Would you open the black box?



The following is an excerpt from a speech made by Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Singapore Management University’s Convocation on 16 August 2013:

“Let me begin by telling you two stories which I think are worth pondering as you stand on the cusp of a new phase in your lives.

The first is an Arab tale that has been around in various forms since the 9th century. There was a certain merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market. The servant came back trembling with fear. Master, he said, when I was in the market I met Death who threatened me. Lend me your horse so that I may flee this city and go to Samarra and avoid my fate. The merchant willingly agreed and the servant galloped away. Later that day, the merchant went to the market and there confronted Death. Why did you threaten my servant this morning, asked the merchant. No, no said Death, I did not threaten him. I was merely startled to see your servant in Baghdad because I have an appointment with him this evening in Samarra.

The second is an old Chinese fable.

There was a man who lived on China’s northern frontier. One day for no particular reason, his only horse ran away across the border. The other villagers tried to console him for his ill fortune. But the man replied, what makes you think this is not a blessing? A week later the horse returned accompanied by a splendid nomad mare. All the villagers congratulated him for his good luck. But the man replied, what makes you think this is not a curse? The man’s son delighted in riding the new mare but one day fell and was crippled. Again the villagers tried to console him. But the man replied, what makes you sure this is not a blessing? War came. Every able bodied young man in the village was conscripted to fight the nomads. Nine out of ten were killed, but since the man’s son was crippled he was not enlisted and survived.

Destiny and contingency — what has been indelibly written in the stars and the unfathomable vagaries of heaven — are not rivals. They are co-conspirators forever sporting with your lives. This is not just an abstract thought.

Twenty years ago on Saturday 11th December 1993, at about one thirty in the afternoon, a twelve storey luxury high-rise apartment complex in Kuala Lumpur called Highland Towers suddenly collapsed. Forty-eight people were crushed to death. A very good friend of mine lived there. He was never known for early rising and would usually still have been in bed on a weekend. However, on that particular Saturday for some inconsequential reason – I think it was to sell his car – he got up much earlier than usual and left his apartment about an hour before the disaster. So he was spared. But a few years later, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died a lingering death.

We cherish the illusion of being in control of events. But in every decision, however trivial, the seeds of a thousand futures are sown. In an instant a world of hope shatters, even as life continues with insolent normalcy around you. In another instant infinite possibilities may flower. Joy and grief are inextricably intertwined. An ancient Roman philosopher once wryly observed, the most unhappy sort of unfortunate man is one who has been happy.”



A few months ago, a good friend of mine asked me this intriguing question: If you have a black box in front of you right now, and this black box can unveil everything about your future; would you open it?

I hesitated.

Would I?

I decided on no for an answer.

We always crave for certainty and many times hope for a divine revelation. But when we do have that black box in front of us; would we still want to unravel all that’s ahead?

What if the future isn’t what I expected? Will I be able to live it out when I already know the outcome? Will I worry for life and consider every step in paranoia to avoid what’s predestined? What if knowing will lift me out of suspense and make my life a mundane motion of going through events?

In everything there is a time and season; a rhyme and reason. We take time to make sense out of them, and seasons to figure out why they happened. The beauty of life lies in not knowing what’s ahead, although we may dread because we tend to obsess over things we cannot have.  Now this leaves little reason for us to mull over the uncertainties of our place in this world.

Would you open the black box?



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