Friday, 20 December 2013

The Christmas Deception

Christmas is a strange holiday. There is more than meets the eye to it. From a religious angle, it is natural to associate Christmas with the virgin birth, Jesus’ life and death, his teachings, the Cross and the resurrection. But the proof is really in the pudding (or the stuffing in the roast turkey) and Christmas is not as simple as that. I think there are five things you should know about Christmas before you kiss your sweetheart under the mistletoe, sink your teeth into that log cake or belt out the usual Christmas carols in Church. 

I like to call them the Christmas unmentionables because they are not exactly the traditional Christmas messages you hear over the Church pulpit. So strap up and let me unwrap the FIVE unmentionables of Christmas for you.

1)   Unmentionable No. 1: Jesus was not born on the 25th day of December. I know we all know that. In fact, no one knows for sure the exact day and month of his birth. Some say 6th or 10th  January. Some say 20th May. Others prefer dates in September or October. In The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry, it is written, “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth.” Alas, whatever the month picked, December is definitely not it. I know it is all about commemoration and the exact date is not that important. And we can blame the puritans, who actually boycotted Christmas celebration altogether, for being nitpicking and calculative. But the truth is, 25th December is not even an appropriate date to commemorate the birth of the man who has changed the world. Why? This brings me to the next point.

2)   Unmentionable No. 2: 25th December was actually a pagan holiday. It was a holy day for the Roman Empire. But why holy day? Because it was the birthday of their legendary light god Mithras. To make it even more paganistic for us modern folks, 25th December also marked the end of the week-long Saturnalia festival. This festival is a heathen party to celebrate the harvest god then known as Saturn. But that’s not all. There is another pagan god that I have missed out. It is the sun god known as Sol Invictus. Under the Julian calendar, 24th December (Christmas eve) was the date of the winter solstice, when the nights were longest and the days were shortest. But the next day, 25th December marked the reverse of that trend where the days start to grow longer than the nights. And the pagans during that time attributed this to the power of their sun god. Yes, Sol Invictus. So, we have the celebration of all four gods or deities on the same day. And they say three’s a crowd. Well, if it’s any consolation, Jesus was the one true God who took human form whilst the rest of them demonstrated no such humility (among other differences of course). But, what pushed the Church Fathers to select a pagan holiday to celebrate Jesus’ birth? This leads me to the next point.

3)   Unmentionable No. 3: Docetism. That’s a 8-letter word, which is double the profanity of the 4-letter word that we are all so familiar with. You see, the Church fathers in the year 395 CE were trying to suppress a heresy that was gaining some unruly adherents. This heresy is no less profane in their holy book. It was a heresy about Jesus coming to us not in a physical form but in a pure spirit. He only appeared to have a body to the people he met at that time. A Greek word for that is, yes you guessed it, Docetism, meaning “to seem.” So what did the Church do? Well, this is where the idea of assigning a birthday for Jesus took flight. I mean, nothing would make Jesus more physically human than having a birthday right? For this reason, they did the yellow-pages finger walking on the pages of the Roman Calendar and came up with 25th December. There could be no better date to celebrate the alleged birth of the king of kings since that date also coincided with the general celebrations of the trinity of gods, Mithras, Saturn and Sol Invictus. I guess the Church Fathers did not want to reinvent the wheel and pick an inconvenient and highly remote date, say, 29th February? May as well flow with where the real action was.

4)   Unmentionable No. 4: Christmas is actually an afterthought. For 400 years after Jesus’ death, the Church resisted the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birthday. The main reason for this is that they did not want to follow the Roman example of celebrating the birthdays of their pagan gods. The Church wanted to distinguish themselves from the rituals and practices of the pagan world. Well, they deserved a standing ovation for their uncompromising faithfulness until Emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Milan in 313 CE and gave Christianity its much sought-after recognition (this was followed about 200 years later by Emperor Justinian who officially christened 25th December as a civic holiday). Thereafter, it was a time of freedom and absolute power for the Church. They grew in authority, almost bloated beyond recognition, and probably diluted the core message of Jesus over time. So when desperate times call for desperate measures, that is, the Docetism threat, the Church comingled with the pagan world and slept with the enemy. You can call it a Romanized version of the Crossover project.

5)   Unmentionable No. 5: Somehow, I get this feeling that Christmas was not what Jesus had in mind when he broke the bread and offered the cup and said, “…do this in remembrance of me.” I guess divining from the hypothetical abbreviation of WWJD (What Would Jesus DO) would have at least hinted to us that celebrating his birthday is secondary to remembering what he did for us at Calvary and his victory over death thereafter. If anything, the day of Easter or the observance of Lent or the celebration of the season of the Advent would be more meaningful for Christians remembering Jesus’ ministry on earth and his Second Coming rather than having a feast on that pagan holiday (that is, 25th December), which celebrates his birthday with one tiny technical issue - it's just not.

So I have come to the end of my ventilation. I hope the above unmentionables have shed some light on the commercialized Day of Our Lord. I know I have been a wet blanket to some believers out there. But my point is not to make Christmas wet, cold and cheerless. My point is to tell it as it is. Historically, Christmas is more about the mirth and the merry-making (and keeping a tight hold on power) than it is about Christ (and channelling all power to feed the hungry and the poor).

So the question is, what will I be doing this coming Christmas? Well, there is no doubt that I am going to enjoy it with my family and in-laws just as I have been doing since I became a Christian 28 years ago. You see, knowing the historical origin of Christmas, which is less than pretty, to put it mildly, and knowing that it is an afterthought, a convenient, and even self-serving, deliberation by the Church Fathers and the rulers at that time, should not in any way detract it from the true motivation behind the celebration.

No doubt things could have been different. The Church could have been more circumspect. They could have given the dates more thought. They could have treated the matter as a whole more seriously. And all that jazz. But if history has taught us anything, it is this: Every single drop creates a ripple. The good and the bad make the historical facts that we have come to know and study today. The wars and the peacemaking happened in such a way that they happened to bring about the current present that we are living in (and we should be no less thankful). And since history is created by man, in the course of their interaction with the environment, I can naturally expect many hidden agendas, conniving schemes, misdirection, compromises, and  Machiavellian twists, along with the other good stuff, all thrown into the unsettling mix.

But in relation to Christmas, all that does not change the historical fact that Jesus was born, he lived, he touched lives, he died on the Cross, he changed the world, and he declared with love and devotion that he has found the way. Now, that’s something for us to really celebrate. It is something to reflect upon and to inspire us to make a difference in this world.

I know his birthday could have been another day (even if it were to be never known for sure). Maybe there could have been more originality to it. It could have been a more sacred and solemn day. At the very least, it shouldn’t be a day that the other three deities have laid claim to. But then, if you think long and hard about it, Jesus nevertheless outwit, outplay, outlast all of them. He emerged triumphant over them. He changed history whilst the other three deities were past history. Jesus is the future. What’s more, he is the real thing, so to speak.

Jesus literally took the world by storm and made everyday a cause for celebration. And 25th December is just one of the days that echoes his enduring legacy. Maybe that legacy is echoed a bit louder on that day as compared to the rest of the calendar year because he not only declared that the truth shall set you free, he also won over the hearts of the people from the clutches of the light, harvest and sun gods. Now that is the Jesus I know. And that is also why that slice of the honey baked ham and stuff turkey would taste extra jolly this Christmas. Cheerz.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

My sleep disruptor

One morning I woke up to a nagging sense of failure. I used to sleep well. A full stretch of seven hours. No nightmares. No weird dreams. Just restful sleep. Nothing unusual. But that morning, something unusual disrupted my routine rest. That morning, I woke up with this sense of incompleteness.

Something was reminding me that I had not done enough. That I should be doing more. Maybe work more. Or work smarter. Or quit my job and go on an entrepreneurial lark. Start a business. Do big and earn big. Spend more time making more money. Live the life that the brevity of my mortality deserves. Make the most of everyday, milk it for all its worth, don't settle for anything less than what a man of vision, grit and determination deserves. In short, don't shortchange myself.

The whole nagging had an earthly ring to it. A rustic charm. Like the rugged Marlboro man smoking a stick in his mouth and challenging me to come out of the shadows of mediocrity. It was no doubt tempting. The smoker made good sense, I mused. Its logic was flawless. It was telling me to live with a bigger goal and not be satisfied with small, trivial ones. It was telling me not to be a wallpaper and watch life goes by but be a monument at the center of everything that counts. In essence, it was telling me to fight for fame, money and power. To befriend them at all costs. There is in fact nothing wrong with such pursuit if it is one tempered by moderation.

Here was how the material ruse went that morning.

A little fame is merely a little shower of attention, a drizzle even. What can a little highlighting of yourself do to yourself, right? Fame is harmless billboard advertisement. Just imagine it as your personal stage where you get exclusive coverage and your every word, nudge and move become magnified, emulated and even adored. Fame makes you bigger than life, so said the disruptor of my sleep. It makes life worth living because it takes in multiple lives you can only dream about, add dimensions to them, and throw it out there for the world to see. And if you are a positive example, your positivity will be multiplied like ripples in still waters. So, fame should be embraced and not be treated with suspect.   

How about money? What harm can more money bring to your life? No one has ever complained about having too much money? Have you ever seen a man winning the lottery and giving it all back whilst keeping only what is enough for his bus fare home? He would be made a laughing stock in this world! Don't be prudish, conservative or self-righteous. Money is amoral. It is neutral. You are always in control of it. You are the master. The love of money is not a lure to personal corruption. This is all vain religious indoctrination, so said my bedside rabble-rouser.  In fact, if anything, the love of money is the start of true living. You just can’t not love something that opens many doors for you. Although the passion for more of it will inevitably grow even if you want to keep it at arm’s length, it is still worth the time and the risk. And here’s why.

With money, you are free to pursue your dreams, free from worries, free from shame, and free to tell your oppressor to go fly kite (you can even buy him reels of strings to fly his own kite). With money, you get more friends, and not just the bad ones. You get respect, even begrudgingly. But so what? And you get to flaunt it; but for charitable causes of course. So, money empowers, it seldom disempowers. It gives hope, not robs it. Here is where the nagger of dreams pulled me close to his lips and whispered, “My friend, for more of a good thing can only end up a better thing, not worse.”

Lastly comes power. Fame, money and power - in that order that is. No one who is famous and rich is at the same time powerless or power-deprived. It’s an anomaly. Power grants its wielder control over lives. It commands respect, subservience and compliance. I was encouraged to dedicate my life to it. To seek it along with the rest. Power can be used for good. It can rally human forces to impact the world that the powerless can only dream about. Power makes a way where there seems no way. People bow and bend over for power.  With power, I can channel all resources for good, for humanity. So, power like money and fame should be made my lifetime pursuit and be pursued relentlessly.

That morning, I was put through the existential grinder. For that moment, I was forced to re-evaluate all that I had come to know and learn in my 43 years. There was no doubt an ethereal charm to these three goals in life. Fame, money and power woke me from my slumber that morning and made me an offer that was almost too good to let go.

Then, I noticed a twitch in my tempter’s countenance. It was something that hinted to a shifty agenda. His dream pitch was rehearsed to a tee except for the fine print that he had craftily omitted to bring to my attention. So, it was my turn to put him on the stand. I started the ball rolling with this question, “How will I change?

Eh?” The smile turned into a frown.
Yes, how will I change? What would become of me?
Erm…change is expected. Why is it important?
I need to know what will become of me. Will I have time for my wife, my family? Will I be the same person to them?
A pause ensued. “Well, you can’t expect to have fame, money and power and not change, right?

Ok, enlighten me then. In ten years from now, if I strive for all that, work hard and pay the price, apart from the material success, the real estate, the millions, will I recognize myself? Will any of my loved ones recognize me?

Ten years is a long time. All this would be academic should global warming or overpopulation wipe us all out (chuckles) Mmm….I can’t guarantee that you will not change to someone…different. Anyhow, change is not to be feared. If anything, inertia is your greater enemy right?

I interjected, “Fame…how will fame change me?
Fame will make you famous of course. You will be known by a lot of people. Your Facebook will be flooded with “Likes”. Everything you say will be gospel gold. People will even throw themselves at you…mostly the crazy ones anyway.”
So, how does that change me?

Well, strap up my boy. Fame demands your time. You cannot expect to be famous and not work hard at being known. There are people waiting in line to take your place. So, you have got to be ahead of those younger, smarter and more desperate fame vultures. It’s tough enough trying to re-invent yourself constantly. Most of your time will be owned by people…people who want you to be famous.”

You mean people who want to earn off my fame?
Erm…maybe. I mean, the world needs to eat right? And something more on the side of course.”
So, my children? My marriage?
I can’t predict the future man. A lot depends on you. You have to decide for yourself how far you want to go with it.”

But, the impression I get from you is that being famous is a full time job, 24-7, 365. It’s like speeding down a slope without brakes.”
You make it sound like it’s the fast and furious. It’s less dramatic than that. There will of course be trade offs but that’s the price of fame.”
Trade offs?

Well, to be frank, not many before you succeeded in keeping their marriage after they hit the big time. The temptation can be quite overwhelming…even for people of the collar.”
I see. You’re saying that I might succeed in being famous but fail in my marriage? An expected casualty of success I suppose?

Erm…it really depends on you bro…your appetite. It’s a question of self-control or self-awareness or something like that. Hey, look at the bright side. You may get a divorce, that’s sad. And remarry, that’s good. And get a better wife producing better children, that’s better than better right?” (squirming)
Incredulously, “How does that help me?

Another pause ensued. “It’s all about choices man. You make your bed, you sleep on it. That’s the consequences of choices. But no big deal my friend. You’ll adapt in time. It will become second nature.  You will forget the past and look forward to a brand new future. A brand new you. You’ll see. You may like the new you better than the you that is now.”
I paused. “Ok, how about money? Or power? What would become of me?

To be honest…when you are famous, rich and powerful, you will be public property. Your time, your devotion, your self will all belong to those who pay for it. That’s the raw deal. So, expect a few rough years before you even make it big. After that, you may have some freedom, some personal control and discretion over contracts.  But I can’t guarantee that your family or wife will all go along with the ride. Hell, I can’t even guarantee that you will stay faithful to the end bro. (leaning over) You do know that there are many potential ladies out there who are younger, prettier and even smarter than your wife right? And you do know that there are mansions out there whose storeroom alone is bigger than that little kennel of yours that you now call a home right? Then, there is the freedom and respect of being your own boss…and the adoration you will receive from…

Ok, I get it. Fame, money and power are all that. I guess only a fool would reject them for the banality of his current existence right?
Well, everybody deserves a bite of Eden’s apple right? It can be a little intimidating at first but you will soon get use to the indulgence and opulence, trust me.”

Yes, yes, so how? Are you ready to make that definitive change for the better? Are you ready to throw yourself out there and make a really big splash!
Well, it would definitely be a change alright. But whether it is for the better, no one knows for sure.”
But…you are in control right? You are the master of your fate.”
Maybe…or maybe not. In a world where temptation is overwhelming, every man is vulnerable. Fame, money and power change people. It is hard to say how I will end up.”
Nervously, “…so ready for the life you’re destined for?

Pensive. “You have given me a basket of fruits for thought. You have put a sample in my mouth. I have tasted it and for a while, savored it. It all made perfect sense. But the risk is still there. It’s just not that simple or straightforward. The math may not even add up. Erm….I don’t think I am ready for it now or will ever be.

Worried. “So, you are letting this big fish off the hook and trading it for the lameness of sardines?
I’ll take my chances with my current momentum.”
What momentum? At a snail pace?
At a pace I can live with. I actually have everything I need or want right here, right now.”
But a little money or fame won’t harm right? A little upgrading. A little upper classy-ness I mean.”

Sure, it won’t. It won’t stop there either. More will have much and much will definitely want more. I may find myself and lose myself all at the same time. I guess it is better the “me” that I know now than the “me” that I don’t know or dread to know later.
Fuming. “You are witless, a coward, hopeless. I think success is wasted on you. I bring you the keys to the kingdom and you choose the lonely path to a shack!

I am sorry you see it that way. The way I see it is this…you are giving me the keys to a gilded cage, a prison of unimaginable fortune, but it is still a paradise in a prison. What good is all that when I cannot free myself from it? What’s more, to risk changing for the worse. So I rather choose the freedom that comes with a clear conscience, a simple devotion and a future unburdened by a “me” that my family won’t even recognize. In other words, I’ll take my chances with the “me” I am familiar with now. Thanks but no thanks.”

With that, I snuggled back to my bed before the first break of dawn as my sleep disruptor made his disquieting exit. Cheerz.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Understanding my father.

Understanding my father.....

My father was an impatient man. That much was how I remembered him. When he was at his foulest, he was at his scariest. Four of us would totally freeze when he rages on in the small confinement of our three-room HDB flat at Commonwealth. Over the years, my mother received the full blunt of his anger. But of course, as we grew older and he accepted Christ, my father changed. He’s more meditative now, calm and collected - more subdued (seems like I am describing a person who had been “lobotomized” eh?)

I related this story because I wanted to understand why my father was the way he was at that time. What made him the person I remembered him to be, that is, impatient and hot tempered. I was interested to know because being his son, I realized that the apple did not fall very far from the tree. I was also an impatient father. Although I kept it under control most of the time, there were occasions when I flew off the handle. During such handle-flying times, my wife and my children would be at the receiving end. No doubt I would apologize after that, almost immediately, and apologize most sincerely. But these are the moments I am not proud of.

One day, my son, who is 11, came to me and said, “Daddy, I notice you are different from mommy.” I squinted at him and asked, “How so?” He smiled and said, “You always apologize.” Well, I guess I had more to apologize for than my wife.

But, what made me my father’s son (besides that fateful night and all that jazz....stop it)? Is the son the father of the man? Can we grow out of our past or genetic makeup and change for the better? Is character and personality mostly inherited? I know I am throwing the gauntlet down on the age-old debate about nature, nurture and maybe culture. But still, the conundrum persists, why do we act the way we do? If genes is destiny, how is it that some of us can rise above our inherited traits and become captains of our lives? And if our environment is fate, why is it that some of us can excel even in the worst of circumstances?

One does not need to look too hard for examples. The tumultuous life of Oprah Winfrey shows without a doubt that one’s birth environment does not determine one’s future. She was born out of wedlock, sexually abused, even allegedly raped by her cousin, sexually promiscuous at 13 by “selling sex to boys”, pregnant at 15 whose son died a month later, and still she struggled her way out of the chrysalis of pain and shame to emerge as one of the wealthiest women in the world. One of the events that shaped her life was her pregnancy and the death of her son. At the lowest point of her young life, her father told her this, “God has chosen to take this baby, and so I think God is giving you a second chance.” Her life’s trajectory changed after that defining moment.

I guess this tribute by William Blake did not go far enough to describe human nature, “Every night and every morn, some to misery are born; Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” Nevertheless, that’s just the first half of men’s story because we have never been limited by either our genes or our circumstances. Our birth does not dictate our life thereafter. We are adaptable, flexible and versatile enough to change both the world around us and the world inside of us. That basically explained why more than 90% of the species have gone extinct except us. We survived. We thrive. Alas, the fruits of our enduring labor have resulted not only in the mastery of our own circumstances. It has also resulted in the coming jeopardy of our own survival.

In fact, those who have no illusion about our ability to scale up to the top of the food chain would find it hard to deny what Mark Twain has to say about our kind and our nature. “Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out…and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel…And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for “universal brotherhood of man” with his mouth.”

So, taking the grand tour back to my own backyard, is it nature or nurture that made my father what he was then and what I am today? I guess this puzzle will not be solved in the near future. Behavioral science would be equally stumped. There are just too many variables in the individual human equation to expect the sums to be as simple as a case of “this” plus “this” will yield “that”. Often, when it comes to human behavior, that is, why we are the way we are, and why we end up like that, I cannot say with confidence whether it was due to our genes or our family upbringing or our social environment or a defining moment(s) in our life that is the prevailing and consistent culprit.

In essence, the causes and effects affect each other and as they affect each other, they reinforce each other. And such reinforcing only makes it harder to pinpoint the underlying causes and to distinguish the causes from the effects. What’s more, you cannot in all good conscience condemn a life before it ends because if that child of yours was Oprah, you would not only be dead wrong, you would regret it for the rest of your life.

Of course, I am fully aware that there are surely some “checkmates” in life and they are in one’s mutated genes go wrong. For example, if you are born without a properly functioning right orbital cortex due to some pre- or post-natal mishap beyond your control, you will be biologically disadvantaged in developing a conscience. This means that you basically have no control over your impulses, be it lust, anger or hunger.

I guess this would account for people who cannot control their urges to take upskirt videos along the waiting lines of MRT trains, to view the rear end of a donkey as both relishing and sexually irresistible, to want to smell the buttocks of young girls because it gives them an unusual tonic high, to lie with corpses as a form of sexual release, to bite off the nipples of their victims as a way of satisfying their inner lust, and to steal, kill and rape without apology or remorse.

They are the classic, clinically diagnosed psychopaths and this is a very honest, down-to-earth opinion about them by a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology Essi Viding, “Psychopaths don’t change…They don’t learn from punishment. The best you can hope for is that they’ll eventually get too old and lazy to be bothered to offend. And they can seem impressive. Charismatic. People are dazzled. So, yeah, the real trouble starts when one makes it big in mainstream society.” Mm…charismatic and making it big in mainstream society? Reminds me of some dead people I know…living also.

Anyway, how about upbringing? What can we say about those who were abused at a young age and still make it in society, having adapted well and having started normal families of their own? And those who have the silver spoon stuck to their mouth for the longest time and are totally maladjusted in society, still totally dependent on their parents at their thirties, or god forbid, forties?

Take this story about three young daughters I read in the newspaper for example. They are aged between 11 and 14. They come from a broken home. The headlines read, “S’pore mum tries to kill three filial daughters.” On December 2009, their mum, a divorcee, planned to kill her three daughters and herself in a suicide bid because she was in deep financial crises. Fortunately, the eldest daughter managed to escape. She then sought help and all of them were rescued. It is reported that the three young girls are currently staying with their grandmother, whilst their mother, who had been working in a nightclub since 15, was homeless.

One can only imagine the daily trauma that these young girls had to go through without the much-needed maternal care and attention. It would then be only natural to expect them to grow up in rebellion, unable to receive and give love, and having a broken self-esteem. But contrary to expectation, the three girls actually saved up their ang pow money and gave it all to their mother. The mother was so touched by this that she admitted, “I regret what I had done. I have decided to start afresh and will not give up on life as I have three caring daughters.” An extract from the report reads, “The daughters said they missed their mother but would not cry in front of her as they did not want her to worry about them.” Let me end the story with this tearjerker. The second daughter actually told the reporter this, “I have no more money to help my mother but I will start saving again.”

Maybe a befitting caption here as a tribute to our human spirit can be found in these words by William Ernest Henley, Invictus, “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

The lesson I’ve learned here is that people do change. That is what we do best at. Except for bona fide psychopaths, most people change in the end for the good; at least that is how I choose to see humanity for now. Because we are society that values virtues more than vices, I sincerely believe that there are more positive influences in this world than there are negative. And like a change in the weather, or a change in temperature, positive influences are like persistent nudgers that point us in the right direction.

You see, we may lose our way along the way but since the sun is always more overwhelming or empowering than the night, we will eventually find our way back again. Some may find their way after one or two detours. Others will take longer than the rest. But return they will because coming home is a road that is never lost to us.

So, have I understood my father after this brief excursion in thoughts and writing? Have I even come close to understanding him? I can’t say in all honesty that I have. He is still quite a mystery to me. No doubt he has changed over the years and we have chatted up more often now – though still a little awkward. But if someone would to ask me to explain my father, his motives, his psychology, his makeup, I would still be hard pressed for words, theories or flow charts.

You see, even if his anger or impatience in the past have been due to some genetic mis-wiring or some circumstantial misgivings or some relational misunderstanding or all of them in varying combination at varying times with varying frequency, there is still one thing about him that I cannot deny. He is still my father, that is, the one who most logically has to exist for me to even exist, or even thrive.

And being a father myself with children of my own, I guess it is the positive transformations that I now see in him that makes imperfections in fatherhood such a challenging, endearing and embracing enterprise when it is brought to its most anticipated and fruitful end. Cheerz.