Saturday, December 7, 2013

Broken Reflections

When I was about 9 years old, my grandmother passed away. At the time of her passing I was at my godparents house, having fun with computer games and just fooling around. My godfather tried to convey the news to me lightly, by telling me that grandma had gone to a better place. A better place without suffering, where everyone was happy all the time and lead blissful lives.

I knew what he was talking about. It was not heaven or some sort of paradise that sprang to my mind but death. I had seen my fish dead, floating right side up in a murky bowl of water clouded by fish pellets and droppings. I had witnessed hens slaughtered at the wet market, their necks choked by clenched fists while a clean cleaver slit their throats, their blood spilling onto the concrete floor mixing with the rainwater and scattered bits of vegetable. I had observed ants, by the hundreds carrying dead cockroaches murdered by pesticide, back in a cannibalistic funeral procession. 

Somehow, I had been acutely aware, from a very young age, that death was natural, universal, and inevitable. Yet I seemed to have no fear of it. It occurred to me as futile to fear something that was so ... part of the way the world functioned. I often imagined myself dying in various ways, from cancer, from a car accident, from drowning. 

In fact, I still remember an incident where I very nearly drowned myself. And by Jove it was such an incredibly stupid way to drown too. My younger brother and I both took swimming classes together, and after class we would fool around in the pool just having fun. One day, I had the bright idea of giving my brother a piggyback just like my dad usually did. It was pretty fun up until the point when I waded into the deeper end of the pool. Can't really remember why but it was something about trying to allay my brother's fears of the water by immersion and crap like that. And boy did I get immersed.

The moment his head went near the water line, my brother panicked and in attempting to get higher, pushed on the only surface he could find: my head. This of course, caused me, his support to simply go deeper into the pool, and he panicked more and more. I remember desperately shouting "LET GO! LET GO! YOU WON'T DROWN!", the words in between lost in gulps of water. I laugh when I think of it now, drowning in 6 feet of water. I tried to push off my brother so that I could save the both of us, but this only caused him to panic more and wrap his legs around my neck ever tighter.

Halfway through the ordeal, which seemed like the longest time ever, I stopped struggling. It wasn't that I had run out of breath. I just realized the futility of the whole situation and felt this impending sense of doom. Somehow everything seemed sharper in that moment, like one of those super High-Definition videos where it all seems so incredibly detailed as to be unreal. And I just let go. I closed my eyes, and let myself drift-drown like a metal pin dropped into water, rolling gently as it falls, almost without resistance. 

The swimming instructor eventually fished us both out of the water. I just lay down on the floor like a limp fish. Maybe I was in shock. But thinking back to it now the experience seemed almost serene, almost meditative in nature. I knew I could have died. It hung over me like that phantom indent on your head after wearing a head band for a long time then taking it off. It sometimes still hangs over me. But I never associated the whole incident with fear.

"Death Over The Hill" Taken in Auckland, NZ 2011. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.
There are few things that truly scare me. Sure, there is the occasional ghost jumping out at the screen in horror movies and the moment when a roller coaster dips from a gravity defying loop, but true terror? The kind of fear that seeps into your very being, that paralyzes you even as it panics you, that shadows your moves and thoughts and dreams and sinks its teeth into you while never letting go?

Only two things have managed to invoke this sort of foreboding doom in my heart, and they are in some ways diametrically opposed. The first was a fear of being forgotten. History had always fascinated me and the deeds and legacies of great men like Alexander, Saladin, Washington and Gandhi struck me as something to aspire to. To be remembered, to be spoken after one's passing, to become, in a way, immortal. I had read somewhere that the poet Keats epitaph had been "Here lies he whose name was writ in water", and I was determined to have my name carved in stone. I wanted to leave a mark in the world, to do something great and be remembered for it. 

Yet there was something extremely disquieting about such a fear. I didn't only admire the Mandelas and St. Francis' of the world; increasingly I found myself drawn to figures like Hitler, Qin Shi Huang, Caesar and Stalin.  These were the giant who were great, but also terrible ( #Voldemort). I was slowly coming to a realization there was very little I would not do to be remembered, be it great evil or great good. Or as Milton puts it in Paradise Lost: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven". Perhaps the acceptance of the inevitability of death made me infatuated of living after death by leaving a legacy. Maybe this was my way of dealing with the specter of the end of life, the sense of mortality that I grew up with. 

This was the fear of my high school years. But as I grew older, a new fear emerged. I feared myself. 

I came to the realization that fundamentally, I was not a good person. I could be very selfish, I could very incredibly self-centered, and had a supreme sense of self-preservation. I craved attention, thought myself very smart indeed, and reveled the freedom that came with positions of authority. I could be abrasive, temperamental and capable of much dishonesty. Increasingly, I viewed my fascination with fame and legacy and the martial as something repugnant, something corrupting and dangerous. I have done bad things, things that at the time I thought were justified, or dismiss-able in the name of some higher cause. But as they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

This process of realization took a long time. It felt like an egg being cracked over my head while still sleeping. First you don't notice it, simply thinking it cold. Then it somehow incorporates itself into your dream, weaving in and out, droplets of egg white and yolk stringing over your hair. Finally comes the awakening, the touching, and then the horror of realizing that a life that could have been was shattered on you, the liquids of the womb dripping over your face, your neck, your T-shirt emblazoned with self-righteous quotes. 

The horror of realizing that even as you woke, you had the power, and perhaps even a desire, to crush yet more lives and eggs. The fear that pervades you as you look into the mirror, and recognize but refuse to acknowledge that the person staring back is you. 

It was a moment of truth for me because I had always believed myself essentially a good person. Yet my desires, my ambitions, my actions often contradicted with the self-image I had forged in the fires of egotism. And as fear of myself surpassed my fear of anonymity, I entered a phase of extreme self-examination. 

That process continues today, every waking hour, every passing moment. I subject my actions to scrutiny, I criticize myself, I question my own motives for doing the things I do. It's why so many of my blog posts including this one are self-deprecatory, reflective, and sobering. They serve to provide a counterbalance to my natural tendencies to think myself all-knowing and all-powerful, and anchor me with an open confession of my vulnerabilities, bared for all the world to see, so I never fall into the trap of thinking myself above others. A friend once described my writing as agonizingly self-aware while at the same time indulgent. I think of it as almost like trying to get drunk while in a cold shower. 

This blog post is perhaps the coldest of such "showers" yet. It has taken me a long time to confront these fears of mine, and to surmount perhaps another fear, the fear of being judged by others when this post is published. But I believe that it is necessary, at this crossroads of my life, to be brutally honest with myself, and to not only recognize but acknowledge, nay, shout out in a megaphone who I see in the mirror. I don't think I'm alone in recognizing there are parts of my own character that I am deeply uncomfortable with, and maybe sharing this odyssey will help others step up and face their own inner demons. 

I yearn for a day when I will be able to say confidently I believe I am a good person. (Yet, how will I know if it's not self-conceit?) I hope that I will have not only the strength to change, but also the strength to acknowledge my weakness. And I pray that one day, I will no longer be haunted by the fears of anonymity and myself.

Until then, I will continue to look into a cracked mirror stained by the splatter of shattered eggs, while drowning in the blood of slaughtered chickens and choking from the iron grip of tightening legs. 

"Staring Upon The Mind" Taken in New York, December 2013. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.


  1. "...there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - Hamlet

    I think this is your best and most sincere post so far.

    1. Thank you so much Miss Tan. Can't believe you actually read my blog! My thoughts can get dark very quickly. Thank you for bearing it all. It's always good to know somebody out there is reading.

  2. It is called growing matured. Good thing you're aware of it. You'll be going through more and more series of realization. Stand still, cause you might just fall from learning the truth about yourself. Have a good day.

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