Social Anxiety and Shyness

It is clear that many Cambodian young people experience high levels of stress. Many are fearful and will not speak in public. It is at least possible that respect for authority has been so strongly internalized by them that it has become a paralysis, preventing the young people from acting creatively and freely in society.

A friend of mine recommended a book by Gillian Butler entitled “Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness”.  I finished it this morning.  It was a good read.

It seems that there are many people who suffer silently from a paralyzing fear of certain type of social events (yours truly included) and the book accurately describes the thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns of those caught in the cycle of these types of fear.  In a simple but clear manner the author lays out a few simple clear self-help strategies to encourage people first to face and then to overcome these paralyzing fears.

The first strategy is to reduce self-consciousness by steering one’s attention away from the inner emotional turmoil to the actual context in which one is actually experiencing paralysis.  The second strategy is to alter the “automatic” thinking processes triggered by the event, especially the negative ones.  The third strategy is to try to do things a little differently by not engaging in “avoidance” behaviours.  These strategies will eventually encourage a growth in confidence in one’s ability to “weather the storms”.    The book develops each of these strategies in considerable detail.   Each strategy is accompanied by a work-sheet so that one can work through the steps in a methodical manner. Continue reading “Social Anxiety and Shyness”

Normal People and The Essex Serpent

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying. Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way. The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

Last month, I read two novels at the same time.  The first one – Normal People, by Irish author Sally Rooney annoyed me so much that I had to put it away for a while in favour of the second one, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry from England.  In the end, it was interesting to read both of these novels from the perspective of Cambodia just at the time when the Brexit negotiations have stalled on the question of the Irish backstop.

 

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying.  Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way.  The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

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However, it seems to me that the characters in Sarah Perry’s novel are well drawn and more interesting in their differences than are the two main characters in Sally Rooney’s novel.  The love affair between Connell and Marianne provides the fil conducteur, or connecting thread, of this novel. The other characters in the book are only interesting to the extent that they contribute to the main storyline.  The love affair between Cora and William provides the fil conducteur for the Essex Serpent but most of the other characters are actually interesting people with subplots of their own that provide further insights into the society of the place and time.

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Nevertheless, after reading Normal People, I came away with the impression that social media is making Irish young people narcissistic in the sense that their whole lives seem to play out on a stage where those outside the realm of social media simply do not figure.  It is as if half the world no longer exists.  The young people could be living in a cocoon where their well-educated souls are dying of suffocation. The question of the displacement of religious faith from the centre of their lives is only addressed tangentially by references to funerals and Christmas.

 

 

In relation to the Essex Serpent, I also felt that the fascination with the past hides a desire for a lost stability and consensus that the polite conflict between faith and reason used to provide.  However, there is no sense of a benevolent Providence guiding events as is found in the novels of Dickens, the Brontés and George Eliot or indeed of a malevolent destiny guiding them as in the novels of Hardy.

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In fact, it is precisely the loss of this wider worldview that seems common to both novels and marks them out as products of the post-modern age.  A friend of mine from home recently sent me a link to a TED talk by Johann Hari on how we may be misunderstanding addiction.   His central point is that those suffering from addictions feel trapped inside a cage where the only relief is their drug.  The cage is some kind of affective isolation or abandonment where “normal” social interaction with loving others is no longer possible.  The drug is the coping mechanism that produces the artificial “high”. So to love our friends out of their addiction, we need to focus our attention on the cage itself, not the drug.

Social media is becoming perhaps an intoxicating narcotic that we ingest daily without realising the harm that we are doing to ourselves.  We do not recognise the cage in which, slowly and imperceptibly, we are choosing to live.

Korean Justice

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.

One Saturday evening, while watching a live Premier League football match, which was being broadcast on a Cambodian television network, I switched to the KBS channel during the half-time interval.  On it, I discovered a Korean TV drama with English subtitles called “Justice”.  After ten minutes I was hooked and did not return to the football match.  The courts and the media in Cambodia are not independent, so it was interesting to see how a Korean drama deals with corruption of a similar type in a much more democratic and free society.

One recent example of this media-control in Cambodia was in a headline tweeted by The Phnom Penh Post recently.  The words used were “Three Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP activists have been placed in pre-trial detention…” which clearly imply that these men are criminals.  The Phnom Penh Post knows fully that the Supreme Court is not independent and has been used by the Government to suppress the legitimate legal opposition party.  Yet the newspaper simply chooses to ignore this truth and portray innocent men as criminals. So much for truth in the press.

So the Korean drama seems exceptional in many ways. It tells the story of a disillusioned and corrupt lawyer, Lee Tae-kyeong, who works for a rich owner of a building company, Song Woo-yong.  The violent death of his younger brother seven years previously pushed Tae-kyeong into the company of Woo-yong who deliberately sets out to corrupt his “soul”. This friendship turns into bitter animosity.  Meanwhile Tae-kyeong’s former girlfriend, Seo Yeun-ah, has become an incorruptible prosecutor secretly working to solve “cold” murder cases of vulnerable young women.  In a plot to help his powerful business partner, the psychopathic Tak Soo-hoo, of Jung-im Electronics, Woo-yong asks Tae-kyeong to defend the innocent victims of methanol poisoning at the Jung-im factories with a view to abandoning them all later.

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Woo-yong’s network includes powerful judges, media owners and politicians for whom he provides both bribes and high-class call girls.  His power is thus immense.  The opulence of the wealth of the rich elite is stunning but their moral degradation is even more stunning.  Woo-yong is clever at using lust, greed and the desire for “status” as bait to trap the powerful into doing his bidding.  He underlines the consequences of personal choice many times.

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.  At first the thirst for justice seems more like a thirst for revenge for injured family members.  Gradually the theme of true justice emerges largely due the fearless and honest Seo Yeun-ah.  Is justice possible in this world or does it exist at all?  How will we know? Socrates argued at his trial that one lie or unjust act harms the soul irreparably.

 

The drama could have created scenes of gory violence given the number of murders involved.  It could also have included graphic sex scenes given the number of sexual favours provided by high class call girls to Woo-yong’s business associates. However the drama is coldly sober in all its scenes.  Even the subterranean love relationship between Tae-kyeong and Yeun-ah is never expressed in a physical gesture, not even a kiss or a hug.  This sobriety allows the friendship between them to deepen into a “communion of souls” like Aristotle’s idea about perfect friendship.

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Each of the three main characters is passionately devoted to a family member; a young brother, son or father.  While this attachment seems to cloud calm judgment and allow passions to trouble the soul, in the long run, it is corrected by the truth that emerges in the search for justice.  For much of the drama, the search for justice is so clouded by passions that it appears the new world will only be a hellish new version of the old world.  This is where the drama resembles the Greek drama of Antigone who cannot find a way to respect both her dead brother and the state.

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However the drama allows this tragic world to be suddenly brightened by the simple genuine humanity of the smaller people in the story so that in the end it is the love of the crippled but honest son of Woo-yong, Song Dae-jin and the courage of the traumatised actress Jang Yeong-mi who allow justice to be found and confession and forgiveness to be contemplated.

The figure of Tak Soo-hoo epitomizes in the fashion of the Joker, the possibility of absolute evil or the “no soul” person.  If he is mad, he is human, but if he is not mad, what is he?  This question is also fairly posed but not answered.

There are minor irritations in the drama when each second episode ends on some mystery note to make sure that you want to switch onto the next episode.  There are some minor leads which go nowhere and are never tied up.  However the acting is in all cases superb, as if each person knows their role in what appears as an ordinary Korean soap-opera but is much more a Philosophical drama in the style of Ancient Greece.   The ending is a little bizarre given the extent of evil inflicted and suffered by the participants.  It is not karmic.

 

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Both the accounts of the Khmer family life in the city and cruel deportation to a beautiful countryside ring true. Raami’s father has communicated a love for Khmer legends and poems which then serve as the structure of meaning for Raami, while she tries to fathom what is happening to her and her family.

 

Ten days ago, our Battambang Book Club reflected on the novel “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.  We had an interesting and fruitful discussion on this Khmer novel in English about the tragedy that occurred in Cambodia once the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975.

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In a curious twist of fate, we realized that this novel is not well known in Cambodia but is appreciated more for its literary quality abroad.  For example, the novel is not available in a cheap version at the Russian market in Phnom Penh unlike most other significant books on Cambodian history.

Perhaps the genre of historical fiction is not considered as reliable as autobiographical accounts in re-discovering historical truth.  This issue has come up also in my blogs on “The Memory Stones” and on “Milkman”.  In the “Shadow of the Banyan” is nonetheless a wonderful work of art for a number of reasons.

Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Banyan”

Kung Raiya, the silly twit!

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged activist Kung Raiya with incitement to commit a felony today for printing T-shirts with murdered political analyst Kem Ley’s image and words.

On the 11th of July, I read a ridiculous story from Cambodia.  I have decided to simply let it speak for itself.   The background is that on the 10th of July 2016, a Khmer social activist, Mr. Kim Ley, was shot dead in broad daylight at a Caltex petrol station in Phnom Penh.  The CCTV footage was handed over to the police but has never been been leaked to the media since. So there is not a shred of evidence to support people’s suspicions. Continue reading “Kung Raiya, the silly twit!”

“Unsheltered”

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”. Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”.  Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

Two parallel stories unfold in the same place with over a one hundred year gap between them.  In the modern story, Willa Knox, an endearing and unorthodox grandmother, tries to guide her disparate family through the loss of financial security and middle-class status.  Despite long years of toil at third level teaching and journalism, the family is sinking slowly below the poverty level.  The rabidly conservative great Grand-father is terminally ill and requires constant attention. Willa has two children, her darling son Zeke and her rebel daughter Tig.  Zeke’s wife commits suicide and leaves Willa with a grand-son to take care of.

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Kingsolver’s description of this family, of a happy marriage in an unhappy world, is deft, poignant and profound.  The restoration of the sacred family space that is constantly being invaded by work obligations through computer and smart-phone is Willa’s crowning achievement even while she appears to fail.  The radical ecological position of the rebel daughter, Tig, slowly seems more and more coherent while the compromised capitalist position of the dutiful son Zeke becomes morally bankrupt as time moves on.   Tig’s own transformation into caring mother of her abandoned nephew confirms this moral turn around.

The second story revolves around a progressive school teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, who befriends a scientist, Mary Treat, who is researching plants and animals of the area.  The prose in this second story feels more clunky and labored in comparison to the smooth flow and rich family dialogue of the first story.  Yet the effort to unravel the historical origins of the physical houses being lived in serves to emphasize the failure of the Utopian vision of a new society in Vineland.

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Both stories underline the conviction that all modern families are headed into an ecological “Armageddon” from which there can be no escape and no shelter.

In this sense, “Unsheltered” is a prophetic novel.  After reading it, one is faced with a choice.  One can opt for the radical position of Tig, and refuse all compromise with the capitalist economy of consumption. Or one can opt for the compromise position of Zeke to work for the survival of the fittest. There is no more in-between possible.  Either way ecological disaster is only around the corner.

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Milkman

While I was reading Milkman, I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I had to stop to think. I found that I could not read the novel quickly which struck me as quite unusual. Each minor, seemingly insignificant, incident in the story seemed to me pregnant with deeper meaning (the discovery of the cat’s head on the road home, for example).

Milkman is the most interesting Irish novel that I have read in years.  Three good friends of mine grew up in the troubled heartlands of Belfast.  I also spent some time in a home for young offenders in the early eighties in County Down and as a hospital chaplain in Belfast in the early nineties.  These experiences enabled me to appreciate that Anna Burns has captured a historical “truth” in her novel in a surprisingly similar way to Caroline Brothers in her novel, The Memory Stones, about the military dictatorship in Argentina. Continue reading “Milkman”