I watched The Greatest Showman (2017) three weeks ago. While I can’t say much about its script, the soundtrack was amazing. The songs have not stopped ringing in my head.
One of my favourite songs is From Now On.1 The song epitomises how music can be a device for plot and psychological transition:2 in the pits after his world tour fell apart, his circus burnt down, and his family left him, the song steels Barnum’s resolve to right his wrongs and return to where he belongs.
This is like the younger son in the Prodigal Son story. He leaves his home and his family, explores the world, realises his mistake, and returns home again. The father is overjoyed and celebrates the younger son’s conversion. But the elder son, who has remained in the father’s house all this while, is resentful.
Recently, I have also been envying the younger son. I don’t mind that the younger son got a robe and a ring; the elder son probably received such riches as well, if not more, since everything the father has is his. No, I envy the younger son’s gratitude for his father’s embrace and welcome. I envy that he got to see the world, squalid as it may be, which renewed the way he saw his home and, more importantly, his father. I envy his converted heart.
We took these pictures in 2016 in Iceland, my favourite place in world. Part of its romantic appeal is just how freaking far it is away from Singapore and how breathtakingly different it is.
There are caves of crystal and black-ice.
There are unending sheets of white.
There is a plane wreckage in the middle of nowhere.
To top it off, this was where Batman Begins (2005) was filmed. #fanboy
In Iceland, I was most definitely not at home, and that was liberating. Because when house rules confine, what is foreign becomes what is freeing.
Yet, on one of our long drives, I felt the kind of loneliness that could not be attributed to being single, being rejected, or being jobless. Even with the epic sights and the wonderful company, the restlessness could hit.
And I asked myself then: Why should I be surprised that all these are not enough? Why should I expect the wonders of this world to satisfy when we are made for more? In that brief moment, I re-understood what TWINE meant.
That these younger son moments last so briefly make me realise how entrenched I am in the older son’s position. Two weeks ago, I shared that it had been a while since I had felt my life was this disintegrated. I was working on Mass Communication, but sat through Mass as a routine. I was journeying with my EGG mentee, but my prayer life was dismal. I was drafting the Shepherd’s pastoral address, but de-prioritised Friday sharings and Sunday sessions.
These hypocrisies were both the cause and effect of a confluence of circumstances. Busyness was one: work and church to-do lists eroded my personal and prayer time. Inadequacy was another: I felt that I was underperforming at work, chafed at my typos, and was alarmed by how often I had to renege on promises. Loneliness was a third.
After I shared all this with my cell during the height of a busy period, Liu proposed that they pray for me. Initially, I commented, “Wow, it sounded that bad, huh?”
But as they prayed, I began crying. In all the times that people have prayed for me, at most, tears have welled up in my eyes. This was the first time the tears fell.
At the heart of it all, I felt unloved. Failing to be rooted in God’s love is such a classic Christian failing that I am almost ashamed to articulate this. I mean, I know this. I’ve even taught this—that the one more important thing than us loving God is to allow God to love us.4 But what does that mean and how do I do it?
I keep coming back to this line: “I deserve a great love story.” It may well be that the love story is less of a marriage plus happily-ever-after and more of a son returning home to a father’s welcome. But I need to see the world outside, to dispel the illusion of greener pastures, to know that the father’s house is where I truly belong.
After all, how does the elder son convert if he never leaves the house? How does he come home, home again?
1.This is partly because it is one of the few songs within my voice range.
2.Another excellent example is Frozen (2013)’s Do You Wanna Build a Snowman. Within a single song, two close sisters transform from young girls into young women, become estranged, and lose their parents. The elder sister becomes queen and isolates herself; the younger sister feels isolated and left out. This kind of rapid plot development is nigh impossible to pull off without music’s capacity to engender emotion and empower transition.
3.In 2014, our parish put up a musical titled The World Is Not Enough, or TWINE, in short.
4.Pope Francis, Christmas Homily 2015 – “What is most important is not seeking Him, but rather allowing Him to seek me, find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply in the Infant’s presence is, ‘Do I allow God to love me?’”