Grace. 19. Reader, writer, dancer, dreamer. Prone to bouts of ditziness.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

144 The Disenchantment of Our Existence

the unfiltered view of sunset from my hostel
“Disenchantment” is such a lovely, bittersweet word.

This I wrote onto a Post-It on my desktop, having discovered the word in one of my readings- ironically, during the lead-up to the main test I had this grade-free first semester in NUS, when surely all freshmen must in some way or another be becoming disillusioned with the heady ideals with which they chose their majors.

For “disillusioned” is all “disenchanted” really means, but somehow the latter sounds a lot more magical and mysterious than the former. Rather than something tricksy and indeed, a little nasty, an enchantment sounds so much more romantic (didn’t Audrey Hepburn say you had to be a little in love with every one of your leading men to play a role well?). I always liked the idea of that- and the corresponding attitude to life it demanded, that we be a little in love (if not more) with every pursuit we take up, whether for the better or worse.

What this inevitably means is that every journey you embark on must shrug on the proverbial arc of a love story. You fall in love. Behind your new rose-tinted glasses everything is shrouded in the mist of fairy-tale. You love everything about your new pursuit- the ethics, the arguments, the dilemmas, the stories… You wonder where the plaintiffs and defendants ended up after their cases ended. You wonder how anyone could have mustered the will to defend someone against whom public opinion raged- you wonder at their dedication to the belief that one is innocent until proven guilty- you wonder how it is that you enter the case believing instantly in the guilt of someone you have never met.

But then the little intricacies of daily life and the daily grind start to set in. The way your lover never closes the cap on the toothpaste, or leaves expired loaves of bread in the kitchen. The way the cases just kept on coming and you couldn’t see the overarching theories and movements for the details. The way you can’t muster up any sort of passion whatsoever to argue about certainty in contracts. The way a three-hour seminar is the antithesis to your idea of a perfect Friday morning in bed.

You start to remember the life you led before. Or, if you prefer, the lives you led before- for how many have you led exactly?

I had a nightmare the other night- that I had to live my thirteenth and fourteenth years again, except with my current mind trapped in an old body- that initial heady optimism, that life is going to change for the better and this new exciting journey would be the best yet- before being encumbered by the realizations of “different”, of “popular”…

Social media doesn’t exactly help. If law is my new lover I see others who have chosen differently- who have been with the one I had before, who have stayed. Would I have been happier there? As I recently wrote to a friend in an e-mail, surely it is a testament to resilience and adaptability that we must always wonder if we would be happier somewhere else. But equally essential to the strength of our character must be the ability to be happiest where we are.

For just as we become disenchanted with where we are, we must be aware of how we tend to slip off our rose-tinted glasses, only to put them on in the perspective of the past- to romanticize and over-glamourize our memories of where we were before. “Wasn’t I so happy then?” you wonder, forgetting instantly the gritty details that made you leave.

It is a painful, sobering feeling to be disenchanted with your journeys on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. But at the same time, it is an oddly comforting one- like the swallow of bittersweet coffee- knowing that as long as you can always find something to fall in love with, you can never leave. And the knowledge that what keeps you staying does not need to be what attracted you in the first place is the balm that soothes your soul during the storm.

There may have been equally happy (or dare I say, happier) paths elsewhere; but oh, what a joy to be on the one I am.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

143 A Randomized Existence

“One of the pleasures of walking in New York is that it randomizes the grid... and that feeling of randomizing your own existence is, I think, incredibly rich and welcome.” -Adam Gopnik, as quoted by New York Times
It's finally recess week! I decided to read my old blog posts on a whim and realized I haven't actually written anything since law school started. I had toyed with the separate ideas of making a picture-dump post and making a Things to be Grateful For list, but the realization that 6 whole surreal weeks of being a law student have whizzed by made me think: why not combine the two?

Then comes along the brilliant New York Times article linked in the blockquote above, which couldn't have come at a more perfect time, because the only two exciting things I planned for myself this recess week were to get myself out of the house, alone, armed with a camera, to be a tourist in my own country for a day (or two). It's been a tiring, but super liberating and super memorable experience.

Walking alone is such a strange activity.
You're alone, so there's no need to make idle conversation, or worry that you're boring/ tiring your companion with your presence/ needs/ distractions/ thoughts. You're alone, so you can turn into any back lane that catches your eye, or take a detour down a road parallel to the one more often travelled.

Like this one, found next to a backpacker hotel.
That said, when we're alone in crowded places (and it's Singapore. Every place is crowded), we tend to resort to the pretence that we're not alone. It's part of the "glorification of busy": we chunk away at our smartphones, as if to say, "I'm not really alone. There's someone else on the line!"

Funny: this means there is someone else on another part of the island (or the world) doing the exact same thing.
But you're also walking. So here's where the fun part comes in, because when you walk alone, you can walk at any pace you please with any amount of purpose you deem fit (i.e. none at all is actually an option). So I truly played the tourist: I slung my camera around my neck, walked at a terribly slow pace, wandered all around Raffles Hotel like nobody's business, and even stopped a couple of fellow idling tourists to ask for a photo. 

And hey, you can do cheesy touristy things like ask for better shots or pose without looking awkward (which I failed at. Hence the lack of proof), just because!

Of course, the tourist impression had to fall away when I presented my I/C for the free entry to Asian Civilization Museum's exhibition, but that's beside the point. 

Being alone shouldn't be as demonized as it can be sometimes. 

Being alone is one of the things I'm grateful for. I chose the title "A Randomized Existence" in reference to the NYT quote at the beginning, but also because of a more personal realization I had recently: that my life has been a train on the same, straight railway line. Despite certain rest stops which others may not have had (e.g. studying overseas for a bit when I was thirteen), I always got back on. I've always joined the same clubs, hung out in the same social circles, had the same hobbies (pretty much).

If "it is our choices which define us, (Harry,) more than our abilities", then I'm not a terribly exciting person, and I doubt I ever will be. But these little jaunts on my own have given me a glimpse into what happens when you shake up your Rubik's Cube existence and go for a randomized one- where my spur-of-the-moment decisions can take me, literally, anywhere.
 It's a strange thing to learn in law school, where you learn to paragraph with numbers,

  1. Like so. To create neat, ordered lists of an argument that flows like a gun held steady hitting the bullet's eye bam, bam, bam.
  2. Where you realize that the lawyer's uniform ("court attire") of a white button up and black pencil skirt is actually a pretty accurate representation of what counts as style (in both literary and sartorial senses): clean lines, no fluff. 
  3. Where you're kinda still on the same train, on the same railway line. Only perhaps bumped up a carriage, because the problems you're dealing with are suddenly a lot harder and bigger than those in JC, and definitely those in secondary school.

That spontaneous feeling of being caught off guard and planning around the surprises is still something I have to grapple with. My personality is such that I feel the need to micro-manage and plan my life down to the minutest details. Even my alone, zen time needs to be scheduled- and rightly so, I suppose, for the purposes of time management- but still, walking alone shows me how expansive time is (say "expensive", with a Singlish accent- I kid).
I'm not saying that I'm going to incorporate this spontaneity into my everyday life or personality- I'm past the stage of believing that I can really change myself inside out at the flip of a hat. But it really amazed me today how time can pass in dollops and yet also ooze (what a nice word) by. Five minutes of prayerful solitude can be as good as five hours of meditation if you allow that silence to take over your soul and really fill you up. And sometimes, discovering hidden lanes and more unexpected things can fill you with more adrenaline than ticking off a long To-Do list in record timing.
Like this lane of pubs along Clarke Quay- why so beautiful (in daylight)?
I do realize, by the way, how very full of contradictions this post is, and how much ludicity it lacks. But despite my tired feet and the way my eyes probably can't stay open for much longer, I have to say- it's a wonderful world. And it's a wonderful experience to breathe in this wonder alone sometimes.

(All pictures by me! Do not take without credit! As if you even would, anyway.)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

142 Is God a Utilitarian?

Earlier this month, two nuns were viciously attacked outside a church in Malacca, Malaysia. One of them, Sister Juliana, later succumbed from her injuries. The incident only made a small tab in the Straits Times- a little mention, a passing reference before the world moved on to bigger things, greater catastrophes, Events rather than Incidents.

Sister Juliana was a good friend of my mother’s godmother. We received word of the attack one day before the papers were published. It felt strange to be on the other side of the news, and it made me wonder about all the other little incidents that I always skim past in the papers, all the reports that I don’t deem interesting or scandalizing enough to peruse hungrily.

“Whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk...” –Graham Swift, ‘Waterland’

Before I go off on a tangent about the stories behind the articles we read, however, the primary thing that gave me pause about this was: how could God allow nuns to be so viciously attacked? Why give suffering to those who have given up everything to follow Him? I do not ask why the assailants made their choice, but rather, believing that there is a foreordained path for all of us and that God guides us along this with a firm and sure hand, I wondered why the Sisters’ path had taken such a dark and dangerous route.

“Do you think God is a utilitarian?” I asked my mother.

I mean, I went on, look at it: Jesus, one man, was made to suffer (and in such an ignominious manner) for mankind (whose sins he had not even committed).  His arc is the story we all follow most closely; His the story that spans all the Gospel readings in church. Is God trying to drill his utilitarian philosophy into us? (Utilitarianism dictates that the purpose of every course of action should be to ensure the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. A utilitarian, for example, would happily sacrifice one soldier if it meant saving the company. So: very close to the Jesus example.)

The application of utilitarianism to Catholicism, however, stops there. Jesus’ suffering has a dearth of metaphorical implications. In this day and age, it is more a symbol of eternal love and mercy than literal history: how do we prove that the walk to Golgotha actually happened, let alone that all our sins were removed by one man? The concept of ‘sin’ is still a very religious one, as is its removal. How then do we interpret modern suffering?

The epiphany I came to is as thus: we must stop thinking of suffering as punishment, but as a challenge.

The feelings of indignation and injustice that I felt with the attack on the Sisters stemmed from that universal question we have all pondered one time or another: why do people suffer? In the legal system, it is easy to explain that people are punished because of their transgressions. But in daily life, suffering often comes apropos of nothing.

I just finished reading a book on Greek mythology, which expounded on popular tales and briefly explained their relevance within Greek culture. One thing that I have always found fascinating about Greek mythology is the way they saw their Gods: as inexplicably greater than humans, but only in terms of their power, not their virtue. In fact, the idea of a perfect God is very much Christian, not Greek: their gods lusted, murdered, envied, discriminated… Thus, I realized that I had unconsciously been viewing our God as a Zeus-like figure, thunderbolt in hand, ready to strike down anyone whom he deemed to ‘have it coming’.

The Sisters did not have it coming.

Therefore, we must stop seeing God as someone who coldly and harshly deals out just desserts- or worse, someone who doles out suffering for the heck of it. There must be a purpose to every suffering- not so much the ‘fore’, or how this suffering came to us through a fault of our own, but the ‘after’: how we must arise from each suffering stronger, and most importantly, closer to God.

What suffering or what glory is in our future, nobody can tell but God. This past month has been one of my most trying experiences. To state it plainly: I did not get into NUS Law on my first attempt. This, following a string of disappointments such as not getting into Oxford and not getting into one of my desired internships, caused my self esteem to dip to an all time low. But riding alongside that lack of confidence was an almost arrogant sense of betrayal: how is person X better than me? She is not prettier, or smarter, or nicer; how did she get so much, while I got so little? Bitter thoughts like these raced through my mind for a very, very long time. I felt terrible about them but could not escape them until I had the epiphany that God’s will must be done.

And God’s will is thus:

That we are blessed beyond compare. That the audacity of hope is not to dream fervently that all our puny wishes will come true, but that we hope in God for His peace to dominate our world. That God has for each of us a unique path that will bring us closer to Him. That there are hidden blessings in every curse, that maybe some time later you will discover a thousand things to make you glad your life turned out this way.

It was only after gaining this peace through this realization that I could get my wits together and marshal a game plan. I wrote essays and attended interviews and tests with the strengthening knowledge that God is always beside me, and that when He does not bring me where I want to go, He is leading me by the hand to pastures that are much greener. And whether that pasture is near or far away, I must strive on, in the sure knowledge of His grace.

I have heard that it is nearly impossible to get called up for the second round of interview and tests if you did not get called up in the first round. I have heard that the chances of a successful appeal are close to zero. And most crushingly, just this Monday I spoke to my PSC officer on the phone, and she advised me that since NUS had not contacted me within a fortnight of my interview, I should assume the worst and start to make contingency plans. But that very same night, I logged into my NUS portal with a sinking heart, and saw the most blessed words:

My appeal had been successful.

I do wonder what I would have done had it not been successful. But I am grateful beyond belief to God that I did not have to surmount this one more challenge. I am so grateful to God for the past month, for the peace He has given me, for the surety of wonderful friends and supportive family members, and most of all for the confidence in my identity as a loved child of God, whose purpose in life must not be to scoop up all the accolades possible but to, through my words and actions, bring others closer to Him, closer to love.

Every now and then, my brain goes “Whaaa-?” about the news. I still don’t quite believe it. But I love that leap of happiness that rises in me when I remember it. It makes me remember how beautiful life is. And I hope I will continue believing that life is indeed beautiful, no matter what challenges come my way.

“God may tell you to ‘wait’, but He will never tell you to ‘worry’.” –a poster at the office