A Belief System, or a Whole Load of Crap
“If you could time travel, would you go to the past or the future?” I blurted out this question as we were waiting to cross the road to her church at a terribly busy junction, albeit it was already ten in the evening.
“To the past.”
“Because the future will come, eventually. But the past has gone.” She let out a soft, mellow sigh while keeping her facial expression intact. “And I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future, but I already know what to expect from the past.”
“You can’t pick and choose though. You can’t return to only the good parts of the past.” I answered almost instantaneously, as if the largely unconscious, automated processes of my brains had long anticipated her reply. Sometimes, I — or rather the tiny fragmented conscious bits of me — was taken aback by the speed of my replies.
Do I really know her so well, or is she simply that predictable?
“There will always be both good and bad in the past, present, and the future.” I heard a voice echoing in my head. I took stock and waved it off before it made its slamming exit out of my mouth.
She knew this axiom. She hadn’t been sucked into the black hole of eternal misery, though one could argue she was only about a foot away.
She knew that the good would come again but that did not stop her from fearing. Fearing that the best had already been left behind, and nothing from there on could ever compare to the best. And she — she was not one who could settle for mediocrity, nor live with uncertainty.
“…” She blinked and looked far, her almond-shaped eyes tinged with light blue.
That was when I knew not to utter a single more word. She had retreated into her bubble of space.
Part I: Time
Time has always been an interesting concept to me.
As a kid, I used to watch Chinese celestial dramas that adhere to this particular time rule: 3 days in heaven is 3 years in mortal world. A typical plot is as follows: deity fell in love with a mortal, got discovered and was banished behind the gates of prison in heaven, only to return to the mortal world to find out that his/her lover had greyed or passed.
“Oh. So it’s not that Gods have longevity but that time moves a lot slower in heaven.” I remember harboring this particular thought.
As I was growing up, I continued watching sci-fi movies that echoed the same idea: Time moves slower when you are away from earth, in space. Astronauts are portrayed to age slower; they return to earth from a mission decades later bearing the same youth. Thanks to the advancement of technology, I was able to research on space-time after watching Interstellar which introduced ‘fifth dimension’ and left me completely mind-blown. (How did ancient people survive their burning curiosity?)
What is time?
Time is known as the fourth dimension in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It adds another coordinate — direction — to space where length, width and height exist. Conventionally, it was thought that time only moves forward but Einstein came forth and argued that ‘forward’ is only one out of the endless permutations of paths that light can travel in space. There are 3 main takeaways from his theory:
1 — Time moves slower as gravity increases (gravitational time dilation)
2 — Time moves slower as you move faster (relative velocity time dilation)
3 — Picturing time as a linear succession of movements is merely an illusion — the past, present and future exist at the same time (catastrophic revelation)
Einstein makes life even more difficult that it already is. If time is an illusion, why do we live by it? Why are we inclined to mark the passage of time on calendars?
The truth is, you don’t know it is an illusion when you’re living in one.
Even if you snap out of it and tell yourself that time is just a social construct, time is a useful construct.
Time brings us to different places when it is neatly demarcated
People would call this phenomenon “phases”. When you enter a new phase, you step into a new environment. You get to meet different people, gain new perspectives and present a different side of yourself.
In short, you can reinvent yourself.
In a different phase, things may finally change for the better, on their own, after you have exhausted all your efforts to no avail. Otherwise, you may evolve into a different person, perhaps not immediately, but in the next 10456th breath that you take. Maybe, just maybe, you will become strong enough a person to overcome your personal issues.
In short, time gives people hope.
It gets better with time
So they say, though we, as rational people, know there isn’t such a guarantee in the future.
But this is not an illusion; it is faith. Reason or proof does not have a role to play in faith. People have faith that with time, they will either gain a pair of new eyes or arrive at a new scenery even if they are stuck in the same place in the same body. Faith keeps people going.
The comforting thing about the past is you can’t change it — you can’t erase the bad but you can’t take away the good as well. The past is forever concealed in a time capsule and forever yours to keep. You can’t change the moments of happiness you did feel in this particular memory, so stop — stop trying to change your perception of it.
The good did happen. It was real. It wasn’t all for nothing. It wasn’t a waste of time. You were happy — at least at a particular point of time in a universe.
“Do you know what’s the beauty of life?”
“What, love? Good food?” She teased, expecting something lame and cheesy from me.
“No. The beauty of life is that it will end one day.
So will your pain.”
Part II: People
I will not dive into the debate on whether human nature is good or evil, or if humans have real agency. Binaries are boring. We live in a grey world. If there’s anything that my political philosophy class has taught me, this is it:
Unintended consequences matter more than intentions.
When it comes to people, things are always messy. Sometimes we mess life (and each other) up and other times life messes us up.
Oftentimes we try to make a decision with an intent in mind: get from A to B. But along the way Murphy’s law applies and somehow you end up in C. Here, original intention ceases to matter. Here, you’ve gotta suck it up and learn how to deal with what you’ve got.
Will you find another way to get to B? Maybe. But maybe you’re happy right where you are.
People are very adaptable.
That’s how we survive, and that’s what makes us replaceable and pliable too.
It becomes easy to replace someone you’ve lost with another person who shares similar qualities. Nobody is identical, for sure. But what we need is never the exact replica of the flesh but the comfort we can get from this other human being. We all learn how to make do.
“The beauty of humans, though, is that they are far less fragile than a 3-week-old chick and far more adaptable. The contortions you could tease out of this human being delighted you.”
— Amanda Lee Koe, Chick in Ministry of Moral Panic
It becomes too easy to manipulate someone once you find out their weaknesses. And it is on this premise that a narcissist and/or a person with intimacy issues cannot build healthy relationships with people who are attracted/attractive to them.
“We won’t go into how you limned squeezing, nor for how long, suffice to say this human being eventually broke. There was nothing gradual nor ambiguous about it: you saw the light go out of this human being’s eyes, the light specific to the torch he carried for you.
You’d succeeded. You’d pushed a human being to the furthest they could stand to be with you before they went off the far edge, you’d espied the precise axis to which angle you cease to be worthy of love.
This human being looked past you as you cradled him in your palm, as you first cooed sweet nothings and promises, and cried. This human being broke not because he could not be stretched further, but because he saw, finally, that the squeezing was a limit you were testing in your personal vanity. It was not a test of love, as this human being had previously believed.
This human being would forever be dead to you.”
— Amanda Lee Koe, Chick in Ministry of Moral Panic
People don’t break easy. You can twiddle with them, poke them, step on them and chip pieces of them off. But people don’t break that way. They are elastic. Squeezing them doesn’t wreck them. Stretching them, on the other hand, does entail the possibility of snapping them into parts. But here’s the thing: even when the rubber band has snapped, its parts are still elastic. It loses its original form but not its original properties.
A human being breaks, when he realises that he is never going to be enough for you. When it hits him that all this while you’re cradling him in one palm and lulling another in your other palm, your eyes are looking far for the next one to collect, squeeze and bury.
Nobody ever intends to hurt someone (unless he/she is the vengeful type). Hurting arises in the process of getting from A to B. But as established above, the unintended consequences matter more — they are what’s tangible and really affect our lives.
Even those closest to you who promise they’ll not judge you. It is hence unsurprising that we can never be completely honest with anyone. People get hurt and offended way too easily.
However, it is what they do with the judgment that matters. A person who wants the best for you will point out what’s wrong rather than simply stand by your side and watch you repeat the same mistake over and over again.
In this pool of people who judge you, some truly have your best interests at heart while others treat your life like a soap drama, just eager to watch the plot unfold. Trust the person who’d give you an earful rather than someone who lies to you that he/she does not judge you.
That said, there is room for error in judgement. It is easy to misjudge people. Imagine watching a person leave a cubicle with shit stain on the toilet bowl. You may immediately assume that the person is a terrible little shit who doesn’t clean up her own mess. But what if the shit stain was not made by her, and that she used the cubicle anyway because she really needed to answer nature’s call? Is it now her fault that she didn’t clean up the previous person’s shit?
The difference between an informed and assumption-based judgment then is communication. If someone judges you before you finish your story, then he/she is not worth your time telling the whole story. People only hear what they want to hear.
People are contradictory
Recently, I read an article on a neuroscientist who argues that our brains govern our actions without our even knowing. He delves into the unconsciousness of our minds in attempt to explain why humans are nuanced, complex and contradictory. “The conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain,” he proclaims.
Amazing isn’t it? His theory can excuse us from assuming responsibility for our actions. “It’s not me, it’s my brains.”
In all seriousness, his findings do explain why humans always change their minds quickly, do things that contradict what they say and take time to process what let slip their mouths. How many times do we hear ourselves speaking even though we are not actively thinking of what to say?
So how do we navigate this complexity? I have one simple strategy: screw words, look out for actions.
If someone tells you that they love you but go ahead and do the opposite of loving, trust the opposite. Talk is cheap and feelings change. You can never figure out if anyone truly means their words (they probably don’t even know themselves), so there’s no point cracking your brains to analyse something that only has weight at that moment.
Their action reflects their decision (conscious or unconscious) and ultimately, this is the only thing that has a tangible impact on your life.
Maybe she truly thinks she loves you, but she doesn’t. She has herself fooled too, you’re not the only one.
Everybody wants to be special
People desire to be heard. People feel flattered when others do a double take on them. People want to be adored in a way that nobody else has been.
To achieve this goal, people do all sorts of things to gain attention i.e. posting photos of themselves doing dangerous stunts on the rooftop, putting on makeup to take a selfie on IG story. But… what makes you special is not the way you look or the things you own and display, but how you treat people.
Since every other person is so basic, boring and an asshole these days, what will set you apart is be well-read, genuine and kind.
“Finally he lifted his head and said: I’ll never meet another girl like you.
I’m only special insofar as your life is boring, you said.”
— Amanda Lee Koe, Chick in Ministry of Moral Panic
Intelligent people are hard to please
“I’m not as superficial as I seem,” she protested.
“Actually I wish you were.”
“Really? Shouldn’t we not settle for less.” She enjoyed using double negatives in her speech.
“If you are, then you’d be less unfazed and more easily contended with what you have.” I replied plainly. “Intelligent people will never be happy. They know too much about what other people don’t. It’s difficult to find a match, an intelligent equal. They will always be setting themselves up for disappointment.”
“I’m both intelligent and superficial.”
“Which makes your life harder. It isn’t easy to find someone who’s both good-looking and intelligent.”
“You’re looking at one.”
Part III: Relationships
When you have chemistry with someone, the interactions feel organic. Conversations are smooth; laughter is spontaneous. But relationships are not organic; relationships require effort. Effort to show that you care, to keep the person in your life, to communicate.
“If it doesn’t feel like work, it’s not going to work.”
Work should be in mirrored proportions though. If you have to work too hard for someone, you are just trying to win the person’s approval and/or to fix your damaged ego.
When all efforts fail, take 5 steps back. Distance is good. It helps us to see things more clearly. People have long-sightedness in relationships. The further they are away from the subject of interest, the better their view. People tend to get blindsided by the things, the people closest to them.
If it still doesn’t work, it’s time to walk away.
Goodbyes are painful
but they do not have to be dramatic. It can be a simple mutual acknowledgement of “our time is done, for now”. ‘For now’ is the operative phrase. People part ways for many reasons but it usually boils down to these two:
1) Staying together becomes tiresome when the other party cannot give you what you want or you can no longer accommodate certain parts of him or her;
2) You do not like the person you’re becoming.
Things can change in the future when 1) you no longer want the thing you wanted from him/her; 2) those parts that you weren’t able to accept are not so much of a deal breaker to you anymore.
People stay in a relationship because they think that these two changes can be achieved in the near future. If they try hard enough, if they love enough.
But no. You cannot change a person; you can only adjust your expectations in the short run.
“Do you think she really loved him?
I think she loved him the best she knew how.
And would that have been enough for you?
No. That would not have been enough for me either.
So you would have ended it too?
Well. Burke and I are built differently. He’s stronger than I am. We’re not built the same.
Honourable men are all built the same.
You.. You think I am an honourable man?
Do you know when to walk away? Do you know when to not take less than you deserve? If you do, then you are an honourable man.”
— Conversation between Jane Burke and Derek Shepherd In Grey’s Anatomy Season 4 Episode 2
I like this quote because it pivots away from love, to something more tangible. Sure she loves you, sure she tried her best, but it is not enough. It is not enough if she can’t love you the way you think you deserve. There’s only so much you can compromise.
Then again, goodbyes are not permanent. How many times have we kidded ourselves that it would be the last we’d ever see of this and that person? The best thing we can do is to accept that there might be a chance that he or she could appear in our lives again. If they don’t, that’s okay too.
The whole picture defines you. Not the pieces, especially not those you have lost.
Intelligent people are hard to please
Maybe that’s why we need a little rejection, one or two major fuckups, heartbreaks and be shat on for a period of time.
If not we’d be bored out of our wits.