image by Jamie Dench from Unsplash
With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
In my living room, there is a beautiful piece of art. (Which doesn't say much, as there are many beautiful artworks by my sister all over the house. I am proud to say that without being an art connoisseur, I have enjoyed all her artwork so far with only one exception, which was a particularly obnoxious object called Worm Baby. Not a horror movie person; that Thing was. I think the name is graphic enough to suffice without description.)
This particular one, however, is 1 Corinthians 13 in Chinese calligraphy, framed in white, and without a backing so it looks like it's floating against the wall. It was done by a friend's father, given to my dad as a present, and one of my favourite things about it is that every time the word 'love' appears, it's written in a different way. I knew there was 'old' and 'new' Chinese script, but it's fascinating to see how many different legit ways the same word can be written, and still read as such.
To me, that reinforces how love is in essence so simple and universal, and yet in application so myriad.
All those Facebook quizzes on What is Your Love Language, and Asian Parents humour videos; and #growingupwithsiblings, for example.
Search the Scriptures challenged me to read 1 Corinthians 13 as 15 ways of describing love, and then summarize and apply it. 15 ways to love. Boiled down to what is most directly, personally applicable to your life. Which is not easy, if you take a look at those verses.
Love suffers long and is kind;
love does not envy;
love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
The first three times I read them through I felt hopeless: "okay, I need them all, every single one of them--I'm just adding a growing number of ticks at the end of each line! How to pick the most important one, or summarize all of this??" But that's precisely why--it breaks down an otherwise overwhelming or abstract list into specific, personal, and most of all, applicable articles.
I finally decided the best approach was to describe it as two general categories:
1. longsuffering /patience /fortitude
All these terms, at least for me, translate to having a higher threshold of forbearance when things don't go your way, by cultivating humility and sincere love and concern for others. This is really difficult for someone who thinks there's a specific format even for hanging up the laundry. I mean, obviously my way is the best, right? Usually, I close my eyes as much as possible whenever someone helps me, (I'm tempted to write, 'attempts to help'!) but that's where the second part comes in. Not merely for the sake of avoiding a petty quarrel over socks and underwear, but out of greater humility; ok, maybe my way isn't flawless after all, you do have a point about bedsheets--
--and love for others; I appreciate you wanting to help me, and I want to remember this could be a fun and pleasant opportunity for us to work together IF ONLY I CAN STOP NOTICING HOW YOU'RE DROPPING CLEAN LAUNDRY ON THE FLOOR AND NOT PUTTING THE PEGS INTO THE BASKET but yeah, those don't really matter in the big picture, do they? *sweats*
In how you interact with and care for others. To be interested in them--not how they reflect upon or affect you or compare to you (which may sound immature and and at the level of teenage friendship problems, but which extends even to parent-child relationships--both ways, at that.) To be less self-conscious; which, as has been so rightly pointed out, is true humility--not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. So your love for others is more genuine. Again, this is challenging in a culture where we are constantly aware of how we look, how others see us, how others reflect upon us; where we zoom in on group pics to see ourselves first, where there are people it's uncool to be friends with, where we squirm when certain people comment on our Facebook page or spoil our feed.
I feel disappointed with myself when I think about how flimsy my love for others is, how it hovers so precariously upon my threshold of forbearance, and how much selfishness is mixed up in it. I remember one quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov which really struck me: "The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular."
It's easy to feel a benevolent, if vague and undemanding, compassion and love for others; you feel soulfully convinced that you, too, have a heart to end world hunger or smooth fevered brows and generally be the next Mother Teresa;
but when it comes down to everyday life, to individuals, to toothpaste tubes not rolled neatly, to hairs on the floor you just swept, to unmade beds and apologies and grumpiness and yes, the right way to hang out laundry--we need the Spirit to teach us how to love.
We need Him Who loved us first, and enabled us to love in turn...
'We love because He first loved us.'
Loving Christ can be vague. Sometimes a rush of nice warm fuzzy feelings convinces you that you're aglow with love, like the tangible flush of emotion when you emerge from a hug. Sometimes you feel so impossibly distant, as if you're staring at a static name on a piece of paper, trying to remember why it was once so important to you, trying to remember how it made you feel so much, wondering why nothing within you flickers when you read it anymore.
And we think confusedly, I need to love God more--but how? And we try confusedly to cultivate that warm fuzzy feeling. And we feel guilty when we fail, and we get discouraged, and we get disillusioned.
I am learning to see my love for Christ, not in the terms of how much I feel I love Him--which is how we tend to think about loving people--but how much I love other, lesser things more than Him.
I don't love Him more than I love my anger and bitterness, my sense of self-righteousness, my pride. I don't love Him more than my desire to hold grudges, to hurt those who hurt me. I don't love Him more than my desires for emotional fulfilment, for pleasure, for self-gratification, for security, for affirmation.
This sobers me and shows me, from a different angle, the major idols or obstacles in my spiritual growth, with a startling clarity that doesn't miss out or blur anything. Those things are more significant than I think they are. Some of them are truly good, yet keeping me from the Best; some of them shouldn't be there at all, as they are in direct opposition to Him. And yet I cling to them with a fierceness that surprises me, now that I compare it to the weakness with which I love You.
Do I really love You so little, when You have loved me so much?
We had been studying Margery Garbar's essays on Shakespeare's comedies, and one phrase in particular struck me from her analysis of Portia and Antonio from The Merchant of Venice. (Some background, for anyone who's not familiar--Portia is a witty, intelligent, beautiful and fabulously wealthy heiress beset by suitors; Antonio is a respected merchant prone to depression with few friends he really cares for--like basically, one. Who happens to be the lucky guy that wins Portia, by the way. There is also a gorgeous adaptation of the play starring Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino, but here I'm clearly getting sidetracked.) Garbar analyzed both characters as 'trapped in a death-like ennui of self-sufficient self', needing to commit to the risks of relationships.
I memorized this quote for writing essays, and thought it was interesting. I didn't expect it would resurface in my mind months after finals (and happily forgetting most of what I'd so painfully memorized) when I looked at my own life. Certainly not expecting it would come together, for me, with that quote of Elisabeth Eliot's about 'a life of unmitigated selfishness' (from Shadow of the Almighty) a quote which once meant so much to me; and even C.S Lewis in The Four Loves.
Now, I understand the cynical--I used to think, overly cynical--view of relationships as potential hurt. Caring for someone essentially means making yourself vulnerable. As C.S Lewis so poignantly and beautifully said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
And that is what I am currently learning to accept, not to become embittered, not to withdraw. Like everyone, I am afraid of heartbreak, of loss, of suffering. I am afraid of getting hurt. Of people I love getting hurt. At the first breath of conflict my instinctive response is to retreat, to withdraw into myself, to pull my circle of relationships closer and tighter once more around myself. The bubble of self-sufficient self is attractive; it seems to promise us escape from the pain and conflict that come with human relationships. Something whispers to me that I cannot afford to love people--so much, or so many--because it will end up hurting me.
Yet something also whispers that Another loved, at the cost of ultimate hurt. Knowingly.
He embraced, not a few, but so many; embraced vulnerability in the giving of so much love, love which was still unrequited as yet.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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