Hi everyone! My name is Adele and I’m a Secondary 3 student from Hong Kong.
To most, ‘mental health’ is an overused buzzword that at best is a conversational currency; a status cemented by its ambiguity. Swarmed by the unbidden input of common skeptics and pseudo-intellectuals, the definition of well-being has become irretrievably convoluted. If you can read between the lines, you’ll find that I struggle to summarize without generalization; another irony that pains my psyche.
Sanity is confusing. To put it in perspective, nothing feels better than the momentary comfort of a caffeine-fueled cleanup craze. Of course, the aftermath of a midday breakdown is, at any rate, less than welcome. Instincts are unreliable parameters – when we fantasize about a society without consequence, the endurance of human sociability usually isn’t taken into account. Overdosing on a six-pack of Red Bulls prompted your roommates’ sudden niceness, the local convenience’s drinking policy, and a frantic call from your childhood dietician. Detailing past trauma in a mid-lesson diatribe against the school system unnerved your students, set off their parents, and made the passing supervisor withdraw from work. In fact, alluding to the types of people who complicate our mental stability, cynics and highbrows are but people who care too much; the rest too little.
In popular culture, our experiences are portrayed as some sought-after rarity; a rose-colored genre steeped in the legacy of teenage starlets. Perhaps the most striking example to date, Heathers made history by satirizing the onscreen convention of glamorizing mental illness; only to have its warning signs misread by a barrage of teenage dramedies decades after. Dedicatedly subcultural, the 1989 classic took a look at John Hughes and withered into an ashtray; emerging a catchphrase machine with quotable killers at its wheel, only to become more mainstream than ever. (Untangling commerce and consumerism proves to be as ludicrous as equating Heather Chandler to Mother Teresa; both look good and work well, sad truths nonetheless.)
Whether the cause is pity, annoyance, concern, or affinity, we are all products of others’ unbridled judgment; as they are of ours. Some view this as a beacon of hope, finding hope in universal empathy. Others interpret it as a crude overstatement, deeming optimism futile. While we gladly filter our acumen with black-and-white principles, dichotomy seldom co-exists with how we think and feel.
This is when we turn to theory. Oscar Wilde speaks our mind in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” Sadly, the utopia Wilde hypothesizes exists only in the minds of blonde, conniving aristocrats – if you catch my gist. In a tired effort of compensation, some of us resort to camouflage while others ridicule fragility. Living in a world where civility dictates our value (let’s save ethics for a better time), neither is a sustainable solution.
Chinese philosophers, on the other hand, came up with a few. Before being tossed into the age-worn system of back-to-back recitation, their teachings were transcribed into kindergarten cartoons. In a rainbow robe and Manchurian hairdo, fun-sized Confucius would sing about the innate quality of goodness to thunderous applause. ‘性本善’ was what everyone was taught; ‘all humans are good’ was what the three-year-olds learned. In some ways, this was our first lesson – treat other people like you would a Disney princess. And we liked what we learned; babies do fine without moral complexity. It’s usually the grown-ups that don’t.
Lounging in the backseats of middle-class speedways, the newest wave of Hong Kong pre-teens are Asian but not too Asian; while John Doe and friends were incessantly name-dropped, Mencius and company pervaded our textbooks. Speed forward to grade 8 – amidst a time of constant school pressure and social skill deficit, Confucius re-appeared in our curriculum; this time in the form of a worksheet illustration. Now a part of the Three Character Classic, ‘性本善’ sat idly atop a mountain of block letters, basking in its ever-elusive glory.
The teacher condensed moral conundrums into shallow good/bad questions; the smart kids countered with a uniform glibness. I raised my hand to give a formless answer, hoping to trump my peers with my cool, holier-than-thou aloofness. I succeeded, only to drown in the grey area I so favored.
Realizing that neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ satisfied my need for confirmation, I—to my own surprise—searched for an answer between the lines. 性本善 is written in classical Chinese, an ancient dialect that is often deciphered through modern translation. As I poured through the passage again and again, 善 caught my eye. 善 is a beautiful word; to us, it means empathy, caring, and above all – kindness.
Simplicity might be attractive, but kindness can’t be bound by purist ideology. Funnily enough, past efforts to do so so prove to be the most modern thing there is. You rush to work, school, or conclusions – you don’t rush kindness. I never thought I’d make a childhood quote my doctrine; but here I am, 10 years later, living by the word of dead men. That, ultimately, is the philosophers’ solution.
As I begrudgingly venture into adolescence, age has become my only métier. Being fourteen, I still have plenty of time to trip and fall and do things differently. Maybe I’ll learn something along the way, when I feel like it.
Mental health has no perfect state. But kindness offers clarity, and I hope I can too.
Contact Adele Leung at email@example.com
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