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”…

hello? is this thing on?

The world still turns, even when it’s in lock­down, and there’s been much to say.

If only writ­ing came as eas­i­ly as it used to. The bulk of my entries have been a com­pul­sion, a way to sort out thoughts and feel­ings when I had no one to talk to.

Then I start­ed dat­ing Heather — my first time cohab­i­tat­ing with a roman­tic part­ner — and sud­den­ly had an out­let that was both acces­si­ble and val­i­dat­ing1. It became eas­i­er to turn to her than find the words for a screen that nev­er spoke back.

My time in ther­a­py has also giv­en me bet­ter emo­tion­al mod­er­a­tion; a skill to deal with the dis­tress that comes from depres­sion and trau­ma. Instead of spi­ral­ing into pan­ic or rage, I’ve learned to embrace dif­fi­cult feel­ings and let them pass through me. Scary thoughts and painful mem­o­ries don’t con­trol me the way they used to. A healthy trade for the loss of inspi­ra­tion.

In that sense, I hold an evolv­ing style and sub­ject mat­ter to be pos­i­tive devel­op­ments. After all, I began this blog almost 20 years ago. If I was fill­ing the space with the same things as I was back then it would be an embar­rass­ing sign I had­n’t grown at all. I imag­ine I’ll always have more things to say as long as I con­tin­ue learn­ing, even if the impe­tus is lack­ing.

It makes me won­der why oth­ers stopped blog­ging (or why they start­ed in the first place). Checking my RSS feed is still a habit, but nowa­days I’m left invari­ably dis­ap­point­ed and feel­ing more dis­con­nect­ed than ever. Social media has become too shal­low for my tastes. Medium too imper­son­al. YouTube too obnox­ious and osten­ta­tious and increas­ing­ly com­mer­cial, with Twitch being even worse on all those counts.

And yet there’s relief to be found in the fact that no one knows I’m writ­ing any­more2. This space is no longer sacred when I feel oblig­ed to or inhib­it­ed by an audi­ence. Self-imposed exile became an impor­tant step towards reclaim­ing the sense of con­trol I’d lost. My sto­ry isn’t fin­ished, and per­haps enough time away has giv­en me the dis­tance I need to be com­fort­able shar­ing myself again.

  1. The fact that she’s usu­al­ly on the same intel­lec­tu­al lev­el (or high­er) is also an impor­tant fac­tor. []
  2. With a few notable excep­tions, I’m sure. []

nothing is something worth doing

When talk of COVID was hit­ting our shores and busi­ness­es were start­ing to shut down as a “tem­po­rary” mea­sure, I expect­ed the sit­u­a­tion to last a great deal longer than a month or two. Gut feel­ings sel­dom grace me, but some­thing told me the Western world was severe­ly under­es­ti­mat­ing the sit­u­a­tion. Maybe it was the mem­o­ries of my last trip to Hong Kong in 2009 — five years after the SARS out­break was declared over — when malls and streets that were once packed to the point of claus­tro­pho­bia were then lucky to see more than a hand­ful of souls each day. The ther­mal cam­eras at each bor­der cross­ing in main­land China cer­tain­ly gave me the impres­sion that a pan­dem­ic was some­thing to be tak­en seri­ous­ly.

cat on tree

A while back, the Humane Society host­ed a cat-tree build­ing work­shop, and we decid­ed to make a date of it. Percy, being a percher, is very pleased with the results (espe­cial­ly when com­bined with an emp­ty box).

It’s already been four months since Heather start­ed work­ing from home. The lit­tle space she has set up at the pub table in the liv­ing room offers her a view of the back­yard while she takes calls and makes quotes. Management has decid­ed to fol­low their own safe­ty pro­to­cols1, which means it’ll remain her office for the fore­see­able future. She com­plains to me about how Byron gets in the way of her video meet­ings every time he walks across her lap for atten­tion, but I know deep down she loves show­ing him off to any co-work­er who’ll lis­ten.

Taking lunch­es togeth­er has been an unex­pect­ed lux­u­ry2 — being avail­able for kiss­es through­out they day even more so. I no longer feel the need to fill the hours with busy­work until she can keep me com­pa­ny again. That’s prob­a­bly why the quar­an­tine has­n’t been as dif­fi­cult as expect­ed; this is noth­ing com­pared to the bouts of unbear­able lone­li­ness I’ve sur­vived with­out a fam­i­ly or part­ner on which to rely. Not that I was going out much before any­way. Depression and trau­ma had already kept me house­bound for years.

freestyle rap cypher

One of the last times I saw Jesse was at the fifth birth­day par­ty for Dominion City Brewing, where he was lead­ing the freestyle cypher.

The biggest change has cer­tain­ly been Jesse’s absence from my life. I’m thank­ful for the fact that he’s not tak­ing any risks (both for his sake and his house­mates’), even if it means I’ve gone months with­out his com­pa­ny. His inten­tions to be in bet­ter con­tact come to him when he’s falling asleep or sucked into work, and I feel strange­ly com­fort­able inhab­it­ing the space between; I know it’s not cause he does­n’t care or I’m not impor­tant, that he’s always strug­gled when it comes to man­ag­ing time and pri­or­i­ties.

Even with a life­long his­to­ry of aban­don­ment issues, I can feel secure in a rela­tion­ship where I have no idea when I’ll see the oth­er per­son again. It’s a sign that I’m not only recov­er­ing from emo­tion­al wounds, but grow­ing too. The fact that I could go this long with­out post­ing some­thing is anoth­er sign. I used to be such a goal-ori­ent­ed per­son with projects lined-up, one after anoth­er. Creativity, work, and self-improve­ment were huge parts of my life. But so much of that moti­va­tion came from the fact that I nev­er felt like a valu­able per­son unless I was mak­ing progress on some­thing, that I nev­er deserved to be hap­py unless I suf­fered a great deal for it.

After strug­gling with men­tal health for so long, I’m start­ing to under­stand that hap­pi­ness itself is a per­fect­ly rea­son­able goal. And now that the deci­sion to iso­late has been tak­en out of my hands, I’m try­ing to indulge the indo­lence. If I was ten years old, it would be a dream come true to be giv­en inter­net access, a com­put­er, and so much free time. Maybe one day I’ll fig­ure out how to live a life between the extremes of indul­gence and mor­ti­fi­ca­tion; for now I’ll stay in, try­ing to be that boy again.

  1. They don’t trust the var­i­ous gov­ern­ments where their offices are locat­ed. []
  2. She gets an hour, so some days I’ll go down for an ear­ly after­noon nap and she’ll pet me to sleep. []