# Category Archives: Life and Death

Of celebrating life, even in death — this category contains some of my more personal posts.

# Death and Grief

Some recent events have prompted me to revisit this uncomfortable topic — why do we grieve when someone dies?

Most religions tell us that the departed, if they were good in life, end up in a better place. So grieving doesn’t make sense. If the departed were bad, we wouldn’t grieve any way.

Even if you are not religious, and do not believe in an eternal soul, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead, for they feel nothing, because they do not exist, which is the definition of death.

One reason for grieving may be that you will miss the departed, and that is painful. Let’s examine this possible reason with the help of a thought experiment. (Or rather, Prof Shelly Kagan in his lectures on the Philosophy of Death examined it that way.) Let’s say you have a close friend who is going on a space mission to the nearest star. He will not return in the next hundred years, and there is no chance at all that you will be able to see him again. Let’s also say that because of the nature of the mission, it will be impossible to communicate with your friend after lift off. You will sorely miss your friend. To all intents and purposes, your friend is as good as dead to you. Or is it? Let’s say thirty seconds after lift off, something goes terribly wrong and the spaceship explodes and your friend dies. To you, is it the same as the friend continuing his space mission? If your missing him was the only reason, it should be. I think it is pretty obvious that death is worse than a permanent farewell. Why? What is the extra badness that death adds to the equation?

That brings us to the next common reason for the badness of death. Your friend dying in a spaceship explosion is worse that him leaving forever because he will be missing out on all the great things he could have done if he were alive. If somebody dies at the age of 70, it is bad because he could have lived for another 20 years; he is missing out on 20 years of life. If he dies at the age of 50, it is worse because he is missing out on 40 years. Dying at the age of ten or one would be horrible because they would be missing out on their whole life. Continuing that logic, not being born at all should be really really bad. How about not even being conceived? Shouldn’t that be worse still? But we don’t feel any grief for the trillions of potential lives (from all the unfertilized eggs and lost sperms) that never got started. I think there is a logical inconsistency in this “missing-out-on-life” reason for the badness of death. It cannot be the real reason, or we would be grieving for all the potential lives that never happened.

Another possible reason is that we know that the departed may have gone through a lot of pain and fear. I thought of it and worried about it during my own personal grieving. But I have to say that there was something beyond that concern, way beyond, in my grief. Now I think I know what it is. You see, when someone (anyone) dies, a bit of you dies with him. If that person was a large part of your life (like your parent, or your spouse), it is a large bit of you that dies, for all the memories you created in him, all the projections of your soul in his consciousness, are also gone with him. The space you occupy in this universe becomes that much smaller. Your grief is not for the departed. Your grief is for yourself because the departed really is a bit of yourself.

This is probably what Hemingway meant when he penned the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” going by the epigraph of the book where he quoted John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Photo by SIRHENRYB.is ****the dreamer****

# Robin Williams

I was as shocked as everybody else when I heard the news of Robin Williams’s apparent suicide. I wanted to write something about it because I am ardent fan of his work. In fact, I’m a fan of all those talented people who can make others laugh, starting from Ted Danson of Cheers to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, and all the f.r.i.e.n.d.s in between.

It also gets me thinking. Most of us want to be rich and famous. But money and fame don’t seem to be enough to keep anybody happy. Why is that? As usual, I have a theory about it. In fact, I have two. I will share both with you, but keep in mind that these are merely the theories of an unreal blogger, nothing more. The theories notwithstanding, right now, I just feel profoundly sad, almost as though Robin Williams was somebody I knew and cared about. It is silly, of course, but something about his age (and how uncomfortably close it is to mine), the suddenness of his death, and the fact that he made us laugh out loud, makes his parting something of a personal loss.

Why do celebrities have a hard time staying happy? We have seen a long line of celebrities with substance-abuse problems and taking their own lives in despair. The incidence of depression seems to be more prevalent among them than the rest of us. They say it is probably the pressure of being a celebrity, the unrelenting media attention, paparazzi and whatnot. But I wonder… I feel as though if the media suddenly stopped paying attention to them, the celebrities would be even more depressed. I think the depression comes from something more fundamental. Celebrities are geniuses in their own right — otherwise they wouldn’t be celebrities. Geniuses, by definition, are away from the norm, from the rest of us. Their brains are wired differently. Then it seems likely that they would be more prone to psychological extremes; after all, extremes are also defined as being away from the norm. This could be one reason why so many of them end up being depressed. It’s possible that an equal number of them are euphoric, but that doesn’t make headlines, does it? Coming to think of it, I already wrote something like this before.

The second theory is that fame and money, while giving you a lot, might rob you of something very fundamental — your animalistic instinct for a strife. Once you are well off, you don’t face the daily struggle for survival. This may sound like a great thing, and I’m pretty sure it is. But I think we all have this need to fight, and these innate hunter-gatherer instincts are written in the recesses of our genes. Once the expression of this instinct is eliminated from our lives, we do go through some amount of stress, or a feeling of being lost. Perhaps in celebrities, with all their resources, this feeling is stronger than in among the rest of us loafers. Is that what is manifesting itself as depression and substance abuse?

Photo by theglobalpanorama

I found something weird. People seem to like sad movies — tear-jerkers. But nobody likes to be sad. I mean, you watch great tragedies with genuine sadness, and then go around saying, “What a great movie!” If whatever happened in the movie really happened to you or somebody you knew, you wouldn’t say, “Wow, great!” Why is that?

I think a good answer is that such depictions in movies let you experience the emotional intensity with no immediate physical (or even emotional) danger. If you were actually on the Titanic, you would at least have taken a cold dip even if you survived. But watching Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio battle for their lives probably lets you experience their fear and pain from the comfort of your armchair, with popcorn and soda to intensify the feeling.

I have a similar morbid fascination with natural disasters. I don’t mean to trivialize the human trauma caused by events like tsunamis and earthquakes, but I cannot help watching the movies and documentaries over and over. Volcanos are my favorite though. Visiting a live one is one of the things on my list of things to do before I die. If it is a very active volcano, I guess it will have to be the last thing on the list. I think in my case, the fascination goes beyond the safety associated with movies; I suspect I actually want to see the real thing, and don’t mind a bit of physical harm. The only downside I can see is that the real experience may not be as good as the movies. I mean, say I am in a tsunami. I say to myself, cool, I get to see a real one. But then, I may get hit by a pole or a plank or some other debris in the first five seconds and get knocked out cold. What’s the point in kicking the bucket in a natural disaster if you don’t even get to see the show?

I wonder whether this kind of fascination extends to people who like horror movies. Would they really want to be in a haunted house with Freddie Crugers and other slashers running amuck? Or see creepy girls crawling out of their television sets? Luckily, I’m not a horror movie buff, and I don’t have to find out.

# How to Act Young

Everybody wants to be young forever. Of course, nobody is going to be succeed in that quest. You will get old. The next best thing you can hope for is to look young. If you have enough money, tricks like facelifts, BOTOX, tummy tucks, hair implants etc may help. Those on a budget will have to content themselves with delaying tactics like hair dyes and gym memberships in their battle against the ravages of time. This is not too bad; I’m in this category and I think I have managed to stave off about five years.

What do you do when all your efforts fail? Well, then you have to cheat, of course. Here is how. You have to act young. The devil is in the details, you see. Well, may be you don’t see too well, which is one of the problems of old age. In order to get the aging muscles in your corneas to squeeze down on your hardening lenses, you squint, and then you hold the piece of paper you are trying to read farther and farther away. And finally, the day comes when your hand is just not long enough, and you go and get your reading glasses. Now, when you see a youngish-looking fellow holding his smart phone at arm’s length, you know that appearances can be deceptive.

Here is my advice — when that young friend of yours hands over his or her hand phone with their vacation photos, hold the phone at the normal, optimal distance of about a foot from your eyes and make appropriate noises like “Wow!” “That’s amazing!” etc. Just remember to keep your comments non-committal — “Wow!” almost always works. Of course, you won’t be able to see anything, but what are you missing, really? If you do want to see the pictures of people jumping off cliffs and stuff, ask them to email them to you. In the privacy of your home, you can don your microscopes (reading glasses, I mean to say) and take a good look.

This trick may not always work, when they show you a text message, for instance, for you to read and enjoy. (I actually wanted to write “peruse and be enthralled” for comic effect, but then I remembered that people have accused me being pretentious.) The trick in such a situation is to do a double-bluff — say something like, “Could you read it for me? These old eyes are not what they used to be.” And then give a wink or a sly smile to indicate that you are only kidding. By the way, this trick also works in a corporate setting when your job involves, well, nothing. I had a colleague at the bank. At director-level on the more lucrative side of banking, I knew that he commanded a handsome compensation package. So I asked him over lunch one day what exactly he did. He said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing!” I said, “No, seriously.” He insisted, “Seriously, nothing!” You know what? I actually believe him. But then, he was recently promoted to be the managing director of nothingness with a generous hike, I heard. Another buddy of mine, CEO of a start-up, when asked the same question about his daily activities at work, replied, “You know, sweeping, cleaning..!” I don’t know what to believe. But I do believe this — one of the most effective ways of lying is to stick to the outrageous truth with a twist.

Back to our theme, blurry vision is only one of the nasty features of us attaining wisdom. Another one is joint aches and a general lack of springiness in our movements, especially after a hard session of tennis or badminton. Well, my advice is to either learn to smile through the pain and simulate springiness. Or, exaggerate and simulate a sprain or something, which is usually a young affliction. (Broken hips and knee problems are old afflictions though.)

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this obsession with aging and how to fight it is a sure sign of aging. So this blog post is probably not helping my quest for eternal youth. With that, I shall forever hold my peace on this subject.

# Internal and External Successes

Success can be internal or external. External success is easily measured in terms of money and material possessions. The internal one is measured in terms of less palpable yardsticks, like happiness, peace of mind etc. External success is related to extrovert qualities, like articulation, and depends on what others think of you. The internal one, on the other hand, depends on what you think of yourself. It is made up of things like duty, honor etc. Confusing one with the other leads to misconceptions like identifying money with happiness, for instance. You need one for the other, but they are definitely not the same.

The height of extroversion are the social medial networks like Facebook. Paradoxically, they are also an introvert’s desperate attempt at being an extrovert, but that’s another story. I think people’s success in life shines more through Facebook than anything else these days. It even leads to something similar to Facebook envy, as BBC recently reported. The report said something about people feeling left out because they see their friends having a grand time all the time. They then feel as though life is passing them by.

There is a flip side to this Facebook-evny phenomenon. You can try to generate as much envy as possible by posting your photos in fabulous locations, having wall-to-wall fun. If that doesn’t project an aura of external success, what does?

I should admit — I’m guilty of this Facebook bragging. I once posted a photo of mine with the Eiffel Tower in the background, and I even remember asking my daughter to be sure to catch the tower in the background. I guess in today’s day and age, you do need a bit of external success as well. The internal one by itself doesn’t quite cut it.

# How to be Successful in Life?

When I talked about the dimensions of success, I used the word dimension with an ulterior motive. I want to define success for you in a formal way. You see, an entity that has many dimensions is a space, similar to the three dimensional space we live in. When we have such a complex multi-dimensional space to define success in, we have to apply some good techniques from physics to do it right. Don’t worry, i am here to help.

Success is hard to define, but the lack of success seems obvious — no money, no family, no friends, no education, no wisdom, no health, no wealth etc. That situation is one dark point in this multi-dimensional success-space. Your station in life is another point in the success-space. How far away from the dark point your station is is truly the measure of your success in life. The distance from this zero point of failure is the so-called Cartesian distance. If you have special likes or dislikes for one particular dimension of success (like money, for instance), you can assign an appropriate weight to that dimension, which effectively makes the distance what they call a $chi^2$ distance. Of course, it would be impossible to assign precise numerical values to all these abstract dimensions and distances. But this mode of thinking should give you a tool to analyze and understand successes and failures. It will tell you, for instance, why Bangladeshis score higher in happiness index than Americans. They just happen to have a different set of dimensions that they consider important.

The trick in achieving success in life lies in identifying the dimensions that are important to you personally. Don’t let yourself get influenced by others (unless, of course, pleasing others is one of your preferred dimensions). Once your own personal directions are identified, channel all your efforts along those dimensions. Just be sure that your dimensions are right for you both in terms of your deepest desires and your abilities. Choose wisely!

# Dimensions of Success

Money is only one dimension along which success can be defined. There are many others, such as sports, music, art, acting, politics, professions and even more abstract things like articulation, soft skills, philanthropy, wisdom, knowledge etc. Excellence in any one of them can be thought of us success. Success is easy to spot — look at any one of the celebrities and ask yourself why you know them. The answer is usually one of the dimensions of success — and fame its byproduct.

Excellence in any field can translate to money, which is what Eddie Felson in the Color of Money tells the younger pool player. This transformability often leads us to mistake money for the measure success, which, by the way, is the theme of the afore-mentioned movie. Towards the end of the movie, when Felson realizes that there is more to life than money, he says, “I just want your best game.” Ability to hang with the best game anybody can dish out in any field is excellence; and it has to be reckoned as success. This excellence is probably what the ancient Greeks called arete.

Then, we have other dimensions of life, which, if lived well, lead to gratification and I suppose, spell success in life. Being a good son or daughter and taking care of your parents, for instance, is a worthy goal that my Asian and Indian friends will appreciate. Being a good spouse or a good parent is another worthy dimension of success that most of us would like to achieve, at least in principle. Excellence along these dimensions may lead to personal satisfaction, but no monetary glory. I wonder whether the lack of money makes these successes less impressive.

Success without money came to some other excellent souls as well. Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Karl Marx etc. had wretchedly poor existences, but were posthumously recognized as peaks of excellence in their own ways. Again, it looks as thought their success is somewhat less worthy because of its lack of financial rewards. Or is it the money-centric worldview of our era (or of my garden state of Singapore) that is talking? When we ask our kids to score A’s, are we asking them to be excellent in academics for its own sake and pleasure? Or are we hoping, secretly and hypocritically, that they will make oodles of money for themselves later in life? I’m afraid it is the latter.

# Definition of Success

We all want to be successful in life. What does success mean to us? Because success is goal in life, when it is not achieved, we get disappointed. We are then, to be blunt, unsuccessful. But the word success can hold anything within. So if you we don’t know what success is, disappointment is inevitable. We really do need to define it.

Let’s go through a few common definitions of success and see if we can draw any conclusions from it. By the end of this series of posts, I hope to give you a good definition that will make you successful in life. What more can you ask of a blog?

We life in a material world, and the most popular definition of success is in terms of the things you own, or your ability to own them, which basically translates to money. So we use money as a proxy to success, which is why questions like, “If you are so smart, how come you are poor?” make sense. Being smart by itself, or acquiring knowledge for its own sake does not success make. However, this definition of success has problems. For one thing, money is the kind of thing you can keep accumulating, which means you can be more and more successful until you become the richest person on earth. Secondly, by this definition of success, someone like Mother Theresa would have to be disappointed with her life. And someone like Madoff would be considered to have lived a good life (if he hadn’t been caught, that is). In other words, the intrinsic goodness (a concept again hard to define) takes a backseat to pure accumulation of the green stuff. This phenomenon and the associated excesses, of course, are something we do see everywhere in the world around us.

We are not going to address the ethical question about money being the definition of success. We just need to understand that it leads to unachievable goals to almost everyone. By this money-based definition of success, almost everyone ends up being unsuccessful and disappointed with the way their life has turned out, because they always feel that they could have earned more, which of course they could have.

One way of avoiding disappointment is to set a ceiling, a limit to how much you want to accumulate. Let’s say you set a “modest” limit of one million dollars on your monetary goal. Given that it is only three or four percent of those in a rich country like Singapore that make the cut, it is a fairly respectable, yet achievable, goal for most of the readers of this blog. Now the trouble with this redefinition is that it ends up becoming a moving target. By the time you reach anywhere near the target, your lifestyle would have changed so as to make it look too modest. But if you can stick with it, a capped financial target seems like sensible definition of success.

# Key to Marital Bliss

Here is a short story about how a cowboy found the secret to marital bliss right after he got married. The ceremony was beautiful and the bride lovely. After the wedding, the bride and groom got on their horse-driven carriage to make their way home, with the bride happy and excited, prattling on about nothing, and the groom staying strong and silent with not a word after the “I do.”

Halfway through their ride, the horse stumbled. The cowboy broke his silence and said, laconically, “One.” His wife was nonplussed, but let it pass. Another couple of miles on, the horse stumbled again, and the groom went, “Two.” The wife ignored it and went on with her one-sided conversation. Just as they reached home, the old horse stumbled once more. The cowboy said, “Three,” pulled out his gun and shot the poor beast dead.

The bride was, understandably, shocked and dismayed. She said, “Jack, honey, you should control your temper. It’s inhuman to shoot a poor old horse for stumbling a couple of times.” The cowboy remained silent. The wife decided to take it up a notch. “Are you listening to me? Anybody can shoot a defenseless animal. Don’t think you are impressing anybody! Promise me, you will never do this again.” The cowboy remained silent. The wife, exasperated now, asked, “Well, don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

The cowboy finally did have something to say. He said, “One.”

It is said that they never had another argument in their long and happy married life.

Disclaimer:
No animal was harmed during the writing of this post.

# Autism and Genius

Most things in life are distributed normally, which means they all show a bell curve when quantified using a sensible measure. For instance, the marks scored by a large enough number of students has a normal distribution, with very few scoring close to zero or close to 100%, and most bunching around the class average. This distribution is the basis for letter grading. Of course, this assumes a sensible test — if the test is too easy (like a primary school test given to university students), everybody would score close to 100% and there would be no bell curve, nor any reasonable way of letter-grading the results.

If we could sensibly quantify traits like intelligence, insanity, autism, athleticism, musical aptitude etc, they should all form normal Gaussian distributions. Where you find yourself on the curve is a matter of luck. If you are lucky, you fall on the right side of the distribution close to the tail, and if you are unlucky, you would find yourself near the wrong end. But this statement is a bit too simplistic. Nothing in life is quite that straight-forward. The various distributions have strange correlations. Even in the absence of correlations, purely mathematical considerations will indicate that the likelihood of finding yourself in the right end of multiple desirable traits is slim. That is to say, if you are in the top 0.1% of your cohort academically, and in terms of your looks, and in athleticism, you are already one in a billion — which is why you don’t find many strikingly handsome theoretical physicists who are also ranked tennis players.

The recent world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, is also a fashion model, which is news precisely because it is the exception that proves the rule. By the way, I just figured out what that mysterious expression “exception that proves the rule” actually meant — something looks like an exception only because as a general rule, it doesn’t exist or happen, which proves that there is a rule.

Getting back to our theme, in addition to the minuscule probability for genius as prescribed by mathematics, we also find correlations between genius and behavioral pathologies like insanity and autism. A genius brain is probably wired differently. Anything different from the norm is also, well, abnormal. Behavior abnormal when judged against the society’s rules is the definition of insanity. So there is a only a fine line separating insanity from true genius, I believe. The personal lives of many geniuses point to this conclusion. Einstein had strange personal relationships, and a son who was clinically insane. Many geniuses actually ended up in the looney bin. And some afflicted with autism show astonishing gifts like photographic memory, mathematical prowess etc. Take for instance, the case of autistic savants. Or consider cases like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, who is only slightly better than (or different from) the Rain Man.

I believe the reason for the correlation is the fact that the same slight abnormalities in the brain can often manifest themselves as talents or genius on the positive side, or as questionable gifts on the negative side. I guess my message is that anybody away from the average in any distribution, be it brilliance or insanity, should take it with neither pride nor rancor. It is merely a statistical fluctuation. I know this post won’t ease the pain of those who are afflicted on the negative side, or eliminate the arrogance of the ones on the positive side. But here’s hoping that it will at least diminish the intensity of those feelings…
Photo by Arturo de Albornoz