aren’t true, even if the truth may be hard to swallow.

To be completely honest, I’m not the most passionate advocate of the existence of objective, absolute truth (debating has that curious effect on you), but I am pretty convinced that ones personal tendencies, wishes, and desires, even in a collective group, can do nothing to affect objective truth (assuming that it exists).

An example most of us can relate to would be the existence of imaginary friends. Most of us, at some point in our childhood, talked to things which weren’t really there- imaginary people, soft toys, blankets (my blanket was named Cousin Blanky- I originally wanted to name it Blanky, but my brother claimed the copyrights to that name before me) and other similar, inanimate objects. In retrospect we laugh at how silly it all was, and we can all unanimously agree that those imaginary friends we had never quite existed, and all the soft toys we gave names to have been, and and still are, lifeless combinations of cloth and stuffing.

However, it is easy to forget that at those very moments in our childhood, when we were seven or eight or nine or ten, there was no doubt, in our hearts, that these things were real. Our happiness and sadness was so closely intertwined with our imaginary friends to the point that the mere conception that all of it was untrue was impossible- we simply refused to believe it. We told the truth the same way a wide-eyed child would tell the truth: these things existed, and they meant the world to us.  But did our sincerity have any effect on what actually existed, and what didn’t? No.

It is absolutely possible for people, in fact, billions of people, to believe a lie just because it is a lie which makes us happy- a lie that tells us that everything is going to be alright, that the future is nicely planned out ahead of us like a rolling mat which unfurls with our every footstep. But the fact that all this is pleasurable doesn’t change the fact that all this is still what it actually could be : a lie.

This is something that we need to seriously think about: do we still need to be childish in our thoughts, and protect ourselves with our wishes and fantasies; or do we want to be adults, and deal with the world as it really is?

Journal Entry #5- Sex

I have never been able to comprehend Government’s (or any third party, in any case) obessession with a citizen’s private use of his / her sexual organs. It consistently bewilders me how the state sees it within its ambit to criminalize acts such as oral sex and sodomy as punishable crimes even if said acts are committed with a consenting party.

I specifically refer to laws such as Section 377A of the Penal Code in Malaysia, (no pun intended with ‘penal’) in which , ‘any person who has sexual connection with another person by the introduction of the penis into the anus or mouth of the other person is said to commit carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The definition of the offence intuitively, brings forth two questions:

1. Why is ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ worth prosecuting, and

2. Even if it were worth prosecuting, which things are ‘against the order of nature’, and which things aren’t?

To address the first question, the only possible reason I can imagine that a Government can use as an excuse are the ‘potential harms’ of carnal intercourse. Which doesn’t quite add up because firstly, carnal intercouse isn’t dangerous- or at least not significantly more dangerous than regular sex, which probably has all the potential harms that carnal intercourse could bring. Secondly I’d say that granted that Government already legalizes personal lifestyle choices like smoking, which not only harms yourself but also others, it’s a huge contradiction to ban carnal intercourse.

With all that said, I find the second question even more damaging to the whole question of prosecuting ‘carnal intercourse’- what on earth is ‘natural’ and what isn’t? If ‘carnal intercourse’ is unnatural, then things like clothes, medicine and law would all be similarly ‘unnatural’ and should be discarded. Secondly, if it really were ‘unnatural’, then why would we be doing it in the first place? Paradigms and values shift with time, and the last thing we need for a healthy societal concept of sex is the Platonfication of it- that there is only one ‘pure’ form of sex out there, and that we should adhere to it the best we can. Sex, like everything else, evolves and changes, mostly for the better. Embracing and understanding those changes would be a better use of our time.

With that cleared, my criticism of sex is not limited to Government- it is also specifically directed at you and I. Chances are that most of us indulge in sexual bigotry- we gasp and squeal when sex scandals appear in the newspaper, we gossip when people sleep with each other, and we just generally hold a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude regarding sex. We are prudish and bigoted, but most of all, we judge for no good reason. I could sympathize with Datuk Dr. Chua Soi Lek when he maintained that Malaysians behaved ‘holier than thou’ when news of his sex scandal broke. The fact that he has extramarital sex was probably wrong- but only wrong in the limited sense that he betrayed the trust of his wife, or his children, and not in the public sense that all of a sudden all his credit and effort as Health Minister would warrant being cancelled out.

My stance is clear. Sex is a completely personal and private act between two parties in which few other people have a right to fuss about. Furthermore, the prosecution of sex also has no place in modern jurisprudence. Sex is an integral part of our life, and the least we can do is to think about it more maturely.

Journal Entry #3

(Another late night blog post, yay)

In Standard 4, I filled up one of my friends’ autograph books (it was black and diary-sized, if I recall. One of those mass produced organizers that companies send around and no one really uses). I really like autograph books- they’re some kind of cryogenic freeze on our personalities that allow us to analyse and smile at our previous selves. And from there, we notice the things about ourselves that changed (“Hobbies- collecting stamps”) to the things that didn’t change (“Birthday- 29 December 1992”).

After I filled up the autograph book, it was soon passed around, and people started talking about it. I then realized that quite a few of my classmates (the boys, mainly) were looking at my page and giggling. Something they had noticed in particular was what I filled up in the “Hobbies” section. While my other male friends usually filled that row up with things like “sleeping, cycling, playing com games, reading (all quoted from my own autograph book- they’re authentic)”, I filled in something else.

My row went something like this:

Hobbies: Talking to girls

which apparently, most people found amusing (Standard 4 Keefe was probably just being the honest, cheeky boy that went around pulling girls’ hair and stealing water bottles which ended up with a coalition of girls complaining to his mother on Report Card Day- but more on that another time). I suppose that’s one thing that really hasn’t changed much; my friends are disproportionately female, except either one or two close male friends (the figure usually hovers around the number ‘one’, and very occasionally enters the realm of ‘two’)

I’ve never really been one for cliques- at least not the kind of cliques that I’ve seen so far. Personal, one-on-one interaction has always been something I’m more comfortable with. I like intimacy and touch- in some ways I think that my connection and bond with someone is directly proportional with the amount of physical contact we make. I love the feel of a handshake and the warmth of a hug- it closes the gap between two people in a irreplaceable manner.

The two premises: 1) I have primarily girl friends, and 2) I touch my friends a lot (typing this out actually makes me realize how odd this sounds, hmm) necessarily leads to conclusion 3) I touch girls a lot, which has also necessarily gotten me into quite a bit of trouble. There are generally two possible groups of people which this trait of mine can offend:

1) People who don’t quite like being touched

When I meet people in this category I’m usually in for a rude shock. Awkwardness (which may or may not be prolonged) usually follows- along with apologies (“Sorry sorry I didn’t know that you didn’t like hugs / don’t shake hands / aren’t allowed to touch boys without your dad’s permission). These are people I can genuinely sympathize with, and I usually apologize quite a bit to them. However, there also are:

2) People who feel uncomfortable with me touching other people

This group includes people who go “it’s really not appropriate to touch at this age- people might get the wrong impression / don’t be such a pervert / why your hands so itchy one”. I, on occasion, have slightly less tolerance with people in this category. Most of them certainly are well-meaning, so there really isn’t much to rant about, actually. I actually do owe quite a bit to people from this group, because I do have the tendency to cross the line, from time to time, so thank you, dear reader-friend, if you happen to be one of the kind-hearted people who’ve advised me at any point in time. So- thanks! 🙂

At the end of the day, I genuinely think that touch has the capacity to make better relationships (any kind, in fact). I should seriously consider starting a political party which advocates more hugging. Hmm.

(A note to readers- the “Journal” series is posted every Saturday- English homework. Hi Miss Diana! :] )