Hobbes: Look, it says you have to be eighteen to buy cigarettes.
Calvin: EIGHTEEN?!? By then I’ll know better!
During this year’s Sec 4 Retreat, the Sec 4s opened a letter that they had written to themselves nine months ago on the last day of their Sec 3 Camp 2015. I was eager to know what they thought or felt; but I did not get much out of them. Most were only willing to share a general realisation that this faith journey is not an easy one,1 and refused to say anything further. Some did not even want to finish reading their letter after the first few lines. All of them cringed while reading.
At that time, I was puzzled. Why would you not want to read a letter from yourself? What is there to be ashamed of?
I was reminded of the answer some months ago, when Y led a LOG session to spiritually prepare the community to journey with the Sec 4s. In that session, we were supposed to wear our school uniforms (because clothes maketh the man) and to bring an item that signifies our journey with God / community when we were in Secondary School or JC. I decided to bring the first volume of my diary which I wrote in September 2004 (“Volume I”), and the fourth volume which I wrote in 2005 (“Volume IV”).2
Flipping through the pages of these early diaries was painful. Did I seriously write like that? Was I really such a small-minded person? How could I even think those things?
Consider the following passage, which I wrote on 13 September 2004, after our batch’s first post-Confirmation meeting:
“Around 10.30 I went to church again for a meeting… sigh I think it’s really screwed up. We need a new youth group since Youth Works is stepping down… why must they step down… they’re doing a great job… and now when they’re at their peak, they quit… seriously damn stoopid. And the new youth group is like damn screwed… everyone is on fire so super enthu… but later I wonder how many will drop out? And then one huge group… no one can co-ordinate with each other super inefficient. But I still feel a calling… to lead and set up my own group… the problem is. What group? How do I set it up? What will be our purpose? Sigh.”3
I cringe. So hard.
(And the best part is: I distinctly remember thinking at that time that I was more mature than my peers.)
I am so glad I am not who I was any more.
This is the answer then to why we are ashamed of our past: we are not who we once were. Now project that conclusion into the future: we are not who we will be.
“I am the most miserable person who ever lived,” [Tristan] said to the Lord Primus, when they stopped to feed the horses feedbags of damp oats.
“You are young, and in love,” said Primus. “Every young man in your position is the most miserable young man who ever lived.”
I spoke to a teen recently. I approached him because he was shy and alone, and he was not talking to anyone in the group. (I identify with these quiet types. Also, they are almost invariably more interesting than the boisterous types.) Let us call him L.
I asked L the standard questions about school and CCA. I asked him what he read. Then I asked him who he was closer to among his batchmates.
That was when L began telling me about the girl.
“So… do you like her?” I whispered.
He looked away, smiled shyly, and nodded his head. (I wish I could bottle that moment of pure awkward honesty.)
Adolescence is the most intense period of our lives. Every exam seems life-changing, every holiday seems far away, every struggle seems unyielding, every relationship seems unending. This period of our lives is marked by how slowly time seems to pass, by how impatiently we wait to grow up.
Nowhere is patience more needed than during adolescence. Nowhere is patience more lacking.
“Every stage of life longs for others,” wrote Andrew Solomon. To that I would add: but of all the stages of life, adolescence longs the most intensely and the most consumingly. For adolescence yearns not just for the past or the future; adolescence aches also for the present. Those of us who now have little pity for youths have simply forgotten this — “Toutes les grandes personnes ont d’abord été des enfants. Mais peu d’entre elles s’en souviennent.”4
I remember MSN conversations that lasted into the wee hours of the night, when my BFF(s) and I would ask each other existential questions and regress infinitely into doubt (though we had no idea that was what it was called at that time). I also remember three a.m. DOTA games and CS matches that could leave us wantonly frustrated or gluttonously satiated.
For all our longings for the future, we had never imagined that nights like these would end.
And yet, here I am, firmly convicted in the existence of both heaven and earth. (In fact, it is often easier to have faith in the next world than in this one.) I no longer play computer games (out of necessity rather than maturity). I have a vastly different social circle.
In our teenage years, everyone is in flux. Everyone is changing. Everyone is pregnant with potential, with words and worlds, with life and dreams.
Adolescence is gestation. Perhaps then, instead of advice or admonishment, what young people need most is a womb: a safe space to grow into the persons who they can be.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
— CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Catechism has taught me a thing or two about holding space for young people. In catechism, it sometimes seems that we are making no progress at all. Attendance is obligatory (if not poor), attention is wavering (if not minimal), answers are rote (if there are any at all).
And then, in a sudden moment, we see the kids for the jars of clay that they are.
One of our kids has mild autism. He is disruptive, refuses to use tissue when he sneezes, and does not articulate well verbally. He is also fiercely intelligent. He once told my co-catechists, “I wish I was not autistic.”
In one session, I asked the class to reflect on St Irenaus’ ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’ This is what he wrote:
“‘Man fully alive.’ When I look at this quote, it suggests that in a way, we are not fully alive. But in what way? Spiritually. We are all in a spiritual coma, just living our lives normally, waiting for something to happen. Every single thing we do, we have a slight boredom in it. This is because our souls are not ‘activated’ and sometimes there are troubles in our lives that will unsettle our spirits. However, if we keep our faith constant in what we do, we can truly enjoy anything. God’s vision is that we be truly alive. Furthermore, alive may also mean ‘active’. Thus, we actually become carefree to the anxiety of this world and we carry the glory of God in our daily lives, thus being truly and fully alive.”
I know another kid, who rarely shares when she is invited to. I later found out she dreams of becoming “a psychologist or maybe even a nun”. And yet another, whom I first thought was bimbotic. And then I heard her sharings.
These lessons have come at a cost: even when we do our best (and we often do not), we have blood on our hands.
Before the Parents’ Night of this year’s Sec 3 Camp, I tried to dissuade my kid from staring at other participants and offering them tissue when they were crying (which he had a history of doing). I tried to cross-examine him into realising that they needed their personal space, and that he was causing more harm than good.
He got really upset with me. And I felt really shitty about myself. I had been manipulative, I had talked down to him, and I had suggested mala fides when all he had was innocence. I apologised to him the next day, and before I could finish, he had hugged me and said, “Aiya it doesn’t matter la.”
More irrevocably, I know a kid who decided to leave the Church, because she identified herself as being a bisexual. Somewhere, somehow, as the people who are supposed to cradle her journey from Communion to Confirmation, we must have messed up. (But by, and only by, God’s grace, we later realised that she is still going for Mass.)
In the end, who are we to judge? Who are we to predestine the overwhelming possibilities of our young? We are merely older. We are merely more grown-up.
Whatever that means.
“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
— The Ocean at the End of the Lane
(For this section, especially, I write not because I have answers, but because I have questions — questions to love and live.5)
We now stand on the cusps of adulthood, the days marked instead by how quickly they blur past us and by how rosily we remember our youth to be. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows call this zenosyne: the sense that time keeps going faster. The Theory of Relativity has explained this too: the closer we are to the weight of the world, the faster we observe time to pass. We think we are just spending one more late night at work, just meeting another deadline; before we know it, children have grown up, and life has passed us by.
And the passage of time ravages all things: nothing is immutable. As Charlie says in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”
Just two years ago, I was excited to begin practice; now I am excited to leave it. Just two years ago, I took for granted whom I would journey with throughout my life; now I know that nothing lasts forever (except maybe diamonds, but diamonds are only girls’ best friends).
Just two years ago, I still believed that LOG would be having supper at RK with our children after 40 years; now I do not know if I’ll be there.
During our LOG recollection a few weeks ago, the wave of changes that LOG would undergo in the near future was a common refrain among our sharings. Many of us are on the event horizons of our vocations, ready to enter other dimensions in our next phases of life. We came face to face with the distinct possibility that LOG may no longer be our only (if it will be at all) world.
What would LOG be like? We would be in unchartered territory, the community had lamented.
But that is not exactly true. People have always changed, people have always come and gone, and the ache that they leave in our hearts is evergreen.
I realised this when we prayed for the loggers who were not present during the recollection. We lit a candle for them, and there was a moment of silence. In that silence, I thought about the people whom I never knew, the people whom I knew but had left, the people who could not be present, the people who did not want to be present. And I felt a loss.
As G said, even when people are not or no longer present, they have impacted LOG’s life, our lives, my life. We still remember them; we still carry their hearts in our hearts. They are still a part of us, because they have been a part of us. And we move on, we change, and we persist.
I am one of those guilty of preparing for a goodbye.
If and when I leave, LOG will change when I’m gone, because I’m gone. The LOG I know now will not be the LOG a few years down the road.
But my present place in LOG’s heart, and LOG’s present place in my heart, will carry on into the future. In that future, our shared knot of the past will remain alive, and that anamnesis shall be our hope.
We change, we will not be who we are now, and still, we will persist.
1. My co-presenter Isaac and I had conceived this Time Capsule idea. On hindsight, this realisation per se is invaluable for a final retreat / session. Because that realisation triggers and grounds the commitment to persevere through current and future desolation. This is why W called the Time Capsule “ingenious”. Not bad at all, Mel.
2.When I first started journalling in September 2004, my grand plan was to journal every day. I kept that up for three months, and I have three volumes to show for it. The next year, I degenned, and the whole of 2005 became Volume IV.
3.Volume 1, pp.12-13.
4.Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince — (translated) “All grown-ups were once children. But only few of them remember it.”
5.See Rainer Maria Rilke — “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”