Today I’ve officially lived 30 years on what Carl Sagan called a pale blue dot. Hence this piece of writing where I will jot down a few thoughts. (Almost no polishing applied, apologies. Also, swearing here and there.)
I thought I’d write a piece about gratitude, to all the people that have made me who I am today. But that piece would be overwhelmingly long and of little use to whoever happens to read this. And about attitude, Tom Rath taught me a thing or two in his little book It’s Not About You: if you are grateful to someone, tell them all that in person before it is too late.
But honestly, thank you Mom and Dad. Thanks for taming the beast in me. Deep inside, I know I’d have turned into a friggin sociopath without you guys. It’s generally agreed that the age of full maturity, at least as far as brains go, is 25. I’m always that guy who’s slower than others, so I’d say mine is 30. I can’t believe I’m saying this now, but I am mature.
Maturity is a long process. There are no one single point at which you become mature. For me, there are several mind shifts that led me to this point. The first important mind shift was initiated by anh Lê Minh Trí, an incredible classmate during my university years.
It was just another normal day when I was sitting on a bench, just beside block C, at my university. He would as usual approach me out of nowhere, but on that day, he had a question for me.
He asked: “Hey Quang, how many books do you read a year?”
Perhaps on that very same day I was having an existential crisis, because that should explain why I was shocked by such an innocent question. None. I didn’t read any book at all.
You know that feeling when you were half way through a book everyone was crazy about and thought: “I don’t understand all the fuzz. This book is mediocre at best.” Maybe that is true, but more often than not you were reading it at a wrong point in your life. Books that matter come to you at the right time.
So it’s fair to say that Anh Trí’s question came to me at the right time, rocking my world. I realized on that day that I was missing out in the world of knowledge and was living in shameful ignorance. Not long after the incident, I bought my first Kindle, from Anh Tri. Wait. Was it your sale tactic, Anh Tri? Hmm…
Anyway, the advent of the Kindle introduced me to the world of the learned.
The second important mind shift: the scholar Nguyễn Hiến Lê.
Nguyễn Hiến Lê’s autobiography was one of the first ebooks I read on the Kindle. I’d never read such a long book before, but his prose kept me going and I finished the book in a few days.
His writing is humble, yet exquisite, using the kind of Vietnamese that was still in infancy, but extremely refined, one you may consider pure and pristine. He made me fall in love with the South, people and scenes. It was this love that pushed me to an extreme: anti-Communism. I was extremely negative and insurgent at the time. Had it not been for a wise man who happened to care about me, I don’t know how far into the rabbit’s hole (or gulag) I would have gone. (For those who are curious about my current take on politics: I no longer give a fuck.)
The book’s chapter on his working routine led me to Nguyen Hien Le’s another famous book: Tự học. This coincided with my employment at SEAMEO Regional Centre for Lifelong Learning. These events fueled my passion for learning and my conviction about its crucial role in anyone’s success in this century. I mean, one way or another, everyone learns their entire life, but once you are aware of its power and commit to it, you’re not only helping yourself, you’re doing people around you a great service.
My third book by Nguyen Hien Le was Confucius Analects, bringing me into the world of philosophy. From there, I explored a bit further and eventually found the philosophy of my life.
The third, and most, important mind shift: Stoicism
I don’t remember exactly when I learned about Stoicism. It was probably in 2017, the year I read my first Stoic book – On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. Stoicism immediately hit me as my life philosophy, one that would guide me towards being a better person and a much more meaningful life.
Again, I want to emphasize that Stoicism must have come to me at the right time. I’m convinced that most young people will find it hard to believe (and accept) that there are things you have no control over whatsoever, and that we face our mortality every day. If I had been introduced to Stoicism when I was in the second year of college? Nah. I was the epitome of everything immature back then.
Now, getting the red light at every intersection along a long-ass road no longer angers me. Torrential rain when I’m riding home late in the evening? It’s all right. In fact, I rather enjoy it and sometimes I would sing. People think I’m bullshit? If that hurts me, it’s not the opinion that hurts, but rather my own judgement of such opinion, and I have the power to discard it and look inward.
But perhaps the most important thing of all is the fact that I’ve fully adopted the cosmic perspective, that “the whole earth is a mere point in space” (Marcus Aurelius), that our arguments with strangers on the internet are fucking pointless use of time, considering the fact that the entire human history is just a few hours if the age of the universe is packed into an earth year.
I remember when I was little I had a hard time grasping the concept of “foreign countries”, like “Whoa whoa there, what do you mean there are other countries beside Vietnam? My hometown isn’t all there is?” Yes, I was a complete imbecile. Geez. Now, I think many people, no matter how old they are, tend to live with that kind of mindset - experiencing the world from a limited perspective of an individual - as if their world is all there is.
I think maturity is the understanding and acceptance that people are idiosyncratic and different. I think we can claim to be mature when we stop having that false sense of superiority, when we realize that we’re all in this together, when we know love is the most important thing in life, and when we finally realize that “It’s about me, but it’s not about me.” (Quang, 2020)
Now that my first 30 years of life are in death’s hand and I have no idea what the future holds in store for me, there is no promise. But there is a commitment. A commitment to being useful.
Sai Gon, 15/9/2020