Sunday, November 25, 2007

Little, Big

That's the title of the immensely perceptive and World Fantasy Award-winning novel by John Crowley, who has been mentioned elsewhere here. What it taught me, many years ago, was that there are three kinds of things in our lives: the big things, the little things, and the unclassifiable, pointless or absurd things – and that sometimes, things can fit into all three categories at once.

There are some things far bigger than ourselves: the history of nations and of the world, the salvation and damnation of humanity; art, philosophy, education and science; war, poverty, famine and death. Yet, they are only as important to us, personally, insofar as they impact on us. We can be swept up in causes and lofty ideals, but that is just a projection of a particular philosophy into a world which might very well just get along fine without us.

It's like my itch to reform education. On the face of it, it is a grand endeavour, a stirring ideal. But I have no idea whether it will affect anyone if I do it. Sure, many people will say it is a good thing; some will say it is me being idealistic, and so on. But it is like spreading a gospel – you will never know, even if people assert that they do, how much you yourself have actually done. You might have run around doing things, speaking to people, eating many flavours of ice-cream or making a spectacle of yourself – but nobody actually knows what the ultimate effects of these things are.

Don't get me wrong: this is not some kind of postmodernist evasion of responsibility or meaning; it is not a claim that truth does not exist. I have much respect for the truth. But I do claim that we as humans cannot know the ultimate significance of our actions. We can assume a limited measure of knowledge about the immediate significance – the more immediate (i.e., in the strict sense of there being no mediating period of time between events), the more probable that we can know something.

Which leads to three kinds of responses from people: 1) why sweat the small stuff, look at the big things; 2) you can't affect the big things, deal with what you have at hand; 3) it's all nonsense (or absurdity, or chaos, or irrelevance) anyway. I think we all respond in these three kinds of ways, and often our responses in categories 1 and 2 fall firmly into 3.

At least two people have commented online that I seem preoccupied with my fractured toe (aha, is that 20 posts already, you of the not-green eyes?) The truth is that it is a great inconvenience in a practical sense, relative to my usual mobility. I rely a lot on walking faster than most other people, and it's a little frustrating to be limping around. But it's a small thing in the long term. It's not death, war, famine, pestilence, plague, the inexorable destiny of humanity or the inevitable chaos of perception.

But it is immediate. There is no mediating period or distance between the fact of my temporary disability and my state of mind. Whether Singapore education is in a parlous state or not, is not my responsibility. But the toe is mine. It is nobody else's responsibility, and nobody else's irritant in the immediate sense. I don't wake up in the morning thinking of the fate of badly-educated millions, or of war-torn and poverty-stricken nations, or of the spiritual health of the oppressed, or of the great and silly philosophies of our time. I leave that to God, and if I can help, that's nice. But you would be a liar, or severely odd, or having a transcendent episode, if the first thing you felt on waking up didn't have something to do with the more immediate needs of your body. Like taking a leak, or unkinking your back muscles.

And then, after dealing with the immediate, I can think about the mediated, the intellectual, the blogospherical, the 'higher' and more distant things. Which I probably have less impact on, and may not be within my grasp as something to be done with all my might. From navel-gazing to crystal-ball divination, I suppose. But me, I will look at my ice-cream, my fresh hot coffee, and gain revelation – revelation of the kind that says, "Wow, this is really good coffee. It makes me happy."

Which reminds me: I still have to finish off that second chapter on the woeful inadequacies of the education system, and what we know of it. Toedles... oops, associational slip there.

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Blogger xinhui said...

good apologia.

i too have learnt a lot from ice-cream, even bad tasting flavours and combinations...and it's all about experimentation =)

Monday, November 26, 2007 5:39:00 am  

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