The Fault in Our Education

I’m currently writing this on a rooftop of a village in India! I’m all the way north, in the Himalayas somewhere near the town of Mussoorie. The weather here is crisp and cold and overall has been a good respite from the haze.

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Ok so here’s what I feel so far. Like everyone in Singapore who ever goes overseas to a less developed setting, I feel that we’re obstinately fortunate. I can list a hundred reasons as to why this is so, but for tonight’s shoutout, I’d like to focus on Education.

We visited a little school along the slopes of Mussoorie called Gharwal English Medium School, and had a great time meeting the children there whose ages ranged from 6 to 14. This school had only opened for six years, and so the oldest students had yet to graduate. To understand the concept of what school means in India, we’ll have to take a step into the realm of public schooling. From what I’ve been told, what happens in the state schools of this area is astonishing. The teachers have a tendency to not show up for class. Teachers, not students, mind you. What one would observe is a school of over 700 students with only four teachers present. Classrooms will be packed, students copying information from thick textbooks onto tawdry notebooks without the guidance of any teaching staff. This, we were told, is the state of education in the area (I’m not sure if government incentives are lacking, or are other factors more prevalent).

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This unfortunate snapshot of events was not observed in the school we visited. It was privately opened by a couple, and aided largely by fundraising and voluntary teaching staff. There was stable manpower, and ample parental support.

A talk with some of the kids will yield astonishing insights. We watched as the principle asked a few children what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of the kids were barely 10, and stood small and skinny. Their dreams, however, loom large. It was immensely heartening to see how a large proportion of children stated jobs such as doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, pilot and army officer. I mean, the sceptic in me would like to believe that they were moulding their beliefs based on peer pressure and stereotypes of success, but was I any better in the past?

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I was a child so sick of a system that I felt confined me. I never studied when I needed to, and I always turned down my options in an act of rebellion. What do I mean by this? What I mean is, that we were all given, from a very young age, the essential tools for success. We have a government that made primary education compulsory, we had teachers that would turn up for every lesson, we have financial aid, edusave, relief teachers if the full timers got ill, parent-teacher meetings, soccer fields to cure recess boredom, dentists who visit our classes back in primary school to teach us proper dental care, workshops that edusave could totally cover, excursions that went all the way to the edges of our little island or even overseas (edusave covers some of that too). The list is by no means exhaustive. We all had these opportunities presented to us in our little stint of the Singapore education system.

But how did we choose to deal with it? Let me tell you how I dealt with it. I was bored. I felt like I could always be somewhere else during lesson. I looked at my watch a lot. I wished to be at home half the time, at home where I could lie down and stagnate. I wished so badly for my teacher to be absent at times. Lessons would start at 8am, and by 8:05 i would already feel the total lack of motivation seep in. The damn teacher was almost never absent. The emphasis on progress and the myriad of opportunities we had blinded me altogether and I was just so lost in all the privilege. Does this sound familiar?

I look back at the kids I saw today. Their eagerness to learn, the hunger in their brown eyes as they told us what their life ambition was. It is a hunger that is unabashedly absent from the children I taught back home. I taught as a relief teacher back during the holidays, and though I had my suspicions before, I can say for sure now: the bulk of the children I observed did not know what they wanted from their life. Unlike the kids in India, a clear goal hadn’t crossed their minds, and the idea of “good grades” hence translates only to immediate benefits like happy teachers, happy parents and a good class ranking. It rarely translated to “one step closer to my dream profession” or “a platform to discover my passions”. So it seems to me that our kids are generally unable to dream big. That, in essence, is the glaring fault of our education sustem: we are surrounded by so much opportunity we forget what these opportunities were supposed to lead us to.

It would be unfair, of course, to stop short of my generation when meting out such thick accusation. I always look to myself as the general guide to things. I see the kids smiling at me, so young and full of potential before I look at myself; 21 years old and uncertain as to what I want to be (or perhaps just lacking the courage to pursue what I deem as my ideal profession).

It isn’t hard to feel like I have been a complete waste of resource when I see these kids who would be more than happy to take my place, and probably fare so much better than I ever could. It was a wake up call that I really needed. I have been telling myself to treasure my education for quite a while now, and this was just the boost I needed to keep on track.

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To think of the children in India who sit diligently scribbling notes with a teacher who doesn’t appear, to the same class in Singapore celebrating a teachers absence, I can only imagine where it all went wrong. I can only imagine which student truly deserves a shot of success in his/her life.

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Take Note, 21

This following excerpt was not written by me, but was copied out from my friend’s notebook. He wrote this for himself back when he was 20, and intended it for his 21 year-old self. He didn’t expect to remember even writing it, but approaching his 21st birthday, the thought came to him, of this little letter he wrote more than a year ago. This is the letter, along with some latent thoughts from him to go along with it. I hope you guys find good meaning in his words.

I don’t usually write, but when I do, I do it to remember important things in my life.  So I guess this could be considered as such. This was something I wrote to myself when I just turned 20 and it was for my 21 year old eyes. After reading it I was content to know some of the points still hold dear to me today, as my 20 year old self had expected it to disappear deep in the recess of my brain due to knowing that I would have started uni by then. I apologise for my poor English, but c’mon I was in the middle of my national service, which discouraged productive brain activity altogether. Anyway, here goes:

I don’t know if I will read this, but hey! You are sorta officially grown up! I say sorta cuz you will forever remain young at heart HAHA! At this juncture in your life, I’m sure you have tasted the very good new chapter in your life! University! With that, keep these few reminders you have learnt over the years:

You are responsible for your own happiness:
Nobody is to blame if you are unhappy with your life. If you are unhappy, go do something about it! Take responsibility. Go out there and make the changes you need to and make peace with your heart. Also, pursue your dreams RELENTLESSLY! Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something because you are not good enough.
“Two choices: You either accept conditions as they are, or accept the responsibility to change them.”

Don’t fret over things you cannot control:
C’mon, you are mentally strong! No point stressing yourself over things you can’t control! Instead, take that energy and do something about the things you can!
“The difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude!”

Confidence is key:
You know you are worth being listened to and respected. Don’t demand for respect; earn it instead. Look at how far you have come! All the successes and failures leading up to them! You can be invincible, but you must choose to be, you know you can. YOU DAMN SURE KNOW IT.
“ Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.”

Live in the moment:
Yeah you know this, don’t be so focused on the future you forget to live in the moment. There is more to the journey than just grades. Ultimately, what you take home is the joy and laughter with the people around you. Remember to make time for your family, friends and your loving girlfriend who loves you and supports your goals. Plan a holiday or an outing; even a simple meal can make their day. What may seem insignificant to you may mean to the world to them.
“ Lose not yourself in a far off time, seize the moment that is thine.”

Resilience is a choice:
Failures, as you have tasted so many times before(so bitter), has made success taste so sweet. Failure teaches you what went wrong and most of all moulds your character. Faced with failure, remember to accept it humbly and keep pressing on!
“ Desire for success trumps the fear of failure.”

Be a team player:
Be an asset to any organisation you join in the future. Make sure that your contributions matter to their vision and be disciplined to accept whatever role you are given! Be it a leader or a role player, do it to the best of your ability. Respect those around you by listening to them. Empty your cup.
“ If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

You can’t do it alone:
Learn to accept help. This journey is not one that is meant be walked alone. Humble yourself and know that help is always available and that the only obstacle hindering you is sourcing for the help and asking for it. Likewise, be keen to help those around selflessly and build that synergy with the people around you. At the end of this road, you can celebrate with those whom you have built that special bond with and it will be something beautiful to commemorate.
“No man is an island.”     

Health is number 1:
You are probably teeming with eagerness to do what you want to do, but never at the expense of your health. Healthy body healthy mind happy Clement! Exercise, eat dirty sparingly, play your favourite sport! Sleep reasonably and remember that there are no excuses for not taking care of your health!
“Greatest wealth is health.”

* * *

I know it sounds like a broken record, but time really flew by. It is quite amazing to see how much has changed in one year. Things may not be as it used to be, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Smile and enjoy the journey. Cheers to adulthood.

Take note, 22.

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F(l)ight?

I am not ready for this trip. I can say this confidently, because I know exactly how it feels to look forward to overseas experiences, and I can say with a good degree of certainty that I am not looking forward to tomorrow’s little excursion into the mountains.

As to why this trip feels slightly out of balance, I cannot quite elaborate, but think of it as a dripping tap. The drops seem insignificant but is in fact the result of unimaginable water pressure being virtually nullified by a sturdy faucet. How sturdy this faucet is, we can only imagine. Because all of it is in the mind, isn’t it? How we choose to deal with things, the way in which we render past happenings and what we perceive the future to hold. The faucet is as strong as we want it to be, or perhaps as strong as we are made to be.

I just feel the weight of uncertainty, of not knowing my worth and not being able to understand how things fell into place and then out of place, before the concept of ‘place’ vaporised altogether. What felt like a good few weeks of solid escapism has come to this. I don’t know how I am supposed deal with it, but here’s to hoping I make the right choices when the time comes.

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One Year On, and The Rage That Started It All

About two days ago, I realised that this blog space had turned one. 365 days had seeped through the cracks since the day I started this little project. I was blatantly reminded of its origins when I thought of my father’s birthday that passed the night before. I was also reminded of the person I was back then versus the person I am now. A lot has probably changed, though I don’t know exactly how to judge these changes. I’d been through army, went travelling, taught in my Secondary School for a term, celebrated my 21st birthday around familiar company and finally am in university now. This space is a tiny logbook of that incredible journey, along with the lessons I’ve learned and the feelings I’ve felt along the way. And what better way to mark this little anniversary with the reminder of how it all started:

September 17, 2014

I lay in bed, and was feeling absolutely stifled. I was the only one left in my camp, and everyone had booked out. I looked over at the clock. 9pm. A miserable 9pm on an otherwise innocent Friday. Why was I here? My fathers birthday celebration was coming up the next day, and I would not be there. I would be stuck in this bunk, within these walls of the camp, within the pathetic frame they called a bed.

I was suddenly vexed. I was angry at the fact that they could keep me here. I was pissed that after all the suffering they put us through that there was no reward. There was no damn reason for this! There was no reason to feel anything other than tremendous sadness, anger, self pity. It was not so much the physical entrapment that stirred me, for there was food downstairs, there was a bed to lie on and a showerhead to bathe with. It was the walls that I drew up ever so instinctively in my head. Yes, that crippled me to no end. I was trapped. My freedom was effectively wrenched away.

When you go through this loss of freedom in a large group, the burden is spread out. Scoops of solidarity get readily distributed around and you feel like you’re part of a whole. Being alone in my bunk took that privilege entirely out of my hands. I was truly alone, trapped and rendered senseless by a system that cared nothing for me. I was but a datum, a mere number in the large machine that relentlessly spun away, weaving the stolid tapestry of what it means to be Singaporean.

I sat up. I walked out of my room and down the steps. Something outside of my being was controlling this movement, I’m certain of that now. Whether it was rage, or any other facet of my psyche taking over, I cannot be sure to this day. I walked into the small computer room downstairs, and sat at the desktop. The entire room was dark, with only the light from the computer screen illuminating the contours of my face. I started to type. A story flowed out from my fingers, a story about a boy who climbed over a fence to steal curry from a neighbours house. That boy was me. I wrote, and I wrote. Time passed lithely between the strokes of the keyboard but I sat there unapologetically; typing up this story that came so naturally to me, that made its arrival to this earth with lucid steps.

That story turned out to be my first blog post. For some strange (or not so strange) reason, I created this site straight after I was finished, and posted the story. It was a story of how I climbed over a fence I had created in my head, a story of how one need not feel apologetic for going mad once in a while. I, of all people, desperately needed that story to guide me through that night. I remember how my finger hovered above the “create blog” button for a good few seconds before I punched in the key with conviction.

All I could think was, that there was a boy that needed his curry, a fence that needed to be scaled, a neighbour that wanted his curry back and most of all, a voice that so desperately needed to be heard. On that stifling September evening, they all found that avenue within these pages.

I have never looked back since.

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Life’s Too Short for the In-Betweens

What defines our worth, and what makes us tick? I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that to fight for what you love is one of the most complex things to undertake. To try to understand this better, I’ve thought of four testimonies from four imaginary individuals. By and large, these individuals are a combination of the people I’ve talked to or observed, and the stories I’ve weaved are an amalgamation of the stories they hold dear to them. And so like most fictional work, this is a mere reallocation of fact into more digestible chunks. I hope you will find some meaning in them. 

* * *

“This all started the moment I saw this small puppy on the sidewalk. It was about three years ago, and I was walking home from work when I saw her. Her hind legs had no fur on them and there were large abrasions running down the entire length of her tigh. She was gasping for breath and her dark brown fur was moist from the morning dew. Clearly, she had been abandoned either by her owner or her mother. Either way, she would have died from exposure had I not seen her. Carefully, I scooped her up; her small body fit snugly in my cupped palms. She showed no fear at all as I held her, and I figured that at the brink of death, all fear must have been stripped away. Walking into the veterinary centre, I presented the puppy to the counter woman, and she brought the poor thing into the vet’s office immediately. I immediately took the day off work and sat at the waiting area, hoping for a miracle; hoping for anything that would save the poor puppy.

This whole episode was a turning point in my life. In the few months that followed, I quit my office job and opened an animal rescue centre. It sounds really simple when I state it out, but the first few months were hell, and it was really difficult getting any support. Many of the animals that came in were too injured or sick and it broke our hearts to put them down. My family and friends did not support any of it at first, and the whole idea that I was getting my salary based on charity was unthinkable to them. But after all this time, they’re starting to figure out that this is a job that was meant just for me. To save one animal was a triumph in itself, and it brings me a joy that I’m still coming to terms with. Right now, things are stable, and at the entrance of the rescue centre is a small grave for the puppy that started this whole thing. We call her Inuka, and I hope she’s happy where she is, and in the difference she has made.”

* * *

“I like to run. I don’t know how I could have envisioned my life doing any other sport. Back in Primary school I was never the sporty kind. I joined the chess club (not that there is anything wrong with chess, except that I was horrible at it) while all my other friends went on to play soccer, basketball, hockey. I never felt envious per se, but part of me knew that I wanted to do some sort of sport. I was an active kid who just couldn’t find his outlet.

I joined running in secondary one not because it interested me, but because there was nothing else to join. I just figured out that running wasn’t the hardest thing to do. How could I possibly mess up? During the first training I discovered just how bad I was at this “simple sport”. After one warm up jog I already felt faint and my chest hurt. After the whole training session was over, I felt physically depleted, and worst of all, felt a strong sense of self loathing. How did I get myself into such a state? This was a question I asked myself training session after training session.

Time passed, and I watched while groups of students joined and left the CCA, joining other sports like hockey, rugby, soccer. I stayed. I stayed not in spite of the pain, but because of it. The pain and exhaustion bit at me so hard that I had no choice but to bite back harder at it. There was no other way, and such a struggle within my head made me feel like after all this time, I was finally proving something to myself. 9 years have passed, and when people ask me what sport I play, I answer proudly, “I am a runner.””

* * *

“There is no way to describe how happy I feel right now, but I know with all this happiness comes the possibility of tremendous disappointment. It’s as if I’ve got exactly what I wanted when I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t even have to find it, but somehow this person just appeared in my life. Yes. He just appeared, and the best thing was that he didn’t even try. With everyone before it was as if something was being forced, some game was being played or some objective was being conquered. With him it just feels effortless, it feels…right. Sometimes a glance feels like an hour-long probe into my soul yet with the things he says, we can talk for hours without it even feeling like hours. Time either stands stock still or rushes past when he’s around, and I don’t know if this reality even holds any weight anymore.

He’s leaving for the states tomorrow, and I don’t know how to feel about it. Sadness would be a good option, but I know that’s not what he’d want me to feel, so I have to force myself not to show it. We had one last walk together yesterday, and I asked him if he was willing to try. All he could tell me was that he didn’t want to hold me down. I guess I have made my own plans and he has made his, and there’s nothing we can really do to change that. What I do know is that I am willing to try. Life is too short for the in-betweens, don’t you think? Perhaps this is silly and I may get hurt really, really badly, but this little voice in my head is telling me that this might just be worth it.”

* * *

“For the past few years I have been raised single-handedly by my dad. I wouldn’t say that my childhood was abject misery, but through my formative years I’ve witnessed some things and felt certain emotions that no kid should ever have to go through. All I know is that through all this, I’ve had nothing but respect for him. That, and a love deeper than I’d like to admit. Though he’d never feel this way, I’d like to think that he was my very own superhero through these years. My friends all had other idols and heroes that were physically superior and much easier on the eyes, but as long as my dad could carry my weight I’d always feel that that was enough. More than enough, in fact. And that was our biggest difference: my dad never felt like he was good enough. He always apologised for not being there for me, for falling asleep on the couch before I came back home, for the late shifts that meant he couldn’t see me off to school the next day. I saw him once when I woke up to visit the toilet. He was hunched over the book cabinet at four in the morning, reaching deep in to repair a loose hinge, his legs skinny and back full of sweat. That was when I realised how tough it must have been for him all along, that when grief rendered me insular that I never considered that somebody was up at 4 am trying so hard to fix our lives again. I just want to take this chance to say thank you, Dad. You never gave up on us, so there will never be a reason for me to give up on you. You have been and will always be the greatest superhero in my life.”

* * *

To fight for what you love is a complex thing, but like the examples above show, we owe it to ourselves to give it a shot. A famous author once said that we only get two or three chances of finding true happiness in our lives, and in the light of that we have to grasp at any opportunity we’ve got at finding it. I believe that our passions have a higher function; not just to make us happy, but also to mould who we are as people; to define our very being. We are but the sum of our life choices, and many of these choices are inextricably linked to the things we love and hold dear to us. In that respect, there is no time for any half-assed attempts at what we truly desire and long for. The struggles that are borne out of these passions eventually make for a life worth living, or at least a life you can be happy with. This privilege is not to be trifled with, and I hope the above examples have encapsulated such a sentiment. 

0436: I Need to Run Again

(I tried to go for a run a few days back. I wanted to feel like things were okay, and in many ways, it was a day that felt very much less than okay. This void often drives me mad, and not often does this negativity find its way to the page. I prefer to keep such negativity separate from my writing. At the meantime, I felt like my body was ready for something light. It was a particularly hazy day, but I tried to eliminate any excuses. I jogged a few times down a long road near the campus, back and fourth at a constant pace. There was suddenly the tingling in my right ankle, the soft tease of an injury that was hell bent on staying. I felt so much sadness in my chest at that moment. I just needed to feel ok again, and yet, it just wasn’t going to happen.)

The feeling of emptiness does rise from my stomach ever so often, permeates to my chest, and soon it gets hard to breathe. A lot of people choose to write about these feelings, sing it in a song or turn to something more divine to get them to a safer, more comfortable space. 

I choose to run.

Ever since I discovered running back when I was thirteen and awkward, I’ve been hooked. The feeling of control, solitude, defiance and spontaneity in the face of the depressing familiarity of life—a life that feels nothing more than a blank space when viewed from certain angles, at certain times. I don’t usually feel empty ( I consider myself an optimist, on the most part), but when I do, running always gets me back to where I want to be. (When the wind blows in your face and you’re surrounded by absolute civilisation or absolute nature and sometimes both and people are walking around, cars are chugging along lives are moving on but when you run you are moving through! You break into some routine you never once knew possible but now know to be infinite and you can’t explain to anyone because they’d find you too lame or ask you to channel these feelings into something with more form and precision and you are having none of it. I could go on).

Then I got injured in the middle of last year. It hasn’t been the same ever since, to put it simply. I was foolish back then. When injuries are fresh the key consideration is to always, always give it time. I don’t know how I could have thought of it otherwise. I tried to run it off albeit unsuccessfully and felt a lot of things give way, a lot of pain and a lot of warning signs ignored on the interim.

I don’t think I could ever forgive myself for that. Strange enough, there are a lot of things I can forgive myself for; missed opportunities, failed timings and lost feelings. It sucks for a while but as people we are bound to feel such things, bound to live with such disappointments. Whatever it is, I try to let go of these things in hope of a better tomorrow. I would love to blame myself, but what use is there? At every moment in time you just have to figure out whats best for yourself in a snap. There’s no revealing what the future holds so you’ll just have to feel around in the dark. Sometimes you fail at that, and so what if you do?

But this? This injury was just pure foolishness. I sacrificed something that I could have done for myself. That is one thing in the world you should never have to sacrifice; the things you can find joy doing alone.

I need to run again.

(Lessons learnt:

  1. Don’t blame yourself; the future is a dark space and you’re only groping around madly. It’s okay to fail, just carry on and continue struggling.
  2. The right balance between logic and instinct is the most sought after possession nowadays. People call this wisdom, but I feel that luck and chance has a big role to play in this. What do you think? 
  3. Don’t let anything change who you are. Just keep to what you believe in, and stick to what you love regardless of the timing. The two toughest things in the world to deal with are not knowing what you love when the timing is right, and knowing with absolute certainty what you love when the timing is wrong. Both these situations are very central in shaping who we are and we should be wary of them.) 

Where Did Creativity Go? (And What’s With All This Structure?)

Coming into this whole university thing, I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I’m working on a short story now, have two essays on philosophy and sociology to write, and have a news article due really soon. It’s immense, it’s nerve wrecking and it’s a bit too much at times.

But worst of all, it’s structured.

The whole thing is so damn structured you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Of course, it’s all supposed to be structured; if it wasn’t then what’s the whole point? It’d be like playing soccer without goals and with players just passing the ball around. Some skill would be evident, but no one would pay to watch. Structure remains a product of divinity, passed down by the academia Gods, a royal concept for generation after generation of student, scholar, professor, proofreader, editor. A lot of people out there love structure.

There’s really nothing wrong with structure. It keeps things in place, and keeps us from feeling insecure. It almost feels like a spillover from the sciences, with all their formulas and precision. As long as you have a template to constantly refer to you can be sure that a base level of quality will be assured. We were taught this from a young age. We have an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. One of your body paragraphs can be a counterargument, but a rebuttal has to lithely slip its way into the mix. That, they say, is a good essay structure. That, we have been told, will get us the A’s.

What all this structure has failed to teach us is creativity.

The saddest fact is not that most of us shut out creativity from our lives. The saddest thing is that many of us are ashamed of it. Back in secondary school we had five essay questions to choose from. Four of them would be either discursive or argumentative essays, while the fifth would have the creative writing component to it. You could write a story about a fireman saving cats, or just wax lyrical about your dreams to become the first man on the sun. If you had a teacher that actively promoted the last option, then good for you. Because in most cases, the teacher would warn the class against it, and proceed to train students specifically for the argumentative essays. If students did progress to JC, then they’d find the creative component to have disappeared altogether. It is no surprise, then, that we distance ourselves from creativity like the plague. We were subtly denied of it as we grew up.

Creativity, I believe, stems from human chaos. If you were to sit down and attempt to plot out the essence of creativity, I assure you, you’d fail. Creativity is an active rebellion; it does not like to be confined. We all have within us this huge, dark storeroom of dusty relics, antiques from our pasts, waiting to spill out violently when the door opens. Within all this chaos in our hearts and minds, something beautiful happens, and occasionally this beauty spills onto a film reel, from the tips of a paintbrush, the hem of a dress, onto the pages of a book. 

I wouldn’t go as far as to blame this society for it (that would be deliberately controversial), because ultimately, I feel that creativity is, and will always be, a personal choice. I think as humans we all have a duty to embrace this creativity, to go crazy every once in a while and show the world what we really want from this life.

Above all, we need not be ashamed of any inconsistencies, or any kink in our infallible armour. We are but the product of our failures and shortcomings. We do not need to disassociate ourselves from chaos or the fact that our lives have been, and will always be, far from perfect. All we need is the courage to try.

The world should not expect us to organise this mess because the mess is the whole point.

This mess makes us, us. We should always be proud of that.