Sunday, 27 November 2016

The unfinished symphony.

It's my 500th post this morning (excluding my newspapers' commentary) and you would think I ought to be wiser. Well, I think I am only if wiser here means knowing more and more of less and less.
The journey has no doubt been a fruitful one. But at the same time, it is a groping one. Here's the catch: the more I probe, the more I discover the extent of my ignorance, and trust me, as Einstein said, the universe and our ignorance are both infinite.
As I ask more questions, hoping to uncover more answers, I found that I am flooded with more questions than I can handle. It is like the cosmic omniscience has planned this all along from the beginning of time, that is, setting me up for a treasure hunt where the clues are endless and the search is never-ending.
I somehow believe that while the fruit of knowledge is that I have come to know more, it is nevertheless balanced out by the curse of knowledge of knowing more of what I don't know, and that can be immeasurable.
Take religion for example. God has a sense of humor here. He is all-loving and I have written much about it. I am convicted by His son. Jesus exemplified love in a way no man I know even comes close. If I am content to stop there, I will be in a state of unpretentious blissfulness. But I am never contented in the first place, and my search led me into a maze of contradictions, paradoxes and dead ends.
Mathematical truths are never as confounding as metaphysical ones. While the sum of one plus one is clear, the sum of one unconditionally loving God plus one world of gratuitous sufferings is less so. The arithmetic just doesn't add up.
Now, the ardent believer will be dying to jump in here to offer piecemeal, formulaic answers, often encapsulated in five-step explanation or ten-fold counterarguments, and some have even written books about it, yet somehow, the debate, like the lyrics of Titanic, will goes on and on.
I guess as the formidable apologist Ravi Zacharias puts it: "God has put enough into the world to make faith in Him a most reasonable thing. But He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by sheer reason or observation alone." So I guess at times, this tension between faith and reason will be the disquiet ferret in my well-ironed theological pants.
Another example of how the acquisition of knowledge brings about the amplification of ignorance is in my untamed heart. Alas, here the chasm is unbridgeable. Just when you think you have acquired enough knowledge to rein in your unmoored emotions with the lasso of reason, you realized you are dead wrong about it. And just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two situations are the same. You can't step into the same river of changing circumstances twice. They are always different and so is your learning from them.
Every age comes with new challenges and you are never fully prepared for them. When I was young, I stood with arrogance on my shoulders wondering, what is there to learn that I have not learned?
Then, I married, have children and we all grow up together. Believe you me, the mistakes, the slips and the learning never cease thereon. Added to the muddled mix is career, workplace relationship, competition and stress, and the young me is effectively overwhelmed. Where is thine arrogance now?
As I aged, I have to contend with existential concerns, the meaning of life, the fate of my children, their future partners, the hypocrisy of religion and the religion of hypocrisy, the ethical grey areas, and the middle age me is altogether disillusioned.
At 46, there is still a long way to go with many crossroads ahead as my mortality beckons. Who is ever prepared for his or her own death? But death concentrates the mind spectacularly, and the dawning of it transforms my manicured world of routine and control into a manifest world of sobriety and priority.
My rebellious heart is therefore always in state of unrest, struggling with the paradoxes between ambition and humility, discontentment and fulfillment, sorrows and joy, pain and pleasure, carnality and self-denial, doubts and faith, despair and hope.
As such, there is a prodigal son in me, to varying degree. I started out demanding my freedom, insisting my way, and living in excesses. 
Then, as I get older, I contend with the sins of the elder brother who struggles with envy, resentment, acceptance, anger, and doubts.
I guess we all struggle in our own ways. We can pretend that all is well with our soul, but at times, all it takes is a provocation at the most unexpected hour to unravel us.
Here, I recall a parable where a revered monk was talking to a renowned author. The author asked the monk whether he still wrestle with the devil. The monk then thought for a while and said, "No, I now wrestle with God." The author was taken aback and said, “With God, and you hope to win?” The monk replied, “I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist.” 
The monk’s struggle is all too familiar with me. It sums up the simplified metaphorical image I have about the changing of times as I mature in the faith. In my youth, I fought with the devil. With boundless energies, I took him on, declaring his potency null and void, at times pretending that he is defeated, and resisting his siren call to fall.
And in the coming years where mortality draws nearer, my struggles are with God, demanding to know why and how come, feeling the inadequacy of the spirit, and sometimes being overwhelmed by the cares and lures of the world. And yet, I know that to feel this way is to acknowledge the humanness in me for the famed theologian Karl Rahner once said, “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.
And as I end here with my 500th post, here is a wonderful exposition of that Rahner’s insight by the theologian Ronald Rolheiser, the author of “The Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity”:=
“To accept that we cannot have the full symphony gives us permission to have a bad day, a lonely season, a life that somehow never fully gets free of tension and restlessness. It gives us permission as well not to be too hard on ourselves and, more importantly, it tells us to stop putting unfair pressure on our spouses, families, friends, vacations, and jobs to give us something that they cannot give – namely, happiness without a shadow, the full symphony.
We move beyond the cancer of frustration and restlessness by precisely accepting that here, in this life, there is no finished symphony. We carry the infinite inside ourselves. We are Grand Canyons without a bottom. Nothing, short of union with all that is, can ever fill in that void. To be tormented by complexity and restlessness is to be human. To make our peace with that is to come to peace, and we are mature to the degree that our own restlessness is no longer the center of our lives.”
I guess it might just take another 500 posts to come to peace with my unfinished symphony. Cheerz.

Javier's bravery.

Javier Lim's bravery just has to be told. Here is a nine year old fighting for his life while most children his age are playing Pokémon and having fun at Legoland.
The nightmare began at six when his head would tilt one side while doing his homework. Javier went for a brain scan and his mother was devastated when the doctors told her that they found two tumors in Javier's brain.
It was downhill from there. The first surgery took 8 hours and it was nerve-wrecking for the family. But it was the screams thereafter that broke his parents' heart. Javier recalled, "I was screaming like crazy because my head hurt so much. Having IV drips poking into my skin hurt a lot too."
Javier took weeks to learn how to walk and speak normally again. After that first surgery, the Lim family would never be normal again. Every subsequent year, new tumors the size of marbles would be found in his brain.
Mrs Lim said, "We couldn't believe it when the doctor told us another tumor had popped up in his brain. I just sat there and cried my eyes out. What else could I do?"
The multiple surgeries has already taken its toll on Javier's studies. He may even have to retain Primary 3 next year as he is unable to cope with his studies. The Lims also have a younger daughter, and Mrs Lim said, "I know she sometimes feels jealous because we are always focusing on Javier. I feel really bad about it."
In times like this, the Lims drew strength and encouragement from the generosity of friends and colleagues. Javier's medical bills of $100k are covered by insurance. It reports that "they are grateful for the help from kind-hearted people, including members of the Brain Tumor Society Singapore support group." And Mrs Lim, an assistant teacher, said that her colleagues had "organised a fundraising project to help her family get through a particularly difficult month."
Javier is now embracing himself for the upcoming surgery. Mrs Lim said that "the new tumor has affected the nerves on the right side of his face and his sense of pain. Because of this, he has been over-rubbing his eyes and causing damage to his cornea. The doctor said that if he continues like this, he might lose his eyesight."
All in all, young Javier "has spent a third of his childhood battling multiple brain tumors. His skull has been cut open and stitched up about 10 times to remove the tumors or to fix post-surgery complications." Javier also has a draining tube implanted permanently inside his body and he can no longer engage in physical activities.
Lesson? Just one.
Javier's story is one that every parent with young children can identify with. It is a story of love and hope in the midst of pain and a future unknown. It is also a story of the human spirit and the courage to fight on against all odds.
At times, the furnace of life is unbearable and it makes us all very reluctant heroes. Given a chance, anyone of us parents would say firmly to take this cup of suffering away from us. Give us the worst day at work or the most mind-numbing routine at home, but let this cup pass for we are just not strong enough.
To stand helpless to see your own child who has yet to savor the simple joys of childhood suffer with no end in sight is a torture no parents or child should ever go through. But alas, life has other plans.
Tragedy is however transforming. And if death concentrates the mind fantastically, then tragedy zeroes the heart in on what is truly important in life.
It reports that "having gone through so much in the past few years, Javier's parents said they do not have any expectations and wish only for their son to be happy." Mrs Lim said: "We don't make any plans or ask that he score As in school. We only hope that, one day, he will be tumor-free."
I wish Javier and his parents well. I pray for a miracle. I hope for a full recovery. And the only enduring lesson for me here is to look at my own life, my family and my children, and treasure the time I have with them. Never take anything for granted and love without condition, always.
The reality is, it takes so little to be happy with your family. You just need to be there with them empty handed and with an open heart to enjoy their presence and smiles without expectation. Yet, some of us deliberately put barriers or hoops before us for our children to pass or jump through just so that they may feel our resisting love, encouragement and embrace.
Let me end with this thought. I always believe that each of us are put on this earth to make a difference in the lives of others. And in doing so, we will be pleasantly surprised to discover how our selfless giving eventually makes a greater difference in our own life. Cheerz.

NKF: fall of man.

Nobody saw it coming. It was something of a sexual nature. The allegation was admitted. And NKF's Edmund Kwok was sacked almost immediately.
Edmund is married with two children. It is said that he had committed a reportable offence against a male colleague. It was serious enough for immediate disciplinary action. Police are investigating.
The NKF chairman Koh Poh Tiong in fact said this "He's one of the best CEOs I've worked with...He was a great CEO, he was always concerned about his staff. It is quite sad that he has to go because of this."
Under his helm, NKF's patient numbers grew by a third, to about 4000. His colleagues remember him as a dedicated and caring boss "who made himself accessible and available."
Edmund is also an elder at the Zion Serangoon Bible Presbyterian Church and his pastor Reverend Yap said, "We are doing our best to support Edmund and his family through this difficult period."
The president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation Venerable Seck Kwang Phing has this to say: "We have to separate a personal indiscretion from an organizational problem. If it's a personal problem that affects his behavior, I don't think this will affect donor confidence or our confidence (in the NKF)."
Lesson? Some lessons can't be taught, it has to be confronted. And what I will be writing has nothing to do with Edmund. I earnestly wish him and his family well. The man has admitted to it, most likely repented of it, and he needs his privacy with his loved ones to heal.
My point is aptly captured in a verse in Psalm which reads: "Search me, O Lord, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
The papers of late have been reporting about fathers sexually assaulting their own daughters, murders committed by friends, ex-lovers and even father and son, and respected individuals in society caught in some wholly uncharacteristic one-off criminal acts.
I wonder, what is our trigger? What would cause us to lose it completely? Is it, as Reverend Seck puts it, a personal indiscretion, something personal to us that is left un-dealt with or un-searched (as Psalm puts it), or is it circumstantial, something that becomes combustible - that is, uncontrollable regardless of our denial of it - when a particular insidious opportunity avails itself - whether through our own conscious or unconscious making/crafting?
History has shown that the infamous fall from grace happens to everyone. Pastors. Priests. Politicians. People in power, in charity, in cherished leadership. People whom others look up to, admire or emulate. No one is exempted. We are all vulnerable.
So I believe it is an insidious mix of both - personal aberration and circumstances or opportunity - that cause our fall. When the time is right, the setting is right, and the opportunity is right, we are all liable to do wrong.
Alas, it is when we feel most invulnerable that we are most vulnerable. It is when we feel most unlikely that it is most likely. Even the most self-perceived fortified mental rock wears off with time when it avails itself to the constant drops of temptation, which is harmless in isolation, but fatal by accretion.
We underestimate personal deviation and circumstantial trapdoors at our own peril by overestimating our individual resolve to keep it under wraps.
That is why as Christians we invoke Psalm often to search and guard our heart, to leave no secret chambers of our mind untouched, to offer our unconscious realms up for scrutiny, and to flee from even the slightest, fleeting shadow of temptation.
At all times, we need to be open about our weaknesses, honest about our fragility and confront our moral and mental struggles - whether it is lust, anger, sloth, greed or envy - without marginalizing or closeting them.
Let me end with what the great soul Mahatma Gandhi said: "Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."
I guess a leader in denial is a leader who confronts everything else with great success except his own wayward heart. Cheerz.

William Trevor's legacy of bleak, ordinary lives.

The man who wrote about bleak, ordinary lives has died. William Trevor was 88, married (Jane Ryan) in 1952, and has two sons.
No, I have not read his books, and up until today's papers, I do not know the man who is described by his biographer as such: "I don't think there is another writer from Ireland with his range." (Gregory A. Schirmer).
So your point mike? It is this. William "placed his fiction squarely in the middle of ordinary life." That's the bait for me this morning. That is what reeled me in, stories about ordinary folks.
Personally, what intrigued me is that William saw what most people would have walked on by. We are definitely more enamored by celebrities, politicians and the nouveau riche. We want to know with whom the famous people are breaking up with, what is the rich buying for their daughters or mistresses, and what is the soon-to-be First Lady Melanie going to wear for the Presidential Inauguration 2017.
So the late William Trevor breaks the mold for me when "his plots often unfolded in Irish or English villages whose inhabitants, most of them hanging on to the bottom rung of the lower middle class, waged unequal battle with capricious fate."
Here is a sample of it as reported. "In The Ballroom Of Romance (1972), one of his most famous stories, a young woman caring for her disabled father looks for love in a dance hall but settles, week after week, for a few drunken kisses from a local bachelor."
Here is another. "The hero of The Day We Got Drunk On Cake (1967) repeatedly phones a young woman he admires in between drinking sessions at a series of pubs. The relationship deepens and, during a final call in the wee hours, takes a sudden, unexpected turn."
Now that's a gift, an eye for the enormity that passes in a second. William said, "I'm very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people."
Lesson? Mm...I wonder whether I too have that eye for the "sadness of fate"? If I am a William-Trevor-wannabe or hopeful, what can I write about concerning the moribund aspect of lower middle-income lives in our little red dot that intrigues, incites and possibly inspires?
Maybe I can start with the train ride every morning. I see many faces flooding in, some painted, some nonchalant, and some spatially blank. We are all going one way or the other, a congealed mass of lives squeezing into a cold impersonal container travelling at a mechanical speed. For most of us, it would be a one-track life from day to night, 365 days a year, for the rest of our life.
Then, a face catches my attention. It is a man in a suit and tie, young graduate, possibly married with a child along the way. He is thinking about family, freedom, and a future question mark. With a tinge of regret for marrying so young, he blames himself for closing so many doors of opportunities. Now he is flirting with the thought of a young colleague who just yesterday told him he's cute.
Another face comes into view. A student anxious about her PSLE results. Her face is ashen, tired and lost. She knows nothing will be good enough for her parents. She blames fate for sabotaging her with a brain that lags far behind her desperation to make her parents proud. And in her hand is a note. It ends with this: "Goodbye mom, dad. Take care. Love."
Lastly, the sadness of fate turns to me. It captures the many muddling questions I am stewing in: Why is the world so angry? Why is standing for what is right no longer the right thing to do? Why is it that we are smarter now (more than ever) and yet make more dumb mistakes? Why is the celebration of the freedom of the individual feels like a destruction of the timeless values we hold so dear? And why is the gospel of success more religiously pursued than the success of the Gospel?
Alas, so many ironies, twisted fate and value contradictions. I guess we all need some discontinuity from the mindless continuity of our values-inverted world. Cheerz.