Ian Ong

Reflections, analysis and notes on life and the pursuit of Joy

'Heavenly Peace'

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21
September 2015

The first time I visited Tienanmen Square was more than a decade ago. It was in December and the bitter cold winter elements battered us mercilessly. As a person who lives near the equator where it is perpetually hot and wet, winter was a new experience. I do not recall what the tour guide said about the place, only feeling awestruck by the falling snow and the size of the parade square. There was something lingering in the air that I keenly sensed but could not name. It only dawned on me years later that it was betrayal and death of hope. Beijing city is structured in concentric rings with Tienanmen Square as the reference point. It is highly symbolic for the square means gate of heavenly peace. It is the physical manifestation of the political leaders’ grand plan that the capital city, and the country by extension, enjoy uninterrupted peace. China will be the conduit for divine peace and they will be the instrument to usher it in. All sounds well until one flips open the right history books. A decade ago I stood at the very place where a chain of events led to the fateful and brutal decision of one man to pit leviathans against ants. The outcome was nothing short of a bloodbath. It all took place where peace was supposed to enter into the world. Has the gate closed on that fateful day? I would say no. What happened merely helped us to see how the world defines peace. Peace is the freedom of the powerful and the wealthy to do whatever they want. They will resort to violence and oppression to eliminate any opposition. When the tanks rolled out that day, the mission was clear: eliminate all threat to the powers be. This model is still faithfully repeated subtly or brazenly today in every country. In today’ parlance, economic progress is a double edged sword. The upswing is so oft told that it does not need another mention. It is the flip side that we do not often hear. When capitalism and politics marry and become one, the product is a beast, a power that is capable of trampling small man and women whose interest do not coincide with corporate agenda. When big corporations and government get tangled in a complicated web under the guise of ‘networking' and stakeholder management, policies will be tabled to suit corporate needs. These will often be cloaked under the guise of the public good or utilitarianism. The strong and able latch onto the system and thrive while the weak fall through the cracks and get caught in the gravitation force of unfavorable circumstances. The question I ask myself is whether all these policies benefit the majority? Or does it, like ‘Heaven Peace’, benefit only a privileged minority? In small first world countries like the one I come from, it is difficult to see this. But if we look at other countries like India which the social and political...



Man of Sorrows

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21
August 2015

Such poignant words: "despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief". Just the thought of such a person is enough is break any person's heart. Our heart immediately goes out him. We think, what a hard life he must have had: to be hated by everyone and to experience so much hardship that his life is characterized by grief. How has life marginalized him? War? Political/Economic/Racial/Religious/Social/family conflicts? Natural disasters?



My soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan.

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13
August 2015

Context: I was admitted into Mt. Alvernia on 9 Aug 2015 for severe migraine. This is the raw and unedited response to Psalms 77 I was reading on the 10 Aug 2015, written on the 11 Aug 2015 from 12:30 am to around 6 am while battling with a tremendous 9/10 migraine and medicine that dulled my mind. Interestingly, when my beloved friends from iCare came to visit on the 10th, they also shared from the same passage. God was definitely trying to tell me something. :: "My soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan." (Ps 77:3) How accurately this Psalm captures the acute and isolating pain that we sometimes feel. Here we see the Psalmist trying all means to get himself out of the dumps of his emotional and spiritual well, but to no avail. His spirit refuses to be comforted. Even when he came before God with his pain, his spirit continues to lament and groan. "Groan" is such an apt word, for it suggests sorrow beyond words can convey. This Psalm is written for use by the entire worshipping community in periods of corporate lament. The corporate body consists of many different individuals and still has the capacity to be personal at its core. Hence the use of I, instead of we despite it being a congregational prayer. The personal quality of this psalm is an invitation to bring the failures, sins and asymmetrical sides of our lives before God. It might be that we have done something wrong, or that life has dealt us a blow in the guts. We are still reeling from the impact, but what's important is the common experience of abandonment that we face and journey through. Such pain tends to make us feel that we are isolated and nobody understands how we feel, but nothing is further from this feeling. Pain has the tendency to isolate but we must break out of it and realize that many others have walked the same path before us and have emerged victorious. Victorious not in the sense that they have solved their problems but they have found solace and solitude--an oasis in the midst of the desert of abandonment and pain. Where is this Oasis? Oh, how we pine for just a little drop of refreshing water to keep us going. It is in remembering the immutability of God's goodness. As one proceeds down the psalm, one sees a progression of thought: from meditating on God's promises to His people and how things were once better, to how God would continue to keep His promises and perform mighty deeds in the future. But it is so difficult to hold on to God's goodness in times when we are placed in the crucible of life. When the heat is up and we are tossed into the inferno, every bone within us dries up, our tongue sticks to the roof of our mouth and our strength dissipates into thin air. Like the...



The Happiness Project & The Happiness of Pursuit

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26
November 2014

Lately, I've been on a self-help genre spree. I completed The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau within a span of 3 days and am now reading Chris Guillebeau's The Art of Non-Conformity (which I should be completing before the end of the week). Both books explore the topic of happiness and provide concrete suggestions concerning how to bring about more happiness in our lives. They make for light, enjoyable reading and quite eye-opening as well. Happiness is a goal that most of us strive for once our basic needs have been satisfied. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I would dare say the pursuit of happiness is akin to self-actualization (the pinnacle of the hierarchy). Maslow has his fans and critics and his model has been modified, expanded or even repudiated by some. But for our purpose and according to general wisdom, there is some validity in his model. We can see a general trend in richer countries where people who have their basic needs met tend to look for ways to extract more from life--hence the popularity of self-help, new age spirituality and pop-psychology books. These books have made millionaires of authors and have inspired many others to follow suit. Though many people would readily agree that they want to be happy, but there isn't a clear definition of what happiness constitutes or the means through which happiness can be achieved. The question of what constitutes happiness is both a philsophical and personal one that is culturally specific. From my reading of Gretchen's The Happiness Project, happiness is essentially a sense of joy and well-being that comes from makes conscious choices and adopting certain attitudes. Happiness can be induced through say creating an atmosphere of growth or indulging in a modest splurge. I won't reveal all her strategies here so that I don't spoil her market and also because I think it's worth your time reading it, with a few caveats of course. Happiness can be elusive. It is very event specific, meaning that it depends greatly on how our circumstances turn out. Some of this circumstances are within our control, such as the earlier example of a modest splurge to indulge in a powerful blender because of a love for smoothies. But more often than not, our life circumstances don't turn out the way we hope them to be and this can dampen our moods and negatively affect happiness. However, certain strategies like creating an atmosphere for growth may induce longer lasting happiness as we are able to determine what constitutes growth and how much effort we want to invest into stretching ourselves. Happiness is also short-lived. It comes in spurts and dissipates quickly. Also, due to desensitization or normalization wherein we become accustomed to something, we need ever increasing stimuli in order to experience the same dose of happiness. In general, some of the strategies outlined in The Happiness Project tend to be quick fixes which may bring short...



Technology and relationships

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23
November 2014

Time, as we experience and measure it today has always been evolving. Most of us do not realize that the way we measure time—as discretely quantifiable and disembodied units—is a human construct. History reveals that time was measured in vastly different ways across civilizations: from observing the moon, burning a marked incense, birth cycles of animals, scents of fruits and etc. The current method of 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 30 days a month and 365 days in a year is but a convention that is globally accepted. The purpose of this reflection is not to take a stroll down the memory lane of time keeping. It is an attempt to reflect on the meaning of time in an epoch that is obsessed with speed and where time is commoditized. We often hear phrases like “time is of the essence” and “time is money”. These are but examples of how we have made time into a form of currency. Sometimes literally. There’s a report about the selling of microseconds and milliseconds to stock market traders for millions of dollars (Lapham). Saving time has become a multi-million dollar growth industry. Whether it is automation, multipurpose devices or computerization, the purpose is to save time. The drive to save time doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the corporate world. It invades our personal lives—both our relationships and routines. Written letters is replaced by SMS, social media and the telephone. Routines are simplified by microwave ovens, robotic vacuum cleaners, coffee machines, pack out food, to name but a few. Before I’m labeled as a Luddite, let me emphaize that I’m not against technology per se. So many inventions have brought us comfort and eliminated numerous tedious tasks. Life has been made simpler and easier. However, everything comes with a price. The question that begs to be answered is what have we sacrificed to gain extra time and what do we do with the time we have saved. The question is not whether these technologies are good or bad; the lynchpin of the issue turns on how they are used. I believe that deeply nuanced relationships is the main aspect of life that we have given up as a result of the way we use time saving technology. True and meaningful relationships are forged through engaging in tasks together, conversing face to face and being present to each other. It develops and deepens with time and constant contact. When we speed things up and resort to instant technology, we reduce the opportunities and amount of time spent and doing tasks together and the bonds that develop as a result of conversations. A very good example is family meals that have evolved from a time where family members exchange stories about their days or discuss personal issues to one where we eat as quickly as we can so that we can return to our own activities. This phenomenon is also the manifestation of radical individualism that we will return to later. Granted...



Technical civilization's impediment to Joy

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"Technical civilization is man's conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our powers in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence." Abraham Heschel did not live to witness the turn of the 21st century, or the explosion of information (misinformation rather) into every nook and corner of our consciousness. Though separated by time, his polemic continues to haunt our modern conscience. The urgency of his plea needs fresh hearing in a world obsessed with speed, efficiency and accomplishment. In a bid to maximize time by packing as much activities into each second of our waking hours, we have ironically sacrificed the very thing we sought to preserve. Reading Heschel's seminal work once again brought me to reflect on my uncritical allegiance to the modern criterion of efficiency. It has weaved so seamlessly into the fabric of my life that it is no longer confined to simply desiring to complete each task quickly. Were it so, I might have had less cause for alarm. Yet as it stands, efficiency has evolved into a powerfully entrenched idol that holds sway over my entire outlook and constitutes the driving force of my life. It has colored my perception of people and has raised an oppressive yardstick against which I measure everyone and everything. I have hence embraced an unconscious position where a person's worth is acknowledged based on productivity or accomplishments. Hence, it becomes second nature to disregard those whose station in life are lower than mine. Hence, the clerk at the check out counter or a beggar on the street can be treated with disdain and disrespect. On another level, the obsession with accomplishments fuels the gnawing sense of insecurity concerning my self worth and drives me deeper into a frenzy about needing to produce or prove myself. It also makes me envious and bitter towards those who are more successful. The idol of efficiency and the struggle for security distorts the way I perceive my neighbor and jettisons my ability to love him/her. On a broader scale, the conviction that human worth is unevenly distributed, if brought to its logical conclusions, justifies oppressive practices of ethnocentrism, racism and hatred that condone the subjugation of supposedly inferior human groups under their supposedly more advanced counterparts. We see instances of this in the regrettable and objectionable behavior of western imperialism where white men deigned to lord it over their helpless colonial subjects. In the new world, ancestors of today's Americans perpetrated the horrendous genocide of the aboriginal community and actively practiced racial segregation. The bible firmly critiques this oppressive and tragic outworking of human sin by affirming that every individual, no matter how deformed or degraded, is...



About me

In the history of western thought, humans are seen as autonomous entities, hence the word individual which affirms a person's free standing status. In The Geography of Thought, the astute notes that a person from the western part of the world

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