Let them eat chips! (Or at least pretend to)

My 7-year-old niece is a beautiful, precocious, and brilliant little child. Watching her learn and grow is like having a direct window into the human condition, like watching the evolution of all humanity.

Several years ago, when she was 3 or 4 years old, there was an incident when my mom was babysitting her. My niece was eating a bag of chips when somehow the bag of chips fell, scattering the chips all over the floor. She bent down to eat them but my mom brushed her away, telling her not to eat the dirty chips. My mom then got her broom and swept the chips into the dust pan. Momentarily crushed, my niece then regained her spirits and plopped down on the floor, happily picking up imaginary chips from the floor and popping them into her mouth.

My mom and I had a huge laugh as she recounted the story to me later that day. Aside from the utter cuteness of it, I was also struck by the powerful resilience and spunky spirit shown by my niece that day. She didn’t cry, throw a tantrum, or otherwise let the discarded chips bring her down. Instead, she processed her disappointment and then gathered her wits to go on and do what she had intended to do, eat yummy crunchy chips even if they were no longer there.

I think about all the times when I let my own disappointments derail me, and I’m inspired to rediscover that unbeatable spirit within me that I know every child has (or had). Sure, life’s challenges become bigger as we grow older, but that simply calls for more resilience, not less.

This world can be a tough place to live in, and there are many times when good, hard-working people will be cheated or deprived of the various wants and needs of life. What to do then? It seems like a hollow answer, an insult really, to say that someone should just pretend to have what they want or need when they don’t in fact have it. Let them eat cake! So said the ignorant and indulgent Queen Marie Antoinette of France, as the people of her country starved. (Whether she actually said that is up for debate, but moving on.)

Such a quip may not solve the more serious needs of our lives, but I think that attitude of ‘I’m going to have it, whether I actually have it or not’ is a source of potentially unlimited strength and power. Such a bold, hearty spirit may not literally fill an empty tummy or put a roof over one’s head, but it may just be enough to get someone through that one dark moment, until the next reprieve will come. And in the unrelenting ups and downs of life, those momentary flashes of spunk and grit may make all the difference over the course of a lifetime.

So let us all have our chips, and eat them, too.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Money Tree

Back in November of 2014, I posted a picture of Benjamin, my money tree, on my Facebook page.

Benjamin Nov2014 20170304_204417
Benjamin in November 2014

I was sad that one of Benjamin’s five braided plants had died, but the sadness had soon turned to excitement when I realized that the remaining four plants were sprouting new leaves and thriving. It prompted a moment of reflection for me, reminding me of the different cycles of life and the old making way for the new.

Over two years later, in March 2017, I was sad to find that Benjamin was not doing too well again. Two of the four remaining plants in the braid had died, and the last two were completely bare except for a few weak leaves on the top.

Benjamin 20170304_143810
Benjamin in March 2017.

A few months ago, I had changed the soil and moved Benjamin to a larger pot thinking that it would rejuvenate him, but he didn’t respond well to the change and showed a steady decline in health ever since. =(

As I sat there pondering what to do next, I was reminded of another money tree I had many years ago. My dad had given it to me as a gift when I started law school. It did well for a while, then started drying up even though I was watering it diligently. As one of the rare gifts I received from my dad, I didn’t want to give up on it, so as a last resort I took it to a nearby nursery where a really nice guy helped me out. It turned out that the plant’s roots had been encased in a small plastic box inside the pot, so the roots were hardly getting any water. Once the plastic was removed, the plant sprang back to life almost in a matter of days.

The first lesson I’m learning is that I apparently do not have much of a green thumb.

The second more important lesson is one about perspective, and also attachment; I used to make fun of people who obsess about their pets and usher them around in strollers like they were babies, but now there I was obsessing about a plant (again)!

Once we humans decide we care about something, the attachment that we sometimes develop can warp our perceptions and distort the importance that something or someone has relative to the rest of our lives or the world. Sure, every single life is precious, whether it’s a sentient animal or a plant, but every life will also eventually end. It’s foolish to glorify any single life beyond proportion, and futile to cling onto it in the face of death.

All this to say that maybe my beloved Benjamin’s time had come, and I should let him go in peace. But part of me still said I should keep trying to save him like I did with the other plant. So I gave Benjamin a lot of love and attention, but alas it was time for him to go after all, and I resigned to putting his limp remains into the trash can a few weeks later.

I had actually started writing this blog post around March 2017 shortly before Benjamin died. Circling back to this now, the question I wanted to ask remains the same – in these moments where something or someone seems to be dying, when should we keep pushing and fighting for life, and when should we surrender to death with grace?

Thankfully, Benjamin was ‘just’ a house plant, but the question becomes much harder when a human being is involved. My grandmother, for instance, is in her late 80s and has had Alzheimers for about 7-8 years now. She has lived in a hospice for many years and can barely speak a full sentence or recognize her family members. Yet, her body has been kept alive all these years by an extensive regimen of medication and treatments, all while her mind wastes away. As her granddaughter, of course I understand the desire to keep her alive as long as possible, but I seriously question Western medicine’s tendency to try to keep a body alive at all costs – costs, both financial and emotional, which are borne by her not-so-well-to-do grown children.

A very controversial and emotionally charged situation, indeed.

With a living being, at least there is the eventual finality and certainty of death, however long it may take to arrive. But what about other less certain deaths, like the death of a career or a relationship? How do we know when there is still a seed of hope and we should keep fighting to save or, or when all possibilities have died and we should move on?

I suppose this just boils down to the age-old question of fate versus free will. Paradoxically, I believe both in the fateful flow of this universe as well as our own power to direct it.  With Benjamin, the universe drew him into my life, and with my love and care his life waxed and waned, before finally succumbing to the universal call of death (for it truly is universal). It is both true that I affected and directed his life, and that the universe had him die at the destined time. It is a dance between what can be, what must be, and what is.

Seven months later, I look back at Benjamin’s life and my decision to accept his demise and put his dying body in the trash can. How many more living beings, relationships, projects, and dreams will I have to let go of in my lifetime?

I guess I won’t know until my dance with the universe is done.

“Truth” and other lies

A while ago, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about the Trump administration and its drive to ‘win’ at all costs, including at the cost of things like decency, morality, and the truth. I agree with the speaker’s assessment; Trump is a master of manipulating the public and the media, and he and his co-horts will do anything to “win.” And to that end the lies flow out of him and his administration so quickly and rapidly that it’s hard to keep up.

The lie, or rather lies, at that particular moment were: “there were no meetings with Russians… okay there was, but there was no discussion of the election… okay there was, but there was no collusion… okay well what’s so wrong with collusion?”

Some of those who support Trump are equally willing to go to any lengths to defend him. They condemn liberal media for wanting to attack Trump, and any kind of criticism or judgment levied against Trump is a flat out lie or biased partisan attempt to bring Trump down. Every new event or statement coming out of the White House triggers another tussle between the right and left over the real version of what happened, the real version of the “Truth.”

Full disclosure, I am a Democrat and a liberal, and I get most of my news from NY Times and CNN. For many reasons which I won’t get into here, I align with the left more. But this post isn’t about the left versus the right; rather it’s about the supposed monopoly over the truth that both sides claim to have.

The liberal media has certainly made mistakes as well, and I am not saying that the left is always right and that the right is always wrong (and that wrong is always right? =P) I try my best to stay mindful of my own biases; I even downloaded the Fox News app on my phone so I can periodically listen to ‘the other side’ to get a reality check.

There are certain facts that are pretty much irrefutable by intelligent, reasonable people (like the law of gravity), but I think such facts are actually very limited. Most ‘facts’ in life are highly subjective and contextual, and it’s difficult to come to a real consensus about the Truth.

Whenever there are conflicting views or claims on the Truth, there are usually at least some facts or beliefs that the different sides agree on, and I think we should focus on those in order to start working towards a compromise. The way I see it, it’s like a Venn diagram; there is my truth, and there is the other’s truth, but there is a core Truth that is shared by both, and by starting from there we could perhaps even expand that shared ground and reconcile our different truths.  That is assuming, of course, that both sides are willing to cooperate.

So that was my philosophical musing on the topic of the truth. To conclude, I will leave you with this little mind twister:

Everything I say is a lie.




Mutual Reality


What is “Reality,” and how do we define it? Does absolute reality exist independent of our observations? And how do we coexist in society if our personal realities conflict?

A year or two ago, I was fascinated to learn about the double-slit experiment, which sought to determine the fundamental nature of matter and whether it consisted of waves or discrete particles.

In the experiment, first carried out by Thomas Young in the early 1800’s, light (a form of matter) was sent through a wall with two narrow slits. Behind the wall was another wall which captured the light coming through the slits. The experiment showed that when light went through the two slits, it behaved like waves, with the light from each slit interfering with the other and creating a rippled pattern on the back wall.

Double-Slit Experiment - light as waves

This in itself was not too surprising. However, the real shock came when a measurement device was set up to determine exactly how the light went through the two slits. When observed in this way, the light then behaved like particles, passing straight through the two slits.

Double-Slit Experiment - light as particles

In conclusion, experimenters found that matter behaved both like waves and like particles, and the mere act of observation could change it from waves to particles. This finding revolutionized the field of quantum mechanics and still remains unexplained today, leaving in place large unanswered questions about the nature of matter and whether objective reality even exists.

The fact that our observations can change the nature of matter calls into question everything we perceive to be real in this world. This phenomenon, also called the observer’s effect, suggests that what is “real” is whatever we perceive to be real, and there is no objective reality independent of our observation.

If this doesn’t send your mind into a tailspin, I don’t know what will.

Most of us go about our days treating our personal realities as if they were the absolute reality, and indeed society would fall apart if we all went about questioning the existence or truth of everything. At the same time, that is what causes people to live in alternate and conflicting realities, even as they share the same households, religions, or socio-economic status.

We humans are a social, relational creature, and we are constantly organizing and labeling ourselves in ways that both unite and divide. But right now, the sense of division is at an all-time high in the world, both in my home country, the United States, and my birth country, South Korea.

In both countries, political divisions have become so heated and so deeply personal as to become an epic battle over reality itself.  Each side is so fiercely entrenched in their own version of reality that they cannot see anything from the perspective of the other. In such a divided environment, how can we ever find common ground for people to work and live together?

I think the greatest source of hope lies in the very phenomenon that gives rise to this conflict; if our perceptions dictate our realities, and we can choose what we perceive, then we can always choose to perceive in ways that harmonize and don’t conflict with the others.

Double-Slit Experiment - light as particles Dems Repubs

Easier said than done, I know, but I think the mere awareness of this choice alone will radically change the way we relate to each other. If we don’t pay attention to the differing versions of reality and talk at each other in a messy undiscerning environment, all we will get is a chaos of waves and ripples with conflicting and interfering beliefs. But if we take a moment to see through the lens – or the slit – that the others are seeing through, maybe we will find an orderly procession of thoughts and beliefs that can run parallel to each other, even if they never coincide or merge.

Differences among people are inevitable, and therefore a certain level of conflict is also inevitable. But the same exact thing can be said for similarities and harmony, and it’s up to each of us to decide what to focus on.

At the intersection of our differing truths is a mutual truth, or mutual reality, a common ground upon which we can find mutually beneficial solutions to our problems. That is my truth, and that is how I choose to see it. Venn Diagram - My and Your Truths