Goodbye 2013, when meaningless gained meaning

Upper Peirce 31 dec 2013
Upper Peirce Reservoir, 31 Dec 2013. It was a surreal scene with mist and light rain, as if we had stepped into another dimension.

I’m glad to see 2013 come to an end. It’s been a year of many new experiences, many learnings and even more sobering realizations of the human condition. You might say that’s a good thing, but it wasn’t a fun year.

The biggest change in me this year came with the Great Clean-Up Diet, where I discovered how easy it was to lose weight (and keep it down). I still can’t believe how this massive transformation came about due to a bad case of bad foot fungus – I was forced to examine my entire diet and exercise regime and that’s when the snowball started rolling.

To many people, the physical change was apparent and drastic from the exterior, and I got so tired of being asked how to do it, I actually sat down and compiled my blog posts into a short book. As expected, my friends wouldn’t read it till I changed the price from $1 to Free. I’m sorry to the 13 people who paid for the Kindle edition, but I assure you the money was well spent for I did spend hours writing it. Believe me, I am still in wonder at how I am wearing size 29 jeans today, when I was wearing size 33 just 12 months ago.

But as I detoxed my diet and body, I also realized that I was beginning to see things differently as well. Perhaps it’s just aging, but one’s mind is clearer when you have less weight to deal with.

As a fan/disciple of the Book of Ecclesiastes, I learned more than I asked for, especially the meaning of meaningless.

I saw the hopeless materialism in me that was continuously unsatisfied. I bought more stuff than I should have, and then understood I was truly experiencing the meaninglessness of having more things. I slammed the brakes while my patient wife just rolled her eyes. I am in the process of reducing the things I own, because they only bring more worry and trouble.

On many occasions, I observed the way people manipulated and put down other people, through fear and overbearing-ness, all for naught as they could not see they were just playing their part of someone else’s agenda.

The things we do with our hands should be meaningful, not mean. And the human condition demands that there are those who buckle, who give in, who smile through gritted teeth because they have so many loans to pay, such a beautiful lifestyle to upkeep, or an important title to keep. Whatever for?

I observed myself losing control of my anger at a few junctures, over issues of justice and fairness, but going to extremes when God told me not to. And the anger brought about no desired outcomes either. One quote that I learned for good was “Be kind”, because everyone is facing some monumental problem bigger than mine.

By no coincidence, I recently read a book on “cultivating qi” that the two things we need to get under control for our health’s sake are….our anger and our desires.

I spent the year breaking in and riding my Ducati Monster (what an amazing and grumpy mistress!) and having a really good time on a powerful machine that takes much discipline and patience to ride. Many Singaporeans don’t understand the biker’s perspective…but they should, because each day that we live for the moment.

We understand risk, but we embrace it, and take precautions. We experience acceleration that drivers have to spend hundreds of thousands to taste, and we spend only a fraction of the budget. We spend a lot less on fuel and parking too, and now we have the last laugh as we can cut through any Marina Coastal Expressway jam with ease.

In my ongoing quest to change the primary school education system that started in May 2012 (I wrote more heated letters to the press again, sorry), I ended up changing myself as well.

During the National Conversation session on education, an elderly gentleman asked me what I considered to be a good grade from my children at school. I said, “About 75 at least?” And he asked me, “Who set that number as a “good number”?

That was a staggering awakening that made me finally let go of all the scholar-attitude that has been cultivated in me since I was a child. I now focus on my children’s happiness, free time and physical well-being instead, and I tell them that their grades are their own responsibility, not mine.

The PSLE actually became easier this year (can I claim any credit?), and I was sad to see selfish parents come out to demand why it was so, because now all their tuition fees are not going to sieve out their precious children from the crowds. I wondered how many generations it would take for most parents to open their minds to reality – an aggregate score at 12 years old doesn’t really matter.

The haze was another grim awakening – I despaired at how our government was unable to grasp or manage the panic that was spreading fast among the population (of course, they deny that happened).

I closed all the windows tight and looked out at the horrifying opaqueness and wondered if we were all going to get lung disease, and I was helpless as a father. When I went to buy over-priced masks at the local distributor office, I saw how some people would jam the lifts so that others could not grab the stocks in time. I saw a neighbour force his maid to wash his taxi without a mask while he sat in air-conditioned comfort. People who worked in air-conditioned offices shrugged and carried on with their work while low-end workers struggled to breathe outdoors.

Six months later, I still cannot get these haze-period images out of my head.

I watched anger and unhappiness boil over on social media, as everyone became their own publisher and media owner, without understanding the responsibilities that came with their words and photos attached. I still think that anyone who uses Twitter regularly does not understand how it shapes their thinking and outbursts for the worse. And personally, I still post too much on Facebook, I expose too much of myself to people who shouldn’t be reading, who wouldn’t grasp the context of what I mean.

Much of what we post is meaningless, yet we do it, because it’s the new norm, it’s the new navel-gazing, and because we don’t know what else would make us feel fulfilled.

In recent weeks leading the Christmas, me and the old buddies have long chats on the big decisions we’ve decided to make in our lives, how our work/family journey has been over the past 20 years since we were rowing a dragonboat or twirling pens in the classroom. To each our own, we do not judge.

But we worry, we look at society and it’s just consumerism – meaninglessness – and you don’t need so-called creativity in a services-focused hub… you need accuracy and stamina. Yet I don’t worry too much for my children, God shall provide for their needs as long as they and I keep the faith. This too, shall pass.

Amid all this bleakness and midlife eye-openers, I found much peace this year in the most unexpected places. As I rode my bicycle through the park connectors in Kallang, away from peak hour traffic, I saw a hidden life of foreign workers and unemployed people. Quiet fishing, or simple chats. This is the secret of their contentment despite their situation – companionship and satisfaction. No need for much meaning there either.

As I continued my regular runs, I found no drastic improvement in my speed or stamina, but I did find time to think, to reflect, to accept the way things were. I also discovered there’s no real difference between running 6, 7 or 8km when it comes to burning calories, so just stick to 6km. I still struggle to understand the motivation of people who think marathons are a good idea, because what’s the meaning in running for 4 hours straight? Is it because it’s cool to be a “finisher”?

I finally completed my National Service after 18 years of waiting and many rainy missions, and I looked back and wondered how I have changed since I was a young recruit. I remember many of my mistakes which others have forgotten, and I understand one important thing – that you just need to wait out the despair and anger and fatigue.

Some things made me sad and hardened my heart, making me older and no wiser. I told a friend to quit telling me “to control what I can control” like a broken record, I know that line well enough and I do practice it. However, both bitterness and calmness comes from understanding that one is never full in control of even the smallest things. I learned to speak less like the Bible often said, but I fear that I may be caring less too.

In my heart, I kind of know what kind of year 2014 will turn out to be. More meaninglessness, yet more meaning.

I’m not prepared, we can never be. But as I prayed with my kids tonight, I pray that you and I will experience more contentment than ever before, because that’s the hardest thing to achieve, and yet the most satisfying.

Good riddance to 2013, I’ve learned plenty, or perhaps too much, and I hope for happier years ahead.