The great unwanted

I find myself growing more apathetic by the mechanisms of a large church.

There is a certain force and will that is required to move machination that is that large and complex no doubt and I would dare not suggest inadequate salutations for people who see it as their role in the tapestry of humanity to do it.

But I care quite little for it.

As I say this I am also keenly aware that those same people probably care very little what I have to say about the matter and that is not something I begrudge. In fact I quite welcome it. I have always found it ‘warmer’ (that would be the sentiment) to find a corner in any mechanism and try to grow something from there. Away from looming, interested eyes. Whether that growth is noticed or not by the commanders of the ship is not something I concern myself with, just as long as they allow me that corner without bother.

The concept of a ‘congregation’ has at its worst, frightened me, and at the very least, produced a kind of apathy. It’s like being invited to a stag party where the only person you know is the groom. There is a reason why you are there, but it’s never any fun to be honest.

I’ve always seen my faith as a relationship, and as far as I know, a meaningful relationship is always between two people. To suggest that the meaning of this relationship is somehow interlinked with the concept of congregating with a group of people I know mostly in degrees between ‘acquaintance’ to ‘stranger’ has always produced more questions than answers.

I have always asked God that is it absolutely necessary for me to be at church to be a ‘Christian’? He has never answered that question in a complete sentence to me. I do see his answer in patches. The most clear being the cell group I am a part of that has grown in a far corner of this mechanism. That this group of people would not have existed without the machinations of a large church is what keeps me coming back to its hulking cogs.

I have mostly welcomed this season of isolation. I am not unmoved nor undisturbed by the horror that continues to envelop the world but I have found some solace in the midst of the chaos. One being that I can have the programs I am required to be a part of without most of the people whom, if I have to be honest, I care very little for and they care very little for me as well. I am able to distill it mostly down to the people I care about, namely my wife, some friends and my cell members. It’s like I am suddenly able to bespoke the whole machinery into just the parts that I love.

I would be a little deluded if I did not admit that it’s something I’ve loved.

My instincts are the enemy

I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’. 

I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option. 

The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting. 

Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep. 

I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here. 

But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.

‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’ 

Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)

I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything. 

I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to. 

I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it. 

Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.

You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.

Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.

Yesterday once more

We sometimes forget just how much our pasts inform our present. I visualize our pasts to be like a petulant kid who has uninvitingly intruded into your home, parks himself (it’s a boy in my head) in an inconspicuous corner of your house and refuses to leave. You’ve tried various approaches to get him to leave but he refuses to. He largely sits quietly in that corner. Pretty soon you hardly notice him anymore. So you go about your days like he wasn’t there. But occasionally, he lets out a shriek to remind you that he’s still in your house and then you experience the entire turmoil of having an intruder in your home all over again. But eventually you become complacent and not notice him again and you get on with your life. Except, he’s still in your home.

I think moving on from your past involves you knowing what you’re moving on from. My past has been viewed through a variety of filters and lenses that has severely distorted what really happened, what it really meant and how I eventually interact with it in my present. I have been trying recently to inquisitively prod and investigate these things in my mind, to open doors I had conveniently closed and kept shut with a huge sticker upfront that says ‘Out of sight, out of thoughts’. It hurts to drag these facts and events out into the light again and to properly see them for what they are.

It’s been a painfully humbling experience over the last couple of weeks. It feels a lot like skinning your inner man slowly with a pocket knife. I’ve had to face things that make me feel worthless, emasculated and emotionally immolated. Things that I have dressed up in pretty dresses that are in actual fact horrendously ugly in form and I have had to stare that ugliness in its face.

I see God as the social services worker that is eventually going to come around and remove that ‘petulant’ boy from my home. But right now, I have to first get to a point where I can consistently convince myself that that he needs to be removed. That involves me dragging a chair in front of him, looking into his eyes and seeing him for what he really is.

Something that should not be in here …

Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me

Perhaps this is somewhat improper to say but there are not many Biblical characters that I truly resonate with. Some people may pitch the likes of Paul, Moses and David as their heroes but I never felt much of an affinity with them. Mostly because if the Bible was represented as an American high school, then these are your jocks. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they are perfect. We all know all of these characters displayed flaws in the course of their life’s narrative. But they overcame whatever supposed dysfunctionality they had and transformed their narrative into something entirely different. Something more … jockey?

Being someone who has never pitched himself even remotely close to the popularity stakes, I find myself slithering into the dark side of the Word of God to find people within its pages that I feel, at least represents some of the same struggles I have. Jonah comes immediately to mind. The very fact that his book sits within the pages of God’s approved-canon suggests at least to me, that the God I love and serve has to have some kind of sense of humor, and more importantly is not above having a discourse about the weaknesses of men.

More recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Saul. Yes, the King, initial human benefactor of David’s rise to political power, gradually, his sternest critic and eventually, his enemy. Reading Saul’s Biblical narrative, one can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed maybe a whole chapter where he flicked a finger to the heavens and boiled every firstborn of Israel at the time.

I can imagine myself stumbling into the same potholes Saul did. The same indecisiveness, scatterbrained-ness and insecurities he seemed to have, I seem to have in great abundance today. I suppose you could argue he was king and as such should be held to a higher accord of abilities and fortitude. But I can’t help but feel in most of the key encounters he had with the people around him and with God, he resembled more a boy trying to find his footing but finding at each step that he had no support, which results in him stumbling even more. I’ve been there myself, doubting myself when it felt like the people around me was not giving me the support.

As his narrative unfolded it just gradually became one of the most contemporary human ones in the Bible. He eventually devolves from king to schemer/murdering despot, driven insane by the insecurity that was consuming him. Again, I have seen myself abandon logic and serenity during times of duress and great insecurity. What he did (besides the murdering bit) was well within the realm of comprehension for someone who is suffering from great insecurity. But yet to have proper context is to examine the circumstances that led to his state of great insecurity. It’s hard to make sound decisions when every step you make seems to be a misstep in the eyes of the people around you.

There are many sad moments in Saul’s narrative but none more so than this encounter with the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:24–28: 24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. 25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” 26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!” 27 As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you.”

Ouch.

I sometimes wonder what God sees when he looks down on me. At other times I wonder if God plays favorites. If I have to be honest, the Bible is filled with characters and situations that polarizes me personally as a believer. Some I have resolved by applying scant internal logic, some I continue to struggle with. Saul is one such character that I wrestle a little with. I know God does not demand perfection but obedience and that was ultimately what he failed at but I’ve been in many situations where intent is rather different from the outcome. What then? Am I also put to the sword on that technicality? If so, then principally, given how dismissive I am of people who behave that way, what does that say of my relationship with God?

So many questions.

This blue world

Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.’ – From ‘Walking’ by Henry David Thoreau

I’ve just finished Frank McCourt’s wonderfully snarky ‘Teacher Man’ In it, he referenced a lecture by American poet. philosopher and tax resister, Henry David Thoreau concerning the idea of just continually walking the earth, experiencing nature, without the need to double back to the start. The thought immediately intrigued me.

The thought that intrigued me was not about retreating back into nature, which forms a large portion of what he was trying to say. Not that I don’t like nature. I just like it with a little air-condition. Make what you wish of that statement. The thought that interested me was the idea of allowing ourselves so much freedom that we would not need to double back to anything. It’s never occurred to me until now that an important tenet of civilization is the need to close the loop. Exploration is encouraged but not unconditionally. Otherwise you’re just a vagabond. It would seem the term ‘explorer’ may be either somewhat elusive or entirely conditional (explore, but you have to return) in this modern age.

My wife’s dog comes to mind. How he is more often than not, intent on zipping out of the gate when it is opened. When he has intention to do so, he is completely single-minded and driven to accomplish his mission. He truly believes in that moment that freedom and doggie heaven awaits him beyond those steel bars. But yet when he does get out, he often never allows himself to get very far, or at least, far from the ‘familiar’. Namely, us. The trick to lure him back in is not to chase after him, because that just encourages him to run farther because the ‘familiar’ is just a few steps behind him as he makes haste. The trick to getting him back is to close the gate and to head back into the house. Counter-intuitive I know, but works like a charm every time. Because as he plays temporary explorer and glances back towards the porch, he sees no one familiar. No one beckoning him to return. It would seem freedom then quickly becomes overrated when weighed against the prospect of having nowhere to call home. Pretty soon he is at the gate, beckoning to be let back in.

I’ve never entertained the thought of just walking out and never doubling back. I’ve loved the thought of it, of not being bound by the expectations of society and my social connections. When I decided against the concept of God years back, I inserted myself unknowingly into a vast plot of free land. I have up to that point labored under the expectations of religion, family and relationships and have mostly reciprocated accordingly to all of them. But suddenly I found myself completely free of all those expectations. Barring disease and social norms, I could’ve booked myself an escort for a good night and it would’ve fit somewhere within my acceptable moral compass at the time. I could’ve gone out and drunk myself into a fool and come home to my bed, without much condemnation from myself, and little from the people around me. But yet I did none of those things. I continued to go about my life like I still had those initial expectations placed upon me. Why?

Perhaps like my wife’s dog, I have grown accustomed so much to the familiar that absolute freedom no longer seems as appealing. I no longer need actual freedom, but just a notion of it, a whiff of it once in a while, and I can be contented. Perhaps I am indeed wedded to the breast of society. But just entertaining the thought of dropping all my routines, lifestyles and expectations, opening the door, heading out and never coming back still causes my heart to do a little skip. I don’t know where that skip comes from. Perhaps it’s the little explorer in all of us. The based nature that civilization has gradually built on and snuffed out. Perhaps it is a thought that appeals to all of us at a very, very fundamental level.

But if personal history has told me anything, it is that if I was indeed offered an opportunity to walk, I would most probably chicken out anyway.

I see a darkness

“So yeah, singing as a way of expressing or escaping or expelling unbearable events: if you have a thinking brain, which some of us are cursed with, you have to have something, and it could be singing and it could be alcohol, but it’s progressive rather than regressive—you don’t get better by drinking.”

Will Oldham, from Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

In my head, I possess an instrument that is able to construct full-formed worlds within seconds, sweep them aside in a torrential tempest of despair before putting myself as the protagonist in a tragic comedy that involves the end of the world, morality and probably, a girl. Yes, I am cursed with a thinking brain, and no, I am not patting myself on the back. To have something within you that is integral to you functioning at your best but having to also constantly wrestle with its basic urge to stage a coup d’état every couple of seconds to entice you to being at your worst is really not something that’s worth fawning about. The bible offers a draconian way of settling wandering eyes and itchy hands but last I checked, it did not suggest us cutting out our brain and casting it into the fire.

Instead it offers us the suggested solution of taking ‘captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’. Which conjures a mental picture of me trying to get a fidgety and rebellious child to sit still and quiet in the chair in front of me when he/she is in absolutely no mood to. I am not a parent, but I can imagine that is often much easier said than done.  

To be fair, I have over the years, gotten better at taming this wild beast. In my 20s, I used to be able to think myself from fluffy clouds to the sixth dungeon of hell within minutes, without much prodding or encouragement. I could simply think myself into a lonely and dark place without a trigger. Which is probably why it would be peculiar if a review of me as a person in that period did not contain the word ‘moody’. That’s just a polite way of saying I was mentally self-destructive or at the very least, emotionally distracted.

Writing used to be the outlet, the expression I needed to funnel all the thoughts I had into a constructive medium. But over the years, that’s lost a lot of its luster. I still write because I feel compelled to express, but it’s no longer an adequate coping mechanism for the things that are happening in my head. So like a drug-dependent patient with a chronic disease, I’ve given up trying to permanently solve my ailment. I no longer have a creative or feasible means of banishing it from my existence nor am I able to get it to sit down obediently.

So I’ve instead opted to ignore it when it’s quietly perched in a corner. I don’t rouse it and I no longer make any grand overtures to remove it from the room. It has its side of the room, and I have mine. Sure, it occasionally still feels compelled to invade my space and trouble me, but the instances have decreased tremendously over time and I’ve stopped looking for a fight with it. I take any peace I can get and at the moment, it’s rather peaceful.

Perhaps one day I may be inspired to pick up a spear and attempt to bring it into captivity again, but today is not that day.    

Past lives

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

George Orwell, ‘1984’

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot more.

It feels strange to me, this business of thinking ahead. Mostly because I’ve never done a lot of it before but also because it’s an activity that stems from the idea that you trust in possibilities.

I suppose the reason why I have spent a lot of my existence merely trying to manage through the present is because I have always been a huge believer of the philosophy of shooting oneself before someone shoots you. That way you can ensure it only hurts as much as it needs to and you can keep a backdoor ajar for the possibility that you can go, ‘yup, I was right with you all the way on that one.’

But if there’s one thing I’ve come to learn is that to properly live, we are sometimes required to put ourselves in situations where we risk becoming great clowns. No living can ever be done without some risk.

So here I am casting my lots into the future, hoping for the best and expecting no dystopian boot to my face because I don’t deserve that shit anymore. And if it happens that I end next year wearing a size nine mug, I shall comfort myself with the notion that I at least tried to live a little.