27 December 2022

The Playground

To just saying yes, genchi gembutsu and grappling with fear

There is this deep-seated sense of longing for somebody to enter into my life and to tell me explicitly about who I am and what I’m supposed to do.

I was 15 when I started to realise how ridiculous of an expectation this is — how could some random person enter the stage and suddenly understand my own desires better than I?

More than a decade has now passed since that inflection point, but the original temptation continues to resurface every now and then, albeit in its weakened form.

Please, somebody just tell me whether what I’m doing is right!”

It is such an alluring mirage that presents as a sort of ejection mechanism for one to remove himself from trudging through the jungles of reality. It is the desire for a shortcut, a way out of the muck that has well started seeping into one’s boots.

This brings up a thought encountered in previous blogs: it is way harder than you think to understand who you are today, let alone who you were meant to be.

Then, how might we reasonably expect to progress from here?

. . .

A few mornings ago, I was hanging out at a neighbourhood playground close to where I live. “What the hell is Julian doing at a playground meant for children?” would be an excellent question to first ask. As it turns out, a playground provides a full spectrum of useful equipment (completely free, by the way) to engage in bodyweight exercises — of which I have been making full use of during the earlier parts of the morning when the kids and families are still asleep.

On this particular morning, I was up and about a little later than the usual schedule, and when I was still partway through a set, a young nuclear family of four started to arrive into the playground. Immediately, I started feeling out of place and, objectively, in the way of the kids’ playtime. As a result, I started cranking out reps at an expedited pace so that I could get out of the way as quickly as possible.

In hindsight, though, I now realise that the way I had approached the playground was not so dissimilar from the way one of the toddlers of the young family had approached the scene.

This is how it played out: the toddler was very obviously leading the charge, barrelling towards the top of one of the slides with arms wide open, all the while the parents were watching closely but at a respectful distance behind the child. It did not seem like the parents needed to dictate what the child should do or care about; instead, it was a free-for-all, and the slide was the first point of interest to be explored.

Within the playground, I saw pull up bars while for the toddler a whole landscape of fun awaited him.

I did not get to observe much of what happened after this point as I was preoccupied with scuttling away in embarrassment from the playground, but I think what was most interesting in that whole episode was the sense of play that was made so obvious from the young child’s approach to the unfamiliar environment.

I find it fascinating to reflect on this, because my ‘adult’ brain automatically thinks first about risks. Look at those ledges that could be tripped over, look at those heights that could be fallen off from, no, no, no! But for the child, it was all about excitement and curiosity first and foremost.

What could I play with today?” versus “What could go wrong?

The excitement and energy, as expressed by the toddler’s wide open grin and open arms, brought him all the way up the potentially-treacherous steps to the very top of the slide — victory! The pinnacle was then concluded by a journey down the slide, protected by the arms of one of the parents, just in case.

“What’s next?” would be an obvious question to ask moving on from this point. Within the overarching theme of the playground, there were still many territories yet-to-be-conquered by the child. The slide, previously appealing, may very well have turned dull once the top had been reached, or perhaps the ultimate reward of making the way down the slide was not all that satisfying — critical pieces of feedback that one could never have gleaned until after actions have been undertaken.

This synergises with the old adage of “you do not know until you have tried.” — a theme that has continuously reappeared throughout my own experiences.

These times often manifest as jarring checkpoints, especially because I take much pride in being someone who is naturally inclined towards ‘thinking things through.’ I love reading and learning about the world through that particular mechanism, but every now and then, I try to remind myself of the principle of ‘the map is not the territory.’

No matter how well thought out, thorough and intentional a map might be, it will never ever be a complete model of the underlying reality that it is trying to represent. This does not mean that maps are useless or that consideration through planning is redundant and that one should jump towards every glittering object that crosses one’s path, but it is an important recognition of error and the assumptions that are made during the creation of any map.

To say, “you do not know until you have tried.” would be akin to “you do not know a place until you have seen it for yourself.

I would think that a rational reaction to such statements would be one of fear and apprehension, guided primarily by a question like “what if things go wrong?” In most situations, the rational thing to do is to stay put rather than to delve into the mysteries that accompany change.

The one antidote I have developed for this, as based on ‘The Red Queen Effect’, is this: the world changes whether you like it or not, including yourself.

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

- Lewis Carroll

Change, by definition, is a scary and tumultuous proposition even at the best of times, when we have the option of saying yes or no. There are many other times when change is applied to us, rather than one we actively choose to engage at our own will. In the more fortunate circumstance of the latter, it is still important to realise that choosing to stay put also has its own price.

The world changes whether you like it or not, including yourself.

Maybe, instead of trying the slide again, I should try out the swing. But what if I fall off? What happens then? Should I just stick to what I know?

The initial spark of curiosity immediately gets doused by fear, which is fair enough really, as it presents itself as an intimidating challenge, in addition to simply being an attractive opportunity.

Why is it a ‘challenge’, exactly? One reason, perhaps, is because it proposes an alternative reality to what we think is possible. The default answer is to reject such a proposition, to stick to our precious, charted out map and to remain where we are, well within what we think is possible —but the price to pay is for the external world to devolve into a new form that is ever so slightly more intimidating than what it was before and to relinquish some of of our own innate strength.

Then when life suddenly flips the table onto its head (and all our precious maps with it) and forces change upon us, we are left stunned and paralysed at the inaccuracy of the models that we held so dearly in our minds.

One way to handle maps is to imagine that they are printed on these very fragile, brittle and ancient papyrus paper that is very prone to self degradation. As soon as we print it, the map has a finite shelf life until the very last day when we can no longer make any meaningful use out of it. This model could be useful because it introduces the element of time into the equation and pulls uncertainty into consideration when it comes to the construct of maps.

The finite shelf life brings about a more rigorous approach through cultivating the capacity of being able to recalibrate one’s current position at any one moment and therefore, how one charts out explored and unexplored territory — the delineation between all that is known from the not-yet.

The idea of a dynamic map, one that is fragile but capable of evolving to the underlying maps of reality, is something that could be far more useful than a map that is pristine, certain and enduring, but inaccurate.

It would be like comparing the process of deriving observed phenomena from first principles versus mindlessly following the tried-and-tested ways of previously doing things. Equations, the articulated mathematical models of reality, are only valuable so long as they are useful. Just like how it makes little sense to continue using previously-established equations that are no longer representative, it would be a futile path to remain committed to a map that is no longer true.

More often than not, the fear of “what if?” stops us dead in our tracks, even before we have had any reasonable chance to conduct exploratory missions beyond the frontiers of our comfort zones.

What if… something great happens?” is a question of the more difficult kind to confront.

One other thing that is beautiful about an ever evolving map is the reminder that life could be full of boundless opportunities that we have yet to explore, and that what we know today is not necessarily all that there could be.

To the declaration of: “This is all how things could be.”

I say, “Really?

“I think youth is about being pleasantly envious. It’s not about resigning yourself to a righteous feeling of ‘I am who I am and they are who they are.’ It’s about being frustrated that you can’t be what you want, thinking, ‘I want to be like that right now!’ and being spirited and pushing yourself and wanting so much.

That kind of youth makes our towns and societies more interesting.”

- Yasuhiro Nagata