But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Phil 3:7-9, NIV)

I think I might be knowing true liberation. I think (but might be heretically wrong in thinking that) some Christians get it ‘roughly right’ the first time around – they submit from the outset and lead suitably holy lives, invariably with blips that to my mind would be nothing more than rounding errors. Their submission is abstract (- I stopped short of saying theoretical, which might be unfair -) and considered. And I suppose if Heaven kept score they would be duly rewarded – they chose to submit, in a sense, volitionally.

My lot seems to be different. I am submitting now, but arguably only because God has twisted me into compliance, like a crooked pipe. But this submission, because to a large extent compelled, is unmeasured and full-bodied. And so it happened that yesterday on the day of an important interview, my mind was occluded by guilt and accusation and my body weak with despair. And thence came a thought that hadn’t been familiar to me in far too long – God, this interview is something that the best of people will attend, in the best of conditions and with the best of preparations, and even they will be guarded about their chances of success. Yet all I can do is to drag my body to the venue – you have to do the rest.

The last time I felt this rending incapacity had been on the floor of my room at Exeter – the day after two exams I thought I had consecutively bungled. Having drained my eyes of tears I had prayed and wrung my soul of residual hubris, and felt comfortingly vacant. Yesterday I felt able to do that again. There remains a lot to be done with me – but at least I’m not standing in the way so much anymore

how is God in His perfection (and, importantly, mercy) capable of making someone so flawed and unsustainable? how does the existence of one so imperfect (that the description becomes risibly understated) not irk Him?

the one ‘positive’ in all these is that I am now too small, worth too little, to ever be disappointed, to ever think that I am receiving less than my desert; too insubstantial for my words and protestations to find – or deserve – volume. the one virtuous cousin of shame is acquiescence. each uneventful hour is a bonus; I cherish it furtively with the jealous grasp of an imposter – but even silence is fitful and temporary. even the consistency of nullity is too soothing a punishment. the world’s only fitting response to me is an interminable, palpable, stabbing crescendo of rejection/expungement. this must be what Hell is.

Hell is, probably, also a marked path, paved with fire, with a pitchfork to one’s back. exams are looming; even the indulgent respite of mourning isn’t open to one.

da wei

amazing how expectations can change in so fleeting a period. not very long ago i really wanted a Distinction at BCL (because that was the done thing) and meet some career goals by the by. but i’m beginning to find untold comfort in feckless invisibility, in sliming down the back of my chair like the carcass of a burst pimple, glinting meekly in the nascent spring sun…

i mean there’s honestly very little to live for when even middlingly-below-average ceases to be attainable, where remorse is your best attribute. reminding myself that my family, my parents, are the reason i have to keep healthy and present, even if in so many respects i don’t deserve their (bemused but ultimately, inexplicably, unconditional) love, their confidently faithful texts, their fervent prayers on the back of nothing but my enigmatic midnight SOSes.

the thing is, villainy isn’t even a good look on me. i’m too nerdy to be smooth, too insecure to be unrepentant, too Christian (yes yes yes, even now) to be blasé. so i’m trapped between all worlds, unsuccessfully attempting to be someone i shouldn’t want to be and someone i’m not even sure i have to be. folly summarises me fitly.

but if there’s a silver lining (and lining it is) it is my realisation that i want to be a good lawyer too much. i need to want to be a decent person more. i need to crave God’s audience more. these things are simple but should be A LOT more important to me

p. 51

am dealing with (vaguely incapacitating) self-beratement of quite a different genus this time.* with exams and interviews etc the threat and fears are comfortingly external. one easily palms them off to God and leans into the axiom that there is a Plan being forged, and our moral agency and volition are subordinate to the effectuation of said Plan – this takes the heat off personal failings, which take on assuredly indeterminate significance in the end result. a ‘nasty’ interviewer or a ‘curveball’ essay question at least give us avenues to shake our fists at the Universe; we ‘cheat’ by drawing attention to the scale of our problems and dismissing (imperceptibly) the relevance of our abilities and decisions. in the course of university applications i once agonised over extracting presentable academic references from a tutor who seemed resolutely determined to dislike me but found untold comfort in prayer – the renvoi of the believer. if i was disliked by – or even, indeed, unlikable to – him, that lay beyond my powers to change, and if that state of affairs persisted – well, that must be the Plan, and so by definition could do no violence to it.

but what of failings not so easily attributed? when one has exercised his volition to bring about a repugnant result it never did lie in his mouth to say that no volition existed to be (wrongly) exercised. the notion of reality conforming to the Plan becomes unbearably far-fetched. after a certain point, surely one has to accept that the tracks were not meandering, but that the train has simply derailed, and even if ignorance of this may tolerated in a passenger sitting in coach, it surely shouldn’t be tolerated in the conductor. and thus the interminable ache that pulses with the realisation that we have managed to drive ourselves into a pit with no obvious avenue for reversion.

if there is any room at all for comfort, maybe it’s the fact that the shittier the situation we find ourselves to be in or the shittier we find ourselves to be, the more obvious it becomes that there’s nothing to be done but to trust, yet again, in an extrinsic source. minor flaws invite self-help; massive ones demand prayer – and this no less when the problems we have to address are constitutive of who we are, than when the problems can be pinned on something safely external to us. and if this at least is one thing that we can take away at the nadir of human experience and moral failure then i suppose it could be much worse than this.

“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.”

* if this blog seems disproportionately dreary i suppose it’s because positivity is easy and intuitive, and so rarely gives rise to written expression; but negativity demands assiduous examination and unpacking…

‘Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house’ – Alan Paton

so we beat on

1. it gets more than mildly solipsistic in the Lair, where I’ve been (notionally) working most days, most of the days… generally just one other person and the pitter-patter of keys to punctuate the passage of day with sound. really love what i’m studying – the sheer elementality of personal property (e.g. if I mix my cows with your cows who owns… the consequent admixture of cows? or, mutatis mutandis, wine, or corn) counterbalanced with the self-consciously artificial and instrumental scheme of intellectual property. the obvious proprietary question — what does it mean to have? a little disappointingly, Honore could do no more than list 11 discrete (and merely indicative) incidents of ownership, some positive (‘liberties’), some negative and exclusionary (‘rights’ stricto sensu). most others prefer a single pithy definition – either the right to exclusive possession or the right to exclude all others (the two being subtly different)

2. the English common law is a compendium of the idiosyncratic. a newborn animal belongs to the owner of the mother, except for cygnets, who belong to the owner of the father and mother in equal shares: Blackstone, but presumably still good law (not sure if this has ever formed the basis of any common law decision!) the justifications for both the rule and the exception are evidentiary and compensatory: firstly, the father wanders and is rarely ascertainable, whereas swans apparently cleave to each other even after the female gets pregnant (!) so the father remains identifiable; secondly, ownership of the young is deemed to be some sort of recompense for the fact that the mother is generally incapacitated and inutile during pregnancy and requires extra care and expense. the discrepancy is again a lot less in the case of swans, precisely because the two stick together so much and are presumably equally useless to their respective owners…

3. as much as i like studying tidbits like the aforementioned – with each passing day i feel less inclined to turn in that BCL application. i really like law, especially now that everyone’s doing options i really like how there’s something for everyone and that at its core law is really – and surprisingly – a concatenation of inexorably addictive puzzles, even if swathed at times in formalism. but i have come to learn that everything taken to excess is noxious… i can’t remember the last time i picked up a book for fun, can’t remember the last time i picked up a text without eventually parsing it into typed bullet-point text stripped of articles and prepositions. it is on the whole heartening that it still matters to me, i think, that i whistle (again, notionally) when i see a nice turn of phrase in a judgment (invariably English; the EU ones are shit) – but appreciation of words should be more than piecemeal and aspirational. i need more, i need to do more, i need to allow myself to be more.

4. not least – am learning quietude; always learning, never really quite learned. if last year was about padding (cv; muscle, very occasionally) this year is about paring. learning how elementary – how beatifically axiomatic – faith is. i had been extremely tired of striving, tired of the interminable roiling within me, tired of having so much to lose. loss is a good thing. it shows me how little one can have – how spent one can be – and still be replete!

the last time i was in singapore i asked my bible study leader about Romans 7 (one of my favourites – almost mathematically poetic: ‘for that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I‘) – what should one feel about it? the answer of course comes in Romans 8:1 (no condemnation, etc); but would that not, paradoxically, spur one on to complacency?

in reply – and these are now probably my favourite verses ever:

For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle […] 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 cor 15:9-10)

neither fallenness nor grace precludes graft. rather, the one in response to the other precisely inspires, and sustains, it. note Paul’s almost guilty aside at the end, his repression of the undying urge to arrogate some credit to himself (also 2 cor 12), making it a sort of sinusoidal passage. so it is with everyday life, i think. knowing that God is sufficient, at the bottom – but equally, knowing that God is necessary, at the top. and it is precisely that knowledge that makes joy inalienable – that fixes happiness and security not on people or things of this world but on Something firm and unyielding. it is that very fixture that sets us free.

4a. walking home past midnight as usual, down Cornmarket St, some possibly homeless guy outside big-Pret strumming maudlin tunes that overlaid what was otherwise expansive silence. the sky was faintly speckled. the wind had died down. for the first time in ages i leaned into the quiet and felt properly able to smile.

mandarin zest

recently it has struck me how inadequate I am in Chinese/Mandarin – and importantly, how much it affects me. this revelation unfurled piecemeal, after the umpteenth time of representing that I was a ‘native speaker of Mandarin Chinese’ on job application forms (neither fairly nor unfairly, I feel), and maybe after singing maudlin taiwanese songs in pek’s karaoke cavern.

I don’t wish to overstate the case, of course; I’m honestly too comfortable with English to be particularly bothered or crippled. but that it bothers, or should bother, me at all isn’t as self-evident as it may seem to an outsider. weakness in Mandarin is generally lauded – not merely tolerated – amongst Singaporeans in my generation, exceptional for an inadequacy of any sort, especially in this peculiarly acquisitive day and age (or more starkly, amongst my peculiarly acquisitive social circle). a not uncommon phatic line of conversation features mutual commiseration over poor Chinese language skills, certified by a B/C/D grade at ‘O’ level and reaffirmed by amusing recollections of awkward encounters with Chinese teachers, elderly folk or tourists.

viewed as a mere instantiation of a broader petulance with school and homework this whole thing with Chinese seems unremarkable. I remember being a rather moany secondary school kid for whom learning about organic chem and igneous rocks was (almost) as unpalatable as Chinese cloze passages. but I find it difficult to shake off the suspicion that my aversion to Chinese is uniquely hypocritical. I have always felt myself to be an acquisitive learner of languages, with English and then with Japanese – whose distinct blend of the pictorial and alphabetic renders it pedagogically (as well as etymologically) similar to English and Chinese. I like getting stuck into nice words or turns of phrase, and – more idiosyncratically – like learning about grammar; I like few things more than snapping words and particles together to form a ‘proper’ sentence in a foreign language, probably the less modern version of writing an elegant, pithy, piece of code. it thus strikes me as distinctly odd why I have little but faint bemusement and antipathy for Chinese. (it can’t just be the fact that I am Chinese and thus find learning ‘my’ language unromantic; my inordinate interest in the Singapore general election, when juxtaposed against a general distaste for politics, tells me that I am fully able and willing to lean into the banal and the familiar)

odd, not inexplicable, of course – the non-volitional, non-familial nature of my experience with the Chinese language makes my inadequacy therein not wholly surprising. but for me, and surely for anyone with a similarly ‘ecumenical’ outlook toward learning new things, this it inimitably falls through the cracks between the natural and the novel – it’s not familiar enough for its pursuit to be self-evident; not strange enough for the returns to be hurtling and exponential.