Exploring regret

Yesterday I was going out for dinner with a group of good friends and afterwards everyone wanted to go to karaoke. I wasn’t in the mood for it, and I guessed from past karaoke experiences that I wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. Pressure was high, so I caved in to say Yes, but at last I didn’t go. Instead, I went back, had a good chat with a friend, slept early and woke up fresh.

I made the right decision; I wouldn’t want to trade my sleep for something I didn’t quite enjoy. Yet surprisingly, a part of me still thought of not going for that karaoke. Was that regret? If so, why should I regret something I didn’t want to do and feel like doing?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff”, you say. There’s no point to regret, right? What happened already happened.

There is a point to regret actually. It is a thing I can explore. You know, every person is a curious thing – including myself. In the past, I would dig into myself with these kinds of introspective questions. Now I’ve got a better tool to dig – meditating directly on my sensations – and I wanted to play with what I found. Plus, given that in the future I will make a lot more important decisions I may as well get used to that feeling of “Darn, what a dumb move”.
Regret is like my uncle who doesn’t visit me often, so I want to hang out with him more when he comes. What is regret really like?

In reality, I don’t think my friends cared that much about me not going – they are good friends after all. Bear with me though for the sake of this exploration.

As I closed my eyes, sometimes regretful thoughts would pop up. My face would cringe; my lips would tighten. I must have looked from outside like I was in pain. Interestingly, this state was very similar to the state of intense focus. I did not have too many self-loathing thoughts like “Omg you stupid freaking anti-social hermit” but rather critical questions: What would have happened if I were there? What did I miss? Who were upset by me?

I was mostly calm throughout. However, specific thoughts triggered these intense sensations. These thoughts went like this: “I wasted a chance to be with the group of people I enjoyed being with but would rarely have the chance to see them again. I also wasted a chance to see myself and other people shining (or being silly, at least for me) in singing. More importantly, it was an opportunity to practice finding something fun in what I don’t usually enjoy, for the greater sake of being with people I want to be with. Basically, I was being stupid. I might have hurt my own image in my friends’ eyes. Worse, I might have hurt my friendships.”

I had no valid excuses not to go; I had all the time in the world. Even my friends who would have exams and work the next day decided to go, what excuses did I have? None. Because it is the nature of excuse; it is something we used to mask the only reason – the real reason – we do anything. I did not go because I didn’t feel like going. I knew I should have gone, but I couldn’t help it. Would it have been fun? Most likely. Then why the hell did I not go? Because I didn’t feel like it.

I learned quite a few things from this short meditation. I realized my deeper fear is no longer the fear of regret but rather is the fear of being stupid, of not doing what the situation is best for, and lastly of upsetting other people. Another interesting observation is how hard it was to hate myself. I did tell myself “You were dumb, Khuyen” but not as a fuming boss but rather a half-joking friend. I also faced the fear of upsetting other people, something many of us shared. This experience is a good preparation for the future where I will have to make difficult decisions that affect even more people. I will have to say No to a lot of temptations and less important stuff. I will have to stick to my guns. Every decision divides, and I have to accept it.

I used to hate my over-musing tendency. I hated the inner chattering in my head – why couldn’t he shut up? Now I accepted that he would always be there anyway, so I’d rather understand and be a better friend with that guy. Some times he can do a lot of good thing.

A wiser workaholic

Yesterday I woke up, turned on the phone and read a long post about Elon Musk – the raddest man in the world. I felt so motivated – this guy is devoting his life to something really worthwhile i.e humanity! Then I saw this quote by C.S Lewis – “The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”. I told myself: “Motivation is rising. I have to act on it fast.”

Then today when I visited a new place, ate good food and relaxed, I started to feel a bit guilty. I’m chilling and it’s weird…

Why can’t I relax like other people? Why can’t I just sit and watch Youtube for hours? “It’s holiday duuuude!” – part of me yells. In the past, I would cave in. I would binge surf the Internet, reading random articles and feeling not completely satisfied afterwards. I hope I’m wiser now. In my past dealing with all sorts of temptation from computer games to delicious food, I know that swinging from extreme abstinence to absolute coma-inducing feast is not sustainable in the long run for me. A relaxed yet disciplined approach works much better. Lifelong learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

Where on earth does this guilt of not working come from? Perhaps it is an influence from the workaholic culture here in college. People work hard here. Perhaps it is just me — I don’t think I’ve pushed myself that hard during the year and therefore don’t deserve an extended break. More importantly, “the soul’s joy lies in the doing.” I don’t want to work hard, play hard. I want to work smart, play smart. In fact, I don’t want to separate work and play. Call me idealistic, because I am.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist most well-known for his work on flow, wrote in his book Finding Flow that we have a problem with leisure. Simply put, many of us don’t know how to really enjoy ourselves either alone or even with others. I’ve surfed the internet, watching clips of video game trailers until I crashed just to wake up the next day feeling I’ve wasted the whole day before. Worse yet, I’ve been part of pseudo face-to-face conversations with each person swiping their smartphones. I think I have enough of such stupidity to become wiser now.

For those who are feeling guilty for chilling (I guess there aren’t that many…), here are some comforting thoughts, a few reasons for being hard-working instead of idleness when alone:
Focus: If you have ever kept switching TV channels without settling down to any, you know how lousy it feels. Having lots of energy without a focus simply makes us restless. Planning everyday on what, when and how long to work, with time to breathe, to play, to pursue creative endeavors and most importantly for connecting with people is much more enjoyable. Plus, planning is not a plan. A plan will always change, yet planning is still necessary because it gives us a sense of direction so that our energy can flow smoothly to where we want rather than leaking via idleness.
A sense of achievement: We humans are experts at adaptation. If you are a normal person, the 30th ice-cream scoops you have may not be as tasty as the first one. Spacing out pleasurable treats gives each pleasure more potency because of the added element of desire. we get more pleasure from eating after physical training. Similarly, we get more pleasure from chilling after doing work. We feel like we have earned it.
Minimizing regrets: Yes I’ve read researches saying that the top regrets of people by their deathbeds include “Not spending enough time with my loved ones” and “working too hard”. But I don’t think writing this strictly fits in with my definition of “work”. I see it as a constant practice, which is a key to long term satisfaction. I know I have to keep training my writing muscles or else they will atrophy. As of writing this, I’m feeling the discomfort. Laziness is kicking in, and I have to fight against it in order to grow! Moreover, I believe this writing may offer a perspective useful to people who are chilling hard, binge watching series after series. With that belief in mind, I don’t regret time spent on this post.

On a final note, a common fear I and many friends share is FOMO – the fear of missing out. I have to face it. What am I missing out? Some pleasures. Is it bad? Maybe. Or maybe I’m taking myself too seriously. I’m still scheduling time to call and keep in touch with friends and family. I count time with people as fun and I make sure I have a bit of that everyday. At the same time, I need to have time in isolation forcing myself through discomfort of learning and discipline because it makes my day worthwhile.

What does it mean for this summer? I will work hard and learn as much as I can while still spending quality time with friends and sleeping well. I plan everyday to read, write, build and learn. And keep people updated. Balance will be the real challenge this time

“The ideal family”?

Last week, I had a chat with a friend about my favorite topic, the Vietnamese family. The “traditional Vietnamese ideal family”, we both agreed, was one where the husband worked more to support the family and had a lot of say in big matters whereby the woman would take care of household issues and childrearing. Each person has a well-defined role (by the contract they made among themselves and by social expectation).

Nothing new here. This ideal version says a lot about our cultural values: unity and harmony above all else. If most husbands and wives are happy with this “ideal”, society will be cohesive. There will be some outliers, but most families would hope to become the ideal.

My friend then mentioned that such ideal might not be the ideal after all. The husband can feel too much entitled for his contribution (is that what a lot of men feel? I’m somewhat disappointed of my own race… I understand that males need to have big egos to survive and thrive and procreate from evolutionary perspective, but that’s a bit too much. Big ego is the nemesis of unity).

This isn’t too new either, for I have lived overseas for several years. In the West, invididual right is at the core of how people think about living; consequently, the division of labor in the family is less pronounced because every member of the family should be treated and contribute to the family on roughly equal terms.

I was raised by a widowed mother, so these points weren’t immediately applicable. However, I thought about the host parents I was living with in Saigon. The division of labor was clear: My aunt would do all the housework; my uncle would spend time on business. My aunt often came back home earlier, had dinner and enjoyed TV programs while my uncle came home late after hanging out with his friends and went upstairs to read online news or play computer games. Ok, so what do all these observations mean?

Living with other people and seeing their different lifestyles have two distinct benefits on me. First, I became a lot more accepting. It’s no surprise that as we meet more people, we withhold our judgments more readily because everyone is different! My aunt and uncle chose to live that life, so it must be something they both prefer. How can I know I am better to judge that it’s not as good? If a drug addict tells me he’s enjoying his life, what can I do? Live and let live, right?

Thinking this way requires two assumptions: first, people know what they like. Second, they are telling us what they really think. We can examine these assumptions, but that’s for another philosophical essay. For now, pointing out these two assumptions should help us see that there are ways to counter this argument.

The second benefit, which is more important for me, is that as I had more exposure to different lifestyles, I understood much better what made me tick. I personally would not want to live this way, having too little interaction with my future spouse. Admittedly, there must be personal time and space. But part of the social contract of marriage includes time together. Conversation is not always necessary, but at least one must feel the presence of each other in everyday life (literally). I believe that “Quality of a relationship = Time spent together x Depth of each interaction.”, as mentioned in my previous post on friendship.

I appreciate the value of such division of labor in the family. It frees up the husband to earn enough money to support their needs. It also lets the traditional wife perform what she’s good at: taking care of household issues. It’s great if the goal is to maximize efficiency in dealing with money and household matters. But that may not be the only goal, especially up to the point where the family has sufficient financial support. The goal now maybe to spend more quality time together and rejoice, not get bored, in each other’s presence. In the end, how can love and mutual understanding, the most important factors of marital satisfaction, grow without interaction?

How much is “enough interaction”? Our preferences keep changing over time, let alone the fact that we have to compromise that with our partner’s too. That takes a lot of planning and constant re-evaluation of our plans. A few of my friends told me “Khuyen are you crazy? This is not a project!” To which I replied “What does “a project” mean for you? For me, it’s a series of steps to achieve a goal”. Building a family, getting fit or finding a job are all projects in that sense, and to do a project well I need to start with a design recipe.  That’s learning in real life.

I’ve seen a number of unsuccessful marriages, divorce or worse – still staying together yet already divorced in hearts. While I’m no counselor, have no experience or even know the full circumstances to judge, these stories still pain me: Why do we make bad choices in such a big matter? (and it’s not one single choice but rather a series of choices, each leading up to the next one in a slippery slope). I need to know the Whys before I can help.

Some people worried for me that I was thinking too much, “You still had the entire young adult life in front of you to explore the world, why bother thinking about this, Mr Old-n-Wise?”
I appreciate their concerns. I don’t think I’m spending too much time on this; it’s only one blog post, a few hours of thinking here and there. Maybe a few hours less from Facebook (still surfing too many random feeds anyway). Plus, for something of this big, it doesn’t harm to think in advance. Learning from both positive and negative examples is never wasted. And isn’t seeing the lives of people part of this great exploration?

As usual, after writing a blogpost I end up with more questions than before. How can I and my host parents think so different? Is there really a better version of the “ideal family”? What if they haven’t tried living a different lifestyle and thus not having enough information to choose? If so, what is my role?

I recalled another friend’s favorite quote: “You can’t change the way people live, but you can live the way that will make people change.” Perhaps that’s the answer for me now.

p/s: Perhaps I have been thinking about this topic since my brother is getting married soon. Can you believe that my 3-year-older brother who used to play pranks with me around the neighborhood is marrying in less than a month!?

p/s2: I initially planned to write a looooong reflection from these two months living in Saigon, but with this rate of writing I probably won’t have time before school to clear up all my notes to publish. At least I recorded all of them down.