Comfortable with the face I’ve earned

No purpose served in being attached to one’s looks; instead, being able to let go helps ease suffering

Source: The Sunday Times  Dec 4, 2011
By Lee Wei Ling

I had had a busy week so I decided to relax and scan the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Times. The photograph of a man and a pretty woman holding a string to which many mussels were attached caught my attention.

The man in the story, a Mr Lim, aged 45, managed to earn a living growing mussels after some trial and error. It was a hard life. Partly in jest, he told the reporter: ‘I have already lost my youth. When I started at 31, I was so handsome but now I look old and I have lost at least 12kg.’

In the photograph, his face looks tanned and gaunt. He seems 20 years older than his pretty 32-year-old wife.

Background story

I have put on 20lb (9kg) as instructed by my doctor. But my face is more angular and gaunt and I have prominent eye bags. In the 2001 photograph, I could easily have passed for a teenage boy. Now I look my age, or older than my age.

I have said in this column before that I myself am aesthetically challenged, and I meant it in all honesty. But there was a time when I looked reasonably attractive – average, I would say. The past 10 years, however, have been somewhat unkind to me, and my current appearance reflects the health difficulties I have had.

Recently, I needed to get a new passport photograph. When I compared the new photograph with the one I took in 2001, I realised how much my face had aged.

I have put on 20lb (9kg) as instructed by my doctor. But my face is more angular and gaunt and I have prominent eye bags. In the 2001 photograph, I could easily have passed for a teenage boy. Now I look my age, or older than my age. No matter how short I cut my hair, I can no longer pass for a young androgynous teenager or man.

Some readers may wonder why I needed a new passport photograph to realise how much my face had changed for the worse. The answer is simple. I rarely spend time looking at myself in the mirror. My hair is short, so I comb it without looking at a mirror.

Comparing the photograph of myself aged 46 with a photograph of myself aged 56 – and verifying that the ‘now’ photograph was accurate by looking carefully at myself in a mirror – I felt a little sad for a while. Then my common sense was back in control.

Indeed, a few months ago, when I wrote about my graduation at the age of 23, I showed the photograph of myself in my graduation gown and mortar board to one of my friends. I asked him: ‘Can you recognise me now from that photograph?’ He knew I wanted a frank answer and replied: ‘No.’

I knew my face had aged, but I did not realise how much I had aged. Still, I have no right to complain. That I am still alive and relatively healthy now is already a near miracle. Furthermore, I don’t depend on my looks to earn a living.

When I scrutinise myself objectively in the mirror, I realise that the part of my face that has changed the most are my eyes. They are slanted and slit, closely resembling my father’s eyes in his old age. The lower part of my face looks angular and gaunt despite my weight gain, for most of my extra weight consists of muscle.

Recently, at the World Orchid Conference, two women separately asked me if I was Dr Lee. I asked the first woman who questioned me how she had guessed, since no recent photograph of me had appeared in the press. ‘You look like your father,’ she said.

(Incidentally, I avoid photographs of myself in the press not because I look old and unattractive. Rather, it is because I want to preserve my privacy. I am the only member of my family who can walk down Orchard Road and not be readily recognised – which was why I was somewhat surprised I was recognised at the World Orchid Conference.)

I thought of the Chinese phrase nadechi, fangdexia, which means literally ‘what you pick up, you should also be able to let go without clinging to it’. In a previous article, I had used this phrase in relation to an elegant glass ornament my mother had given me, and which I had accidentally broken. But the phrase applies not only to objects but also to fortune, fame, prestige, success, appearance, youth and many other things or attributes to which we are attached.

I have not yet developed the ability to be totally detached from life’s vicissitudes, but I have learnt to remind myself that desire of and attachment to worldly things bring suffering. I have thus become fairly successful in curbing some of my attachments.

If I believed in reincarnation, then I would feel that I had many more lives to struggle through before I attained nirvana. But I don’t believe in reincarnation, and I am convinced that I am a transient on this planet.

This means that if I don’t want to suffer too much in this life, I must continually remind myself that while I should aspire to help other humans, I must also be willing to be detached when detachment is the only option.

I don’t resent the misfortunes that fate has brought me. I accept them as lessons in life that only personal experience can teach. Indeed, I believe I am fortunate rather than unfortunate to have learnt these lessons.

And one small lesson I have learnt is that there is no purpose served in being attached to my face – or what used to be my face. George Orwell once wrote that after the age of 50, we all have the face we deserve. I, for one, am quite comfortable with the one I have earned.