In childhood days, the world is simplified to us by stories, fairy tales, and the like. We generally have two bins for characters, good people and bad people. Heroes go in the first, and villains belong to the latter.
As we grow and examine these people in our boxes, we realize that they are far less one-dimensional than we thought previously. Sometimes heroes fail and do bad things, and sometimes villains have good intentions. The boxes come closer together, and perhaps, they don’t need to be separate at all. And thus begins a reconfiguration process that will last a lifetime.
In our own lives, we are the protagonist and everyone else a supporting character. As stories usually go, minor characters are assumed to be one-dimensional, and we are susceptible to treating some people as such. But then to our surprise, they deviate from the role they are ‘supposed’ to play, and we get “But you’re supposed to be the nice one?!” or “You’re supposed to be the mean one?!” moments. It turns out that incredible people have weaknesses, and sometimes, our antagonists are not entirely unlikeable either.
The reality is that every single person on the planet has a story in which he/she is the protagonist. We are all the heroes in our own storybook. And the fascinating part is that sometimes, we think of ourselves just as one-dimensional as the other characters. We are always good, and as the heroes, we will win in the end: “I’m the nice person in the story and I deserve good things to happen to me.”
Perhaps our greatest shock happens when we realize at some point that we’re not as pure-hearted and good as heroes ‘normally’ are.
People are not just good or bad. Each person has desires, motives, and ways of thinking that may internally conflict with each other. We are a composite of our selfish and selfless motives, good and bad deeds, successes and failures. There are times when I’m nice, and other times when I’m mean. We are both heroes and villains (or villains in denial), and two forces of good and evil are always at tension within us, no matter how upright a person may seem outwardly.
Perhaps, if we could just let people be people, accepting their strengths and faults combined, we could be more merciful when they make mistakes, offend, or disappoint us somehow. It’s not that we would excuse the behavior, but we would simply show more compassion to each other. Because it just so happens that not one of us is perfect.
Stolen from a book title by my favorite Indonesian author, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the title of this blog post captures the essence of what I consider my life personal statement, to be a child of all nations. I consider the entire world as a classroom and every culture a teacher. Since I have not had the privilege of traveling to very many places, books are my gateway to the world. I fight against the pull of insularity, with its ease and comfort, and I consider those who intentionally cross national and cultural barriers to widen their perspective as heroes.
My modern-day hero in this regard is Rory Stewart, a British author and Member of Parliament, who walked across Afghanistan in early 2002 and recorded his journey in the book Places in Between. He has also written two other books about his year working in Iraq and his analysis on political interventions in conflict regions, which are both on my reading list.
What I love about Places in Between is that it’s written in a factual way, detailing the day-to-day events during his journey without much commentary or analysis of the individuals and society he encountered. He meets individuals who are devious, truly honest, and a thousand shades in between, but he never passes a character judgment categorically on the entire society: the Afghans are such and such.
I firmly believe that in cross-cultural experiences, one should first and foremost take the position of an observer, and use wonder rather than critical thinking as the foundation of the encounter. Respecting the other culture’s dignity is paramount. Questions should be motivated by curiosity rather than criticism, and one should wait a great, great while before coming to a conclusion about a group of people and saying “The [insert nation/people] are [insert quality].” In fact, I dare say that kind statement is never true.
In this day and age, I find the sentiments that one location, society, or nation is emphatically superior to another really bothersome, including the times I find myself subscribing to such sentiments. To live is to ever learn, to stretch the boundaries of one’s experience, and to marvel at the complexity that is our human experience.
*A book I’m currently reading, which I’ll review soon, prompts this rather abstract entry, even though I’ve always held the aforementioned views. This entry also marks the beginning of me delving deeper into another side interest of mine: international affairs and women issues.
**Update (06/30/2012): Please find the review of the book I mentioned here.
One of the things that my childhood best friend and I used to do a lot was to dress up in the same clothes. Our moms would buy us the same t-shirts or the same dresses in different colors, as if to say to the world, “Yea, we hang together.” There was one time though when our moms bought us Minnie Mouse t-shirts, but whereas my friend’s mom let her wear it right away, mine was stored in my mom’s closet for a long time. In fact, it was so long that by the time I wore the ‘brand new’ t-shirt, my friend was already using it as PJs.
I think generally it’s a good value to teach kids to wait vis-à -vis instant gratification or self-indulgence. The problem is when that mentality bleeds into the realms of dreams, ambition, and pursuit.
In my mid-twenties I’ve realized that many times I’m still trapped in that ‘save the best for last’ mentality, relics from my childhood past. I’d buy something nice or mildly indulgent, and store it and wait until the perfect day and time to finally use it, be it a nice towel , a journal, bath gels, etc. Usually they are in the personal items category. What happens most of the time is that I forget about them, so there they are, nicely stored, unused.
While those things are not that deep, I find myself using the same mentality when I think about certain dreams or things I want to do in life. Things like writing a book, going on mission trips, or going to exotic vacation trips. Somehow there’s a guilt-tripping voice in my head that says, those good things are for one day, one non-descript time in the future, when everything’s perfect.
It’s only relatively recently that I started questioning those voices, and shutting them up, pretty much. What is this ‘one perfect day’? Am I to wait until I’m old and have backaches to start enjoying life? No. Way.
So I am going to write a book. This year, for real. I am going to go on mission trips (which I did last year and will do it again many more times). And I am going to Paris this summer. Some good things are for now, and there’s no need to wait.