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Monday, 8 January 2018

What is wrong with us?


I sat in the middle of the congregation, listening to the pastor preach on the Beatitudes (it was probably the third, fourth, or even fifth time that I've heard a sermon on the Beatitudes), as my mind drifted off to the future - to a week later, when Lent term would finally begin. I created a mental checklist of the things I wished to accomplish in the final week of Christmas break. But that wasn't it. I was still listening- blessed are the peacemakers... And also observing the people at my periphery. People watching; something that I've always been inclined to do when I'm in a sea of human beings. The girl on my left drew out her cell phone, casually strolling through her Instagram feed and 'liking' every photo (as though there was an auto clicker installed into her thumb) while listening, and nodding, to the pastor. She seemed to be about two or three years younger than me, give or take. The man on my right was sat upright, listening attentively to the preacher, with a bible open on his lap- Matthew 5. He caught me taking a glance at him. I gave him a sheepish smile, and he reciprocated with a tender grin. He was about thrice my age, or maybe slightly less.

At that moment, I paused, grabbed hold of that awry feeling within me, and pondered on what actually was wrong with the situation. And beyond that, what is wrong with us, young people.

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1. We need to be constantly multi-tasking. While the elderly man appeared to have no issue offering his full attention to the pastor, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, as multiple thoughts ran through my mind - some from the sermon, and some from i-don't-know-where. The same could be said for the girl to my left. She needed to be doing something else, on top of merely listening to the sermon. That's what's wrong with us. We seem to be unable to devote our full attention to doing one thing at a time. When I study, I need music. I also need my cup of tea and some snacks at arms length. And I need my phone to be by my side so that I can unlock it the moment I receive a notification. Perhaps it is because we have all become such social (media) beings that our attention has become habitually divided by the myriad of content that appears every second on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. We cannot focus. And this brings me to my next observation.

2. We want to be good at everything. I recall the to-do lists that my friends and I came up with in secondary and high school. They included things that we wanted to do or learn after completing our O and A Level examinations. I remember that among the many things we wanted to tick off the list, there were learning a new language, picking up self-defence, going for dance classes, running a marathon and mastering a couple of pop songs on the piano. Unsurprisingly, we left most of the boxes unchecked. I mean, yes, we did try a bit of everything but we didn't actually accomplish anything. That's the problem. We want to be good at everything but when we try to devote our limited attention to so many things, we end up being good at nothing. We are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. The same thing can be said about friendships. We prioritise quantity over quality. We invest in too many friendships that we end up having very few genuine friendships.

3. We care too much about what other people think. I'm not talking about our Instagram pages right now (although that is also a problem). I'm talking about our conversations. I'm talking about the tyranny of liberal views and how it has made our conversations, on the contrary, highly illiberal. In the past, we could talk freely (well, not completely freely but surely more than at present), debate, and sometimes even joke about 'taboo' topics such as religion, sexuality and feminism with people of diverse views. Today, it seems like society has as a whole come into conclusion about certain issues and there is no longer room for debate. Joking about them seems like a crime in this hypersensitive environment. As a result, we have become largely evasive to deep conversations with people who are different. For issues in which we empathise with society at large, we are very vocal. But in areas where we differ, we seem to prefer to hangout with those of the same views. I, too, am guilty of it and I don't exactly blame us. Society seems to be getting more and more polarised, and it makes it more intimidating to approach someone with a different view. But this has to stop! The more we encourage groupthink, the more intolerant our society will become. I'm not saying that we should be insensitive and not care about other people's feelings. What I'm saying is that, perhaps, we can combine the lessons that can be learnt from our predecessors and the modern times: to express what we truly think but in a respectful manner and with an open mind.

4. We are not willing to work hard for the small things. Perhaps because we have been told countless of times to 'dream big' and not settle for anything less, we have the tendency to dismiss many meaningful but seemingly trivial things in life. The first thing that comes to mind is cooking. In my three years of undergrad, I've met many students who complain that eating out is too expensive but cooking takes 'too much time and effort'. They have more important things to do like studying, and dinner becomes something that is just a call away.

I am currently living with a retired English couple and what makes them admirable, in my opinion, is the amount of time they devote to preparing dinner and reading. Every evening, they spend about an hour preparing dinner and another eating. After that, they would sit by the radiator with a glass of wine and a book in hand for about three hours before heading to bed. I enjoy reading. But I sometimes find myself getting frustrated when the novel I'm reading involves the use of way too many words to describe a situation. I always end up 'Googling' for spoilers. And I guess, the same can be said for acquiring information. With a vast network of information available to us at the click of a finger, we don't quite see the point in reading books that require hours of comprehension before gleaning its treasures of knowledge. And this is a huge pity. We miss out on the simple pleasures in life, which require patience and hard work.

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As I thought about these things, I gradually slipped into a state of despair. I knew that I was part of a generation that is plagued with problems that cannot be nipped in the bud, placed in circumstances beyond our control. But I also knew that while we cannot control the circumstances that we are in, as corny as it sounds, we can control how we react to them. We can, as I shared in my previous blog post, will against ourselves and choose to do what we would not naturally choose. 'And this is my final and most important point.' I looked up at the pastor and realised that I had missed a significant portion of the sermon. All I could do then was to wave off every other thought and give my full attention to the last bit of wisdom that she had to offer.

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