Wednesday, 17 September 2014

What my daughter taught me about life and death...

Last night a secondary school boy from a top local school fell from a HDB flat next to mine at Pasir Ris. I was coming home from work in the evening and I heard a loud disturbing thump. I thought it was some killer litter prank. But when I peered out of my window, I saw his body on the grass patch, just next to the drain. I was speechless. I could see both his legs bent, his school shoes exposed and what appeared to be a white uniform loosely worn. My son and
 daughter saw the body too and for that moment, I didn't know what to tell them.

As the night went on, my wife found out a little more about the boy. He was smart needless to say. In his instagram (on public setting), he wrote, "I'm a scout, ex-tracker, a prefect, in humanities sports, but suck at almost all of them except maybe Frisbee, ambitious in studies, a mugger, have a younger sister who (sic) I argue with daily, a Freethinker, and I don't have a crush right now." In a glance, it appeared that he had no 
reason whatsoever to end his bright future at such a young age. (Now here's my caveat: I am writing this because there was no evidence indicating foul play. Of course, it is still early to tell and I await the Coroner's investigation, if any). But teenage suicide in Singapore due to exam stress is not uncommon. A few students aged 10 to 15 had unfortunately plunged to their death because they could not take the pressure.

That night, what kept my wife and I awake was this recurring thought, "Why?" It was an ominously penetrating "Why?" This thought was further compounded by the fact that we have three children of our own and this most tragic incident somehow compels us to
 re-evaluate our parenting priorities.

In Singapore, we are taught to do everything within our resources and power to make sure our kids excel academically. The academic beaten path (or racetrack) has been paved for us and our children are expected to run them as if they were stallion in the making. In an ideal world, this would not be an issue. Alas, this grades-driven obsession has been our parental lodestar (or burden) since the birth of our children. But with so much focus on academic excellence, who will 
then teach our children to really live life to enjoy the fruits of their labor? Have we forgotten that our kids may live on just to ace their studies but not their life as a whole? Could life then be unknowingly and insidiously sapped out of them in exchange for good grades, good resume, good job and good career path? Questions to ponder I guess.

This morning my 10-year-old daughter and I had a short conversation when I fetched her to school. She started the ball rolling with this mind-scorcher,
"Dad, why did that boy die?" I replied, "Dear, there are many causes. It's complicated." I paused and caught an innocent squint from her and continued, "Jerica, whatever happens in your life, please know that daddy and mommy will always be there for you. Together we can solve anything because our love for you is enough to see you through." My girl nodded and I chimed in, "You know dear, what is the one thing that works with our love?" She looked up at me and threw a shrug, waiting for my
 next line. "Time dear. Time heals everything. Time is the tiger balm. Given time, all problems, whether school, relationship or all bad things, will be solved." She then smiled at me and said quite uncharacteristically, "...except life daddy. You cannot solve life by ending it." Wow.

I was pleasantly surprised by that. I thought to myself, "how true." Here is a 10-year-old teaching me about life itself! As I saw her off to school, I reflected on what that little girl had taught me. As a parent, I am afraid that I have placed the bar
 too low on life and too high on grades. Misplaced priorities I guess. I have put the "grades" cart before the "life" horses, so to speak. Sooner or later, the horses will be thoroughly spent in order to secure a few comparatively meaningless scribbles on a report card. Academic excellence in the place of life appreciation? 

My daughter had admonished me well. She may not appreciate the full implication of her words but I am duly nudged by her in a more life-reaffirming direction that morning. Maybe life should really 
be enjoyed and it is not to be brought into servitude to anything that threatens its survival and growth. Doing well in life has to mean more than just doing well in school and work. There must be a right balance of course.

As a parent, I hold this sacred responsibility to my children and it is this: I must make them love life enough for them to want to invest in it wholeheartedly rather than unwittingly make them hate life because they always feel that they are either not good enough 
or not measuring up to my unspoken standards (as well as society's). This responsibility is sacred because good grades in school will not guarantee my children a resilient and overcoming life in this world.

I must therefore be their faithful buffer between the transient values of this goal-driven, results-oriented, and class-conscious society and the personally enriching and enduring values that come with embracing, loving and enjoying their life. The latter must take precedence and has to be my main emphasis. This is one lesson that will take me close to a lifetime to learn and I shall keep it in my heart and mind always for the betterment of my kids. 

So, what’s the bottomline? I guess it is this. I will live for them. That's a given. But what is more important is that I will have to teach them to live in such a way that they will know most intimately that their life is definitely worth living and worth living well. Cheerz.

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