You fear the wrong thing baby

I was asked by my wife last night what my hope was for 2021.

I gave the usual answer with a side of ‘peace on earth, mercy mild and God and sinners reconcile’. Rather telling was that nowhere in my succinct list was there a hope for things to go back to what they were.

Buried deep in my heart, I’ve not been very eager for things to go back to what they were.

Of course I say this without any prejudice towards people who have struggled financially through this pandemic or people who have had loved ones taken by it. I have nothing but respect for you who have soldiered through 2020 under those circumstances.

It’s unfortunate that it took a ravaging pandemic for humanity to take stock of its decisions and to just stop where it was heading. My deep wish was that it was a white paper by a very smart person, a rallying call by the leaders of the world or heck, a song by Bruce Springsteen. Instead it took a pandemic.

As I sit here typing this, I just witnessed a well-dressed man trying to enter a building, without a mask, confidently walking in and gesturing to the guard that he’s just heading up a floor and he should be allowed an exception. He was subsequently pulled back and told that he needed to check-in, get his temperature taken and was asked to put on his mask just like everyone else behind him. Turns out he did not have a mask with him. He was denied entry and was told to head to a store across the road to buy one. He stepped out and just stood there for a few minutes. Occasionally shuffling around his pockets, looked back at the door, wrestled with his ego a little before walking across the road to get himself a mask.

It felt a fitting analogy to the minute good that the pandemic has had on society. For too long the agenda of humanity has been organised not by severity, but by class. And while inequality continues to exist in any civilised society driven by capitalism, there is a slight warmth that comes from having the entitled among us reined in a little. It seems almost poetic justice that it should come in the form of the one thing that levels the playing field for all of us – our impending mortality. I guess it has to be that for everyone to take notice of it. This was not a ‘poor person’s problem’. It was a disease that crept into the highest halls of society and government.

For too long we’ve been a society that ignores the plights of the marginalised, underappreciated the ones who worked unseen to keep the pillars of our lifestyles in place and rewarded the people who continue to sink us deeper into our mire. Something desperately needed to change.

Again, I stress that I am saddened that it took the lives of millions.

I guess we had gone so far into self-destruction, it required something equally devastating to stop us.

Sleeps with butterflies

‘There was no party, there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
No one has left here that knows his first name
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off; someone else can get on …’ – Ben Folds

I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

I know, it’s hardly the appropriate tidings for the season but it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, I also in equal measure enjoy staring at our lovely Christmas tree and recently, watching ‘Love Actually’ as the token yuletide movie of the year. So it’s not like I am growing moldy sitting alone at home on a wing chair in the dark. But at the same time I have also been thinking about death, a lot. I see it even in songs that are really not about death (The Ben Folds song above is about someone being laid off).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the precise moment when it happens and how that would feel like.

As a Christian, I’ve been conditioned since young to focus on what happens after that moment. The bright light, the rejoicing, the yellow brick road and Oz. Just kidding. Jokes aside, I do fundamentally believe in the moment after of course. You can’t exactly subscribe to only a portion of what you consider the truth. But it won’t stop me considering the flip-side to that which is just a big well, nothing. No big party. No bright lights. Just, nothing. The cliché often employed is that it’s like going to sleep but not waking up.

I must confess at certain points of my existence that has sounded somewhat, comforting. Lately it hasn’t been though. I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘nothing’ feels like.  Yes, it feels like nothing, of course.  But that just seems so stark, so brutal. That the amount of energy and force-of-will that it takes for us to go through life is just snuffed out in an instant and there is just, nothing.

If I am being honest it feels a little lonely. Not that you would be conscious of that when it happens because you are just in that big nothing, but that’s my sentiment on how the nothing would feel like.

In this age of almost unmitigated popular culture saturation, one can become a little desensitised about death and to be fair, for a long time, I was. But lately, I’ve been processing every death I read about or even see on screen. I consider what it would’ve felt like for them at the point of death and how it would’ve felt like if they had indeed stepped into the huge nothing. Even reading about people who have long gone sparks bouts of rumination. Like how I recently read about the making of Bowie’s 1971 record ‘Hunky Dory’ and I started thinking about how it’s been already four-years since he’s died and how he would never been experiencing new things anymore, new sounds and new words and everything with him has just come to a grinding halt. And this is a man who literally rewrote the rules of rock music. What more me, some random guy living in Kuchai Lama?

“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” – from TV show The Good Place.

I write all this in the expectation that weeks from now, I won’t remember that I wrote a single one of these words. That like most existential crises, it just fades away to the background because something else just becomes louder. That quote from The Good Place sums it up nicely. That the very concept that our expiry clock starts on the day we are born should be enough to render us unwilling to do anything and just give up altogether. But humans are resilient and we just get on with it, by minimising this dark inevitability into the background of our lives and to just kick this bucket decades down the road and occupy ourselves with things that gives us meaning and happiness today. If you think about it, life is just a series of distraction tactics.

I am also cognisant of the fact that I appear to be writing all this rather atheistically. Like I personally believe there is just a huge nothing after we die. But that’s not what I believe. I believe there is something more awaiting us at the other side.

At least, there has to be.

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 …

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.