dead man walking

My first year of uni­ver­si­ty was spent on the 15th floor of a res­i­dence on cam­pus, the same sum­mer Pearl Jam’s cov­er of Last Kiss became a radio sta­ple for over 35 con­sec­u­tive weeks. Unsurprisingly, it start­ed play­ing in the ele­va­tor when I was once mak­ing my way to the cafe­te­ria with a floor­mate, who winced upon hear­ing Vedder’s grave­ly voice and did her best to talk over it, explain­ing her dis­like of sad music.

I was tak­en aback. Depressing lyrics and minor chords were an enor­mous com­fort to me1. As the sole child of a dys­func­tion­al home, the only thing I could turn to when my par­ents start­ed rais­ing their voic­es at each oth­er was a set of head­phones and Discman, and I’d been hunt­ing for sad songs like a rav­en­ous stray ever since I was old enough to appre­ci­ate music.

The same became true of upset­ting movies with dif­fi­cult scenes. Moments of vio­lence, tragedy, and grief would leave me glued to the screen. I was fas­ci­nat­ed with the way peo­ple processed their pain (or did­n’t). War films were par­tic­u­lar­ly apt for this, as relent­less years of depres­sion caused me to relate to any sol­dier with a thou­sand yard stare. That glazed, expres­sion­less face spoke of a per­son who had long giv­en up on mak­ing sense of the count­less hor­rors and end­less suf­fer­ing they had gone through.

1000 yard stare

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

Continue read­ing “dead man walk­ing”…

  1. I’ve come to under­stand how naive it is to think every­one enjoys that kind of mood. []

cum dignitate otium, or, les Cent Jours

At some point in my ear­ly adult­hood, I found it far more enjoy­able to par­take in some­thing for the first time when it was in the com­pa­ny of anoth­er – not only as an intro­duc­tion but a time stamp in the rela­tion­ship.

However, this habit even­tu­al­ly became a rein­force­ment (and tes­ta­ment) of a world­view that did­n’t leave room for feel­ings of inher­ent val­ue. I would deny myself any form of plea­sure unless I was with anoth­er per­son1. It’s like I need­ed some­one to val­i­date those expe­ri­ences, and did­n’t know how to give myself per­mis­sion to enjoy them oth­er­wise.

One might have believed that many painful years alone would give me the chance to devel­op a bet­ter sense of self-com­pas­sion, but a career has a way of con­ceal­ing such inad­e­qua­cies. That’s why I had as much grow­ing to do as Heather did, even though I was the one to ini­ti­ate the heal­ing sep­a­ra­tion. Three months would cer­tain­ly be far too long for me to tide myself over with chores or mind­less busy­work. An aver­sion to idle­ness would inevitably lead me to find ways of occu­py­ing my time in a more mean­ing­ful way, and I would be respon­si­ble to no one but myself.

Spending some time in exile also seemed like an effec­tive way for me to learn how to pri­or­i­tize myself, to fig­ure out my wants and needs, to dis­cov­er who I tru­ly am when the mask is down2. Unfortunately, it was­n’t prac­ti­cal for either of us to live apart, even though a com­plete break would have giv­en me a bet­ter chance to heal. As Heather was still work­ing from home3, I spent whole days with the office with the door closed and made it my goal to pass the time in enjoy­able ways.

Continue read­ing “cum dig­ni­tate otium, or, les Cent Jours”…

  1. Another rea­son los­ing L____ was so hard; she was the only oth­er per­son in my life who made it a point not to watch our shows until we were togeth­er. []
  2. How easy this is to for­get after years of cohab­i­ta­tion. []
  3. The pan­dem­ic was in the sec­ond wave. []

aporia of faith

In recent years I’ve been rumi­nat­ing on the ques­tion of whether or not humans have inher­ent val­ue, per­haps because my sui­ci­dal ideation caus­es me to won­der whether life itself is worth­less. The sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of such a idea means I don’t ask any­one for an answer, but I do probe for opin­ions. My friends have all told me that they believe peo­ple are inher­ent­ly valu­able; or, at the very least, they know they’re valu­able because they val­ue them­selves, even if they can’t say the same about any­one else.

This sur­prised me at first; I can remem­ber believ­ing that each per­son is a bur­den on soci­ety who has to earn their place, as soon as I was old enough to under­stand such a con­cept1. But a few years ago when I told this to Jesse, he expressed dis­be­lief based on the way he’s observed my treat­ment of oth­ers.

Being chal­lenged about my views by a per­son I so high­ly respect­ed cer­tain­ly gave me pause to recon­sid­er. When I thought about a stranger I might meet on the street, I felt that that life would be a ben­e­fit to the world, that that per­son deserves to be loved, hap­py, safe, and healthy as much as any­one else sim­ply because they exist. Suddenly, I real­ized that it was myself whom I believed to be worth­less, and I extend­ed this belief to oth­ers to soothe any pains I had over such a thought. I did­n’t despair about my worth­less­ness if every­one else had just as lit­tle val­ue.

I can trace this warped world­view to my child­hood, when my par­ents treat­ed me sim­ply as an exten­sion of their lives. They made it clear that their love was pure­ly con­di­tion­al, based on my obe­di­ence, achieve­ments at school/work, friends, roman­tic part­ners, and how those all com­pared to oth­ers. I was always work­ing from a deficit of love, try­ing to earn their approval and affec­tion by doing the “right” thing, which was defined as what they want­ed2.

This is no more appar­ent than when try­ing to show myself com­pas­sion (or per­haps mag­na­nim­i­ty would be the bet­ter word). Imagining myself as anoth­er per­son before me, every time I say to him “You deserve to be hap­py”, my mind can’t help but fin­ish the sen­tence with “…as long as you…” as if that hap­pi­ness is con­tin­gent upon some lev­el of per­for­mance at a work­place.

Unfortunately, aware­ness does­n’t resolve the issue. Even though I had an epiphany that helped me under­stand the fal­la­cy of my world­view, try­ing to sud­den­ly believe that I have an inher­ent val­ue seems as implau­si­ble as find­ing a ran­dom peb­ble on the ground and believ­ing that it’s worth the same as a pol­ished gem­stone. No won­der the opin­ion I have of myself has been so great­ly influ­enced by oth­ers; I’ve been rely­ing on the approval of my peers to give me the val­ue I so des­per­ate­ly desire3.

So if the worth of a per­son is sub­jec­tive and there are no absolute truths, how is it pos­si­ble for me to gen­uine­ly believe that I have val­ue after a life­time of believ­ing that I don’t?

  1. I’m sure that grow­ing up in a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety that views any­one who does­n’t work (includ­ing seniors) as lazy and worth­less con­tributed to this belief. []
  2. Not only would this cause me to feel like I had to con­stant­ly earn my hap­pi­ness, this would also cause me to believe any dif­fi­cul­ties I faced were my fault — that I must be to blame if some­one did­n’t find me attrac­tive, or I must have deserved any­thing I suf­fered. []
  3. I even­tu­al­ly learn that exter­nal forms of val­i­da­tion like this are unre­li­able and gen­er­al­ly unhealthy. []

conscious uncoupling

I felt aban­doned again last year. Heather was spend­ing less and less time with me, even though she had more time than ever1. I start­ed cook­ing for myself, learned how to cook for her, took on as many chores as I could han­dle, but assum­ing addi­tion­al respon­si­bil­i­ties nev­er seemed to trans­late into any mean­ing­ful time togeth­er; it seemed like she was pulling even fur­ther away.

Then she stopped check­ing in entire­ly. Months passed with­out a ques­tion of how I was doing or feel­ing. She would lat­er admit that van­i­ty, per­fec­tion­ism, and inse­cu­ri­ty made her pan­ic and freeze up. Even though she could tell I was unhap­py about our rela­tion­ship, it was eas­i­er to hide from the mon­ster she felt like and avoid fac­ing the pain she caused.

I just wish I was­n’t the one who paid for that cow­ardice, espe­cial­ly when I had already reached my break­ing point a year ear­li­er. There was no desire to com­mu­ni­cate on my end when it felt like she no longer cared, and know­ing that this would make her even more dis­tant — like some kind of neg­a­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion feed­back loop — was ter­ri­fy­ing. I asked my ther­a­pist for advice, and he brought up the idea of a heal­ing sep­a­ra­tion.

This was a great sug­ges­tion. Feeling resent­ful of Heather when she could­n’t meet my needs meant I had fall­en back into the mind­set of think­ing she was respon­si­ble for my hap­pi­ness. Some time apart is exact­ly what I need­ed to gain some per­spec­tive on the rela­tion­ship and reset those expec­ta­tions. Some time alone would also give me a chance to heal, so I could even­tu­al­ly be a sup­port instead of a bur­den dur­ing the times my part­ner is unre­spon­sive or unre­li­able.

I was pleased to know that this would be an oppor­tu­ni­ty for her to do some grow­ing on her own too. The last time she was sin­gle was at 18, and she rarely took the ini­tia­tive to pri­or­i­tize her own inter­ests. The last thing I want­ed was for her to lose her iden­ti­ty to anoth­er rela­tion­ship. And she was so used to hav­ing some­one around that being alone could cause an anx­i­ety attack; exact­ly the kind of thing that she could only work on by her­self.

We agreed to re-eval­u­ate where we were and how we felt at the end of the year; three months seemed like a prop­er length of time to be apart from the most impor­tant per­son in our respec­tive lives. Chores would be divid­ed between us. I agreed not to pur­sue roman­tic inter­ests out­side our rela­tion­ship until until we worked out our issues2, and she agreed to start her own ther­a­py. Despite how dif­fi­cult things had got­ten, I felt some­what secure in the knowl­edge that we still cared about each oth­er and want­ed the same thing — that is, for the rela­tion­ship to work and to even­tu­al­ly re-unite.

  1. When she first start­ed work­ing, not hav­ing a dri­ver’s license meant a four hour com­mute by bus each day. The pan­dem­ic gave her all that time back. []
  2. Not that I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in dat­ing any­way. []

the moon represents my heart

My aunts and uncles are well aware of the con­flict I have with my par­ents. They’ve since become a sur­ro­gate fam­i­ly; the ones I call on Mother’s and Father’s Day, the peo­ple I vis­it when I go to Toronto.

With every cheque they send, my thank yous feel less and less mean­ing­ful. It’s dif­fi­cult to show how much I appre­ci­ate their love and accep­tance and sup­port when they’re well off and tend to have every­thing they could ever want or need.

One of them men­tioned Teresa Teng as a favourite singer dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion last year, and I real­ized a cov­er of one of her songs would be a befit­ting ges­ture. The arts were tight­ly con­trolled by the Chinese gov­ern­ment for 30 years and any song heard on the radio was either patri­ot­ic or polit­i­cal, until The Moon Represents My Heart was released in the late 1970s. It marked an impor­tant cul­tur­al shift when emo­tions were con­sid­ered puerile or bour­geois, and became a favourite among many gen­er­a­tions.

This song in par­tic­u­lar is well-known by peo­ple from all three China’s (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan), as Teresa Teng’s pop­u­lar­i­ty extend­ed beyond both bor­ders and dialects. She became a com­fort­ing famil­iar­i­ty when I was grow­ing up, as I would catch her voice float­ing in the back­ground no mat­ter where I went or who I vis­it­ed.

Continue read­ing “the moon rep­re­sents my heart”…