Maybe we’ve got it all wrong.
“I come back later, five o’clock. Go for coffee break first,” said the middle aged Indian man.
“Okay, thanks. Do you want water? I can give you some,” I replied.
“No, no. We have downstairs. Thank you.”
The Indian man walks out of my apartment with one of his colleagues and closed the door behind them. Curious about the progress of the renovation of my balconies, I walk over to inspect the job. Tiles have been stripped over the past week, a job that forced me to take a sabbatical from post-graduation life outside of the house to stay home, sort of like a homesitter. And the men before this one have put on a fresh layer of cement, laid down new tiles and sealant for the joints, and generally cleaned up the mess.
Now I’m supposed to inspect the overall job, since the major work is over, and my first impression was of the flatness of the ground. Or should I say, the un-flatness. Some of the tiles were clearly misaligned horizontally. If a spirit level were to placed on it, I’m sure the bubble would be out of range. In the overcast sunlight I can tell the jut of the floor surface from the slight but elongated shadows cast by a nearby tile installed with a bit too much cement underneath. At this point, if I were to be true to my roots, I should be unhappy on the verge of being infuriated. What a terrible job!
Instead, I stand behind the stretch of sliding balcony doors that were closed shut wondering why this—a stretch of floor outside of my home, albeit a part of it, that is slightly uneven but so much as to affect my daily use of the space in any way—should spark contempt at all. This is not normal – I was raised in an environment to expect jobs to be properly done, starting from a detailed plan to an efficient execution. Singapore can be unrelenting towards any outward shoddiness in quality, although there seems to be considerable leniency when it came to inward lack of quality, particularly when it comes to the mind, or office politics.
But back to the point. What harm does uneven flooring do to anyone? I could ask the same question about small scratches on the exterior of a car. Or a wall that had its paint peeled off in a small, obscure patch. Without irony, these are things that busy Singaporeans take an issue with. I, too, am (was?) like that in some ways, although a recent 6-month-long quest to sell my first car put me out of the spell that minor scratches (they very often were hardly visible without a bent back) were of any significance.
In a city where a billion things are happening at any time, why do so many of us choose to obsess with the little details that literally don’t matter that much? I imagine that in some other country, or most, perhaps, people have no regard for tiny blemishes on the outside of a fully-functioning vehicle, so little regard as to make that problem a non-problem… a car that is 99.97% red and 0.03% silver is as good as a car that is 100% red. Now wouldn’t that make life easier?
I suppose that it is precisely in a city where a billion things happen at the same time that feeling relevant and in control becomes a scarce and thus much more important experience. Think about it: in a place where most of the things happening around us either don’t affect us directly or immediately or are things that we have no bearings on, a need bubbles to the surface. A sort of craving. Craving for significance, through little details that are relevant to us and that we actually have control over. Sometimes I imagine in my mind some locals to be wearing T-shirts like these…
So can non-problems be non-problems here? I think a good place to start is with our self, to find meaning in what we do in every facet of our life – as a worker, soldier, professional at the organisations we spend most of our adult life in, as a mother or father, daughter or son at home, as a friend at the cafe and as a stranger on the streets. If we understand that every moment of our life is deeply meaningful to someone or something else, then maybe we will be able to dissolve the illusion of false self-importance and worry about non-problems and redirect our selves toward making our life and the lives of others around us better and more enjoyable.