Tag Archives: Meaning

Lady Liberty and The Statue of Responsibility

Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl would have to be classed among the most profound works of the twentieth century. A survivor of both Auschwitz and two concentration camps affiliated with Dachau, Frankl — a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist — reflects on his holocaust experience and in the face of it responds to life and its meaning.

Frankl lays bare the human condition at its lightest and darkest, best and worst. Boldly speaking about the imperative of life to find meaning, even and especially, in the face of suffering. His experience gives him license to speak rawly about universal and personal truths, lending it something of the prophetic. Despite his own sufferings and ability to maintain a sense of moral integrity during those testing years, he writes honestly, but without resentment against his oppressors, and without taking the moral high ground against those who compromised themselves under the weight of the Nazi jackboot. His sharing challenges our modern sensibilities—pointing out not the demands we should make of life, as we are taught to, but the demand that life makes of us.

There is so much one can take from this work, of what is really an introduction to Frankl’s Logotherapy. For a Christian, a Christian reading of the text is inevitable. The mystery of the Logos, the Word, and the Cross, seeps through the words on every page.

The Cross as Reality

Through Frankl, the Holy Spirit can help us recapture the true meaning of the Cross in our postmodern landscape where that meaning is all too often deconstructed, institutionalised, privatised and novelised. For the Christian today, faced with the crossless standard of secularism, the Cross runs the risk of becoming nothing more than an identity-concept, an intellectual corner stone, a symbol to muse upon and defend—a point of difference, instead of a reality and mystery to be lived and breathed and believed in.

It’s an imperative for every generation and age to rediscover the truths of our faith, particularly the Cross, which always has and forever will run against the grain of the status quo. The Cross will never be cool, and if in certain pockets it ever does become trendy, it could only be a kitsch version of it. It’s a mystery far too great and gritty to be reduced to something bite-sized or to something that merely flashes on a billboard or dangles upon a neck. It will always be more.

The Wisdom of the Cross speaks uniquely in every age to those with ears to listen (Mt 11:15), but the message remains the same—a call to discover the meaning of life in Christ by shouldering his yoke of love and burden of responsibility.

Liberty & Responsibility

In Part II of Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl says the following:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth… Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.[i]

With such a simple proposition Frankl says many things…

Freedom without responsibility is arbitrary, aimlessly egocentric and condemned to meaninglessness. It’s a license for a self-autonomy void of consideration for the other. It’s the kind of freedom that allows an S.S. soldier to push a woman into a gas chamber. Sure, he might find meaning in doing so, but such subjective meaning is arbitrary, false and without substance. One of the many reasons it is exposed as such is because of its inability to register with universally held human values.

Yet what is freedom with responsibility? It is a yielding to the summons of life to be responsible, to take responsibility in the here and now, in fulfillment of one’s vocation.[ii] It demands one’s search for meaning, and one’s execution of their responsibility necessarily supplies it. It is the kind of liberty that rendered the woman being pushed into the gas chamber—St. Edith Stein—free to lay down her life of her own accord (Jn 10:18) despite being forced to die. Sent to the gas chamber but going freely, in her words, “For my people.” It is the kind of freedom that discovers and begets meaning even in situations intended by forces of tyranny to be vacuums of meaninglessness for its victims.

In an opposite strain, the fact that there is only a Statue of Liberty speaks loudly and immaturely of rights, and little of responsibility. It’s indicative of the attitude of the modern western man who first and foremost asks himself, not “What are my responsibilities?” but “What are my rights?”

There’s certainly a place for Lady Liberty but without Lady Responsibility she is like that personification of folly in the Book of Proverbs, who without the wisdom of responsibility leads men astray after the fancies of their own will, for “her steps follow the path to Sheol, she does not take heed to the path of life; her ways wander aimlessly” or we might say—meaninglessly (Prov 5:5-6).

What is this Statue of Responsibility?

We all know well what the Statue of Liberty looks like. Yet what might the Statue of Responsibility look like? There can be no doubt about it. The Cross. History has supplied us with the image, and God with its unexpected force of meaning brought about by the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who shouldered to the peak of Calvary the responsibility humankind owed to God and to itself. And where humanity failed to shoulder its dual responsibility, the humanity of God Incarnate succeeded.

Yet such success was not carried out to deliver us from our responsibilities, but it was carried out to enable us to fulfill them in He who has gone before us—by His strength, His grace and His love.

This is not because God is a Father who demands we earn our salvation by the sweat of our brow, but because to exercise our freedom to live responsibly is the only way to enter into this salvation. A salvation from sin, which is our inability to be perfectly responsible on our own, so that we might be enabled free to love—which is freedom to be responsible, to find meaning, purpose and dignity, not just now and in the face of the grave, but hereafter and beyond the grave.

The Statue of Responsibility is the Cross, and specifically, it is the Crucifix with Jesus nailed to it. Here a flaming torch is not held in the hand, but rather a heart burning with love, consumed by responsibility. The voice from this statue does not declare His rights, but rather invites each Mary and John, each woman and man: “Come to me all you who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. Pick up your daily cross and follow me.”[iii]

Here the promised rest is not a false comfort secured by the abandonment of personal responsibility. It is that peace of heart and mind the world cannot give—infused by Jesus into one’s soul, and which begets a meaning no nail of suffering can destroy. It is the symptom of embracing one’s cross. The vertical beam representing one’s responsibility to God, and the horizontal, one’s responsibility to one’s neighbor. It’s not a cross without both these beams, and Jesus invites—commands even, that we shoulder it.

Easy and light? Ridiculous it’d seem. Offensive even. But isn’t that the strange miraculous power of love, that it really is madness to the rational observer, yet pure sense to the one afflicted by it… the one liberated by it? That after all is love—not emotion, but embraced responsibility.

The Ultimatum of Life

In the context of considering the divergent extremes human nature can take in the face of the worst kind of suffering, Frankl writes:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.[iv]

He is not saying we deserve or don’t deserve the sufferings we get, but from the Christian angle—the Cross is there, looming large in the midst of our lives—we cannot escape it. Most of the time it makes its presence felt through little things. Yet sometimes the experience of the Cross is deeply felt, and at times it can be experienced as unspeakably terrible, a result of human evil or sickness, in such a way that its reverberations never leave us. Yet whatever form the Cross takes in our lives, it can either be something that crushes and corrupts us with the bitterness of resentment, leading us to lash out at the world with hatred; or a rare and testing opportunity to grow in depth—to be drawn deeper into meaning, into our humanity, and deeper into the Mystery of God who is our Holiness.

In other words, the Cross is surely forced on our backs by circumstances we can’t control, but we can decide whether it is an occasion that will crush us and break us, or an opportunity to carry it with Jesus for love of God and man.

It’s an ultimatum posed to us by human life itself, and Jesus the Life takes it and eternalises its meaningfulness beyond the human sphere. An ultimatum to choose to be crushed by the cross or to carry it, and our response is up to ourselves as individuals. “Let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Mt 16:24): it’s all in the singular because the proposition is profoundly personal. We cannot judge our neighbours, nor probe their motives, nor are we even capable of discerning the difference between being crushed by the cross and carrying it, for these things can look identical to outward appearance. No, it’s a matter for ourselves to consider, and at most, to invite others into an awareness of this summons. Thus our place is to use our often shoddy discernment not to judge, but to discern how to act as a Simon of Cyrene, instead of a shouting, flagellatory Roman soldier who only makes the crosses of others heavier.

One person may be paralysed and haunted by the profundity of their cross, and it may involve the severest kinds of trauma; or one may be able to meander along under its heaviness, and no doubt life will involve moments of both. Yet whoever we are, whatever our cross, the underlying truth is that to be able to bear and carry the Cross we needn’t be professionals who can run circuits with our cross, but we must simply accept it, even if it takes a while, in the faith that God can use this suffering–big or small–to make us better people, to teach us how to love, to give Him glory, and to help save souls.

The option is there, to either suffer meaninglessly in vain or to suffer meaningfully with purpose. To invoke the Name of Jesus is enough to inject our pain with infinite and eternal value.

“May Raise Him”

Frankl then elaborates:

Do not think that these considerations are unworldly and too far removed from real life. It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.[v]

“Man’s inner strength may raise him” indeed. Perhaps in our strength we cannot all rise above our outward fate—prisoners as we are of our own weaknesses. Then on the matter of sin—there is no way anyone can rise above that by their own strength. Just as well. God can achieve all these things, and in Christ Jesus, He has already raised us higher than “man’s inner strength may raise him”. The reality of this resurrection awaits us in our cross: those two beams of responsibility which are far from abstract. For already they weigh upon us and demand our response in the very moment we occupy. We need not search for meaning nor liberty elsewhere. In this respect our Statue of Liberty and Statue of Responsibility are really the same thing, it’s the Cross, through which God in Christ mediates the gift of the liberty of grace through our embrace of responsibility.

The Virgin Mary is a testament to this truth. She is the eminent member of our race raised into immaculacy from the moment of Her conception; sanctified, liberated into union with God, from the get-go. She only rose higher with leaps and bounds into this sanctity through Her profound union with Her Son – realised through Her responsibility to God and man, a responsiveness to Him the God-Man. A union made manifest and typified by Her standing by Him at the foot of the Cross—the True Statue of Liberty and Responsibly.

Lady Liberty & Lady Responsibility

Our Lady can thus rightly be called Lady Liberty and Lady Responsibly. For other than Jesus, who else knows better the twin-beams that make up the Cross? That dual responsibility to God and neighbour which crushed Her Heart in a pain worse than death? She was with Jesus in the face of His Cross, and we need Mary in the face of our own. She can teach us how to carry these beams, and calling upon the Name of Mary–confident in, and obedient to the fact that Jesus has given us to Mary, and Mary to us—is enough to realise Her maternal presence and aid already at our disposal.

As Lady Responsibly She will help to hold on to the splintery wood of the Cross, in the face of every kind of interior and exterior hardship. As Lady Liberty She will help us to do so with love, peace and even joy.

The United States has its own Statue of Liberty, its own Lady Liberty—without a signifier of Responsibility—a gift from the French, and all as a sign of national independence. Through faith, may we allow the Holy Spirit to erect in the land of our soul the real and everlasting Statue of Liberty and Responsibility, the Blessed Cross, and its accompanying Lady, a dual gift of God, and a testament to our freedom as pilgrims whose life and citizenship in Jesus, through Mary, is not of this “mortal coil” on earth but in that “undiscovere’d country” where angels smile,

To rest forever after earthly strife.
In the calm light of everlasting life.[vi]

[i] Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 154-155, full text available from archive.org.

[ii] Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 130.

[iii] A loose synthesis drawing from Mt 11:28-30; Lk 9:23.

[iv] Ibid., Part I, 87.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light (1833).
Other references, Hamlet, and Phil 3:20.

Sicario, Excitement and Paying Your Dues

Recently a trailer for the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” came across my Facebook feed. It was not a typical trailer. Typically a movie trailer shows clips from the movie with pulse-pounding soundtrack, and possibly a deep, gravelly, middle-aged male voice-over. This trailer had scenes from the movie, but it had explanatory subtitles explaining how the movie related to real-life drug wars. It explained that the movie demonstrated how cartels bring a complicated reality to south and central America, and that the violence that erupts between them is more like a guerrilla war, or even a conventional war, than it is like U.S. gang violence. When that violence spills over onto American soil two of the movie’s characters (who I gather were adversaries in the first film) will join forces to “start a war.” My assumption is that they were trying to aggravate violence south of the border in hopes that it would either draw the violence away from U.S. soil, or provide a reason for U.S. forces to engage in the war outside the U.S.

I don’t have much taste for war movies, or even crime movies, anymore, so up until now the trailer was disquieting but not particularly memorable. But it was the last line that really got me thinking. The final scene of the trailer had the words, “Come experience the excitement in theaters.”

Seriously? That’s what this is about?

I mean, I knew that’s what this was about. It’s an action film, designed to be exciting and to convince people to spend money to experience that excitement, ultimately in order to make money for the directors, producers, actors, investors, etc. Money is the goal, sex and violence sell. Of course they want you to come and experience the excitement.

I just didn’t expect them to be so… bald about it. So obvious.

Essentially the movie makers are selling an experience of adrenaline. In that sense they are no different than the makers of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battleground, Halo, or any of a thousand combat related video games. They are trying to simulate the excitement of combat in a marketable package, i.e. a package that involves no risk of bodily injury or death, no heat, dust, sweat, boredom, no training, no discipline, no obedience, no separation from family…

… see where I am going with this?

I will not deny that war is exciting. Having spent some time in war myself, I acknowledge that some of the most exciting moments of my life have occurred in war, formed of the level of adrenaline, focus, clarity and just sheer aliveness that, for most people not saints, only occurs when your life is in jeopardy. I will go further and say that a young man could do worse than make a career of pursuing that excitement. It is not excitement that I am against, it is cheap thrills.

Violence, like sex, excites because it is a matter of life and death. We were made for life and death, for real struggle, real investment, real risk and real growth. That is, we were made to fight real bad guys to rescue real good guys (both physically and spiritually). We were also made to make real love that forms real relationships and real babies. There is a proper place for both sex and violence in art, namely to illustrate the truth of these realities and to inform our choices about them in the real world.

The problem with video games and action movies is not that they are realistic and exciting, but that they are not real. When you go to a movie theater to watch people get killed on the big screen you invest nothing of yourself. You feel the rush and roller-coaster, and you may even have a significant emotional event, but when that experience is over you have not changed. You are still the same person you were before the movie. You may have a new appreciation of some topical issue of the day, you may be emotionally moved, you may have had a spiritual epiphany, but unless that mental and emotional reaction is translated into decision, and from decision to action, and from action to habit, it has not changed you.

It is necessary to bear this in mind when watching war movies. If you want to experience the excitement of a firefight, or of fighting a fire, or of digging up IED’s, then pursue that. Join the military, or the police force, or the fire department. Suffer through basic training, put in thousands of hours at the gym, thousands of miles on your feet, training-for-ruck-marches-imagethousands of rounds on the range. Obey the orders of those appointed over you, deny your own inclinations, place yourself at the service of your team. Learn to be faithful in little things. Make your bunk, sweep your floor, scrub the platoon’s toilets. Do maintenance on your vehicles and equipment, take pride in them. Endure the boredom of sitting in a firing position all night, or of driving down dusty roads 12 hours a day. Accept the banality of having to answer to idiots and power-trippers who are in charge of you only because they have been in a few months longer. Miss your chance for a “real” fight time and time again, and still keep showing up to work, putting in your time, taking pride in your performance. Volunteer for harder, more difficult assignments, accept greater responsibility.

Sooner or later you may get your chance to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Or maybe you won’t. But if you pay your dues for enough years you will gain something better. You will learn that excitement is not an end, but a byproduct. It is something that happens when you are engaged in meaningful work, because meaningful work in this world is always risky, but you will not pursue the excitement anymore, you will pursue the meaning.

This is something you will not get from action movies or video games. You can only get it from life.

Images: PD-US

Faithful to the Name of God

“Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: ‘Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us.” (John 17:11)

Most names carry a certain meaning (discount strange ones such as naming a child “x” or “y” — those seem almost mathematical in nature). For example, John in Hebrew means “God is gracious”.

However, no one knows the name of God, for to name something is to have a certain degree of control over it.

So how then are we to be kept true to God’s Name if we don’t know it?

How do we be true to the Mystery of God?

Perhaps, the question isn’t “Am I true to the Mystery of God?” but rather, “Am I true to the Mystery of Love?” (A Love Who died for me)

Do I live up to my name? How do I embody the aspect which has been given to me?

___

Image: PD-US

Remain in Me

Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet today we remember him as a great evangelizer and prolific New Testament writer. What happened? Nothing less than an inbreaking of divine grace.

For the powers of humanity, there are a great many situations that are beyond hope: souls that have been irrevocably corrupted, systems that are beyond repair. But for God, no one is beyond hope. No matter how hardened a person, God can break through any barriers to offer them mercy and an opportunity for transformation. He stopped Paul right in his murderous path, turned him away from Damascus and out into all the world a changed man. He channeled Paul’s zeal toward its natural, rightly ordered purpose: building up the Kingdom of God. In the same way, our own human purpose can only be understood through an encounter with the divine.

Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him (John 6:56).
Jesus has given Himself to us in the Eucharist as an opportunity for encounter with Him, that we too might be transformed by His grace. He instituted this sacrament so that we might share a radical intimacy with Him. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati understood this deeply—he received Communion daily, meeting Jesus every morning and carrying Him throughout the rest of the day. This is the key to his sanctity: not Pier Giorgio’s own goodness, but his openness to divine grace, to deep intimacy with and vulnerability before God.

“I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.”
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Conversione_di_san_Paolo_September_2015-1aThe great things that Paul achieved after his conversion stemmed from this intense closeness with God and awareness of God’s perfect love. This is what opened Paul’s heart to allow God to work through him rather than imposing his own will. When the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life with sudden clarity, he fell to his knees in humility before God. Throughout the rest of his life, as he wrote and preached and converted a great many souls, he was ever aware that it was all due to God working in him: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Paul knew all too well the cold, cruel man he would be without God, and thus he was able to recognize that any good fruits that flowed from his work were not due to his own power or talent or goodness, but from Jesus Christ working through him.


1. Domenico Morelli, Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

The Joy and Dignity of Work

No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him.
– James Russell Lowell, poet

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.
– J.K. Rowling, Harvard commencement address

Work is often seen as a miserable burden. It can be stressful, soul-destroying and, at worst, suicide-inducing. When I was admitted to court as a solicitor, the presiding judge spent half her welcome speech advising us not to become so consumed by work as to neglect simple things like walking the dog, breaks from work which can preserve mental health. However, the sad thing is that in the modern workplace, humans are often treated as machines and pressured to keep producing more and more. The thing is, machines too need breaks before they break down. Even God took a rest after His splendid work of creation! In Israel, the ultra-orthodox Jews are careful not to do even a smidgen of work on the Sabbath Day, for fear of placing themselves above God. They hire Gentiles to work the elevator buttons.

Work is in fact a gift from God, a loving invitation to participate in His ongoing work of creation and salvation. The word “salvation” comes from the Latin salus, meaning “health”. When work is performed well, it contributes to the health of the individual and of society. It gives us purpose and joy when we are able to create useful and beautiful things, establish order in the world around us, serve others, and provide for those who depend on us. As a child gains confidence and matures when entrusted with responsibility for housework, so do we mature as persons when granted opportunities for productive work, growing in likeness to God our Father and building His kingdom.

Yet, in today’s post-industrial society, work is rife with pitfalls. Some jobs are stressful because they now demand so much multi-tasking as to obscure the original point of the job – one thinks of teaching, where in some places teachers are now expected to perform as social workers and substitute parents, while taking on more administrative tasks as well. Others are disheartening because they involve a single repetitive, mundane task, as in factory work. A friend of mine who works in a carrot factory during summer breaks shared how he yearns for meaningful work which employs his intellectual gifts, not deadening tasks which make him feel like a mere cog in a machine.

Some people shy away from work, while others idolize work and its proceeds, seeing work or the acquisition of money as their sole purpose in life. As Australia has a welfare system, some people subsist on the dole, turning down jobs – this is borne out by a factory-owner I know, who often has people asking him for work, only to make excuses and disappear after a day or two, having fulfilled their quota of job applications. My boyfriend just started work picking strawberries at a farm, which wants to employ Australians, but is manned mainly by Asian workers because the Australians tend to vanish after a few weeks. At the other extreme, my carrot-picking friend related how a Taiwanese worker griped about having Sundays off, because he wanted to make more money to spend on gambling. Both extremes demonstrate a lack of virtue, succumbing to either sloth or greed. Virtue is found in a healthy appreciation of honest work, while not mistaking it as one’s entire reason for existence.

Work is an essential part of human life, building character, bringing us into connection with others, and keeping our societies functioning. At a disability support training workshop which I attended yesterday, the presenter noted that we usually identify people with their occupations, because their work shapes who they are. As a mother of a disabled son, she knew how important work is for the human being, and helped her non-verbal son start a fruit and veg distribution business. Now when he goes out for walks, his customers greet him, and he feels a sense of pride in his work, besides having gained a certain status in society.

When one has worked well and is then able to disengage from work, one is better able to appreciate periods of rest and leisure. I have found that while searching for full-time employment, it is difficult for me to simply relax and enjoy a good book, because of the worry that comes with having something important undone. However, whether one is employed or not, all circumstances are opportunities to trust in God, offering Him the uncertainty of this transient life, at peace in knowing that whatever state one is in, one finds true rest and purpose in Him Who is Love, the source and end of our being.

Our stories are all stories of searching. We search for a good self to be and for good work to do. We search to become human in a world that tempts us always to be less than human or looks to us to be more. We search to love and to be loved. And in a world where it is often hard to believe in much of anything, we search to believe in something holy and beautiful and life-transcending that will give meaning and purpose to the lives we live.
– Frederick Buechner

We must not drift away from the humble works, because these are the works nobody will do. It is never too small. We are so small we look at things in a small way. But God, being Almighty, sees everything great. Therefore, even if you write a letter for a blind man or you just go sit and listen, or you take the mail for him, or you visit somebody or bring a flower to somebody—small things—or wash clothes for somebody, or clean the house. Very humble work, that is where you and I must be. For there are many people who can do big things. But there are very few people who will do the small things.
– Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Love: A Fruit Always in Season

Let those who think their work has no value recognise that by fulfilling their insignificant tasks out of love for God, those tasks assume supernatural worth. The aged who bear the taunts of the young, the sick crucified to their beds, the street cleaner and the garbage collector, the chorus girl who never had a line, the unemployed carpenter – all these will be enthroned above dictators, presidents, kings, and Cardinals if a greater love of God inspires their humbler tasks than inspires those who play nobler roles with less love.
– Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen

All work is holy. Through it we walk the royal road of Christ.
– Servant of God Catherine Doherty, “The Holiness of Work

The Archived Life: On Scrapbooking, Catholic Liturgy, and Transitional Justice

By guest writer Melvyn Foo.

On all my holidays this year, my routine when I return to our accommodation is the same. I transfer the photos from my camera’s SD card to my laptop, I edit and select them, and then I upload them to Bonjournal1 and complete my travel log.

In the course of this most recent trip, I have come to call this routine ‘reaping the harvest’. By corollary, then, the day’s experiences are the seeds sown, the harvest of which are the memories that I immortalise in the web.

I have been asked repeatedly why I am so obsessive about archiving my life. I sometimes reply, “The unarchived life is not worth living.”

Remove the double negatives, rearrange, and you get something less tongue-in-cheek and more defensible: life is worth archiving.

img_5197


Scrapbooking is the epitome of archiving memories. You choose the happy snapshots, you write nice words, and you frame everything in a pretty page – exactly how you would like to remember those moments.

I am not good at scrapbooking. I took a course years ago, and since then, I have concluded that I have no natural talent for it. I take hours to do what the artsy girls can do in minutes (e.g. choosing paper). I work laboriously (e.g. take exact dimensions) to do what they do by sheer guesstimation. I use science (e.g. rule of thirds, triangulation) to do what they do by feel. (I have since learnt that you can’t really plan every detail out, so you just have to make decisions and improvise along the way. This works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. After all, just like jazz, improvisation requires talent, which I lack.)

It does not help that I have color disorder.

Despite my difficulties, I am still drawn to scrapbooking. I have a drawer full of materials, I have a Paper Market membership card (which may have expired), and I scrapbook a cover page for each year’s journal (which comprises largely of blogposts that I compile and print out).

Why? Why is the past – not just knowing what actually happened but remembering what happened – so important?

cover-pages


An answer may be found in an unlikeliest of places: Catholic liturgy.

In every Mass, Catholics take Jesus’ words literally to “do this,” – i.e. to eat His body and drink His blood – “in remembrance of [Him].”2 This is not just symbolic. The Church holds that the Mass re-presents Jesus’ sacrifice on Golgotha.3 Father Jude had thus alluded in a talk on how there is only one Mass and “one single sacrifice”4 – the one on Golgotha – that we remember and re-present in all our Masses.

This remembrance and re-presentation is called anamnesis, which comprises the heart of the Eucharist.5 The word, sharing a similar etymology with ‘amnesia’, means “a calling to mind, remembrance”.

This word is also used in philosophy and in medicine. In philosophy, it is a Platonic concept which conceives of learning as a rediscovery of knowledge within us from past incarnations. In medicine, it refers to a patient’s medical history which a physician needs to know in order to diagnose and care for that patient.

Regardless of context, the point is the same: when we recall the past, we affect our present and our future. This is the power and the importance of memory.

img_0072


Transitional justice is an emerging field which increasingly recognizes the critical importance of memory (alongside the four traditional elements of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence). This field studies the various processes by which a community recovers from large-scale human rights abuses. With the hindsight from Rwanda, Timor Leste, the former Yugoslavia, et al., it is now incontrovertible that criminal prosecutions alone, while necessary, are far from sufficient. More is required.

Memorialisation is one such process.

Professor Ariel Dulitzky thus wrote that “[c]ertain standards of the United Nations insist on the duty of remembering, educating about the past and rejecting negations of atrocities. They also highlight the role that archives play in the search of truth and justice, and they are also essential for recovering and building memory.”6

This is not just pure sentimentality. Professor Dulitzky quotes the UN Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, who says that “[it] does not suffice to acknowledge the suffering and strength of the victims,” and concludes that “ultimately, the challenge for a policy of memory is not building memorials or installing sleepy statues, but creating more fair, egalitarian and democratic societies.”7

Again, the point here is: remembering the past determines the present and charts the course for the future.

img_5485

And yet, if all that is required is to recollect objective historical facts, it is surprising that judicial rulings are insufficient. After all, the trial is democracy’s most potent fact-finding procedure. Why is more – in the likes of film, theatre, museums, etc – required?

In 2001, my family and another family got into a bad accident in South Africa. Both families were traveling together in a single vehicle. The tyre burst, the vehicle ran off the road, hit into barbed wire, and flipped a couple of times. We later learnt that the other family’s dad had been thrown out of the vehicle, and the vehicle had crushed his lungs, killing him instantly.

Two years later, they sued my dad, who had been driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. The judgment arising from the suit is reported as Loh Luan Choo Betsy (alias Loh Baby) (administratrix of the estate of Lim Him Long) and others v Foo Wah Jek [2004] SGHC 230; [2005] 1 SLR(R) 64. It is 18 pages long, and it goes through the evidence in detail. It mentions so much.

And yet it mentions so little. It does not mention the red-stained t-shirt that my mum had used to soak up the blood that had welled out when she performed CPR on their dad, which I had included in an essay based on this accident that I wrote in Secondary 4. It also does not mention a detail that I always talk about when I shared about this accident, that is, how fine the sand was, and how it got into my fingernails when I knelt down and clutched at it, praying to the patron saint of hopeless cases St Jude to make this all a dream.

And it does not even ask that most pressing of questions – where was God in all this? The answer becomes more layered as the years pass.

Examining the different processes of truth-finding, history-telling, and formation of collective memory, Professor Chrisje Brants and Professor Katrien Klep conclude: “The legal truth, laid down in the rulings of an international criminal court is, by definition, not open-ended. The verdict of a court is definite and authoritative; in this context, closure, not continued debate about what it has established as the truth, is its one and only purpose – indeed, on this its legitimacy depends. But then, also by definition, its contribution to history-telling, collective memory, and justice for victims is limited indeed.”8

In this regard, the learned writers also point out that “[h]istory and memory change as time goes on, and are never ‘finished.’”9

img_5547

Remembering the past, then, is not just a scientific and once-and-for-all endeavor of ascertaining the 5Ws+1H. It is also an art of attributing meaning and finding a narrative in the events that have happened.

Beyond the context of transitional justice, there is a word for this art of dwelling on the past: klexos. And of this artform, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows echoes: “Maybe we should think of memory itself as a work of art—and a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

There are therefore two key elements in klexos: accuracy and meaning.

To speak of accuracy in recording the past is trite. Dates, names, sequence of events – these matter. Research on the fallibility of eye-witness memory highlights the grave consequences when we remember wrongly.

But to think of memory merely as a recording device is misconceived. In Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk on the reliability of memory, she confirms that when we remember, we are not so much playing back what our senses have recorded. Instead, we reconstruct the past.

Beyond the factual data set of what actually happened, we make sense out of our past experiences, we connect the dots, we construct and reconstruct narrative arcs. We infuse an objective timeline with subjective meaning.

img_5396


The forms that the archives of our lives can take have evolved with the rise of social media. At the most extreme, Snapchat and Stories inveigh against the very idea of permanence, since the pictures and videos (allegedly) vanish forever after some time. Instagram heralded the prioritization of pictures over words. Twitter limited any expression of thought to 140 characters.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to conceive of these social media initiatives as archival tools, since they seek more to share and to capture the moment rather than to reflect on the past. All through a screen, of course. As one article puts it, “For Generation Z, there is no struggle to make sense of things. There is only the impulse to share.”

But there seems to be a counter-movement arising. Amidst the FLFC-culture of our times, slow journalism is gaining ground. A New Yorker staff writer opined: “We binge on instant knowledge, but we are learning the hazards, and readers are warier than they used to be of nanosecond-interpretations of Supreme Court decisions.” In 2015, The Huffington Post launched Highline,10 a magazine dedicated to running only cover stories based on months of investigations. Even our local newpspaper Today now has a section called the ‘Big Read’,11 which publishes longer and more thoughtful pieces.

While speed, brevity, and the power to grab attention will still remain foremost news values, slow journalism recognizes that readers also hunger for insight, for immersion, and for analysis. And the Web is taking notice.

But prose is not the only or even the best medium to archive, to reflect on, or to just make sense of life.

As a blogger, I am naturally a proponent of longform journaling. But as my Gen Z friend (who studies linguistics) counter-proposes, “Just cuz there r fewer words doesn’t mean we think less.”

Indeed, many of the Gen Z Instagram accounts that I follow are often filled with musings – be it through photos or captions or something in-between like typography – about life. One 20-year-old I know even has a third account (two is common among Gen Z – one ‘main’ account as a curated public persona and one ‘spam’ account for closer friends to follow) dedicated to more introspective posts.

While sheer wit and conviction certainly drive much of the content that Generation Z produces, not everything is simply “big, colorful, and hysterical”. There is depth and maturity too.

instagram


Be it blogging, scrapbooking, or instagramming, a question persists: are we being merely self-indulgent? Archiving the great events or the lives people that have shaped history is uncontroversial. But what of the grain of our own lives, so lost and so insignificant in the sands of time?

Vanity is undoubtedly a temptation, against which the easiest way of resisting is to keep our archives private.

But as Brené Brown says (and the Gen Z instagrammer above quotes), “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

These words resound with those of us who share regularly: we are honest with ourselves, we share with others, not necessarily in that order. To the extent, therefore, that the sharing of our lives intertwine with our pursuit of authenticity, perhaps we should be willing to endure some pretentiousness as the price of knowing ourselves.

For myself, blogging is many things. It is a way to make myself available to others. When people ask me a question about my life, the lazy (though admittedly lesser) alternative to sharing with them in person is to send them a link. It is also a way to make myself available to myself. It is amazingly convenient to have a compendium of my life to refer to at any time, to frame a more articulate sharing, to recall a personal story for a session, or just to remember what I went through before.

Perhaps, most importantly, it is a way for me to make sense of my world. To echo Gaiman, “All too often I write to find out what I think about a subject, not because I already know.”12

When my dad and I got into another bad accident in August 2014, I wrote about how I had lost faith in miracles. In September, I wrote about how I had to content with finding God in the ordinary, if I could not find Him in the extraordinary. In July 2015, I wrote again, but this time about how the accident formed part of a period of desolation, which was in turn, part of a larger narrative arc of learning to trust God.

The archive of my life thus becomes a lens through which I see the world. And if we can see the world in our grain of sand, we can move from klexos to sonder, to the humility of realizing that every person’s grain of life is as rich and as varied as our own.

img_5557


Moving beyond the individual, the wisdom of transitional justice underscores that klexos is not only relevant to individual lives, but to communities as well.

Just three weeks ago, I was surfing through our community’s spiritual bucket list, and I realized that some of us have already checked items off the list. To some extent, 1Cor12’s narrative has been captured in Mere Community. BASIC will be celebrating their 10th anniversary soon, and their ten years of journeying together will be digitally engraved into the blogs and Instagram accounts of their members.

Other memories are worth preserving. Consider, for example, OWL’s formation, journey, and eventual dissolution. There are precious shards here that I would love to see pieced together into a panel of stained glass.

Stained glass, after all, is a common sight in the Church.

In the final analysis, perhaps stained glass should be the ideal that all our archives aspire to. Because all our lives are broken and fragmented, and will remain so, regardless of how we curate or scrapbook our memories. It is only when we let Christ’s light shine through our past, into our present, and to guide our future, does beauty emerge.

Perhaps, then, it is not so much the unarchived, or even the unexamined life, but the un-examen-ed life, that is not worth living.

img_5135

1. Bonjournal is a minimalist travel logging app. It has a clean interface and limits the number of pictures per post to three. I have been using it since 2014, and will probably continue to do so.
2. Lk 22:19.
3. See CCC 1366.
4. CCC 1367.
5. See CCC 1106.
6. Ariel Dulitzky, “Memory, an essential element of transitional justice”, 20 April 2014. He was a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 2014.
7. Ibid.
8. Chrisje Brants and Katrien Klep, “Transitional Justice: History-Telling, Collective Memory, and the Victim-Witness”, International Journal of Conflict and Violence Vol. 7(1) 2013, pp.36-49.
9. Ibid.
10. See e.g. “Mothers of ISIS“, a paradigm-shifting angle on ISIS recruitment.
11. See e.g. this article covering the glut of lawyers, providing probably the most comprehensive and insightful analysis on the situation. 
12. Neil Gaiman, “Some Reflections on Myth (with Several Digressions onto Gardening, Comics and Fairy Tales”, in A View from the Cheap Seats.

___

This article was originally blogged at Mel.

Melvyn Foo is a Singaporean ex-lawyer. He is supposed to be a young adult, but he is really a lot more young than adult. He committed to God while sitting alone before a small and unadorned tabernacle. Since then, everything has pretty much fallen into place. You can visit his blog at http://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/

The Pursuit of Purpose

A few weeks ago I had to make a trip back to the place of my origin as a Special Forces Soldier, a.k.a. Fort Bragg, North Carolina. While there I was able to chat with my younger brother Matthew, who is the last of the brothers still on active duty, although his time is winding down. He was in the Q-course for a while, but eventually decided that Special Forces was not his path, and dropped out. Now he is in the infantry, preparing to get out early next year.

Family Friday 47 (8)

We had the opportunity to hang out and eat dinner at a charmingly psychedelic little pizza joint called “The Mellow Mushroom,” and we talked a bit about his plans and about mine, and the point of Special Forces, or the Army in general. I was recommending he consider joining the National Guard, citing the reasons that I transferred to the NG rather than geting out completely:

1. Tuition assistance: I have the Post 9/11 GI bill, but financially it makes more sense to save that for the high cost university courses that I start next year. In the meantime, the Guard offers $4500/year towards a degree plan, which can cover a whole lot of community college, saving the Post 9/11 for the big ticket courses in Junior and Senior year, or in my case, the Masters program.

2. Tricare Reserve Select: for a single guy you can get full coverage for <$100/month, and for a family full coverage is <$300/month. When we found out we were pregnant with Evie that suddenly became the deciding factor for going Guard. It cost us less than $200 total to have her at the hospital by C-section. In our current world of Obamacare, you cannot find a better deal.

3. Keep the retirement going: I had invested 12 years already. By the time I am 39 I will be able to retire from the Guard and have a pension waiting for me when I hit 65 (or a little younger, based on combat deployments).

These were all practical and valid reasons for going National Guard, but in talking with my brother, and being in training with Active Duty guys again, I realized that these weren’t the whole stories.

The deeper issue was that I like it.

rest dayWhen asked why I went Special Forces in the first place, the closest I can come to a concise answer is, “To see if I could do it.” It is not being flippant. That was the major part of my motivation, just to see if I could gut through and be among the best. I never did, and still do not, consider myself one of the best. In terms of Special Forces guys I am pretty average in capabilities and way outside the norm in personality and priorities. In fact, my first year in group was a big, “What the hell have I gotten myself into!?” time.

But having gutted through and succeeded at some level; having pushed my limits beyond what I had expected, and in ways I never expected; having sacrificed a good deal of life, and some more worthwhile things to achieve a silly green hat; in short, having paid the price, I learned that I like it.

I don’t necessarily enjoy sucking at life, but I enjoy being the sort of person who can suck at life and not give up. I don’t like the hardship, and the constantly critical environment, the need to prove yourself everyday or risk letting your team down. But on the other hand, I like the kind of person that living and even thriving in that environment has made me.

But more than that I like being around the kind of guys that like that sort of thing. I may not like heights, but I like being in the gang of guys that does. I like that I can at least keep up with the group, and that it pushes me to be better than I ever could be on my own.

You see, in Group we lived life at such a high level of intensity. Constant self-improvement was not optional, it was a life-and-death serious business. It was what we did. I try to maintain that attitude in my daily life on the civilian side, with a program of constant study, daily prayer, and regular physical training, but on the civilian side you are always the odd man out. People look at you funny.

sfauc_shoothouse_63_by_djmonkeyboy

When I go back to the SF world for short stretches it is refreshing to be around the sort of folks who don’t find it weird when you tell them that you are trying to deadlift 500 pounds, or that you practice dry-fire from a concealed holster every day, or that you are trying to learn a foreign language, study the history of Western civilization from Ancient Rome to modern America, get a Masters degree, perfect the one-armed pullup, staff and manage a trip overseas, and keep your two mile time under 13:20, all while maintaining a family and home life. Guys who will nod and say, “That’s cool. Here’s what I did when I was trying to train up to one-armed pullups,”or “Have you checked out the S.I.R.T. laser trainer? That’s what I use for dry-fire.”

It is cool to be around people who also have no time for video games or even seeing most of the new movies that come out, because they are too busy trying to be more!

But the catch is that if you ask most of these guys why they do all this, and if you asked me, it is most often not for noble, altruistic reasons like, “To defend my country,” “To make the world a better place,” “To liberate the oppressed.” A few actually do want to do all those things, but most do it simply because they like it. We like getting high on getting paid to do badass things that most other people can only do on video games. Even those (like me) who do actually want to liberate the oppressed, have long since learned that De Opresso Liber is less a mission statement than a catchphrase.

That’s why when I stay on Active Duty for long periods of time I become gradually more depressed and less motivated. Sure, the job is fun, but what is it for?

laskoIt’s all very well to spend your life trying to be a warrior monk, but if it isn’t about something bigger than yourself it’s ultimately meaningless and unsatisfying. Like it or not, America’s global interests are not a sufficient why. Self-improvement for its own sake is a higher goal than serving America’s interests because the human person will last forever while America is nothing more than a temporary political construct, with at best a few hundred years of use left in it.

At home I have a purpose. I get up early so that I can pray and workout, but after that I have to get things ready for when Kathleen and Evie wake up (breakfast, clothes, pack for work or school, etc.) and once they do get up there is constant work to be done and play to be played. When I leave for work or school I am trying to perform the best I can at these tasks so that I will provide or care for these two people. When I get home there is the practical, hands on work of feeding and clothing to be done (in the form of dishes, cooking, laundry, etc.)

From the time they wake up until the time we all go to bed, my time is not my own. It belongs to my family and its sole purpose is to provide or care for them. This is ultimately more satisfying than shooting, training, martial arts, fitness, and even reading, study and doing medicine.

In the end, glorifying God and serving people are the only two things I have found that carry with them an abiding sense of meaning

Atheists, Agnostics, and the Search for Meaning

Last week over at Why I’m Catholic we posted Jennifer Fulwiler’s conversion story from Atheist to Catholic. Since it’s gone up it has manage to make a few rounds in some atheist circles who take issue with one of Jennifer’s main points in the article, that as an Atheist she always struggled with meaning.

Although I can’t speak on Jennifer’s behalf I can add my own two cents from my own experiences as an agnostic.

When I was in high school I encountered the quote by British philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Although I didn’t agree with his utilitarian conclusions, this idea had a profound impact on me and at an early age. I decided that I would always strive to live in the truth, even if it was disagreeable to my own sense of fulfillment and joy.

In college after studying many of the modern philosophers who championed subjectivity and skepticism I found myself at a crossroads. On one hand was my upbringing in Catholicism, and on the other was what seemed to be solid arguments as to why belief in God was unreasonable, at least to the degree that I couldn’t prove His existence from my own subjective experience and knowledge.

I never actively tried to commit suicide as an agnostic, but I would not have cared whether I lived or died. It was a very dark time in my life.

One of the responses to Jennifer’s testimony makes the point that “life is meaningful because it seems meaningful.” The assertion that followed really surprised me:

“Epistemic best practices recommend treating “life has meaning” as a more-or-less self-evident, non-conditional proposition”

Really? That seems so strange to me for a skeptic to assume such a large issue. Maybe it’s due to my lack of a doctorate in philosophy but it sure seems like meaning is no simple a priori concept like “2 + 2 = 4”, “all bachelors are unmarried.” I’d like to raise a few questions from this “self evident” conclusion:

Why assume meaning?

Can meaning for one person come from something different than meaning does for another?

What happens when the sources of our meaning get in the way of one another’s?

If a group finds meaning in power or hedonism, how does this group’s pursuit of meaning take shape in a society at large?

Does human life have inherent dignity? Where does it come from and who does it extend to?

If someone would have told me that my life had meaning as an agnostic because I could inherently accept it as having meaning I would have told them they were being intellectually dishonest. I simply can’t see how one can assign meaning to an action or life anymore than one can assign goodness.

A life with a priori meaning seems a lot like putting makeup on a pig and calling it Socrates.

Here are some links to some other commentary on Jennifer’s post if you would like to join in the discussion:

Andrew Sullivan – The Daily Beast

Big Think

Truth Plus Lies

Not Not a Philosopher