Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Inspired

We are influenced by the people we meet or keep in company with. Though many of them will influence us in some small way - it is usually difficult to pinpoint their precise contribution to your personality or life - a small few however will leave such a lasting and powerful impression so as to change your attitude towards living. Yesterday I mentioned that CS Lim was one of the most influential people in my life but did not explain this influence. Before I can do so however, it is necessary to begin with how I saw myself before I became acquainted with him.

An average student that never made the top ten in class throughout primary and secondary class. Dangerously diligent during play and unrepentantly lazy and completely indisciplined where studies were concerned. Sometimes I'd even just pretend I fell asleep after an hour of sitting in front of my textbook at home just to get out of studying. Even the one time I really made an effort with my studies for the SRP exams (Sijil Rendah Pelajaran; an exam taken in Form 3 in Secondary School), I didn't come out top either (and nowhere near the top ten either). The thinking therefore was that if that was my best and it still was not good enough to beat some of my friends (braniac bastards most of them), then perhaps I was not clever, or to be brutal about it, stupid. These factors along with the fact that I was a late (started regularly only at twelve) and a slow reader, could not hold more than two sentences (with a maximum of ten words each) in my head for more than five seconds, and had never been told I was clever, except by my parents, who unsurprisingly made no mention of this when I showed them my crimson stained report cards. I gave no opinions thinking mine worthless. Never volunteered an answer even if I knew the answer. And all this left me rather unambitious. I believe the technical phrase for this is 'Could Not Be Arsed'. College came. Though it gave me a glimpse of what intellectual freedom felt it was too cursory to be of significance and though I made firm friends there, I was not altered by the experience. At that point, I knew I wanted to be in the practise of law but never thought to ponder about just what kind of lawyer I would be. Actually, at that point of time, I would have happy as long as I made it there.

And now to speak a little more of CS Lim's own attributes. Yes, he was persistently boastful (I ceased to even notice this once our friendship was ensconced) but unlike many blowhards, CS Lim could back it up. He did not make a claim that he could not meet. And the reason I think for this was because of his singleminded ability to focus so intensely and exclusively on his goal that it became inevitable. The most significant example of this was our own law degrees. At the beginning of our second year, we had agreed that we would work towards a first class degree. We studied diligently together throughout the year either and at the end of the second year, horror of horrors. Though I came out poised for an attempt on a first class with something like an average of 64 (this was a second upper; first class was 70 marks and above) CS Lim was handed a measly 55 (this was a second lower which by his standards was unthinkable). Needless to say, we were completely nonplussed. We studied together, used the same notes, discussed our studies and shared the same opinions. Worse, he was the one that helped me through the more difficult topics and issues. How on earth did it turn out like this? He was pretty depressed about his results and I felt bad about mine. We hung out a bit over the summer vacation. When we met again in university at the start of third year, he seemed rejuvenated. He had his dorky smile on his face and announced to me that he was going to get that first class and was 'prepared to do anything to get it.' He asked if I was still keen for it. Though I said yes, I don't think it was because I really thought I was going to be able to make it but rather because hearing it pronounced seemed to have a rather inspiring effect. So I gave his query a thumbs up. The goal was set. First class for both of us. It was on. Little did I know what I was in for.

Over here in Malaysia when I hear somebody telling me that they would do anything to get something, I inevitably think that they are going to just bribe, beat or blackmail somebody to get what they want. I was to learn the length to which CS Lim would go through to get that first class. In that first week of term of our third year, we had drawn up our plan and divided up our chores. I was responsible for taking full verbatim lecture notes, collating the tutorial material and starting work on them. He was to do pretty much everything else which included going for intensive one on one private tutorial sessions with the tutors (which let me tell you is way more scarier than your normal tutorial with a bunch of people in the room. These one on one sessions were brutal because you had to make sure that you completely and thoroughly understood some of the issues before you could hold your own against these tutors who were bloody brilliant. And he recorded these and I transcribed them), photocopying, purchasing or bartering for other relevant material that was not on the reading list and he was to summarize the heavier reading stuff like those bloody boring law books. After we had run through all the material in our library, I thought we were done. Not at all. We took a drive out one day to the neighbouring university nearby and raided their library. We did not only check their books and journals but we even ran through Masters dissertations and PhD papers written by the students that were stored there. And that was still not enough. So, CS Lim about a week after came up with the idea to drive down to Oxford and then raid the Bodleian library. We left the day after his suggestion just before dawn so we could maximize the day pass he got for both of us. We didn't eat lunch that day. All I remember were books, racks of books, more books and our laptops which were clattering away whenever we were not ransacking the journals and other textbooks. What we did was set up our laptops at a big table and just brought down books we felt relevant, skimmed through it and typed out the relevant portions we wanted verbatim and summarized the rest. We left only when the library closed and made it back with enough energy to get to our respective rooms and crash out. As all this was going on, there was the daily routine that we had going which was just to study, analyze and come up with better arguments or points from our additional material, discuss it, memorize stuff, write essays and go for our tutorials. That was just about as hard as I've ever studied in my life. And not being used to it, after about 5 months of that intensity I just got tired of it and told CS Lim that I was taking it slower because I could not take the pace anymore and truth be told felt that I should be enjoying my last year in university too. I think also that that first class suddenly didn't mean so much to me anymore. I started 'slacking' if you could call it that in the last 3 months. CS Lim however kept at it and aside from a few meals and what not, I saw little of him. He would call every once in a while to see how I was doing and berating me for giving up. Anyway, when the results came up, I maintained my second upper but CS Lim scored his first class and was I think the first ever in the university to pull a first class out of a hat with a second lower in the second year. He did so outstandingly for his final five papers that it did not just pull his average up but blew it up into the stratosphere. He basically gave up 8 months of his life to get it and he did. And that's pretty much him - if he wants it bad enough, he was going to get it. It could be a girl (that's another story too), a game of tennis, tennis captainship, someone he wants to meet, whatever really and once his heart was set, he was going to achieve or get it.

Now that you have a fair idea of what kind of people we were and some of the stuff we got up to, I can better explain how he influenced me. And I think the pivotal point was one night that started rather casually that I do not remember the circumstances that occured before our conversation. I think when we had this conversation, we were already firm friends for a few months already. I knew by then off his many and diverse accomplishments and was impressed. I had great respect for him and often wondered what he hung about me for - I mean there were much cleverer fellows, better tennis players (his sports obsession in university), etc and I think I pretty much paled in comparison to some his other friends or hall mates.

That's how I thought and that was my attitude about myself at the time. Then we had that conversation in my room which I think marked the beginning of my internal change. It was very early in the morning, perhaps one or two in the morning. We were quite tired out and I think we may have returned from a function of some sort. There was only my desk light which I turned to face one of the walls. It was cold. Sometimes you could hear the wind whisper or howl past the window. I was sitting on my bed and I recall him slumped on the guest chair which was set perpendicular to my bed. So what was this conversation?

It began with him saying something to the effect that he had done some thinking about my lack of ambition. I replied by saying that this was readily apparent and asked him why he thought I was like that. And he began telling me about his thoughts about me, why he thought I behaved the way I did and some of the actions or things I say that support his conclusion. It was rather frightening to be deconstructed in such a manner and how accurate he was in doing so considering at that point of time he did not know a great deal about my past (he often did most of the talking). I remember feeling rather embarassed and ashamed I suppose at being found out like that. But then he started to tell me how wrong I was about myself, about how I had alot of potential to be a whole lot better than I was if I bothered, that I was much cleverer than I thought myself, that I really should think about my life and not let myself drift, and then explaining why he thought this. He then said that he had a lot of respect for me and my abilities. And he said all this a calm and quiet fashion in his chair instead of his usual bustling and loud manner.

I know he was just saying a bunch of nice things about me. But until then nobody aside from my parents told me that they thought so well of me or thought me clever and worthwhile in so serious a manner or just after I had done something that politeness encourages praise. Before, I was synonymous with just funniness (and all related thereto like silliness, etc.) and laughter. And it was meaningful for me because he had nothing to gain from me when he said it. Not a thing (and by that time, I had borrowed a few of his jackets already). We were firm friends already by then. And there was really no need to say anything. There was no need for him to lift me up to make me his equal. Here was someone whom I had loathed with a passion at first, so much more accomplished than me in every respect saying these completely unnecessary things. I don't know whether this is pure sincerity but my count it comes pretty damn close. And it is wonderful to hear good things being said about you with such sincerity. And it is damn well inspiring.

I don't know how the night ended. But from that day I felt a change in myself. I had lost that fear of trying. I now felt confident about challenging myself and perhaps even others. I wanted the challenge. I felt that I had the right to an opinion and was not afraid to voice it. But all this did not manifest itself fully enough until the second year. And I am now rolling on that momentum - always challenging myself, challenging others, exposing my mind to the unfamiliar, learning new things or knowledge, sometimes leaping out of my comfort zone because I am confident in my abilities and certain of its limits. I know more of who I am and have discovered more ways to draw myself out to analyze, consider and perhaps improve or prune.

I am no longer afraid.

I am inspired.

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