What I love and hate most about Good Friday

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The thing I dread the most on Good Friday is the Gospel reading. It’s one of those special Holy Week ones, where it takes the form of a sort of audience-participation skit. You’ve got a narrator, someone to play the role of functionaries like Pilate, the priest who reads for Jesus, and of course, you, the congregation, playing the role of the bloodthirsty mob baying for Christ’s blood.

I hate it because of how it makes me feel. I don’t want to be one of the number crying for the crucifixion. No one should. Surely, with the benefit of hindsight, we would speak differently today?

Maybe not.

I love the Gospel reading because it’s one of the most visceral experiences you can have in a Catholic Mass (not, usually, one of the most gripping things you’ll ever sit through). Instead of just passively receiving the Word and then the Word-made-Flesh, you’re actually participating in the spectacle. You’ll have people who get really into it, who shout with hoarse voices, calling for Barabbas to be freed.

And I love it because of the lesson it teaches.

I don’t want to be one of the people responsible for Christ’s death, but, at the end of the day, I am. Christ died for the sins of all, not just for those in the crowd on that day; while he hung on the cross, between heaven and earth, the Father’s wisdom must have contemplated all the sins that Christ’s death would redeem — even the ones not yet committed. Even mine. And when Christ gave himself up to the Passion — the scourging, the suffering, the shame — he might have shared in that knowledge.

In the moment on Good Friday, I feel connected to the Crucifixion. I feel like, thousands of years ago, some small part of God had contemplated me, in all my iniquity and imperfection, and decided that yes, those too would be part of the burden he would bear.

By dint of my sin, I am no less responsible than the bloodthirsty crowd before the Praetorium that day for Christ’s suffering and death, because his sacrifice was no less for me than it was for them. In fact, I should bear the greater portion of blame, because while they didn’t know what they were doing, I do. When I sin, I do so with the benefit of hindsight, in full knowledge that every knowing sinful act is a deliberate lance driven into his side.

How different it is, to think of the exultation of the Magnificat. “My soul glorifies the Lord! My spirit rejoices in God my saviour!”

Instead, when I sin, my soul cries out, “Crucify him!”

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Candle

One of the entitlements of age is not really worrying about tags like ‘juvenile’ applying to you. Anyone who doesn’t think you act your age is easy to ignore, because your body’s ever-expanding list of aches and pains tells you exactly how old you are every morning. With that in mind, I don’t really need to care about sounding emo or angsty when I say that my birthday tends to depress it.

I don’t think it has anything to do with the event itself. I mean, it’s not like something awful happened one year and I have to deal with the constant trauma of being reminded of it. I mean, I don’t go in for parties in a big way (or in any way, really) so the lack of one can’t be it either.

I think it really has to do with the expectation that one’s birthday should be happy. That you should feel special about the day, about yourself on that day. I know we do a lot to induce that feeling — rituals like gifts, well-wishes, gatherings and so on. But there really isn’t anything special about the day itself (something you’d think it would have taken me less than 31 years to figure out), and confronting that banality is always a little disappointing.

“Happy birthday”, people say. Well, what if it isn’t? Does that make it a lesser birthday? A wasted year? What? I mean, I can’t think of anyone who’s perennially happy, or even regularly or frequently happy. Happiness is elusive, and yet there’s something about the birthday that’s supposed to conjure it. That sort of hoodoo has never really worked on me.

Maybe the other thing has to do with stock-taking. It’s like New Year’s, only more personal. It’s like having a work review with your boss, except your boss in this case is yourself, presumably your own harshest critic. Maybe that’s why we try to surround ourselves with people on birthdays — to drown out our own voices. We let people phrase how happy we are as a statement or an expectation because left to our own devices, we phrase it as a question, an act of self-interrogation that most of us would rather not do. I know I wouldn’t. Another year down, another long list of wasted opportunities to have something to be proud of.

Well. A happy birthday. I’m not sure I can manage that. But I suppose what I can manage is a thankful one, because remembering absent friends and loved ones is never fun, but should always make us feel grateful. Taking stock reminds us not only of what we’ve missed but what we have, or had, or might still have. And while I don’t have a lot to be happy about, I think I have a very great deal to be grateful for.

So thank you, everyone.

Accounts

Everyone’s doing it, so I probably should too.

2015 was a momentous year in many ways. I made quite a few big, irrevocable decisions. This year, I left teaching for university, which seems like a bigger deal now that I’ve done it than when I was considering it — I suppose I underestimated how undertaking the study of a new discipline means more than just committing money and effort and time, but also surrendering part of my brain and thought-process to scrutiny and change. Taking on a new degree really isn’t just a matter of adding accomplishments to my CV and qualifying for a new career: it’s volunteering to take on a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing.

It also meant having to leave something I was quite comfortable doing. Mastery of a skill is always rewarding, and I think I got quite good at teaching. My students tended to like me, they tended to do well on tests, and I got paid quite a bit. The only problem was that I could foresee myself not growing.

Well, I’ve certainly been doing a lot of that this year. Went back to school, met new friends, and had to deal with being just about the oldest guy in any room I walked into. It wasn’t a bad feeling per se — just weird. Although in hindsight, probably not so much, given that that was always the case when I was teaching anyway.

To my very great gratitude, my classmates seem to be quite chill about having a bunch of oldsters along for the ride.

This year I also decided to take greater charge of my health. I started working out regularly, and while it may not have yet made a noticeable different to my waistline or how my shirts fit, my liver fat has dropped, and brought down with it my blood pressure and cholesterol level. This year I only had two gout attacks, both of them relatively minor, which is a real record and hopefully one I continue to push.

I also had to deal with the new challenge of a long-distance relationship with my fiancée. Writing this now in her dorm room in New York City, I’m glad to say that the distance and time apart hasn’t changed anything about our chemistry or commitment.

This year has been a year of new beginnings and granted prayers. May 2016 be a year of making good on promises and potential.

Stars

At 2 in the morning I looked out and realised that I can’t see a single star from where I am. That was somehow profoundly depressing.

I was thinking about science-fiction. There seems to be a sort of ‘sweet-spot’ — too near to the present and things become an allegory for the here-and-now, and too far and some things become almost quaint. Why would we send ships full of people into the darkness when we could be sending robots instead? In a post-Singularity future, with neither mortality nor morality to constrain us, why even live, save for pleasure?

For me, the ‘sweet-spot’ would be in that initial push of colonisation. We push our best and brightest starwards, while the immortal elite remains on Earth. They can afford to wait till prime real estate has been settled, civilised, bought and paid-for, before they uproot and establish their fiefdoms among the stars.

After that initial push, though, who do we send? Maybe we just aren’t producing enough scientists and engineers to send ships full of them out to never come back. Maybe not all of them would want to.

So comes the second wave of settlers, people remarkable enough to distinguish themselves from the ruck of humanity, who can be trusted to operate the machinery (both mechanistic and social) necessary for terraforming, but who wouldn’t pose a threat to the elite. Less of an interstellar middle-class and more of an interstellar serfdom, tenant farmers, who can settle new worlds and who won’t live long enough to dispute their ownership, due to not having accesss to ruinously-expensive longevity treatments.

The sort of people who’d uproot and go anywhere, perhaps with their children — whether actual or merely in potentia, in banks of test-tubes ready for implantation into exo-wombs — in tow and on ice. They’d go not for themselves, but for their descendants. “I won’t live to see a terraformed LV-426, but maybe my children will” might be the prevailing sentiment. “In a couple hundred years I’ll be dead, and maybe then the elite of the Weyland-Yutani corporation who own this planet will arrive, and they’ll need functionaries, officials, minions and hangers-on. And that’s what my children will have to look forward to, but it’s OK, because it’s still a damn sight better than what they could expect staying on a doomed Earth without money.”

What kind of society would these people create? What kind of political, social, economic, technical challenges would they face? They might carve out bold frontier societies, but how long before those are gentrified? The near-future might hail as their heroes scientists and engineers, but it’ll still be bankers and businessmen who’ll end up actually owning everything.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that, given human trends regarding extreme poverty and consumerism, I look forward and see the greatest potential for storytelling to still be tales of decline.

It’s a little bit sad when faster-than-light travel seems more plausible than liberty, equality, and a kinder humanity.

1L Teething

So, today was my first day as a law student. I’m older, slower, goutier, and more cantankerous (only partly due to the gout) than my counterparts, but it’s been an interesting day.

Especially the bit where they covered how, in tort law, it’s generally a lot easier for the plaintiff to get their way, because the standard for burden of proof is lowered. A criminal conviction requires proof “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is the standard I guess most of us are familiar with; apparently to be awarded damages for a tort, evidence merely has to suggest that the defendant offended “on a balance of probabilities”.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this explains the popularity of the defamation suit as a tool for political repression in Singapore. I mean, if you want to consistently jail your opponents or have them branded criminals, you’re either going to need to use emergency powers (a la Operation Coldstore), or lower your standards of evidence to the point where the entire justice system becomes a farce.

“Not harassing people who did nothing wrong” is obviously not part of the equation.

So it’s a lot easier to prove that people who say you’ve done bad things have hurt your reputation, since they have; I guess it’s up to the defendant to then prove that he’s done so deservedly. It’s not defamation if it’s true, after all.

I’m not sure if the failure of anyone to defend himself from a defamation suit brought by the Powers That Be is a sign that said powers are truly above reproach, or that they’ve made information inaccessible to the point where proving a claim becomes impossible. I know, usually when someone claims that the lack of information is in itself a form of evidence is when everyone realises he’s a crackpot conspiracy theorist, but in Singapore you can’t help but wonder.

Maybe we need fewer political pundits and more satirists. It’s one thing to accuse someone of something that you can’t prove; it’s another to bring up something someone’s done that’s true beyond a doubt, which you also represent as being funny at their expense.

Anyway, this also signals a change in my general approach to blogging and content. I guess I’ll be posting more frequently, because I really do want to chronicle my journey through law school, especially as someone who’s way older than his classmates. I also hope to do more candidly retrospective stuff, since I’m no longer tethered to good behaviour by a paycheck.

Hope you guys’ll join me. All this is new territory to me, too. Let’s explore it together.

Older

My attitude towards my birthday has always fluctuated. For some reason, I can never remember the major milestone ages: I think I turned 18 pretty much without fanfare (except for my immediate exercise of my new right to buy alcohol), I turned 21 while on exercises in Thailand with the SAF, and now I’m turning 30 while staying up way too late for my ageing body checking my email because one of the joys of growing older is finding out that work never waits.

I also don’t remember when the last time was I felt glad that I was growing older. Most of those birthdays passed by without me feeling much older: I feel like I was 15 until I turned 21, and then stuck at 21 until I was 25, at which age I’ve more or less remained. But tonight, I feel old. I feel terrible, actually.

It’s been so long since I last felt carefree, or even just glad about something I did. With some very few, very notable exceptions, I don’t feel like I’ve even done anything right for years. Since I graduated from Cambridge, it feels like I slipped on the stairs and have been falling, ever since, just tumbling from one step to another, lower, bone-bruising step. It’s been one disappointment after another, a nonstop, unrewarding, unrecognised scramble to stay abreast of a tidal wave of mediocrity.

Five years a working adult, and I feel ready to throw in the towel. I look back at the last five years of trying desperately to be relevant, to make a difference, to just connect with something worthwhile, and think of the glaring nothing I’ve achieved and project that on to the future, and I can feel my heart grow grey. For every student saved, a class goes under; for every meaningful or rewarding connection, endless hours of drivel.

I’m 30 today and I feel twice that. I feel used-up, wrung-out. I feel like a scalpel that’s been used as a shovel. I know how it feels, oh my dear Alfie, “to rust unburnished, not to shine in use”. I feel under-utilised and overstretched at the same time.  My blood feels thick, my skin thin.

I’ve worn down my body and my mind and for what?


Perhaps as a younger, more ambitious, more brash young man, I might have said that sentiment is meaningless and that only achievement counts. But tonight I’m 30 and all I have is sentiment. I mark the absence of regret as my brightest joy.

A family I will never regret having been born-into, brought-up in, growing-up with. Friends I will never regret having been vulnerable with. A beloved fiancée I have no regrets having wooed and won. You I remember with a joy that remains constant, fresh and welling-up unceasingly from old memory and new acquaintance. When I look back on 30 years on this Earth, I can’t help but think that what I truly celebrate is that all of you were born, and that we could meet the way we did, and that we are as we are.

If there is anything that I should like to remember to mark 30 spent years, it is you.

And if, next year, at the end of my 30th year, I should have anything to be glad of, may it first and foremost be you, all of you.

And if I want to have more good tidings besides, to have something else worth celebrating… well, I guess it’s up to me, isn’t it?

A decade in retrospect

Ten years ago I was mentally preparing myself to leave Singapore. While I knew it was only for a time, I embraced with fervour the fantasy that it might be forever. Coming back was a painful experience — something I apparently share with many of those other fortunates who had the chance to sample life elsewhere.

Something like this NLB nonsense, had it happened ten years ago, would have only sharpened my appetite to go.

Now, something odd is happening. While I’m still resolved to leave again when I can, I’m beginning to feel an odd sense of resolve building, something I could never have imagined feeling ten years ago.

I’m beginning to feel like I ought to come back.

Perhaps ten years ago I could tell myself that this country’s ills were none of my business.

Now I can’t help but feel that my country needs me more than ever. The country needs inspired, intelligent, and resolute people, and I would like to lay claim to at least some of those qualities.

It needs me and people like me and I can’t help but feel moved to answer that need.

But how?