If there is something the average Singaporean is good at, it’s work.
We clock one of the highest number of hours compared to our Asian counterparts. It’s no wonder that life can seem an endless series of stress, frustration and struggle just to get by without losing track of time, or a sense of self.
So, how does one live well amidst this relentless rat race?
Dr William Wan, General Secretary of Singapore Kindness Movement, has written a book – Through The Valley: The Art of Living and Leaving Well – that aims to answer this very question.
After all, the 71-year-old would know – he has spent a large part of his life working as a lawyer, pastor, and lecturer in theology. In 2011, he received the Active Ager Award, which recognises and honours seniors who lead an active lifestyle, from the Council for Third Age, and it was that award that gave birth to the idea for Through The Valley.
It was in the waning years of his work life that Dr Wan decided, on the encouragement of friends, to take a three-month sabbatical from his job last October to write his book. As part of his research for it, he also spent five weeks on a cruise, travelling to 21 countries and 30 cities, where he interviewed 20 people.
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His aim is simple – he just hopes that the book will give others some pause for thought on how to live a life that has joy in it.
He quotes medical scientist and psychologist Dr Joan Borysenko in the book: “The question is not whether we will die, but how we will live”.
And that is the key to unlocking some of the secrets in his personal journey. Here are his key takeaways:
According to Dr Wan, to live a truly satisfying life, it is crucial to be other-centred, instead of self-centred. It might seem pithy, but the idea is to try and place someone else’s needs or wants ahead of our own.
You can start small – for instance, greet a neighbour even if he has never said hello, allow someone else to board the bus or train first, or offer to do something for a colleague who helped you with something, no matter how small.
With these little acts of kindness, you can jump on what Dr Wan calls a “positive feedback loop” – where being kind increases your own happiness, not just that of the people you help.
Think of what can, not what can’t, be done
Have you been in the company of friends, family or even colleagues who can only think of what is unpleasant or difficult?
To focus mostly on negativity can weigh quite heavily on one’s emotional health.
Dr Wan wrote: “To maintain my emotional health, I need to maintain a positive attitude and mindset. So, it doesn’t matter what is happening to me at any given time. What matters is how I choose to respond. This determines my happiness and peace of mind. I must measure my responses, be slow to anger and be quick to see that in every painful situation, I can choose to show goodwill to all and malice to none.”
He also noted that a wise person – educator, author and preacher Charles Swindoll – once said: “We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.”
Linger on love
Dr Wan has lived an active and, at some points, rather frenetic life, and all of it has brought him a wide variety of experiences.
As he grew older, he began to realise that the things that give people the most joy are the simplest, smallest things – in his case, getting to spend time with his grandchildren and visiting his children who live overseas.
He wrote about using technology to connect with his children – using FaceTime, for instance, is a favourite activity he does with his wife often.
“Though I still live a very active life, I do treasure the moments of mindfulness more than ever… I enjoy watching the old movies with my wife of 48 years, remembering the old movie greats in the prime of their lives, many of them gone and not always counted,” he wrote, adding that he also values the time for reflection and writing as well.
So, his advice is to carve out time so you can draw on your emotional bank of cherished moments.
Don’t major on the minor
Yes, life can be painful, complicated, and difficult to navigate. Some stresses can seem quite overwhelming and it might be tough for people to “move on” because the reality can be impossible to overcome.
But Dr Wan suggests that you look squarely at something and ask yourself: Are you taking yourself, or the situation, a bit too seriously? Can you afford to live a little or laugh something off?
“As a society, we tend to take ourselves too seriously. We have difficulty laughing at ourselves. We create tension when we are easily offended because our friends have to tiptoe around us, constantly worried about unknowingly offending us with what they say tongue-in-cheek. People without a sense of humour can quickly descend into negativity,” he wrote.
He added that it is unhealthy to dwell on the negative side of life, as it can ruin our day.
“I cannot determine the hand of cards dealt to me, but I can determine how I choose to play the hand,” Dr Wan wrote.
He ended by musing that a life lived well makes it easy for people to leave this earth happily – because you would be remembered for making your life count while you were alive.
And in conclusion, he added that such a life “…is not about being rich, being popular, being highly educated or being perfect… it is about being real, being humble, being strong and being able to share ourselves and touch the lives of others.”
Through The Valley: The Art of Living and Leaving Well is available at major bookstores, at $30.