Connectedness

I’ve had this torn page from an old magazine on my office wall for over a decade now. The color has faded, but the words always have the same effect on me: jolting me to reality that every action I make, every word I utter has an effect on something or someone. It creates ripples.

Just a short note to remind all of us (myself included) that it is better to be mindful and to be kind and to smile rather than be angry and glare at people especially early in the morning. A simple smile can brighten a stranger’s day. And just maybe that stranger will be kinder to people around him as well.

Ripples.

Have a lovely morning (or evening)!

T.

“Coco” and Remembering the Departed

COCO

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” — Thomas Campbell

I am no longer a big Disney fan, but I watched “Coco” because I wanted to find another movie that my son can watch and enjoy watching. I absolutely loved this movie, not only for its story but for how close it is to my own culture. This movie reminds me again of how similar the Mexican and Philippine cultures are – having both Spanish and American influences. (And this in turn, reminds me of my trip to Canada last year where I met a young Mexican man at the airport in Vancouver. I had to call the travel agency, but my phone wouldn’t work. He offered to let me use his phone, even though we didn’t even know each other’s names. Later he sat next to me on the bus, and we talked all the way from Vancouver to Victoria like we’d known each other forever! It felt like I was talking to my own nephew!)

For an adult to enjoy this movie, one has to employ a willing suspension of disbelief – for example, there’s no need to question (like I did): before the invention of the camera, what was the requirement for the departed to be able to visit the living if they had no pictures in the ofrenda?!

In my hometown (I’m not sure if this true in all of the Philippines), when All Souls’ Day comes, people would write down on an envelope the names of their loved ones who had passed on, and put money inside and offer this to the altar during the Offertory part of the mass. The priest would then read the names of the departed, praying for their eternal repose. (When there are too many names to read, the priest would just say, “All the departed whose names are here on the altar” or something like that.)

One All Souls’ Day years ago, my mother couldn’t find an envelope to use for the offering. She was getting agitated. I finally found an Air Mail envelope with the red and blue stripes on the sides, and said, “Here, Ma, this will get to God faster!” She tried so hard not to laugh, believing it was blasphemous.

Also on All Souls’ Day, we fill our altar with the departed’s favorite things. Just like in “Coco.” I’m using the present tense “fill” because we (my sisters back home, and me here in China) still practice the same. But what we do prepare is nothing compared to what my grandparents did back in the day.

My grandparents had something like a prayer room. There was a big altar with several icons. At the center was that of Christ the King, and then that of St. Michael (the patron saint of my city) and the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, St. Joseph, etc. My grandfather had a big chair facing the altar where he would sit and pray the rosary in the evening. On All Souls’ Day, there would be different kinds of food, and drinks and tobacco or cigarettes. It was an exciting time for us kids back then because we looked forward to eating those sweets prepared for the dead. We were told to wait until the dead had seen them. To be honest, I can’t remember what time they said it was that the dead came to see the offering.

Since I moved to China, I would make a small altar made up of a cross and a candle on my father’s birthday and on All Souls’ Day. I’d “offer” a brownie or a slice of chocolate cake, a can of beer or a glass or rum, and a pack of cigarettes, and in the evening I’d drink the beer or rum (with coke though) and smoke a cigarette. These are the only times I smoke or drink. I’m allergic to alcohol, but I like remembering him this way. (My father only drunk on weekends after playing tennis. He didn’t drink on Sundays or weekdays because he didn’t want to be hungover at work.)

As my mother has also passed on, I now have two pictures on my altar.

Watching “Coco” made me realize that this practice of remembering the dead is rooted in the belief in the existence of purgatory and that the dead need help from the living for them to move on. I do no really think of heaven, hell or purgatory anymore unlike when I was a kid when I saw the cover of the Novena for the Souls in Purgatory.

So why do I still keep photographs of my dead parents and prepare an “offering”?
If I am to be honest, it is for selfish reasons – I miss them, and I do not want to ever forget them, and part of me wants to believe that somehow they can still see or hear me and help me when I have a burden that’s too much for me to carry.

It is very selfish and immature perhaps, but I think when you grew up having very protective parents, a part of you will always remain a child of your parents, looking up to them for guidance and protection. Just like Coco, who was already a great-great grandmother, yet still calling out for her Papa like a child (she might have had Alzheimer’s, but her memory of her father was not a false one.)

Can the dead see or hear? Will they know that the living even think of them? Perhaps not. But remembering the dead is not really for them to be taken out of purgatory and into heaven. It is for the living that theymay have the courage to live their lives the way their departed loved ones would have wanted them to do.

The brain and the concept of evil

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“Why did evolution invent conscious experience and pain if we are machines, in principle no different from cars?”  — Henry Marsh, Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is tour de force of science writing. 

I have finally found a book that articulates what I have been thinking about for the last couple of years. (I haven’t read it yet, but I will very soon as I’ve already ordered on Amazon.)

In his review of the book, Marsh says, “Sapolsky uses the analogy of a car with faulty brakes to describe antisocial human behaviour. A mechanic will not accuse the car of being evil but instead will explain its bad behaviour in terms of its malfunctioning parts. Human behaviour is no different – it is determined by the mechanics of our brains. The difference is that we understand very little about them and so we invoke the mythical concept of a controlling self (which Sapolsky describes as a homunculus) located somewhere in our heads. Concepts such as ‘evil’, he argues, have no place in the modern world of scientific explanation. If people behave badly, it is because of the neurological, genetic, hormonal and environmental determinants that shaped their brains, not because of any evil nature. He concedes that punishment may be necessary as a deterrent but is adamant that it should not be seen as a virtue.”

Last year I wrote about my thoughts on people’s lack of control on their negative behavior as it may be determined by a malfunction in their brains (On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain ) Today, I came across Marsh’s review of Sapolsky’s book, and I am so happy that a renowned neuroendocrinologist and author from Stanford actually wrote about how the concept of “evil” has no place in the modern world of scientific explanation.

I can’t wait to read this :

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst 

 

Daily Prompt: Grit 


By understanding the enemy and yourself, you can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in danger.”   Sun Zi 孙子

This is good advice not only for those who have enemies but also those who battle challenges, temptations. Some of us don’t have enemies, but on a daily basis we are confronted with situations that test the firmness of our character, our grit.

As important as knowing what we are up against is knowing what we are and what we are not capable of doing. We need an honest assessment of ourselves and work from there. If we truly understand who or what we are up against, and we truly understand our strengths and weaknesses, we can be confident of not being defeated.

You can play with fire with the confidence that you won’t get burned. 😁
T.
(I’ve been rereading Sun Zi’s Art of War. It’s always an interesting read.)

Easter Thoughts on “The Young Pope”

Photo credit

          Even if you are not Catholic but like stories that are character/theme-driven and thought-provoking and makes you pause and reassess your faith or values or both, then you would probably like this TV series.

          I agreed with this CNN review of The Young Pope when I watched the first half of the first season. I thought the development was too slow, and it was almost painful to watch. But my friend was certain I would like it (and you have to trust your friends, right?) Indeed it turned out to be one of the few TV series that I truly enjoyed not because it’s entertaining (I don’t find it entertaining) but because it has a cathartic effect on me as a viewer (me being raised Catholic, a woman and mother). I find the dialogue quite well-written and added to the picturesque shots of the Vatican, the show seemed to me like a literary novel with sound and imagery.

This is perhaps the only TV series that made me grab the tissue so many times in its last 4 episodes, not because it is sentimental but because the characters, finally fully developed in the latter half of the season, are shown to be all broken people who try to be whole. What truly resonates with me is the mother-child motif which is central to the story. (As a mother who works in another country and only gets to embrace her son 2-3 days a month, I am easily moved by scenes of children missing their parents, their feeling of being abandoned, unloved.) The feeling of being abandoned, of being unloved by the very people you expect to love you because they brought you into this world, is ever present in the young pope.

Watching this show where characters deal with memories of their painful childhood, infertility, broken dreams, faith crisis, etc. – all part of being human, can purge a viewer of the pain and pity and fear that these sufferings evoke. That is what it did to me anyway, not because I went through all of these things myself (I didn’t), but as the characters are fully developed, there is empathy for what they have been through; and, I may not like what they did but understand how and why they became who they are.

         (Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know details of the show!)

This show also makes use of dichotomies, the ones most obvious to me are the following:

Free versus Determined
Cardinal Gutierrez and Cardinal Kurtwell were both abused as a child, but their respective responses to the abuse were quite different. Both are homosexuals, but Gutierrez is strongly against sexual abuse whereas Kurtwell insists that what he has become (preying on the powerless, especially young men) is a result of the abuse he suffered as a child. The Pope praised Gutierrez for turning his fear into anger and becoming an advocate for victims of abuse.

What this dichotomy made me think is the idea of free will and determinism. Are we truly free to steer our lives into a particular direction, like Gutierrez did, choosing NOT to be an abuser like Kurtwell, but defending those who are being abused as he once was?

One may say Kurtwell was simply making the abuse he suffered as a child as an excuse for what he really wanted to do as an adult – abusing young men. But then again, how much of what we do is dictated by our inner desire, and how much of this desire is brought about by the many different factors that influence our everyday lives?

Will a child born into a violent family but grew up with a loving and gentle adoptive family become violent as well? Nobody knows for sure because there are other factors that will determine his personality later on, one of which is genetics.

And then there’s the brain. (Please click on the link to understand what I mean.)

Old versus young
The title is deceiving. The pope may be young but he feels and sees himself as old. In one scene, he refers to Sofia as being one of the young people, to which Sofia replies that they are the same age. Yet the Pope tells her, “We used to be the same age.” As he is now the Father of millions of Catholics, his “age” accelerated with the many responsibilities that go with being pope.

The Pope also adheres to the old practices of the old church when the Roman Catholic Church exerted enormous influence in people’s daily lives. (Not unlike Trump, he’s willing to build a new and stronger wall to keep out those who do not agree with him.)

In his last conversation with his friend Cardinal Dusolier who asked him, “When are you gonna grow up?” the Pope answered, “Never. A priest never grows up because he can never become a father. He will always be a son.” Later when Dusolier expressed his desire to go back to Honduras because he could no longer bear being in the Vatican after a young man who had wanted to become a priest jumped to his death from the very spot where they were standing because the Pope’s new directive disqualified him from entering the seminary, the Pope answered him in words that may seem very heartless, insensitive but to me are very reasonable and so true: “If you give up now, now that you’re faced with the burden of responsibility and your own guilty conscience, when will you ever grow up?”

What does being grown up mean? Does it mean pretending not to be hurt by the painful past? Or does it mean acknowledging that same painful past while facing the present with all its challenges?

Imagination versus Reality
In his conversation with the Prime Minister, the Pope mocked the Prime Minister who had just given him statistics (reality) on the unpopularity of the church (particularly the Pope) and his (the Prime Minister’s) growing popularity among the Italians. He said the PM lacked imagination of which he (the Pope) and God have so much.
To me what best exhibits this dichotomy is the story between Lenny (before he became a priest) and the young woman he met in California. They spent a week together, and he had a wonderful time with her. The young woman told him he could touch her legs, but he never did. Yet the very fact that he didn’t, made this non-event even more firmly implanted in his memory. If he had touched her legs, most likely he would have forgotten whatever happened between them before that “event”! But because he didn’t, the scene is like frozen in his memory (think: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn!)

Imagination is more powerful than reality.

Lost versus Found
In an unsent letter to the young woman he met in California, Lenny recalled the time the young woman told him he could touch her legs, but he didn’t and wrote, “There, my love, is love lost…And you shining gleam of my misspent youth, did you lose or did you find?”

The Pope, his childhood friend Cardinal Dusolier, Sister Mary were all orphans, abandoned by their parents. Did their parents lose them? Did they lose their parents? Or did they find each other and became, the three of them, a family?
          Perhaps when we lose something or someone, we only have to look and realize that something or someone else has found us.

Happy Easter!

the young pope

On Reality

reality

When I was still a child, I often heard my mother tell people about how I liked to look up at the sky —  wondering, (over)thinking, imagining, which was why she didn’t let me wash the dishes. It took me forever to finish.

These days I find myself doing the same thing — taking some time to finish washing the dishes because I keep looking up at the sky from my kitchen window and wondering, “Is there somebody up there watching us live our lives here below?”

I shared this thought with my husband, who simply laughed and said, “Oh, yes! And they are looking down and saying, ‘Oh look at this cute little girl bravely asking such questions!” (Let me be clear on this one: No one else thinks I’m cute except my husband. That’s why he’s my husband.) 

Ever since I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” over twenty years ago, I’ve always wondered about the nature of “reality.” I remembered asking the question, what if there was another world where their idea of reality is different from ours?

It was a few years later that I read Bradbury’s stories, and watched “The Matrix” and my idea of “reality” was further changed. Two years ago I watched “Interstellar” and the scene where Cooper was finally able to communicate with Murph (they once thought there was a “ghost”) made me think of what we think is “real” or “imagined.”(Some of my friends who are into science fiction weren’t very impressed with “Interstellar,”  but I’m not a big sci-fi fan, so it was very impressive for me.) 

These days there are more and more people talking  about the simulation hypothesis and consciousness and how human beings can suddenly change because of some damage to the brain. Reading about the brain and consciousness and theories on reality and our existence makes me even more eager to know the truth about our existence, our reality.

Just yesterday I started watching the HBO TV series, Westworld, and perhaps this is the reason at 11:31 in the evening I am still up writing this. Hopefully with the popularity of this TV series, more people will be asking questions about our existence and actively seek answers to these questions.

Who are we?

I really want to know.

 

On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain

daenerys drogon

Photo source

Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

(Fortunately for me, I have not been that angry with any one person in a long time, but only with a group of people terrorizing my beautiful island of Mindanao, oh yeah. I was so angry that in my imagination, I didn’t even have to be Daenerys. I was happy just to be Drogon!)

Don’t you find it exhausting when you dislike this person so much, but this person just can’t disappear from your life? You hear people talking about him/her, and it’s worse when he/she is doing so well while you aren’t?

For us, humans, anger towards somebody is most often accompanied by its best friend, jealousy. Those two are perhaps the ugliest, meanest pair ever. They will keep you awake at night, make you lose your appetite, then your energy.

If you’re smart or meet the right people who can help you get rid of that ugly pair, then lucky you. If not, that pair will ruin your life.

A few months ago, I started reading Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars. For some reason I could not finish reading it, but a couple of weeks ago I picked it up again and read the chapter called “A Surgeon’s Life,” which is about Dr. Carl Bennett (a pseudonym), a surgeon who has Tourette’s Syndrome.

This chapter was truly an eye-opener for me, and I’m writing about this because I am hoping this can somehow also make my readers re-evaluate how we judge our fellow human beings.

Dr. Bennett is highly respected by his colleagues and patients, and despite his tics, is able to perform surgery efficiently as if he didn’t have Tourette’s at all. He said the outward expressions of his Tourette’s that most people see are not the worst problems he has to face. The real ones are those within — panic and rage. In his words,

                “It’s not gentle….You can see it as whimsical, funny — be tempted to romanticize it —   but Tourette’s comes from deep down in the nervous system and the unconscious. It taps    into the oldest, strongest feelings we have. Tourette’s is like an epilepsy in the  subcortex.; when it takes over, there’s just a thin line of control, a thin line of cortex,  between you and it, between you and that raging storm, the blind force of the subcortex.     One can see the charming things, the funny things, the creative side of Tourette’s, but there’s also that dark side. You have to fight it all your life.”

At home, Dr. Bennett can give expression to this rage, not directed at people but at inanimate objects around him. His wall, his refrigerator are witnesses to this rage. One wall is covered with knife marks.

Scary? I find this very sad. That a human being who does not want to be violent CANNOT CHOOSE not to be violent.

Dr. Bennett is fortunate enough to have a family that understands and accepts him and helps him deal with all of these. But not everyone is as fortunate as Dr. Bennett. I wonder how many people out there have undiagnosed neurological disorders, committing crimes which they could not help doing? They don’t even know why they are doing it, or perhaps they think they know why they are doing it; but do they really?

I wonder if a brain scan is required of every criminal, how many of these people we would find to have neurological disorders?

This question led me to think how the human brain is very much like a computer. Just as computers have software-related problems such as viruses and bugs, the human brain can have chemical imbalance or viral infections. And just like computers that can have hardware-related problems such as overheating, a malfunctioning chip or a motherboard failure, our brain can also suffer from head or brain injuries.

When your computer is defective, do you try to save it or do you discard it, right away?

It seems computers are luckier than humans because we can easily see that our computer has a problem, and our initial reaction is to find out what caused it and how to fix it.

But with a human being, if his brain has a problem but it’s undiagnosed, we right away judge the person according to his actions without asking whether he has control over his actions or not.

What is worse is we label these people as crazy, nuts, wacko, lunatic, deranged, etc. without even knowing what caused them to become such people. Perhaps  you have heard or read about people who were known to be gentle or kind, and all of a sudden murdered somebody. People express shock or disbelief, saying it was totally out of character.

Here are some ways people can suddenly change:

Trauma to the brain can cause a drastic change in personality. 

Alcohol and drugs (medications) can change a person’s personality. 

Viral infections in the brain can cause a change in personality. 

Certain foods and food  ingredients like MSG can affect your behavior. 

Now, going back to my first question: Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

If you have or you still are extremely angry with somebody, ask yourself whether it’s possible this person has a hardware or software-related problem in his brain, and perhaps he has no control over some of his thoughts and actions, just like, sometimes, you have no control over some of your own thoughts and actions.

And when you realize that we are all in the same boat, then you would hopefully understand your fellow human being, and perhaps forgiving will be a little bit easier (but, of course, be smart about it!)

I wonder if that is what prompted Jesus to utter these words when he was crucified: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

When he said those words, He became the epitome of compassion and forgiveness.

 

Note:

A couple of years ago a friend and I talked about whether human beings have free will or not. Back then I wasn’t really convinced that we don’t, but mostly because I did not have the time to think about it and read about it more. But now I think my friend may be on to something. 🙂 He wrote a book called Without Free Will. It’s well-written and thought-provoking. Check it out.

Stop. Look. Listen. Feel. Be grateful. Move on. 

   

Sunset at Dalipuga, Iligan, Philippines 

One of my favorite poems that I can recite by heart is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I kept reciting this poem to my baby when I was still pregnant, and even after my son was born. HBO’s Classical Baby The Poetry Show includes a reading of this poem by Susan Sarandon, and it is now my 5-year old son’s favorite part of the video.

A thought came to mind today as I watched my son give me the sweetest smile when the video clip began. A few months after our son was diagnosed with Autism, my husband wished Eli would not grow so quickly. Today, only for a moment I wished Eli would never grow up, so people can excuse his strange stimming habits, his speech delay and other autistic traits. Every now and then  I worry about whether or not he will be able to live independently, when my husband and I won’t be around to look after him anymore.

Frost’s poem talks about how we, once in a while, encounter something that makes us wish could last at least a lifetime, but we all have other things to do — duties, responsibilities, roles to play in other people’s lives — so we have to move on, continue living our lives.

The speaker in this poem though was truly in the moment. He   noticed his surroundings: the snow-covered woods, the frozen lake; he heard the sound of the harness bells and the wind. He also used his imagination (“My little horse must think it queer…”), and was quite aware not only of the lack of danger (…He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow), but also of his responsibilities and of the life he had to live,   (But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.) 

Oftentimes I look at my son and wonder what life will be like for him. Will he ever be able to speak like a neurotypical person? Will he be able to read by himself the books that he loves for me to read to him? Will he be able to write down his own name?  But then I stop myself from doing this, and instead do things with him. Not much use wondering about the future when so much of it depends on the present.

What I liked most about Frost’s poem is the idea that though we can (and we should) live our lives — face our responsibilities, fulfill our duties, find our way in the darkness — we can stop once in a while and just enjoy what we have in our lives: food on our table, clothes to keep us warm (or cool), roof over our heads,  air we breathe, water we drink, family, friendship. And love. And faith that everything will be all right in the end.

Thank you. Salamat. 谢谢。

Are we really what we eat? 

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Does coffee have any effect on you? Does chocolate?

Coffee is my non-human best friend. It gave me energy when I most needed it after my son was born. Though sleep-deprived, I still needed to function efficiently and coffee made it possible to stay awake and teach at eight in the morning, come home and feed the baby, and do housework, and prepare lessons, etc. I am forever grateful to the person that invented coffee drink.

My son used to have laughing fits even when there’s nothing visibly funny, especially after having his then favorite breakfast of peanut butter on toast. Several people told me back then to just let it be because he’s a “happy boy.” I also witnessed how chocolate could make him unbearably hyperactive.  His laughing fits and hyperactivity stopped when we put him on GF/CF diet. I am forever grateful to the person that came up with the GF/CF diet for people with ASD.

Reading about autism and diet, and books on neurology especially by Dr. Oliver Sacks, and witnessing firsthand the effects of medicine on my leukemic mother’s mind,  made me wonder if we are nothing but mere slaves to every single thing that is already in or enters our body — food, medicine, bacteria, chemicals, etc.

For example, what we call personality can easily be changed, not by our will to change (that’s not easy at all), but by lesions in the  brain.

In his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Sacks wrote about Greg who, as a young man in the 60’s, rebelled against convention, took drugs to seek a “higher consciousness,” later dropped drugs to seek this “higher consciousness” in religion, namely Hare Krishna. His first year at the temple saw him as obedient, pious. Then he started losing his eyesight which the temple residents took to mean his “inner light was growing. ” Greg was also becoming more withdrawn which again, people interpreted as becoming “enlightened.” Long story short, it was only when his parents insisted on taking him to the doctor that it was discovered that Greg had a growing tumor in his brain.

     “Brain imaging had shown an enormous midline tumor, destroying the pituitary gland and the adjacent optic chiasm and tracts and extending on both sides into the frontal lobes. It also reached backward to the temporal lobes, and downward to the diencephalon, or forebrain. At surgery, the tumor was found to be benign, a meningioma—but it had swollen to the size of a small grapefruit or orange, and though the surgeons were able to remove it almost entirely, they could not undo the damage it had already done.”

This brain damage radically changed Greg’s personality. In the hospital “his seeming serenity (actually blandness), gave him an appearance of innocence and wisdom combined, gave him a special status on the ward, ambiguous but respected, a Holy Fool.”

Many other patients written about in this book showed major changes in their personalities after suffering from brain injury.

This, then, made me wonder if we have any independent will of our own at all? If the decisions that we make are truly our own, or are mere results of these little things in our body that ultimately feed our brain and change the way we think, speak and behave.

Alcohol and drugs sure can influence the way we think or behave. Children with ASD behave differently and sense things differently when they are overstimulated or not. Neurotypical people take all kinds of medication or drinks to make them feel better or think more clearly.

I used to think that the expression “You are what you eat” only referred to physical health. Now I’m beginning to think that that applies to our mental health as well.

(This is just a draft of what I really wanted to write. I’ll rewrite this when I have more time to be alone and think!)

Travel Woes

 

Afternoon clouds over Visayas, Philippines. I was so excited to see this cloud formation. Looks like a duck, don’t you think?

 

Pack. 
Unpack. 
Pack. 
Unpack. 

I could fill this page 
With the same words
According to the number of times
I had to 

Pack. 
Unpack. 

Barely had the time to start shedding 
The pounds from stress eating  
And I’m stressing and stress eating again. 

Someone once said to me, 
When tragedies pile up
Then you have a comedy. 

How come I’m not laughing? 

March 3, 2016

On Living to be 100

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A few weeks ago, a friend and I exchanged thoughts about living to be 100, and this was my reply: “Nah. I really don’t want to live that long. Not even if I’m healthy. I’m curious about what’s on the other side. If there’s nothing, then at least I won’t be disappointed. ” 

And my friend replied: “Consciousness is probably overrated. “

For Christians and other believers of an afterlife, death is not scary as it means reunion with the Creator. It means eternal life of happiness. (I came across this post about death a few weeks ago, and the writer beautifully expresses, not exactly the same but similar, thoughts that I have about life and death.)

I have no idea how many there are like me , but I am one of those who are more curious about what’s on the other side, rather than prolonging our earthly life. I am not saying though that I would willingly abandon my responsibilities as a mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunt. My point is, I simply prefer not to live too long.

However, I have thought about the possibility of living a longer life. I once met an 86-year old medical doctor, who was quite spry — travellling back and forth from the US to Asia, attending medical conferences, seeing patients, doing Zumba. She’s enjoying her life at 86. Would I want to be able to do that at 86?

With discoveries and inventions in the fields of science and technology, people are living longer and healthier lives.  Not only that, it probably won’t be long before immortality ceases to be mere imagination and becomes reality with the ability of human beings to create cyborgs.

If I could stay fit till I’m 100, perhaps I would be able to do all the things I would like to do but in which at the moment I am unable to indulge. I have talked about this with a friend. We both could not understand how people could be at a loss as to what to do when there’s so many interesting things to do when you have the time and health to do them

I’m not sporty nor sociable, so I do not need to be with so many people all the time. If I could live to be 100, I would spend my time reading all the books I’ve been meaning to read. I would take photographs of beautiful flowers and landscapes, learn more about the human brain, study astronomy, volunteer to help children with special needs and starving children, go.out for morning walks, watch the sunset, and write down my thoughts about all these things.

So does this mean I want to live to be 100?

No. Not at this time when humanity’s mortality is still very real, when one can still witness the human body aging, when you can still hear people groaning in pain and watch them suffer emotionally , as they struggle to remember dates and names of people they used to love so passionately,  and suffer physically as they can no longer move what used to be nimble limbs that made them jump, run, throw or catch or hit a ball.

Having a body that slowly stops functioning one part at a time is torture. Seeing it happen to others is a scary enough reminder that it can happen to you too.

So, no. I do not want to live to be 100. “Consciousness is overrated.”

How about you?

On living, loving and leaving

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Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou may’st in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. 
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

There has been much debate on the meaning of this sonnet, particularly the last couplet:

   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

What is the young man supposed to eventually leave before long: his friend or his own youth?

I will not join in the debate, but I am quoting the sonnet here because I was reminded of it (and John Donne’s Sonnet 10) twice today: first, when I read this poem by John White called Laughing about it ; second, when I read Temple Grandin’s tribute to Oliver Sacks, who also wrote a moving article reflecting on his relationship with his Orthodox family and the Sabbath.

Whether the speaker meant that the young man had to leave his friend or his youth, to me, is not the point, rather that the knowledge that one is leaving something valuable makes one appreciate it or love it even more.

My first real understanding of this line happened one summer day when my best friend and I stood in a forest, listening to the sound of the leaves of the trees as the breeze was passing through, and I said it was beautiful I wish it could last forever; and he said it was beautiful simply because it was not going to last.

(Not long after that my best friend left, and for a while, that memory always made me cry. But with time, I have learned to call on that memory, and it just brings a beautiful feeling.)

If we truly love someone or something –a place, a person, a pet or life itself —  the knowledge of our imminent leaving of it/them will make our love for it/them even stronger.

Perhaps it is the best way to live every minute of our short life here: to always remember that we won’t be here forever, that we are always about to leave. Perhaps then we can love wholeheartedly, not only for a minute or an hour or for a day, but for a lifetime.

On Choosing Whom to Love

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“All my life, as soon as a person got attached to me, I did everything to distance them. The first person whom I loved and I was faithful to escaped me through drugs, through betrayal. Maybe many things came from this, from vanity, from fear of suffering further, and yet I have accepted so much suffering. But I have in turn escaped from everyone since and, in a certain way I wanted everyone to escape from me.”

“I sometimes accuse myself of being incapable of love. Maybe this is true, but I have also been able to select a few people and to take care of them faithfully, with the best of myself, no matter what they do.

– Albert Camus as quoted in Camus, A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes (I bought a hardbound copy of this book years ago, but I saw the book again yesterday as my husband and I were sorting books to throw and to keep!)

Camus was a known womanizer, he talked about loving the many women in his life in the love letters he wrote them, yet in his journals he wrote of distancing himself from them. He sometimes wondered if he was incapable of love, yet admitted to “taking care” of a few people faithfully the best he could no matter what these people did.

I am not writing to justify nor excuse Camus’ womanizing, but rereading this quote from him reminded me of how simple it can be to love somebody, truly love somebody, anybody; but people, especially men like Camus make it so complicated. To me, he WAS capable of love, and indeed he loved those whom he faithfully took care of no matter what they did.

You cannot choose who to like or dislike or be physically/sexually attracted to, it’s a feeling. But you can definitely choose whom you give your time, energy and yourself (body and soul) to – and that’s love.

You cannot choose your biological family (not yet, anyway, perhaps with technology it will be possible), but you can choose to love or not love your family. You may like your family, but you may not love them. (“Yeah, they’re alright. They’re cool. I haven’t heard from my folks for a month!) You may not like your family sometimes, but you may love them because you take care of them, you provide for them, and make sure they are all right.

Now I can totally understand when young people make the mistake of “falling in love” with someone who everyone thinks is the wrong person, because as recent findings reveal, the brain, particularly the pre-frontal cortex responsible for regulation of emotions, does not reach full maturity until mid-20s. Young people may not be able to “think ahead” and “make mature decisions”, and it’s perfectly understandable because neurologically speaking, they are not of that age yet.

But if you are a “typical” (I no longer like using the word “normal” because, really, what does it mean these days?) adult, you should be able to think and choose whether or not to invest in a person or a relationship. If a part of you is doubtful whether you should give more of your time, energy (and money) to be with a person who doesn’t seem to give the same to be with you,  you don’t need to pray to the gods or ask your friends over and over again whether this person loves you or not. Get that pre-frontal cortex working and figure it out yourself. It will be good exercise for your brain. 🙂

Game of Life: Excitement, Fear, Exhilaration, and then Reality Bites 

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

 I’ve never been an adventurous person. When I was younger, I only dared to do crazy things out of love for or silly attraction to some guy, like going up alone to a military camp located on a remote hill in a city where a bomb exploded just the day before, just to get the signature of a colonel on my then-boyfriend’s clearance, or going to a city that was in the middle of a war just because an attractive journalist-friend had asked me if I could go with him, and I couldn’t say no. Sigh. So 15-17 years ago.

I’ve only been in a pendulum ride once, and I am very, very sure I will die if I try it again. The only thing I ever felt the whole time I was in that monstrous thing was FEAR. And after a minute or two of that fear, I mustered the energy to just meditate. So I did, and my two guy friends who were with me and having so much fun, were yelling, “Therese, are you OK?” They thought I had died. Ha!

But a couple of weeks ago, when I saw the zip line at the amusement park my former students had invited me to, I just wanted to give it a try. It didn’t look scary because it wasn’t too high nor too long, and below was a calm river with people on pedal boats. It looked non-threatening enough that I excitedly volunteered we go. So we did. I was the first to get up on the platform, but then insisted that a colleague go first. I was having second thoughts.

And then it was my turn. I wanted to back out, but there was a line of young people behind me, the same ones I had rallied to join me. How could I ever back out? I made the sign of the cross at least five times! Then I said to myself in the same way I did as I was being wheeled to the delivery room to have my first (and only) child, “OK, Therese. You’re doing this. You can never back out on this one!”

So I jumped.

And I screamed in fear. Waaaahhhh.

Then I yelled in exhilaration. Wooo-hoo!

I know it was probably less than a minute, but it was a moment I will never forget. I waved at the people on the river, threw my head back and consequently, spun and saw everything around me. After all that fear, I felt the most beautiful, exhilarating feeling. Andthen it was over. My knees were shaking, but I couldn’t shake off that excitement right away.

Even weeks after that experience, the feeling is still quite vivid for me — those few seconds of joy. And one day, as I thought about that moment I remembered a few lines from three of Dostoevsky’s works.

In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin talks about what actually goes on in his head while he’s having a seizure. He sees beauty and feels immense joy that he’s never felt in his waking life that sometimes he actually wishes he can have a seizure again just so he can experience that happiness, that joy.

In White Nights, the sentimental hero of the story after witnessing the happiness of Nastenka, who asks him not to be unhappy because of her happiness, says he will never do anything to ruin her joy, because he knows how precious that moment is. “My God, a moment of bliss. Why, isn’t that enough for a whole lifetime?”

In A Faint Heart, Vasya is overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that he goes insane. His friend, Arkady, on his way home pauses by the Neva and, ” A strange thought came to poor Vasya’s forlorn friend. He started, and his heart seemed at that instant flooded with a hot rush of blood kindled by a powerful, overwhelming sensation he had never known before. He seemed only now to understand all the trouble, and to know why his poor Vasya had gone out of his mind, unable to bear his happiness.”

Perhaps Arkady himself experienced this few seconds of happiness or he wouldn’t have understood the cause of Vasya’s insanity.

Some happiness-es just happen. Others can be had by choice. If by choice, we then have to be ready for the consequences which can be either harmless, productive or disastrous.

So many people will tell you to “follow your heart, pursue whatever makes you happy, don’t think, just do it.” If everything turns out fine from an uninformed decision, perhaps it’s only due to luck or coincidence. One cannot predict the future but one can try to make an intelligent guess or infer from the current situation as to the consequences of a particular decision.

When something or someone new comes to our lives, they may bring us so much excitement, and we may feel fear as we think of the changes they will bring to our lives. Some have experienced just abandoning everything for the sake of “love,” throwing caution to the wind, and they make it sound so romantic. And it sounds like it is all good, but life is not a fairy tale that ends with “they live happily ever after.” After that brief moment of bliss, comes reality and more often than not, it is ugly.

If I have the certainty that the consequences of my action would be harmless, not seriously hurt anybody whether I care about them or not, I wouldn’t mind experiencing that few seconds of bliss. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I wouldn’t mind rolling that huge boulder on top of a hill just to be happy.

But how often are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration harmless? Or, how harmless are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration?

I really enjoyed my first time on a zip line, but even though I know it’s safe and exciting, I think once is good enough for me. (Not adventurous!)

Laughter and Pain

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Beautiful Mindanao

In this life I think we all have good years and bad years. Sometimes when we are having a good year, we ask (like I often do), “Do I really deserve this? Have I been really that good to deserve all these wonderful things?” And when we are having a bad year, we ask (like I ALWAYS do), “Seriously. What have I done to deserve this?”

And I’m having a bad year. It has gotten so bad that now I could laugh at an unfortunate incident my husband and I found ourselves in yesterday. It struck me that my life these past few months has been a black comedy.

The other day while I was doing the dishes, I thought of Job and how his faith was tested. I hope this is just a test as well, and that my husband and I will pass this test with flying colors. And that we will be laughing a real laugh, not the one tinged with pain.

I have always believed, and I know from experience that it’s true that “this too shall pass.”

There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. 🙂

Schadenfreude and the Sick Mind

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RIP, SFP.

SCHADENFREUDE AND THE SICK MIND

I just finished re-reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and thought about how the most important characters all seem to have mental problems. The most interesting characters are the eccentric ones, and the dull ones are the very normal people.

Rogojin loved Nastasia, even though she kept humiliating him in public; but, that love eventually turned to hate and led him to murder her. When she died, he kept her body in his house and watched over it. He did not laugh at her death. He was sick, but he was not happy that she died.

Myshkin understood and did not condemn Rogojin for killing his bride-to-be. They called him the “idiot”, but he was the only enlightened one among all the characters. “The Idiot,” just like “Crime and Punishment” and “Brothers Karamazov” (my number 1 favorite novel), made me think about a lot of things – about myself, my family, friends, and life and death. I started re-reading it at a time when, someone I know, was dying.

After reading the book today, I read, not a fictitious story, but a true-to-life one of a person in terrible pain and with only a few hours to live being visited by some people who made jokes and laughed loudly in the room. Perhaps they did not realize the person was in pain? I do not think it is hard to tell if a person is in pain, especially when they are groaning.

As a child, I was scolded by my father for making my sister laugh while our other sister was crying because she was itching all over from an allergy. Back then I thought what’s wrong about laughing? We were not laughing at or about her. But before I could say anything, my father said, “When somebody is suffering, you do not make light of their suffering by laughing.” It is not only rude, it is evil.

In our life, there are people who love us and those who hate us. There are people who like us, dislike us, or to whom we mean nothing. Being an introvert, I have very few people, apart from my family, I trust and truly like. But should I find myself dying, I would not want anyone except for my immediate family to see me on my deathbed. I do not want visitors who may only come to see how much I am suffering and be happy to see me thus.

Because believe me, there are such people. They look quite normal, so normal that they even managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree even though they cannot spell their names correctly. They look good and are very sociable. They walk with a swagger even though their stomachs are sticking out. They speak loudly in front of their acquaintances but simply to sound important. Yet what little knowledge they have is simply based on hearsay, God knows if they have even touched a book!

These people enjoy watching others suffer. It is difficult to understand because they are supposed to be “normal.” I can understand a mental patient laughing at someone who had been run over by a car, because the person is mentally sick. He has no control over his thoughts and feelings. I can understand a drug addict laughing at someone who fell down the stairs because his brain has been corrupted by drugs. But how to understand  people who are not into drugs, talk normally, act normally in front of most people yet laugh at a dying person?

How are people like these different from the rebels who tortured the 44 SAF and laughed while they were doing so? I find these supposedly “normal” people scarier than the MILF rebels who killed the SAF. We can stay away from the MILF. But, these “normal” people are scarier because they live amongst us, watching us, waiting for us to fall, so they can laugh their evil laugh. But they do not scare me. I know their kind, and they can never come near me or my family.

They laughed as she lay dying.

MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

Introspection thru “Predestination”

I got this photo from this site

I got this photo from this site.

Science-fiction is not really my favorite genre, but my friend was sure I would like Predestination because (1) It’s an Ethan Hawke movie, and (2) he thought it was a mind-blowing film.

I certainly do not regret watching this movie because there are a couple of things I like about it, apart from THE Ethan Hawke (who still looks as gorgeous as when he was in his 20’s! Dang!)

It may be an Ethan Hawke movie, and he is great in it (as he is always in his movies), but I find Sarah Snook’s performance impressive. My favorite scene in the movie is when she as the androgynous Unmarried Mother (looking like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic) speaks with her young self, and her face is filled with emotions of love, understanding, compassion — all blending together in that facial expression of hers. Of course, I admit that part of that is merely my own perception. But in my humble opinion, she did a magnificent job in this movie.

The last movie I saw and wrote about was Interstellar, another science-fiction film I did not expect to like but ended up liking so much. I liked the interpersonal relationships present in Interstellar – the character’s relationship with his children and with his fellow astronauts. But, as a person fond of introspection, I liked the intrapersonal relationship the character of Predestination had with himself/herself at different periods in his/her life.

My very limited understanding of physics (I didn’t really listen to my teacher), and science-fiction and the ideas of time-travel and the predestination paradox  perhaps limits my understanding of the movie, but I will not spend another night trying to reconstruct the sequence of events in the movie. I am content to focus on the ideas that caught my attention. I do not totally understand it, but there are certain things that like about it and that made me think.

Revenge

What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life? If I could guarantee that you’d get away with it, would you kill him?

Would you avenge yourself on the person that ruined your life, if you were assured it could be done with impunity? Hopefully none of my readers have their lives terribly ruined by somebody that they would want to end that somebody’s life, but how about revenge?

“Nemo me impune lacessit.” No one harms me with impunity.

An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. There is no such thing as throwing back a piece or bread (or mantou) to someone who threw stones at you.

Forgiveness, that abstraction that is quite easy to speak about (especially if the one speaking of it is not involved in the situation where it is being sought) is extremely difficult to translate into action. Hence, people often seek revenge for every pain that another person caused them.

But upon closer examination, what does one get from revenge? Is there joy that comes in having avenged oneself? Can one sleep better at night knowing another person is now suffering from one’s revenge?

The irony in the Unmarried Mother’s desire to avenge herself was that she was the transgressor herself. When she found out that it was herself all along that ruined her own life, then she felt compassion towards and even loved herself.

I would look at transgression in two ways: one can endeavor to be empathetic and see things from the point of view of the transgressor and understand why he did what he did. Or, one can accept the fact that no one can ever transgress anyone with impunity. Not even as an act of revenge. Countries have laws. People have conscience. When you hurt other people, you hurt yourself as well. (Or am I wrong? Are there “normal” or “typical” people who rejoice when others suffer, people who have nothing but Schadenfreude in their hearts?)

Jane/John as the bartender, however, could not forgive himself as the Fizzle Bomber and shot him. The same person who was able to understand and accept the one who ruined his/her life, could not forgive himself for killing other people.

Question for Introspection 1:

Is it easier to forgive the harm we brought upon ourselves, than it is to forgive the evil we brought upon others?

Narcissism

Growing up, Jane felt she was a freak, that she was ugly. She even stopped looking at herself in the mirror. This self-loathing became even worse when she found out she had the rare condition of having both male and female reproductive organs and was left with no choice but to undergo surgery to become male.

But when Jane who is now a man with the pseudonym Unmarried Mother goes back to her/his past and meets her/his young self, she/he says to her/him, “You’re beautiful.” She/he falls in love with herself/himself and even has a baby.

(Now this just came to mind as I was typing the previous sentence: isn’t that the same idea as the Divine Trinity? The Father , Son and Holy Ghost? Which came first?)

Question for Introspection 2:

If it were possible to see yourself from the eyes of someone from the opposite sex, do you think you would fall in love with yourself? Do you have the traits that you find attractive, enough to fall in love with another person?

We sometimes love ourselves and sometimes hate ourselves. But to fall in love with oneself, this is something I have only read about or seen in movies. I still have to meet somebody who admits he or she is in love with himself or herself.

Question for Introspection 3:

If you could meet with your 20-year old self (I’m assuming my readers are at least in their 30’s!) what would you say to him/her?

Would you be kind and perhaps encourage yourself? Or would you warn yourself of the many mistakes you would be making? Or would you tell yourself, “There’s nothing to look forward to.”

And what do you think your 20-year old self would say to you? “Nice job! I can’t wait to become you”? Or, “Uh-oh!”

Self-loathing

It is interesting how people can love and hate themselves at the same time. We love certain qualities about ourselves, and hate other qualities that we possess and wish we could change ourselves.

Through time-travel, John is able to meet with his future self, the Fizzle Bomber who has killed thousands of people. When John comes face to face with the Fizzle Bomber, he says with loathing, “I will never become you!” And shoots him.

We have no way of knowing what we will be like 20 years from now. But we can look back at our lives and see what we have become.

Question for Introspection 4:

What do you think a 20-year old you would say to the present you if he/she could speak to you now? Will he/she say: You’re doing a great job! Or will he/she say, “I will never become you” and….

Like I said, I do not totally understand this film, but it’s an Ethan Hawke movie that got me thinking, so I like it. This movie, perhaps, had an effect on me, and when you read what I’ve written, maybe it will have an effect on you, too. Hopefully a good one.

“When a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, it can eventually cause a hurricane in another…” – Edward Lorenz