140 Serenity in Flux

Photo credit: Ben Canales
There is an old saying, ‘the stars have aligned for us’, which has been lost along with the tendency to accredit things to such things as uncontrollable and intangible as fate or destiny. But even amidst the progression of technology and our ability to know as much about things beyond our reach as we do things beneath our fingertips, the stars remain a symbol of something unknowable. For me, looking at the stars before I go to bed was a habit I developed along with staying up late studying before prelims.  Inevitably, I would be going to bed with a frazzled state of mind, with theories and ‘isms swimming around my head even as I wanted to go to bed and never wake up. The night sky served as calming therapy for me. Even the sight of one star, or two, above my bed, seems to be both a symbol of unchanging stability and of the vast realm of unknowable greatness beyond me. The stars are always there; this I know, and this I take comfort in, as I see the same stars every night before I go to bed. But at the same time I take comfort in the existence of something so vast. It puts me in my place: that is, someplace very small and very insignificant. The stars are, for me, an ironic constant amidst, and so much greater than, the changes that are in constant (there we go again) flux beneath them. (The only thing that is constant is change.) What is ironic about it is that even as I hold on and grasp onto it as a pillar of constancy and strength, there is so little I actually know about it. I am looking to the greats of the unknown to deal with the little uncertainties in my life.

No matter how rational I may be in my daily life, I revert back to the rituals and superstitions of my childhood more often than I admit. It used to be that I believed if I said what I wanted in my prayers five times in a row, or more, I would get what I wanted. Prayers were for me tongue twisters and riddles, more like a child’s game demanding equal and instant payment for effort than what they are for me now: a constant pleading for calm, to reconcile with what God knows is best for me, and to understand that my constant amidst change is God. Sometimes I get a sense of the stars’ magnitude with the path that God has laid out for me. When I hear of others’ life stories—how they may have changed so much from how they imagined it at my age; or how the littlest coincidences led to the greatest sources of contentment in their lives—I am suddenly reminded of how very long the path of life is and how few steps I have taken on it. I feel terribly childlike to demand of God that I must know where exactly the path will lead and where I will end up, but there it is. After all these years, I am still demanding equal and instant results. What is hard for me is to know so surely that there is a path and that no matter where it may lead, it is where I am meant to be.

The A level results come out tomorrow. When I think about the incredible journey God has mapped out for me thus far and the many twists and turns He has inevitably planned for me ahead, I think that surely it doesn’t matter even if I fail all my subjects. This is just the way things are meant to be, and I will pick them up, and move on, and perhaps the path I may find myself on is where I meant to be after all. But then I get caught up with the many human considerations and the very physical pangs of anxiety that I still feel amidst all my philosophizing, and try to rationalize why I feel this way. It comes back to the feeling of uncertainty, and of not knowing. Sometimes it is humbling to surrender to the uncertainty when it reminds you of your scope in the universe, but sometimes we revert to the childlike and demand that the uncertainty be made clear, that we be given the fruits of our labour now. And that the fruits be precisely as we ordered and expected, nothing strange, no grapes falling from apple trees.

Why will I be sad if I do not get the grades I want tomorrow? What are the grades I want? What will be the consequences if I do get the grades I want? For there are endless dilemmas I must face even if I am able to surmount tomorrow’s challenge. Do I stay here or go overseas? Can I?

I think I will be sad because of my own expectations, and that of others. Of my own, it’s that need to have gratification after the many hours put in. But when you rationalize it, you know that you are not the only one who has worked so hard, and after all I have been through I know that hard work does not always equal to being tops. And if I am honest to myself I know that perhaps there have been gaps where I did not work as hard as I should have. It’s that constant self doubt that I battle with, no matter how well I do. Each battle is like the first. There is no war experience for this weary soldier. For even as you have been through so many exams, it is the combination of your knowledge and your very unique spiritual and mental state of mind as you enter it that make your performance. While one can hope to improve on the first, the latter is always so uncertain. I find this especially true of Literature exams. I can never expect to react and respond to the same piece the same way twice, for it’s always a combination of technique and of how I am disposed to feel that morning. That said, I have enough experience of myself to know that with this same self-doubt comes a very strange ability to console myself, to think, ‘I am not a robot, there was never a 100% security I could manage this, and therefore all I can do is try again much harder the next time.’

But of others’ expectations, it is harder. To bring up the wartime analogy again, it is like everyone trusting on the old general to bring the guard through and win the battle. But each battle is different and there are so many factors beyond our control. It is hard for me when people say, “I am sure you will do well. You always do.” What do their certainties bring for me? Nothing, because their certainty is founded only on the past and not on the future. Like the problem of induction, the future is always unknown. There may be higher probabilities but no certainties. And there is a converse probability that the higher you go, the harder you will fall. There is no truth in what a lot of people say, that you should not be worried (worse, that you have no right to be) when you have always done well. That is not what should calm your nerves: what should calm your nerves is the knowledge that you have always, and still have within you the capacity to emerge from every trial stronger and better. I asked Father Joseph this morning to pray for me, for God to calm my nerves and to grant me serenity. I found great comfort in looking at him and realizing through him (and through him, God) the same thing that the stars make me realize: how small I am, how far I have come on my life journey (which is to say, not very far), and how little my anxieties are, not in the face of my past successes, but in the face of my past failures and the very certain surety that God will and has always brought me through them. “Don’t be worried,” he told me earlier. God will be with you. God will always bring you through. God will never forget you.

We may think ourselves forgotten in times of trouble but really it is just the frustration of not knowing what is around the corner. Of course I want to have my endeavours justified, my hard work paid off, and in the words of that Smiths song, “Please… please… please, let me, let me, let me get what I want this time.” The plaintiveness of those words echoes my prayers sometimes. But I pray now that I be content with whatever is given me. Ironically there is a comfort in the cold democracy of the academic world. If you didn’t write well, you won’t score well. It is nothing personal, it is not like the examiner decided you were a terrible person and hence decided to give you a terrible score. It is nothing against your character to score badly and hence there is no ‘fairness’, no ‘I have been a good person and a good student, where are my awards?’ The only fairness comes in being grateful for what you have and the things that do not depend on such material performances: kindness, humility, gratitude, compassion. It is fair if you have been a happy, graceful and grateful person your whole life and for that reason have attracted people of the same kind to swell around you and to enjoy a community of wholesome joy. Positivity attracts positivity, unlike what the physicists say. And it is not because it repels negativity but because it ‘takes the high road’ and that, for whatever share of negativity comes its way, positivity emerges stronger, brighter, happier, despite and in spite of its struggles.

I pray I will not succumb to bitterness and comparisons tomorrow, no matter what I get. Nor will I be proud and forget that the only reason I have come so far is God, who has given me the internal strength and external realm of comfort from friends and family. I do not ‘deserve’ anything, either good or bad results, because each one is God-given and I must see them without their material connotations, but merely as what is necessary for me to take the next step in my unknown and eternally comforting journey.
/PS. I have not forgotten this blog. I have just forgotten how to write.
One of my favourite prayers, apart from St. Francis'. Do not take image without crediting.

1 comment:

  1. I'm Shauna and I live in the Philippines. I've been stalking your blog lately and I fell in love with it! Do you mind checking mine out? :) I would be glad if you also add me up in your blogroll! :) http://shaunalacson.blogspot.com/