Happiness, hope, reason, and other things we take for granted

Predictably, as with my last cycle of depression, the first thing I lost this time was my capacity to experience joy. And then I quickly lost my capacity to feel any positive emotion at all. To a point where I started to count self-pity positive, because at least I still considered myself worth feeling sorry for. At the same time, part of me thought, been there, done that. I knew, from the previous time round, how depression rolls. Just give it a couple of months, and I’ll soon be spending more time out of bed than in bed.

But before that could happen, I managed to convince myself that I was going insane. One night, I found myself staring at the same PDF document of class readings for 6 hours and not comprehending a thing. I could read the words on the page but couldn’t piece them together. I could sometimes figure out the logic within a paragraph, but quickly forget what I’d come up with as I wrestled with the next. I began googling brain disorders, because surely depression doesn’t do this to you! I told my roommate how incredulous I was that I couldn’t understand my reading (it wasn’t even Marx or Kant or anything like that), and how I feared I was gradually losing my sanity. I didn’t bother remembering what she said in response. Kind words don’t change anything.

Before I knew it, my world had descended into an unrecognizable level. My roommate was sitting on her swivel chair next to my bed one night. She had a colored pen and paper in hand and was drawing out a visual chart of my last 2.5 years at UChicago, accounting for the ups and downs, making sure to record the significant events that had once made me happy, and accomplishments I had once been proud of. While I appreciated the effort, I could not believe. I believed that I did write the script for a successful play, but that was sheer luck and even the lamest of Singaporean humor would have been a novelty to an American audience. I believed that I was once so proud of a paper I wrote on Mormonism, I shamelessly emailed it to a bunch of people. But of course I was just delusional. What was I thinking? I couldn’t bring myself to imagine what people must have thought of me when they read it. I had come to believe that I was hopelessly stupid. Not just average or slightly below average. I was flat out stupid and had always been.

On the first day of class of spring quarter, I left The Sociology of Reproductive Rights nearly in tears. I had felt so naked in class. Surely they could see through my eyes and see my fear? Surely they could tell I was only pretending like there was anything interesting to introduce about myself? Surely they agreed that I didn’t belong in this school? Or any school at all, for that matter. I walked aimlessly around campus, my mind swimming in a new idea: I would flourish in a primitive, hunter-gatherer society, where one’s sole aim was to survive. My roommate called me, as part of her new daily routine, to make sure I wasn’t alone. She was alarmed when all I could say was, “I’m just wandering around. I’m not sure where I’m going.” And this was after the previous night’s “I wish I was a human vegetable.”

I couldn’t overhear any conversation without thinking, “I could never talk like that.” And while I used to look at families with little kids and swoon, I now couldn’t help but think, “Someone like me should never be allowed to get married. Or have kids.”

The last 21 years were wastefully and delusionally spent. I resented the people around me for colluding to trick me into thinking I would ever be a functional, let alone valuable member of society. I didn’t even know how to be a friend. The people who are my friends are my friends because they’re too nice to not be anyone’s friend. I, on the other hand, was sick, twisted, cold, uncaring, unfeeling. I’d always been and had simply gotten tired of putting on an act.

I stopped dressing well, why fool others and yourself with a polished exterior, only to hide how filthy you really are? I stopped eating well, why treat your body nicely if you feel you’re better off dead? Looking into the mirror was a painful experience. It would show me how ugly I was, inside and out.

One day, during the summer, while a couple of friends played beach volleyball on the sand, I sat at a nearby bench with my journal. I started off praying to a God who seemed to love everyone but me, but it quickly turned into pure self-berating. I wrote: My heart is a filthy piece of trash. If only I could dig into my ribcage, yank it out, and fling it out of sight.

Then  I reveled in a new idea: if I’m wishing this hard that I would cease to exist, there’s no way it wouldn’t come true. It thought it was genius. It would save me.

Did I know I should never take happiness for granted? Sure, anybody who’s ever been unhappy knows that. I didn’t know I couldn’t take hope for granted. I always thought of hope was a choice: you can choose to have hope, or you can choose to wallow in hopelessness. Until I came to a point where I could not accept any source of hope, be it from family, friends, myself, or the Bible, because I was so convinced there was no way out of the pit I had unwittingly dug for myself. And then there are those things you thought you could never lose. Your intellect, your capacity to reason, your sense of humor, your wit, your interests. When such things are lost and later restored, you learn that nothing apart from your decisions is yours. You’re not entitled to anything. You didn’t earn anything. You don’t say you found your sanity. You say your sanity was given to you.

How I got out of that dark pit of endless mind games is a whole other story. And a mysteriously wonderful one. But for now, I want to end with a few precious thoughts: I was thoughtfully and lovingly created by a Heavenly Father. When I find hope I cannot refuse, it is a gift from him. When I have compassion on others, it is from him. When curiosity propels me to seek truth, it is him. All that I am and all that I will be are from him, and so I’ll strive to spend the rest of my life stewarding these things for his kingdom, his people, Him.

I echo the words of King Nebuchadnezzar uttered some 2,500 years ago:  “At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Daniel 4:36-37) Praise and glory to the Lord who gives and takes away according to his perfect will.

Thoughts on transcending compassion

As a little girl with plenty of time to spare, I spent a fair bit of it with eyes glued to the ground, watching  trails of ants avoid me like a river round a rock. Each time, my instinct would be to stomp on them, at first because I thought they might bite, and later on in life, just because I could. Occasionally, though, I’d feel unusually merciful and so choose to simply watch. It’s a kind of detached mercy, barely bordering on compassion. The same inconsistent and dispassionate kind that sometimes made me spend extra time in the shower simply letting the water run, so the rats and cockroaches in the sewers could have clean water to drink for a change.

This pastor at a church I was visiting in Jakarta was talking about how we do not like to receive pity favors. Unless utterly and desolately desperate, which in some cases still doesn’t deter, we do not want to receive help when we know the other party is offering it out of pity. We want things to be done for us out of respect, out of love. And for another person to help us out of pity us implies a difference in level.  He goes on to talk about how Jesus did so much more than save us out of pity. In becoming a man, he descended to our level, an act that also displays just how much he values and loves his creation.

For sure, God looks upon us with compassion, and that compassion plays a part in his plan of salvation (the word “compassion” is applied on God many times in the Bible), but this got me thinking about transcending compassion. Remember when Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40)? In the few verses preceding that, he identifies himself with those needing clothes and food, the sick, the imprisoned. No, he essentially subsumes his identity with theirs. I always thought, how compassionate of Jesus to identify with those of the lower rungs (“the least of these”), but am now realizing that perhaps he’s saying that there are no rungs. Jesus is saying he’s one of them, and so they’re one of us and we’re one of them. When we help the needy, we’re not doing charity work, it’s solidarity.

Too often, when I think about not withholding God’s love from others, I think about it in terms of not withholding the Good News of salvation, to proclaim it loud and proud, what Jesus did on the cross and what his death and resurrection accomplished. But Jesus’ ministry cannot be reduced to his final act. Nor just his final act + calls to repentance + teachings + healings. He, fully God, first also became fully man.

I first began to glimpse the gravity of this back in October while preparing Luke 4 (Jesus being tempted in the wilderness pre-ministry) for small group prep. I’d previously thought that of the 3 temptations, the first one seemed most trivial: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3). But upon deeper reflection, it hit me that it’s a taunt that carried so much more weight. You could imagine the devil saying, “Oh Jesus, Jesus…You had all the riches and glories of heaven, you had angels serving you, you had no need or want. Are you sure you want to be reduced to a mere man at the mercy of petty needs? Whoa, let alone face death? Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? Have you really done your calculations?”

Jesus didn’t look upon us and confer mercy simply on a whim, out of pity, or even as a favor. Let us not forget that he forsook his heavenly throne and became an ant, was an ant, died like an ant thoughtlessly squashed under under our sneakers.

And so what? For us who call ourselves Christians, do we stop at singing of this radical love? Christ explicitly said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). As he has loved us. And the precedent set for us beckons, compels us to transcend compassion. I want to strive towards that. What would it look like if we saw a homeless person, or to not romanticize things, just a struggling friend, and saw them as ourselves? We are each surrounded by some imaginary hamster ball, and we occasionally let people in, be it people of our choosing, those we “love”, or circumstantially depending on how charitable we feel. But maybe to love doesn’t mean that these hamster balls have semi-permeable membranes. Maybe it means not having hamster balls at all. I honestly believe this mindset is a social construct (sorry, Sociology major here) we are too quick and too happy to adopt because they’re convenient and comfortable.

And it occurs to me, am I being a starry-eyed idealist? No, I think I just think I’m being idealistic because I’ve been brainwashed by societal standards that fall short of God’s standards.

This is my 3rd attempt at a blog

Hello! 🙂

This is what’s going on: I wanted a fresh space to go with a fresh start to the rest of my life journey. This time, I’m not starting a new blog (just) because I am mortified at the realization that each of my pasts posts bleeds immaturity. Not that I claim to have attained Maturity with a capital M, though, because there’s still so, so much that I’m going to be wrong about, and potentially ashamed of all over again.

But I’ve been broken down to bones, completely dismantled, burned to ashes, and reached that point where I felt like the only way out was inexistence. And then something (actually, Someone) tells me, in a way I cannot doubt, that this is the beginning of a brand new chapter. A chapter that will conclude in a way I would have never imagined. And I need to document it all. Kind of what “Under Reconstruction” is referencing, but more details in future posts!

You’re welcome to journey with me. 🙂