|By Lee Wei Ling|
In late May, I finally returned home after a prolonged stay in hospital, followed immediately by a trip overseas accompanying my father.
Both the hospital and the various hotels I stayed in had comfortable beds. My first night home after sleeping on proper beds for almost half a year was rather uncomfortable. I immediately noticed the minimal cushioning effect of my exercise mat on the hard wooden floor in my bedroom, and the next day I woke up with my right arm and right leg aching.
I had discarded my bed in 2002 when I moved a large desktop computer, a large laser-jet colour printer, a rowing machine and a cross- trainer into my bedroom, which now functions also as my study and gym. I would have had no space to move around if the bed had remained in the room. So it was removed and I slept on the floor on an exercise mat that was rolled up during the day.
I quickly got used to sleeping on the floor - till this May, that is. I had no difficulty previously re-adjusting to the floor after a trip overseas or a brief stay in hospital. But I had not been away from home for such a long period before and it was obvious that my body had got used to the luxury of a proper bed. It revolted when it was subjected again to the hard floor.
I have always chosen a spartan lifestyle both because it was in accordance with my philosophy in life and also because I felt that it would be difficult to do without luxuries once one had got used to them. Fine clothes and jewellery, gourmet food, luxurious furniture, expensive cars - these are things I could deny myself without feeling any sense of deprivation. But I had not expected to miss having a bed just because I had slept on one for six months. This experience further strengthened my conviction that once one got used to luxuries, it was difficult to do without them.
Whether or not you believe it, my lifestyle is considerably less lavish than that of most middle- and upper-middle-class people in Singapore. But if you can afford it, what is wrong with enjoying your wealth, you may well ask? Nothing - except that one's wealth may diminish unexpectedly, as many of us discovered during the recession of the past year.
Furthermore, what was considered a luxury when one first began enjoying it, may very soon be considered a necessity. My experience of sleeping on a bed rather than the floor confirms this psychological truth. I had not expected to become used to sleeping on a bed - but I did.
While I am not proposing that we adopt the lifestyle of a Hindu or Buddhist ascetic, I think frugality and a simple lifestyle are effective ways to cope, morally and psychologically, with the temptations of the modern consumerist world.
Ostentatious mansions disgust me. I watch with disdain sports cars that can accelerate from zero to 100kmh within five seconds. What use is such power and speed on Singapore roads? Similarly, extravagant banquets, expensive wines, designer clothes, shoes and handbags - all these things are wasteful. How many young children might we have helped if we were to use the money we spend on such luxuries to upgrade our kindergartens?
Perhaps I am idiosyncratic. My furniture is simple and functional. Indeed, my chairs are old chairs that my mother's former law firm Lee and Lee discarded. I don't even have a television set or radio in my room.
I was brought up to be frugal. As children, my brothers and I were chastised if we did not turn off taps completely, or left lights or air-conditioners on when there was no need for them to be. My parents decided not to live at Sri Temasek, the prime minister's official residence, because they didn't want their children to be waited on hand and foot by butlers and servants. At Nanyang Primary and later Nanyang Girls' High School, one of the virtues the school motto emphasised was frugality.
There is a Chinese proverb - wo xin chang dan - which literally means 'sleeping on firewood and tasting gall so as to undergo self-imposed hardship'. The story behind this proverb is as follows:
During the Spring and Autumn Period in Chinese history (approximately 722-481BC) the State of Wu defeated the State of Yue, and took the King of Yue and his wife prisoner. For many years, King Gou Jian worked as a slave in Wu. When he was finally released, he returned home determined to take revenge.
For 10 years, so that he would never forget his humiliation, he slept on a pile of firewood and tasted gall before every meal. After careful preparation, he attacked and conquered the State of Wu.
The Bible too commends suffering. Romans 5:3-4, for instance, states: 'We glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.'
There is benefit to be derived from a certain degree of deprivation and even suffering. Many of the things we like in excess are bad for us - for example, fatty meat, chocolates and alcohol. Over and above denying ourselves such pleasures, outright suffering is not always bad, and in moderation, is good character training.
I have been through a fair amount of suffering in my life, mainly because of my health. If I had been given a choice to be spared the experience, I would actually have chosen to go through it because suffering taught me lessons no teacher or book can ever teach me.
As the ancients of various traditions knew, tribulation worketh character.
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
A simple life
Frugality and a simple lifestyle are effective ways to cope, morally and psychologically, with the temptations of the modern consumerist world.
I felt 'slapped' after reading these articles. I'm guilty.