a story about a stack of books (feat. Ivan Ilych)

I’d consider this past week challenging, perhaps because I’ve been slightly swaddled in an existential crisis. I believe it was perpetuated by a combination of things including reflecting upon the state of transition in which I find myself, feeling physical pain and discomfort, and having a ridiculous amount of time to think.

And thus the crisis began. I fell into a state of self-criticism, in which I focused on my weaknesses rather than my strengths. I was disappointed in myself. I overlooked my blessings and joys to search for the reasons to be angry, saddened, or simply negative. I did not enjoy being me.

So, I faced my feelings. I thought about them for hours, and did basically nothing else. It was after I poured out my feelings to another that I felt I was able to move on and reflect in a more positive manner. I was ready to dismiss the negativity, and develop my strength.

I needed to move. I needed to channel energy into physical action, a desire which motivated me to leave my house and run a couple of miles. As I turned the corner on my run home, I noticed my boyfriend’s car parked in front of my house… unexpectedly. Hm.

My cool-down walk immediately tripled into a home-bound sprint, and I found myself walking through my front door, covered in my own sweat, to see my boyfriend casually sitting on my family room couch, holding a goblet full of lemonade, wearing a handmade straw hat from Taiwan.

“I have a surprise for you,” he exclaimed a few moments after I caught my breath. I was fully immersed in the moment, no longer consumed by my own existence, but swallowed in present time.

He knew I was struggling with my emotions, and so he said, “Flowers are too cliché,” and handed me a stack of classic literature that he had hand-selected for me, varying in size and source. In that moment, I was touched by a feeling of immense grace. I was reminded of my intellectual pursuits, my ability to embrace an individual moment through embracing something so tangible and rich such as literature, and somehow, I was reminded of my purpose.

These books were not given without instructions, however. He specified the order in which I was to read the books, as well as the timelines I had to complete each one. He insisted I begin with The Death of Ivan Ilych, the story of a man who was drowning in his own existential crisis. The irony was inexplicable, and I didn’t even realize it was so until I was finished reading the story.

I was overwhelmed with the literature, as I was so fully experiencing Ivan’s struggle through my own emotional journey. Although Ivan’s difficulties were not identical to my own, the same essence of crisis was mutual. I felt a sense of comfort knowing that Leo Tolstoy, who wrote the work, must have experienced a similar sense of internal turmoil if he was able to comprehend his emotions enough to formulate them into writing.

One quote from the writing says, “…something terrible, new, and more important than anything before in his life was taking place within him of which he alone was aware. Those about him did not understand or would not understand it, but thought everything in the world was going on as usual.”

HELLOOOO!? That quote sums of probably a quarter of my existence. Okay, I don’t know whether or not that’s true, but it certainly feels that way at times. Given my struggles with my anxiety, my sorrow, my flood of emotions, my identity in the midst of transition, my questions regarding “purpose” and “existence,” followed by my attempt to figure it out and balance it all, I can’t express it all. It seems impossible to share all of my emotions and feelings, because sometimes, I can’t even figure them out on my own… and no one else can crawl inside my subconscious and figure them out for me…

This story opened my eyes to what feels like countless lessons. I was reminded how amazing it feels to think and to be, how exhilarating it feels to have an identity, to struggle, and to overcome. I was taught once more how inspiring it is to know that I am never alone, because in the end, there is someone who feels exactly the same type of “alone,” the same sort of loneliness. There is yet another victim of consumption by the abyss of uncertainty and existence and purpose and thought and everything-ness that is who we are and all we are not. I was reminded.

So here is to my love, hundreds of pages of journeys, and a Russian man who asked “who-what-why-when-where-how,” and expected me to do the same. Thank you.

(P.S. To whom it may concern: I love you, too).

why you should stop saying “retarded”

Today’s topic isn’t an original idea; it’s a reflection upon an issue in which we are all involved, with or without our conscious realization. There is an undercurrent of discrimination towards people that experience profound physical, mental, and emotional challenges, and it is an undercurrent that is strung throughout all of our lives.

If you have not said the word “retarded” in a disrespectful way, chances are you have heard others around you say it. But why should it matter? It’s not like just saying one little word completely perpetuates disrespect for an entire group of human beings…

Wrong. 

Let’s analyze a bit here. The verb “retard” means to “delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment” (p.s. thanks Google). In music, a ritardando means the gradual slowing down of music. So, before more phrases and descriptions were formulated to describe people with challenges and disabilities, “retarded” was the go-to word. And for some people, it still is. If it’s used respectfully, although I personally think there are better words and phrases that can be used, I don’t have a huge issue with it.

It’s when ignorance drives language usage; that’s what I’m never okay with. It’s when people say you’re acting so retarded or that’s so retarded as a sort of painful insult or negative remark.

Another issue with describing individuals as “retarded” is that it places a label on people who share the exact same humanity and reality in which everyone (ourselves included) participates. People with developmental disabilities. People with intellectual challenges. First, we acknowledge an individual’s humanity, and then address a quality that affects that person’s life. Instead of calling one “the diabetic” or “the cancer patient,” we can restructure language to create a different perception, one in which the person’s struggle or challenge does not define their existence (person with diabetes or cancer). It takes much more than a disability to define who a person is, and there is always much more than what meets the surface.

A few years ago, I began participating in service with people who had various physical and mental challenges. I’ll be honest — I was nervous, because I thought I was so different from all of the folks at the service center, but I could not have been more wrong. One look in one person’s eyes, and it’s impossible not to feel their pure humanity radiating with power and beauty. There’s nothing quite like learning to communicate with a non-verbal person. There is extreme awe in relating to another person with physical or mental barriers by transcending those barriers and connecting in a much deeper way.

Anyway, after a few weeks of participating, the service director told me to approach a middle-aged man that typically did not receive much attention, and so I did. His name was Glenn. I tried speaking with him, and it proved challenging. Communicating was not an easy task. His oxygen tank and difficulty breathing interfered, as well as the discomfort from sitting in his wheelchair for so long. I read Glenn books, talked to him about random things as I tend to do with people, and after more time, I even fed him his ice cream.

Throughout the weeks, communicating became easier, and we became a part of one another’s routine. I’ll never forget the moment Glenn grabbed my hand, pulled me in, and gave me a hug. It was indescribable. I promised I would be back.

I visited Glenn almost weekly for about a year as part of the service program, and he became a source of inspiration. It wasn’t until later in our friendship that I learned of Glenn’s past, as well as the source of his disabilities. Glenn was once an average teenage boy, a student at a local high school, a tuba player, and an avid athlete. One day, I believe after high school, he was bicycling when he was hit by a car and left on the road to suffer. It was an accident that changed his entire life.

I’ll also never forget the phone call of my service director, as I was headed to the beach on Labor Day weekend, saying that Glenn had passed away. I had lost one of my best friends, one of the most influential teachers I had ever had, but more importantly, I gained a guardian angel, and for that, I will always be grateful.

If you or someone you know uses the word “retarded” in a derogatory way, stop it. There are people, human beings with the same value as any other person on this Earth, who deal with very real challenges that were brought to them by circumstance, not by choice. Just as we desire respect for our own selves, we should demand respect for others. It is our turn to stop perpetuating discrimination.

Together, we can eliminate the inappropriate use of this word from some lives, in hope that the trend will continue, fostering respect, love, and awareness throughout our world.

the honest account of a feminist girlfriend

If you didn’t know this already, I am a feminist.

What does this mean exactly? No, I do not believe that “girls rule,” or that women are better than men. Throwing it back to the third grade when the trend was deciding whether a female considered herself a “tomboy” or a “girly-girl,” I do not believe that it is a better choice/lifestyle to identify with one category versus the other. I believe that all humans are equal, regardless of gender (and any other external characteristics), and that nothing makes another person more or less valuable than another.

A huge issue is found when women and girls of all ages confine themselves to a preconceived notion of femininity that is sometimes so skewed and inaccurate, due to the falsehoods and misogynistic discrimination of society, all of which have been perpetuated for much too long (wow, that was a mouthful). Many women feel the need to place themselves in boxes and categories to feel more comfortable with their lives instead of directly embracing the fact that they are women. When women are women with honest intentions, everything falls into place.

One aspect of feminism has particularly interested me throughout the past year, and that is the path on which feminism meets relationships, specifically romantic relationships between men and women.

I remember all of the “boy drama” that took place around me when I was younger, and I recall some of the rules that girls so obviously knew… and these are still things I see in popular movies and television shows… all the time, even with much older audiences and actresses.

“Wait for him to contact you.”

“Don’t make the first move.”

I also hear the occasional “we both know who wears the pants in the relationship.” 

Cough, cough. So, why can’t you both wear pants?

Sure — perhaps men and women have their own tendencies perpetuated by society, and many times, there isn’t any harm in that. But 21st-century relationship standards are often not in favor of gender equality.

Why is it that millions of women have convinced themselves that they must be the object of the so-called “chase”, but cannot actively pursue the one they desire? Why is it that a woman who asks a man out on a date might be considered too forward, when a man who asks a woman out is considered confident?

First of all, in my own opinion, there’s a large difference between chivalry and respect when it comes to relationships. There’s a large difference between a man respecting a woman simply because of her gender and what he feels he “should” do because of it, and a man respecting a woman because he respects her as a valuable human, something far greater than her external identity.

The man should always hold the door. The man should always pay for dinner. The man should always pick up his girlfriend. 

No! There’s nothing wrong with a man holding a door for a woman, paying for her dinner, or picking up his girlfriend [out of respect]. There’s also nothing wrong with a woman doing the same thing for a man. There’s nothing wrong with a woman putting her arm around her boyfriend’s shoulders in public. Gender equality is the key.

From personal experience, I can truly say that it is rewarding and refreshing to include this sense of balance in one’s relationship. It is wonderful to be able to give each other rides and treat each other to meals out of pure respect and love, without a subconscious sense of gender dominance driving the scenarios.

It’s time that we call to mind the social dynamics that influence our society, and in turn, our relationships. We must question our lifestyles, define our own standards, and then embrace them.

P.S.

Men — don’t be afraid to be feminists.

more, please.

I owe Jesus an apology. I’ll admit that recently I’ve been awfully ungrateful, and that needs to change. I’ve overlooked my own accomplishments and opportunities, I’ve taken my freedom and joy for granted, I’ve expected happiness instead of embracing it, and I’ve complained about some of my blessings.

I’ve discovered that there is a great irony in settling, or in other words, adjusting. This past year, I’ve craved the certainty and security of a consistent lifestyle, as I know many others desire, as well. I have found myself reaching for an ideal that I expected would bring me ultimate satisfaction, and then when I found myself standing in front of the entity I so wholly craved, I adjusted. I internalized the craving, and it no longer remained a craving, but instead became an expectation… and it’s all a matter of perspective.

I’ve always struggled with gratefulness. I’ve always wanted more chocolate milk, more time with my friends, and more success. Greed is such a painfully prevalent part of the human struggle. We are mammals who have convinced ourselves that more is positive, when often, our reality is not even quantifiable in these terms. Our lives are not placed upon a spectrum of least and most; our lives are defined by far more than the amount of calories we’ve ingested, our grade-point averages, and the number of people who like and dislike us.

A cliché statement with much relevancy and wisdom is that there is a large difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. There is a large difference between thanking someone (including God) with simple words and thanking someone with an intentional heart.

I invite you to reflect on your blessings and ask yourself how grateful you are, and how grateful you can be. We have infinite blessings, and we cannot forget to acknowledge them. How often are we grateful for the spoons in our cereal bowls, the dental floss sitting beside our sinks, and the gasoline that fuels our vehicle that enables us to travel and connect with humanity around us?

Gratefulness is a journey… more specifically a journey I would like to take with you.

Thank you.