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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Retaining the Ability to Enjoy Simple Abilities

EDITORIAL for Penang Monthly, March 2014

This month’s article about the endless hunt for energy to power modern man’s countless machines leads me to think about the psychological consequences of our dependence on external power; and how that dependence clouds our appreciation of the most simple talents and faculties we possess; and how enjoyable these actually are.

Our machines make us seek more power and more capacity; and in the process we forget to appreciate our most basic skills. So we end up seeking thrills and searching for novel experiences. But as any Zen master would tell us, we should be able to gain as much satisfaction from sweeping the floor as from reading a good book; and as much joy from drinking water without spilling as from skateboarding.

Today more than ever, we run the risk of mistaking external power for internal strength. Zooming around on a motorbike or a sports car powered by fossil fuel may give us a rush, but it hardly makes us as powerful as the machine on which we temporarily sit. In many cases, the external energy we command and mistake to be our own comes from other humans. Ordering the maid to make me a good dinner does not make me a good cook.

So it boils down to the immediate psycho-physical experience.

The experiencing of psycho-physical ability as such, I am convinced, is what gives us the most authentic and unadulterated sense of fulfillment. This is seen in the child who is ecstatic because he or she has just learned how to walk. Every step brings joy. This is seen in the girl who can’t believe that she is able to balance herself on a bicycle, or the boy who manages to swim for the first time. Every step and every stroke is a celebration.

What he or she gains is an immediate affirmation of achievement.

In fact, there is no unsurmountable hindrance for adults to enjoy simple acts deeply as well. We just do not seem to care enough to do so, and we take these skills for granted. But while performing an act already mastered may not increase our enjoyment of it, losing the ability to perform a skill that had until then been taken for granted is painful and depressing, be this weakening memory, failing eyesight, or the steady loss of the ability to walk. We do know that as people age and lose basic abilities, they begin to re-appreciate these skills. Well, better late than never. But it would be wise for young adults to bring forward this ability to enjoy simple abilities.

Or put another way, they should try to never lose their childhood delight in such simple experiences. Imagine being able, all through our lives, to feel amazement when we walk, talk, sit, climb out of bed, urinate, or smile! We should take time to remind ourselves of how unjustified it is for us to take all of these for granted. They will be gone soon enough.

We should appreciate them now, instead of missing them when they are gone.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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