Respecting Your Elders and Submitting to Authorities

I’m not good at respecting elders or submitting to authority. Whether that’s a good thing or bad, I guess that really depends.

It’s not that I don’t respect anyone or that I will never submit to any authority. It’s just very hard for me to find people I can truly respect and look up to. And trust me, I wish I could find such people. It’s always good to find mentors and leaders you can look up to and learn much from. For me, I can’t say I’ve found anybody like that. And I think it’s simply because I’m very idealistic and have high standards. I’m a perfectionist. I demand a lot of myself and same for others. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have time for those who fail to reach those standards. For indeed, I myself fail my own standards most of the time. I am my worst critic.

So for me to really respect someone, the person has to be truly outstanding – in my eyes, at least. There are many wonderful people out there. But very, very few I can really, really respect.

One thing that really irks me about those older than me is that, in the presence of the young, they always have to talk a lot about their life, their vast experiences and through all that give lotsa advice to the young. Now, I have no problems with receiving advice. But age and experience alone does not qualify one to give advice to another. Elders need to stop thinking they have all the answers to the problems. They need to stop speaking to the young in a condescending way as though they know everything. Seriously, I am not impressed. Many others may be, but not me.

Why can’t old people learn to talk less and listen more? I think I’m more inclined to respect someone who listens and takes an interest in the life of the young, rather than one who always wants to advice the young.

Old people do have more experience, no doubt. Experiences they have gone through may be worth a lot when say a 60 year old one hundred years ago is advising a 20 year old. But in this rapidly changing world, their experiences are worth less because things aren’t the same anymore. The young learn fast. So old people shouldn’t assume that the young are as ignorant as they were at their young age.

Perhaps the most irritating thing I hate about the advice of the old is that they are supremely pragmatic people, giving supremely pragmatic advice. Most old people are like that anyway. They lose their idealism as they grow old and that’s a sad thing. Most of the old look down on the idealism of the young. And that’s what I can’t stand about old people. They have lived for long and know how the world works and so their advice is very often to be pragmatic, not to be too idealistic and that one should sacrifice one’s principles because this is just the way the world works.

I really liked what OCBC Bank chairman Dr. Cheong Choong Kong said at his convocation speech (22/04/06) at the University of Adelaide. His first advice was:

Don’t do what is expected. Be contrarian. No one’s ever achieved greatness by following the textbook or meekly obeying orders.

Now, here’s an elder’s advice that is worthy of respect. We need more of such people. We need more of such advice. We hear too little of such advice. Actually, sorry, we do hear a lot about such advice. Such advice was printed in Singapore’s mainstream newspaper. We constantly hear people telling us to be different, non-conformist and creative. But most people who say it’s good to be such don’t usually mean it, do they? That’s why most people don’t live like that. It’s cool to say we should be like that. It’s totally uncool and frowned upon if one were to actually live like that.

We hear a lot about creativity being something that only a non-conformist possess. For a confomist and someone who is too willing to listen to the advice of others and submit to authoriy would never do anything different. Asians, in particular, face the problem of too much conformity. Their culture values conformity and frowns upon individualism.

Now, I’m not being pro-western, I’m not idealizing individualism. I do think there is a place for both. We don’t want to go to the extreme on either end. Being different or a non-conformist is no great thing on its own. Being rebellious against authority isn’t a virtue.

But I just wish to see a bit more non-conformity around here. We can start by not giving a damn about what most of our elders think of us and our lives and saying “no thank you” to their advice. We need to stop giving so much respect to the advice and words of our elders. Especially so in an ultra pragmatic place like Singapore.

Dr. Cheong’s second advice is that life is confusing:

Outside the university, very little is plain and simple, black and white, and there is no all-knowing professor whom you can turn to for unambiguous answers.

There’s an important link between his first and second advice. Only if you realize that the world is complex and confusing and that many things aren’t so black and white – only if you realize that would you be be able to accept his first advice. If things are so black and white for you, then you may as well go to seek the “wisdom” of elders because surely they would have sorted life out after so many years and would have good advice for you. But if you know life is more complex, then when you listen to an old man’s advice, you’d take it with a pinch of salt and would realize you still need to figure a lot of things out for yourself and do things your own way.

So who are the people I respect? I respect people who hold strong to their ideals without compromising them – of course their ideals have to be worthy and good! Especially those who suffer because of them, because it shows they truly believe in them – however impractical they may be. Like Henry David Thoreau said:

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

People with good principles and ideals are most worthy of respect. These are people who are hardly pragmatic. People like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Syu Kyi. Even people like Jorge Mario Bergoglio. As for people closer to home and to my life, I admire opposition politicians in Singapore like JB Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan. Regarding the later, I don’t agree with everything he says or does but I give great credit to him for standing up for what he believes and sacrificing so much for his cause. It takes guts to continue to do what you believe in despite so much opposition and humiliation. That’s what I admire about him. Singaporeans are too pragmatic a people to appreciate someone like him. As for someone I know personally, it would be my friend Zach and his wife Angie, whose faithfulness to God and the ideals of the Bible and His will put almost every Christian I know to shame.

And of course, regarding submitting to authorities, I try my best to submit my life to the authority of God. Yes, to God, and not to church leaders. Church leaders have to earn people’s respect. With most of them thinking they have a direct line to God and thus are somehow more spiritual than normal church members, with them thinking that their advice ought to be taken as that of God’s and that their interpretation of Scripture always the right one (a bit funny since so many church leaders and pastors disagree with one another’s interpretation of Scripture), it’s hard for them to earn my respect. Give me a Church leader who is humble, non-dogmatic, more keen to listen than talk and lives the Christian life out and you’ve found yourself a follower in me.

And for those who think all I’ve written sounds like the foolish idealism of a young person, I’ll end here with the last words of advice by Steve Jobs’ 2005 Convocation speech at Stanford:

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

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