Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Scroll - A Vietnamese Uncanny Tale

Seers, Shamans, mediums, psychics, visionary authors and all those who experience precognition of what is to come, have long captivated me. They find their place in my novel, The Ming Storytellers but also in this short tale which I wrote when I was fifteen. This is based on a true story told to me by my grandmother, Phuong Lan. I've often thought it would translate well into a screenplay, perhaps in a Twilight Zone styled series based in Asia. For at its core, is the uncanny, that is, the ambiguous blur between the paranormal and the way we conceive our reality to inform it with an occultic meaning.

Here it is, slightly edited. I hope you still enjoy it.

The Scroll

Lost in profound reflection, Bao Lee tried to visualise images from the past. His wooden villa in the country of Thanh-Hoa and that vast plain stretching out beyond the shaded veranda, how he missed them. The double teak wood doors with their outstanding carved characters that would automatically greet any newcomer, they seemed barred and vanished forever. It was a spacious villa and the main room, adorned with European furniture and a gallery of traditional portraits was the most impressive of sights. Who would have thought that in Annam, the central part of Vietnam there lived a province governor who had established an exact replica of a French lounge? Who would have thought that his opulence would be short-lived? But one had to admit it would have made quite an impression on Trang Trinh, the day he came, the day everything was to change. Blessed be Trang Trinh.

When the doorman introduced the newcomer, Bao Lee raised one eyebrow. Before him stood a man of whom he had heard volumes. Once they were seated in front of each other, Bao Lee examined Trang Trinh. Yes, it was the young clairvoyant. Or so the people of Annam referred to him. He would spend hours examining palms, studying books on astrology, comparing the stars' positions to that of the planets and meditating mystically. Sometimes his words were merely spoken and not evidenced by eventual happenings but there were many times where his prophecies found themselves beneficial to the imperial court. The young man was no charlatan. No, he had rightfully earned his doctorate and his abilities in the occult were a pleasure to ponder.

After a ceremony of silent tea-drinking, Trang was brief about the purpose of his presence. His father, previously imprisoned for political reasons, was determined to escape and continue his movement. But Trang knew that if the escape failed, his father would be shot. This was why Trang had imposed on the honourable Bao Lee who he kindly requested to do a favour for his humble servant, to do whatever a province chief had the power to do and help liberate the venerable Phuong Trinh.

"You will not be at a loss," affirmed Trang reverently. "Please consider that if you agree, I will thank you more than twice." Several bows preceded his departure.

At the time, people came from a multitude of villages to plead for Bao's assistance. The need for money was the reason for most of these visits. How wise he had been not to refuse this time. What would have become of him if he had not sent out the money order to pay for Phuong Trinh's bail? Reflecting on this, Bao breathed heavily. He ran his palms across his chest, arms and scalp. Yes, he was all there, in one piece. Thanks to Trang Trinh.

It had begun with the mysterious scroll. The minute Bao Lee set his dark eyes on the sealed scroll of paper, he almost felt as though it would be key to the rest of his existence. Trang Trinh was still overwhelmed with joy from the thought of his father's freedom. The fortune teller could not help but tremble lightly with emotion as he held the rolled paper gently, presenting it to his benefactor with a tender gaze.

"Thank you. Thank you," he said, bowing deeply. "May the path where you walk on be sprinkled with the most fragrant lotus petals."

Bao Lee reached to grasp the odd gift and better examine it. The parchment's surface felt smooth although somewhat tarnished because of the low quality. He was about to let open the wax seal when Trang Trinh placed a firm hand on his arm.

"Promise me! Promise me that at exactly half past noon on the third day of the fourth lunar month next year, you will take the scroll outside with you. Only then will you read the content of this letter."

Taken aback, Bao Lee said nothing. Then reluctantly, he nodded to honor the promise.

During the following three months, Bao Lee nearly forgot about the letter. He spent his working days normally, enjoying the cool of the evening without wondering about the scroll's message. Besides, his cousin whose house had recently crumbled in ruins from ravaging termites needed his assistance and busy days kept him away from the yellow paper resting on his bedside table. The doorman, his only companion, had left him and even though there seemed none to keep him company, Bao Lee ignored his growing curiosity. Being alone had no influence on him. It did not until the end of the year.

During the few weeks preceding the new year, Bao began to feel the first effects of unsatisfied curiosity. At first, the nagging in his chest was left unnoticed but as the days progressed, Bao's bedside table became the centre of his attention. He was ceaselessly roaming around the room even during his working hours, blowing the dust off the faded paper even when it was a product of his imagination. He might have known the dimensions by heart. The colour, he would have recognised it amongst a thousand sunset hues, but how he longed to read the mysterious contents of that scroll.

After returning from a New Year function in the late month, Bao Lee had had his share of promises. So what, he thought. If I read the letter at midnight tonight or at noon on the fourth month, what difference does it make? What will Trang Trinh do then? Curse me? The man is poor and his occupation is one which depends highly on coincidences. What if I read the scroll tonight?

Outside, the moon shone gloomily permitting only a timid light to penetrate the bamboo screens. Bao ran upstairs sweating with excitement. He would have taken three steps at a time had the stairs not made a sinister creaking sound under his mass. Thoughts hastened in his tortured mind, as he made it to his room, panting furiously. Bao lit the oil lamp on the bedside table but in his frustration, knocked it to the floor. Cursing himself for his clumsiness and forgetting the scroll for an instant, he bent low to pick up the lamp. Horror. The sight that greeted him filled him with repulsion. Channelled within the thin intervals of the wooden flooring was a thin procession of termites. He hated those insects. Was it an omen? Bao poured the remaining of his hot tea into the wood intervals. Slowly the nauseating urge to satisfy his unanswered questions disappeared and he replaced both scroll and lamp in their respectable place.

The second month saw a different man in Bao Lee. If Buddha advised patience and loyalty from his followers, Buddha's wishes would be granted. He began to attend more to business duties, granting aid to the poor farmers in the district and often suggesting innovative ideas to the leading agriculturists. The state of the province was improved and a strict barrier was erected between Bao and the scroll. But he still wondered about what he would see when the fourth month came. What if the message was an unpleasant one? It may even mean another omen. Bao frantically buried the disturbing thoughts to the back of his mind. And where was Trang Trinh all this time? No doubt, he was now laughing over the mischief that he had created in his province chief. And although the disturbing hypotheses were numerous, Bao Lee never touched the scroll until the time arrived.

The calendar showed clearly that it was the third day of the fourth month. The date was given an incredulous stare from Bao Lee. He had waited so long. He wondered what the outcome of the day would be. He spent three morning hours in profound meditation bowing to the Buddha sculpture in the main hall. At lunch, he sat before a lacquered table and began to eat the steamed carrots he had prepared. Each bite seemed to take years but he held on.

In a few minutes Trang Trinh's gift would hold no more secrets. Gone would be the insatiable pangs in his chest. Gone would be the conflict in his soul. Gone would be...a nearby clock struck the half hour. Bao Lee stood, solemn. He began to contemplate the green sight from his dining room window. How beautiful were the plains reaching towards the distant mountains. It was a long, appreciative glance.

He looked at his watch, remembering Trang Trinh's instructions: "Take the scroll outside with you. Only then..."

Outside? Well, why not.

The scroll in hand, Bao stepped outside his villa. The afternoon sun greeted him with a sudden glare. Nervously, Bao stepped down the veranda and accelerated down a grassy slope. The moment he had longed for had finally arrived. He inspected the seal and tore it off. With trembling fingers, he fumbled to unroll the scroll. His avid eyes widened, ready to devour each of the characters he would discover. But just as he raised the scroll towards the blinding sun, a sudden clamor behind him caused him to lose his grasp. The parchment fell to the ground. In an instant, the air was filled with dust and wooden particles. Succumbing to a violent cough, the astounded Bao, spun round only to witness the last wall of his mansion collapse to the ground. He realised that had he stayed one more minute inside, he would have been crushed to death.

Remembering the scroll, the trembling Bao reached forth to pick it up. Overwhelmed with a feverish wonder, as though he knew what he would find, he began to frantically unfurl it. Then, he gasped. In front of him was a blank parchment.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tools for Nurturing the Self - And Is Bragging Necessarily Bad?

One of the themes in social psychology is the concept of self-esteem and the desire that all individuals have to maintain a positive sense of self. That is, people have a genuine need to know that they are valuable and that in comparison to others, their worth is significant.

This need to maintain a positive sense of self is present in all people. It drives our behaviour, whether consciously or subconsciously, through mechanisms that are often subtle and others that are so obvious as to be unfavorably seen by others. Does this mean we are a narcissistic bunch? Not necessarily. In fact narcissism is more complex than that.

Simba likes to brag about being King

Perhaps the best example of a self-boosting behavior that is not so well seen by others is the act of bragging. An individual who self-promotes to feel good about themselves is using the not so subtle behaviour of publicly sharing and expressing their abilities or achievements. This often invites scorn from some people. I don't think it should.

Before I explain why, I want to outline some of the mechanisms through which individuals maintain a sense of worth. My experience has been that no one is immune to these strategies and we have each performed one of these at least once in our lives.

At the very least, individuals will compare themselves with friends, family members and those in their social or work circles. The dimension of comparison really depends on what an individual values.
For example, if I value intellect, I would compare my intellect with the intellect of those I know. If I were to value material gain, I would compare my wealth or earning capacity with those I know.

Social comparison is not necessarily a competitive streak. The aim of social comparison is not to come out on top in every dimension but to feel a sense of worth by knowing that in at least a few dimensions, an individual compares favorably with others. This adds to one's sense of worth.

The difference between competitiveness and social comparison is that a competitive person will aim to better others in any field or activity, regardless of whether they actually value the activity in the first place.
Social comparison is normally aimed at achieving a sense of worth without upsetting harmony between individuals. For example, I may be threatened that my sister is a better dancer than I am, if I value dancing. In order to feel better about myself, I will use another valuable dimension in my comparison. For example, it may be that I am a better cook than my sister, or that I have a better sense of style. By performing the comparison using dimensions where I have an advantage, such as cooking ability or style, rather than dancing, I can maintain self-worth.

Snow White Queen - Some Comparisons Don't Pay

Interestingly enough, when people first meet, they will size each other up. You will notice that in the first month (often year) or so of getting to know each other, two people exchange skills, achievements and experience. There is obviously some mutual reckoning of common interests to determine where they can strike a friendship, or maybe find points of discussion. But in many cases, there might also be a subtle social comparison in progress which allows each person to 'know their place' and evaluate their own worth vis a vis the other person by systematically comparing multiple dimensions to see how they rate against the other person. Again, nothing competitive, just a way for individuals to know they are valuable.

A more negative tendency of individuals for maintaining self-worth is the act of devaluing others. Simply put, an individual who feels threatened because they find someone else has a greater aptitude for something or possesses an attribute that they do not, will devalue this skill or attribute. By devaluing what others have, the individual comes out on top and maintains self-worth.

An example is if I tell someone I am buying a house and this person, who values property and perhaps had previously considered buying a house but could not secure a loan, suddenly declares that they wouldn't buy a house in this country anyway or, that they prefer to buy elsewhere or, that they prefer to travel rather than buy a house.

By changing their attitude towards buying a house, the person would no longer feel threatened with my purchase, since it would no longer be something they desire. Their self-worth is maintained with the elimination of this threat.

Cinderella is branded a thief by her step-sisters

An even more negative strategy for maintaining self-worth is the act of moralising.
The classic example is when less attractive women make moral judgments on other women that they deem more attractive. It is arguable that many women desire physical attractiveness, meaning that attractiveness happens to be a dimension that women tend to use in their social comparison.

A woman who finds herself continually upstaged by others in this dimension, may resort to moralising, that is finding behaviors in the more attractive woman that lessen her moral (or intellectual!) worth, hence shifting the balance in the social comparison. By moralising, the less attractive woman can persuade herself that she has nothing to envy from someone as 'loose' or 'stuck up' or 'vain' or 'shallow' as the more attractive woman.

The reason why this strategy is so negative is that often, the act of moralising relies on people sharing their moral observations in public. As a result, an unfortunate person may find themselves scorned for their so-called moral failings simply because an individual happened to need an ego-boost.

Basking in other people's glory
Another strategy, notably on Facebook, is the Basking in other people's glory.

To boost their self-worth, an individual may befriend people whose qualities they value and admire and who are also seen by the public as a success in their chosen field.

Through public interaction with successful people or the sharing of their friends' success in public, an individual basks in their glory, that is to say, they behave in the hope that their successful contacts' admirable qualities will rub off on them, hence achieving to raise their sense of worth. I know, I have been guilty of that.

As an extreme case scenario, this phenomenon is the reason why people who are deemed powerful, successful, popular or professionally talented, somehow acquire such fervent Facebook followings and have the most Likes on their status!
In fact, on Facebook, I have observed modest talents along their rise to success such that as they became increasingly more successful, the rate at which their friends commented on their status or liked their status increased dramatically and not necessarily because they suddenly had more friends over time (although this also happens), or because these friends always believed in their abilities. Hardly.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane - Self-worth at all costs

Putting Others Down
This is an insecure and often nasty way of maintaining self-worth. This is different from devaluing which is effectively a change in attitude resulting from a need to avoid a threat to our sense of worth.

When an individual puts another person down, they are behaving reactively. In fact, what usually happens is that the person they put down actually compared favorably in a particular dimension or even a number of them. The individual is often deeply insecure and as such, they resent the feeling of threat that the other person has inadvertently instilled inside them due to their skill or attributes. In general, as I've explained, this threat is undesirable. But it is more so for an already insecure individual. The insecure individual begins to resent the other person, even becoming angry with them. In order to establish a balance, they will react by putting the other person down. By putting the other person down, they can feel better about themselves.

This is actually an offshoot of the Freudian defence mechanism of partial identification.
By publicly identifying with a cause, idea, celebrity or other public figure known for their good qualities, a person behaves in the hope that these good qualities will rub off on them. Identification seeks to raise the person's worth in the eyes of others through endorsement of causes, ideas, celebrities and other public figures that are seen as highly worthy.

If we were to compare ourselves with celebrities, scientific geniuses, tycoons and other individuals deemed by us to be highly successful or freaking amazing, we would feel terrible. How can we compare ourselves to individuals that are seen either by history or contemporary masses to be prodigious in one dimension or another? To do so would do nothing for our sense of worth. We would fail miserably in all aspects of social comparison.

No one can be that Bad...

In fact we don't compare ourselves to them. Instead, we idolise them. We put them on a pedestal such that they are untouchable and represent an unattainable goal for mere mortals. By idolising such people, we tell ourselves that any comparison with them is ridiculous, after all, "you can't compare yourself with a god", hence protecting our sense of worth which would otherwise take a battering.

One of the questions I ask myself when I think about this strategy is, at what point do people acquire idol status? That is, when does an individual make the decision to stop comparing themselves with another because they now recognise that this other person is out of their league? It would be interesting to measure this.
I think it would possibly depend on the individual's self-esteem. For example, a film maker with a huge sense of self-worth will not shirk away from comparing themselves to Hitchcock or Mel Gibson. But a film maker with an average self-esteem, who has maybe made two modest features will only compare themselves to those in their own field with the same number and quality of features under their belt. Conversely, a film maker with low self-esteem will somehow find more comfort comparing themselves to budding film students who they believe pose little threat and with whom they can most often compare favourably.

Apart from social comparisons and basking in other people's glory, there are other means through which individuals maintain their self-worth or integrity.
One of these is the act of expressing one's beliefs, achievements or attitudes.
This aims to reassert what an individual values and helps to safeguard their integrity.

According to research, self-affirmation protects an individual from any event that constitutes an ego-threat. For example, being taken over by other's will, either through persuasion, force, authority or other means all constitute a threat to a person's integrity and is therefore an ego threat. That is, people want to know they are in control of their own selves. No one likes to lose control to another.
Often however, individuals encounter scenarios where they will feel taken over by others. Self-affirmation serves as a way to reestablish their integrity and sense of worth. This could be anything from bragging, talking about what they believe, Tweeting an attitude, re-asserting a belief, sharing an achievement on Facebook, wearing a particular item of clothing and the whole gamut of human self-expression.

As an example of an ego-threat, imagine that you are a full-time mum and you attend a party where every other mum also has a professional occupation and together they spend considerable time swapping anecdotes about their job and sharing how much they enjoy 'juggling it all' both at home and at work. After the party is over, some full-time mums would not even feel an ego-threat. But what if you did? What if you went home and felt that something had crawled underneath your skin...cognitive dissonance might be one way to put it. Then, it is very possible that you may resort to self-affirmation. So you may, for example, update your Facebook status with something like:

"I love spending quality time with my children. It is priceless."

What a caring mother she is! But this status is more than just a noble or seemingly caring statement, it is actually a tool for self-affirmation through which you would re-affirm your decision to spend time at home. Underlying the expression of your no-doubt noble sentiment is the conviction that by spending time at home, you, more than the other mothers you met at the party, can give quality time to your children and no money in the world can replace this. This brilliant self-affirmation restores your self-worth.
That is just one example. The internet is crawling with them. Some more subtle than others...

Martin Luther King - no stranger to self-affirmation

Now that I have outlined these mechanisms, I want to return to my initial example of bragging. Bragging, as I have just explained, may just be a form of self-affirmation. Bragging, especially when it is supported by a verifiable aptitude or skill, should not be seen negatively by others. It is unfortunate that bragging or any form of self-promotion so often invites scorn.
Perhaps this scorn is just a form of moralising and in fact, those who have a low tolerance for braggers often happen to be, interestingly enough, people with low self-esteem. My personal belief is that it is impossible for a mature, secure individual to feel threatened by the self-promotion of others.

If you believe you have something worthy to share, be proud of it.