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:

IMG_8151
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.

Advertisements

Dear Chiara Natasha

Update: Chiara has gotten in touch with me, thank you for your help in spreading the word!

Dear Chiara,

My name is Karen, and I’m a 23-year-old Indonesian girl. I read about you in stories covering the recent AirAsia tragedy. My heart grew heavy as I learned that you have so suddenly lost the people I imagine had been closest to you. I was filled with an overwhelming urge to get in touch with you, but I didn’t know how, so I started emailing the editors of Singaporean newspapers. But I realized I didn’t want to waste any time. To people who aren’t in deep pain, another day is just another few hours that invariably tick by. But for those in agony, time stalls and you find yourself in an abyss where past, present, and future meld together. And so I’m writing to you here, and I hope you see this. I don’t have magic words or any big promises. To be honest, I don’t know how I can help you, except to tell you that you are not alone. Maybe you have many strangers trying to reach you with a word of comfort right now, or maybe they, like me, don’t know how. Maybe you will read this and you wouldn’t be able to take me too seriously because I don’t know your pain, but I just need to do something and I pray I can help in some way.

Before I say anything else, I want you to know that I am and will continue to pray for your father, your mother, as well as your brothers, Nico and Justin. I believe in a God whose love and mercy is unparalleled, and I pray that He, with the intercessions of the saints and angels, will lead your family members’ souls to heaven. And I know I’m not the only one praying for them.

I don’t know much about you other than the few details I could find in those articles. If I gather correctly, you are an Indonesian studying in Singapore. If so, we have at least one thing in common. I was also born and raised in Indonesia. In 1998, my parents sent me and my older sister to Singapore to get a better education. We lived apart from the rest of our family for quite a while, before they were able to join us more regularly when our youngest sister got older. Between then and now, we’ve relied on airplanes to take either our parents to Singapore, or us to Indonesia. Once or twice I’ve imagined the possibility of a disaster, but never too seriously. Words cannot express how sorry I am that this has happened to you. As I thought about you, I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling more alone than you must have felt when you received the news. But at the same time, I also thought, wow, that this girl is somewhere out there right now, wow, she is strong.

Dear Chiara, I don’t know your pain, and I don’t know your fears. All I can offer is any empathy or insight that could come from having been clinically depressed a few times in my life. Each time, reality and facts would become so distorted in my mind that I believed with every fiber of my being that I was alone, and that I had nothing left. I pulled through with the unsolicited help of some very unexpected people in my life. For example, a friend of my ex-boyfriend’s parents reached out to me and became a listening ear and a constant source of support. Who would have thought? Well, God intervenes in our lives in very unexpected ways. Dear Chiara, I hope during this time you will be open to even the most unexpected sources of support. Dear Chiara, this must sound most contrived, but how I wish I could give you a hug.

I am and will continue to pray for you, my sister. Many things may not make sense right now, but have hope in a God who knows and sees more than we do. Where we see no open doors, He sees one that we don’t even know exists. You are very strong, and you are very loved.

Chiara, please feel free to contact me anytime at all. You can email me at: karen.zainal@gmail.com. If you’re not Chiara, feel free to share this with her, or anyone who might potentially know her.

With love,

Karen

holdinghands

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

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/9be/57736827/files/2014/12/img_7651.jpg

Wishing everyone a merry Christmas from Hanoi, Vietnam!

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

Jesus had an earthly father, too

After working on all those illustrations of Baby Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, I remembered that he also had an earthly foster-father. A courageous, gentle, humble, hardworking, and faithful one. Below is my depiction of St. Joseph teaching young Jesus some basics of carpentry.

IMG_7558
Just completed: “St. Joseph Teaching Jesus Carpentry” by Karen Zainal

This one’s for all the fathers and fathers-to-be. A blessed Advent to you! 🙂 I will be away in Vietnam for the next few days, so expect my next post to be in 2015…

The importance of non-European Christian imagery

I recently began creating non-traditional depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. And by “non-traditional”, I mean non-European. Below is an Indian and Japanese depiction respectively. I got plenty of inspiration from images I saw online, and then added my own spin. Both are hand-drawn with Micron pens.

“Madonna and Child as Indians”
“Madonna and Child as Japanese”

Just to be clear, I’m not creating these alternative cultural depictions to be gimmicky.

I have a deep, personal appreciation for such images because they have helped me better grasp the universality of our God and His plan for mankind. I am ethnically Chinese and grew up in Muslim-majority Indonesia. For years, I was subconsciously frustrated and estranged by singularly European depictions of Christian figures.

As my friend Christopher wisely said, it was healthy for Europeans to try to depict religious figures in terms familiar to their culture, but unfortunate that imperialism forced those depictions on the rest of the world.

I’m hoping to work on Chinese and Indonesian versions next, because of these cultures’ special closeness to my own heritage and identity. If you have any suggestions on other cultures you would like to see (some great suggestions I’ve received are Mongolian and Maori), do let me know!

I hope these images will be a blessing to your journey as they have been to my own. Have a wonderful Advent! 🙂

IMG_5943
The Zainals wish you a most blessed Advent!

Learning to love my name again

Since day 1 I’ve observed how students love doodling their own names. That’s the first thing many of them do given any downtime, boys and girls alike. Along the margins of their notebooks you’ll find their names in cursive, block letters, graffiti-style…

More recently, my colleague had the brilliant idea of creating an “Honor Roll” board to put up the names of students who are getting the target minimum B in their regular Math class. Everyone got busy writing their names on individual notecards. Boy did that activity take much longer than expected. For the first time, some were meticulously using their best penmanship, even decorating the borders and background, and asking to start over on a fresh card when they messed up. A far cry from the pages of their Math notebooks (you’d think they’re deliberately trying to veer as far from the margins as possible…).

IMG_3953

I mentioned this “phenomenon” to my RCIA instructor, who pointed out that name-writing is a powerful form of self-identity and self-expression . It makes sense that this impetus would be particularly strong during formative and experimental teenage years.

Your name represents you. It’s how you represent yourself to others, as well as to yourself, and is something people associate with you. While deep in depression, I developed a profound shame of my own name.

I wasn’t too surprised by how I hated seeing myself in the mirror — that happened the previous two time I was depressed and was a natural consequence of an unhealthy self-esteem. What was new this time round was how I hated seeing my name, hearing my name, and worst of all having to say my name.

While deep in depression, I had neither the mental energy nor agility to understand why this was happening. It’s clear to me now. I had come to attach my name to everything I have done, but most of all my failures and mistakes.

I had come to despise my own existence. And your name, after all, is like footprints of your existence — it’s attached to virtually everything you’ve done: essays, standardized tests, consent forms, report cards, college applications, job applications, diplomas, awards, text correspondences, email correspondences, credit card purchases…

Since I was so plagued by overwhelming shame for everything I have ever said and done, I naturally began to be ashamed of my name. It is nothing less than soul-crushing to come face-to-face with your own name, one with which you’ve lived for more than two decades, and find that you’ve done nothing but sabotage and tarnish your own legacy.

Meeting new people was torture because it meant having to introduce myself. I’d reached a point where I’d begun to feel alienated from my own name. Saying my name had become like saying the name of an enemy! I hated having to wear my name tag at work. I squirmed in the inside whenever I had to introduce myself to colleagues and students. It made it hard to be fully present in any situation when you’re subconsciously trying to dissociate yourself from your name, your identity.

But as I make my journey toward full recovery, I am learning to be kind to myself. I am learning that there’s a depressed Karen, a non-depressed Karen. A proud Karen, a humble Karen. An insecure Karen, a confident Karen. A selfish Karen, a selfless Karen. A Karen who makes mistakes, a Karen who does things right. A hypocritical Karen, a genuine Karen. A Karen who wasted many opportunities, and a Karen who is learning from her mistakes. A Karen crippled by doubt, a Karen who walks by faith.

I am not perfect. I don’t mean to say that to suggest that I’ll just have to live with that. Instead, I am saying this: every up and down, every failure and success, is an important part of my journey toward becoming the Karen that God created and ultimately desires me to be.

Hear me, coastlands, listen, distant peoples. Before birth the LORD called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

I will end with this beautiful passage taken from The Inner Voice of Love, the “secret journal” of Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who went through a debilitating cycle of depression:

There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgent, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. You can tell your story from the place where it no longer dominates you. You can speak about it with a certain distance and see it as the way to your present freedom. The compulsion to tell your story is gone. From the perspective of the life you now live and the distance you now have, your past does not loom over you. It has lost its weight and can be remembered as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding toward others.

Can you identify with any of this? Have you ever attached shame to your own name? What’s the story?

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

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.

zoomed in

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.