‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true. (English O-level 2014, Syllabus 1128)

‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true.

Let us start with the proposition that it is often not easy to do the right thing. Yet, almost by definition, it is a good thing to do the right thing. It often costs us no money to do what is morally and ethically right, but these difficult things that litter the paths of our lives often prove to be the very best things in life.

I once found a fifty dollar note fluttering about in a car park, back in primary school when my daily allowance amounted to a grand thirty cents. This find obviously was an unbelievable fortune to my young eyes, a fortune I was loath to part with. My father turned to me and asked, “What shall we do with that now?” In school, we are trained not to take something that is not ours, and so, painful as it was, I replied, “I think we should give it to the police in case someone lost his money and wants to find it again.”

This decision may not have cost me any money in a technical sense, but in the moment it certainly felt like it did. Nevertheless, my father and I headed to the police station, where I am certain the adults traded many “I’m trying very hard not to laugh” smiles while trying to act with the necessary gravitas (dignity) to properly reward the child with good intentions. The police listened to my story, and — shockingly, to my present sensibilities — told us that they would keep the money for three days, just in case someone came forward to claim the money. They told us that if the money went unclaimed, I could rightfully claim it as mine, because of my honesty.

Psychologists (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind) have found that getting the approval of socially significant others — such as parents and the police — has a very significant effect on self-esteem. Our brains process this as a kind of pleasure, and indeed, on this occasion I enjoyed the collective approbation (approval/praise) of adults I both feared and respected. This experience proved to me that the best things in life are free. Incidentally, we managed to retrieve the money after the three days passed; the difficult and rewarding thing that I did indeed proved to be free.

On another occasion, I decided to help a stranger, a decision that cost me nothing and brightened the day of a complete stranger. I had been having an extremely stressful day studying in the library, when I decided to head to a snack vending machine to give myself some kind of snack boost. I was thoroughly preoccupied with panicky thoughts about the upcoming examinations while waiting for my turn. The girl in front of me stood aside with a strangely distressed look on her face while rummaging about for more coins. It was then that I noticed her choice of snack hanging off the edge of the vending machine’s shelf without being dispensed — a vending machine failure! She quickly realised that she had no coins left, and was about to leave without the snack she paid for when I told her to wait. There was an easy solution to the problem at hand. All I had to do was to buy the same snack that was hanging off the shelf — sugared peanuts — instead of the more expensive cookies I originally wanted. So, in a way, this decision not only cost me no money, it helped me save money. Her resulting smile was the ray of light I sorely needed that dark and anxious day, and I had no need for a psychologist to tell me that my brain processed this experience as pleasurable.

In our age of mass over-consumption, many of us need the reminder that the very best things in life — whether they are decisions, experiences, or objects — are often free, costing us no money. It may not always be easy, but it is a good thing, as comedian Russell Peters has famously said, to do the right thing.

(667 words)

Pictures vs Words: a response to gptuitionsg’s views

Photo credit: Kevin Carter. The photographer committed suicide shortly after this photograph was taken.

See another powerful response to this question at Mr Steven Ooi’s blog here. (Confession: I could only write this essay because I was able to bounce my ideas off his essay first. This should be a clear message to all students reading this. Read more, it helps.)

‘A picture is always more powerful than mere words.’ What is your view?

It is true that words can be more powerful than pictures. I think of Hitler’s words that moved a nation to genocide, and I shudder. However, human beings are visual creatures, and we see the consequences of this in the way the Internet has taken shape. A picture can never be more powerful than words in all circumstances, but looking at the way our culture has developed, it appears that pictures — including moving pictures — still hold an almost magical power over many of us.

Words are obviously potent weapons. Adolf Hitler, the dictator responsible for the Holocaust, is often credited with saying that if you tell a big enough lie, and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The effect of his lies and half-truths are now studied by school children all over the world — millions died in Nazi concentration camps, with only some having the dubious privilege of dying in gas chambers*. However, Hitler’s words were often accompanied by powerful images. Few of us are able to quote lines from Hitler’s speeches, but many more know what the Nazi swastika looks like and what concentration camp inmates look like in photographs of the time, which shows the power of culture-defining images to endure.

Half a century after Hitler’s heyday, photographer Kevin Carter tragically showed us the power of a picture to inspire action. Most of us recall the image — a vulture watches over a child so emaciated that it has no strength left to hold itself upright, so emaciated that his humanity seems starved out of his fragile frame. This image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize, and has inspired many of us around the world into fighting against poverty. Sadly, at the height of his fame, Kevin Carter committed suicide, claiming in his suicide note that he was “haunted” by the horrific images that he encountered in his work. On a more mundane level, this photograph probably inspired armies of Singaporean parents to nag at their children not to waste food, worrying over the idea that “African children are starving”.

It is also worrying to think of the effect the power of the image may be having on some of us. In an offline age, people who encountered Carter’s haunting photograph had fewer avenues with which to distract and numb themselves. Now, in addition to the media of the offline age, we have portable entertainment centres in the form of smartphones. In our age of perpetual connectivity with entertainment, we may indeed encounter Carter’s photograph in an Upworthy or Buzzfeed article, and we may experience the same forms of disgust, sorrow, horror, and anger that people in an offline age did. However, it is much easier these days to numb those feelings with a never ending stream of entertainment that is dominated by images. The success of Instagram and YouTube, among other visually-dominated websites, is testament to the power of images in our age. I think I can make this assertion safely: most people who encounter Kevin Carter’s prize-winning photograph in our time will be more likely to push it out of their minds with other forms of visual entertainment, than to deal with the problems of inequality and poverty by reading about the problem and what is being done to deal with it.

Inequality is a culture-shaming problem, since its consequences are so dire. It requires solutions that are, on some levels, complicated. We need to read books, or at least essays, to fully understand this problem and its potential solutions. It is perhaps a sign that people are not paying attention to these words, that the people in first-world economies have not spoken up as one voice to the powers that be to demand change. In this case, the pictures of entertainment seem to be more powerful than the words spent on the problem of inequality.

The idea that a picture is always more powerful than mere words is untrue, but it hides a deeper truth that pictures are often more powerful than words. Words are sometimes more powerful than pictures, but the pictures dominating the mind-numbing pap that passes as entertainment today still seem to hold sway over our culture. Do away with this mind-numbing pap, and perhaps we will see wise words and wise pictures hold sway over our culture again.

(721 words)

 

*For an account of this, see the brilliantly written book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.