| Fri 16 May 2014 15:00 ICT

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

I was talking to a 28-year-old American guy just the other day about his premature mid-life crisis; his growing sense of doom, failures, lack of achievement, and not knowing what his goals are. We talked about the need to create, to have varied experiences, to set goals for ourselves, and after we discussed some fairly difficult issues we’ve had lately I invoked the above quote. He told me he thought that he’d heard it in the film Conan the Barbarian. He hadn’t.

Dennis Gilman, Chiang Mai’s famed (everyone seems to know Dennis) American palmist, contacted me earlier this week, seven years after he read my palm for a story I was writing when I’d just started working at Citylife. He expressed to me back then how negative experiences can be turned into positive experiences, similar to what Conan the Barbarian didn’t say.

I’m leaving this magazine, and news site, at the end of the month. In the seven years since I last met Dennis, I’ve covered a lot of ground, met a lot of interesting people, and learned a great deal about this country and culture. If I had goals while working here it wasn’t just to get paid, or eat my heart out at all the city’s best restaurants, or even feed penguins (though I am a happier man for it); I also wanted to do some good…those penguins were getting fed with or without me.

Good. What’s that? Well, I guess it means improving someone’s circumstances, not only for the second it takes them to laugh at my brilliant punchline (Pim said I was never funny), but possibly even to affect people’s standard of living. While I’ve had a lot of fun here playing with cuddly animals, or sharing seashells with shapely shemales, I’ve also learned a lot about Thai society’s macabre aspects, such as human rights violations, economic hardships, sexual inequality, corruption, violence, political depravity and preventable accidents…etc. You’ve seen the stories. There have been many times when writing about some of the negative aspects that exist in society that I’ve felt I am not actually doing much good in the way of practical help for anyone. This can be disconcerting. We’re not just writing to inform and entertain here at Citylife/CityNews, we’re also writing because we have a social conscience, a responsibility to other people. It’s unavoidable, however, that at times working in the media on serious stories can feel like throwing toothpicks at giants. Fee fi fo fum I smell the blood of a citizen… Our day to day lives are virtually stuffed with information about what goes on in society, much of it negative, and yet it often seems that little improvement seems to happen. Indeed, read today’s papers.

“What’s the point?” a forlorn reader, or writer, might sometimes ask on a bad day of surfing the ‘net. And perhaps during this moment of doubt, cynicism appears from within a cloud of dust and says, “Come here darling, embrace me, I know exactly how you feel.” And it’s in the cold arms of cynicism where I guess many of us feel strangely content. Something bad happens. “Typical,” we say. “TIT,” we utter, and perhaps we feel validated that we got it right again.

Cynicism seems to me a kind of a teenage stage of human progression. It’s a bit delinquent, it’s reactionary, and it’s lazy. Reading social media, it’s evident that we are living in a cynical age; every day the other world is full of people positing their theories on apocalypse, intractable social injustice, inevitable environmental catastrophes, contemplating the total depravity of man, or simply barking to us through comment boxes about how they are performing in the utterly unchangeable dog eat dog reality they stroll around in. It’s just the way it is seems to be the acceptation. Change has become an unpredictable word that floats like feces in a swimming pool we all share…well, not all of us. 97% of us, or something like that. The 3% left us that floating piece of change.

If feces is my metaphor for change, then I guess the swimming pool it floats in is cynicism. But cynicism isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a trapped body of water; it should be more like a channel that we pass through. We can’t wait for the change to catch up with us, we have to become change. We can’t vote for it. We are it. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t also be realistic. I’m just as uncertain as everyone else concerning progress, but I think it’s better to be a realistic dreamer than a real life stick-in-the-mud.

Perhaps, as the quote you’re about to read says, one of the reasons for this epoch of cynicism is our meandering detachment from nature…and from each other. Calamities go viral every second of the day, and we press ‘like’ or ‘share’ or express how we knew it was going to happen, or just press the ‘outrage’ key, and we do this so often by ourselves, in our rooms, or perhaps even worse, while we’re doing other stuff. The sheer size of the supernova of online bad news seems to have lessened its seriousness – catastrophes used to be family events we all sat around and talked about – but we don’t laugh, or feel completely apathetic when wicked news slides down our phone all day long; it’s not that un-serious, I think we just become more cynical because its agile speed and its stubborn mass seem unassailable. Too much information.

Maybe I sound like a Luddite (I am a Yorkshireman after all), and a bit hypocritical considering I post all sorts of things on Facebook. But I’m not yet sure how I feel about some of the effects of social media… I guess we shouldn’t let technology off the leash.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote in the New York Times:

“The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it. When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.”

The reason I was very happy teaching young kids on occasions in the past is because their innocence inspired me and their spontaneity impressed me. A child’s level of intuition is greater at times than that of adults – the same reason a blind man has a sharp sense of hearing – and if they think you deserve it, you get their unalloyed love and adoration.

I once taught a class of Taiwanese kids to sing Radiohead’s Karma Police for a presentation. I don’t know why, I just thought it would be amusing. Seeing how happy they were singing: “This is what you get, this is what you get, when you mess with us” was a profound moment for me. The reason why, and I only really realized this years later when writing a story about Taiwan, was that these kids had rendered a very cynical and dark song beautiful. Their innocence disarmed Tom Yorke’s menacing lyrics. The meaning of the song was the same, but it was also more hopeful. It was still a serious song, but no longer as cynical.

It would be nice to be endowed with something like intellectual innocence, to be both wise and childish, a bit like Yoda.

When Dennis was reading my palm a few days after I wrote the previous sentence he remarked on the importance of an adult releasing his “wow” (now again – “wow” being childish curiosity, allowing spontaneous urges, perhaps even to a fault). He told me to be more “vulnerable.”

I’m not actually sure if Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said that negative experiences will make us stronger if we survive them. Some traumas are hard to overcome, otherwise surely the balance of equality wouldn’t be so lopsided. But I agree with Jonathan Franzen; we have to stick our necks out and get out there in the real world, we must let ourselves become vulnerable.

Get out from behind that computer screen, and go and play outdoors. Thanks for reading, I’ll see you on the outside.


James Austin Farrell