Saturday, 24 March 2012


Let's talk about free will. Is it an illusion? Alternatively, is the illusion of free will an illusion, to keep us from ever knowing, and to keep the society as a whole from ever collapsing?

Wait, before you diss this blog and read no further...please hang on. Let me make my point. Here goes.

I once asked a friend, Does he believe in free will? Being the post-modernist, post enlightened, post human intellectual, he smirked a curt reply, "No." It was at that moment when I thought I saw a triumphant glint in his right eye as if he had made an Eureka finding, a first at it.

Without batting my eyelid, I gave him a tight slap and cheshire-smiled at him, "I just chose to slap you." Pause for thought?

Was my slap an act demonstrating that free will is still very much alive? Or was my slap an inevitable act pre-conditioned by my genetic composite, my upbringing, my immediate culture, some malfunctional aspect of my neurological structure, or a combination of the above - all of which are, in some neuroanatomical way, beyond my conscious control? (of course, that slap did not happen and I made it up; but don't you think some people deserve it sometimes?)

Now the 64 dollar question is this, Was my friend even right? That is, free will is an illusion. And a corollary to this is that those of us who believe otherwise have been bamboozled by our own brain to think so - since to think otherwise  (no free will) would make most of us into criminals of some sort or suicidal of the other sort.

Well, I hope you are still with me because here comes the train-wreck...My friend is not all that wrong after all... Pause for thought? Being a realist myself, my friend had a point, although a blunt one.

Let me explain and let's start with the Oprah paradox. We all know her. How can we not know her since she is the richest African American in the world! But we also know this about her: Oprah has a weight problem and she has been struggling with it from rags to riches.

While her popularity and wealth have skyrocketed, her fight with weight has been yo-yo-ing. Check it out. Switch on the Telly now. Witness it for yourself. Sadly, she is none the slimmer. Ask any teenager whether she wants to trade places with her (just the body shape) and most of the honest ones would respectfully squirm.

You'd have thought that Oprah is the last person on earth who can't lick this weight problem. She is successful, rich and famous, all of which are acquired through grit, determination and hard work. So, how on earth is she still so gravitationally-challenged?

Of course, she had her good days when things were looking bright by her looking slim but most days, she is unapologetically burly. At some point, I was sure that Oprah might have thought of throwing in the towel and admitting that it was her "genes that made her do it".

Or maybe a sinuous conspiracy of the seductive waft of aromatic bagel or the alluring sight of a bowl of banana split that took over her strong will. Or, maybe she was just not in the mood to stick to her self-imposed dietary discipline because her brain juices of self control (eg dopamine or the neurotransmitters in the basal ganglia) were low in supply for whatever reasons beyond her conscious choice.

Taking all these in, Don't you think that free will is almost an illusion? One more example closer to home? Ok, take New Year's resolutions. This is something we can relate to. How many of us can say that we have been successful in fulfilling our resolution by the end of the year? Any takers?

It usually starts with a bang of robust goals-listing and ends with a whimper of self-assured oblivion. The majority of us fails miserably in keeping New Year's resolution not because we can't make them, but because our conscious choices to fulfill them always get way-sided by circumstances that are seemingly beyond our control. Some blame it on their genes. Some on busyness. Some blame it on unconscious bad habits. One way or another, we are puppets not in control of our own strings. Where is the free will in all these?

It is said that men are born free; alas everywhere they are in chains. Are we?

When the Bible declares, "...Choose this day whom you wish to serve...," are we really that free to choose? Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine you are a newcomer to a mega church.

You tried your best to escape the service but your persistent close friend for 20 years managed to track you down and pummel you to go with her to church. Feeling greatly obligated, and wishing to earn brownie points with her since you've just discovered that you like her, you went along.

When you enter the mega church, you were overwhelmed. Every church member were at their Calvary best. It looked either like a cloned factory of good mannerism or a stadium of euphoric line dancers. Seated in your Dunlop pew, you are swooned by the catchy, feel-good music performed by a professional band and a phalanx of Prozac youth.

Then, comes the dynamic message delivered by a impeccably dressed, good looking, charismatic pastor. When altar calls come, you see the lemming effect where an endless stream of semi-hypnotic crowd rushed to the front. This is also where you got a nudge from your friend to follow suit. Any remnant of hesitation on your part is usually stripped away by an assigned pair of counselors egging you up your seat amidst a dozen pairs of curious eyes spotlighting you.

In a situation like this, it is usually only the socially comatose who would be able to effectively resist the mounting pressure to please. The question here is, How much of your choice to make the altar call trip a carefully thought-out, self-evaluated act and how much of it is a mindless succumb to peer and social sway?

In other words, Are you really free in a situation where your free will is effectively compromised and where external factors other than yourself overpower your own will? Is free will then an illusion?

Here is another more exacting scenario.

Can a man, whose brain is impaired by some accident to the extent that his former personality has been robbed from him, truly say that his choices are wholly consistent with who he was? If not, and he is not the same person as before due to the brain damage, how are we to deal with issue of personal responsibility and the concept of justice?

Let me elaborate with this curious story of a convicted felon named Simon Pirela. Simon was convicted of murder in 1982 and sentenced to death. He languished in prison for 20 years before a team of dedicated lawyers submitted medical evidence that he is mentally retarded.

On account of the latest medical findings, Simon was released from prison.

So, Simon was incarcerated for nothing. He was not responsible for his action. In other words, his action was mediated by a damaged brain and he was a person not in control of his mental faculties. Strangely, if every murderer and rapist can get away scot free by extending the plea of a damaged brain that erodes all acts of free will, then it won't be long before we convert all our penitentiaries into beachfront villas and chateau!

In an intimate way, we ourselves unknowingly acknowledge the restriction of free will. This is most obvious when we walk the other way when approaching a man with some of these characteristics: he's murmuring to himself; he's naked from the top; he reeks of alcohol; he's leering at young girls; he's smiling cheekily at you. Why did we choose avoidance as a strategy in the above encounter?

Well, obviously, we fear for our own safety and we know that any harm that comes to us would not be the fault of our assailant. Surely, we can understand why a mentally deranged man is not responsible for his actions. Can't we?

Recently, a married client of mine confessed to me that he cannot help but engage in extra marital affairs. He said that he still loves his wife and he cannot bear to divorce her. But he can never be faithful. He said that he just can't help himself and he has no self control.

The question is, Does my client have a point? Is it true that he really can't help himself? Where does free will factor into his overwhelming sexual urges? Should we blame his genes or neuronal wiring for his lack of self control? Recent science of affection has shown that there is a "monogamy gene" that can be found in men's brain.

Although this is far from conclusive, studies have shown that men are less satisfied with their relationship when they have a variant of this gene (AVPRIA gene). So, Does my client suffer from the effects of this variant gene that caused him to look elsewhere for creature comfort? If so, are some serial adulterers a byproduct of this defect in their brain? Should I then advise my client to go for a brain scan and show the positive result to his wife together with this note of lament, "my genes made me unfaithful"? Haven't I given enough examples to you, my dear reader, to show that free will is at the very least semi-illusional?

The rising star of neuroscience, Sam Harris, wrote in his book, Free Will, this "well-chosen" conclusion, "The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself illusion."

Are we paying enough attention? (Note to self: Isn't paying or directing attention a self-conscious act?) Is the illusion of free will restricted only to our subjective experiences, that is, the self-deluded feeling of "I am me and I am in control and I choose my choices", and this deception would start to unravel when we step back, reflect and come to this realization that we are merely a snowflake in an avalanche or a pebble on the beach, totally helpless to effect changes in our life, because we have no conscious control of all the myriad factors and prior causes that decisively determine our current choices?

Can we then sympathize with Harris' view after all the above examples? Well, for starters, my examples, except for the mentally ill or the archetypical sociopath, do not eradicate the experiential concept of free will. I think that this is obvious, and by now, you should know where I am coming from.

A survey has shown that people generally live more meaningful lives when they believe that they are the author of their fate. However, my belief in free will is not hinged on this romantic result of the survey. I think subjectively and conceptually, total, unfettered free will is an illusion. Warren buffet once remarked that had he been born in the streets of some third world country, his fate would be very different.

Genes, culture and economic background do play a part, sometimes a pivotal role, in determining the course of our life. They do hold the rudder at times. All you have to do is to talk to a person in love and you'd get a feel of what I mean. This quote says it all, "Falling in love is like creating a religion which has a fallible god." I believe the only person, fictional notwithstanding, who exercises almost complete free will is Robinson Crusoe (before Friday came along).

Let it be clear. My believe in free will is just a matter of degree. Imagine a continuum. At one end is "automaton" and at the other is "master of your destiny". I personally lean towards the latter end as I fully endorse these stirring words of psychologist William James, "The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind...if you change your mind, you can change your life."

I cannot accept that we are mere nuts, bolts and cogs in a machine of progress and self-improvement. Look at the great men and women of history and you can see their handiwork in every aspects of modern civilization.

In fact, they determined the direction of modernity. Imagine if mankind did not invent the railways, the airports, the Internet and the hadron collider. Our marvelous inventions made a difference because its inventors persisted amidst almost insurmountable odds. And their persistence is the personification of proactivity. We made a difference because we chose to make a difference.

There is the "I" which effected the change that the "I" doggedly desired. Shakespeare calls it the "changeful potency of will power". When it comes to willpower, one can take a page off Amanda Palmer.

She is known as the "Eight Foot Bride." Amanda is 22 years old and she hails from Boston. She is actually a street performer. That's her calling. A typical day for Amanda consists of painting her face white while donning a wedding dress with a veil over her face. In her hand, she holds a bouquet of flower. She then perches herself on a box like a platform and freezes in public for hours.

Imagine the prodigious force of self-discipline involved in executing such  an act of complete stillness. Amanda recalled that there were good days and bad. Once a frat boy, half drunk, came over to her and rubbed his head in her crotch as she looked skyward, thinking to herself, "Lord, what have I done to deserve this?" In 6 years, Amanda only broke character twice. Talk about the changeful potency of willpower! Or in Amanda's case, the "changeless" potency of willpower.

I believe that to stand like a "freeze frame" bride takes a lot of self control, not to mention a whole lot of guts. Amanda must have made a conscious choice from one moment to another to remain still and those choices were made by her exclusively. It is inconceivable that she was dictated by her genes or background or the hardwiring in her brain to perform the "eight foot bride" gig in public.

We can thus see in Amanda the power of self perseverance over the pull of her immediate circumstances. But for this belief of free will to be defensible, one will have to deal with this dilemma: Who is this "I" that is making all the choices? Who is the ultimate puppet master? Religion credits this to our soul, our core self, our self-wrought identity.

But the soul hypothesis is difficult to grasp because it is a scientifically nebulous concept. Until today, neuroscientists are unable to locate a distinct personality or entity called a soul in our brain. It is quite futile to tell science that our soul, like our spirit, is non-material, not visible to the naked eyes, and non-dimensional.

All neuroscientists see is a light-up brain correlating with our thought and activities very much like a well-decorated christmas tree acting in response to a trigger switch and nothing more; no soul, no spirit, not even a rare apparition of a semblance of your holographic self. So, in the language of science, the soul is just another name for the mind. And the mind is what our brain does. There is no "ghost in the machine". The machine (brain) is all there is.

While people of the book endorse the soul as the seat of our personality and self, and where free will originates, brain science takes another view. For them, free will is an emergent concept. The science behind this view is complex but in a nutshell, it is this: Our conscious self  arose in stages from the simplest of reactiveness to external stimulus (like a cockroach reacting to a burning match) to the complicated, modular self-awareness, that is, a consciousness of self or consciousness of consciousness (for example, we are aware that we are thinking and how such thinking impact our thoughts and behavior).

So, as we evolve over aeons, our primate brain grew and made billions and billions of neuronal rewiring and connections, regeneration and truncations, strengthening and specializing, all in atomic-second reaction to our changing environment, until it develops from one adaptive complexity to another; each time tinkering and pruning to meet the basic criteria for survival and ultimately, thriving. This long drawn out process accounts for the emergence of our conscious self. This also accounts for how the process itself has become it's own creator; the medium (brain) has become the message (informational consciousness of self). Just think about the Internet.

When it was first conceived in the fifties by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency in US), it was merely a project intended for restricted military usage. But now, today, look at how enormous and powerful the Internet has grown. At some point in it's development, it has grown so huge that it seems to have a life of its own. In other words, the Internet seems to have a working mind independent of our collective input. This is a blunt analogy for consciousness.

With this development of our conscious self, our free will emerges quite deterministically.  I know this is not easy to digest at one go. But this is where we are at in the field of brain science and my knowledge of it is merely elementary. Like proving the existence of the soul, this view is not perfect and it has yet to be proven conclusively.

Be that as it may, our free will is real and we are not helpless cogs in the vast inorganic machination that is this world. Individually, one impacts his/her immediate environment. Socially, as a group, we surmount obstacles; a good example of this is the history of the "Alcohol Anonymous" or AA. You will have to read their history (led by Bill Wilson) to know how group action can cause lasting personal transformation.

And lastly, collectively, on an international level, we, humanity, make a difference as we adapt to the energy crisis, the terrorism threats, political relations and climate changes.

Let me end with this inspiring story of an actress named Ruth Jones as an anecdotal tribute to the consummate power of self determination and free will. Ruth Gordon Jones was born in 1896. You may not know her but her persistence to become an actress is encouraging. You see, Ruth was only five feet tall. She was not a looker. And nothing about her acting stood out.

In fact, the President of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts told her this in her first year of studies, "We don't think you are suited to the, don't come back." Ruth refused to take no for an answer and persisted. After graduation, she scrambled from one audition to another and faced one rejection after another. But she never lost hope and made the conscious choice to hang on to her dream.

Once, she auditioned for a small agency whose head was Billy Shine. As usual, she was rejected. Unfazed, she decided to gatecrash into the rehearsal when she heard that a substitute was needed. She gave her all at the rehearsal only to be berated by Billy, "Did I engage you...Out! Get the hell out!" Crestfallen, Ruth dragged her suitcase out as 200 pairs of eyes watched her, the humiliation was unbearable. Still, Ruth refused to give up. In 1940, her efforts paid off as she got a part in "Abe Lincoln in Illinosis".

In her seventies, Ruth was recognized for her years of grit and gumption with an Academy Award for best supporting actress in "Rosemary's Baby". Ruth's indomitable spirit was truly admirable and she once declared these powerful words which I will close with, "Never give up; and never, under any circumstances, no matter what - never face the facts!"

Marriage sucks!

Dear all, this letter is about the dark side of marriage. I have dealt with many married couples over the years. Most of the experiences have been largely positive and encouraging. But marriage is no piece of wedding cake. It is a trial of many trials, to put it a bit dramatically.

Let me be clear. This trial is not the predictable external circumstances that a typical couple face like a surprised tragedy in the family or a series of financial crisis. No, the trials we talked about are more personal. Those trials are closer to our hearts. They have to do with our attitude towards our marriage. So please pardon me if this letter appears a tad too negative. If at any point you find that what is written grates at your good sense, please bear with me.

Let me open the "pandora's box" with this statement: Your greatest life's trial may be your marriage. I mean, if there is a fiery furnace of character building, to test your true form to the extreme, all your basic relationships will not be spared, especially, your marriage, where the biblical two practically becomes one life. And believe you me, the marital merger is not going to be a pleasant one.

Imagine the years of emotional baggage, physical scars and mental prejudices all meld under one roof, and agitated, manifested and aggravated on a daily basis. Surely, this union of two, under the auspices of an institution called marriage, will cause more than just personal inconveniences and emotional friction.

 I think the irony of marriage is sardonically captured in this definition penned by a famous author, John Eldredge, who describes it as such:-  "Two guarded people managing their disappointments, negotiating for better terms through a demilitarized zone they call marriage".

So, let's not have any delusions about the marriage vows. It is very much a declaration of love as it is a declaration of a mutually-agreed "bondage" for life; where dizzily love-struck couples never bother to read or fully understand the fine red print. But why "bondage"? Because, for those christians who treat the marital vows seriously and solemnly, the admonishment of the Lord to prophet Malachi is scary enough. God once told Malachi pithily and without any qualification, "I hate divorce." Biblically and ideally (maybe idyllically), marriage brooks no escape clause: once married, forever married. So, a crudely attention-grabbing word for it is "bondage".

What makes this lifelong union so difficult is the fact that you are required to fall in love with the same person, over and over again. Bluntly speaking, can you imagine having the same "porridge" for every meal for the next forty years or more? Or, let me stretch it with this scenario. Surely you don't expect your husband, after 5 years of marriage, to be rushing home from a hard day's work, and tearing off his fine cotton long sleeves like a wild beast (including throwing away your spatular and undoing your oily apron), in a relentless act to make hot passionate love with you - while being completely oblivious to the presence of your stunned children! Obviously, this requirement of falling in love with the same person calls for near-supernatural commitment and possibly divine intervention.

On this point, Samuel Richardson wrote fittingly, "the companion of an evening, and the companion for life, require very different qualification." The difference I guess is that it is often a picnic to spread your love and patience thickly over a short one-night date as compared to the same spread being generally threadbare, even non-existent, over a tedious lifetime.

Research shows that romantic attachment generally dies off after 18 months. This usually accounts for why many Hollywood marriages have very short life span. Imagine loving the same person for a lifetime. It is thus not just about growing old graciously alone but also growing old passionately together. Surely, even by the fleetest of time spans, a lifetime union is many times of 18 months. Minimally, one can expect a lifetime to be at least 30 years. That's the fine red print most sedated newly wed seem to overlook.

Well, i guess those affectionately-drugged couples had conveniently forgotten to factor the lifetime consideration into their dreamy love equation. Even the honeymoon is merely a fraction of that expected  long marital sentence. That's why, with wry humor, it is said that the most poisonous food in this world is none other than the wedding cake. Somehow, its property (cake) has managed to hoodwink couples into believing that their union would be different from the rest, that is, more resilient, more enduring, more loving as the years roll by. The truth is, it is just the same difference, that's all.

Many say that over-familiarity kills creativity and passion. When the ways and the appearance of your partner become too familiar over the enduring years, when nothing is fresh and exciting anymore, the passion also plateau. While marriage in its abstract form seems exciting, the reality is very different.

 I mean, who can fault the gathering of loved ones to celebrate love in its most pure, idealistic form. The wedding ceremony is where all fairy-tales come true, where well-wishing bubbles over like the never-ending flow of pot champagne, and where marital bliss conspires to anesthetize the couple from the "untold sufferings" that await them after the surreal honeymoon. For the helplessly unprepared, who rushed to the altar where even angels fear to tread, the "wedding afterlife" is usually seemed as a fraud of reality. That's why this observation rings so familiarly true, "Marriage is one thing where the anticipation of it is more fun than the actual event."

Beloved, make no mistake about it, marriage is fabulously hard. At times, it seems almost impossible. Take the life of one of the greatest preachers of all time for example, John Wesley. He is the Founder of Methodism.

Born in 1703, he was an amazing preacher, a prolific writer, and a compiler of 23 hymns.  He was an extraordinaire doctrinaire, whose extensive writings and expositions form the foundation of many church doctrines and theology. If there is a proverbial fisherman of christ who has inspired and captured many hearts through the casting of a wide theological net, John Wesley would fit the honorific title to a tee. But the same cannot said about his marriage, which pales in comparison.

At 48, he married Mary Vazeille, a widow with four children. Unlike his public ministry and writings, which can be said to be "made in heaven", his marriage is stitched together in a haphazard way by a woman whom many commentators believed to be of unsound mind!

History has adjudged the Wesley union as a failure with these words, "Mrs Wesley darkened thirty years of Wesley's life by her intolerable jealousy, her malicious and violent temper." Further, John Wesley, forever the optimist, repeatedly told Henry Moore that he "believed God overruled this prolonged sorrow for his own good; and that if Mrs Wesley had been a better wife, and had continued to act in that way in which she knew well how to act, he might have been unfaithful to his great work, and might have sought too much to please her according to her own desires."

As far as John Wesley is concerned, one could say that his wife was the "thorn in his flesh". And no matter how much faith a veritable man of God has, he was powerless to extricate himself from this God-given thorny affliction. I hope your marriage is not a mere fraction as bad as his.

Beloved, it is tempting to ask how much lashings from me can the good repute of marriage take? So far, the institution of marriage has taken a stark beating from my writings, which are skewed towards presenting it in its rawest, visceral and unvarnished form. Marriage costs a lot. It can cost everything. It is in fact a great leveler; the rich and the poor suffer the same fate under it's indiscriminate hand. In fact, your greatest misery or fortune depends on your marriage. That is why the saying goes like this: "the more a man loves, the more he suffers." And woman, vice versa.

What makes a marriage so darn difficult is that it is an institution vulnerable to widespread brokenness. First, there are the broken expectations. As mentioned earlier, when marriage disappoints, it really disappoints. All of us come into our marriages with different expectations. Especially due to our impressionable age, we are bursting at the seams with expectations. And these expectations are, without exception, mired with unrealistic demands.

In general, the self-biased optimism in us will naturally expect our spouse to  measure up to a long list of self-imagined virtues. It is not difficult to "measure up" at the start. At the wedding night and the honeymoon vacation, we are generally at our best performances, deserving of a few glitzy Oscars, including a few notables such as "Best Supporting" spouse, "Best Script" in communication, and the coveted "Best Actor" in a real-life drama. But as days turn to months, as novelty degenerates to familiarity, as temptation seizes us in all directions, our good performances start to crack to reveal our ugly sides. This is also where our expectations mutate to nightmares.

Then, there is broken communication. This is the clearest sign of a down-the-hill marriage. The causes for this is too multivariate for enumeration (simply put, too many causes for meaningful discussion). I cheekily call this brokenness "stranger danger". When two people drift apart, the relationship downgrades from being lovers to friends and then to strangers. If mutual contempt slithers in, the marriage crumbles to become that of mutual enemies. It is said that "love grows every time it is expressed". So, the opposite is ever so true that it bears reminding, "love waxes cold every time it is suppressed."

The next and last brokenness is broken trust and commitment. This sounds the death knell of a marriage. If your marriage reached this "ICU" stage, you may as well just pawn the wedding ring to recoup whatever that is worth salvaging (in jest, of course).

At this juncture, let me make this confession as a person who is quite familiar with divorces.  You are definitely free to differ in your personal view.

In brief, I believe more in a "happy divorce" than an "unhappy marriage". Before the "covenant keepers" cast the first stone at me, let me offer this in my defense. While I admire those who have stuck to their death with an unhappy marriage, John Wesley being such an exemplary character, I have personally witnessed a number of marriages that existed as a "razor-mutilating" mockery to true love and perseverance. To call such union a marriage is like calling david koresh or jeff warren a modern day messiah.

The failed unions I am referring to are hopelessly lop-sided with one partner acting like a tyrant while the other submits with paralyzing fear. A crude image that comes to mind is a mouse caught in a stranglehold of a python's grip. For the blissfully unaware, being constantly in the caressing arms of one's faithful lover, such twisted union does exist, even amongst Christian marriages.

Imagine marrying to a narcissistic self-lover, or a pathological liar. Or even a serial adulterer. Then, there are the less culpable but equally dastardly like the perpetually drunk and violent. Anyone of these perverted characters can drive the innocent spouse to his or her early grave or at least, to an abject misery most undeserved. It is therefore safe to conclude, except for a road-to-Damascus transformation, that most of them will never repent, change or make amends in their lifetime.

Am I being too judgmental? Well, may be. But between the folly of being too judgmental and the folly of being too idealistic, I guess I am more tilted to the former (judgmental) with this caveat in view of marriage:- unless it is for a higher purpose (the certainty of which will never be fully known), the victim of a seemingly hopeless marriage deserves better. I for one do not see a divorce as a christian taboo, especially if you are married to a "monster" of a partner. There is definitely life after divorce; even if the guilt lingers for a while.

So, the trick to a happy divorce is to come to a point of bold realization that the only thing that is worse than it is an unhappy marriage. Keeping that mental perspective in the balance, the next step is just a prayer away. The choice is for such a victim and such a victim alone to make and should be deeply respected regardless of what it is.

So, I have reached my tethered end of marital bashing. I will retire my hissing pen now and reflect a little about my own marriage; in particular, how Anna and I arrived at where we are, the scars of experiences we have accumulated, and the many more expected along this trying journey.

There are three broad lessons I have learned about not just keeping but protecting my marriage vows over the years. Firstly, I have given up trying to be Anna's Mr Perfect. Clearly, I am not and will never be. And I am sure Anna doesn't want to marry a Mr Perfect. John Eldredge once wrote that, "perfectionism is something you want in your tax adviser or your oncologist, but it is a horrible thing to be married to one."

However, this does not excuse me to be the best that I can be for her and she for me. If iron sharpens iron, with all the frictions and sparks flying amok, then we should not bow away from circumstances that are disguised as opportunity for individual and mutual  growth in a marriage. Instead of mr perfect, we should all strive to be "perfect-able". This would surely take the pressure off trying to be perfect.

 It is said that "in every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find, and continue to find,  grounds for marriage." This is the first step in the long road of being "Mr Perfect-able". I have learned that choices make the crucial difference in a marriage. If I choose rightly, committing to make the marriage work, instead of finding ways to doom it, my marriage can grow in lockstep with this positive outlook. Of course, right choices are  easily made, even effortlessly, when your moods and spirits are up. How about the bad days?

Well, my second broad lesson is that pride is my greatest enemy. All bad days are still manageable or controllable if not for the intermeddling of my personal pride. Pride has many manifestations. The most insidious one is the refusal to admit one's mistake. I believe most marriages fail because couples refuse to take responsibility for it's failure. The blame is always on the other person.

Proverbs 28:13 hits the nail on it's stubborn head by stating, "a man who refuses to admit his mistake can never be successful." In this respect, there are in fact two kinds of people in this world: the clueless and the repentant. Sadly, I have many clients who were still clueless when their wives left them towing the children away. Surely there are some things that ignorance is a bliss; and a broken marriage is definitely not one of them.

What works for me is to constantly check my thoughts and actions, consciously measuring them against biblical standards and subjecting my personal pride in it's proper place. I know it's difficult at times but it is a worthy discipline that will bear fruits over the long run.

In my marriage, I always keep an open mind to be a student and a teachers as well. I understand my spouse can be my teacher and I can be her student. At other times, the role is reverse. The different academic  hats that Anna and I wear help us to humble ourselves before each other and to maintain a healthy level of mutual respect. I think the gift of marriage is the gift of friendship. And as Anna and I learn from each other, we become not just a couple, we become close friends.

The last lesson is quite personal and it is desiring to do our children proud. Every birthday, I ask myself, what should I give my kids that is meaningful, endearing and enduring. At this time, the usual children gifts immediately springs to mind. But I think, at the tail end of a long marital journey, the greatest gift is ourselves, our marriage, our resilient love against all forces that threaten to split us apart.

A gift like this is a legacy worth passing down because it is hard-fought, priceless and enduringly inspiring. This timely and touching tribute by the two sons of John and Stasi Eldredge says it all about the empowering value of such a gift and this is also a perfect way to close this letter to you guys: "Dad, Mom, we are gathered here to celebrate your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, not because we have to or because we should, but because your marriage is worth celebrating. It has only been as we have got older that the impact your marriage has had on us really became clear. Standing here now we want to thank you both for being who you are, and for loving each other in a world where most parents don't. You gave us the opportunity to grow up in a loving home, with loving parents. This is amazing. St Augustine said, "Love is the beauty of the soul." You really are two beautiful people in love, and it is and has been such a gift to grow up knowing that is a possibility. So, not only do we congratulate you, we thank you."

For Anna and I, our marriage will indeed be our greatest gift to our children, and it is especially for them and with them in mind, that we will take the remaining years of our lives as a married couple to perfect this priceless gift we call marriage.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Rainfall Experience

Are you ready for some water analogy? It starts with the encounter between a Samaritan woman and Jesus (John 4). We all know the story. The woman came to draw water from the well and met up with her Messiah. Jesus then asked for a drink and the woman was shaken by the request since Jesus, being a Jew, shouldn’t be seen with her, a Samaritan with a sordid history. 

To her, Jesus had broken an important protocol. But Jesus was a deliberate protocol breaker. In addition, Jesus also knew that this woman had had a very complicated romantic entanglement. She had five husbands before she met Jesus and the one whom she is currently sleeping with is not her husband. To put it loosely, she was a loose woman. Maybe a very confused soul and Jesus the Messiah  shouldn’t have anything to do with her. So, in one hot afternoon, Jesus broke two protocols: mingling with a non-jew and a loose one at that. But protocol breaking was not the message Jesus wanted to impart.  His message is this: “…whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of waters springing up into everlasting life. 

This powerful spiritual metaphor of the “fountain of waters springing up into everlasting life” brings to mind an analogy of spiritual growth. Teresa of Avila, Spain, who was a 16th century theologian, and whose life was filled with mystical experiences, once likened our spirit to a garden of soul, which is beautified by Four Water analogy. This water that flows into the garden of our soul symbolizes the Holy Spirit that Jesus was talking about to the Samaritan woman. 

In sum, the four Water analogy is as follows: “The garden of the soul, she says, can be watered in several manners. The first, drawing the water up from a well by use of a bucket, entails a great deal of human effort. The second way, cranking a water wheel and having the water run through an aqueduct, involves less exertion and yields more water. The third entails far less effort, for in it the water enters the garden as by an effluence from river or streams The fourth and final way is the best of all: as by a gentle but abundant rainfall the Lord himself waters the garden and the soul does not work at all. 

Beloved, doesn’t this water analogy aptly describe our own spiritual journey and growth? First, we cannot do without the “watering” of the Holy Spirit. He is our partner and guide. Second, that spiritual maturity takes time. It starts with a convicted and repentant heart. Then, we initiate a process to work out our salvation through engaging in spiritual disciplines like meditating, praying, worshipping, servicing and witnessing. Of course, all these take effort on our part. Initially, it is difficult for the obvious reason that it is called “spiritual discipline” and not “spiritual playtime” or “spiritual manicure or spa". The word “discipline” entails deliberate or intentional personal effort, a high and consistent level of purposeful engagement, and a dogged determination to complete the task at hand. This initial stage of our spiritual discipline vacillates between "drawing water with a bucket" and "cranking a water wheel" - both of which take some human effort and exertion.

Third, as we get into the groove of these spiritual disciplines, we also enter into a self-sustaining spiritual momentum like cycling a bike. As we gain momentum, we realize that advancing forward starts to take less and less self-effort and more and more of letting go. This is the third stage of the four Water analogy above whereby “water enters the garden of our soul by an effluence from river or streams.” 

Ultimately, when we surrender ourselves fully to God and submit to the assuring promptings of the Holy Spirit, we quite unknowingly and graciously enter into the last stage of our spiritual maturity whereby we experience “a gentle but abundant rainfall the Lord himself waters the garden and the soul does not work at all.” Here I am reminded of a comforting saying, "We cannot surrender our life in an instant. That which is life-long can only be surrendered in a lifetime." 

I guess this is the stage when we can echo the sentiments of the Psalmist who said, “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple.” And when that day comes, we can confidently declare that we have indeed sought the Lord, because we have sought Him with all our heart. 
So, over time, I hope we do not remain as bucket-and-cranking Christians; but Christians who truly enjoy the rainfall experience as we grow and mature in Christ.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Rest Arrest.

Cultivate a sense of completeness; a sense of fulfillment. We are caught in a rat-maze; in a frantic rush at work, at home and even at our leisure time - organizing, managing and ensuring everybody is happy, nothing's amiss. After one errand, we jump to the next. There is no gap for a pat-on-the-back. There's no time for self-congratulation. There's no feeling of work done. Neither any sense of completeness nor fulfillment before the next errand. We are running on a gyre of incompleteness. Worrying even during our well deserved vacation that something's not done. Even if it's done, we worry that it was not done right. We exact a high standard on ourselves in respect of our performance but not the same attention is given to our well-being, our health, our rest. We will never experience true calmness if we are burdened by the restlessness of incompleteness. We will always remain unfulfilled. As an aside thought, don't you think that the pursuit of happiness is all wrong! If happiness is to be pursued, how then are we to ever catch it? Is it to be a lifetime pursuit and never perceived? Maybe, happiness is something that ensues from time to time and not pursued indefinitely. Here, i reminded of a saying about happiness: "Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you." We must remember that just as there are rest stops between train stations, there is also rest between work. Take this rest to refresh yourself, recharge and renew. Savor the little victories in life. Relish the bridging relief between tasks. Feel a sense of completeness. You deserve it as you have completed a task. Remember, living fully is to immerse yourself fully in all that you do, including rest. It is said that the supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play. Well, my take on rest is this: the supreme accomplishment is to draw the line between work and rest.  So, don't hold your breath in anticipation for the next assignment, meeting or deadline. Breathe freely, enjoy the break, savor a task completed, reward yourself. You deserve it.

Angst verbiage!

This is actually an angst tirade. So, if you are at your tethered end, it is hope that these words will rally your spirit up. Here goes: Why must we give in to negative thoughts that spook us in our sleep? Why must we run around in the day like a chicken without head, haunted by worries and anxiety? Why must we magnify trouble, give in to disastrous forecast, be tormented by hopelessness, and succumb to depression? And all this while, leaving a curmudgeon-like trail of antipathy, grouchiness, gloominess,  wretched silence, painful withdrawal, and a morose personality for our innocent loved ones to suffer in silence. Why should our loved ones have to endure our temperamental poop while others enjoy our temperamental perks? Why should we hurt those who love us most by taking them for granted, by pulling a long face to make sure they know we are depressed, and by making them the "scapegoat" of our anger and frustration? Why must the one who can make the biggest difference in our live be the one who has to endure our emotional leftovers; the remnants of our vibrancy and the residue of our creative joy - assuming there are any left for them when we come home jaded, disappointed and sullen? In this world plagued by negative and abusive thoughts,  taking a stand against them is a revolutionary act. So let's be revolutionary gatekeepers and valiant defenders of our thoughts so that we would not be held hostage by them and act them out at the expense of our loved ones. For every worry, take a stand. For every anxiety, take a stand. For every negative rumination, take stand. We are called to hold all unwholesome and depressing thoughts in captivity; but instead, we gave then wings and allowed them to fly in all directions like wild ravens darkening the landscape of our mind. It is no surprise sometimes that we are serving a prison sentence in the dungeon of self. Let me use a cliched analogy. Worry and anxiety are like fire. Kept under control, they form a warm glow to light our way. But allowed to run amok, they consume us, our thoughts, our action, our sanity! So, don't commit the sin of passivity. Be guarded. Be proactive. Take a stand. Take control. Why catastrophize every thoughts and condemn them to an ugly ending? Why is it so difficult to believe that our worry can very well take a turn for the better? Why can't we arrest our anxiety and nudge it towards confidence? When we worry, we think about the worse that could happen, we give trouble too much credit, we are biased towards chaos. Why can't we focus on the immediate solutions? Why can't we focus on those things that we have control and leave those we do not to whither and die. I encourage you to choose to think empowering thoughts. These are thoughts that recognize the problems as they are but they focus on the solution and springboard you to proactivity. Empowering thoughts do not make you the victim; it steels you up to be the overcomer. Empowering thoughts raise you above your worry and problem and make you see new landscapes so that you do not feel trapped, frozen and arrested. Choose empowering thoughts; choose to live victoriously. Life is worth living. It is worth fighting for! So, fight on with panache. And may you truly LIVE everyday of your life!

I once wrote a letter about "TEMPTATION" which I find about giving it a go? (note the really screwed up true story in the letter).

Sin is good...

Let me start with a story before I get to the subject. Do you know evangelist Billy Graham? Well, I am sure you do. This story is about him. One day, Mr and Mrs Graham were in church and it was offering time. As the collection plate was passed down, Mr Graham threw in a twenty dollar bill by mistake. He then reached out to retrieve it but Mrs Graham briskly slapped his hand. "I meant to throw in ten instead of twenty," Mr Graham chimed in. "Well," said Mrs Graham assuredly. "In God's eyes, it's ten."

Metaphorically, one can learn something from this tale. For me, its about self-righteousness (and it has nothing to do with Billy Graham, of course).

Ever wonder how many Christians have misunderstood this scripture, "Be holy as I am holy"? There are in fact people who took the scripture literally. They are the ones who subscribe to the "entire sanctification" doctrine.

In the extreme, this doctrine, also known as the Holiness Movement, teaches it's followers that they can attain perfection on this side of heaven. That is, at some point in their life, they can defiantly announce to the world that they are holy and perfect as God is! Have you ever wonder how a holy and sinless person looks like? Or acts like? What are his thoughts?

Imagine a church where not one member considers himself blemished by sin. Imagine that you, a sinful Christian, is about to enter a church of the spotless lamb, where everybody are blameless and sinless. If such a church really do exist, and you are allowed entry (most probably in the sinners' section), don't you think you would feel completely out of place? My god, you'd be the only one without the "halo"! (Not to mention the oppressive guilt you would be feeling).

As an aside, I think they should just legislate a law to exclude these holy-joneses and holy-janes from society  in case they "adulterate" us. Now, levity aside, let's come down to our level: the sinful reality. And I am going for the shock factor just for effect, so pardon me.

The shock is in this quote, "The prerequisite for a good marriage, it seems to me, is the license to be unfaithful." Shocking?  Any truth in that quote? Not the license part of course, but the truth that we fall short on our thoughts sometimes. Before you dismiss it, let's take off the mask and quietly answer this question: In our own unguarded moment, when we are up to our ears with disappointments, jaded by life's trials, which seems unrelentingly stoic, aren't we even a tad guilty of that minor transgression of strayed thoughts?

I mean, who amongst us is completely pure in thoughts every second of everyday? Are there any sins amongst us that are so private and guarded that we self-righteously refuse to admit its existence? - which reminds me of the Descartes' twist: "I think, therefore I deny." I know that it has been preached ad infinitum over the pulpit that "you can't prevent birds from flying over you; but you can sure prevent them from building a nest on your head." That's all swell in theory. But what's truly the reality here?

Of course, I will not allow myself to walk in public with a nest perched on my head - to borrow that analogy. It's just silly. But who is to prevent me from secretly or tacitly allowing birds to build a nest at some place only I know. And that I may reserve for myself exclusive access to it at my own time and at my own unguarded pleasure? How's that for a self-righteous double life? After being a Christian for some time, I realized one thing: Christians are generally neurotic about purity, holiness and righteousness.

That above Billy Graham example also taught me one thing about us: We do good only at our own convenience. In other words, we give only when we know for sure that what we get out of it exceeds what it costs us. That's the modern day version of religious practices. It's all about what is it in for me. This is self-righteousness in a nutshell. Basically, self-righteousness is a snobbery attitude where sin is usually the other person. And self-righteous is addictive because it makes us feel good about ourselves.

One preacher puts it this way, "Let me show you the process: self-righteousness starts with convictions (a good thing), then moves to discussion (another good thing), and finally falls into the devil's trinity of dismissal, demonization, and destruction (some very bad things)." So, self righteousness is to be avoided at all costs. It makes donkey asses out of us and it reeks badly in public.

Here's the part where I offer a solution or an antidote to self-righteousness. It's another hard-to-swallow, radical prescription: Be free to sin! Please don't stone me. In my defence, allow me to borrow the words of Jesus on this, "let those without sin cast the first stone." And beloved, that's my point. I truly believe that one of the problems with religion is that we spent so much time and effort avoiding sins (which we all know is a lost cause) that we have failed to realize the transformative value of committing one in the first place.

In fact, I think the neurotic act of avoiding sin is what makes self-righteous donkeys out of us. So, the solution is: Why avoid sins when you can be free to commit one? Please hold on to that self-righteous stone before you hurl it at me.

Here comes the main point of my letter. There is a beautiful scripture in the Bible that reads, "The sacrifices of God are a broke spirit; a broken heart and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise". Jesus reminded us that he has come for the sick and not the well. It is written that it is better to be in the house of wailing than one of rejoicing. The scripture also said that "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

And you can look up at Jesus' ministry. It's all about sinners and their sins. We can round up the usual suspects like prostitutes, the thief, the corrupt tax collector, the ear-slicer, the liars and the cowards. Then, we have the exemplary Biblical heroes: Abraham, Jacob, Saul, David and the Jeremiads. What distinguishes them all? Yes, sin. They all fall, and some fell badly. We are no exception.

A Russian novelist and playwright once said, "I don't know what the heart of a bad man is like, but I know what the heart of a good man is like and it is terrible." But the falling is just half the story because sin does things to you. It changes you. It wakes you up. So, sin should not be avoided, it should be confronted. I always thought that the flip side of sin-avoidance is self-righteousness. Agree?

Just think about it. Unless you are a member of the church of the spotless lamb, everywhere you go, you are entrapped by sin-stained people. And the more you avoid them, the more you strangle your own social circle. Further, temptation is everywhere. This is a fallen world with fallen world consequences.

So, how do you keep yourself from sinning? I believe that avoiding sins at all costs like the Pharisees makes neurotics out of us. Remember Jesus' description of the Pharisees, "Whitewashed tombs"? Here is the thin line. Sin has consequences and we can take it for granted. So, I am not advocating that we sin intentionally. That would be too easy. I am merely asking that we stop looking at sin the way self-righteous people do and see it for what it's worth. I am just sharing the same old gospel of sin from another angle.

Nietzsche once said derisively, "The last Christian died on the Cross." Though it is ironical, I would like to borrow his quote to further my point. Jesus set the precedent on the issue of sin. He neither avoided it nor indulged in it. He confronted it. He confronted it in the lives of the people he encountered. And in confronting it, Jesus changed lives for good. Most of all, He died confronting it so that we are no longer slave to it. The cross is a powerful symbol of how ugly sin is and at the same time, how purposeful it can be.

You see, the equation will not work without sin. Redemption is meaningless in a perfect world (just like male nipples...sorry, just have to add that in). Does the well need to get well? So here's the subtext: By all means, sin all you want. But as creatures of the divine grace, it is my belief that the more we sin, the more we need redemption. And the more we need redemption, the more we will be transformed.

If sin is faithful to do it's work, it will do it thoroughly. It will bring us to such depth that we will cry out for a savior before it completely devours us. And when that time comes, when we can neither turn left nor right, when all seems hell-bound, our savior waits with open arms to purchase us to Himself. This is the ultimate act of redemptive forgiveness. This is the value of sin: it's risk notwithstanding, its reward can truly be outstanding.

This also squares with what Jesus told the woman who anointed him with oil, "Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." That's the paradox of sin and it's power of personal transformation. In short, this is what God's grace is all about.

A pastor once said, "Love that goes upward is worship; Love that goes outward is affection; Love that stoops is grace". Indeed grace is a "dirty" word. It goes beyond the superficiality of our appearance. It cuts to the marrow and the tissue of life. It delves into the inner recesses of our heart where our darkest thoughts are. And it deliver us from there; where it really matters, where it truly counts.

Let me end with this compelling quote from Ronald Rolheiser, in his book, The Holy Longing, "To be connected with the church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers, and hypocrites of every description. It also, at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race, and gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of soul...because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion. God hung among thieves."

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

"Dirty" dancing: the dance of freedom

The dance of ideas. The flow of thoughts. The impermanence of moods. Your ideas impact your thoughts and your thoughts change your mood. They dance to different tunes, positive or negative tunes. What are your ideas dancing to? Are they dancing to joy? Are they dancing to sorrow? Is the dance upbeat? Or is it repetitive and dull? Is it a case of happy feet or gloomy march? Is it springy or stompy? Your dance of ideas will affect your mood eventually. Then, your life, completely. You determine it's choreography. Left alone, on autopilot, it will drag it's feet, lumber along, aimlessly, without passion, without soul. So, personal choreography is a bold, irreverent and deliberate act to rally your ideas and inspire them to a joyful, spirited ode - expressive, passionate and enthusiastic. Don't go on autopilot mode. Take charge of the dance. When struck by a mournful dance, a depressive waltz or a restless pantomime, threatening to descend into a phantasmagorical blur, take decisive rein over them, get them on your cue and shake them up. Movement is passion. Purposeful movement is purposeful passion. So, be the lord of the dance of ideas. Be the choreographer of your life. Make it inspiring, make it spectacular, make it life-changing! In the triumphant words of Dr Seuss, "Be who you are and say what you feel because the people who mind don't matter and the people who matter don't mind."

If you like this letter, you might want to read "Sophie's Choice".

Sunday, 4 March 2012


We scour the globe looking for cure. Cure for our depression. Cure for our pain. Cure for our broken dreams and relationships. But is life about curing or living with vulnerabilities? Can we accept our flaws? Can we live with imperfection?

One wise saying goes, "Life is easier than you'd think; all that is necessary is to accept the impossible, do without the indispensable, and bear with the intolerable." Can we accept things that we are powerless to change? The past is one example. A terminal illness is another. Does success mean that we must always be richer than our neighbor - possessing and accumulating more than them? Doesn't the rat-race clone rat-like behavior out of all of us - skittish, edgy and most of the time, lost.

"The perpetual circle of self-improvement makes anxiety spiral. It is not enough to be married: we must be marriageable and employable," so bemoaned Stephen Covey, the author of the best seller, The seven habits of highly effective people.

Let's go back to accepting our limitations... Must we strive to the death to outdo and outrace our competitors? Must we know everything? Can't we bear with some form of ignorance? Do we really believe that we are immune from trouble? Can we measure a sunbeam with a ruler? Can we know the heart of God or the secrets of the universe? Can we turn back time and correct our past? Can we ever find the cure of cures to all our needs?

Life's complex problem has a solution, so the saying goes, that is simple, neat and wrong. If kindness is bearing the vulnerabilities of others, then kindness to ourselves is bearing our own vulnerabilities; far from finding a cure for it. Maybe in our weakness, we are made strong. In our pain, we understand more. In our loss, we find peace. Maybe the solution of life's problems is not looking for it but living without it. In quiet submission and reflection, we learn from it.

Like a guest, we invite them in, sorrow, loss and pain, and sit in stillness to learn from them. After a season, they will leave on their own accord - once the gift of learning comes to an end.

As we bid them farewell, we become wiser. Just like the four seasons in a year, trouble and joy take their turn as guest in our spirit. Each takes turn to impart lessons before they quietly depart. We cannot chase them away. We cannot bolt the door or shut the window. Or hide in the basement. They will not leave until we can face them, invite them in, accept them for who they are, and learn from them.

Until then, our spirit will not find rest because we treat our guests bearing "gifts" as enemies aggrieved.

Want to check out a letter I wrote about marriage entitled "MAGIC OF MARRIAGE"?