The Limits of Humans (and Why We Need Each Other)

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my mom who recently had hip replacement surgery (she’s recovering well BTW — thanks for asking!).

Of course, like any melancholic writer, an emotional event like this always leads to some self-examination and a lot of thinking. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the limits of our human experience.

Because in the personal development/motivation space, there’s this myth that “anything is possible.” That’s why you keep seeing cheesy posters with slogans like “whatever the mind can believe, it can achieve.”

But the truth is, as human beings, we have limits which are very real. The whole idea behind this website is that we need to be aware of our limitations — so we can make our lives better.

And having been humbled with some real face-to-face limitations recently, here’s what I’ve learned though my experience. I guess you can call it my confession.

 

Privilege & the Myth of the Self-made Person

There’s another myth that modern society promotes, and it’s the self-made person. Like the hero from our favorite movie, he takes on the world’s biggest challenges alone. Against all odds, only he can save the day. And he does.

Know anyone who’s like that? Maybe she thinks she’s the greatest of all time. The self-professed Ronaldo on your futsal team who always shoots first, thinks later. The kiasu solo player at office who wants to do it his way, then take credit for everything. Or the millionaire on stage at creepy inspirational events: “Look at me, I made it on my own! You can do it too! (if you pay RM 888 for my Diamond-level membership.)”

Of course, logically we know that no one succeeds completely on their own. At every step along the way, people help us. Heck, even the whole way society works is so that individuals (within lawful boundaries) have freedom to find their own success.

The question is, do we realize it or not?

Lest anyone claims this only applies to average people and they’re a superhuman who doesn’t need anyone, here’s a thought experiment: Instead of living in the Internet-blessed, peaceful, free society you grew up in, what if you were born as a slave in the 1900s in the middle of a war? Do you think you’d be as happy and successful as you are today?

It’s called privilege not because we have it and others don’t. It’s called privilege because we have it, and we don’t even realize how lucky we are.

 

It Takes a Village

“It takes a village to raise a child.”
– African proverb –

Forgive me for this one, but as a single person living on my own — I often become the privileged asshole I just described above: believing I can manage everything perfectly myself.

This normally works: I’ve got my daily and weekly schedules perfectly optimized — health, career, relationships, hobbies. Running smoother than a Toyota factory. Until there’s an emergency of course… like a sick family member. Then I feel I’ve run out of time to juggle everything, and my life descends into chaos.

But recent events have made me think, how much more difficult would things be if I didn’t have family, extended family, and friends to help out?

You may have a lot of money, but what if you don’t know what to do? (Of course, you could pay professionals, but how do you know who to trust?) Or you might be the smartest person in the room, but what if you don’t have the physical skills to help? And what if you’re sick in bed yourself, but need to take care of someone else?

(Note to self: stop trying to do it all on your own.)

It’s taught me to have more empathy for people in difficult situations. How do you juggle all your responsibilities in life? How does a single mother raise three children when she has to work two jobs? Much respect.

Reflecting on the past two weeks, I’ve really come to admire how older generation people rely on each other when times get difficult. Everybody gives, and everybody takes. It reminds me of a simpler, gentler time — perhaps when society was less individualistic, and neighbors really knew each other.

Maybe we’ll never get back to those days, but I think I’ve learned a lesson: to give more to help others, and to unashamedly ask for help when I need it.

Thank you, my village.

 

Time Is the Ultimate Limit

“Your parents are not young anymore — at this age, every day is a bonus.”
Father

This always hits me in the feels. Knowing your own time is limited is one thing (plus your mind has a way of conveniently forgetting you’re gonna die one day), but imagining when your loved ones aren’t gonna be around is terrible.

It’s sobering, especially for someone who’s basically built his life on principles of freedom and doing whatever the f*ck he wants.

But we’re not immortals. Time takes its toll on our human bodies. And eventually our health starts to fail.

Going back to villages and society. Because if we look carefully, we’re not just random individuals who spawned out of nowhere with 80 years to spend on Instagram. Instead, each one of us comes from a long line of ancestors, who probably worked their asses off so their descendants –you and me — could lead our privileged lives today.

I don’t know if you can say that we, the heirs of generations upon generations of humans have a responsibility to live responsibly. It seems like such traditional Asian thinking to say we owe it to our family and ancestors. And yet, putting things on a timeline always gives us perspective:

Knowing how precious our time is, am I really spending my life on the right things?

 

– – –

 

Today, my mother can already walk a bit without a walking stick. Last weekend, we flew back together to my hometown where she will continue her recovery. And hopefully in three months, she will freely roam the streets of Osaka on holiday.

Life gives us time, and sometimes we have the privilege of good things and good health. Till that day when we come to the limits of our frail humanity.

But what makes everything worth it is the love that we share.

 

– – –

 

Pic from Pexels.

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4 comments

  • Most people experience happiness and sadness in relation to another person. For example, in comparison to a slave in the 1900s, I should be happier.

    However there is another side to human beings that being happy equates to contentment and laziness. “If we keep looking down on people who had it worse than us, then when do we look up and strive for improvement?” In other words, there is a part of us that wants more.

    The limits of humans means that there is limited lifespan in this life to strive for more joyfully. There’s no time for regrets and what ifs.

    • Amen. Like most things in life, it’s a tricky balance to find. Contentment vs being complacent. Desire to improve vs gratitude. May we all find the right balance in our lives!

  • “Instead of living in the Internet-blessed, peaceful, free society you grew up in, what if you were born as a slave in the 1900s in the middle of a war? Do you think you’d be as happy and successful as you are today?”

    -This is something that I’ve been very keenly aware of lately, and it’s something that immediately brings me back to a place of gratitude when I feel like I’ve had a bad day, or when my inner brat threatens to take me down with negative emotions like envy, anger and discontentment. It’s a reminder that no matter how bad my day has been, someone else is having it much worse. And whatever it is I’m unhappy with, I’m still experiencing this unhappiness from a place of privilege while many others are too, but with considerably less comfort, opportunities and resources.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Aaron. I hope your mom has a speedy recovery.

    -Michele.

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