On Happiness, Harmony, and Joy

[5 June 2019]

I am writing a slightly different sort of piece today as a response to the chain-letter-post that I was recently tagged in by my lovely friend Kristian. Please follow that link to check out her response and her blog. I am definitely a fan!

I am very excited to share a couple of quotations that have meant a lot to me over the years and why I have found them significant. As a disclaimer, I will deviate slightly off the topic of “happiness” for both quotations, but I think that both are relevant enough to share.

The first quotation I would like to share is by one of my more recent favourite authors, 村上 春樹 (Murakami Haruki):

One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.

― 村上 春樹, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Murakami is a bit newer on the scene for me in terms of my literary interests. I first discovered him about two years ago and I subsequently had read almost all of his published novels before the year was out.

Before my intensive study of Eastern philosophy and culture over the past few years, I probably would have described “happiness” as something akin to “feeling good” or “elation” or “excitement” or “a time where nothing is wrong and everything is right.” And while there is certainly nothing wrong with those experiences, I wondered sometimes about the long-term value or sustainability of these emotions or the value is explicitly chasing them down (the “pursuit of happiness” to quote a certain document – is the pursuit of happiness a worthy end in and of itself? These are the questions I was beginning to ask).

As I traipsed my philosophical way out east, I began to discover a different perspective on what constitutes happiness: something more related to “peace” or “contentment” or, in this case, “harmony.” I began to see that happiness was, perhaps, a lesser good, if you will – perhaps a stepping-stone on the way to true contentment by way of surrender.

What I particularly love about this Murakami quotation is the recognition of and emphasis on suffering as a connecting point between people as part of the harmonious life. I find myself consistently referencing Martin Buber, but perhaps he, too, was on to something: perhaps it really is only in the moments of seeing one another as we are that we can begin to come to terms with ourselves.

In other words, as these two greats have pointed out, it is through the human encounters we have – both blissful and turbulent – that make up our experiences. And, in fact, it is the amalgamation of the entirety of one person’s being with another’s (and theirs with another’s and theirs with another’s and so on) that actually brings about true harmony. It is in the seeing the Other and surrendering our fears and presuppositions and insecurities and flaws and offering up ourselves to the community (and ultimately to God, I believe) that we can see ourselves and ultimately achieve True Harmony.

The other quotation I will share is by one of my all-time favourite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories

This quotation thematically follows from the former in many ways. In life there is rarely an experience as intense as grief. As we all know, grief has the ability to utterly consume us — tearing us apart from the inside-out and wrecking havoc on us and our lives as we know it. It feels all-powerful and is, at the time of its greatest intensity, our only reality.

It is for this reason Tolkien suggests that we are so drawn to story, particularly fairy-tales: not as an escape mechanism but as a way for us to catch a “fleeting glimpse” of the Joy that under-girds our seemingly broken present. It tells us of a time when all the “dyscatastrophes” of this world are caught up in and participate in a greater Reality that has been present all along, if only we had the eyes to see it. And yet it is, by wild paradox, the sorrows of life that colour the joys most sweetly.

Joy, I am coming to see, is related to happiness, but perhaps only by way of metaphor. I am coming to believe that happiness is a temporary state of emotion – something that flares up when you see ice cream on sale at the corner shop and dies back down just as quickly when you look at your expanding stomach the next day – but that joy is a way of life: an inner steadiness that weathers the ups and the downs, a harmony and takes all things in stride and holds all things in balance, a contentment that surrenders both the good and the bad and asks it to be caught up in something ever so much greater and grander than itself and than it could ever possibly imagine.

Both as per the rules of the chain-letter and by my own personal interest, I would like to nominate three of my friends to take up the torch, as it were. Please feel free to accept or decline! There is, of course, no pressure!
Lieve at Magnified Faith
Nina Zane at Growing Up Sideways
Lillian at Orkidèdatter

The rules for this “chain-letter” are quite simple:
1. Thank the selector
2. Post two quotations for the dedicated “Topic of the Day” (in this case, “happiness”)
3. Select three bloggers to take part in “3-2-1 Quote Me!”

That Time I Lied to My Mum

[11 May 2019]

This morning, I woke up to a text from my mum:
How did dinner with your friend who speaks Japanese go last night?
I had told her that I was going out for pizza with a friend. She had assumed it was one of my Japanese friends I had made on my language-learning app.
I responded: Actually it wasn’t a Japanese friend, I was hanging out with one of my Spanish-speaking friends. He’s from Mexico. Here for the weekend.
Oh. She responded.
A few minutes later: How do you know him?
My stomach curled into a knot. How do I tell her: he’s gay and I happened to meet him on Tinder?

It’s no secret that my mum and I have had a complicated relationship: one of deep, mutual love; but also one of fear and anxiety – a relationship that has become increasingly complicated since I’ve come out.

Conversations like this between my mum and me are fairly regular. I hang out with someone – gay or straight. I usually don’t tell her but somehow she finds out. Then, for the next day or two we play this game where she interrogates me, trying to figure out who it was, if they are gay, and if it was a date:
Who were you with?
No-one you know.
How do you know them?
[insert ambiguous excuse]
Silence.
Does this person love the Lord?
Two responses are acceptable here. Either Yes or No, but we talked about Christianity.
Silence.
Are they going to help you walk away from sin [read: being gay] and walk in holiness?
Backed into a corner, I typically say Sure and walk away.
At any point in that formula, I may shut down the conversation with an “It’s none of your business” type of statement and walk away prematurely.

But is that really the person I want to be? Someone who ducks and weaves and treads water just to stay afloat but just far enough out of lethal striking range so no serious damage can be done?

I’m out of the closet, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stay out of the closet. It’s easier to be gay around people who accept my. It’s easier to create an illusion for her: I’m gay, but I’m not actually making other gay friends and I’m definitely not trying to find a boyfriend – I’m basically a straight guy who happens to like other guys but isn’t going to do anything about it. It’s easier to not have to face her anxieties when I’m trying to deal with my own. It’s easier to pretend in the name of not hurting her or not disappointing her. It’s easier to hide in the closet and only come out when it feels safe.

I called one of my friends after I got off my first train and unloaded my anxieties everywhere:
What am I supposed to do?
How am I supposed to deal with her?
How am I supposed to be an adult when she’s breathing down my neck?
Why does she feel like she can treat people like this?

My friend on the other end of the line talked me down. You’re not doing anything wrong. It’s not your fault. Her emotions aren’t your responsibility. I’m sorry she’s making you bear the weight for things that she has to deal with. There’s nothing to feel guilty for. The usual. Important thoughts. Thoughts I often forget. Words that calmed me down.

But at the heart of it lies fears – many fears: fears about who I am, fears about what it means to love, fears about what it means to love her, fears about what it means to be loved by her. It would be easier to jettison – to cut ties and walk away and not have to deal with this painful tension. It would be easier to threaten – to issue ultimatums, to say that I’d disconnect unless she accepted the fact that I was gay or at least stopped talking about it.

But that would only solve part of the problem. Because my other fears are more insidious:
If it’s this hard to say I was hanging out with another person who happened to be gay, what’s it going to be like when I date again? Or get married?
Why is it still so hard for me to be gay? Aren’t I already out to her?

Those are the thoughts that terrify me. Having that conversation with her, because it’ll be a hard line in the sand. It’ll be a declaration: My last gay relationship wasn’t a fluke or a mistake that I regret. I am gay. And I know that you’ll still love me, but I really hope that you’ll still welcome me.

In the end, I deceived her. Lied, maybe. Said something along the lines of “I met him on an app and he’s helping me with my Spanish.” All technically true, but it doesn’t give the fuller picture because it doesn’t say the hard truth: I’m gay. It’s easier to deflect than to reopen the wound. It’s easier to deflect than to remind her. It’s easier to deflect than to come out over and over and over again.

But I also see that every day is a choice: I wake up each morning and choose to be out. Some days – a lot of days – it would be easier not to. A lot of days, it would be easier to bury my head in the sand and stuff my desire to have a husband and hit it over the head and stick it in the back corner of my closet underneath the filing cabinet and the old PS2 and walk away from it and hope that it never wakes up. Some days, that would be a lot easier. But every day is a day where I choose to come out: to the random people on the street, to those I know and love, and to myself.

Unless I wear my rainbow cape, not everyone may know (I don’t actually own a rainbow cape; nor do I own a single piece of rainbow décor); even so, it’s a mind-set – a way of living that says I love you and I hope that, one day, you see that there is room at the table for me, too. Perhaps, one day, we will see each other face-to-face.

Openly Gay and In the Church, or On Coming Out Twice

[3 May 2019]

In a previous post, I began the discussion about my sexuality in some depth, reflecting specifically on experiences of internalised homophobia.

Here, I want to reflect a bit on my own personal experience with being openly gay and being in the church. Though what I have to say does have resonances across many religions, I will focus my conversation around Christianity simply because that is my personal experience and consequently the religion about which I feel most comfortable talking.

Last Sunday, my church had the following poster printed large enough for everyone to see:

I have never been more proud of being gay or of being a Christian when I saw this sign. The fact that I’m even in a church that has a sign like this in it makes my 18-year-old conservative, Evangelical self turn in his metaphorical grave.

I grew up in a loving, very actively-practising, conservative Evangelical Christian home. As a family, our faith was – and is! – very much at the heart of everything we thought, did, and said. I could speak for hours on all the good things I have personally witnessed and all the wonderful people whom I have met who are from this sort of tradition. My parents were very concerned about our morality on all fronts – you could never accuse my parents about hypocrisy. If there was one sin, though, that was held out as The Sin – the sin that was worse than all the other sins, the sin that caused fear and panic and anxiety, the sin that could only be talked about in hushed tones – it was homosexuality. This was, in my upbringing, the cardinal sin of our day and age; worse than drug addiction, murder, or likely anything else you can name. Homosexuality was the sign of a truly wicked and corrupt age of human history.

For years, I happily assented. It seemed to be there in the Scriptures, plain as day: homosexuality is a sin. Plus, I didn’t know anyone who was gay and, besides Ellen (who, for some reason, got a pass from my family), I didn’t even know of anyone who was gay. I knew that there were gay people out there, but that’s it. I lived in a perfect, insulated bubble where answers were simple and everyone (besides Ellen) was straight.

Then things started to get complicated. I began to realise I was gay.

And so I spent the next few years in total hiding. I entered university. A similarly Christian, conservative, evangelical, and had many close friends. We talked about our sexual struggles and our personal lives, and I did, too, but I kept this one detail close to my chest. This is the one thing about me that no-one could ever know.

It was here, though, at my small, conservative, Christian university where I began to meet other people from the LGBTQ+ community. As far as I knew, there weren’t any people who were very open about their sexuality. But there were tales. Though no-one I knew had spoken to them personally, everyone “knew” that so-and-so was gay – he was just too feminine to be straight and he was a Democrat (also a first for me!), so that pretty much sealed the deal. Rumours swirled around the campus and I just did my best to stay as clear and far away as possible.

And yet there was absolutely no denying it. I was gay. I felt for my female friends what my male friends felt for each other; and, if I wasn’t careful, I felt towards my male friends things that absolutely terrified me.

Amongst my friends, homosexuality was either something to take flippantly – the punch line of a joke, typically, or an offhanded comment; and, at the same time, it was a matter of utmost severity.

The Church has not historically been kind to the LGBTQ+ community. Though some historians such as John Boswell in his seminal works Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe have argued that this was not the case in earliest Christianity, a quick scan reveals that, overwhelmingly, people from the LGBTQ+ community have been oppressed and marginalised for the last thousand years or so of Western history.

During this time, it never occurred to me to do anything else than what I was doing. Being gay was a sin. And that’s that. That idea was so clear in my mind that I happily resigned myself to the idea of lifelong celibacy for the sake of following my religious convictions. Any suggestion made that perhaps somehow one could be both a Christian and gay I quickly and haughtily rejected. The lines were drawn. The picture was clear. I had chosen my side. I was going to be a Christian.

And so I never shared my sexuality with a single soul until I was 22.

For many, many LGBTQ+ people I know who were raised Christian, there came a point in their story where they felt the tension between these two worlds grow too great. I know I’m gay and I know that isn’t going to change and I know my church says that being gay is bad and that gays are going to hell. And so they end up in a crisis moment: Do I act upon my desires, which don’t feel wrong or abnormal, or do I listen to my church, which is full of old people preaching from an old book – both of which seem fairly offensive and completely out of touch with my reality?

For several years, I was on the latter side of this equation. It’s ok to be gay, but it’s not ok to act on it.

Then I met a boy. This boy changed everything. Not only was he intelligent and engaging, but he was very open about the fact that he was attracted to other men. Though, at the time, we both held that homosexuality was a sin, he was, for all intents and purposes, the first person I knew personally who was in my shoes – a Christian and attracted to other men. This was paradigm-shifting. Through him and his example, I grew to have the courage to share my story with other (conservative, Evangelical) friends who were committed to supporting me on my celibate life’s journey. I had never felt so loved and supported and known in my whole life. And this other boy and I became incredibly close. I was thoroughly content as an openly same-sex attracted man in the Church.

I’ll write this story later, but our love for each other eventually blossomed into romance into a serious dating relationship that lasted for some time. I moved from telling people that I was gay but that I thought it was a sin towards seeing gay love as part of the same stream as heterosexual love that issued from the Love of God. I call this my second coming out.

I am not here wishing to delve into socio-political theory or traditional Aristo-Thomist theology, though I would certainly love to do that if you’re ever interested. You can feel free to agree or disagree with me about whether or not the LGBTQ+ ought to have been treated thus. We can save that for another time. All I wish is to make a statement, plain and simple: regardless of if this ought to be the case, it is the case that people from the LGBTQ+ community have suffered harm, particularly at the hands of the Church for much of history. And this is no mere figment of the past – it is a mind-set and a pervasive pattern of behaviour that continues on to this day.

It is no wonder, then, that, when young little gays wake up one day and realise that they do not fit in with the normal mould, in the middle of the intrapersonal tumult regarding gender and sexuality they are beginning to experience, they are often also bombarded with a host of religious questions and anxieties that more often than not seem to compound rather than alleviate their troubles. This was certainly my experience.

As I have navigated my way a second time through being openly gay and in the church, I have found myself in a beautiful congregation in the heart of the city that welcomed my partner and me with open arms – not as anomalies, not as responsibilities, but as beloved family members coming home. And we were not alone – there were many, many others in our church who were also part of the LGBTQ+ community. We were both connected to a mentor – his, a gay priest in the Anglican Communion married to another man; mine, another priest who, while neither gay nor male, has proved to be one of my strongest allies,  challengers, and sounding boards on my journey so far.

Since my first and then my second coming out, I have seen the Church move and love in powerful ways. My current Christian community represents a wide swath of the spectrum. Several of my friends affirm me and my decision to pursue relationships with other men; some of my friends don’t; many more are on the fence – unsure of where to stand in the confusing waters. And this still stands true of my other Christian LGBTQ+ friends. Some of them affirm me and my decisions to pursue gay relationships; a lot of them don’t; some of them don’t know where they stand.

Not all my experiences have been positive. I have lost friends – dear friends – over my decision to seek gay relationships. My family and I still get into regular spats on the subject.

Yet, somewhere in the middle of all of this, Love holds us all together. We are all in the same boat – learning to live well and love well and trying to make sense of who we are and what it means to be a Christian. Some days we’re better at this than others. Some days I’m better at this than others. But, if

Love is the core of the Christian faith. There are verses about it; there are songs about it; there are books about it; I’ve even written a blog post about it. Christians can’t get enough of the idea of Love. And rightly so, if we truly believe that God is Love like we say we do. Perhaps I’ll write a post someday dedicated solely to the concept of Love (and probably weave my favourite author Dante into that conversation somewhere as well).

Some say, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” Is this Love? In some circumstances, yes, assuredly. Is it love in this particular case – in regards to homosexuality? That’s the question of the hour. We can debate this all day. But I have learned that what is important is that we continue to press into the question: What is Love? What does it really mean to love others?

What would it be like if we approached every day, every situation, every person with this question at the forefront: What does it mean for me to love rightly here?

If my experience is anything to go off of, the toxic blend of animosity and estrangement doesn’t have to be the only way for the LGBTQ+ community and Christians to co-exist. Perhaps there is a way for us all admit, at least to ourselves and those we love, that the boat is big enough to hold a handful of doubts and fears and questions in tension while we try to figure out what it means to follow Christ together.

Because, if I have learned anything from being both gay and a Christian, it is that. We are called to love one another with the Love of Christ. Right here. Right now. No exceptions.

In Praise of 5-Hour Commutes and Dead-End Jobs

[1 May 2019]

“A 5 hour commute?” you say. “Surely, he must be exaggerating,” you think to yourself, incapable of believing that someone would chose to do this to themselves – fearful of the mental state of the sort of person who might. Dear friend, though I cannot vouch for my mental state, let me assure you that I am, in fact, telling the truth: I do commute for 5 hours a day.

As I was thinking about writing this post, I composed several drafts full of long-winded sob stories about how I ended up in this position. But, after sitting with it for a long time, I realized that that’s not the direction I wanted to take this.

In short, I had some big dreams for what my life would look like in 2019. Instead, what dominates my time is my job – not the rewarding job I envisioned for myself in my life roadmap. This is a customer service job for a small company where I sit at my desk for 8 hours a day and get excited when the mail lady with her perfectly-kept helmet-hair walks by the window because it adds variety to my day. No opportunities for promotion. Low salary. No new skills acquired.

Dead-end.

On top of that, my commute, which used to be a 30 minute walk, ballooned overnight into a 2.5-hour triathlon of walking (usually running), commuter trains, and public transportation to get to job where I feel like nothing more than a cog in a machine. I’ll share about how I found myself in this situation another time.

And so, to summarise the long and wearisome aforementioned partially-self-inflicted sob story and spare you, dear reader, the tedium of slogging through my dreary misadventures, I would like to simply say: Life has a funny way of not going according to plan. Perhaps I’ll cave at some point in the future, or at least find a more constructive way to share my experiences.

Currently, however, my life looks something like this: wake up, scramble 2.5 hours to work, sit at a desk for 8 hours, crawl 2.5 hours home, make dinner, go to bed. And do it all over again, ad nauseam.

The first few months of making this commute were, truthfully, terrible. It was a terrible feeling of loss –  suddenly finding myself without time to pursue anything in my life that I found valuable: friends, exercise, schooling, church, hospitality, or even really much fun at all. My existence felt boiled down to a vicious and meaningless cycle: make money so I could stay alive so I could keep making money so I could keep staying alive. And that in and of itself is motivating only on the most essential level; the existential plane is left barren.

After the initial pain wore off, though, I began to see other things.

At first, it was just the trees. I saw the same trees twice a day on my commute. I began this journey in the summer; as time wore on and autumn began to peek through, I began to notice – intentionally notice – the changing of the seasons about me. Have you ever gone out of your way to look at the same tree every day, season after season after season? I have now. It’s a subtle, sublime glory. Pale green; then, starting with the tips of the leaves on the fringes and suddenly – wham! – overnight gold and ochre and plum and scarlet; then, barren branches, weighed down by powdered snow and icicles that seem to glow from the inside out; and now, leaves: a different green from the summer green, and fuller.

Next, it was the people. I wonder who that cute ginger boy who sits across from me every day is. Sun-hat lady normally wears all-black but today she is wearing yellow – I wonder what inspired that change!  I didn’t pass the mom with her stroller today – I hope the kids are okay. These people have become more than just part of the scenery; they are my fellow humans – growing, shifting, changing – with stories that happen to intersect with mine for this time, however long it lasts.

Most recently, I have begun to notice my own inner landscape – the ways it contours and shifts and changes. I’ve come to notice that it’s hard for me to sit still: I get anxious and begin to have negative thoughts, but, as soon as I begin to walk, they immediately go away. I’ve noticed that, on overcast days, my heart is lighter and I’m more likely to laugh. I’ve noticed that I often use thinking about the next thing to ignore what I’m feeling right now.

I’ve come to connect time and place and emotion as a complex tapestry of landmarks – personal monuments to my own place in history. I can say, “When I saw that person on my commute last, I wasn’t sure how to deal with the bad news I had just gotten; now, the situation has turned out for the better,” or “When the leaves were last here, I didn’t know how to cope; now, I am finding joy again.”

What was and has been birthed through this process is a greater awareness of the present. This has been also compounded by my practice of silence for the entire duration of my commute – something I started in Lent and loved so much that I have continued it.

What I have come to see is something startling in its beautiful simplicity. Each day is not a holding pen for the next big thing. As Frankl reminds us, life can only have meaning if it has inherent meaning today.

Not meaning for how today gets us to tomorrow. Only if today holds something valuable in and of itself. I realised how tempting it is to see seasons of hardship as just that: a season – something to just get over with while casting your net into the future and hoping for the next good thing to come around the corner. For the first few months, this was my tactic for survival. Every day I would wake up and tell myself, “This’ll be over soon. Just a couple more weeks and I’ll be back in the city and I won’t have to commute anymore and my life can really start back up again.” But I’ve come to see that meaning can’t be made out of that kind of mindset.

Perhaps TS Eliot was right when he said that it is only through time that time can be redeemed.

I could speak at great length about how this experience has helped me appreciate people in all sorts of more difficult circumstances: even lower-paying jobs, multiple kids, multiple jobs, single-parenting, people with disabilities. I won’t speak about privilege and advantages here, though I could. Perhaps I will at another point.

Even this morning, I was walking on the sidewalk to my first train and I noticed that the bushes that have recently burst onto the scene in all their leafy splendor acquired tiny purple flower buds overnight.

For all my philosophical bluster, I certainly hope this season doesn’t last forever. Summer is just around the corner and the heat and I are not friends; the thought of having to commute 5 hours a day in the heat is not appealing in the slightest. However, should this time of commuting and dead-ends jobs continue, I know that it will be an abundant time ready to be experienced to its fullest if only you know where – and how! – to look.

One

[29 April 2019]

I sat there in the kitchen with you last night. You had just changed out of church clothes. From a grey dress and denim jacket and your nice shoes to a pink oversized t-shirt and yoga pants and black socks.

You only own four pairs of shoes: your nice shoes, your boots, your flip flops, and your running shoes. You’re a person of simple taste on principle: if I don’t need more shoes than that, I won’t get them.

You wear your boots when it’s cold. You hate the cold. It bits into your body and turns your fingers and toes a greenish blue. Your flip-flops you wear as much as possible. You always wanted to live by the beach. I don’t know why you’ve stayed here this long. You wear you nice shoes to every occasion that wouldn’t fit any of the others.

And your running shoes. You put these on every day. And you run. Ten miles a day, even though it feels like knives in your knees and back each step of the way. You’re a creature of habit on principle, with a will of iron. Maybe one day you’ll find joy in the doing and not just in the have-done.

But you are steady. You make me feel safe because I always know exactly who you are and exactly where you’ll be. Paradoxically, this is also what scares me most about you. In 26 years, I’ve never once seen you change your mind. Maybe one day you will.

I don’t understand that. My soul is chaotic and amorphous. It never quite knows where to go or what to believe. My soul is an ocean, changing with the wind and the weather, running its course around the world only to find it ended up where it started.

You’re not like that. You are more like a compass. I don’t think you’re pointing north, but at least you’re always pointing the same way – towards a bright star on the horizon that only you can see. And you follow. You run with all your might after it and grab us by the hand or arm or ear or whatever appendage you can grab and you run towards the destination with as many people as you can grab in tow. You refuse to leave the ones you love behind. Your passion is compelling, entrancing. You see this light so strongly and so vividly that, when I’m with you, I can almost see it, too.

I’ve always wondered: Do you feel trapped by that? Do you like being the gold standard of morality, the propitious paragon of your own brand of virtue? On my end, it’s both awe-inspiring to witness and terrifying knowing that I’ll never come close or measure up.

You make a late-night cup of decaf coffee. And when I say “late-night,” you know I mean about 8PM. You go to bed at 9PM every night if you can help it. I got that from you. You mix your oat milk creamer into your coffee. You can’t drink real milk. Not since your mom died. Just like how you haven’t been able to eat wheat since your dad walked away from the family. You internalize hard things and they destroy you on the inside. The outside never cracks, never crumbles.

It’s easy for me to look at you – see the unshakable confidence and certitude – and think that you are as invulnerable emotionally as you are morally. You feel deeply – a lot more deeply than I ever give you credit for. Were you born with that foundation or has it built up like sedimentary rock over the years?

You have seen a lot. You have made your own mistakes, yes, but you are wise enough to live through the lives of others. Through the books you read and the movies you watch, you have lived their lives, too, and you won’t make their mistakes. But your wisdom is also a curse. You see things – so much more than you want to. And because you see things, you feel compelled to speak. Because you love. And so you speak. And you wound. And you are pushed away. And you are hurt. Yet you stand up and speak again, determined not to let those you love walk down roads you fear.

I asked you about your day. Apparently you saved someone’s life in church yesterday. The lady went into AFib right there in the middle of the service. You said your hands were shaking because you’ve never had to use an AED before. But that’s why you’re a nurse. You believe that people should help other people. Most people do, but you do something about it. You give your life in the pursuit of ideals. Like the way you serve the church: ending up on every team, serving on every committee, and in everyone’s home with casseroles and good advice. Or like the way you run. You think people should exercise every day. Most people would agree, but you actually do something about it. You and I both charge into the future, unreservedly. I’m on an adventure. You’re on a mission. I run towards. You run for.

I make a silly joke. Something about the movie we just watched. You laugh. No-one I know likes to laugh more than you do. There’s little that’s more rewarding than landing a well-placed metaphor or a snarky joke in your presence. Your eyes light up and your voice rings out unashamed until you’re crying from joy.

I make you laugh again and again. Fortunately, it’s easy. I want you to see me, but I am scared – scared of you seeing me, of you seeing that my soul isn’t perfect, of you perfecting me without seeing me. I’m scared of being me in front of you because I’m afraid that I will never be good enough because you’re never good enough for yourself. That’s why I settle for humour. I feel like we have a connection that way, but you don’t have to know who I am. And maybe part of you wants it that way. Maybe you’re just as afraid to see me and I am afraid to be seen by you. If you see me, you’ll feel compelled to say something; if you say something, you risk pushing me away.

And so we dance this awkward dance called love. How do I bring myself to the table without harming myself or the one I love?

And you do love. Deeply. Fiercely. Fearfully.

You finish your coffee, rinse out your cup, and put it in the dishwasher. I kiss you on the cheek and you head up the stairs to bed.

Maybe one day you’ll see that love is not always a crusade. Maybe one day I’ll see that sometimes it is.

But, you are learning grace. I see it more and more as you grow older. You listen more. You think more. You pray more. You hope more. You even extend grace, usually against your better judgment. Maybe one day, you’ll even give grace to yourself.

Other sketches in this series:
Seven
Nine

On Silence, and All the Ways I’ve Used It

[26 April 2019]

Two years ago, instead of giving up sweets or swearing or social media for Lent, I decided to try something different. I decided to give up any form of digital media that was only going to entertain me. In other words, Game Boys and TV on my commute and headphones were out; movie nights and dance parties were in.

Lent itself is a time of silence. It is a season without the normal liturgical “alleluias.” In some churches, Lent is a time without instrumentation or even, occasionally, music. In the space created by these absences, we are better poised to consider the mystery of Christ and ourselves in relation thereto.

My thought process, then, was something like this: Lent is (in part) about giving something up in order to create space and cultivate awareness for something else; therefore, what better way to get in the spirit of things than by creating a lot of room for silence? But I had never considered using the Lenten fast as an extended time of personal silence. The thought was daunting, to say the least.

Silence and I have had a rocky relationship for as long as I can remember. My friends and family joke, not without merit, that it’s a rare thing to find me sitting still – not talking on the phone, not listening to my latest J-Pop obsession, not at the very least pacing back and forth trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. I don’t like to sit still; I’m a nervous talker (my mom says I got it from grandma), or at least a nervous listener – if people aren’t talking to me or with me or at least laughing at me, I start to panic. Am I doing something wrong? What are you thinking? Are you thinking about me? Are you upset at me? Did I do something wrong? If I didn’t do something wrong, why aren’t you smiling at me? What do I need to do to get your eyes on me?

I first discovered this my first year at university. I took an entire class dedicated to the (gay!) Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. My professor was an experiential educator: he believed that students learned best by doing. Hopkins was a Jesuit and consequently was expected to maintain extended periods of silence. Therefore, my professor, educator extraordinaire that he was, thought it would be a good idea for us to take our own times of silence – a minimum of 24 hours – and see what insights it brought into our understanding of Hopkins and his work.

When my professor gave us this assignment, I remember my stomach dropped. 24 hours of silence? At minimum? Is this even possible? I began to sink into my seat, wondering if it was too late to withdraw from the class (unfortunately, it was). Meanwhile, a buzz was going around the classroom. “24 hours of silence?” my excited classmates started whispering amongst themselves. “This is the best assignment I’ve ever had,” someone next to me said to his friend. I looked around in a mixture of awe and horror. I distinctly remember asking myself, “Are all English majors introverts?”

This silence was to be absolutely free of any and all distractions: no friends, no music, no TV – for 24 hours, it all had to go. ENG 237 was determined to be the ruin of me.

As I sat in my friends’ room, loaded up with enough PB&Js to survive an apocalypse and secretly hoping they’d come back from spring break early so I’d have an excuse to break my temporary vow of silence, I kept the lights off and left the blinds closed. I wasn’t even miserable – I was beyond miserable. I was utterly devastated.

Up to this point, my time at uni had been marked by a frantic, frenetic flurry of activity. I was everywhere at all once, doing everything at all once, trying to meet everyone and get involved in everything and maintain grades and work and keep up with my family and on and on and on until I would crash every night with this sinking, gnawing feeling that I wasn’t doing enough and would wake up every morning instantly wired and determined to make up for all the time I had wasted by sleeping. I believed that a moment without action was a moment lost – that somehow, if I stopped doing, I would lose out on something significant (what exactly that significant thing was a bit vague and elusive, but the fear was overpowering). But the darkest part of that mindset told me that my relationships needed constant, moment-by-moment maintenance; I believed that if I didn’t spend every moment possible sustaining and investing in my relationships, they would fail.

And so I sat down in the dark room with no light and no, wholly convinced that I was ruining my chances for any opportunities and that I was destroying all the relationships I had worked so hard to build – all this for the sake of an assignment.

And so I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I lasted for about 8 hours (14.5 if you include my sleeping from the night before) before I broke my silence.

But I had learned something.

When my silence was over, I walked down the hall into a friend’s room. He was sitting on the couch, playing video games, probably exactly where I had left him approximately 14.5 hours before. He looked at me, mumbled some sort of a greeting, and passed me a controller. A couple other guys walked in, we mumbled some sort of greeting to them, and passed them controllers. We played video games, ate cheese puffs, talked, laughed, and went on with our days. And nothing out of the ordinary happened. And this was, perhaps, the most extraordinary revelation for me: I didn’t need to spend my life filling a perceived void in order to make my life feel meaningful. My friends didn’t ask me where I’d be or what I’d been up to the past few hours; they didn’t walk away from me; they were not upset at me; I didn’t miss out on anything crucial; no incredibly, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities sprung upon my friend group while I was away; to be frank, they hadn’t even noticed I was absent. Silence taught me an invaluable lesson: I wasn’t nearly as important as I thought I was.

I’ve since spent the next few years taming that monster, with some seasons being more successful than others. I’ve tried to fall in love with silence and I’ve learned a lot about it.

Silence takes many forms. I’ve come to see this more clearly over the years.

I have known silence to be a form of hiding. Deceptively masking yourself, your true thoughts and intentions, by choosing to remain quiet and allowing others to think untruths. I am guilty of this.

I have known silence to be a form of evasion. Fearfully running from a person or a situation you felt you couldn’t handle, hoping that, if you just faded out, you might be forgotten and your nagging guilt would somehow disappear, too. I am guilty of this.

I have known silence to be a weapon. Obstinately, defiantly ignoring someone you care about, even to their face, because you want to make a point or hurt them or make them feel how you feel. I am guilty of this.

A few years ago, this is all I knew of silence: the dark side, the side of hurt and fear and pain, the things you cannot speak for fear of bringing them into the light.

But, as I have lived my life, I have come to see another side to silence.

Another lap around the prayer labyrinth, releasing and surrendering your thoughts to God.
A night on a grassy hilltop: denim jackets and autumn skies and watching the stars.
Comfortable silence with piña coladas shared amongst good friends who have nothing to hide and nothing to prove.
The hush after a piece is performed just before the applause.
Lying next to the one you love – not knowing if he’s awake or asleep, but simply feeling his chest rise and fall with each breath.

I have experienced all this.

Just as I have known silence to wound, I have also known silence to be an agent of healing, of reconciliation, of peace; to speak words deeper and louder and truer than any voice could proclaim. Silence has taught me something new: I am so much more important than I ever thought I could be. Silence has given me the space to sit with myself and to sit with others – bringing our whole selves to the table and being able to see each other for who we are.

I have learned that silence is the point of infinite potential, where everything is possible because anything could be in the next moment. Silence is the point where you see again, perhaps for first time, that everything you have is right in front of you. I learned, or have started to learn, that – not every moment needs to be filled. Just as opportunities and relationships are made in the doing, so also are they cultivated, transformed, refined, and purified in the silence.

Needless to say, my experience with Lent two years ago was challenging and sweet. And so, this year, I decided to repeat it, to similar effect. And now we find ourselves on the Resurrection side of Lent, where our 40-some-odd days of silence have ended in wild cheers and a joyous shout and we have all gone back to our sweets and swearing and social media with renewed vigour, appreciation, and gusto. And, once the Easter “alleluias” have passed and the initial spark begins to fade, we settle once more into a rhythm of silence and speaking, silence and speaking, silence and speaking – watching the world around us grow and shift and shape and mend as we are swept up along with it into the grand project of renewal and restoration of all things.

I’m a nerd; also, I’m gay (and other things I’ve hidden)

[ 24 April 2019 ]

Hey, guys. I have… something I need to say. My palms are sweating. I don’t want you to think anything different of me for saying it – I’m still me, you know? My heart is beating so hard and fast I can barely hear myself think. But it’s been on my heart for a while so… I guess I’ll share it, so, here goes. Throat dry. I can hardly form the words. Ok. You may have guessed it. Maybe you could tell. I’m… Deep, shaky breath… kind of a nerd.

Though the account above is exaggerated (maybe not as much as I’d like it to be), it strikes true to the heart of my inner world: people finding out that I have nerdy interests draws out genuine feelings of fear, self-protection, and shame. Even today, I sat on this post for far too long, asking myself, Do I really want people to know that I’m gay a nerd?

I never thought I’d be here – where that familiar stomach-curling, mind-blanking, defense-mechanism-activating feeling that I thought was exclusively reserved for coming out of the gay closet has been sequestered by an entirely separate experience: coming out of the nerd closet.

It’s a joke I’ve been saying recently: that I’ve gotten to a point in my life where it’s harder to tell people that I’m a nerd than it is to say that I’m gay. Strange, yes, but true; I am more likely to be open about the fact that I’m gay than I am to let them know that I wanted to name my first son Mace Windu when I was a child (it was a phase, ok?).

Being a nerd for me is now associated with many of the same questions and anxieties I had about being gay.

They were looking at me funny. Can they tell? Do I dress weird? Do I dress like a nerd?
They were looking at me funny. Can they tell? Do I walk weird? Do I walk like a gay guy?

If she knows that I play video games on the weekends, will she think less of me?
If she knows that I’m more likely to be into her brother than her, will she think less of me?

Did he notice that my eyes lit up when I saw the cute Pokémon poster?
Did he notice that my eyes lit up when I saw the cute boy walk by?

I mean, I like anime, but that doesn’t mean I’m a nerd, right?
I mean, I like boys and not really girls, but that doesn’t mean I’m gay, right?

It’s not a perfect analogy – it breaks down in a number of places, specifically when it comes to a question of ethics and morality; probably no matter which way you slice it, being a nerd is an amoral identity, but being gay, as we all know, depending on your worldview, does not get afforded this category. Therefore, being gay or seeming to be gay may, for seem people, provoke a genuine moral crisis whereas appearing to be a nerd can only provoke a genuine intrapersonal social crisis. However, realising this odd parallel between my sexuality and my personal interests has provided a lot of food for thought and personal reflection on what it means for me to be a queer person, especially how I see myself and how other people see me.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve learned more about love.

I’ve come to see that I’ve been particularly blessed on a number of fronts. With the exception of my family (which has not even been as bad as the stories of many), my coming out has been remarkably easy. I don’t think anyone was surprised, which probably smoothed the road.

But, more than that, I have been overwhelmed by how even my many friends who, for various reasons, do not affirm homosexuality have unilaterally (with two exceptions) loved and supported me throughout the process even while holding their doubts and questions. I think of my friends, some of whom didn’t believe homosexuality was okay, who loved me and my boyfriend enough to take us on double dates because they thought no-one else would.

I have been amazed by the amount of time and care and love and resources people have been willing to extend to me over the years as I have come to embrace my sexuality. I remember how many hours I’ve spent on the couch crying with my friends about boys and biblical texts and Aristotelian cosmology – trying to understand a way to make sense of what I felt and what I’d been taught.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve learned more about Love.

Yet, somewhere along the way, the grace and love that is shown me gets lost in translation. Because I’ve also learned more about how I see others, particularly other queer persons. This internal dialogue continues on in different forms, insidiously.

Yeah, ok, I’m a nerd, but at least I don’t go around shoving it in everyone’s face. I don’t wear Zelda t-shirts or Death Note novelty buttons and I’ve never been to Comic-Con or a Smash tournament.
Yeah, ok, I’m gay, but at least I don’t go around shoving it in everyone’s face. I don’t wear rainbow capes or equals sign pins and I’ve never been to Pride or a gay bar.

Yeah, ok, I guess I do play D&D on the weekends, so maybe I am a nerd. But I’m not like the other nerds. The ones who watch all the Marvel movies. That’s not me. I’m way more intelligent and attractive and well-adjusted.
Yeah, ok, I guess I do like other guys, so maybe I am gay. But I’m not like the other gays. The ones who don’t even try to pass for straight. That’s not me. I’m way more intelligent and well-adjusted (editor’s note: observe the glaring omission of “attractive” above).

I think this inner monologue, says a lot, too; a lot more than I want to admit. Somewhere along the line, pride has reared its ugly head. In the subtext: I may be a nerd, but I’m not that kind of nerd (I’m learning Japanese because I like it, not just for the anime, ok? 余計なお世話だ。) ; I may be gay, but I’m not that kind of gay.

Fundamentally, the part of me that should be proud of diversity and differences still feels threatened by it and feels threatened by people who are in my “camp” but are unlike me in some ways – ways that I scorn or look down upon.

But why should that threaten me? Why don’t I want to be associated with someone whose inclusion in my “camp” frustrates me? I wonder if it is because, at the heart of it all, a small voice is asking,

If I were that kind of nerd instead of this kind of nerd, would you still love me?
If I were that kind of gay instead of this kind of gay, would you still love me?
If I were that kind of person instead of this kind of person, would you still love me? Do you actually love me for me or am I just, by chance or design, the person you want to see?

The scary thing is that I don’t think there are answers to that final question. As much as I’d like to, we can’t deal in non-realities – we can’t know how things would be if things were different. The only thing we have before us is that which is before us. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less. Perhaps you, dear reader, wouldn’t love me if circumstances were different.

And, though it is tempting to search for answers to these questions, the only thing we can know is that, in our own faulty ways, we are fumbling towards Love and towards Real Knowing. We are learning to see each other truly and to, by extension, see ourselves more truly, as well. Read Martin Buber if you don’t believe me.

But I haven’t yet fully internalized the unconditional regard and love and respect I have been shown throughout my journey, because, most fundamentally, what I’m asking is,

Am I actually lovable? Am I actually valuable?

And I think that’s what it comes down to. Love.

And I am learning, slowly. I am learning to love and to be loved. The more others see me and they don’t turn away, the more I have the courage to see myself. And the more courage and honesty I have to see myself, the more I can look on others with supernatural love – not needing them to be exactly like me so I can feel good about myself.

It’s a beautiful cycle. As we learn to see, we learn to be seen. As we are seen, we learn to see. As we love, we learn to love and learn to be loved. As we are loved, we learn to be loved and learn to love. And what is loving but seeing? And seeing but loving? Can we truly see another without loving them? And can we really love another without loving ourselves? The more I know Love, the more I see that the tent is broad and the table is full.

Love can most certainly never look like elevating self over others. Love is not a me-vs.-them comparison game. If we’re playing that game, we’re not seeing the person in front of us. And if we can’t see the person in front of us, we can’t truly see ourselves.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. I have a few more episodes of Naruto I need to catch up on before I turn in for the day.