Towards to a kinder gentler Singapore OR What I learnt today practicing graciousness, compassion and kindness

I’ve been thrilled to pieces by Minister of State Lawrence Wong’s comment at the country’s first National Kindness Conference, that a common thread amongst participants of the Singapore Conversation Dialogues is the desire for a society that is anchored in values – in particular graciousness, kindness and compassion.

Yes, Minister!

In fact I was so thrilled I decided to start practicing right awayIt’s been twenty-four hours and I’ve discovered that the practice of compassion kindness and graciousness is dangerous! Softening the heart is confusing and it’s painful. And once you start, there’s no stopping.  

Not making sense? Well, let me give examples –

2 challenging experiences with graciousness and compassion

My first challenge was with graciousness – which according to the Oxford Dictionary means being kind polite and generous, especially to somebody of a lower social position.

The significant other and I were at Ghim Moh Market, our Sunday breakfast hangout.  We decided to eat fish porridge. But, apparently, the lady hawker wasn’t ready to sell. I stood and waited and waited and waited. She continued to transfer hot water from one big pot to the next, to ladle porridge out from one boiler to another. I said “Ahem” and then “Ahem” again. She only turned around to glare at me at the third throat clearing, and then only to shout “Wait!”

To cut the long story short, I managed to blurt out my order. She gave it to me  wrong. I was ordered to use only 1 proper spoon for my order of a single bowl of porridge to be shared by two. “Take a disposable one, she barked, it’s the weekend!” And oh yes, I also got reprimanded for trying to put the sesame oil and fried shallot garnish into my bowl by myself. “That’s my job,” she said.  “Look at the mess you made.”

I’d said please when giving my order. I’d said thank you when she dumped that bowl of porridge, without the you tiao, on my tray. I hadn’t retorted when she scolded me. Faithful to my resolution, I’d swallowed my irritation. I’d been gracious.

Damn and double damn, that’s really what I felt. The woman deserved a good telling off. But because of some stupid kindness campaign, and some crazy promise I’d made to myself, I hadn’t let her have it!

And then I looked at her and realized how tired she looked. She was probably just an employee, someone who’d woken up early to come to this backbreaking low paid job on a Sunday when she might have preferred to be somewhere else because she didn’t have any other choice.

I was sorry. I felt guilty about my own comforts and privileges and regretted my anger and irritation. But of course, by then, my porridge  was cold. So much for the rewards of graciousness!

Next I fell down the slippery slope of compassion –which means sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others (all sentient beings included) according to same said Oxford, with an addendum from the Buddhist texts.

I went to order food for my mother’s birthday. Yes, I know we just talked about breakfast… But this particular incident was almost seven hours later at tea time.

No problems with graciousness at this seafood restaurant. The service staff had my reservation on hand, and lots of suggestions for making the menu special. In fact the manager was so helpful she took me to the fish tanks to show me exactly how the white crab she was recommending differed from the usual Sri Lankan ones.

Crabs aren’t cute and cuddly. Not really the best poster children for the “don’t eat animals” movement. And the crabs I was shown were no exemption. They looked like big stones sitting sullenly at the bottom of a dry glass tank, inanimate and non-sentient. Just like the bamboo clams and geo-duck the manager recommended next. And then, she showed me the garoupa…

It was an enormous three-foot long dark grey creature with a head the size of my son’s. And the poor thing was half folded in on itself trying to navigate the tank that was almost just exactly its size.

Garoupa stared at woman trying to practice compassion. Woman trying to practice compassion stared back at garoupa.  Woman told manager, “No fish.” Woman fled as soon as she could.

This is where sympathetic pity and concern for the suffering of other’s gets you. You start believing that even fish can feel. Another meal spoiled!

And 1 lesson in kindness

Tonight, I’m learning about kindness –the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.

“Kindness and forgiveness are the two most important attitudes to cultivate,” a wise man told me at lunch the other day as he cut into his piece of meat. “Not just kindness and forgiveness towards others, but also towards yourself.”

“It’s all about forgiveness isn’t it? In every single religion,” the woman next to him said.

This is the thing isn’t it?

We’re only human after all. We do need to eat. And in the process of eating, some things get eaten.

But as humans, we have an innate need to be gracious, and compassionate and kind too. And when we are all these things, some things will just become inedible.

It’s a balance, being kind, eating well. It’s being human, needing to do both. And if somehow, sometimes, we tilt too far off balance in one direction or another, then what we need to do is show kindness to ourselves, forgive ourselves. That’s my lesson tonight.

How’s this linked to nation building and the Singapore Conversation?

Opening the heart and reaching out are risky. Striving to be kinder, more compassionate, more gracious means we’ll have to change as a society.

There’ll be no more – me first, you later.
We’ll have to give up – I win, you lose.
We’ll be asked to say – I not enough but still can share …

There’ll be trade-offs.

Personally we may have to accept busing our own dirty dishes to a central clean up center when we eat at hawker centers. Perhaps we’ll need to pay higher taxes to fund more social benefits for those more badly off.  There must necessarily be better working conditions for unskilled and migrant workers. Our houses might cost more. We may have to do our own housework on weekends.

In schools, children may have to go back to taking hard-to-score humanities like literature, history and religious studies, so they’re exposed to more than plusses and minuses, formulae and equations.

At work, we may be asked to sacrifice some doing well for more doing good. Our bonuses may shrink.

As a nation, the dollar cost of doing business might rise, affecting our competitiveness, our foreign direct investments, our profits, our bonuses.

And yes, we’ll fall short. We won’t get it done overnight. And we’ll have to learn to forgive ourselves.  We may even have to practice being kinder and more forgiving to those in charge!

Being kind isn’t just about pretty words.  It will be difficult. And once we start, it’ll be hard to stop.

Are we ready?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

 

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