Memories and secrets

As I rifle through my happiest memories, I find many of them tinged with the sadness of absence. They are either memories of seasons long gone, or of moments shared with people no longer in my life. While precious nonetheless, these memories remain fragile, and I dare not peer too closely.

I decided to search not for a happy memory necessarily, but one that I could hold close to my heart without fear of it shattering. And then I found it.

It is a memory of hope.

It was January of 2018. I had just turned 27 and I found myself once again in a pit of despair. It became a daily routine to drag myself to the Cathedral during times of the day when I knew it would be empty. Day after day I wept and demanded that God tell me what else He wanted of me. Somewhere amidst that barren monotony, my heart grew weary enough to at last be silent. That was when I heard the still, small voice of Hope.

At this point in my life, the rest of that story is to be kept secret. You may be surprised, because over the years I may have come across as an open book in this space. But this entry isn’t about the value of my story, but the value of secrets.

Secrets have developed a bad rap; we tend to see them as antithetical to courage and authenticity, perhaps especially so in this age of social media (and of oversharing). As a millennial, surely I’m a product of this age! But in recent years, I have learned to see secrecy as an instrument of discernment. Secrets demarcate the boundary between our interior and exterior lives.

One book that was instrumental in inspiring me to hold tight to certain memories is The Love That Keeps Us Sane: Living the Little Way of St Therese of Lisieux by Fr Marc Foley:

[W]henever we expose an intimate part of ourselves, a quality of is lost. We can never look upon that part of ourselves in the same way again; our gaze has been altered and infected by the evaluations and judgments of others. It is like sharing with others how deeply we are touched by the beauty of a painting. If the people we are sharing with begin to criticize the quality of the painting, point out to us its flaws or the artist’s immature style and the like, we feel demeaned and diminished. . . . From that point on, we can never look at our beloved painting in the same way again, for our inner vision has been infected by the judgments of others. Even when we are alone with our painting, we are not alone. Because we have internalized the judgments of others, we feel that people are looking at the painting with us. As a result, we cannot allow ourselves to be touched by the beauty of the painting as we were previously, because we cannot risk being shamed again. In short, we cannot be present to it. A presence has vanished.

I found this to be true even with positive judgments! The thrill of flattery threatens to displace the promise of original memory.

When we intuitively sense a special moment of grace, we need the discipline to water it, tend to it, watch it grow, and sit in its shade. There is great discipline in secrecy.

Because grace is still operative in memory, we need to exercise caution even in sharing the “past” experiences of our lives; some memories are meant to function as solitary haunts into which we can retreat and find refuge from the world.

Perhaps that’s what the Evangelist meant when he wrote that the Mother of Jesus “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19).


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: My favourite quote

Just go to sleep

The need for sleep is a constant through all seasons of life. I am thankful for the times it has been a reward for a day well-lived, and I am thankful for the times it has been a respite from the day’s struggles and failures.

That said, I have also learned to not give too much credence to a negative self-evaluation of a given day. It is like how I would tell my student to not despair over a single failure. It is but a blot of ink in a much more magnificent narrative of growth.

A beloved priest told me 5 years ago: “God is like an impressionist painter. Up close you have no idea what he’s doing, but take a step back and you’ll see a masterpiece.”

Give that critical mind a rest and just go to sleep. 🙂

Now that the daylight dies away,
By all Thy grace and love,
Thee, Maker of the world, we pray
To watch our bed above.

Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,
The offspring of the night,
Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,
Pure in our foe’s despite.

(From the Compline in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours)

Addendum: The doodle features some of my most memorable dreams: being chased by death eaters, traversing my college campus on a flying mattress, getting warded for COVID-19, and most recently giving birth to a baby boy at home during lockdown.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: My favourite memory

The superhero in you

3) Me as a superhero

Through the deepest valleys of the past 8 years, I came to realise that feats of great strength often feel anything but heroic. A little Hope gets your foot out that door, and to keep it alive is worth the fight.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway, so you’re most welcome to join in!

If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: Me as a monster

Me, myself and I

1) Me, myself and I

This wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when I first set the prompt – but the phrase later called to mind this idea of navel-gazing. It is toxic, addictive, and destructive. It is when we look within ourselves in a desperate search for answers, only to stare down a devastating abyss. I often need to be reminded to look up and out.

Next prompt: Me as a 50-year-old


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a daily creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway, so you’re most welcome to join in!

And if you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

 

While they were mourning

Source unknown

It was only after He had breathed His last that the Roman centurion cried out, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”

It was only after they had killed Him that the crowds realized their folly, and went home beating their breasts.

Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, now came out of the shadows asking to bury his lifeless body.

Likewise for Nicodemus the Pharisee. Previously daring to seek Him only in the secrecy of the night, he now emerged bringing spices for His burial.

Too little too late, they must have thought. How great the silence, stillness, and terror that overtook them.

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‘Il transporto di Cristo al sepolcro’ (1870) by Antonio Ciseri

Too little too late.

But little did they know the mysterious workings of God. Because the Son of God, whose body lay motionless in the tomb, was far from defeated. While they were mourning, He was busting open the doors of hell, breaking once and for all the prison-bars of death.

We recite in passing — just four words in the Apostle’s Creed — “He descended into hell.” Do we realize what was happening? Immediately after Jesus passed from the earth, He went down into the place where the souls of those justified under the Old Law were detained. Those who had been waiting for the arrival of the Messiah in the bosom of Abraham now saw Him face to face. He preached to them the Gospel in its fullness. How sweet those words must have sounded to them!

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‘Christ in Limbo’ (1442) by Fra Angelico

Imagine the burst of light that tore through the darkness! And this was no ordinary light — this was the Light of the World, and the light of all mankind that the darkness cannot overcome. Imagine the terror that overcame the devils, who realized there and then that their last stronghold was futile against the Son of God.

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‘The Descent into Hell’ (1568) by Tintoretto

And with that, Jesus opened the gates of heaven. He kept His promise to the thief hanging from the cross beside Him — who at the door of death had asked for the impossible — “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

All of this happened while there was great mourning on earth, and while it seemed like all hope was lost.

On the third day He rose again from the dead, and the rest is history.

For God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways.

We who believe in the Resurrection have no reason to despair. Not just in the face of death, but also in the troubles of our everyday life (which tend to worry us more than death). He teaches and welcomes us to leave our bundle of burdens at the foot of the Cross.

Lord, we leave this here with you tonight, and we will go to sleep. We will pick them back up in the morning, and even if it feels just as heavy as when we left them, we trust that You are at work.

Because we know that while they were mourning, You were claiming the ultimate victory. While they saw no way out, You were paving the new way.

We will keep watch, because You make all things new. We will take heart, because You have overcome the world.

The cross reveals that unless there is a Good Friday in our lives, there will never be an Easter Sunday. Unless there is a crown of thorns, there will never be a halo of light. Unless there is the scourged body, there will never be a glorified one. Death to the lower self is the condition of resurrection to the higher self. The world says to us, as it said to Him on the cross: “Come down, and we will believe!” But if He came down, He never would have saved us. It is human to come down; it is divine to hang there. A broken heart, O Saviour of the world, is love’s best cradle! Smite my own, as Moses did the rock, that Thy love may enter in!

Venerable Fulton Sheen

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Taking ownership of our pain

I’ve learned that the first step towards healing is to take ownership of our pain. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible for our pain. The wound is ours, and we decide whether to let it fester, or to begin nursing it.

We often blame people — be it others or ourselves — for the pain we experience. But at the core of it, it is often not people that we have trouble forgiving. What we can’t forgive is the fact that life has not gone according to plan.

Without realizing it, we have a pre-written script of how our lives should play out. Things that don’t usually feature in the storyboard: accidents, failures, betrayals, abandonment, humiliation, disillusionment, disability, mental illness, the list goes on.

For some reason, we keep forgetting that the universe owes us nothing, and that we have no reason to be surprised when things don’t go our way. Yet we demand to know: why me?

But demanding an answer — as if any would satisfy — keeps us stuck in anger and bitterness. With time, a part of us is paralyzed. We have denied ourselves of healing.

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‘Ophelia’ (1851-52) by John Everett Millais
There are seasons in life during which I am made more cognizant of grievances past and present. Personal regrets, self-blame, insecurities, fears, feelings of having been wronged — everything surfaces. It’s like waking up one morning and finding that the carcasses I’d worked so hard to bury have clawed their way out of their graves, and are now confronting me for having buried them alive. These are the memories, events, and people I’d hastily buried, because for one reason or another, I couldn’t stand to even acknowledge their existence at the time.

We’re all in the habit of burying the unpleasantness of life under heaps of work, entertainment, or other preferred modes of distraction. It often even feels like triumph. Congratulations, we tell ourselves, the past can longer touch you, and you’re free to start afresh. It is with such remarkable hubris that we participate in this delusion — the delusion that we can simply erase select parts of our lives.

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Four Strings of a Violin (1914) by Edward Okuń
When we bury something, no matter how carefully we attempt to level the soil, the landscape will never look the same again. We’ll always know exactly what lies buried and where. We’re not really free, because there is no freedom in walking through life tiptoeing around the potholes that we pretend do not exist. These are the conversations we avoid, the names that freeze us in our tracks, the relationships we have severed, and all those suppressed memories lying dormant in wait of the right catalyst.

What we can choose, however, is to find a way to coexist peacefully with them. And I don’t mean just to tolerate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the things that wound us can nourish us.

If there’s one lesson depression has forced me to learn, it’s this: bury the past if you must, but return to water it. I’ve found that revisiting my buried pain isn’t scary as long as I’m armed with three things: faith, hope, and love.

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‘Two Peasant Women Digging in Field with Snow’ (1890) by Vincent van Gogh

First, faith in the gentle wisdom of God, and the promise that He makes all things new.

Second, the hope that there is always hope. That nothing is a lost cause — no relationship too broken to mend, no failure irredeemable, and that evil will not have the final say.

And finally, love. Because love is the gentle and merciful hand that nurses wounds. We have to love ourselves, in spite of our weaknesses, to open the door for healing. And perhaps the much taller order would be to also love the people who have hurt us. Sometimes this involves forgiving those who never asked for forgiveness, and commending them to our loving Father. Said St. Thomas the Athonite, the man who cries out against evil men, but does not pray for them, will never know the grace of God.

Leave anger and bitterness at the door. Take faith, hope, and love.

This doesn’t mean we will emerge healed, restored, and renewed overnight. But in the meantime, we would have robbed anguish and regret of their oppressive power over us. We might still feel them, but those feelings can now coexist with the joys of life.

So bury the pain if you must, but return to water it. Only then can new life will spring forth, and the same places that once harbored pain will become, instead, wellsprings of goodness and compassion.

I will leave you with the following excerpt from the journal of a Catholic priest who battled crippling depression:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives — the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections — that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see it in the guiding hand of a loving God.

Henri Nouwen (The Inner Voice of Love)

As always, thank you for accompanying me on this journey. 🙂

Monet's garden at Vétheuil
Detail of ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil’ (1881) by Claude Monet
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Hope is not an emotion

This past year has taught me a precious lesson. I have, for many years, grossly misunderstood the nature of hope. And the more I longed for my imaginary version of hope, the more elusive hope became.

Hope, as it turns out, is as misunderstood as love. Like love, hope isn’t an emotion. In fact, hope doesn’t have to feel good in the least. Like love, hope is a choice and a commitment. A commitment to what? A commitment to keep choosing the path of life — in spite of feeling hopeless.

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Ink

When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression in 2013, I came to believe that one does not simply choose to have hope. Those seasons of unspeakable, impenetrable internal darkness convinced me that sometimes, one is completely robbed of the capacity to have any hope at all. As such, I began taking for granted this notion that the only way to get out of those psychoemotional abysses was to hang in there and “wait it out”.

I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work. Sometimes, staying alive in itself can get so difficult that that’s all the work you can do. With your loved ones standing by your side and giving you just enough to not quit on life, and you dutifully taking your prescribed medication, the storm eventually dissipates, and you start to see the light again, and you find reason to get back on your feet.

But over the course of my last depressive episode, I noticed something rather peculiar. It started when my therapist told me, “You know, at some point, you’re going to get tired of despairing, and you’re going to want to do something.” This was after many sessions of me walking in simply because it gave me something to do, while remaining unreceptive and unwilling to acknowledge that things could get better. My first reaction to her remark was of annoyance and anger. Get TIRED of despairing? You make it sound like I’m choosing to despair. You make it sound like I know some kind of alternative to this terrible existence. But deep beneath all that maudlin angst, I knew she was on to something.

I was noticing that there comes a time when despair becomes your comfort zone. Yes, a very uncomfortable comfort zone, but a comfort zone nonetheless. It’s that zone where you’re no longer thrashing, kicking, writhing, screaming — but you’re floating in that murky, slushy, stinky cesspool of despair. Despairing, loathing, and bemoaning your existence has be come second nature, and the thought of recovery is actually scary. Despair is familiar; recovery is foreign. Not wanting to live has been your default state of being for so long that learning how to live again is intimidating.

Pablo_Picasso,_1902-03,_Femme_accroupie,_Crouching_Woman_(Woman_Sitting,_with_Hood),_oil_on_canvas,_90_x_71_cm,_Staatsgalerie,_Stuttgart
Detail of ‘Crouching Woman’ (1902) by Pablo Picasso

I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.

This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point. Of course, I didn’t make an instant 180 to start making tangible progress — I continued hemming and hawing for a while — the bad cognitive and behavioral habits that develop over months of despairing are so difficult to shake off. But there came a day when I decided I would find a way to start moving again. No, not because I felt better, not because I received a sign from heaven that all issues would be resolved. Simply because I realized I had nothing to lose.

It’s funny how that works. The flip-side of despairing about virtually everything is realizing that you have nothing to lose. And suddenly, you find there’s this untapped reservoir of boldness welling up within you. Call it tragic optimism, or a just darn clever biological mechanism that kicks you in the direction of recovery, but you can choose to ride that wave, or choose to continue thrashing.

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Detail of ‘Drowning Girl’ (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein

It became a psychological discipline to bat away negative thoughts, especially about myself. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden knowing what’s true and what’s false. Instead, the inner dialogue sounded a lot more like this: I know, I know, I’m useless and stupid… But I’m gonna be radically okay with it, and see how far I can go. And so I go about my my day having shelved that particular thought. I read a book, I go for the job interview, I enter into a conversation I would typically have avoided. Oh, yes, and I’m a cruel, heartless, wretched human being undeserving of love… But you know what? People seem okay with it. Let’s see how long I can go before I’m exposed. And again, I go about my day, agreeing to meet a friend, or attending a get-together instead of making excuses to stay home. Oh wait — how about the fact that I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely misery and will never find happiness? Soon enough, I started being able to say, oh just shut up already. 

Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride. We despair because we are unable to accept ourselves and our lives, or we believe the world cannot accept us, or both. It’s not an easy decision to make, but when we choose radical acceptance, magic happens. Slowly but surely, I started experiencing improvements in my mood. The more I put myself out there in spite of the forces threatening to engulf me, the more the clouds began to clear. My thoughts became more realistic, my emotions more stable, and my social anxiety markedly reduced. I became less inward-focused and could start loving and caring for other people again. At the very core of it, I came to recognize the inherent good of being alive once more.

And that was how I learned that you don’t sit around waiting to feel hopeful. Often, we imagine hope to mean seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, when it’s more like digging, grasping, and clawing your way through the dirt until you see the light. Hope is hard work. To decide that you are willing to try is a huge victory over despair, a huge cause for celebration for the people who have been rooting for you, and the beginning of a scary but empowering journey.

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‘Christina’s World’ (1948) by Andrew Wyeth

Hope is courageous: it is letting go of the dogged notion that you need X, Y, and Z to live, and being willing to attempt forging a new path. Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible. Hope is radical: it is a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others (you know, the “happy, productive, and functional” folks), and focusing on doing what you can do in a given moment.

And finally, you may or may not agree, but I believe that true, lasting hope requires faith. I know that any of my efforts to reject the voices of my inner demons would have been unsustainable without faith in a loving and merciful God. What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.

I thank God for the gift of faith, and for loved ones who, having exhausted creative means to motivate me, beseech me to turn to God.

We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.

–St John Paul II

Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. 🙂

Judas Iscariot and the Year of Mercy

I can’t help but be filled with compassion for Judas Iscariot in his moment of despair. After betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, he attempted to return the blood money in exchange for his Master, but the chief priests and elders were unmoved. Scripture tells us that Judas then flung the money into the temple, departed, and went off to hang himself (Matthew 27:5). I don’t mean to excuse his actions, but my heart breaks as I imagine that kind of poisonous despair which has one convinced that all is lost.

It brings to mind a time when, unable to bear the weight of despair in my soul, I ran out of church in the middle of Mass. It seems absurdly dramatic now, but I remember with excruciating detail that overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

The celebration of the Mass felt like a wedding to which I was not invited. Surrounded by devoted worshippers and the splendorous grandeur of St Mary of Perpetual Help, I felt unwelcome in my metaphorical tattered garments. I was convinced that I was unloved by God, and I fled from His presence.

Listening to today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 26:14-25), I contemplated the foolishness of Judas in accepting thirty pieces of silver in exchange for Jesus, who chose him to His disciple, to hear the mysteries of God explained, to participate in His ministry, and to witness many miracles.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we, too, have traded true goodness for cheap, trifling goods. N.T. Wright correctly observes: “Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we settle for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way.” But the worst possible trade that we who know Christ can make, is to trade His mercy for despair.

Remorse, anguish, and despair are so very bitter. But how sweet the taste of mercy! Judas wasn’t alone in betraying Jesus. Peter, after pledging his allegiance to his beloved master, denied Him three times. He then wept bitterly, but he never caved to despair. While Judas ended up taking his own life, Peter became a saint. I believe it’s because Peter never lost sight of who Jesus was: Love and Mercy. Sure enough, when the resurrected Jesus asks Peter if he loved Him, three times he boldly responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” imperfect as his love might be at the time. Not once does Jesus say anything along the lines of, “How dare you say you love me when you denied me three times!” Far from it — Jesus entrusted him with the task of feeding and tending His sheep (John 21:15-17).

How could we not know that Jesus is full of mercy? Pope Francis reminds us in his recent Palm Sunday homily:

Jesus, however, even here at the height of His annihilation, reveals the true face of God, which is mercy. He forgives those who are crucifying Him, He opens the gates of paradise to the repentant thief and He touches the heart of the centurion. If the mystery of evil is unfathomable, then the reality of Love poured out through Him is infinite, reaching even to the tomb and to hell. He takes upon Himself all our pain that He may redeem it, bringing light to darkness, life to death, love to hatred.

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Jubilee Year of Mercy — we are invited to return to and rediscover the mercy of God. It is a mercy that accepts, heals, and transforms. It awakens true hope and true joy.

There was no way Judas could undo his betrayal of Christ (he could not even return the bounty!), but Jesus humbly accepted that betrayal and His resulting death on a cross, and would have forgiven and redeemed him if he’d asked. I don’t know where Judas is, and the Church has been silent on this matter. We don’t know if perhaps he might have repented and accepted Christ’s mercy in his last moments. I really hope he did.

But I know I never again need to flee from the presence of God. Today at Mass I wept as I gazed up at the Crucifix. I looked upon the face of Jesus, and I saw Love and Mercy.

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Watercolor; Quote from St. Faustina Kowalska’s diary

Goodnight, world 

Tomorrow will worry about itself. The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.

Thankful for the gift of sleep. At the end of another tumultuous day of trying and failing and hoping and praying, there is sweet rest before the next battle. Lord, let our hope in You be refreshed anew tonight.

Now that the daylight dies away,

By all Thy grace and love,

Thee, Maker of the world, we pray

To watch our bed above.

Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,

The offspring of the night,

Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,

Pure in our foe’s despite.

This grace on Thy redeemed confer,

Father, co-equal Son,

And Holy Ghost, the Comforter,

Eternal Three in One.