The ABCs of Living Beyond the Possession of Things

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” - Mahatma Gandhi.

In an internet article, The Fallen Stars: Regret or Relief?, co-authors Tan Wei Yuan and Loh Chuan Junn posed the sobering questions, “Why do celebrities choose to end their lives when it seems like they have everything in their grasp?”

They highlighted a number of young performing artistes who have chosen to make their own lives. In chronological order, these include:
  • Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962) Age: 36 
  • Kurt Cobain (1967 – 1994): Age: 27 
  • Leslie Cheung (1956 – 2003) Age: 47 
  • Heath Ledger (1979 – 2008) Age: 29 
  • Ai Iijima (1972 – 2008) Age: 36 
  • Choi Jin-sil (1968 – 2008) Age: 40 
  • Jang Ja Yun (1982 – 2009) Age: 27 
  • Park Yong Ha (1977 – 2010) Age: 33 

Each and every one of them possessed looks and talents worth dying for! All were extremely successful in every material sense. Yet not of all of them lived past 47 years of age for all committed suicide in the prime of their respective performing careers.

Marilyn Monroe personified Hollywood glamour, and long after her death in 1962, she is still remembered for her image of explosive sensuality on and off the silver screen. Lead singer and guitarist of rock band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, was ranked the 12th greatest guitarist and 45th greatest singer of all time by his peers. According to Life magazine’s Century of Change, he took his own life at 27 “fearing that he was selling out the teen spirit”, whatever that meant.

Closer to home, Leslie Cheung who had a very large fan base in Asia played a cruel joke on his followers by ending his life abruptly on April Fools’ Day, 2003. Leslie was immensely talented and was incredibly successful in his acting and singing career. But in his suicide note he exclaimed, in desperation, “In my life I did nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?” apparently referring to his private life. Heath Ledger was only 29 when he took his own life. A younger talent, he played the role of The Joker in the hugely popular The Dark Knight, for which he won the posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Within two years of her retirement from show business, glamorous Japanese star Ai Iijima was found dead in the living room of her condominium in Tokyo. According to the article, she died of “heartbreak to her wounded soul.”

South Korean actress Choi Jin-sil was found dead at her home. Though successful in her acting career, she was not as fortunate in her marriage to a professional baseball player with whom she had two children. Fellow Korean actress and model Jang Ja Yun was also found dead in her home. Police investigation appeared to have concluded that her suicide was connected to a sexual exploitation scandal. She was only 27. Another Korean actor Park Yong-ha hanged himself in his room. He was a household name having starred in the extremely successful tear-jerking TV serial Winter Sonata (2002), which I watched and was moved. According to one source, he had called a close friend hours before his suicide to say that he felt “really tired” and wanted to die. More recently we grieved over the death of one of my all-time favourite actors, Robin Williams.

“Many wonder why these celebrities with seemingly perfect lives would ever think of taking their own lives. Yet beneath all that glitz and glamour, these individuals often hid feelings of insecurity, depression and turmoil, which eventually drove them to what they did,” comment the co-authors. Indeed, as we say in Chinese, 家家有本难念的经. That is a given. I am reminded of an ancient saying “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.”

Since no one is exempt from trouble, however much one possesses, how then should I live?

I asked this question since I was a young man. In seeking an answer, I have read books and talked to many different people from all walks of life. Over time I distilled the answers given to me by more experienced friends into the ABCs of Beyond the Possession of Things. These are about seeking the immaterial values of the inner spirit.

A is for Acceptance. Robert Frost wrote a short poem with that title. His concluding lines are relevant to my first point:

Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

Acceptance is a positive emotion and act of embracing present reality as opposed to wishing for what is not. When I accept what is, however difficult the situation, I am at peace with myself and with my surroundings.

My acceptance does not mean that I do not seek change. It implies that I have some appreciation of what I can change and what I can’t. I am guided by this prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

B is for Believe. Believe is another positive attitude I choose to have. There is room for healthy scepticism but I am constantly on guard against corrosive cynicism. I choose to believe in the best of people, giving benefits of doubts to others until clearly proven otherwise. An old song sung by Tom Jones and Elvis Presley is sentimental, but it resonates with me because I choose to live in the positive world of believing rather than disbelieving:

I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows,
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows,
I believe for everyone who goes astray,
Someone will come to show the way,
I believe, I believe.

I believe above the storm, a smallest prayer
Will still be heard,
I believe that Someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word.
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry,
Or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
Then I know why I believe.

C is for Contentment. Contentment is not complacency though the two are so close that they are easily confused. I am content with who I am with all my potentials and I do not compare myself with someone else for I am happy being me. To be discontent is to be unhappy with being me because I keep comparing with others and feel that I do not have enough. Complacency is to be satisfied with the mediocrity and to do nothing to reach my potential.

I choose to be content with who I am and what I have with all its potential – and I continuously seek to reach my own potential without comparing with others. So I enjoy my present – living one day at a time; and I drive towards the future, reaching my own potential by learning something new or doing something different, however small, moment by moment.

I guess I am like a rubber band. I would be complacent if I did not stretch myself at all. But I am content because I stretch myself and know how far I can go before I stop stretching. I am content because I know I am living the best I can without having to compare with others.

My ABCs of living beyond the possession of things help me to enjoy the present as a daily gift, and welcome the future with great expectation whatever it may bring. Yesterday is gone, today is a present. Tomorrow becomes a present when it arrives but until then, carpe diem - I seize the day.


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