Treasure hidden in weakness and suffering

The phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” never sat right with me. I was never sure why, until recently.

It brings to mind a kind strength that is callous toward pain and indifferent to weakness. Or a cold strength of ambition that propels you forward, faster, higher, while paying no heed to what you leave behind. Maybe I’m reading too much into a quip, or maybe I’ve come to desire a radically different kind of strength.

The strength I desire could be mistaken for weakness. You could say that what hasn’t killed me has made me weaker. Weaker in that I feel pain more acutely, mine as well as others’. Weaker in that I am aware of my own shortcomings, and those more forgiving of others’. And weaker in that I relinquish all desire to live life in pursuit of self-glory, instead accepting whatever God places before me, determined to find the graces God has prepared in any given time and place. In accepting weakness we become spiritually stronger.

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I love the above quote by St. Vincent de Paul — it is an invitation to learn the art of suffering well. It’s easy to recognize the value of suffering in hindsight, but let’s aspire to lovingly receive and carry our crosses.

Again and again I discover why the saints insist that suffering is medicine for the soul. Suffering teaches me the most important lessons, purges the most stubborn of bad habits, inspires my highest aspirations, and turns my eyes toward eternity.

Related post: When you know your “good days” are numbered

Don’t settle for an open mind when we can have Truth

And the difference between us was very deep, because it was a difference as to the object of the whole thing called broad-mindedness or the opening of the intellect. For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid. I was doing it at the moment. And as I truly pointed out, it would look uncommonly silly if I went on opening my mouth infinitely, for ever and ever.

–G.K. Chesterton, “The Extraordinary Cabman

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The highest form of liberty: to choose love over liberty

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words — ‘free-love’ — as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment.

–G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows

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More than we desire peace, we desire meaning

[I]t can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology “homeostasis”, i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

–Viktor Frankl (neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor)

When you know your “good days” are numbered

The first time I tasted a depressive episode in 2011, I didn’t think it was anything more a one-time glitch in an otherwise emotionally healthy life. And then in the winter of 2012, it returned, and this time worse in manifold ways. Eight months later, I emerged stronger than before, declaring to myself and the world that I wouldn’t fear a relapse. But the truth was, I didn’t really believe it would come back. It was a vague possibility in my head, but nothing more.

No prizes for guessing this one, but it did return the following spring. Again, and this is highly likely due to inadequate treatment and self-care, this one was also worse than its predecessor. I hadn’t even had a chance to attempt to conceptualize what that might even look like. Before I knew it, I was reduced to a human ball of invisible, destructive thoughts — sometimes sobbing, sometimes suicidal, other times both.

I am now well, and am beginning to grasp what it means that this is going to be a recurring theme in my life. As I pour my refreshed energy and extended wake time into the passions God has placed on my heart, I am also aware that I cannot lay claim to my present capacities indefinitely.

What do I do with this awareness? I don’t know what the “best practices” are (feel free to share any advice with me), but I’ll probably have many tries to figure this out anyway. But typically, my approach these days have been to “seize every moment”. I try not to sleep beyond what’s necessary for my health, I try not to say no to an invitation to a meal/coffee/conversation/adventure, I try not to reject the appeal of someone in need. I also assess the gifts and talents God has bestowed on me (for example, my voice, my writing, and then those drawing skills that seemingly came out of nowhere) and consider how I can use them to bless others. I reflect on the special passions He has planted in me, such as my love for children, the youth, and the developmentally disabled, and consider how they ought to inform my vocational decisions.

On a more proactive, self-protection side, I’ve been making good on this hypothesis: that if I took advantage of the times when I’m not depressed to learn more about depression (from reading books and articles, and talking to experts including my own healthcare providers), I will eventually become better at handling depressive episodes when they do return. These on top of responsibly staying on medication and being disciplined about self-care, of course.

Now, and you’re probably already thinking this: though I write this from the perspective of someone diagnosed with “recurrent major depressive disorder”, these musings are relevant to any living human.  Our good days are numbered, our days in general are numbered. We don’t know what tragedy might befall us, and when it might. We don’t know what we might lose tomorrow. And then there are also the things we can reasonably expect: the changes that will come with old age, and of course, the fact that we will all die.

Maybe these aren’t things we often think about, and I might even be coming off as if I were still in the thick of depression. It’s also often said that to think about the end of life prevents us from living our lives, but I patently disagree. I believe there are few things more important to how we live our lives than contemplating the temporality, and fragility, of life on this side of eternity. Accepting the vanity of our present pursuits is the beginning of discovering our true purpose, and the true meaning of our lives.

It’s getting easier, these days, to acknowledge our mortality on a mere theoretical level, without really allowing it to sink in in our daily deeds and interactions. Perhaps because modern society has gotten so good at marginalizing death and suffering. Those things are hidden away in hospitals and hospices. Even the things that aren’t hidden from plain sight — like the plight of the homeless, and our brothers and sisters languishing daily under systemic injustice and oppression — we’ve somehow been trained to phase them out of our interior lives. Because it’s more convenient (not to mention more lucrative for corporations) that we are kept distracted by illusions of invincibility and the pursuits of temporary pleasures.

But fight that. I invite you think reflect on these realities more often than you might be used to. I speak not from a preacher’s podium, but from someone who’s been brought so low she had no choice but contemplate these unpleasant reality checks. This is not to rain on anybody’s parade, because the contemplation of “unpleasant” truths is necessary bitter medicine to a pride that needs humbling, a temper that needs taming, a coldness that needs thawing, an indifference that needs shattering, and a soul that needs healing.

I have come to trust in the Great Physician who administers this medicine, and I trust Him with my entire life and being.

Swallow the bitterness in faith, and then we can begin to taste the goodness of life in its fullness. I’m still catching new glimpses of it each day. A life where I am not the center, where I can delight in giving more than I do receiving, where I can truly delight in the joys of others without envy (for the most part), where I rejoice simply in knowing that I am a beloved child of God, where I look forward to an eternity in my final destination.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian really ought,
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

(From “If I Can Help Somebody”, arranged by Ray Liebau.)

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Congratulations on making it to the end of the “heaviest” post I have written in a while. Leave a comment with your thoughts — I would love to hear from any perspective! 🙂

Supporting Chiara and finding our Calcutta

A few days ago, on the last day of 2014, I wrote a letter to Chiara Natasha, the 15-year-old Indonesian girl who lost her immediate family to the recent AirAsia tragedy. I’m not usually the type to try to contact people who don’t know I exist, and when I do, I certainly don’t do it so publicly. But reading about Chiara’s plight struck me in a particularly profound way, as I feel a sense of affinity with her due to our similar backgrounds.

My sister and I were once, like her, schooled in Singapore while my parents were based in Indonesia. Jakarta, where they were, was but a 1.5-hour flight away, and for years we’d rely on planes to periodically shuttle either my parents to Singapore, or us to Jakarta. And when I later moved to Chicago for college, I would fly home for part of my summer breaks, and my whole family flew to Chicago for my graduation. Thoughts of aviation disasters frequently crossed my mind, but I’d chalk it up to too much Hollywood. It shattered me to learn that my worst nightmare had happened to a girl significantly younger than me. She immediately felt to me like a sister, even though we’d never met.

The letter quickly became one of my most widely-shared posts, and thanks to social media, the letter not only reached Chiara, but she also replied, in spite of my initially worries that I might come across like an intrusive busybody (I wonder how often such concerns hinder us from reaching out to someone in need?). Praise the Lord!

What happened next was also a surprise. I began receiving emails and Facebook messages from other people who read the letter and, moved by Chiara’s situation, wanted to help in some way. Many, like me, have no specific ideas on how to help, but just want to be available as sisterly figures if needed. Others came forward with more concrete offers of assistance. For example, C mentions that a few friends working for the Ministry of Education would like to help Chiara explore the option of pursuing a government scholarship; R, who works for a multinational corporation, asked if he’d be able to ease the financial burden of continuing studies in Singapore, and is also actively looking for a volunteer professional psychologist should that be helpful; V is offering to sponsor a Bali vacation for Chiara and however many friends she might want to take if she took the offer. Just to name a few. (For anyone concerned about privacy and safety, be rest assured that I’m taking appropriate measures and am not trying to figure this out all by myself.)

I’m so honored to be able to witness such a beautiful outpouring of solidarity, and I had to share this with you. Isn’t this a much more productive, not to mention compassionate reaction to a tragedy? Grief should never be reduced into a mere public spectacle. I partially blame the media for encouraging such a response, and the following frontpage headline is but one example:

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An invitation to a pity party at best, an exploitation of others’ tragedy at worst. I cropped out the blown-up photo of the grieving girl.

Forgive me for my harshness on the media, but I feel very strongly about this. Back to the point. It seems to me that the people of these times aren’t as “heartless” and desensitized as we often make it out to be. I’d like to think many of us are just forgetful. We have this innate, deep-seated desire to support and embrace those who are in need, but that desire often gets buried by the distractions of other pursuits and stimulations. Blessed Mother Teresa, beloved Roman Catholic religious sister whose charitable works in Calcutta inspired the world, once said:

Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.

Amen. Amen. I pray this will not stop with Chiara and others affected by this disaster. Let me also share something my dear friend Eamon wrote in response to the recent spate of Thanksgiving weekend shootings in Chicago.

In light of recent events (Ferguson protests, new FBI warnings over ISIS, and five murders in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend), it can be very easy to become despondent or to lose hope in our society. However, we must remember that these are only the devil’s skirmishes, and that he of all beings knows Christ has already won the final victory. This doesn’t mean we should simply ignore these tragedies, but rather we should remember that good triumphs over evil by means of great love in small matters. Do you pass a homeless person on your way to work every day? Take him to lunch. Are you frustrated with your coworker? Smile and accept his criticisms of your work with humility. Do your best at your job, and offer it to our Lord who spent 30 years of His life building tables and chairs, and of whom people said, “He does all things well!” (Mark 7:37). In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien (speaking to us through Gandalf), “It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”

Peace be with you, brothers and sisters. Let’s find our Calcutta every day.

Christmas: the foolishness and weakness of God

Love sometimes does strange things. It takes great risks and goes to extreme lengths that many would call foolish. On that first Christmas day, God’s foolishness was wiser than men, and His weakness was stronger than men. It took them all by surprise.

But this, of course, was part of God’s strategy. The element of surprise is critical in warfare. And Christmas was an act of warfare. In fact it was D-Day, the day of deliverance. The preparation had taken centuries, but now it was time for the Conqueror to land on enemy occupied territory. He came in humility, and would finish the conquest thirty years later by the greatest act of humility the world had ever seen.

–Marcellino D’Ambrosio

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Wishing everyone a merry Christmas from Hanoi, Vietnam!

(Pictured above: Christmas morning mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi)

“But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

I previously shared the following note on Facebook, but it is something that I also want to share with everyone who reads this blog. It’s been hinted throughout several recent posts, but never explicitly mentioned: I am on my journey towards formally entering the Catholic Church.

“About a year and a half ago, I began investigating the Catholic faith, because I had the honor of getting to know a few Catholics who made me wonder if there was more to it than what I’d heard all my life. Due to personal circumstances, this investigation fluctuated a lot in consistency in depth. But a constant theme I kept encountering was that many of my opinions on the Catholic Church were rooted in misconceptions, if not blatant falsehoods.

In more recent months, it has become increasingly clear to me that I am headed in the right direction, and that this is where God is calling me. I have recently shared this with a few people, and a few others have asked, so I thought it would be good to share: I have decided to be baptized in the Catholic Church this coming Easter.

This might come as a surprise to friends who’ve only known me from my “anti-Catholic days” (you guys know what I’m talking about…). I would be more than happy to chat and share more about the journey thus far! I don’t have answers to all the questions you might have, but I’ve learned a great deal over the past year and I’m excited to share what I do know.

I am confident that I’ve found the Church established by Christ himself — and in it I’m finding true worship, true charity, true solidarity, true humility. And wisdom that comes from above, and the hope that will not put me to shame.

I look forward to being fully initiated into the Catholic Church and the Christian life, and I’m incredibly thankful for everyone who has helped me along this journey, be it through honest conversations, challenging questions, practical guidance, and above all, prayer.

And of course, praise and glory to God, who masterfully uses the greatest joys and greatest adversities in life to lead me to Truth.

This has been the prayer of my heart, and it glows brighter and brighter as I delve further and further into the faith: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

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Two pieces of art I’ve been working on. Both depict the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus (the left in Japanese-style, and the right in Indian-style).

Special thanks to:
Cristy Acosta, Rick Moreno, Eamon Ford, Kelly Ann Zainal, Justine Zainal, Papa & Mama, Karmyn Sindlinger, Michael Ford, Cristina Ford, Isabel Ford, Jonathan Heynen, Kelly Pudelek, Dominic Chiu, Lucas Manuel Williams-Serdan, Larry Bilello, Stephanie Burda, Tom Quiner, Connor Boyle, Chloe Pawa, Fr Peter, and Fr Thomas.

How do you maintain your grip on reality?

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. It was barely three months after what had been my debilitating bout of depression to date, and I was a little nervous. To realize that for eight out of twelve months I could have been so wrong about so many things, so blind to so many truths, so caught up in the half-lies of my distorted reality — it was a world-shattering realization. (In my previous post, I write in greater detail about the distorted thought patterns of a depressed person.)

I say world-shattering because most of us grew up being told to believe in ourselves, that if we believed something about ourselves then that’s true. Or at least, that what we see in ourselves is supposed to be more valid than what others see in us. Never let anyone else have the final say. They are but naysayers. Trust your heart. 

I was finding that that wasn’t so great of a mantra to live by. In my depression, I believed that what I had was not a treatable illness, regardless of what anyone told me. I also believed God had either abandoned me, or He simply hated me, regardless of what anyone told me. Because it sure seemed that way to me.

I remember being 15 or 16 and watching supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks instruct the teenage girl on her show to “go home, take a post-it, write I am beautiful, stick it on your mirror and recite it to yourself every day until you believe it.” The live audience promptly rose to their feet for a watery-eyed standing ovation. I remember grimacing at my laptop screen, not because I disagreed that this girl looked perfectly pleasant, but because all these women were essentially telling her to completely disregard her own conviction. And they expected it to work? I won’t pretend to know how one overcomes Body Dysmorphia Disorder, but I doubt that was it. I don’t think they let the poor girl say anything, but I knew that if I were her, I would have thought supermodel Tyra Banks was just patronizing me by telling me I was beautiful when I really wasn’t. It’s not going to work. Not unless our culture stopped worshipping self-belief and self-determination above all else. Because sometimes, many times and for many reasons, we are going to be misguided and we are going to be wrong.

Who, then, can we trust to tell us truths that can be so counter-intuitive?

Back to the letter I wrote to myself. I hoped for this letter to protect me against depression’s most powerful trick: the distortion of perceived reality. This is part of what I wrote to a future self who might be caught in another raging mental storm: If that’s what’s happening now, hold on to this golden nugget of truth: Many things in life have failed you, but God will not fail you. If you’re going to succumb to the lies of depression, fine, but this is one thing you can vouch with all your mind, heart and soul is true. Otherwise, strive to know more of Him and His plan for your life, his role for you in His kingdom. Go into storms confident that you are standing on solid rock. . . . You are a daughter of God and He loves you more than You could ever know.

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This was written solely to myself, and no one else has seen it till this moment. I thought this would be foolproof. It’s in my handwriting, and it’s sincere — how could future me distrust it?

But I did. About six months later, I opened this letter again and I wanted so badly to rip it to shreds. I read my own words and chastised myself for being so delusional at the time of writing. For the second time, I became obsessed with the theory of depressive realism: depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals. While everyone around me insisted that my depression gave me a negative cognitive bias, I believed in myself so much that I thought it was them who had a cognitive bias — a positive cognitive bias. And I, being supposedly depressed, had the more accurate appraisal of myself and the world.

What arrogance, Karen.

I remember my then-boyfriend trying to tell me I was being arrogant. It made no sense to me at the time. How could I possibly be arrogant when my self-esteem is at rock bottom?

It turned out that while depressed, I lost many things — self-esteem, self-love, empathy, love for others — all but my idolatry of my own intellect. I suppose it didn’t help that I’d been immersed in an academic environment that worshipped the intellect as the harbinger of Truth.

Recently, I talked to my RCIA instructor about my struggle to retain my faith during depressive episodes. He said that we consider the human person, we often don’t look beyond the intellect, the emotions, and the body. Our free will, he says, is a very sacred gift God has given us. It operates outside of intellect, emotions, and body. He has given us our will so we can know Him, and choose whether or not to love and follow Him.

I see now that as a Christian, I must, using my free will, submit my intellect to God. While this must sound like blasphemy to any post-Enlightenment atheist, I declare this unashamed because there is no better option.

To people for whom religion is but a tool of rationalization, I say the same of secularism. It comes down to the question of which is the more reliable tool. Well, my religion is not quite a tool, but a relationship with the true and living God. He gave me my capacity to think and capacity to rationalize. When my brain is “broken” and doesn’t perceive things quite accurately, I can turn to its manufacturer to tell me what I ought to be perceiving. Thank God for the Church that has been entrusted to guard and dispense God’s truths, so we will never be left as orphans (John 14:18) flailing around trying to make sense of everything given our limitations.

I repent of my life-long arrogance and self-idolatry. I will end this post with one of the most-cited verse of the Bible: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5). I used to think this applied mostly to those who “aren’t smart enough to come to their own understanding of things”. I take that back, and I would even add that this is particularly relevant to those we consider to be highly intelligent.

What I needed was not a letter from me. What I needed was God’s Word and the teachings of His Church, and the humility to trust Him over myself.

I know not all my readers share my convictions, so I’ll open this up to you: how do you maintain your grip on reality? Or more broadly speaking, how do you know what’s true?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me an “innocent in hell”

Recommended reading: In Miracles, C.S. Lewis demonstrates how the fact that we can even reason and rationalize is a great argument for the existence of a transcendent Creator. Or go to Wikipedia for a summary of the argument from reason.