Funerals and Feelings

I’ve been called heartless, cold, and at one point, a robot. I think the existence of my emotions have been put into question more times than anything else in my life. Sometimes, I even wonder if I have any of them. It sounds a little bit odd, but I may perceive emotionally-provoking incidents somewhat differently than the normal person would. Especially death.

So far, I’ve been to around four of my relative’s funerals. All of them occurred before my teenage years. Among the deceased, two I was very unfamiliar with — all I know about my late-grandfather is his name. When I came to the funeral service of the unfamiliars, I felt entirely nothing. I came, I saw, I popped-up my old gameboy and plunged myself into the world of Pokemon. Twice. Meanwhile, all of my cousins, aunts, and uncles were drowning themselves in tears in both of these morbid events.

Does that sound like something a normal kid would do? In some respect, maybe. I was not well-acquainted with them; I didn’t feel that I had a bond with any of the two. Perhaps my relatives were closer to the unfamiliars than I was. Which would explain why their deaths were so devastating to them. But what about the people I actually shared most of my childhood with?

Around two or three years ago, my eldest uncle — let’s call him Uncle Joe — passed away. In the years before his death, I would spend every Christmas and New Year’s Eve at his home. He was a very kind and humorous man. Even the antisocial kid I once was appreciated his sense of humor and warmth. I liked him a lot. Maybe he was my favorite uncle. But that didn’t stop the misfortunes he had on his last few days.

Before he passed, he fell sick. Very sick. I don’t remember the name of his illness, but it’s effects were utterly disturbing. He lost the ability to talk, to chew, and possibly also lost most of his cognitive processes. It was heartbreaking to watch. For his wife and son, and for the rest of my family. But not to me.

I visited Uncle Joe several times. I watched him struggle to eat and breathe. And I still felt nothing at the sight of one of the kindest men in my life dying, right in front of my eyes. Back then, I thought nothing of it. I didn’t realize how inappropriate and bizarre my response to this happening was. The more troubling thing was that I didn’t shed a tear when he was lying in a casket.

On Uncle Joe’s funeral day, almost all of my relatives showed up. They all had magnificent speeches for sending him off to the great beyond (by the way, I don’t believe in an afterlife). Almost all of them were sobbing, crying all the way until my uncle’s coffin was lowered into the ground. I forced myself to cry at that point.

I had to make myself cry when Uncle Joe died. Not because I wanted to be sad, but because I wanted to fit in. I didn’t like being the odd man out. It’s not a nice feeling. Yet what I did isn’t the right thing to do. I faked an emotion just so people wouldn’t think I’m a freak. Even though the evidences indicate I am one. The only time anything’s been different was on the first funeral I attended.

One of my other uncles — let’s call this one Uncle Sam — died when I was in elementary school. We didn’t talk to each other much. The only times my family met with him was on morning church sessions (which I rarely took part in because kid-me doubted the value of religion). Our houses were pretty close to each other’s, but something kept him from strolling into our doorstep: Uncle Sam had a limp.

On the mornings we met at church he would be dragging his lame leg forward. It’s not an easy task, I assure you. He was pretty young, but everyone could see how exhausted he looked when he entered the church’s halls. I noticed his sweaty and pale face as well and didn’t give a damn.

When the church sessions finished, Uncle Sam would ask my mother if we could offer him a ride home — he also had severe financial issues. My mother always said yes. Sadly, kid-me had other plans that couldn’t wait. The spoiled little brat that I was forced my mother to get home as quickly as possible after each church session ended. That meant leaving poor Uncle Sam in the parking lot to drag himself home. Alone. Again and again and again, until a few years later when he died.

When I heard the news, I couldn’t give less of crap. The dude died, so what? All that meant is that I would lose a lot of my free-time to show-up at my limp uncle’s crappy funeral. If anything, I should be crying for the precious hours I’ll be throwing away. If I could meet kid-me now, I’d punch him in the face for how wrong he was.

I turned up on Uncle Sam’s funeral bored and saddened by the thought of my lonely Playstation. I didn’t have anything to do there, so I thought I’d be bored. I lined-up with my relatives to say goodbye to Uncle Sam before his casket is closed-off for good. That’s when I saw the lifeless face of Uncle Sam.

I broke down in tears. My legs went weak and I started to scream, to moan. To weep. It was a confusing state to be in. My mind raced, my heart pounded like a jackhammer. I felt horrible. It’s as if I was struck by a shovel square in the chest. Seeing this, my sister and my mother lifted me away from the crowd.

I sat on the ground, hugging my knees. All the while, tears wouldn’t stop rolling down my cheeks. I kept on crying and I could not stop. I wanted, needed to say “sorry.” It was the first time I’ve ever felt guilt. I yearned to rewind the clock, back to the days when I left Uncle Sam alone in front of the church. But I couldn’t erase my mistakes, I couldn’t change the past.

To this day, I still hate myself for what I did to Uncle Sam. Maybe that’s why I can’t cry in funerals anymore — or at other similarly upsetting events. None of them affected me the same way Uncle Sam’s did. It’s not that I don’t have emotions, it’s that every death I see is overshadowed by Uncle Sam’s. All because I  didn’t give Uncle Sam the rides home he deserved.

For all it’s worth, I’m sorry, Uncle Sam. I know that it’s basically useless to type this apology, but I truly am. I didn’t have a heart in those days, but now I do. I’m sorry I didn’t get one sooner. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me. I’m sorry.




How Indonesia’s Schools Murder Children’s Curiosity

As you can probably tell from the title, I was born in Indonesia. My first few years of childhood was spent in a small suburb called Gading Serpong in the province of Banten. There weren’t many schools there, just a few minor educational institutes barely worth mentioning. But among them, was Sow Elementary (it’s a made-up name, to avoid defamation of character lawsuits), a prestigious elementary school with an outstanding reputation in Western Java.

Sow Elementary’s graduates — both from elementary and high-school — were, and still are considered to be highly intelligent. Its alumni are commonly found to earn passage to the University of Indonesia, Bandung’s Institute of Technology, and other remarkable Indonesian universities (those names may sound unimportant to foreigners, but to be accepted by them here, means you’re part of the cultural elite). It’s basically the M.I.T. of elementary schools in Indonesia. Knowing this, my parents decided to enroll me in its classes. Since they thought I had the potential to be smarter than the average children of my age.

Perhaps my parents thought so because when the other children read story books, I was reading encyclopedias. Not because I was smarter than them, it’s simply because I had different tastes in reading materials. I remember the days when I used to keep my mother awake at four in the morning, just because I wanted to keep on reading and being read to; to know how stars are formed, how gills function, and various other tidbits of information. I was a curious kid, but that ended when I stepped into Sow Elementary’s halls. 

On the first few days of class, I already felt uncomfortable. Rather than spending my time learning about the intricacies of the universe, I was thought one basic rule: that grades are everything.  Instead of studying for the sake of learning, I read books and answered tests so I could get high scores in my yearly report book. I lost all semblance of interest in science on account of Sow Elementary’s teaching methods.

Maybe my previous statement sounds overtly cynical, but it is the truth. My previous motivation to learn, to stay-up all-night reading, was to find explanations for how the world works, and how it originated. Sow Elementary didn’t give me the answers to these questions, they gave me the tools I needed to get good grades. An example is necessary to illustrate how destructive this truly is.

Among my childhood self’s most-hated subjects was physics. I thought that it was a useless subject to spend my time on. Why? Plainly for the reason that one of the things that I had to memorize was the various wave-lengths of light, — such as infrared and ultraviolet — their characteristics, why they’re invisible to the naked eye, and so on. Clearly I didn’t need to know this, they had no other use than just being there. Yet I memorized all of them, to avoid the lectures I would get for getting bad grades.

What did I learn about the different wave-lengths of light in the end? Absolutely nothing significant. I memorized everything I knew would show-up on tests, but I still didn’t know why they exist, or how humanity can use them. Not until I entered college did I understand that they can be used to infer the components and existence of far-away stars hidden by gas clouds (I don’t know about you, but that blew my mind). And I did not know that by enrolling in a physics class in high-school. I knew, because I read a book outside of any educational institution. 

This example showcases how Sow Elementary, and most likely many of Indonesia’s schools miss the point of education. They teach their students to achieve impressive academic results, not the uses or purposes of the things they learned of. Why would anyone want to study something they think is useless? The pressure to earn high scores could be one of the countless messed-up reasons.

Sow Elementary students were penalized harshly for performing poorly on tests. If you unfortunately had enough low-marked tests, you’ll have to stay after school for an extra hour or two. Get enough of them for a year, and you’ll be locked in a classroom for a whole year with the lowest-performing students of the school (I was one of them). It’s borderline discrimination that’s based on numbers.

But education isn’t about grades. It’s about stimulating the students’ sense of curiosity. To compel them to know about as much of the universe as they can. So that they may someday make an astonishing discovery, or even change the world. If schools continue to overvalue these arbitrary numbers, students will continue to see education only as a burden.

How many children actually enjoy going to school? There may be some, but when I was a kid, my friends liked school because there they get to meet their friends. Probably only one or two of them — the ones commonly referred to as “nerds” — legitimately had the urge to learn. And even this minority of students were sometimes forced by their parents to excel in lessons they didn’t even care about. Children don’t go to school to study, they sit through classes because they have no other choice.

Thankfully, I now enjoy sitting through the classes of my university. The lecturers there are excellent at demonstrating how reading our textbooks can give us the answers to our life-long questions. I think this is how elementary-, middle-, and high-schools should approach teaching.

Make students realize that what they’re cramming their heads with are useful, and ultimately beneficial to their individual lives. Let students see the benefits they can have from the endless theories, facts, and formulas locked inside academia, and I can guarantee you they’ll be fighting over front-row seats in class.  

The Insignificance of Man

The battle between science and religion has been going on for centuries. Each side has an opinion for how and why life, the universe, and even our purpose exists. Religion offers explanations related to boosting the ego and value of mankind — that man is god’s ultimate creation. Science puts up observations that say humans are creatures, animals even, born simply because the universe allows us to — evolution, the possibility of life on other galaxies, etc. However, I would like to say that both sides devalue and increase the value of humans respectively.

Let’s start with religion. As I’ve stated, religion would like us to believe that man is the ultimate goal of creation. That we are the species god selected to enter the afterlife (heaven or hell) and spread his gospel throughout the planet. This sounds preferable to our egos, and it does make even me feel a little special. But does that mean our purpose is only to obey and serve a divine deity? I think the obvious answer is yes.

For the sake of argument, let’s say we are god’s favorite species. We have advantages over other species of animals in that we are able to conquer the earth, and actually monumentally affect our ecosystem — no animal can cause a thermonuclear winter. Some biblical stories even say that god parted an ocean for Israelites. Clearly, these things show that god really, really loves us. He loves us so much that he gave each and everyone of us a specific purpose, that are all part of his godly plan.

Do we have a say in what kind of purpose we should have? Are we allowed to decide who we want, or who we will be in this blue planet? If everything is part of god’s plan, including our lives, then I would say that we do not. In the eyes of religion, all we are is a race of obedient, unquestioning slaves. Does this sound like the decision of a kind, loving, altruistic deity? Of course not.

I am not trying to tear religion down. I am merely analyzing, and pointing out the facts laid out by the stories written in ancient scrolls. Perhaps it sounds like an overtly cynical analysis on  these innocent, spectacularly old pages. But to those who would say that I’m coming down harshly on religion, please look at the texts of the holy books with clear eyes. The eyes science has allowed mankind to have.

A common stereotype associated with science, is that it cheapens man’s worth. Look at how science treats humans. Science says we come from apes, and that our lives are just formed through blind luck (forgive me, quantum physicists and cosmologists, but explaining the possible explanations for the existence of our universe would take too much time and greater minds that mine). And it is true, science does not see humans as miraculous beings with distinguished goals. In fact, on the cosmic scale science would say that we are barely more significant that ants. However, I think that science treats man more valuably than religion.

In religious stories, we are said to have come from dirt, from dust even. What does science say? Based on countless experiments and observations, science has found that the molecules and atoms within our bodies can be found in stars. That means: we are made of star stuff. The same things that composed and constructed the sun, the solar system, and our very own Milky Way. Isn’t that a little more impressive than dirt?

The impressive explanations don’t stop there. Not only are we birthed by star stuff, the processes that led to the culmination of man is equally astounding as well. In the days before organisms existed (plants, animals, bacteria, etc) were genes: microscopic self-replicating objects. These genes eventually shaped what we call life; the afro-mentioned organisms.

At the dawn of life, there were only extremely simple organisms. The world was populated exclusively by bacteria and amoeba. After several millennia of evolution, organisms expanded their domain onto land and air. All the while, at the initial conception of the genes and during the organisms’ expansion, a fierce battle was fought between everything alive in the planet.

For an organism to thrive — reproduce and spread their kin on earth — a prize needs to be won. Life, and room on our planet isn’t free. In fact, life and dominance of this planet is a never-ending contest. A contest won by organisms who can adapt and exploit the playing field and their competitors.

From the moment an organism is born, he’s responsible for his and his ancestors’ fates. Each and every organism bore this responsibility before they could even walk — or crawl or fly. Including us, the homo sapiens. We fought over food, territories, and the chance to procreate.

While our rival species developed longer limbs, stronger jaws, and sharper teeth we concentrated on something else. Humanity’s prime advantage, what separates us from what we call animals, is our incredibly complex brain. We have the ability to communicate, foresee the consequences of our actions, plot our course in the world, and many more. Hence our ancestors’ capabilities to bring down beasts of that were much stronger, and larger than them; these skill were extremely handy and after hundreds of thousands of years, handed us the trophy of the chance to reproduce without limit.

After all I’ve written, do humans still look small? On the cosmic scale, we matter as much as a speck of dirt on asphalt. But, on this earth, on this planet we call home we are special. More so than what religious dogma says we are. We are part of the miracle called life, champions of a global conflict, and the only apes with enough complexity to develop an ego. I dare say that’s much more impressive, and empowering than us being created from dust with the flick of a finger.

Religion may tell us we are at the apex of creation. And science says otherwise. Yet instead of condescending humans as mere slaves, science showcases how awesome and miraculous our existence is. Science doesn’t dictate our purpose, it gives us the opportunity for us to realize that we have the freedom to be whoever we wish to be. We have, after all, rightfully won the right to choose.