10th February 2024 – (Hong Kong) “The world is a prison and life is a sentence.” This gloomy outlook was espoused by 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who saw existence as defined by suffering. Like inmates, we are trapped in the confines of the present moment, besieged by tragedy and anxiety while seeking fleeting pleasures to distract from the misery.

When we observe the great misfortunes that befall humanity, it’s easy to concur with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic perspective. And in cramped, bustling Hong Kong, the pressures of urban living can make the world seem like even more of a prison. With astronomical housing costs, long work hours and extreme population density, residents often feel trapped, stressed and unhappy. So how valid is Schopenhauer’s prison metaphor, and what can Hong Kongers do to cope with the mental strain? Examining his ideas in our modern context reveals both disconcerting truths and an uplifting secret that could transform how we see life’s challenges.

Schopenhauer argued that contrary to popular belief, pleasure or happiness is not the default state – rather, pain and suffering are the constant backdrop of life. Happiness is just a temporary relief from distress, soon replaced by new desires and worries.

This rings true in Hong Kong’s pressure cooker environment. Anxieties around money, relationships, work, health and the future plague citizens, many of whom suffer from depression and stress. Hong Kong’s suicide rate is 50% above the global average, indicative of profound hopelessness among some segments of the population.

According to Schopenhauer, we frantically seek distractions like entertainment, technology and instant gratification to escape suffering. Yet pleasure offers only fleeting solace before the next crisis arises. Meanwhile, ageing gradually intensifies life’s torments – loss, betrayal, declining health and death loom ahead while youthful optimism fades.

As Schopenhauer eloquently states: “If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if…the surface were still in a crystalline state.”

Nowhere does Schopenhauer’s prison analogy seem more fitting than in Hong Kong. Among the world’s most densely populated cities, space is at an absolute premium. Notoriously tiny “coffin homes” and “cage homes” provoke dismay at people’s living conditions. Nearly 200,000 residents occupy subdivided flats partitioned into tiny cubicles. When basic living space is severely lacking, the mind also feels confined. The constant proximity to neighbours and lack of privacy intensifies feelings of being trapped. Meanwhile, exorbitant rents and property prices make the city feel like an inescapable financial prison – even educated professionals can struggle to get on the ownership ladder.

Work also imprisons citizens in a metaphorical sense. Hong Kongers work the longest hours in the world, with low vacation allowances. Little free time remains after gruelling office hours and lengthy commutes. While the city’s dynamism derives from this hard-driving culture, burnout and work stress have reached overwhelming levels.

Beyond housing and jobs, Hong Kong itself seems imprisoning due to its isolation and population pressure. Hemmed in between mountains and the sea, the dense urban landscape offers little respite. Serene natural spaces are scarce, and any free public area swiftly gets flooded with crowds. The city’s “concrete jungle” often provokes claustrophobia.

With confinement prevalent in Hong Kong life, Schopenhauer’s prison analogy resonates. But he also provides an unexpected twist – a way to transcend the mental incarceration.

For Schopenhauer, recognising the pervasiveness of suffering is meant not to depress us, but to evoke compassion towards our fellow inhabitants of this “penal colony.” Everyone is serving the same grim sentence of life on Earth.

He states: “They are the shortcomings of humanity, to which we belong; whose faults, one and all, we share; yes, even those very faults at which we now wax so indignant, merely because they have not yet appeared in ourselves.”

We are unified by the anxieties, grief and pain intrinsic to the human condition. By accepting that no one escapes hardship, we can respond with empathy rather than anger when encountering others’ misconduct. They too are prisoners trapped in a callous world, reacting out of their own suffering. This mindset of compassion builds social cohesion and helps lighten the burden.

For Hong Kong citizens, adopting compassion could be transformative. The city’s hyper-competitiveness fuels selfishness and discontent. Seeing people as fellow prisoners can change negative dynamics into care, goodwill and community.

If work, crowded spaces and financial stress are inescapable, the one thing residents can modify is their mindset. This includes compassion towards oneself – easing harsh self-criticism and perfectionistic expectations. Hong Kongers require a mental release of freedom from punitive anxieties around status and success. Accepting imperfections in oneself and others defuses these pressures. Beyond compassion, philosophical and spiritual development offer another form of freedom. For thinkers like Schopenhauer, transcending mundane desires via reflection liberates one from pettiness and misery. Discovering deeper purpose and meaning renders external conditions less imprisoning.

Though not easy, gaining this transcendence is fulfilling. Hong Kong already has strong Buddhist and Taoist traditions emphasizing detachment and inner peace. But more citizens should engage their spiritual side to lift the gloom.

Additional keys to coping with a harsh, dense environment are carving out small private spaces, getting out into nature and finding creative outlets. Making the city more humane and livable also helps counter its worst aspects. Sustaining mental health requires adapting on both personal and societal levels.

Schopenhauer cautions us not to be lured by false utopias or hopes of escaping life’s travails. But he nonetheless offers a crucial insight – that our perspective shapes our experience more than the conditions themselves. Reframing our mindset helps transmute suffering into wisdom, and barriers into opportunities for self-development.

This principle endures today. Even in pressured, impersonal cities, adopting practices of compassion, philosophy and creativity can transport the mind beyond any physical constraints.

Though Hong Kong often feels confined, its citizens have not lost their resilience. Many find fulfilment in family ties, career pursuits, recreation, nature and art. While acknowledging the hardship, they retain an appreciation for the city they call home. Ultimately, no matter how oppressive and limiting the outside world, freedom begins within. By taking to heart Schopenhauer’s message of empathy and transcendence, Hong Kongers can inhabit a freer inner reality. Wherever we are, how we see the world remains our choice. When life feels like a prison planet, we can at least avoid sentenced thought and liberate the spirit.