Growing Up With A Difficult Sister: Reflections of a Brother

There is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain — Alan Watts.

I titled this piece, Growing Up With A Difficult Sister but I wonder if it should be the other way around. “You’re too sensitive!” “Stop being sensitive!” “Why can’t you take a joke…?” I remember those cries like it was yesterday. Whenever my sister got upset at me, whether it was for stealing her snacks or making fun of her, I would always deflect her issue by pointing out how sensitive she was. It was her issue. It wasn’t my fault she couldn’t take a joke. I would follow that up, pretending to comfort her, by patting her head several times and hoping such patronizing would defuse the situation. It did not. I remember once that the girl I crowned “the queen of sore losers” upended a whole monopoly board and stole all my cash because she lost the game. She really was the queen.

A sensitive sister is not a big problem — if you have friends and other relationships and space to grow apart and protect yourself from one another’s furies. After all, there is a reason why the proverb, “Familiarity breeds contempt” exists. But between the moving spaces of four countries, ironically our family spaces became narrowed. The four walls of mom, dad, my sister and I became a garden of joy and a suffocating prison of despair. Our fragmented childhood meant our relationship as siblings became the key to our survival. So there was no escape. In this room of one’s own, one could either dig at the walls, hoping for jailbreak or annihilate your cell mate.

I think I understand now her sensitivity a little better. The sensitive person is a paradox. Sensitivity is the level of your consciousness, both of pleasure and pain, of evil and good, of beauty and ugliness, of truth and of lies. The more conscious you are, the more sensitive you become. But its cost is immense — a traffic jam can ruin your day; a break up, your life. But we need sensitive people because without them we are blind to different layers of reality.

My sister was sensitive because she cared. She cared about her relationships, especially ours. Her emotions reflected the intensity both of her inner self and how she understood herself in her relationships. Her responses raised a good question — in the cruelty of relationships, we aren’t we more depressed? When betrayal and tragedy all occur within families and friends why aren’t children more anxious? I still vividly remember nights of shouting and broken glass. That’s probably why we fought so much. She always opened herself up to me but I was a walking jack hammer.

Of course, being sensitive doesn’t excuse you from personal agency or responsibility. Nor does it mean you always understand why you’re so sensitive. What exactly is it that you’re feeling? You still have to choose what you do with your life and how you respond to these emotions. My sister was no exception. But the temptations are harder and the possibilities of evil greater. We can do more damage with our pain. It is crimes committed out of hatred and passion that devastate the most. Even the most apathetic criminal has inwardly become one who hates life itself. Why did Cain kill Abel? Isn’t it because his deeds were evil and Abel’s were good? Isn’t it because Abel was loved by his Father and he wasn’t? It’s easy to think that being sensitive makes us better humans. But it doesn’t always. It’s about what we choose to do with what we become conscious of.

So in saying that, I think my sister really was growing up with a difficult brother. My solution to everything was to suppress emotions — both mine and hers. All I had to do was highlight her wrong emotions, her overreactions and her sensitivity, as though it was a problem in itself. It’s no wonder my sister would say I had the emotional maturity of a ten year old. As Hermione Granger used to say to Ron Weasley, “Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.” It’s ironic that one of my nicknames in elementary school was Ron Weasley. Looking back now, I think what I wish was that I had listened to my sister better. As the more “resilient” one I wish that I had strengthened her. And I wish I had come to know the greater joy of understanding her. Because in knowing her, I also came to know myself.

Theology or Therapy? Does Depression Even Exist? A Fresh Perspective

Whose reality counts?

Last week I was finishing a pastoral care plan for Captivate Presbyterian, the church I’m currently interning at. The pastoral care plan was aimed at addressing the holistic needs of those suffering from depression in the congregation. What I repeatedly encountered during my research was a tension between the natural and the supernatural that approached the level of paradox (just like most of reality). Modern society sees depression as a distinct clinical entity like having the flu (although I’d much rather have the flu) without any spiritual element to it. But Christians recognize that every person is an embodied spirit and that the Christian Scriptures cover every aspect of human experience. All personal experience is therefore a spiritual one too and depression likewise. But people struggle to balance different perspectives. Christians tend to either treat depression as any other physical illness or to blame it on some spiritual cause. My friend shared this paper with me that gave us a fresh perspective on theology, philosophy and psychiatry through its examination of depression and I want to explore this a bit further.

Does depression even exist?

Natural brokenness

There’s no denying that depression exists. But no one can seem to agree on what it is or who has it across any culture. These days in the West, it can be a matter of ticking a few boxes on a DASH questionnaire. Which raises the question — in what sense does depression actually exist? This is the issue that Swinton’s paper recognizes.

Worse, there isn’t a consistent understanding of depression across time or cultures. We’ve struggled to determine whether one even has it. This is tied to the problem of whether depression actually exists as a disease in itself. Even the symptoms and the way people with deep sadness or apathy describe depression differ from what mental health ‘experts’ offer. So am I depressed because I say I am? Whose reality ultimately counts?

When a diagnosis is reified (that is the idea that the person has depression is made real), the psychiatrist pronounces that the patient has a certain disease. But when we understand it in this way, it focuses on the individual and the problem he has. It numbs us to the possibility that perhaps depression is not a disease in itself, but a signal of the emotionally toxic society we live in. Instead of better understanding our time and place, the emphasis is often on numbing and medicating and treating the ‘sick’ person.

Spiritually transformative

Swinton’s paper reviews one approach to spiritually understand depression. Rather than something innately bad, the potentially transformative model frames depression as a natural experience that can be interpreted differently and used to grow and transform the individual. The problem of modern society is that it treats health and wholeness as the absence of any disease and tries to avoid any suffering. Because it views it as the greatest evil any God and spirituality have to answer to it (this might account for the problem of theodicy). Yet even Nietzsche the true postmodern saw suffering and depression not as an evil but as a necessity for transformation and true life. Just like the movies, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Theology over self actualization

But without a transcendent dimension, the potentially transformative model only becomes a “spiritually” oriented self actualization. It’s just another tool for your psychological wellbeing. The focus is still too therapeutic. It is as spiritually bankrupt as mindfulness and meditation without any reference to anything else but yourself. Theologically, Judaism and Christianity has always viewed health not as self-actualization, or the absence of disease or sadness. Rather it’s the presence of God (the divine) in the midst of suffering (cf. The story of Job). You don’t have to be happy or guilt free or physically whole to be healthy! It’s about one’s relationship to God and their assurance of his love and presence.

If this is true, then suffering doesn’t have to be inevitably bad. Yes, it still sucks. The feeling of suffering especially depression can feel like an eternal longing that never ends. It can be paralyzing guilt over who we are. It can feel the alienation of being and the shame of being unlike others. After all, it is the regret between the ideal of what life could be and what it really is: a sad abyss, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Lemony Snickett puts it like this, “the sad truth is that the truth is sad.”

Where to go?

I’m not saying that understanding depression as a transformative opportunity denies how awful it is to experience it. I don’t think we have to mutually exclude paradoxical ideas. Instead, if we realize that there is more than one way to understand depression and suffering in general, we can understand ourselves and the world better. We can understand what depression ultimately points to. And we don’t have to simply treat a person with depression like some sick individual who just needs panadol. They have to change. But maybe we do too.

For Christians it is only the evil and suffering that separates us from God that is truly evil. Only when one recognizes that, can one transcend suffering. As Dostoevsky would say, “How can one be well when one suffers morally?” So suffering can be transformative. It can lead us to know God and through knowing him, to become better than who we are. And it highlights the need to reform society before the face of God and the need for him to manifest his transcendence in the immanent. Depression becomes not a final destination but a pothole along a journey. There is a time for weeping and lamenting and healing. But there is also a time for learning and growth and overcoming. As it is written, weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning.

”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.

Is An Insignificant Life Worth Living?

It has been a busy year so far for my family and I. At the beginning of the year I decided to begin studying my Master of Divinity degree at Christ College because I thought it was a better path to developing what abilities God had given me and how I would best help others. The semester was a hard one. Besides learning a completely new and dead language (Koine Greek) I also began a new role as clinical educator at work and the constant juggling between the 2 responsibilities meant that by June my body was worn out and my mind was absent. I needed a holiday. By July I was in Sabah, Malaysia enjoying the tropical weather and seeing my grandmother whom I had not seen in 13 years. But while the weather was sunny and the waves were calm, a storm in my heart still raged. I experienced a gnawing restlessness that grew each day and fully manifested itself only once I had returned to Sydney and prepared to return to ‘normal life’.

This restlessness of mine which I am prone to experiencing was crippling. Around the same time, I had struggled to know how I ought to rest and what to prioritize in the upcoming semester. Was I even studying the right course? Why was it so hard? How else should I be using my time? From the moment I entered my last clinical note, I think my mind had already begun to consider the alternatives I could be doing with my time and my life despite my constraints. Being open to new possibilities was exhausting, like never ending research for a product you want to buy. In the end, it came down to what I perceived as the absurdity of my life. What was the point of my labors if none of my work will be remembered? This is something that has become increasingly obvious to me. After all, Jean Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion at 26 while Nietzsche only became the youngest professor at the University of Basel at 24. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ Accompanying this feeling of insignificance is a feeling of missing out, that there is a life out there where I might be happy, leading everyday that I haven’t realized it to be filled with constant regret and envy at those to appear to have found it (though I haven’t actually met anyone who has yet). It wasn’t until the first day of returning to work at my clinic that I read this an article on restlessness in the Art of Manliness.1

One of the most valuable lessons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accomplish a great undertaking, and that both are necessarily few in one generation. If this lesson were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble purpose are excellent qualities of character; but they can never enable a man to lift himself by the boot-straps nor accomplish the unattainable. It is at once the weakness and greatness of some to conceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excellence that no human power can reach it. The natural effect of this is a restless desire to accomplish something far beyond what is ordinarily attained even by surpassing talent. When such a desire has taken possession of the heart, the usual achievements of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivial to come down to the common affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old common-sense way. J. Clinton Ransom, The Successful Man, 1886

Thanks to the technological developments of the last 2 centuries, the accumulation of wealth in the West and the emphasis on self autonomy, we are served a buffet of endless possibilities and enticed by endless temptations and expectations. How can one live in such a world? The solution I think seems to be by a good dose of humility. Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that there is nothing better for man than to fear God and keep his commandments, so Kierkegaard reminds us that there is little way of knowing if the life we have chosen for ourselves is the best. Often the responsibility of this immense choice can crush us from ever making a decision. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Humility and faith are the keys to enjoying the present and leaving the future to the One who sees all that is under the sun. Complement this with TGC’s article “How Do I Discern If My Ambition is Godly?” 2

Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

  1. ## How to Cure Neurasthenia (Restlessness) | The Art of Manliness
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How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.