Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #2

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

15 december


Today, I was happy when I thought of this journal – I would be writing tonight. I also felt confident, and balanced, this morning. I made a plan of going to Wuhan and Changsha. I’m having appetite for the future again.

Two years ago, I was in the hot springs at Rye, resting my eyes and body among the hills, in the warm water. Yesterday, other Hamer scholars organized a trip to the local hot springs. I didn’t go. A trip to the hot springs with Hamer scholars would not be the most relaxing experience – busy bus, crowded springs, and – who knows – dumb conversations maybe. Still: why is it that I’m so bad at taking breaks, why is it that I feel guilty taking pleasure, and would rather sit, in work productive or sterile – spending as much, sometimes – for few results, and further burn out.



How did I relax recently? Yesterday, I spent four hours with Hao Mingliang – wonderful guy – but speaking Chinese all the way. Before, I sat at the cinema café reading about Nanjing – in Chinese – and I paused after seeing him at a Bubble Tea place inside the shopping mall – reading Chinese. These ‘pauses’ are nothing but ways of making me work that much further; not actually pausing.

Even when Philip came, apart from excessive sleep, I didn’t pause much. Only when we went inside the aquarium did I – and it made me cry – watching dolphins and fish. Then I had a moment of pure restfulness.

Writing this text is restful though – but I wouldn’t have thought of it that way necessarily. I have developed a habit of calling all sorts of activities as ‘work’. My step-father once told me ‘you call reading novels work’. To some extent, it was – I was in a literary stream at school – but he had a point. I called it work to protect my study from the dumb requirements of entertainment, that my family was pressing on me. But now that I’m older, I might actually get more ownership of my pleasure, and stop calling so many things work – just insist I have different forms of pleasure.

By calling everything work, I can’t relax. I also can’t work very well, or at least, fit in ‘paid work’. During this stay in Nanjing, I was remarkable at networking and studying, but only made 800 yuan from a TV show, living off my scholarship. I studied and I networked heavily, but did I work?

In the field I’m in, it is remarkably difficult to discern what is work, and what isn’t. After Ecole Normale, I have been used to having a ‘status’, and getting money for what I am, rather than what I do. Maybe that’s acceptable for me – but is whatever I do while I receive this money therefore work? And am I working myself to death for too little a sum, out of status consciousness?

When I prepared for exams, at Ecole Normale and before the aggregation, anything for the exam was work, with a clear result: I would get a lifetime job and salary. When I wrote my PhD and taught classes, both of these things were work. But already, I started writing novels, and reading books to inform them – and that was work as well. Then when I moved to Australia: there was film work, there was exhibition work, writing was work – and so was teaching, and so was my job at the Department of Primary Industries. Now Marco Polo Project is work. Work, in all its forms, has taken over my life, and I can’t relax, have a beer, wind down.

A few things help me get through. TV series do the trick – especially with Philip. But I’ve watched through Dexter and Gossip Girl, True Blood is coming to an end, and there’s only three more seasons of Glee to come. I think I might stop watching after these. But how will I rest then?

I’m planning a short trip down south: that’s a first step. Maybe, I will give myself a ‘relax’ budget every week, that I will spend on things that make me relax. So that I can rest better, sleep better, and be more vigilant when awake.

values cards project – respect

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: OK, I’ll start with that. I like to think of respect as a kind of mutual distancing, a power equilibrium if you want. It’s about finding stability, and it always involves, yes, distance between individuals.

B: Well, for me, respect has to do with authority. So, I have this impression that respect implies an unequal relationship, a power relationship. And it’s not about natural authority, like when you join a movement, because there’s a charismatic leader, but authority within an existing hierarchy. That’s what respect is about for me. Also, it’s the same when you think about filial respect, my impression is, it’s got to do with authority, with a relationship that’s clearly unequal.

A: I wonder how the two relate. I can’t, every time I think about respect… you know the commandment that says ‘respect your mother and father’. I had a conversation with a friend, it was a long time ago, when I was at university, but it stayed with me. They were studying Arabic, and said, based on the etymology, the words of this commandment said something like ‘far your mother, far your father’. Keep your parents at a respectful distance. That’s what it’s about, not a kind of emotional worship, or submission, but it’s about keeping your distance with them. Don’t get caught up in their affairs. Keep them at arm’s length.

B: I don’t know, when I think of respect… There’s two words in Japanese, ‘sonjo’ and ‘sonke’. The first is universal, unconditional respect, the kind of respect you should have for any human being. Even a jerk, they deserve that minimal level respect, sonjo. The other, sonke, it’s closer to what we would call esteem. It’s conditional. You don’t have to esteem everyone, or anyone. Esteem is based on a quality that someone has, whether it’s a certain ethical trait, or a technical skill, or a craft. But that’s not for everyone, not necessarily.

A: So, that makes me think of conversations I’ve had often about work and payment. With writers and artists, or with young people. That they feel a professional lack of respect, when they’re expected to work for free, talk for free, even when it’s an unpaid internship. It’s very strong in the arts, and the community sector, because there’s so many people there who don’t get paid, or not properly, and then after a while it breeds resentment, and it’s experienced, yes, as a lack of respect.

B: Maybe we’re touching something then, something about respect, youth, and anger. You know the figure of angry young men – angry young people in general – they’re angry because they want respect, and they’re not getting it. There’s an expectation there, from them, but it’s a confused expectation. Part of it is that unconditional human respect, and maybe that has to do with adulthood, they want to receive what any other human is receiving. But another part has to do with what we’re calling esteem, conditional respect. Only the two get mingled, it’s not quite clear what they want, so they feel frustrated, and angry.

A: We’ve got this way of thinking about unconditional respect, professionally when we say that ‘tout travel mérite salaire’. Because you do have the case of interns, who don’t get paid. And here, well, true, power relationships are not in their favour, they feel maybe, that they need to work for nothing, and they’re not respected in that sense. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that they should have esteem for what they do, many, they’re starting, it’s good that they’re out there, but they’re not doing wonderful work, they’re still learning. And so yes, the two things get mingled, and everybody’s angry.

B: So, maybe yes, there is a confusion between what we feel is our right to respect, unconditionally, and then this idea that you get respect on the basis of achievement, success. And the result is what you see sometimes, people who feel they have a right to be successful, and they get angry when they’re not, but that’s just because we messed up with the categories. It’s like, everybody wants to work in the sexy industries, like working for the arts or in graphic design or start ups, or whatever. But they won’t accept not to be paid for it. And that creates a power relationship that’s not favorable to the workers. And then, the personal desire for success, as the basis for respect, it becomes a problem for the whole community.

A: We had this thing, in Australia, a big movement to ‘pay the writer’. And I always found there was confusion in what people were asking for. It was surprising even, that writers, intellectuals, were confusing categories. I mean, they were looking for ways that writers would live with more dignity, and get their bills and rent paid, and that’s very fair. But then they were also – it was like, there was a right to be paid, for whatever you wrote, and the desire to be paid for their writing, not in another way – because that would somehow validate their status. It was messy, it still is, I find.

B: Well, we all have a need for recognition I think, but the question is, how is this recognition materialized, how is it generated socially, and how is it perceived? I mean, one characteristic of a neoliberal society is that we’ve commodified everything. And so, recognition goes through money. If you can’t get money for it, it has no value. So; the writers want to be paid for their writing because otherwise – it has no value, and they won’t be respected for it.

A: You’re right. There’s a need for recognition – esteem, for craft and effort – and there’s a need for food and shelter, but people conflate both, and they turn that into the need to be paid for their art, and so they can’t think about it creatively.

B: I wonder, if it’s the same for the young people you were talking about. They’ve got a need for some esteem, and that’s about identity, finding out who they are and where they can excel. It’s even, maybe, to help with their decision making. And then there’s a different aspect, that’s material needs to be met. And we’ve got a problem when we can’t find a way to separate those two.

A: That’s what I like about the idea of a universal basic income. It actually dissociates those two. You’ve got unconditional respect, on the basis of human dignity, and you get food and shelter. But then you’ve got esteem, and that depends on your achievements – and when you’ve got a universal basic income, that might be monetized or not, it no longer matters so much. I think, that need to monetise everything, it’s a problem for society. We push people to selfishness. While with all moral codes, they’re all about pushing people to be less selfish.

B: Maybe then it is about courage, and virtue. Because – there’s a lot of mediocrity. Generally speaking, we’re all rather mediocre. And we can move away from mediocrity, just a little, when we’re in the right environment. And if you’re in a setting that allows you to be less mediocre by default, then you don’t need so much courage to do things – but then do you deserve more respect? That’s what I wonder.

A: It’s like, international development, should you think of it as a form of justice, or charity? And if you’re simply doing the right thing, should you be praised for it? I mean, there’s this image in the Gospel of the widow who gives a little coin to the temple, but Jesus says she deserves most respect, because she had so little to start with.

B: It’s the same thing in Buddhism. If you give an offering of something you don’t need, it doesn’t count. You must give from the things you need, and then you will get merit.

A: Something I wonder, are we so decadent that we praise people for doing something like giving up what they don’t need. It’s a little depressing.

B: It is a little depressing. It’s, I mean it’s hypocrisy too, and I don’t know that it’s a new thing. I mean, there are many people who just want to look good, but then the cynicism comes through. Their way to gain respect is by moralizing others and judging them, but then they don’t apply the same criteria to themselves, and those people, I mean they deserve fundamental respect, yes, but not our esteem.

A: So, do you think, social, where we direct our esteem is fundamental question, and a fundamental mechanism, to promote certain behaviors?

B: Well, yes – and so, we might wonder then, what could we do, to give conditional respect in a way that promotes more prosocial behavior? Like, maybe we need not just universal basic income, but also more recognition for the most socially useful jobs, and then that will get us somewhere?

On hard work

Yesterday, a friend posted the following on her Facebook wall: “Which of those sounds more true to you? A: You can achieve anything if you set clear goals, believe in yourself, and work hard. B: You can achieve many things if you prepare for an opportunity, see it, and act upon it.”

I publicly rejected A as an assemblage of cliches. To my French mind, ‘work hard’ signals idiocy, palliating the lack of strategic thinking with pure effort. “Believe in yourself’ codes blindness and stupidity. “You can achieve anything” sounds like plain delusion.

All this sounds utterly obvious to me. I was surprised to see people choose “A” or, more disturbingly, “a mix of both”. Since then, I’ve been wondering what kind of mindset would lead to this preference. Goal setting may be the main hinge. Is it about perceiving the shifting patterns of the world, and identifying a way forward among the ripples? Or projecting a vision into the blank space of the future, and self-generating a pathway to this vision?

I’ve always been suspicious of self-proclaimed hard workers. If you ‘work hard’, how will you feel the subtle tremors in the fabric of the world? They tell you where to press, and where resistance will be. If you work a little softer, it’s easier to find the joint – and you won’t have to saw through the bone.




On Sabbath

Last year, a couple o friends invited me to join them for a Shabbat lunch in Paris. All details had been set in advance, as they would not pick up the phone that day. The food had been made the day before, and kept warm overnight on a special hot plate. When I came in, there was a shawl over the TV screen, and the table was set, beautifully. My friends were smiling and happy.

We shared a delicious meal together, followed by a song, prayer, and a reading. Then we discussed history, current affairs, literature. We went for a walk to the park, deep in conversation, contemplating ideas, observing people, remembering the past. I escorted them back home, then turned on my mobile phone, jumped into the metro, and returned to my Goy life.

One of the beauties of Judaism, as I’ve seen it practiced and described, is the concrete clarity of the rules guiding daily life. On Shabbat – from nightfall on Friday to nightfall on Saturday – you shall not work. Rules debated over centuries define activities allowed and forbidden. What remains is not a vacuum of boredom or mindless ritual. The day we spent together had books, friendships, reflection, and joy.

I often struggle to rest. The idea of a Sabbath is appealing. But I find the boundaries of my work so fuzzy that I can’t imagine what it would exactly look like. Without the strict rules of a religion, not only guiding me, but also creating collective meaning – I find it difficult. I stayed in bed this morning, leisurely read books for my thesis, exchanged a few messages on Facebook, watched ‘Empire Strikes Back’, and wrote this piece. Next, I’ll be heading to a birthday party. I feel reasonably rested, but not certain this was a proper Sabbath.

On work

What is work? We’re now using this verb/noun to describe all sorts of activities. But where exactly does ‘work’ start, and where does it ‘end’? As we look closer, the boundaries blur.

For some of us, work occurs in a fixed period of time – 9-to-5, or the duration of a shift. But even so, reading emails on the tram, filing administrative papers, is that not work? And if we move a step further, what about cleaning the house or buying groceries? Some people do that as ‘work’, for others; and when we clean our own bathroom, or fill our own fridge, is it suddenly no longer ‘work’?

But as the category grows in all directions, holes appear at the core. The pauses of course – lunch, coffee, toilet; social media, personal emails – they occur at work, but are they ‘work’? What about those extra ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more we give a fleeting thought or feeling between tasks – is that ‘work’? And leisurely peeling carrots with pleasant music on, or a stroll to the market with a loved one – is that ‘work’?

We define ourselves largely by ‘what we do’ – by ‘work’. Yet ‘work’ is more elusive than we like to think, more diffuse, more diverse. And the more independent and creative our activities are, the more boundaries blur.

Maybe we need a new vocabulary to better capture the complex interplay between our activities, the value we create and the communities we form. One, maybe, that would better capture the oscillating nature of work and rest, the constant breathing involved in all continuous human activity.

Now articulating this, would that be work? Is research or study work? And as I write this, am I working?