142 Is God a Utilitarian?

Earlier this month, two nuns were viciously attacked outside a church in Malacca, Malaysia. One of them, Sister Juliana, later succumbed from her injuries. The incident only made a small tab in the Straits Times- a little mention, a passing reference before the world moved on to bigger things, greater catastrophes, Events rather than Incidents.

Sister Juliana was a good friend of my mother’s godmother. We received word of the attack one day before the papers were published. It felt strange to be on the other side of the news, and it made me wonder about all the other little incidents that I always skim past in the papers, all the reports that I don’t deem interesting or scandalizing enough to peruse hungrily.

“Whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk...” –Graham Swift, ‘Waterland’

Before I go off on a tangent about the stories behind the articles we read, however, the primary thing that gave me pause about this was: how could God allow nuns to be so viciously attacked? Why give suffering to those who have given up everything to follow Him? I do not ask why the assailants made their choice, but rather, believing that there is a foreordained path for all of us and that God guides us along this with a firm and sure hand, I wondered why the Sisters’ path had taken such a dark and dangerous route.

“Do you think God is a utilitarian?” I asked my mother.

I mean, I went on, look at it: Jesus, one man, was made to suffer (and in such an ignominious manner) for mankind (whose sins he had not even committed).  His arc is the story we all follow most closely; His the story that spans all the Gospel readings in church. Is God trying to drill his utilitarian philosophy into us? (Utilitarianism dictates that the purpose of every course of action should be to ensure the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. A utilitarian, for example, would happily sacrifice one soldier if it meant saving the company. So: very close to the Jesus example.)

The application of utilitarianism to Catholicism, however, stops there. Jesus’ suffering has a dearth of metaphorical implications. In this day and age, it is more a symbol of eternal love and mercy than literal history: how do we prove that the walk to Golgotha actually happened, let alone that all our sins were removed by one man? The concept of ‘sin’ is still a very religious one, as is its removal. How then do we interpret modern suffering?

The epiphany I came to is as thus: we must stop thinking of suffering as punishment, but as a challenge.

The feelings of indignation and injustice that I felt with the attack on the Sisters stemmed from that universal question we have all pondered one time or another: why do people suffer? In the legal system, it is easy to explain that people are punished because of their transgressions. But in daily life, suffering often comes apropos of nothing.

I just finished reading a book on Greek mythology, which expounded on popular tales and briefly explained their relevance within Greek culture. One thing that I have always found fascinating about Greek mythology is the way they saw their Gods: as inexplicably greater than humans, but only in terms of their power, not their virtue. In fact, the idea of a perfect God is very much Christian, not Greek: their gods lusted, murdered, envied, discriminated… Thus, I realized that I had unconsciously been viewing our God as a Zeus-like figure, thunderbolt in hand, ready to strike down anyone whom he deemed to ‘have it coming’.

The Sisters did not have it coming.

Therefore, we must stop seeing God as someone who coldly and harshly deals out just desserts- or worse, someone who doles out suffering for the heck of it. There must be a purpose to every suffering- not so much the ‘fore’, or how this suffering came to us through a fault of our own, but the ‘after’: how we must arise from each suffering stronger, and most importantly, closer to God.

What suffering or what glory is in our future, nobody can tell but God. This past month has been one of my most trying experiences. To state it plainly: I did not get into NUS Law on my first attempt. This, following a string of disappointments such as not getting into Oxford and not getting into one of my desired internships, caused my self esteem to dip to an all time low. But riding alongside that lack of confidence was an almost arrogant sense of betrayal: how is person X better than me? She is not prettier, or smarter, or nicer; how did she get so much, while I got so little? Bitter thoughts like these raced through my mind for a very, very long time. I felt terrible about them but could not escape them until I had the epiphany that God’s will must be done.

And God’s will is thus:

That we are blessed beyond compare. That the audacity of hope is not to dream fervently that all our puny wishes will come true, but that we hope in God for His peace to dominate our world. That God has for each of us a unique path that will bring us closer to Him. That there are hidden blessings in every curse, that maybe some time later you will discover a thousand things to make you glad your life turned out this way.

It was only after gaining this peace through this realization that I could get my wits together and marshal a game plan. I wrote essays and attended interviews and tests with the strengthening knowledge that God is always beside me, and that when He does not bring me where I want to go, He is leading me by the hand to pastures that are much greener. And whether that pasture is near or far away, I must strive on, in the sure knowledge of His grace.

I have heard that it is nearly impossible to get called up for the second round of interview and tests if you did not get called up in the first round. I have heard that the chances of a successful appeal are close to zero. And most crushingly, just this Monday I spoke to my PSC officer on the phone, and she advised me that since NUS had not contacted me within a fortnight of my interview, I should assume the worst and start to make contingency plans. But that very same night, I logged into my NUS portal with a sinking heart, and saw the most blessed words:

My appeal had been successful.

I do wonder what I would have done had it not been successful. But I am grateful beyond belief to God that I did not have to surmount this one more challenge. I am so grateful to God for the past month, for the peace He has given me, for the surety of wonderful friends and supportive family members, and most of all for the confidence in my identity as a loved child of God, whose purpose in life must not be to scoop up all the accolades possible but to, through my words and actions, bring others closer to Him, closer to love.

Every now and then, my brain goes “Whaaa-?” about the news. I still don’t quite believe it. But I love that leap of happiness that rises in me when I remember it. It makes me remember how beautiful life is. And I hope I will continue believing that life is indeed beautiful, no matter what challenges come my way.

“God may tell you to ‘wait’, but He will never tell you to ‘worry’.” –a poster at the office

141 Ballet and the Working Girl

Photo edited from Megagamie
At the end of this month, I will wrap up what has been five months in my first proper job. (I have been working as an intern in an e-commerce firm selling clothes.) Taking on this new challenge even as I projected ahead to a new phase of life come August this year turned out to be a whirlwind of a ride into myself and the ‘real world’- or what I can claim to have discovered of it, having been thus far sheltered by very loving working and home environments.

Still, juggling various application deadlines and yes, their results, with the demands of work caused me to, like the proverbial mad man, start mashing everything together in my brain. Sounds insane, doesn’t it? But I learnt that when you start to see the various challenges you face from all fields on the same plane- when you stop compartmentalizing your life and realize that it all adds up to what kind of person you are going to become- you stand to glean a lot more from life. And you become better equipped to withstand the storms that life is going to hurl your way. And boy, have I been hurled a lot of storms these five months.
So why is this post titled ‘Ballet and the Working Girl’?

Because I also wanted to take this opportunity to delve into something I’ve long wanted to write about. Ballet- ballet- ballet; it started out as an innocent once-weekly encounter to fulfil my NYAA ‘Sports’ criteria (because heaven forbid would I do anything else remotely athletic), but I have since gained such an enormous respect and reverence for this discipline and art that it is hard to pick just a few words –and indeed, write just one short post!- on the lessons it has taught me.

Just as work was a telescope into the ‘real world’ even as I thumped away on my computer at home on the weekends, furiously filling out application forms and sending them off, ballet was always that something off the academic calendar for me during my schooling years. And when I started to face all three of my worlds together during these five months, that’s when all the lessons learnt started coming together and really taking shape.

1. Practice makes perfect.

‘Adage’ means two things for me: ‘start all lists with a proverb’ (origin: French) and ‘an essential part of barre that trains you to take things slowly’ (origin: Italian). Perfect for today’s list, in other words! Now, I’m very sorry to start this list with a proverb so clich├ęd, but it is truly true for someone taking baby steps in the ballet and working worlds. Or, as one of my friends posted on Instagram: “Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

Consistent work makes consistent progress, if you work hard enough and learn earnestly enough. Erasing yesterday’s mistakes today means faster efficiency and better performance tomorrow. For ballet, that means coming early before class and/or staying back behind class to work on the little foibles that weren’t successfully inked out during class, such as weak metatarsals or an incorrectly aligned arabesque. For work, that means ironing out inconsistencies the minute you spot them, no matter if it ‘isn’t in your job scope’ (yet), like realizing that stock count for a certain item was incorrectly represented online, or spotting that a new arrival has been wrongly placed on the sales rack.

Taking responsibility for your own progress also keeps you out of ruts. It generates the fuel you need to constantly move forward.

2. Learn from everybody.

One more quote I saw online: “Don’t stop looking for work once you’ve got a job.” For me, that means two things.

Firstly, to look outside yourself for things that might improve your learning curve. I say ‘learning curve’ and not ‘performance’ because sometimes, especially at work, these things do not contribute in any way to your Key Performance Index. Things such as helping other people with their tasks seem very obvious at first, but actually become a lot harder to do the further they are from your idea of your job scope. And yet, what I’ve learnt as an intern is that job scopes are always fluid, and it’s best to have this flexibility to apply yourself wherever needed for the best of the company. For ballet, it’s in watching performances online or live that are, at best, tangential to what you’re learning. You never know when they might come back to you: sure, that enchainement may be miles away from where you are now in terms of technique, but I’ve always found it instructive to pay attention to the ballerina’s emotional engagement with the music. Capturing the essence of a character in movement can be replicated, even in the little repetitive sequences we do each week.

Secondly, never think so highly of yourself that you consider others unworthy of learning from.  No one is beneath you. This is a lesson of pride as much as anything, and one that I have yet to fully learn.

3. Don’t take it personally.

Ironically, it is when you can take a step back and separate your performance from your identity that your performance becomes better. Perhaps I generalize- but how else can you learn to deal with comments such as “you grow fatter every time I see you” or “I’m not coming back if I face [such] bad service”? The best you can do is attempt to see the comment from the perspective of the one who made it, and work to improve yourself as objectively as possible. And know that at the end of the day, how you rose from such comments and made yourself a better person is what’s most important.

4. Handle everything with a smile.

Again, this comes with compartmentalizing. You can rehearse a combination over and over in your head, but when the music starts, you have to let go in order to fully dance it the way you imagined it. Sometimes it’s hard to get back to your feet after having been verbally pushed down in every way possible. But you have to, because that’s the only way to prove your critics wrong. Likewise, I’ve faced some challenges at work that really made me grit my teeth (thankfully, not that often). I simply observed the way others handled similar challenges and found that those I admired the most were the ones who always handled crises with a smile. When I got back to ballet class, I remembered to take harsh comments seriously- but lightly. Not in the negative sense (I got caught up in a grammar forum there about the divergence of the phrase’s meaning in the UK and US), but in that you should never let a harsh comment get you down. Smile!

5. As with all things, it is always good to take a break.

I mean this for those who can, of course, afford it. Nobody advises professional ballerinas to take five or six months off (as I did during my A levels)- and few in the working world have the luxury of taking a long break or stopping at will, as I am doing, to get my head together before the next game. But perhaps what would work as well is to take a break from routine. Ballet students are sometimes advised to take classes at another studio during summer break. Learning a new style or simply learning under a new teacher helps us spot oversights and, at best, rediscover dance. As an intern, you do have the luxury of a wider job scope than most: and sometimes it’s good to decide to tackle something new for a change.

My technique did suffer after that long break away from ballet, but I found myself reenergized and putting more emotion in the dances which were just routine before, particularly for the ‘adage’ sequences which had gotten a bit draggy. As for work, maybe it’s just working in an arts environment, but it is always good to get a breather- who knows what inspiration you’ll find out there?

Sometimes taking a break doesn’t have to take all that long- or go all that far. Sometimes all it takes is a breather on your own: I have become a lot more introspective over the past five months. Pragmatically, I guess this is out of necessity, because I suddenly had a lot more to handle than just ‘handing up homework’, but I find that taking the time off to sit by myself sometimes and “just Zen” (as one of my friends puts it) is hugely therapeutic and beneficial. It connects the dots between the clouds of confusion in my brain and sometimes even maps out a constellation for me to follow.

Now, I don’t know where I’m going next, but with these five lessons in my heart, I hope to arrive with tons of strength and dignity to spare. Cheers!