After a good 20 years of my life or so cumulatively spent in Singapore, I am currently on a sojourn in Tokyo, Japan. Living in a comparatively international environment, I have literally met people from the cliched “all walks of life” – all kinds of nationality, race, educational background, age, and life beliefs. Although my journey is only about a month old (or new, if you consider how young it is), I am already finding my horizons broadened by events or encounters that I would deem unusual or even weird if I had chosen to remain ideationally in my small, cozy world.
New acquaintances and friendships in Japan, with people of starkly different profiles from me, have prompted me to begin thinking a little deeper about how we can better evaluate the value of a human being. This food for thought in modern life actually has ancient philosophical roots; Socrates called the “unexamined life” one that is “not worth living”. So, what kind of life should we lead for it to have value? What sort of person should we strive to be if we want to be seen as “of high value” by others?
Of course, there are no right answers. That is what makes the humanities and social sciences intriguing and beautiful, and it is what fuels our curiosity to continue thinking, so as to understand our motives, thoughts, and actions better. We can attempt to capture the essence of human value by broadly approaching it from a few perspectives. I will provide 3 in this article.
A) Doing What You Love, Loving What You Do
If you are passionate about what you do, that in itself increases your value. Ancient thinkers were more cautious when they advanced the same ideas thousands of years ago; many of the influential philosophers argue that value only arises if one is passionate about a task or a role that serves the general public. In other words, a human being of value is a willing and dutiful servant of his civilisation. He/She will never pursue passions in isolation, or only for hedonistic purposes alone.
My opinion is slightly different from theirs. While I owe the bulk of my understanding of value to their works in the first place, I believe it is all right, at least in the present day, to simply be passionate. And if you are fervent in your pursuits, value will naturally follow. This is the result of the mutability of our passions’ seemingly inherent value; although there are clear exceptions, in a Nietzschean way, nobody can definitively repudiate your pursuits as meaningless or unhealthy, regardless of how trivial they seem to be in the first place. Remember how our parents used to tell us gaming was a waste of time? Things seem to have slightly changed over the course of 20 years.
B) An Inconquerable Fortitude
People who do not give up have high value. A few years ago, I was in an environment where the people around me shared their dreams regularly to one another. “What a fantastic exercise”, I thought. Indeed, to be able to articulate so clearly what your objectives and goals in life are is something perhaps more than half the population in this world cannot do.
But as I started to meet more strangers, whom I sometimes invite on my analogous sampan as I moved along the waves of life, I eventually came to the realisation that some of us do not dream boldly because their family backgrounds and life experiences have not allowed them to, and it is of no fault of theirs.
As I contrasted our fates, I began to respect what some of these people are going through. Be it losing their loved ones, getting rejected by the education system for not being good enough, or perhaps even being told by society in a condescending tone not to let their better-off counterparts down, people from a different strata of society are likely to have it a lot harder than what we, driven individuals, have. And that is how I came to the conclusion that, to truly understand the value of a fellow human being, look not at beliefs and achievements solely; instead, peer into his/her personal history, and venture to find the warrior dwells within that soul, for the world’s greatest dreamer is a spineless pauper if he/she gives in at the first glance of adversity, and the world’s most unenlightened individuals are of value if they still continue to live bravely, in search for the day when their fortunes finally change.
C) An Appreciator of Nuances
Let me begin this point by refuting what it does not mean. Although personally more introverted than otherwise, I am not planning to disparage extroverts or “loud people” here; in fact, I feel that many of my extroverted friends actually possess this quality that makes this a joy to have a conversation with.
People who can appreciate nuances well are rarely bored with life. To them, life is filled with excitement, happiness, and lessons, and their task is to find it. That allows them to do what some think are impossibly dull, like taking a weekend stroll down the street of shopping malls alone, or signing up for extra classes to learn a new skill. I have had experience with this in Tokyo too; for the ordinary Tokyoite, places like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku are not that fascinating because they are basically just rows of shopping malls, parks, and streets when you remove all the adjectives preceding them. What can you do there if this has been your home for your entire life? Well, if you can appreciate the ideas of urban living, ideas of social history, and ideas of a solitary walk that takes you away from the fast-paced, competitive society that we live in today, I am sure you will be fine. You will do great with people too, because understanding the nuances of life surely helps you to understand others’ thoughts and feelings better, and also appreciate their companionship at a deeper level, however trifling the afternoon or night may seem.