Being Holistic

In Personal reflections, Singapore Politics, Thoughts from school, Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 3:27 pm

It has come to my attention that I am not “all-rounded” enough.

In Singapore, the word “all-rounded” is synonymous to the word “holistic”. Both words are used to describe people, or more commonly, pupils who excel in academics as well as “aesthetics”. “Aesthetics” typically refer to performing arts (like dance), musical ability (usually piano or violin), and personality (though I doubt this is as prized as the former two)

Singapore’s known for being this education hothouse that just churns out students who are bright, articulate and talented. So when someone tells you that you’re not “holistic” or “wholesome” or “all-rounded”, its a just cause to feel hurt. The kind of inadequacy and inferiority you experience is just downright painful. That’s why we students are just so competitive–losing out, even in the smallest of ways, hurts. Especially when you dream of someday going to an Ivy League University and making it big in life. It always, always hurts to think that you’re not up to par.

But now I realise I’ve accepted such criticisms too willingly and I’ve accepted the yardstick for all-rounded success far too readily. I don’t know why my ego didn’t kick in and I don’t know why I hadn’t bothered to go into the automatic mode of defensiveness. Yes, I do want to be humble, and I’ve paid too high a price for not being humble. But accepting such criticisms unquestioningly was just plain stupid. The yardstick by which we measure our individual successes must not ever be dictated by social norm or peer pressure, and that’s the secret to surviving the hothouse environment.

So, what’s MY yardstick? It’s pretty much the same stuff society prizes–intelligence, integrity, personality and talents. EXCEPT my definition of those things differ greatly.

Intelligence need not be measured A1s and C5s. Integrity is not about picking up litter even when it’s not your own. Having a great personality is not just embodying the one-dimensional trait of “being nice”. Talent is not defined by having a Grade 10 Piano cert.

Intelligence is about intellectual rigour; it’s about being able to see rhythms and patterns and nuances in the world around you and making sense of it all. It’s about being able to empathise with opposing perspectives in controversies. It’s about delving deeper, going beyond the surface, and not just accepting  things at face-value. That’s intelligence.

Oprah Winfrey says “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”

Don’t get me wrong: integrity does encompass picking up litter, like what school teaches us. And it does encompass–Okay let’s say, if you’re a prefect and your friend does something against the rules,  it would indeed be morally upright of you to book them anyway.

But integrity is much, much more than that.

In a deeper, more intangible sense, integrity and moral courage means daring to go against what’s popular in order to do what’s right. It means standing by your friends, even when they are the most geeky people in class and hanging out with them is going to hurt your popularity with the cool kids. It is never just about playing by the rules and being a law-abiding citizen. In fact, if the establishment does something of injustice and enforces a rule that you believe is wrong,  if you have the moral courage to speak out against such injustice on behalf of others, that’s definitely integrity. If you are powerful, but still choose to stand with the powerless, yes, that is integrity.

Having a great personality IS about being nice, yes. Treating others the way you would like to be treated is extremely important. However, a striking personality goes beyond this niceness, and is one of passions and humors and gumption. It’s the ability to wholeheartedly embrace being human, and allowing yourself to feel intense pleasure, sorrow, anger and fear. It’s about melting away every bit of ice-cold indifference and not letting the monotony of life numb you out from the world.  Furthermore, being able to radiate confidence and warmth and friendliness even in the most uncertain of situations, and imbuing in your peers that same confidence, is essential. Most importantly, being able to forge a connection with the people around you and develop genuine friendships–that’s part of having a great personality.

Lastly, talent is intrinsically linked to your passion. It’s whatever you define it to be, If it’s piano/ballet/violin, sure. But if it’s writing fanfiction and limericks, well, why not? If your talent is academia, science, current affairs and philosophy, you’re not going to have the easiest time finding like-minded individuals, but hey, that’s just who you are.

The establishment will never be able to measure an individual’s true potential, and not all individuals will fit into the die-cast mold of being holistic. In the midst of so much competition to match up to such standards, I have lost sight of what is truly holistic–a value that is meant to vary from individual to individual.

Truth is, we will never encourage “holisticity” if we, as a society, continue to impose upon our youth a cookie-cutter definition of all-roundedness. And no matter how hard we try to emphasize Character Education as part of school curriculum, you’ll find that selfishness will always exist in a society that values competition more than collective interest, and indifference will always be inculcated in generations that continue to be stifled by the culture of competitiveness.


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