Saturday, 28 April 2012

My Brother in Law is going for his PhD...he's real smart!

Well done bro as you embark upon this exciting academic journey to Durham, northeast of England. I read that this city on a hill was founded by divine intervention in AD 995 with the help of a hill cow and a milkmaid. Legend has it that the milkmaid was looking for her cow and the monks took it as a divine sign and followed her. They then settled in a wooded hill-island and erected the first building in Durham, a catholic church. Well, the rest is history and soon you will be living it up in real time.

It must be really exciting to take this journey with Charmaine into the large English unknown and I know it is going to be very rewarding and enriching. How I envy you! Putting aside my "lost youth", I would like to share with you what I have learned and am still learning about learning, especially the education of life.

Let me set the record straight first. I am of course not counted as smart in the IQ department. Seriously, in terms of playing boggle, pre-guessing the clues of wheel of fortune, or quick draws in trivia questions, I am a certified intelligent snail. Your sister is quicker and more alert than me in these areas, in particular, maths and secondary school science.

Honestly, I have always admired naturally or genetically smart people. Names like Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman springs to mind. I have even read about the amazing exploits of geniuses, or "savant" as they are known. There are definitely a great number of savants in this world. Here's how smart they are.

At the age of 12, one could multiply three-digit figures with perfect accuracy as quickly as the number could be written down! At 41, I still struggle with primary school maths.  Then, another (Leslie Lemke) is able to duplicate a Tchaikovsky's piano concerto no. 1 with amazing fidelity and play it back flawlessly after hearing it for the first time! Alas, I still dread the wrong notes when attempting happy birthday.

Lastly, there is a boy named Jay who, at the age of three, asked for a cello...imagine that, at the oblivious age of three! Then, his parents brought him to a music store and to their astonishment, Jay picked up a miniature cello and played on it for the first time! At age five, Jay had composed five freaking symphonies! At 41, I am still waiting for my muse to gently alight upon my empty head. I don't see much hope in coming up with any tune decent even for the hearing impaired.

You see, bro, there are really smart people out there. They have this amazing, naturally endowed, and possibly genetically enhanced skill to mind-calculate large numbers, sculpt a masterpiece at a young age, read encyclopedia at four, master seven languages at 10, remember almost everything they've ever read or seen and recall them with alarming accuracy when asked to. These are natural born geniuses.

Of course, this giftedness come with a price and most of them are autistic and socially inept.  Others are highly temperamental and mercurial. I call it the Cantona syndrome. Some of these geniuses also suffered from chronic depression. Psychologists call these collateral afflictions the "pathologies of superiority". Still, I can't help but admire such unusual and exceptional abilities that the average majority  can only dream about.

So, I always asked myself, "what does normal smart look like?" Stripped of the exceptional extremes, the great memory and arithmetic skills, the musical super-talents, what does it mean to be intelligent or wise? Are you smart if you can solve this puzzle: Rearrange "new door" into one word? Or this: Correct this equation with one move: XI + I = X ?

Nat, my quest for the quintessential "smartness" or the all-embodied wise man goes on, like looking for the unicorn or the leprechaun's gold. One scientist said, "To understand wisdom fully and correctly probably requires more wisdom than any of us have." Is wisdom an ideal? Is one condemned to only seek after it, love it, and dream about it, but never fully embody it?

Well I guess this frustration is quite understandable in this quote: "I get lost in the Milky Way of wisdom." Maybe, just maybe, the philosopher Lao Tzu had a hold of wisdom's whisker when he wrote, "30 spokes share the wheel's hub, it is the centre hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel, it is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room, it is the holes which makes it useful. Therefore, profit comes from what is there. Usefulness from what is not there."

This is a profound and quite enchanting observation since it deals with what is not immediately apparent or material. Virtues and maturity work very much the same way. They are developed over years of unseen changes through cultivating effortless, almost unconscious, habits. Does developing wisdom follow the same process?

Bro, I am just coming to the beginning of my thoughts on wisdom. It is about you, about me, about each individual in his or her own capacity as individual. Basically, it starts with the "I". This reminds me of the empty, reflective scroll in the mega-hit "Kungfu Panda". When Po the panda stared blankly into the wordless scroll, he was stunned at first. Then, it dawned on the halfwit bear that it's about him, and not some external motivation or some secret instructions. Real changes therefore come from the inside out and not outside in. This squares with the saying, "It's not what happens to you, but what happens in you that matters." And wisdom works the same way.

For me, the first step to true wisdom is self-reflection. Pythagoras once divided living into three lifestyles: Acquisitive, Competitive and Contemplative. Real changes start with a contemplative life because an unexamined life is not worth living. The famous psychologist Erik Erikson defined the acquisition of wisdom as a "stepwise, lifelong process of self-realization."

Adam Smith calls the process of self-realization the "Impartial Spectator". He cleverly defined it as such, "the impartial and well informed spectator is a person with the ability to stand outside of himself and watch "the Person within" in action".

Nat, wisdom can be cultivated and it starts with what I call "a sense of self-overhearing". We have to learn to eavesdrop on our mental conversation we have with ourselves, striving to understand it's nuances, and appreciating how it determine our thoughts and actions. It is essentially a process of thinking about how you think. Because our words and actions make or break us and we are children of our deeds, the wise always strive to take control of their thought process to ensure that they are edifying and not self-sabotaging.

Bro, the greatest battle in your life takes place inside of you and not out there. The crisis therefore is not in the world at large; it is in our own consciousness. If you can tame your "inner inhibitions", channel them for good, and marshall them for life-transformative goals, you are on your way to climbing the mountain of mortal wisdom. This is not easy, mind you.

Taming others, judging them, even controlling and manipulating them are easy as compared to turning the attention on yourself, your hidden agendas, your darker intentions and your protected ego. It is said that men always have two reasons to do anything: a good reason and the real reason. How's that for duplicity bro?

And believe you me, the culprit that screw up this lifelong process of being wise is your seemingly untimely emotions. They are like loud noises in the night. Like an uninvited guest. Like a migraine. Emotions rile you up and magnify problems manifold. Anger can consume you. Sadness can smother you. Love can blind you. Greed can wreck you. And ego can destroy you. So, you have to guard your thoughts and tame your emotions. No easy feat bro.

For Aristotle, wisdom is equivalent to a life of virtues. And a life of virtues start with taking control of your emotions. Bro, you see, Aristotle thought he had it all thought out and encapsulated in a neat formula. I call it the "right balance" formula and it is captured in this mouthful by Aristotle: "We can experience fear, anger, confidence, pity, desire and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case, not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, towards the right objects, towards the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner - that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue."

Believe you me, achieving the right balance is a difficult pursuit. It's darn hard. Imagine an elephant trying to do a pole dance! Intemperate emotions surge within me all the time, especially when I least expect them or when I have resolved to play nice. I often lead an "unbalanced life." I either over-react or under-respond. My anger often boils over and my courage to stand for the truth sometimes repressed. I am resolving to be contented but the desires for material chattels can sometimes derail me. If one is honest enough, the laundry list of stinking habits can go on and on. CS Lewis once said, "No man knows how bad he is until he has tried to be good."  

True wisdom starts with us. We change ourselves and we can then change the world. The former is the idea of self and the latter is the idea of the world. Bro, I am sure you have heard the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Here's the whimsical Internet version, no less true though: God, grant me serenity to accept the people I cannot change, courage to change the one I can change, and the wisdom to know it's ME!" I sincerely believe that a self-reflective life shines the limelight at one's faults instead of others. It is a life of humility. And humility always looks to the lack in us rather than how much stuff we know or can personally boast about. Sometimes, especially in my legal profession, it is often the learned fool who is more foolish than the ignorant one.

The irony is that we try so hard to look learned, living a life of false pretenses, that we begin to believe in our own self-invincibility. This is usually the beginning of the end. This lends credibility to the saying, "Knowing our strength is good. Recognizing our weakness is even better. But what destroys us, is to mistake our weakness for a strength." And bro, arrogance does just that. It pretends to be a strength when it is actually a weakness. Arrogance keeps us from learning and anything that keeps us from learning, keeps us from being wise.

Nat, arrogance is like a bad itch, it's irresistible, pleasurable even, but the more you scratch, the more you bleed. So, I constantly remind myself that true knowledge is to know the extent of my ignorance. My starting point to guard against arrogance, which is definitely an antithesis to wisdom, is to always remind myself of the gaping gap of what I do not know...because, isn't it true that "In our infinite ignorance, we are all equal"?

To stay grounded, I also remind myself that life is a long lesson in humility. This coincides with the Tibetan proverb, "Humility is like a vessel placed on the ground level, ready to receive the rain of qualities." Have you ever been profoundly humiliated by an oversight, an inadvertence, a silly folly or an out-of-place remark just when you thought that you have arrived on Mt. Know-it-all? Well, these human shenanigans are often the result of a puffed up head, where in our own deluded estimation of ourselves, we leaned towards over-exaggeration. And the disappointments as a result usually cuts real deep.

Bro, I challenge you to act likewise as the philosopher Epictetus advises: "If someone tells you that somebody else is saying awful things about you, don't defend yourself against the accusations, but reply, "He must not know about the other faults that I have, if these are the only ones he mentioned."  You see, this would shock your accusers and maybe flatline some of your enemies. But the point here is not to remain an easy target or let bullies run roughshod over you. Neither be so quick to react.

But the point is to turn the turret on yourself, examine your heart, and see whether there's some truth in the accusations. It encourages a self-contemplative response instead of a self-justifying one. If you can master that, you are halfway to the admirable character that Confucius once described when he said, "Imperturbable, resolute, tree-like, slow to speak - such a one is near to Goodness."

Now, let's proceed with the second and final step to wisdom. When you are able to balance out your emotions, lead a contemplative, soul searching life, remain humble, and value ignorance as an ally rather than an intellectual insult, the next progressive step is towards  beneficence. This is condensed from the hippocratic oath of doing no harm. Bro, once you have cultivated a worthy and nobler self, you are ready to bless others with it. Wisdom in this second phrase is essentially others-centered.

Somehow, wisdom is contagious. You can recognize a wise man miles away, so to speak. Like king Solomon, he is highly regarded and widely emulated. There is some kind of alluring and even mystical quality in people who are wise.

Take for example the quick thinking of one Lt Col Chris Hughes. He and his platoon were approaching a local mosque in Iraq to ask for help in organizing the distribution of relief supplies. At this time, a mob gathered around his troop. They were threatened by the American soldiers fully armed and approaching their valued mosque. So, the Muslims surrounded Chris and his platoon, raising their voices and hands in protest. The soldiers also felt threatened and were poised to defend themselves.

Chris then took charge of the situation and grabbed a loudspeaker and told his soldiers, "take a knee". This means to kneel before the mob. His next order was to smile. This simple, quick witted act was enough to disarm the clamoring Muslims. They calmed down, smiled back and went over to each soldier to pat them on their back. Unnecessary violence that day was averted.

However you interpret that act by Chris, one thing remains inescapable: he was emotionally attuned to the people, their culture their sensitivities and sensibilities. Such empathetic action is akin to wisdom as horse is to carriage. And such act saved the day.

Bro, a wise man is a compassionate man. A saying about it goes like this, "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." Indeed, a compassionate man reaches out to touch the lives of others and make a difference in their lives.

Nat, have you heard the story of Emperor Conrad III and his assault of Weinsberg, what is now southern Germany? In December of 1140, the emperor successfully conquered the town of Weinsberg and the fate of the men in the town, including their leader, Guelph, would usually be obligatory executions. For the women, it is not uncommon for them to be raped and killed at the pleasure of the emperor.

But on that fateful day, the emperor gave the women a safe passage out of the town on one condition: they have to leave all their worldly possession behind and are only allowed to carry whatever their arms could carry out of the devastated town.  At the appointed time for their departure, the women of Weinsberg staggered out of the ruined city, bearing in their arms their most precious possession: their husbands, including their defeated leader, Guelph.  This selfless act deeply touched the emperor. He wept with delight and his hatred for Guelph gave way to genuine reconciliation.

Nat, sometimes the wisest act you can witness is an act of selfless compassion. From the act of the good Samaritan to the death of Christ, from the sacrifices of a mother for her children to the heroic endeavors of a rescuer, a compassionate act is the highest embodiment of wisdom. It is life-transforming and it touches anyone who is a beneficiary of it.

Bro, my last thought on wisdom is this: Don't ever stop learning even after you have attained your paper qualification. And on this, I would like to say that you can learn from anyone, however young or old.  At certain crucial intervals of my life, Jezer had taught me invaluable lessons that humbled me down. Once I was frowning at a food court waiting for my food and Jezer was beside me. He noticed my childish frustration and said with remarkable sternness, "Daddy, why are you so impatient? You can't wait for a little longer meh?" That rebuke shook me up and I was deservedly humiliated.

Let me share with you another story about learning from life itself. Here goes: "A man walking through the forest saw a fox that had lost it's legs, and he wondered how it lived. Then he saw a tiger come up with game in its mouth. The tiger ate its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox.  The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God's greatness and said to himself, "I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all I need." He did this for many days but nothing happened, and he was almost at death's door when he heard a voice say, "O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger."

Bro, the wise follows the example of the tiger and I would expect nothing less from you. I would also expect you to have a handful of trusted  mentors along your academic journey in Durham.

May your education be not just in textbook knowledge but also in the discipline of mastering life itself and all the challenges that come with it.  They say that the longest journey is not around the solar system and back. It is not even around the milky way or the far flung galaxies. Metaphorically speaking, of course. The longest journey is one from your head to your heart. Here, as one brother to another, I wish that your head-to-heart journey be a life changing one - enduring, always enriching and at times, serendipitously fun.

After all is said or written, I guess this road to wisdom will take a lifetime and then more, and there are definitely no short cuts available  since it is integral to developing virtues like patience, kindness, charity and humility.  Confucius once said, "When I was 30, I began my life; at 40, I was self-assured; at 50, I understood my place in the vast scheme of things; at 60, I learned to give up arguing; and now, at 70, I can do whatever I like without disrupting my life." If we take the sage's lead, neither you and I can say that we have arrived. Like wine, I guess the earnest seekers of wisdom get wiser with time and only with time.

On this, I take a page off Psalms 90, which reads, "The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away...So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart."  Nat, let's be mindful of our mortality and never stop to count our days remaining on earth. I always believe that life only starts when we realize how soon it ends. Always keep this perspective in mind so that you will never lose sight of what is truly important for you.

Bro, when God told Abraham to "leave his father's house", some interpretation has it to mean, "leave what is familiar". So, as you leave what is familiar this October and enter a new land and a new culture, making new friends, I wish that you will triumph all challenges that come your way with grace, confidence and wisdom. And in all your endeavors, let Charmaine be your buoy of hope and support, a true confidante and a companion for life. Because I always believe that "beside every successful scholar is an emotionally smarter wife." Cheers!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Miracle of a kiss

My life with Anna started with a kiss. I was only twenty plus and she was sixteen. We were hiding from her parents and were then an "unofficial" couple on under-the-radar dates. The kiss, my first and most uneventful one, was at a secluded power station near her Clementi flat.  Trying to act cool, our lips met and we lingered for a stretch.

Curiously, the earth did not stand still. Neither did the stars spin out of their orbits. The only thing I remembered about the experience was my stupid comment to her after the kiss, "nothing special what."

My Anna never quite forgive me for that out-of-place remark. Now let's move on to another kiss from a different couple. While my first kiss with Anna was bland, this second kiss was intimately charming and passionate.  This kiss came from a couple named Winston and Debbie. A brief background is in order here.

This couple are in their 40s and they have been married for 16 years. We have been friends for more than 20 years. But under the surface, all is not calm - and for the 16 years they have been together, calm was a luxury this couple hardly savored.  You see beloved, Debbie has lupus and it is essentially a self-destructive condition. This disease is an autoimmune disease whereby the body attacks itself.

So, over the many years, Debbie suffered many physiological ailments; with the recent attacks more serious and insidious than the earlier ones.  But this is one tough cookie to crack and lupus has indeed met it's match. Although Debbie was physically ravaged by one wave of affliction after another, going through numerous hip replacements, a battery of painful chemotherapy, and having to endure leukemia and uncontrollable fits, her hope was still very much alive and vibrant.  Alas, although the strength of her spirit was herculean in many ways, her body was emaciated beyond  recognition. Skeletal-looking, extremely frail and coughing incessantly, even at times requiring external help to breathe, Debbie recently nearly gave in to the disease. But she fought hard to cling on to the straw-like entrails of life and won the battle just marginally.

Currently she hovers precariously between life and death, living out every day with the courage and gratitude that would put many ordinarily healthy adults to light embarrassment. Ok, enough of the background. Now comes the part about the kiss.  You'd recall my first kiss was unremarkable. But when I saw Winston planted a soft peck on Debbie's forehead the other day, I stood in quiet admiration of the infectious passion that was demonstrated that day.

It was a kiss like no other. While it was then not possible to kiss her mouth as her mouth was covered in full with ulcerated wounds, Winston's delicate and simple kiss that ordinary day was an selfless act of extraordinary devotion.  The immediate impression I got after his kiss was that Winston's love for Debbie was resiliently genuine and, everything he does for her, even that simplest of peck, was a clear tribute to his battle-scarred, timeless love for his beloved wife.  This instinctual observation and comparison then spurred me to ask this question: what love is it that is so transforming, so selfless and so transcendent? Can it be emulated?

This brings me to what the experts have to say about love.  Basically they have two approaches to love or why we fall in love. The first one has to do with our brain chemistry. One famous author wrote, "romantic love is woven firmly into the fabric of the human brain".  This is another way of saying that our capacity to love is in our genes - some have it more and love more; some have it less and love less.

 The second approach is the environment, or a matter of cultural construct. We are a byproduct of our environment and we are able to love deeply and loyally because we are culturally conditioned to so by watching others do likewise, in particular, our parents.  For those who fail in their most elemental relationships like marriage, the cause, in this second school of thought, is due to how these people were treated when they were young. They may have been abused, deprived or abandoned by their loved ones. And this is inimical to their own development and capacity to love others.

Whilst both approaches are valid to some extent, and true as far as social experiment goes, they still leave some questions unanswered and they are a tad too simple to provide a personally fulfilling explanation to the larger-than-life mystery of love and the intoxicating  emotions that come with falling in love.

Take the first approach, the brain chemistry, for example. The experts argue that love is just like our basic drive for food. Food consumption is just as important to our long term survival as a human species as love is as a prelude to reproduction. Imagine having lots of food but there is no one to share it with.  Evolution is not going to place it's bet on a loner to propagate the human race. So, without sexual reproduction, which dictates that we should go forth and multiply and populate the earth (very much a biblical command as it is an evolutionary injunction), our race would go off "quietly into the night", that is, extinction!

So, this is where our brains come in. Evolution has "craftily" conditioned our brains, through aeons of trials and errors, to pursue sexual reproduction with the opposite sex. Corny catchphrases like "love at first sight" or "lust at first sight" are merely chemical signals sent by our brain to propel us into action; actions characterized by flirting, pursuing and ultimately, proposing (with the aim of making babies).

It is said that a brain in love is a brain on fire. This is true from a neurobiological perspective. Innumerable chemical juices are fired in our brain when we are in love that very much control and consume our thoughts and actions.  For the meticulously-minded, some of these "attraction-juices" that conspires to cause us to copulate are dopamine, norepinephrine and testosterone.    The implication here is that little is left to the overriding aspect of human free will. When we are in love, our free will gets "unconsciously hijacked" by the paroxysm of these brain juices to achieve only one evolutionary defined goal: sex.  That is why a person is often too emotionally exuberant, too single-mindedly daring, and too irrationally incomprehensible for his or her good.

So for a brain scientist, a subject in love, is one who is marinated deep in the thick, gooey "goodness" of the cerebral gravy, and he or she is generally out-of-control and very much "puppet-stringed" by the chemical mayhem that is in the brain rather than by the dictate of individual, subjective choices (or free will).  You can see how this purely biological interpretation of the origin of falling in love can be so unromantic and counterintuitive.

Anyone, who has ever fallen in love, will rail at the mere suggestion that we are standing robots at the beck and call of the "throbbing noodles inside our skull".  Deep inside, we know that love is so much more than the materialistic and reductionistic explanation offered by brain scientists. This may sound too idealistic or romantic but, at this moment (subject to more convincing proof), I'd rather subscribe to a larger-than-science explanation of why we fall in love.

 Then, comes the second approach, the part about how environment plays a crucial role in our ability and capacity to love. This theory, like the first one, is also true to a certain extent. I mean who can deny that a bad childhood can adversely affect one's adulthood. That is why the truism rings loud that "the child is the father of the man".  Our past can haunt us as much as our future can motivate us. In fact, behavioral experts are able to single out three "Big-fellows"of personality disorder that "suck" big time at falling in love or sustaining a relationship. The three famed notoriety are: borderline personality disorder, narcissistic individuals, and, for the most obviously clear reason, psychopaths.

If you trace their background, all the way to their childhood and adolescent years, you will notice an underlining commonality: for most, these were the dark ages where their childhood were marred by abuse, parental divorces, school taunting, and the likes.

Take an extreme example for size, that is, the egregious hypocrisy of Josef Fritzl. On August 24, 1984, he imprisoned his daughter down in the cellar for 24 long years. He then raped her repeatedly after she reached 11 years old. She borne him seven children and one of them died.

During the 24 years, Josef and his wife appeared on Austrian television to appeal to the public to find their "missing" daughter. It was a horrible lie that deceived many. Out of the six surviving children, three of them suffered from serious psychological disturbance. You can say that there is no greater monster in this world than the one whom you trust will protect you. Their daughter was rescued from basement hell after 24 years of unspeakable emotional and physical abuse.

She is currently undergoing intense therapy. So it is tempting at this stage to take the broad-brush approach and sweep all those victims of bad childhood under the balmy rug of "borderline personality disorder" or worse, "sociopath" and "psychopath". And further condemn them as outright failure in the gambit called love. But it is all that simple? Can a bad childhood lead to deformed personality unable to feel, empathize or love? Aren't there cases that slipped through this stigmatic category? Aren't there inspiringly success stories of couples who beat all odds of their checkered past and thrive in all their relationships?

Well, of course there are. And because science is never an exact science, it's conclusions are often not exacting also.  Take for example, children who are interned into horrific camps during the Japanese war in 1941. These children had their childhood stolen from them and were made to witness the worst of what depraved humanity were capable of, and yet, most of them, after being released from the clutches of their evil slave-masters, were able to return to normalcy; setting up families of their own, thriving in their own sphere of life, and growing to a ripe old age with their loved ones.

Largely, they have undergone accelerated maturity and therefore were able to appreciate life more than others. The positive reports about them are that they are generally cheerful people, enjoying the triviality of life that most of us take for granted, and able to see the best even in the worst of circumstances.  Another touching example is the story of three local girls. They aged between 11 and 14. The headlines about their story cries out for attention; it reads, "S'pore mum tries to kill three filial daughters".

On Dec 27 last year, their mum, a divorcee, planned to kill her three daughters and herself in a suicide bid because she was in deep financial crisis. Thankfully, the eldest managed to escape and seek help. The three young girls are currently staying with their grandmother, whilst their mother, who has been working in a nightclub since 15, is homeless.  One can only imagine the daily trauma that these girls go through without the expected maternal care and attention. And one's fingers would be crossed on the future behavior of these neglected girls.

Based on the second approach to love, these girls should, on all counts, suffer from some form of empathy-malfunction, finding it hard to give and receive love, constantly suspicious of the intentions of others, and nursing a secret grudge against their mother.  But, you can uncross those stubbly fingers at least for now, because it is reported that they secretly gave all their savings and ang pow money to help their mother, and they did it behind their grandmother's back. Their mother was so touched that she said, "I regret what I had done. I have decided to start afresh and will not give up on life as I have three caring daughters."

To add to the poignancy of the moment was the report that wrote, "The daughters said they missed their mother but would not cry in front of her as they did not want her to worry about them." Her second daughter then shared with the reporter this heartfelt sentiment, "I have no more money to help my mother but I will start saving again."

Beloved, i think we should not write off any extraordinary act of passion/love that defies standard, cookie -cutter, one-size-fits-all explanation or category proposed by the above two approaches. Whether it is an exception to the rule or otherwise, our human capacity to love and to stay in love for wealth or for woe, for good or bad times, cannot be pinned down to some inherited genetic make-up or environmental factors/family upbringing.  The nature and nurture or nature via nurture debate will go on for the longest time whether or not there is any definite conclusion on either side. In any event, the origin and causes of human love is too sophisticated an emergent concept to be narrowed into any particular disciplinary field.

I mean, who is to say that I am motivated to love you, provide for you, and protect you because my brain is currently awashed with dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin (the latter two promote attachment and fidelity in relationship). Maybe it's a case of reverse causation whereby my brain secretes these brain juices in response to my personal election to love another. It is therefore the "I" that chooses to devote my time and effort to another in the name of love which acts as a trigger point for the release of a chemical chain-reaction in my brain.

The chicken-and-egg question here is, for me, clear enough. It's the me-chicken that came first before the brain-juices egg. So, falling in love and staying in love is a continuous and consistent act of making the right choice to commit, to devote and to remain loyal. It's a question of personal responsibility that no amount of brain juices or environmental pressures can forfeit, erode or dictate.

Under distressing circumstances, the three daughters in our above example could have turned out wrong and rebellious. But they responded to the dire situation admirably and became a shining example of selfless giving and unquestioned devotion. How about Winston and Debbie?  Well, now I understand why Winston's soft peck on Debbie's forehead is so special. It is said that "love grows every time it is expressed".

For this couple, it is on a daily basis that they express their love.  Everything they do together is a result of this intimate and personal commitment to love each other unconditionally and faithfully.

So their love cannot help  but grow and grow until every mundane act they do for each other becomes an outward testament of their unwavering passion within.  As their love grows, their world also grows in scope and depth. They come to mature in their outlook of life. They come to understand that life is not a bed of roses and bad things can happen as often as good things. However, they don't back away from the curve balls that life throws at them. Instead of denying them or running away, they face their trial with hope and confidence, and more importantly, they face it together.

As a couple, they are a force of nature to be reckoned with. Come what may, they are able to meet their trials by drawing strength from all the little victories they have won along the way because the intensity of their love rose above their petty circumstances. Together, ordinary people like them create extraordinary lives.  It is said that "love creates miracles". And in their case, it is the same miracle that is released in a kiss.

(Dear all, Debbie passed away last july and I dedicate the above letter and the following consolation note to her and Winston:-

"Winston, mourn away bro, mourn away. Indeed you have fought the good fight...all the 16 unforgettable years!  So, mourn away bro - b'cos Deb, as a friend, a wife, a soulmate, and her cheerful, encouraging, and "nurses-scolding" days, can never be forgotten.

So mourn away bro, mourn away...I am not shy to admit that I cried like a baby while I penned these words; not b'cos Deb has gone to a better place (I rejoice deeply for that).

But, b'cos I am envious of Deb and you, and the fabulous 16 years you inseparable "love birds" have so courageously lived. Your love is exceptional b'cos Deb is an exceptional person. She may not have  always tasted good health in her lifetime but, without any doubt, she has tasted real love that on any given day would put all of us collectively to shame.

So, mourn away bro, mourn away, for your lover has gone and, as faithful as Deb is, she is cheerfully waiting for you on the other side (keeping angels on their toes).

Bro, if there is anyone who has come closest to teach me that there is a personal God, it is the never-say-die love that you and Deb shared. Indeed this morning's victory is not the disease that had ravaged her body, it's the 16 wonderful years of celebration of your undying love for each other.

 So mourn away bro, mourn away... finish this race that has been set for you.

Live your life with this resilient hope that you once shared an exceptional love with an exceptional person in a meaningful span of an exceptional marriage.

So mourn away bro mourn away and rejoice for now you can spend every new dawn with your everlasting love in your heart, where nothing bad can ever happen, and you can always draw strength to meet every storm that comes your way with that cheerful, encouraging and "nurses-scolding" attitude and declare to the storm, "I had been there with the love of my life and had emerged even stronger!"


Monogamy is Monotony?

When the sensational expose of 44 men and their sexual escapades with an underaged girl came to light this week, my first thought was one of comic irony. I told myself, "It's official then, behind every successful men is a woman. Behind every unsuccessful men is two: wife and a mistress."

Since the beginning of time, men have issues with their "lower tissues" (And I believe women are no exception; except that in this male-dominated, patriarchal world, theirs are just more repressed). But why? Why is it that humanity is constantly plagued by sex scandals, more frequent of late? Why are marriages broken by it? Why are children's lives destroyed by it? And why are societies threatened by it?

The irony is this, the more puritanical a society, the more scandalous it becomes. Like a burst dam, one can imagine all the repressed sexual pressure gushing forward in a gigantic rush to escape. The writing is all over the religious wall and yet no allegedly pious person would want to face it.  There are statistics that show that teenage pregnancy is highest among the most religious.

In another 2005-2006 report, 315 (30%) of pastors surveyed said that they had either been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner. In the same report, "almost 40% said they (pastors) had had an extramarital affair since beginning their ministry" and "38% (399) of the pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process."

Lastly, it is surveyed that 70% of pastors constantly fought depression!  Are there some sort of sexual hypocrisy going on in the religious circle? (and i am not even going to speak about the unspeakable sexual abuse in the catholic church with all it's shameful cover ups!) Isn't it time for the many pious heads to be unearthed from the sand?

I was in court the day the scandal broke and I saw some of the men rushing out of the court trying to escape from the glare of public light. They scurried out in all manner of disguises. One had what seemed like a makeshift dustbin on his head. The others had hands covering their faces. Still, a strange teacher was mummified to the eye level with dark glasses and a donned cap, very much like the invisible man.

This reminds me of another comic irony, "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. But the real tragedy is for men to be afraid of the light."

Sure, there is unmask-able shame for sex with an underage, especially for the seemingly pious, the publicly upright, and the stalwart of society.  But this shame, many would say, are brought upon by themselves. These men have asked for it, some public stone-throwers would say.  But is it that simple? What is so potently seductive about these sex scandals that even the highly religious and the society's role models are not spared?

In other words, should we be so ready to cast the first stone at them before trying to understand the pervasive role of sex  in our morally straitjacket society?

I believe that sex, like markets, technology and political institutions, are all inventions of civilization. We basically set the boundaries of how sex is to be expressed, what sexual taboos are to be avoided, and what punishments should be meted out to the sexual deviants.

But before I delve into this cultural aspect of sex, let me just burst some religious bubbles with this joke: "Moses came down from Mt Sinai lugging two tablets that contained the ten commandments (decalogue). As he descended, he announced, "There's good news and bad news. The good news is that I kept Him to ten. The bad news is, adultery's still in there!"

There are many things to say about sex and religion. The Bible is replete with examples of strange sex and liaisons, particularly in the old testament, that would raise more than just an eyebrow. Some of the sexual connotations are hilarious.  Here are just a few.

King Saul once offered his daughter Michal to his nemesis David with this awfully weird bride-price: one hundred Philistine foreskins! Of course, Saul's plot was to see David killed in the battle of securing the foreskins. But, presumably with God's kind assistance, David triumphantly got Michal for double the foreskins! Imagine the number of squirming philistines, half-arching in discomfort.

How about poor Onan? In the Bible, he was tasked to fulfill his dead brother's duties to impregnate his wife, Tamar, so as to carry forth his dead brother's lineage. Apparently, God stuck his brother dead because he was wicked. So, Onan was compelled by his father, Jacob, to sleep with Tamar and he did it very reluctantly. Dreading the thought of raising his seed for his brother, he spilled them on the ground. Although his name is anonymous to masturbation, Onan was in fact practicing "coitus interruptus". However, this wasteful spillage angered God and Onan was put to death as well.

Then, let's talk about polygamy in the Bible. Abraham had three wives, the third one was Keturah. Jacob had four wives. King David had eight or more wives. And to cap it all, one must not forget the last feather on Solomon's 699 feathered cap - excluding his three hundred concubines.

On promiscuity, I guess Samson is up there with the other biblical heroes. He had three sexual partners; not counting a prostitute. If you are wondering how some women could become your downfall, like the sorry fate of our 44 men, you can look no further than the hapless life of Samson. It is even said that God had "engineered" his life all the way to his death with the philistines.

Samson's two wives were tattlers who sabotaged him. One spilled the answer to a secret riddle and the other the secret of his strength. Samson then gave away his first wife to his best man and probably killed the other.

Last, but definitely not least, we have our own bible-styled incest. This is where Lot's unmarried daughters come into the pornographic cineplex. After the destruction of Sodom, and thinking that there were no worthy men alive, the two dimwitted daughters got their father drunk and, on successive nights, slept with him. From these unions, came the descendants of the Ammonites and the Moabites.

Then, we have Reuben who had sex with his father's concubine. We also have the forbidden kiss of David on Jonathan and Hosea's wife, Gomer the goner, who was equivalent to the "wife of whoredom".

On rape, the Bible is not silent. There is the poor life of jacob's daughter, Dinah, who was raped by the son of a ruler. This pissed Dinah's brothers off, one of whom was Levi, and they concocted a cruel plot. They allowed the rapist to marry Dinah on one condition: all the men of the area are to be circumcised as a customary tradition. On the third day of the circumcision, while the men were still in tender pain, Dinah's brothers plundered their future brother-in-law's household and army, and took captive the women and children.

So you see, sex in the bible is a strange bedfellow. After digesting the above, I am reminded of this quote, "Of all the sexual deviations, chastity is the strangest."

Now, going back to the fascination and peculiarity of sex in our modern society, I trust that the common refrain is that we have come a long way from our ancient past, from our prehistory narrative.

For the Christians, we can proudly say that we are living the new covenant. For the atheists, we can dismissively say, "to each his own just as long as it doesn't harm others." For the newly wed, it is this idealism that fences up the wild passion, "if he truly loves me, he couldn't even get an erection at another body, another breast."

Well, it is said that idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the lust. Are we really free, as the Christians would have it, from the feverish tugging of the unbridled passion? When God commanded us to multiply and populate the earth, did He tell us at what number to stop or to go slow? Five hundred or seven billion?

It is not disputed that during our evolutionary past, polygyny and polyandry were the tribal norms. If so, when did monogamy come into the social arena? Because the last time I checked, only 3% of the primate world (including us) are monogamous, aren't we the exception rather than the rule?

From a crude biological view, our body betrays us. For men, we have the largest testicles among monogamous primates. They are hung exteriorly to keep the millions of ready sperm cool for rapid, a moment's notice, deployment. Then, our penis is the longest and thickest, capable of multiple ejaculation at 150 to 500 sperms per definite thrust.

For women, with no apology, their pendulous breast and female's copulatory wails are evolutionary Venus love traps. This is to say nothing of their ability for multiple orgasms.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked, "The basic conflict between men and women, sexually, is that men are like firemen. To men, sex is an emergency, and no matter what we're doing, we can be ready in 2 minutes. Women, on the other hand, are like fire. They're very exciting, but the conditions have to be exactly right for it to occur."

So, from a biological standpoint, we are created or evolved to be actively sexual and sexually active. In fact, our survival depends on thriving on 4 Fs: Fight, Flight, Food, Reproduce. Think about it. Without reproduction, and reproducing indiscriminately and unremittingly over time, we would have been a failed species, facing certain early extinction! Freud even opined that our modern civilization is driven by "erotic energy".

One author wrote, "Modern men and women are obsessed with the sexual. It is the only realm of primordial adventure still left to most of us. Like apes in a zoo, we spend our energies on the one field of play remaining; human lives otherwise are pretty well caged in by the walls, bars, chains, and locked gates of our industrial culture."

It is thus a no-brainer to say that our early ancestors were promiscuous, whether religiously or not. In fact, some writers have a screwy label for it, "omnigamy", which is based on multi-male, multi-female mating system. I believe it is a mating system that our self-righteous, religiously suffocated society would greatly frown upon. Whether frown upon or not, can we really escape from our promiscuous, evolutionary past? Maybe this is the source of all our worldly frustration...we are escaping from our true nature.

One cheeky author wrote: "The first infidelity is this infidelity - Can you be unfaithful to what you are?"  Although the science on this is far from being conclusive, I think we are here for a purpose, even in the language of sexual conquest and partnership. We have evolved from being a generally polygamous society to one that is predominantly monogamous for a yet-to-be-fully-understood purpose.

Maybe it is to put a brake on population explosion. Maybe it is because of our more manicured sense of moral intuition. Maybe it is the result of the liberation of women from being seen as a chattel (thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife along with the other barnyard animals) to being independent, powerful individuals with equal rights as their male counterpart. Well, maybe will always, for now, remains as just "maybes."

But my sympathy is with the 44 men - more so for those whom many of their close ones have described as acting "out-of-character". Or maybe it is the fact that they have been acting "in-character" that unwittingly caused them to be targets of the much undeserved media lynching.

Either ways, these hapless bunch, who have a sweet tooth for sex like every other men I have come to know, will just have to face the music for what they have done in this morally delineated society of Singapore (sometimes I don't know which is the greater punishment: the possible fine and/or jail sentence or the public shame?)

So, after all is said and done, Is sexual fidelity an illusion? The answer to this question largely depends on what culture you are born in.

Considering that about 98% of men and 78% of women fantasize about having sex with another who is not his or her spouse, adultery is sometimes only an opportunity away.  In the roman times, the bride has to sleep with the majority of the men on her wedding night.

In the Shia Muslim tradition, married men can enter into a physical relationship with another like a car rental for a preordained time period. These marriages can last for a few minutes to a few years.  In certain harvest festivals, in the present Trobriand islands (Papua New Guinea), young women roam the island to literally "rape" men outside their villages and some purportedly chew off the poor men's eyebrow if they do not satisfy them.

In Swaziland, the king is viewed by his subjects as uber-male to be emulated. The king, who is in his forties, is legendary for his sexual conquests. Every year he chooses a  new bride from among tens of thousands in a topless giant festival. He once, in an act of uber-self-righteousness, banned girls under eighteen from having sex at all.

However, he broke his own self-imposed ban by selecting a seventeen year old girl as his ninth wife. Alas, he fined himself one cow. If this had been the justice system locally, we would have at least expected 44 cows making their way to the subordinate courts.

Last but not least, in some intuit societies, it is considered rude not to offer your wife to a visitor for a night.  Can you now not see how fungible, subjective and adaptive the concept of fidelity is? To the Russians, it is not adultery if it is just a beach resort fling. To the African, drunkenness is an excuse for adultery. And to the Japanese, it is okay if it is paid sex. In my profession, I have even heard my clients telling me that extramarital affairs become "adultery" only when one's spouse finds out.

From what I have written thus far, one would come away with the impression that monogamy is a socially "white elephant" concept.  Well, although to many, monogamy is regarded as an "unnatural phenomena," I have seen and read about many couples who have stayed faithful to the end. My in-laws are just an example that springs to mind.

There is nevertheless something enchanting, beautiful and heart-lifting of a love that lasts for a lifetime. I guess this quote says it well, "The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one."  For me, my marriage has been anything but smooth. Still, it is an anchor in my life, a ballast for my happiness.

My 12-year union has produced three children and there is no greater joy than to watch them grow up and have families of their own.  Natural or not, rare or not, monogamy works for me and I will work at it against the counter-current of my own nature because it is this inspiring quote from JRR Tolkien that keeps me at it, "The real soul mate is the one you are actually married to."

I guess life and everything about it is a choice and I have made mine 12 years ago.