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.

Meditations on Silence

“For twenty years I labored in the mission.” With emotionless voice Ferreira repeated the same words. “The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country.” “It is not that it does not take root,” cried Rodrigues in a loud voice, shaking his head. “It’s that the roots are torn up.” At the loud cry of the priest, Ferreira did not so much as raise his head. Eyes lowered he answered like a puppet without emotion: “This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

Over the Christmas break, I witnessed the most intense film that I’ve ever watched. That’s what Scorcese’s Silence was for me. Not content being sad or suspenseful it provoked thought through its sheer intense psychological torture. And it forced you kicking and screaming to live through its characters. Based on Shusaku Endo’s book Silence, it follows 2 Portuguese Jesuit priests’ search for their mentor Ferreira whom their order has lost contact with. Rumor has it that he has apostatized and is now living as a Japanese man. Through a grueling 2 hours, we come to learn of the villages who worship in secret, hoping for the return of the Jesuits and the agonizing deaths suffered by those who refuse to renounce their faith by committing fumi-e – stepping on a picture of Christ or the Virgin Mary. As a result of Japan’s purge of foreign influence all missionaries have also been expelled from Japan. Rodrigues and Garupe are the last 2 priests remaining.

That isn’t the horror of the story. After Garupe dies trying to save the Christian villagers condemned to drown at sea, Rodrigues comes face to face with his Ferreira to see that the rumor has been true. He has become Sawano Chuan, a Japanese man with a wife who now writes as a Japanese buddhist. How did the swamp of Japan finally defeated the missionary spirit of Christ? This is where Scorcese blows the flame of his paradox. Instead of threatening Japanese converts by death, the roots were ripped out by killing and torturing Japanese believers if Jesuit priests refused to renounce the faith themselves.

For the 2 men, Rodrigues and Ferreira, the straw that finally broke their backs was anazuri. The Japanese are suspended upside down in a pit and left to slowly bleed out over the course of days, sometimes weeks. The pit is covered so their heads are enclosed. It can be filled with blood and their excrement. It is like the vicarious suffering of Christ was hit with an Uno reverse card. Just as humanity suffered for Adam’s sin, so the Japanese Catholics die for the confession of the priests’ own faith. Throughout the movie, you’re prompted to ask “where is God in the midst of such oppressive silence?”

The answer is found when Rodrigues sees a vision of Christ who assures him of his presence despite his apparent silence and permits him to step on image of him in order to ease the suffering of others. After all, that is what he came for. Rodrigues lives out his days as a Japanese man with a wife and child and helps the Tokugawa government identify any Christian contraband coming into the Christian. Although he appears to have forsaken his Christian beliefs, the last scene of the movie is a shot from within his cremation barrel where he can be seen holding a crucifix hidden within a paper parcel.

In Christianity, martyrdom for your beliefs is often honored as a heroic expression of faith. But what if others are martyred because of your beliefs? That’s the question that Scorcese wrestles with so well. The movie seems to answer that God works in the silence even of his followers. And that it’s okay to deny him to ease the suffering of others. Like a parent lying to protect their child, we want to be able to let this little lie slide and confess Jesus in our hearts though our mouths may tremble shut. The emotional force of suffering is so great that it would seem a greater evil than even apostasy and the renouncing of one’s faith – essentially your beliefs.

The reason behind the emotional force of the movie is because of the argument by the daimyo Inoue. Christianity is not welcome in Japan. It fits worse than an old shoe with no soles. No fruit can grow out of such a swamp. Such language reminded me of the way manipulative people speak, like a father blaming his child for the way he beat his mother. The responsibility of killing Japanese Christians is shifted by Inoue to the missionaries themselves. Yet no amount of forced decisions can hide that anymore than a tortured testimony can be upheld in a court of law. Their own people could have stopped it at any time. We feel its guilt though, because it appears as though the priests could’ve done something to stop it.

But what’s worse than any physical and temporary suffering? Denying that you don’t know nor believe nor love Christ…That’s the pain Peter felt as the rooster crowed. That’s what the Father felt when he condemned Jesus on behalf of humanity, when he bore the weight of the world’s sin and was abandoned and disowned so that we could be reconciled to him. For God to ask that of us would be for us to do something’s he already done – condemn his Son on the behalf of others. But for us to renounce him is to condemn him as a liar in whom no salvation can be found. We would be saying that Jesus is not worthy of full allegiance nor of more honor than even kings.

It helps if we imagine Christ in the same position – would he deny God his Father if it meant being able to save some of his followers from persecution? While it can be tempting in this cultural age to believe that what we believe and think is of little importance, remember that to Jesus the greatest sin was the blasphemy of God’s Spirit – to call God and his work evil and denounce Christ before men. Jesus alone is the savior of all men: both those bleeding to death upside down and those watching them. To deny that compromises your soul though it might save the momentary suffering of others.

What is hardest is to trust God that even in the face of such an impossible decision his purposes are good and that he is not and will not be silent as the blood of those who die for his sake cry out against their true oppressors and not those they try to blame, manipulating Christian compassion to cover their inhumane apathy. I write all this not because I believe I would be able do what I think is right in such a situation. Because I know that I wouldn’t. The swamp of Japan has defeated the spirit of many. And I wouldn’t be the last. Even if I survived such an ordeal I would be a permanently broken man. So I hope I never have to face such a situation. And if I do I hope that God will sustain me on such a day. All in all, it would’ve been a great film if it wasn’t so dragged out and its attempt at redemption wasn’t just a whimper. But real life is often like that. So watch it. If you dare.

Why do I follow Jesus?

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” When I think about why I follow Jesus, I think of Peter’s response to Jesus after many had deserted him because of what he said. Jesus looked at his disciples and asked, ‘you don’t want to leave too do you?’ But Peter replied, ‘Lord, to where else will we go? You have the words of life.’

Just as he fed 5000 with only 2 loaves of bread and 5 baskets of fish, so Jesus offers himself as true bread and drink. For him, to eat and drink of him is to believe him and so believe in his words. I think it follows that our beliefs therefore shape reality. Will I believe Jesus and have eternal life? Or will I try to obtain it another way? Pascal acknowledges that in everything people do, they seek their own happiness and joy (though that doesn’t exclude others). I follow Jesus because I believe him and when you meet him you realize that there is nowhere else and no one else to go to, like an immigrant who finally finds that piece of land called home. For me this home is the home of my affections, the resting place of all my restless searching for joy. In all my years before meeting Jesus, I had thought that what I was looking for all these years were found in myself and my activities but I never suspected that I was made for another.

I follow Jesus because I believe that every desire we have finds their fulfillment in him. It’s not that we’re too eager for happiness and God wants to ruin the fun, it’s that we’re far too easily satisfied. I was like a child content with playing in mud when sand castles, not knowing that beaches were offered to me. But when I took and read his words I realized that these beaches were here all along. This restless heart had found its true and eternal home.

The Biggest Reason Why Most Resolutions Fail

Why do most resolutions fail? These days it seems people hesitate to make any resolutions. Others do it half-heartedly expecting that they will fail past March. The good thing is that I think this betrays the reality that we know how impossible change is. Having seen the countless attempts we’ve tried to improve our lives and failed we are a little bit wiser. Change is hard because I think what we do isn’t separated from who we are. I think the reason they fail is because people for the most part remain themselves at the end of the year.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

To understand how resolutions connect with the change we want to see, it is helpful to ask what resolutions are. At its most basic level, I think resolutions for most people are expressions about what they would like to achieve. It is a show of will. By gritting one’s teeth, one attempts to stand up to one’s self to stop doing one thing and start doing another. And then we fail. And fail again. And make resolutions for the next year. While this is annoying, when you’ve lived long enough it can become just another fact of life and something you apathetically accept. But I think it does raise the question of whether there was something wrong with the original resolutions that people make. Is it because the will wasn’t strong enough or because it wasn’t genuine?

I don’t think that’s the case. I think when people make resolutions they genuinely desire, hope and believe that they can change. Resolutions are done when the will is most firm and the vision is most clear. With the destination in mind, the heart goes along and charts the route. But the problem may be the direction of one’s will. In life, few things are done well by aiming directly at the object as an end in itself. It seems that to operate a business well, one must seek to serve rather than to profit. To lead well, one must seek to embolden the people they lead. On the other hand, leading to obtain power leads to the manipulation and usage of people like tools in a shed. So in order to change what we do, we must first change who we are. Because a large part of our accomplishments proceed from our habits and then our character, changing who we are involves changing our virtues. We must have an image of who we ought to be and strive to embody it. Like Narcissus whose continual reflection of himself turned him into a flower of vanity, we become what we behold for long enough.

For me and countless others, change is something I’ve struggled with. From my childhood till now, I have often realized that I am not who I ought to be. And trying to figure out whom I ought to be has been like looking for fish through muddy waters. But what I discovered at 17 remains true even now — that there is none who so embodies what it means to live the good life and to be fully human as the man the Bible calls Jesus. Yet he was more than a man. He was the embodiment of the divine and because of that change hasn’t just been possible but it has occurred simply by beholding and believing him. For me, change has come from a change in spirit and the spirit through faith. While I’m sure 2019 will continue to challenge who I am and who I ought to be, I know like the apostle John that it isn’t in vain.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. – 1 John 3:2

I hope that you too would see and experience true change in 2019 and that you would become the person you were called to be.