William Putnam

On fatalism and choice

East versus West


People in Thailand have a more fatalistic view of life than people in the west do. This view may seem odd to most westerners, especially to Americans, who believe that they should do their best to control the vicissitudes of life. The idea of controlling one's fate is alien to the Thai way.

I find Thai superstitions odd and sometimes feel that the Thai people should join the twenty-first century. However, accepting the idea of fate in toto is no more ridiculous than accepting that one can control one's life entirely. Whereas a Thai will rarely blame another person for anything, even if that person is blatantly negligent and at fault, an American will always find someone to blame. To me, these opposite ends on the spectrum are equally asinine.

Imagine this: you are an 85 year old man who suffers an ischemic stroke, but your family is not home and does not notice the symptoms at first. As a result, you are not finished with the tests at the hospital until 4 hours after the onset of symptoms. The law requires that a clot dissolving drug be given within 3 hours of the beginning of symptoms or the risk of hemorrhage is too great. Therefore, the physician cannot give you the drug and you end up in a wheelchair. Your family decides to sue the doctor for this, even though he was obeying the law and doing his best for you. Of course, your family will not win the suit. However, their litigious nature is what causes medical malpractice premiums, and ski lift ticket prices for that matter, to cost so much. Americans often do not understand that bad things happen, and they are not always someone's fault.

Now imagine another scenario: you are a Thai taxi driver and you do everything you can to create good luck for yourself. You visit the temple regularly and have the correct amulets in your car. But, your poor driving causes you to run over a person riding a motorbike. You feel horribly guilty for what happened, but you believe that there was little you could have done to prevent the tragedy. This view is also profoundly flawed. Instead of believing all events to be the product of luck and merit, you could use your guilty conscience to propel you to take more precautions when driving, perhaps saving lives in the process. Thai people need to understand that sometimes people are negligent and should be blamed for things. Mai pen rae is not always the best philosophy to have.

It is important to find a balance between these two extremes, to find that golden mean between an excess and a deficiency of fatalism. Given the arsenal of tools many of us have access to in the twenty-first century, it is now possible for us to control our fate by planning for the future and mitigating risk. Nonetheless, the reality of life is always now. The past and future are thoughts occurring in the present. The former are memories and the latter are anticipatory thoughts. In many ways, westerners can learn a lot from the Thai mindset of living in the present and letting go of things, since, in reality, we always are living in the present.

Some people complain that people in Thailand do not think much. This is somewhat true, but this is not necessarily bad. As Hamlet said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Unlike many westerners, Thais do not analyze every moment until all the joy is drained out of it. Discursive thought is beneficial, but constantly being lost in thought is not. If you are always ruminating, then you will fail to connect with the nature of your own experience. You will not be aware of the events happening right in front of you. It is important to recognize thoughts as thoughts in order to not become lost in them. Of course, this is easier said than done for most of us.

There is a scene from season 3 of Six Feet Under that resonates with me. Lisa says to her husband Nate, "Things happen the way they're meant to Nate." Nate responds, "There's a kind of fatalism in that that I just don't buy." Lisa asks what the alternative is and Nate replies, "We make choices."

Even after living in Asia, I still agree with the quote's message. Yet, it is surprising how much of our lives are dictated by circumstance and coincidence. Both Thais and Americans have lost perspective, and it is necessary to learn from both cultures to find an acceptable vantage point. One must strive to exert control over one's life, but worrying constantly will not help one get anywhere.

 




Comments

I get what you are saying but.... but... :)

Thailand has one of the highest numbers of deaths.
Thais may as you say, think they cant prevent these. That its luck, karma, whatever.

BUT, Thais do respond to economic incentives.. Most thais will wear a helmet during the day when the police checkpoints are out in Chiang Mai. But at night they will not. They are not stupid.
If there was more law enforcement on the roads with steeper fines, thais would respond and deaths would go down. They are smart enough to protect their wallets.

By Robert, Chiang Mai (21st October 2017)

Very interesting and well written - thanks!

By Steve, Bangkok (1st January 2014)

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