Power cuts, Khmer weddings and the learning of stoicism

Shouting won't ease your pain, but staying quiet won't either.


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“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations). “Ok but when a continual, howling monk’s chanting wakes you up at 5am, just to make you realize that you won’t have air-conditioning, fan or water for an undetermined length of time because of the third power cut of the month, you don’t always feel like getting your old Latin books back out. And anyway there is no light. Now if you'll excuse me, I’m looking for a place where I can recharge my cell phone and use Wi-Fi.” (Anonymous expat, yesterday morning).



Anyone who has spent several months in Cambodia will have already experienced this personal struggle between anger and acceptance of fate. Will I be able to tolerate the inconvenience and move on, or will I tell the whole world about my horrible life on Facebook? If I cannot shower today, will I be strong enough to keep the muck external and hope my skin keeps it there, or will I be weak and let it infiltrate my mind and darken it for the coming hours?

As usual, the path to peace of mind and happiness is the most difficult one. As far as I am concerned the most instinctive reaction is to get mad. When I try to keep calm and face my problems, when I think I will be exceptionally able to bring my own condition and self conscience to a superior level, where any trouble becomes an insignificant scratch I can reject with a despising flick of the fingers, this is usually the moment when I discover the ants theme park surrounding the last edible thing I have. This is also when my motorbike won’t start, and notice that my water demijohn is empty.


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“WHY ME?!” It’s at this point the most common development my mind goes through before I squat in a dark corner of my house and cry. Marcus Aurelius is just a vague memory now. But when I’m just about to give up the fight, someone else shows up in my thoughts, my Khmer friends. As far as I remember, I have never heard any of them complaining about power cuts or noisy weddings. Yet they face it just like me. How come? I rule out the hypothesis that they had a better Latin teacher when at school. Mine was terrific. He made me understand that Cesar did not put bay tree in his salad. There must be something else. Buddhism might explain a bit also, but just like stoicism, it cannot completely change a human being’s most basic reactions.

And I finally understood. If these guys don’t seem to care much about noise and power cuts, it is for two reasons: first, they’ve dealt with that since they were born. We westerners discovered this kind of discomfort only when we came to live here. Second, almost all of them have to face far worse situations all the time. What looks unbearable to us is just part of everyday life for locals, and what really upsets them is way more serious than that.

So even if getting irritated by these mishaps is natural and difficult to control for us, let’s always remember that we feel like that because we were very lucky before, not because life is unfair right now.