In Memoriam

A few days ago, the world mourned the loss of Steve Jobs. On that same day, a friend of mine passed away.

I think more often than not, we commemorate the passing of great people so much that we forget to commemorate the passing of ordinary people. In the eyes of a few, an ordinary person is looked upon as someone far greater and far dearer than a personality, like Steve Jobs. It is truly a pity that we do not reflect upon the extraordinary lives with which these ordinary people had lived, and learn from those little marvels that tend to escape our attention.

For some strange reason, we seem to believe that the true mark of greatness involves the accomplishment of many great things. But the mark of greatness can be seen nonetheless in the accomplishment of not so great things. It’s so ordinary that it escapes our attention. And yet, it’s only when people, who have been near and dear to us, are gone, that we begin to look back and recognise that greatness in these people, only to sigh with regret that it’s only too late to appreciate the wonders that they have done.

One thing that I’d like to just focus on, as a tribute to my friend, Sally, is the profound influence that she has had on me, though I do not know her very well, nor for a very long time.

It recently occurred to me that our judgements about humanity in general is greatly shaped by the experiences we’ve had of people in our lives. People who declare, often with bitterness, like Thomas Hobbes, that “human nature is evil,” have more often than not, experienced so many hurts and disappointments in one life time that it’s hard for us to believe that good people do exist. If we were to come across someone who seems selfless, we can’t help but feel extreme skepticism about the person’s intentions. How can such a person ever be so good? What does he/she want out of me? Surely there’s an ulterior motive!

While it takes many horrible people in our younger days to give us a bad taste of humanity, it only takes at least one extraordinary individual to give us the hope and belief in the goodness of humanity, to be able to declare, as Mencius did that, “human nature is good!” It just takes one human person to do it – to show us the potentiality that is present in each and every individual to rise out of our wounded human condition to be so awesome and inspiring. When we have experienced the virtue of a person, when we have seen for ourselves just how possible it is for a person to be so loving, so compassionate, so forgiving – we know that it is possible for each and everyone of us, no matter how horrible we may be, to have the capacity to do just that. All we need is just one chance encounter with such an individual to change our lives forever. For once we have met such a person, we not only believe that it’s possible – we too are inspired to want to be like that person! No matter how many disappointments and hurts we have experienced, we will never lose our positive outlook of humanity.

I must say that I have been most fortunate to have had the encounter of a handful of inspiring and awesome individuals who have proved to me, in so many ways, the various aspects of human excellence. And among these handful of people, Sally was one of them.

As I have said earlier, I do not know her very well, nor have I known her for very long. But the short moments that I knew her was already quite an inspiration to me. My encounter with Sally made one very lasting impression that has influenced me greatly.

The first lasting mark Sally gave to me was that she was so closed to her daughter, that the two of them looked as though they were best friends rather than mother and daughter. This isn’t very common in Asian cultures. While it’s not impossible to treat one’s parents the same way one would treat a friend, it just doesn’t cross the mind of many that one could do that. Somehow, our culture has made us feel very awkward just thinking about that possibility. We may be close to our parents, but we will never be as close as to treat them the same way we would treat our friends. But that encounter was indeed an eye opener. And it has made me want to be as close to my parents in the same way Sally and her daughter were.

It’s really amazing what both mother and daughter did together. Like friends going for an overseas holiday, or participating in an activity, I’ve seen both Sally and her daughter do so many great and wonderful things together. So many great memories, so many awesome opportunities for laughter and for a chance to bond. I’m sure there are also bitter moments, when they have argued, but they were always able to patch up and resume doing so many things together.

More often than not, when our parents are old or have passed away, we begin to lament their loss, and wished that we could have done more for them, or spent more time with them. But it’s usually the case that we’re either too busy with our work, or too busy with our own friends that we neglect the very people under our roof. So near yet so far, as they say.

No, I do not want to be one of those people who will later say, “Gee… I wished I had spent more time with my parents/children.” I really want to be like Sally and her daughter, who have found the healthy balance of being with both family and friends, loving all, and neglecting none. I am sure Sally and her daughter, with all that time spent together, do not have that as a regret. If anything, Sally has left her daughter a treasure of beautiful memories of warmth and laughter.

Yeah… I think that’s the best thing one could ever leave behind – beautiful memories.

Regrets are the worst thing one could ever hold. It’s very painful especially when the person passes away, since there’s no more opportunity to do what you wanted to do with him/her or promised him/her. I know personally how regret feels because I had such an experience. I once visited this person who was terminally ill and promised to bring something for him. But then my school work got the best of me, and eventually I started procrastinating. Soon after, I got word that he had passed away. And then, the opportunity to fulfill that promise just disappeared into thin air. My heart was heavy for months. Not fulfilling one’s promise is bad enough. Not fulfilling one’s promise and to say goodbye to someone who was going to pass on – that’s worst! I still regret that mistake, though thankfully, the weight of the regret doesn’t feel so great now that so many years has passed.

Tomorrow, tomorrow! We can always do it tomorrow! Sure, we can do work tomorrow. Even if you are gone tomorrow, the work will continue since someone else will take your place. But when it comes to people, tomorrow is only probable. And unfortunately, people can’t stand in for you or for that other person. If we procrastinate our decision to spend the time with that person, one fine day he/she will just go, and we’ll hold that painful regret for a long time. Or we might be the one on the brink of death, only to regret not doing the important things with the people who are important to us.

The point is that regrets are just bad. It’s not worth having any – if possible. If anything, the advice to live with no regrets is probably the best advice on how one should live one’s life.

The best gift one could ever give to others would be the gift of beautiful memories. And who better to receive such a gift than the members of our family – parents, siblings, and children.

Thank you Sally for being awesome, and for being a beautiful example to me.

May you rest in peace.