people at war & thinking about toxicity

Elements of war can be separated into explicit and subtle elements. Explicit elements include manpower, ammunition, supplies and modes of transportation. Subtle elements, and this is where it gets interesting, include propaganda, sabotage and intelligence. I thought I had a break from the battlefield after I had finished my National Service, but the real world is made up of multiple ideological battlefields, all with the same elements as military ones.

Let me begin by acknowledging that there is a place for battles in our society. When a dominant narrative oppresses counter-narratives simply to maintain the status quo, battling helps shatter the glass and open the door for change. The qualification for this though is that battling is important when the leaders or the community is actively trying to prevent change, or simply refusing to engage with counter-narratives.

But the goal has to be to move forward from battling into endorsing change and working on actual policy shifts. If a community has accepted its need to change, what must be next but to work with the groups it seeks to include or address and partner for effective transformation. This is the work of peacetime operations – realizing that war was a result of problems in society and so something must be done to prevent another war.

But peacetime operations cannot proceed when it’s constantly distracted by war. Leaders cannot focus on working with partners and creating programs, when they constantly have to be talking in the media about their response to issues and having to defend its position. War takes away time and resources from peacetime work to address PR dilemmas and various forms of posturing.

Perhaps the perception is that leaders aren’t really trying to effect change, but how can anyone be sure of that until both parties, engage and have a conversation? People hardened by the struggles of battling, experience a likelihood to become jaded and critical of anything. Their logic is complete and not irrelevant in any way, but change could perhaps be better effected in partnership with the communities they’re trying to change. Would it be possible for battling to not be the default response?

Killer Mike mentioned in one of his speeches that he joined the NRA because he believed that he had to be on the inside, hearing people’s’ views and realize that he had a bigger chance at influencing mindsets by working with the people who were themselves trying to create a ‘safer America’.

Toxicity prevails when engagement is absent. Parties are entrenched in their views, believing in absolute truths and absolute moralities on both ends, but worse, believing that the other side is absolute evil. Until one engages with the other though, on the topic of creating change, how can one know the other’s views and perspectives without taking assumptions and theories at face value?

I believe in social justice. I believe that there are groups all around the world that are being oppressed and that change needs to happen. I also believe that there are good people out there, allies that exist, that are seeking to use their privilege to help people. But to assume everyone’s evil before proved as an ally, is to assume that people are inherently toxic. How can a society built on that assumption ever seek to sustain past its policies?

Instead, I hope that we move to a form where best intentions are assumed in parties until proven otherwise, in which case battling may be necessary, such that we remain as far as possible in peacetime work and moving forward our society. Because war is a violent and disgusting place, and it brings out the worst of us. It pits us against each other in vile ways and reduces our humanity to but ideologies.

There is hope in humanity. There can be a better future. One must simply keep believing.

hooah.

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deconstructing myself

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I am probably the most self-aware I’ve been my whole life. It’s sensational, as if I’m tuned into more aspects of my being. It all started with the series of dialogues I’ve been involved in. From deconstructing masculinity, to discussing topics on identity, to brainstorming where the IFC community is at right now, I’ve spent close to 6-8 hours a week simply discovering more about what it means to be me and how that relates to my community.

I’ll be honest, I walked into these dialogues not expecting anything too personal to happen. I expected knowledge to be gained, and perhaps some form of empathy to be formed, but to see myself change and be affected was a prediction I would not have bet on.

Two of the biggest realizations I’ve made have to do with fundamentally significant parts of my life. The first has to do with National Service. As most people know, I have had very little reservations of my time in the Armed Forces, in fact being proud of my achievements and time in the army. But I’m actually surprised how little coverage has been put into understanding the psychology and systemic entrenchment of normative ‘masculinity’ that national service perpetuates. What happens is that aside from the fact that every Singaporean son can defend his country after 2 years, every Singaporean son also is unfortunately fed with the wrong idea that being a man means fitting into a box that is defined by cultural norms. Perhaps being a soldier requires you to be strong, have a command of the situation etc. , but that isn’t connected to your masculinity.

I was a part of the oppression that created a hegemony of the ‘alpha-male’ over other men. I compared weakness to lower levels of masculinity; I used terms like ‘pussy’ and ‘bitch’ when people had struggles, and even motivated myself on the basis that I had to prove my ‘manliness’. It’s difficult realizing that in so many ways, my narrative isn’t just my own, but in fact shared by so many in the country. We have a population that feeds this dangerous idea that being a man requires a certain type of profile, and this could potentially lead to violence, be it physical or emotional, internally directed or externally directed.

There’s so much more to this system that I’m slowly realizing and I wonder how to decouple the two : masculinity and soldierliness. I’ve seen great soldiers, but their self-respect as a man is questionable. And vice versa, can someone who frankly isn’t a great soldier not be attacked for his masculinity?

I’m still processing this.

Another big aspect of my being that I’ve been questioning is my emotional intelligence. For the longest time, I thought I was emotionally resilient, because I was able to avoid letting my emotions affect my logic. That was how my family raised me, and how society nurtured me. In fact, the idea that there are good emotions and bad emotions was something that was fed to me too. Being sad or crying was not good. Being angry was allowed only if you were in a place of power. Force yourself to smile on the outside even if you’re not on the inside.

But I realized recently that I struggle to label emotions I feel beyond a certain point now, and because of that cannot identify how they affect my behaviors. Once I started introspecting more, I discovered that so much of my actions have been destructive in not just building my own emotional resilience, but even those of my siblings, who in the same way I was thought to, would be encouraged by me to stop feeling sad or angry.

I even remember asking myself many times – ‘Why am I not allowed to be angry?’ , or ‘Why is this emotion not allowed to me?’

Inside Out as a movie has great take away points, but I’m only starting to realize the gravitas of liberating one’s self from the idea that there are ‘bad emotions’ and ‘good emotions’. Sure, some have negative impacts on you, but to disallow yourself from feeling them or acknowledging them prevents you from even understanding what’s happening to you and how you can target your life to resolve conflict.

___

Personal Development is a never-ending process. There’s always more for someone to gain by understanding himself, his community and society. I’m glad I put myself out there and have been able to retroactively see how I need to change my lens on the world. I can only wish more would have the benefit of these sessions.

I’ll keep working on it.

hooah.

 

two stories that defined my week

Let’s take it back today. I had a heavy week, starting on Wednesday , where I caught myself in a limbo of sorts. Every week thus far had been exciting, and every day had been filled with some level of fun and success. Yet, something was starting to feel absent. That’s probably why the dreams started : two dreams that I remembered not just vividly but emotionally. Here they are:

Dream 1 – The Loss of Vision

In this dream, I was seated at a table in a bar. It seemed like I was in one of the bars I had been in, in Wudaoku, Beijing . The lights were loud, and there was music that rang back to the 80s. There were people seated next to me and I was engaged in some form of casual communication.

Then all of a sudden, everything became blurry. What was once a clear sight was now pixelated and definitely evident of my myopia. What just happened, I asked myself. I was panicking – was I going blind?

Hold on, was I wearing contacts? I felt over my eyes and noticed the lack of spectacles. My contacts must have fallen out, I assumed. I conducted my regular vision check, covering one eye and confirming that I could see clearly. My left eye had lost its contact, I determined. I felt around the table I was at, to see if the contact had fallen.

I found it almost immediately, hardened as if it had dried up after being left out for a long period. Had my contact been missing for that long and I hadn’t noticed? What was going on, I asked myself, and immediately woke up.

Dream 2 – The Memory of Courage

Courage is a difficult word to claim. Even the declaration of someone being courageous has to be supported by consistent proof of his courage – a one time act does not validate a sustaining label. I cannot claim courage as a trait as often as I’d like to. I try my best and have had my fair share of courageous moments, but there are a sizeable number of times I wish I had stepped up to the plate and done what I could have.

This dream brought me back to the advanced training area in Tekong ’12 . I was in Basic Specialist training and it was our field-camp. We were being evaluated on a training package, and were at the last leg. We were exhausted, having been in the field for almost 4 hours on consistent battles and hammered with scenarios one after another.

‘The end is around the corner, gentlemen’ the section instructor told us.

We were keeping to pace, ensuring our movement was according to drill. All of a sudden out of nowhere, the sergeant shouted ‘ Arty, Arty’ indicating an Artillery Strike. We quickly dropped to prone position and echoed the words.

‘Goddamnit’ I remember thinking, ‘We were so close.’

‘Arty over’ he shouted, indicating the start of the sprint back to the safe zone. I was carrying section equipment, weighing a considerable weight. That on top of my load-bearing vest and rifle made the sprint one of the more difficult combat tasks of the day. On my sprint forward, I noticed one of my section mates on the floor not moving.

‘What happened?’ I asked him as multiple section mates ran past me and him.

‘I’ve been declared as injured’ he responded.

‘Fuck’ I remember thinking. I didn’t want to have to take on another load, I thought for half a second. But within the snap second, I remembered that if this was war, I couldn’t leave my brother in arms behind. I remembered he could very well be someone else’s sibling or son, and I could not wish the consequence of his ‘death’ on anyone.

‘Carry this!’ I shouted to another section mate who was running behind me, as I tossed him the bag with the section equipment. He got the cue and grabbed it from me.

‘Hold on’ I said, as I grabbed my section mate, and in one motion, threw him on my shoulders as part of the fireman lift and continued sprinting.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked me as I sprinted with him now loaded onto me.

I didn’t respond, focusing all my attention and energy on making the last 80m of the sprint. I was panting, breathing heavily and feeling my shoulders ache.

Almost there, I reminded myself.

I finally reached the safe zone, heaving myself into it. I put my section mate down and collapsed on the floor.

‘Good Job guys, you’re done with the package’ the Instructor commended us.

I continued to breathe heavily, as I reminded myself in that moment about the essential truth of struggle – the existence of peace and the continuation of a normal day requires more sacrifice than realized.

___

There was probably some psychological undertone to all of this. I had sent my laptop to repair and was absent of the usual distractions. I was at the gym a lot more and had more time to think to myself. I was somber pretty much most of the week, reluctant to engage in the regular frivolities. I committed to making every choice purposeful from Wednesday night, and saw some change in perspective.

I’m not sure where I’m at right now. I’m still confused at where I am, and where I’m meant to be heading. Having so much settled in your future, in a lot of ways unsettles you.

This is a new challenge I must face then.

geronimo.

understanding invariants

Maturity hurts. It’s a weapon you carry in your inventory, embellished with the pains of your past, that adds to its ferocity in battle. When you carry it, you become slower, but therefore more calculated. You become tired easily, but also calmer. The stronger your sword becomes, the less you have to use it. One day then, you’ll have to leave the sword, and the person who carries it from you will have to learn to handle its weight.

I’ve been called ‘mature’ since I was young, without ever understanding what that meant. I’d nod my head, and say ‘Thank you, sir’ . I never thought I was ever mature though. I was curious – that was probably the better word for me. ‘Curiosity killed the Cat’ right? Well, I let myself face death, danger and disgrace many times in my life.

My curiosity was derived from a dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that was fed by my environment’s challenge to always be better. It was initially academic, and once I discovered I had a handle on studying, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of more fields. I wanted to be a better adventurer, a better leader, a better social butterfly. As I entered into these fields, I faced my first big hurdle. Rejection. People told me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do – that I wasn’t good enough or that I wasn’t fit for it. I was distraught , disgraced even. Then I gained my first taste of maturity. My parents and friends presented me the sword. ‘You’re growing up’ , they said. ‘You’ll need this’. I wiped the blood of my wounds on it, and felt its strength. I walked forward, and claimed my place. People won’t define who I am, I said, and did what I knew was right.

The problem with carrying a sword as powerful as maturity though, is that you think you’re prepared for any battle. I walked into the military, thinking I could handle this without a stretch. I was brought down immediately. Hubris and physical toil hit me hard. I remember so many times being at the end of my limits, and having to dig deeper. I had to remember my family back home, so that I could continue on my mission. I had to remember my platoon mates had families too, so that I could help them build their shellscrapes. I had to remember my own mission to be better, and that helped me get a Gold in my fitness test. People yelled in my ear : ‘Is this how you want to go down, Rovik?’ , and I realised my sword was definitely in need of more embellishing. I wiped the blood of my wounds on it, and felt its strength. I became a better leader, and a better soldier. I saw my friends almost die, from all kinds of ailments and physical conditions, and realised how truly sacred life is, not to be meddled with.  I was going to take life and security a lot more seriously.

The moment when you decide to start teaching others how to wield a sword is an interesting one. I had the benefit of mentors since I was 18; people who invested in me as a person and gave me personalised advice. When I started The Hidden Good, I was put in a position to train people and envision the same future I was seeing. More than that, I wanted them to add to it – to share it with me. I realised I was building an army then. An army of mature, wise and passionate individuals who knew how to wield their own swords and carry on the good fight. While teaching them, I too learnt how to better wield my own sword. I had to be confident in my lessons, and uphold them , bettering myself as I went on.

Perhaps the most forgotten aspect of swords is that while they’re heavily offensive, they play defensive roles as well – protecting you from the vile forces of others. I’ve let down my sword too many times. I trusted people too many times or I was tired of the weight of the sword and wanted to forget it, lapsing into immaturity. I had to remember to carry my sword again, and I would be reminded why it was so heavy in the first place.

Why is this topic important now? Because I’m realising how fleeting almost anything I do in college can be. My maturity, in its limited capacity, has reminded me that there is no point stressing or worrying about aspects that honestly would be forgotten in a few years. I’m reminded to invest in things that last – relationships, lives and futures. Love more, live more, smile more.

And in all of it, carry your sword with pride.

geronimo.

the life consultant

One of the benefits of social media is that you’re able to track your own evolution over time. One of my friends said it perfectly the past day over a Skype conversation when he said “You post so much, but I’m never bored because it’s always something different. ”  I think when it comes to creating stories and content , it has to be about building on your past and bashing forward.

Avoid mistakes that you’ve previously made, make bold decisions and charge forward. Keep your head strong, and your soul on fire . There’s a reason to live, a reason to more than exist.

I’ve used social media additionally as a way of keeping people in my life involved in what I do. If there’s any a time I needed to push an activation or following, people aren’t taken aback but instead have already been so passively involved that they’re more inclined to provide a response. A spin off of this that was rather interesting was the accidental portrayal of me as a life consultant. One of my goals in life is to eventually become a coach in leadership and passion living. I’m nowhere near there ; instead I’m spending time putting myself in situations where I can learn as much as possible. But I’m glad people are talking to me about things personal to them because I get to learn so much from their stories, and if I may say so, their struggles.

I’ve given advice on anything from how to  plan  kickass travel itinerary, to how to survive the military, to how to start a business succesfully. I don’t think I ever did any of those things in the “best way possible” but I realise it didn’t matter because through the process of reflection I was able to identify the principles that would have made it better. My favorite session was when I was talking to a friend about how he wanted to help a village in Cambodia fight the local government for more sustainable development and had a friendly debate on topics such as governance, personal courage and political warfare.

I’ve missed having such cerebral topics and as much you would think you’d find those in college, the honest truth is that most conversations are clouded so much by emotion, personal biases and prejudices that you never get to the point of having a valuable discussion.

That’s why I’m an engineer by education. Everyone I’ve talked to says I much better fit an Arts degree, and I’ve always replied saying that I can still learn about the Arts without taking a degree but you can’t really the same about being an Engineer. I’d rather have discussions and write articles directed at people who’d be willing to have a discussion than those immediately wanting to judge.

Having given advice, I also reflected on the fact that a huge reason I am where I am now is because I was always asking others for their advice too. I’m blessed with mentors and friends who I can pull a whole bunch of information and wisdom from and use them adaptively. That ability to recognise resources and how to utilise them is something I hope more people gain and take advantage of, because only then can they see more progress in their lives.

I love the idea of being a consultant on life. Again, I’m nowhere near there right now, but when I’m 50 and ready to retire, I want to tell some of the best stories ever.

geronimo