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

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

Saturday, May 3, 2014

141 Ballet and the Working Girl

Photo edited from Megagamie
At the end of this month, I will wrap up what has been five months in my first proper job. (I have been working as an intern in an e-commerce firm selling clothes.) Taking on this new challenge even as I projected ahead to a new phase of life come August this year turned out to be a whirlwind of a ride into myself and the ‘real world’- or what I can claim to have discovered of it, having been thus far sheltered by very loving working and home environments.

Still, juggling various application deadlines and yes, their results, with the demands of work caused me to, like the proverbial mad man, start mashing everything together in my brain. Sounds insane, doesn’t it? But I learnt that when you start to see the various challenges you face from all fields on the same plane- when you stop compartmentalizing your life and realize that it all adds up to what kind of person you are going to become- you stand to glean a lot more from life. And you become better equipped to withstand the storms that life is going to hurl your way. And boy, have I been hurled a lot of storms these five months.
So why is this post titled ‘Ballet and the Working Girl’?

Because I also wanted to take this opportunity to delve into something I’ve long wanted to write about. Ballet- ballet- ballet; it started out as an innocent once-weekly encounter to fulfil my NYAA ‘Sports’ criteria (because heaven forbid would I do anything else remotely athletic), but I have since gained such an enormous respect and reverence for this discipline and art that it is hard to pick just a few words –and indeed, write just one short post!- on the lessons it has taught me.

Just as work was a telescope into the ‘real world’ even as I thumped away on my computer at home on the weekends, furiously filling out application forms and sending them off, ballet was always that something off the academic calendar for me during my schooling years. And when I started to face all three of my worlds together during these five months, that’s when all the lessons learnt started coming together and really taking shape.

1. Practice makes perfect.

‘Adage’ means two things for me: ‘start all lists with a proverb’ (origin: French) and ‘an essential part of barre that trains you to take things slowly’ (origin: Italian). Perfect for today’s list, in other words! Now, I’m very sorry to start this list with a proverb so clich├ęd, but it is truly true for someone taking baby steps in the ballet and working worlds. Or, as one of my friends posted on Instagram: “Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

Consistent work makes consistent progress, if you work hard enough and learn earnestly enough. Erasing yesterday’s mistakes today means faster efficiency and better performance tomorrow. For ballet, that means coming early before class and/or staying back behind class to work on the little foibles that weren’t successfully inked out during class, such as weak metatarsals or an incorrectly aligned arabesque. For work, that means ironing out inconsistencies the minute you spot them, no matter if it ‘isn’t in your job scope’ (yet), like realizing that stock count for a certain item was incorrectly represented online, or spotting that a new arrival has been wrongly placed on the sales rack.

Taking responsibility for your own progress also keeps you out of ruts. It generates the fuel you need to constantly move forward.

2. Learn from everybody.

One more quote I saw online: “Don’t stop looking for work once you’ve got a job.” For me, that means two things.

Firstly, to look outside yourself for things that might improve your learning curve. I say ‘learning curve’ and not ‘performance’ because sometimes, especially at work, these things do not contribute in any way to your Key Performance Index. Things such as helping other people with their tasks seem very obvious at first, but actually become a lot harder to do the further they are from your idea of your job scope. And yet, what I’ve learnt as an intern is that job scopes are always fluid, and it’s best to have this flexibility to apply yourself wherever needed for the best of the company. For ballet, it’s in watching performances online or live that are, at best, tangential to what you’re learning. You never know when they might come back to you: sure, that enchainement may be miles away from where you are now in terms of technique, but I’ve always found it instructive to pay attention to the ballerina’s emotional engagement with the music. Capturing the essence of a character in movement can be replicated, even in the little repetitive sequences we do each week.

Secondly, never think so highly of yourself that you consider others unworthy of learning from.  No one is beneath you. This is a lesson of pride as much as anything, and one that I have yet to fully learn.

3. Don’t take it personally.

Ironically, it is when you can take a step back and separate your performance from your identity that your performance becomes better. Perhaps I generalize- but how else can you learn to deal with comments such as “you grow fatter every time I see you” or “I’m not coming back if I face [such] bad service”? The best you can do is attempt to see the comment from the perspective of the one who made it, and work to improve yourself as objectively as possible. And know that at the end of the day, how you rose from such comments and made yourself a better person is what’s most important.

4. Handle everything with a smile.

Again, this comes with compartmentalizing. You can rehearse a combination over and over in your head, but when the music starts, you have to let go in order to fully dance it the way you imagined it. Sometimes it’s hard to get back to your feet after having been verbally pushed down in every way possible. But you have to, because that’s the only way to prove your critics wrong. Likewise, I’ve faced some challenges at work that really made me grit my teeth (thankfully, not that often). I simply observed the way others handled similar challenges and found that those I admired the most were the ones who always handled crises with a smile. When I got back to ballet class, I remembered to take harsh comments seriously- but lightly. Not in the negative sense (I got caught up in a grammar forum there about the divergence of the phrase’s meaning in the UK and US), but in that you should never let a harsh comment get you down. Smile!

5. As with all things, it is always good to take a break.

I mean this for those who can, of course, afford it. Nobody advises professional ballerinas to take five or six months off (as I did during my A levels)- and few in the working world have the luxury of taking a long break or stopping at will, as I am doing, to get my head together before the next game. But perhaps what would work as well is to take a break from routine. Ballet students are sometimes advised to take classes at another studio during summer break. Learning a new style or simply learning under a new teacher helps us spot oversights and, at best, rediscover dance. As an intern, you do have the luxury of a wider job scope than most: and sometimes it’s good to decide to tackle something new for a change.

My technique did suffer after that long break away from ballet, but I found myself reenergized and putting more emotion in the dances which were just routine before, particularly for the ‘adage’ sequences which had gotten a bit draggy. As for work, maybe it’s just working in an arts environment, but it is always good to get a breather- who knows what inspiration you’ll find out there?

Sometimes taking a break doesn’t have to take all that long- or go all that far. Sometimes all it takes is a breather on your own: I have become a lot more introspective over the past five months. Pragmatically, I guess this is out of necessity, because I suddenly had a lot more to handle than just ‘handing up homework’, but I find that taking the time off to sit by myself sometimes and “just Zen” (as one of my friends puts it) is hugely therapeutic and beneficial. It connects the dots between the clouds of confusion in my brain and sometimes even maps out a constellation for me to follow.

Now, I don’t know where I’m going next, but with these five lessons in my heart, I hope to arrive with tons of strength and dignity to spare. Cheers!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

140 Serenity in Flux

Photo credit: Ben Canales
There is an old saying, ‘the stars have aligned for us’, which has been lost along with the tendency to accredit things to such things as uncontrollable and intangible as fate or destiny. But even amidst the progression of technology and our ability to know as much about things beyond our reach as we do things beneath our fingertips, the stars remain a symbol of something unknowable. For me, looking at the stars before I go to bed was a habit I developed along with staying up late studying before prelims.  Inevitably, I would be going to bed with a frazzled state of mind, with theories and ‘isms swimming around my head even as I wanted to go to bed and never wake up. The night sky served as calming therapy for me. Even the sight of one star, or two, above my bed, seems to be both a symbol of unchanging stability and of the vast realm of unknowable greatness beyond me. The stars are always there; this I know, and this I take comfort in, as I see the same stars every night before I go to bed. But at the same time I take comfort in the existence of something so vast. It puts me in my place: that is, someplace very small and very insignificant. The stars are, for me, an ironic constant amidst, and so much greater than, the changes that are in constant (there we go again) flux beneath them. (The only thing that is constant is change.) What is ironic about it is that even as I hold on and grasp onto it as a pillar of constancy and strength, there is so little I actually know about it. I am looking to the greats of the unknown to deal with the little uncertainties in my life.

No matter how rational I may be in my daily life, I revert back to the rituals and superstitions of my childhood more often than I admit. It used to be that I believed if I said what I wanted in my prayers five times in a row, or more, I would get what I wanted. Prayers were for me tongue twisters and riddles, more like a child’s game demanding equal and instant payment for effort than what they are for me now: a constant pleading for calm, to reconcile with what God knows is best for me, and to understand that my constant amidst change is God. Sometimes I get a sense of the stars’ magnitude with the path that God has laid out for me. When I hear of others’ life stories—how they may have changed so much from how they imagined it at my age; or how the littlest coincidences led to the greatest sources of contentment in their lives—I am suddenly reminded of how very long the path of life is and how few steps I have taken on it. I feel terribly childlike to demand of God that I must know where exactly the path will lead and where I will end up, but there it is. After all these years, I am still demanding equal and instant results. What is hard for me is to know so surely that there is a path and that no matter where it may lead, it is where I am meant to be.

The A level results come out tomorrow. When I think about the incredible journey God has mapped out for me thus far and the many twists and turns He has inevitably planned for me ahead, I think that surely it doesn’t matter even if I fail all my subjects. This is just the way things are meant to be, and I will pick them up, and move on, and perhaps the path I may find myself on is where I meant to be after all. But then I get caught up with the many human considerations and the very physical pangs of anxiety that I still feel amidst all my philosophizing, and try to rationalize why I feel this way. It comes back to the feeling of uncertainty, and of not knowing. Sometimes it is humbling to surrender to the uncertainty when it reminds you of your scope in the universe, but sometimes we revert to the childlike and demand that the uncertainty be made clear, that we be given the fruits of our labour now. And that the fruits be precisely as we ordered and expected, nothing strange, no grapes falling from apple trees.

Why will I be sad if I do not get the grades I want tomorrow? What are the grades I want? What will be the consequences if I do get the grades I want? For there are endless dilemmas I must face even if I am able to surmount tomorrow’s challenge. Do I stay here or go overseas? Can I?

I think I will be sad because of my own expectations, and that of others. Of my own, it’s that need to have gratification after the many hours put in. But when you rationalize it, you know that you are not the only one who has worked so hard, and after all I have been through I know that hard work does not always equal to being tops. And if I am honest to myself I know that perhaps there have been gaps where I did not work as hard as I should have. It’s that constant self doubt that I battle with, no matter how well I do. Each battle is like the first. There is no war experience for this weary soldier. For even as you have been through so many exams, it is the combination of your knowledge and your very unique spiritual and mental state of mind as you enter it that make your performance. While one can hope to improve on the first, the latter is always so uncertain. I find this especially true of Literature exams. I can never expect to react and respond to the same piece the same way twice, for it’s always a combination of technique and of how I am disposed to feel that morning. That said, I have enough experience of myself to know that with this same self-doubt comes a very strange ability to console myself, to think, ‘I am not a robot, there was never a 100% security I could manage this, and therefore all I can do is try again much harder the next time.’

But of others’ expectations, it is harder. To bring up the wartime analogy again, it is like everyone trusting on the old general to bring the guard through and win the battle. But each battle is different and there are so many factors beyond our control. It is hard for me when people say, “I am sure you will do well. You always do.” What do their certainties bring for me? Nothing, because their certainty is founded only on the past and not on the future. Like the problem of induction, the future is always unknown. There may be higher probabilities but no certainties. And there is a converse probability that the higher you go, the harder you will fall. There is no truth in what a lot of people say, that you should not be worried (worse, that you have no right to be) when you have always done well. That is not what should calm your nerves: what should calm your nerves is the knowledge that you have always, and still have within you the capacity to emerge from every trial stronger and better. I asked Father Joseph this morning to pray for me, for God to calm my nerves and to grant me serenity. I found great comfort in looking at him and realizing through him (and through him, God) the same thing that the stars make me realize: how small I am, how far I have come on my life journey (which is to say, not very far), and how little my anxieties are, not in the face of my past successes, but in the face of my past failures and the very certain surety that God will and has always brought me through them. “Don’t be worried,” he told me earlier. God will be with you. God will always bring you through. God will never forget you.

We may think ourselves forgotten in times of trouble but really it is just the frustration of not knowing what is around the corner. Of course I want to have my endeavours justified, my hard work paid off, and in the words of that Smiths song, “Please… please… please, let me, let me, let me get what I want this time.” The plaintiveness of those words echoes my prayers sometimes. But I pray now that I be content with whatever is given me. Ironically there is a comfort in the cold democracy of the academic world. If you didn’t write well, you won’t score well. It is nothing personal, it is not like the examiner decided you were a terrible person and hence decided to give you a terrible score. It is nothing against your character to score badly and hence there is no ‘fairness’, no ‘I have been a good person and a good student, where are my awards?’ The only fairness comes in being grateful for what you have and the things that do not depend on such material performances: kindness, humility, gratitude, compassion. It is fair if you have been a happy, graceful and grateful person your whole life and for that reason have attracted people of the same kind to swell around you and to enjoy a community of wholesome joy. Positivity attracts positivity, unlike what the physicists say. And it is not because it repels negativity but because it ‘takes the high road’ and that, for whatever share of negativity comes its way, positivity emerges stronger, brighter, happier, despite and in spite of its struggles.

I pray I will not succumb to bitterness and comparisons tomorrow, no matter what I get. Nor will I be proud and forget that the only reason I have come so far is God, who has given me the internal strength and external realm of comfort from friends and family. I do not ‘deserve’ anything, either good or bad results, because each one is God-given and I must see them without their material connotations, but merely as what is necessary for me to take the next step in my unknown and eternally comforting journey.
/PS. I have not forgotten this blog. I have just forgotten how to write.
One of my favourite prayers, apart from St. Francis'. Do not take image without crediting.