It goes without saying that most of us are not having a jolly good time this year. Everywhere we turn we are presented with a doom and gloom situation all around the world. Anger is now the prevailing sentiment, followed by anxiety and despair. These negative emotions are stoked by news outlets who are more than willing to give us a hundred reasons to validate them without providing a recourse, so we get into a vicious cycle of self-destructive emotions which seek out more fuel to keep the flames alive.
I speak of course from my personal experience. I bought into the clickbaits, got frustrated at the breadth and depth of misinformations, and cursed at any and all incompetencies, selfishness and deception that permeate the elites in power.
And then I realised that enough is enough. It became clear that getting infuriated by things outside of my control solves nothing. My responsibility is to ensure that the people (and cats) depending on me are well-fed and secure; that I continue to remind myself and anyone who cares to listen – that a fulfilling future sits atop a present that perpetually looks bleak – for the histories of Mankind has always been wrought with suffering, greed, stupidity and death, yet it has not abated the progress of our forebears and peers.
Il faut cultiver notre jardin.– Voltaire
‘We must cultivate our garden’ is a translated quote from a fictional Turkish farmer whom Voltaire had cemented in one of the greatest satire of all time – ‘Candide, ou l’optimisme‘. In his book, Voltaire described a world based on his reality in the 18th century, riddled with wars, rape, slavery and diseases. A young Candide found himself tossed around like a ragdoll in the ocean to discover the harsh reality that the world was a rather difficult place to live in, owing to natural disasters and human fallibility. Having travelled through half of the known world from Europe to the Americas, Candide and his group of travellers finally settled in Turkey where they met a humble orchid farmer. When asked what he thought of the political murders brewing in the capital city Constantinople, the farmer professed his ignorance of such issues, preferring to toil hard on his farm in order to avoid boredom, vices and poverty.
In Candide, Voltaire was painting the bleakest, most depressing situations that could ever happen to people of all classes. From barons to philosophers, from princesses to maids, they eventually ended up in slavery or prostitution; punished, tortured and riddled with venereal disease, simply because of they were washed by the tides of history at the mercy of volatile ruling elites. Candide, the protagonist, came to the same conclusion as Buddha – that to live is to suffer. And yet it was this pessimism that allowed him to work on himself, find meaning and pleasure within the boundaries of his own existence by cultivating his own garden.
What Voltaire was trying to tell us was not that we should all crawl into our little caves like a fearful rabbit, but rather detach ourselves from all that goes on in the world – for humanity will always experience hardship one way or another. We should weep for the death and destruction that have happened, and will always happen. And within that pessimistic reflection, we should rise up and do what we can within our own means to improve our lives and the people around us.
That is not to say that we should remain ignorant of what goes on in this world, for no man is an island. Part of the process of cultivating one’s own garden – or cleaning one’s room – is to gain wisdom, examine one’s life and reduce our ignorance. If wisdom, skills and experience were valued and nurtured in education and upbringing, perhaps we would not be seeing the rise of emotional reactionary rhetorics on one side, and backwards, narrow worldview on the other, and national leaders would be chosen based on their track record and experiences over feelings and tribalism.
We should be aware of the extent to which our focus goes into tidying up our lives versus getting attached to worldly calamities. This is because everyone has a finite number of hours in a day, and a finite amount of mental energy. We are also prone to being overwhelmed by information overload, which can lead to mental paralysis, social anxieties and apathy especially since our brains are wired to ruminate on negativity. When that happens, many of us develop coping mechanisms that can lead to addictions in severe cases – from games to alcoholism, from tv to porn.
As someone who works in fashion, I often feel a sense of hopelessness in the prevalent hypercapitalist greed that permeates the industry. Its collective marketing effort has been honed to perfection to persuade consumers to spend as much money in as high frequency as possible. Volume is king.
The majority of the fashion industry – just like any other product-based consumer goods – still relies on mass production. Raw materials have to be ordered and processed in bulk. Factories will only take on jobs if you meet the minimum order quantity that puts the entire assembly line to work. As a result, most brands resort to the most economically viable method, which is to produce as much as their budget allows, drive aggressive marketing campaigns to entice maximum sales, and incinerate or dump the unsold goods. It is a tried-and-tested business practice carried out by LVMH all the way down to fast fashion. Decades of unchecked over-production worldwide has led us to the issues of pollution we are facing today.
I often thought that a single person without the resources of a conglomerate can hardly persuade people to change their consumption habits – deeply entrenched in the myth of branding to the intoxication of instant gratification; or create any meaningful change in the industry’s manufacturing system that can divert our path from utter destruction of natural resources.
If I had presented my business idea back in school, I might have failed my economics class. Concepts such as profit maximisation and cost curve – most of which I have set aside in favour of building good relationships with my staff, vendors and contractors, as well as my customers – have driven corporations to great success at the expense of everything else that does not need to be included in financial statements.
But three years after starting ROSEN, I have come to see that there’s a growing subset of consumers who can accept a different way of doing things. They understand how the zero inventory business model works, and have the patience to wait for post-purchase production. Many have also embraced the value derived from personal customisations.
As tiny as my domain of competence is, it is the garden I have decided to take care of. Despite all that goes on this world, I made the choice to tune out sensationalism and antagonism, keeping my news consumption to the barest factual data wherever possible which is getting more difficult as news outlets are peppered with manipulative clickbaits regardless of their respective political leaning. My mornings are now spent on books, be it fiction or non-fiction, the kinds that continue to teach me about humanity across cultures and history. My days and nights are spent on work so that I can continue to provide value to my supporters, while pushing the boundaries of our capabilities to make complex designs.
We are most of us born rather average. We will die alone and forgotten. But this is the only life that we have. Let us not waste our bodies and minds on issues that we cannot work on, nor let them rot with vacuous and escapist form of consumption. We should create meaning however way we can, be it for ourselves or for those whom we can reach out to.