When I was editing an international primary English book series, I began to think about people who don’t grow up in a “typical” societal system like that of Singapore, and I realised there is a lot of “privilege” attached to the system. For example, it has become a norm for children growing up in westernised societies to expect fun and games like birthday parties (and I myself don’t celebrate birthdays this way) and beach outings with family and friends. The book series that I was editing is replete with such topics, and it is no surprise that the series was written by predominantly white privileged authors.
What if a child growing up in a “less developed” country such as in Asia, Africa or South America does not have the tradition of celebrating birthdays with presents, cakes, balloons, and so on? What if the child grows up in a difficult family environment and is unable to relate to the topics in the book that presupposes that all children have loving parents and siblings?
No doubt the topical approach adopted in the ELT (English Language Teaching) series is designed to help children learn conversational English using familiar things in life, but still, there seems to be a bit too much focus on the material side of life – food, presents, etc – and not enough emphasis on the stark reality in the world, such as poverty, unemployment, high income inequality, racism, ageism, ableism, sexism, and other systemic problems.
While there are some topics in the series that encourage children to help one another in times of need or to take care of pets, the overarching theme of the series appears to revolve around the norms of a privileged life in a modernised societal system – one that focuses mainly on the positive aspects and ignores or glosses over the sufferings of humanity. It inevitably causes children to have a skewed perspective of the world, and does not help them to deal with their inner anxieties and angst of growing up, such as being fearful of loneliness or failure, or being envious or jealous of others when they invariably compare themselves with others in terms of achievements or possessions, and so on, no thanks to the insidious influence of the educational system that encourages and perpetuates competition and “meritocracy”.
In my case, growing up in a largely smooth functioning societal system where buying things and travelling around are convenient makes life rather staid and boring. When I was a teenager, I filled my time with activities like reading, playing computer games, sports, and so on. But as I transited into adulthood, I became more and more dissatisfied with life and found it meaningless, and I struggled with identity crisis. I have a wanderlust and adventurous spirit but I could only find an outlet in mostly computer games and reading fantasy novels about might and magic, dragons and wizards.
Come to think of it, why do I seek adventures when some other children growing up in tough or challenging circumstances are usually too preoccupied with getting by day by day for survival to think about adventures? Maybe I have been misdirected myself – maybe the dragon I need to slay in real life is not some imaginary creatures depicted in popular novels and movies but the spectre of the oppressive system and discriminatory mindset that result in systemic problems in the world, and the wizard I wish to emulate is not some legendary characters in a fictional story but the inner alchemist whom I already am, and I need to tap into that inherent wisdom, power and love that is within me to be a blessing to others. I am coming to see that my mission in life is to liberate myself and others from the suffocating and stifling control of the system, and to create a better and more equitable world.
In short, I need to desystemise myself and be free.
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Thus wrote the editor who is grappling with the unpleasant side of reality like a tortured soul, for facing the darkness in humanity and the system created thereof is both uncomfortable and unsettling. Come to think of it, perhaps that was why the apostle Paul wrote “O wretched man that I am – who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
Contrary to many common interpretations in the mainstream christian circles, perhaps Paul wasn’t dealing so much with that so-called fallen nature that is termed “sinful nature” of the flesh, but rather the destructive mindset or ideology that perpetuates the illusion of separateness that causes humanity to do harm to oneself and others. Sin is essentially about failing to love others as brothers and sisters because one sees oneself as separate from the others based on differences in race, ethnicity, skin colour, gender, class, nationality, worldview or belief system, and so on. The next verse – “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – is the revelation that in Christ, our true identity, we are all one and we are all interconnected (where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, and so on), which delivers us from the Law or the destructive system (body of death) to live in Grace (the community of love and oneness).