I was asked to represent, on paper, what was most valuable in a friend. A few people came to mind, and they had this in common: someone who, though coming from a different sphere, is able to see your gifts and helps you recognise them when you can’t.
It’s a friendship that’s mutually compassionate, unpossessive, and life-giving.
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities.
– Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning
It is so, or it ought to be, with the love of a true friend, a partner, a parent, a teacher… After all, it is so with the love of God.
I’ve been alive for just over twenty-seven years. “You’re still so young,” I’m told again and again. I think it’s implied that I still have a long way to go — many more people to meet, places to go, things to accomplish. But all the recent deaths young and old, within my immediate and not-so-immediate circles, have impressed upon me a reality universally acknowledged yet almost universally neglected: that death comes unannounced.
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.”It rolls of the tongue so effortlessly, often thoughtlessly. It feels almost like a hedge bet at times: just be praying me for me all the time in all that I do…oh, yes, and just in case, also whenever it is in the distant future that I happen to be dying. But seven Sundays ago I uttered those exact words while standing next to my dying aunt, and I thought about what that meant. Death was so close, so imminent, so real. My aunt was in the final leg of her earthly sojourn. This could certainly be the hour of her death.
She was still conscious, but too weak to open her eyes or to speak. In the last week of her life, though surrounded by loved ones, there were no more two-way conversations nor instructions that could be communicated. Did she fear crossing over to the other side? Did she have any parting words left unsaid? Whatever was going on in her mind and heart, none of us was privy to it. It was solely between her and God.
This was to me a stark picture of the hour of one’s death — to have to reckon with the fact that we will depart from this life on our own. Even the best and most steadfast of friends and family won’t be accompanying us. They can go no further than being present at our deathbeds, if the opportunity presented itself at all. And yes, they will pray for us, but ultimately that step into the next life is one we will take on our own. And then we will meet God face to face, with no intermediary in the form of community, clergy, words, images, statues, songs, or the liturgy. How do we feel about that prospect?
Does it sound like homecoming? A reunion with our first love? The fulfilment of all we’ve been yearning and preparing for in this life?
I will meet the God I’ve professed to love with my lips, perhaps occasionally with my actions. The God whom I’ve read about, talked about, written about. To whom I’ve addressed countless petitions during the darkest episodes of my life. But at the hour of my death, will I rejoice at the thought of meeting Him face to face? Or will I be filled with the dreadful realisation that I don’t know the One whom I am about to face?
My aunt didn’t go that very weekend, and I had to fly back to Singapore. It was Holy Week. On Holy Tuesday, I wept as I prayed for her at Mass. Not because I was worried about the state of her soul, since knew she’d always been steadfastly close to Our Lord, but because of the realisation of the seeming loneliness of the hour of her death. But somehow, something or someone wordlessly impressed deep in my soul that she would go on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death. I kept this in my heart and continued on with the subsequent days.
When I woke up on the morning of Good Friday, I read a text from my dad which said my aunt had passed on earlier that morning. It sounds inappropriate to rejoice at any death, but the instinctive reaction was happiness. I’m not the type to neurotically keep my eyes peeled for ‘signs’, but the news presented itself as an affirmation that she’s in good hands. She had suffered with Christ throughout Holy Week (and much of her life), and has died with Him, and will rise with Him. Surely that last leg of her journey couldn’t be adequately characterised as ‘lonely’. Surely it was a special privilege of uniting herself with Christ. In a hidden, intimate way. Yes, none of us were privy to it. It was between her and her God.
All of a sudden her departure made sense. And given what I know of her and the faith so dear to her, I couldn’t but believe she would have wanted this.
At the hour of my death, I may not be a saint. I probably won’t be in a state of ecstasy, gaze lifted and arms outstretched towards the heavens. There will surely be some degree of fear.
But however death comes for me, be it expected or unexpected, sudden or gradual, excruciating or pain-free, and whatever I happen to be doing with my life at that juncture, I would like death to come not as an interruption, but a culmination. I would hope that no one laments the circumstances saying, “Oh, how cruel is death, to have taken her this way/at such a time.” I hope my departure will make sense. I hope I would have, by that time, figured out how to live in a way where you’d be able to say, “Ah, this is the moment she’s been living for.”
There have been many approaches to positively reframe the way people view mental illness. One way, which I notice to be growing in popularity, is to distinguish mental illness from weakness: needing help doesn’t make you weak, needing to take psychiatric meds doesn’t make you weak, nor does needing a therapist, and so on. For instance, I learned from this Washington Post article about the power of “coming out” with mental illness that #sicknotweak has become a popular hashtag on Twitter.
But I find efforts to completely dissociate mental illness from weakness rather unsettling. While this approach may succeed in destigmatizing mental illness, doesn’t it do so at the expense of adding to the stigma surrounding weakness?
(I typically hate the practice of pedantically and uncharitably picking apart the well-intentioned, so I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t fall in that category.)
My first thought is that our implicit rejection of weakness can inadvertently marginalize those who do not have the chance to be “cured”of their particular brand of weakness (for example, permanent physical disability, intellectual disability, and degenerative diseases).
I suppose the knee-jerk response is, once again, to affirm that those conditions aren’t weaknesses. But it often takes a long time for many people to accept or believe that for themselves. I wish we could go a step further and place no pressure on anyone to feel or identify as strong when they in fact feel weak.
With mental illness becoming a part of my life to be reckoned with, there are many periods during which I do feel weak. After all, when all this first started unfolding during my college days, all I could see was personal weakness after personal weakness after personal weakness. I recently came to the conclusion that there perhaps can be great relief in a radically different approach, that is, instead of being told that you’re not weak, to be reminded that it’s okay to be weak. Only then would sufferers, family, friends, and caregivers, have common ground from which to begin the work of acceptance and change.
It’s not that weakness is something to be bragged about. But it’s not abnormal. It comes in many variations and forms, and no one is without one. We may try to distinguish between excusable weakness and inexcusable weakness — the former are those beyond our control, and the latter within our control — but is that really possible?
Yes, it’s not my fault that I have my diagnosis, but it’s never just about having a condition. Any given condition is also wrapped up in how we react to it, how we cope with it, and what we do with it — facets that are more or less within our control.
I admit that they way I reacted and failed to tackle my condition head-on during the first few years reflected personal weakness. I compare myself to the saints and see that I lack their admirable virtue of bearing pain, suffering, and anguish with grace. It’s only with this acknowledgment of personal weakness that I could begin to work on changing that. If I think that my illness renders me too weak to live well, then there’s nothing I can do about it. If I think that it’s my personal weakness that prevents me from living well with my illness, then I can eventually muster up the willpower to train my mental, emotional, and spiritual muscle such that I can still thrive under that pressure.
Perhaps in the sports arena weakness is something to be hidden, lest it be exploited by one’s opponent. But in our general foray from the start to the end of our earthly lives, the rules are different. Here, it is a given that we are all weak. We succumb under our weaknesses not when others can see them, but when we believe there is no transcending them. When we believe that they rob us dignity. That we are somehow less valuable because of our infirmities. Or that our lives aren’t worth living if we have to find a different way of living it.
What are we to do with our weaknesses, then? Besides denying and concealing it, society doesn’t really teach us many other options. The invitation to acknowledge and soak in them is not at all intuitive. But I’ve learned through a messy few years of trial and error to resist the temptation to run away from where it most hurts, or where we are most ashamed. To not be afraid to be broken down in those uncertain encounters so we can be rebuilt.
Weakness and strength can coexist. In fact, isn’t it only in weakness that we can find strength? Admitting weakness is strong. Struggling through weakness is strong. Overcoming weakness is strong. Finding a way to live with weakness is strong. Pouring yourself out for others in spite of weakness is so incredibly strong.
And if you’re a fellow Christian, consider if we have any reason to deny weakness. Do we not look at the crucifix to see Christ embodying weakness? Publicly hanging from a torture device, bloodied from head to toe, with bones out of joint, there we see the depth of His human weakness meet the pinnacle of His divine strength. Divine strength says not my will but Yours, and it also says into Your hands I commend my spirit. What appeared to be shameful weakness turned out to be the hard work of amazing, redemptive love.
Weakness and suffering cease to be senseless torment when offered up to God. We’re asked not to bury them, and instead place them into the loving hands of God. There, like the five loaves and two fishes, they will be immeasurably multiplied as gifts for His kingdom. This means they also cease to be sources of shame. We’ve heard the timeless refrain:
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
–St. Paul the Apostle (2 Cor 12:8-10)
Let’s not reject weakness, but instead allow it to spur us to be stronger: in tenacity, resilience, faith, compassion, and love.
I’ve learned that taking ownership of our pain is the first step towards healing. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible for our pain. The wound is ours, and it’s up to us to 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.
This is why we ask, why me? Regardless whether we direct it to God or to the great void, we always ask that same question time and again.
Without realizing it, we have a pre-written script of our most basic expectations of what our lives should look like. Things that don’t make it onto our script: accidents, betrayals, abandonment, disillusionment, losing loved ones, epic failures, 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.
But asking why me does nothing except keep us stuck in anger and bitterness. When I think about the times I’ve allowed myself to get trapped in depressive episodes, making no effort to seek recovery, I visualize myself sitting alone in a dark chamber repeatedly yelling why me. And we know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
There are seasons in life during which we become hypersensitive to grievances past and present. Personal regrets, self-blame, insecurities, traumas, fears, feelings of having been wronged — everything surfaces. When depression hits me, 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 the sight of them at the time and had zero desire to acknowledge them.
We’re all in the habit of burying the unpleasantness of life under heaps of work, entertainment, and distractions. It often even feels like triumph. Congratulations, we tell ourselves, the past can longer touch me, and I’m free to start afresh.
It is with such remarkable success that we convince ourselves of this delusion — the delusion that we can simply start afresh. We know we can’t simply erase selected parts of your life. We know that when we’ve buried something, no matter how carefully we attempt to level the soil, the ground will never look the same again. We’ll always know exactly what lies buried there. We’re not really free, because there is no freedom in walking through life tiptoeing around the potholes that we pretend do not exist. They are the conversations we avoid, the names that freeze us in our tracks, the relationships we have severed, the people we have banished, 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 hurt 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.
First, faith in God’s sovereignty and in His promise that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.
Second, the hope that there is always hope. That nothing is a lost cause: no relationship is too broken to mend, no failure irredeemable, and that death will never 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 and failures to open the door for healing. And perhaps more difficult, we have to love the people who have hurt us, just as God does. 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. And we will emerge healed, restored, renewed.
This doesn’t mean the pain will disappear 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 past 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 hope, love, and compassion.
The following words by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and professor who suffered crippling depression, have helped change my outlook on life. Read and soak in them:
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.
As always, thank you for accompanying me on this journey. Peace be with you. 🙂
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.
When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression about three years ago, 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. 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.
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.
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 so 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.
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.
–Pope John Paul II
Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. 🙂
It was only after Jesus had breathed his last that the Roman centurion realized His innocence. “Truly, this was the Son of God!” he cried out.
It was only after they had killed him that the crowds realized their folly, and went home beating their breasts.
It was only after Jesus had died that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, came out of the shadows and identified himself as a disciple of Jesus by asking to bury his lifeless body. Likewise for Nicodemus the Pharisee, previously daring to seek Jesus only in the secrecy of the night; it was only then that he was emboldened to serve Jesus by bringing spices for his burial.
Imagine their anguish. Collectively, it was a picture of loss, remorse, and despair. Truly, a great silence, stillness, terror, and darkness over the earth.
Too little too late, they must have thought. 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!
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.
With that, Jesus opened the gates of heaven.
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, ironically, tends to worry us more than death).
He has taught me that I can leave my bundle of burdens at the foot of the Cross. Lord, I leave this here with you tonight, and I will go to sleep. I will pick them back up in the morning, and even if it feels just as heavy as when I left them, I trust that You are at work. Because I know that while they were mourning, You were claiming the ultimate victory. While they saw no way out, You were paving the new way. I will not fear, I will not despair.
“This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty. On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.”