At the hour of our death

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.”

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Taking ownership of our pain

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.

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Watercolor and ink

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.

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Watercolor and acrylic

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. 🙂

“Begin again with joy”

A huge part of growing up is accepting that things won’t always go your way. An obvious statement, perhaps. It’s easy to realize, but difficult to accept.

I have made many mistakes in my life, but there always seemed to be something I could do to avoid, or at least mitigate, the damage. Rationalize it. Tell a white lie. Tell a half-truth. Apologize profusely. Make amends. There’s always…something. Likewise with things that are beyond my control — there have been times when I’d seen trouble brewing and threatening to spill out of the cauldron — deep in my subconscious I always believed I could hatch a strategy to prevent the seemingly inevitable outcome. I don’t always succeed, but I guess I had a good enough track record to fuel such delusion.

But at some point, I had to learn that I’m not the playwright, and that I’m not God. My will cannot and will not always prevail. I have the freedom to do what I choose, but I can’t expect freedom from the consequences of my actions.

Somewhere along the way, I’d somehow come to believe that all damage can be repaired. Love, compassion, grace, mercy — those are all good things — so they must always prevail, right? They must be able to erase any wrongdoing, right? I don’t mean to say I have lost faith in those things; I still believe with every fibre of my being that they are the most powerful forces of healing. But I did learn that you cannot feel entitled to those things.

Say you hurt someone you love. You can ask for forgiveness, but you cannot demand it. You can extend a hand of reconciliation, but you cannot force it on them. Say you lose the esteem and respect of some people. You cannot argue your way back into their good books. To attempt to do these things only shows how out of touch you are with human nature. And it shows a lack respect for others’ free will.

What you can do is humbly acknowledge that you did wrong, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. And after all is said and done, accept the outcome. Whether or not it’s what you’d hoped.

And then? Move forward. Begin again. (Kicking and screaming is not recommended — it only makes things worse.)

These words by Pope Benedict XVI have taught me much:

Holiness does not consist in not making mistakes and never sinning. Holiness grows with capacity for conversion, repentance, willingness to begin again, and above all with the capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Conversion, repentance, and willingness to begin again. I never had too much difficulty with the first two — but beginning again? That one’s proved to be the hardest part.

We don’t like having to start over. We prefer to pick up where we left off. It’s a lot less painful, it requires less work, it’s far more convenient. We stubbornly insist on fixing the old so as to avoid having to build something new from scratch.

But the greatest hindrance to beginning again, I’ve found, is the inability to forgive oneself. When we don’t get our desired resolution, we twist that into the belief that we are irredeemable. But the truth is that even if the situation was irredeemable, we are not irredeemable. Nobody is condemning us — nobody but ourselves.

Following a series of painful events, I sank into deep depression and got myself stuck. I buried myself under the rubble of my mistakes and failings, I wrapped myself in a cocoon of guilt and shame. I didn’t believe I had any right to be free, not unless I obtained the idealistic outcome my heart so deeply desired. So I just waited, and waited, and waited, and put my life on hold. I believed that my mistakes had permanently disqualified me from doing anything good. I understood that God had forgiven me, and that I had been washed clean by His blood and mercy, and yet I chose to base my worth on the (real or imagined) opinions of others.

The beautiful part is that when you fail to recognize the power of God’s mercy, when you fail to hear His invitation to enter into His joy, He sometimes sends people to help you. These are the people in your life who see more than your failings and mistakes. They see your potential for growth and support you as you strive towards holiness.

These are the people who will help you dig your way out of that miry grave of guilt and self-condemnation you have heaped upon yourself, and who will remind you that there is no need for that.

No, it doesn’t mean they will blindly and indiscriminately defend you. They are not there to imbue you with a false sense of self-righteousness. But they will affirm your capacity for growth; they will affirm the truth that your mistakes do not invalidate your dignity.

I’m learning that you cannot hold your breath waiting to win back everybody’s approval. It’s not fair to the people who love you and need you. And you shouldn’t deprive the world of your gifts on account of those who do not see them. But most of all, you should not deny and cheapen God’s love for you.

Beginning again is scary. But it’s the only way to experience God’s healing mercy. As the wise Blessed Mother Teresa said, “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart, and begin again with joy.”

Begin again with joy. It can seem like an impossible exhortation at times. How do we muster up that joy while plagued with guilt, fear, and uncertainty? Or when you feel like such a horrible person that you’re better off dead? It can be hard to feel joyful about having to begin again, but do it anyway. The joy will come later. It will come when God shows you that you were right to place your trust in Him while your heart was screaming THERE IS NO HOPE, when He shows you that you were right to step out into the deep while your mind screamed THERE IS NO JESUS TO CATCH YOU.

The joy will come when you learn that yes, in Jesus’ hands we are never damaged beyond repair. That we can toss our ugliest mistakes into that blazing furnace of His Sacred Heart, to be purified and transformed for the good of our souls.

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This was inspired by the words of Blessed Mother Teresa: “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart and begin again with joy.”

Baby steps in managing depression

A friend recently asked me how I figure out whether I’m depressed (in the clinical sense of the word), or just really, really sad. Based on experience, I would boil it down to asking myself this question: am I mourning a loss or a tragedy, or am I mourning my entire existence? Another helpful clarifying question, one which the people I love can help answer, is: am I still able to find meaning in the things I’ve always cherished, or have I lost vitality in these pursuits and concerns? Of course, these aren’t fool-proof diagnostic tools, but they’ve served as a good starting point for me.

Most recently, I learned to also ask myself this: Am I suffering due to things beyond my control? Or am I inflicting suffering on myself?

Because my current depressive episode was specifically triggered by mistakes I’ve made, I subconsciously began punishing myself. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there’s a difference between humbly accepting the consequences of my mistakes, and actively torturing myself.

This dawned on me when I recently found myself feeling faint from just trying to grade my students’ work. A few days prior, I almost passed out in the classroom. I noticed my ribs beginning to jut out more than usual, and my skirts no longer clinging to my waist. I realized that for more than a month, I’d been consuming one meal a day, sometimes less. Most days it would be a bowl of instant oatmeal, other days a couple of granola bars from my roommate’s stash, some days nothing. I hazily mulled over these observations after returning home from work, and eventually burst into tears while struggling to chew on a cold, half-eaten burrito that had been sitting in the fridge for a week. And then I made a very important resolution. It’s time to “grow up” in the way I handle depressive episodes.

If this is going to be a recurring theme in my life, I can’t and don’t want to always count on being babied. A close friend recently told me, “Take care of yourself as you would care for your own child.” I thought about that. There will come a time, perhaps especially when I have my own family (if I do), when I’ll want to be able to take care of other people while depressed. Before I can do that, I first need to know how to take care of myself, regardless of how I feel about myself.

Learning to seek professional treatment independently, while it’s a significant breakthrough, wasn’t enough. There’s a lot more I need to do to stay healthy and better poise my mind and body for a speedier recovery: eating well, exercising, spending time with people, putting my best effort into my work, and so on.

Yesterday, I finally made a trip to the grocery store. Did I feel self-conscious and anxious asking for help? Yes. Did I think that every stranger I saw was secretly thinking bad thoughts about me? Yes. Did I think I was useless and stupid for not being able to find cilantro? Yes. Did I regret leaving home at all? Yes. But most importantly, I did what I needed to do anyway. I then cooked myself enough food to last me at least the next three days. It’s not the most balanced or nutritious of meals, but it’s a start. Baby steps!

Experience does help. This being my fourth depressive episode, I’m now quite familiar with depression’s arsenal of tricks. When someone at work stares at me and my mind instantly jumps to ridiculous conclusions, I’m able to tell myself to ignore the thought. When I’m having dinner with friends and I find my mind preoccupied with thoughts like…I’m too stupid to engage thoughtfully in this conversation. My friends invited me only because they feel bad for me. I have no friends. I don’t deserve friends…I’m able to tell myself that those aren’t true, no matter how true they feel. In being able to identify false or distorted thought patterns, I’m able to direct my behavior accordingly. Conduct that lesson no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Meet that friend no matter how scary it seems. Finish your lunch no matter how undeserving you feel. The more I push myself, the more I feel myself getting better.

I attribute these milestones to a combination of factors: the mitigative effects of mood stabilizers (which I was already taking prior to the onset of this episode), consultation with my doctor, wisdom from experience, and honest communication with the people who care about me.

As a Catholic, I must also add that most importantly, access to the Sacraments has granted me access to extra graces I previously didn’t have. And there’s no better reminder that I’m loved than to receive Christ, who gives me His body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

I still remember talking to Fr Peter, way before I entered the Church, while in the thick of depression and a major faith crisis. He advised me to “get this under control” by seeking a diagnosis and proper medication, before adding, “And you might want to consider becoming Catholic.” I had no idea at the time, but he really knew what he was talking about. Previously, my despair would know no bounds and suck me down a bottomless abyss. These days, it’s clear that there are limits to how much I can actually despair. As rough as things get, I know that I’m building my house on solid rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock (Matthew 7:25).

Perhaps when the brain fog clears, maybe in a couple of months or so, I’ll be able to write a more articulate post on the theology of suffering and how it’s helped me. But for now, this will have to do.

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. Peace be with you. 🙂

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

Even when we have nothing

Not feeling particularly useful or valuable these days. But I’ll take a leaf out of St Therese’s book:  “Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, or even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.”

Faith enables us to know that there’s grace to be found everywhere, even in seeming emptiness and nothingness. Perhaps this is the season to be a child, and in doing so allowing Jesus to carry me like a little child too feeble to walk. 

 

Love cannot be static

It embraces, yes, but it must also forgive, heal, and grow. Love creates new potential, and actualizes it.

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 but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

–Viktor Frankl

I suppose it must be so with the love of a parent, a spouse, a friend, a teacher… After all, it is so with the love of God.