Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Advent Post: How I Almost Decided to Hate God, Authenticity, and why One Sufjan Stevens does More Good Than The Entire CCM Industry... Part 1

Lately, the cause of consternation back home has been the condition of Roboseyo's faith. The last things I wrote here about faith were worrisome enough, (April Fools, when I claimed to have converted to Buddhism, and the provocative title, "Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins") but the eight month ABSENCE of writing on the subject seems to be even WORSE, and has been the topic of a handful of phone calls and e-mails.

Fair enough. I steered away from Faith topics here, at about the same time as I started commenting on some of the other Korea blogs, and putting my name out in that community -- I decided to try and get involved in those dialogues, and in doing so, adapted my blog for my new, hoped-for audience. I stayed away from the intensely personal subject of faith for the same reason I put on pants before I answer a knock at my door, and close the blinds when I change: impressive as it may be...don't everybody need to see that business, yah?

But last Christmas, for Advent, I contributed a guest post for my dear friend Tamie's blog, and honestly, it's one of the pieces of writing I'm most proud of. It being advent again, it seems like a good time to add another year's worth of reflection.

And this year, I have a story for you, titled, "How I Almost Decided to Hate God" about, um, just that.

As my long-time readers know, in September 2005, my mother lost her year-long battle with stomach cancer. The family was all at her bedside, and singing a church hymn, when she stopped breathing, and in a nutshell, that's the religious heritage I grew up in. After I returned to Korea, following my Mother's death, a certain, lovely young lady was a large part of my reason to return, as well as a big part of what helped me keep my bearings while watching the tumor in my mother's stomach crowd out the space where food should go. Whatever it was we had certainly had not been built to bear the weight of a giant black obelisk of grief, and fell apart, predictably, but startlingly quickly, at the same time as my best friend was preparing to marry her twin sister.

While my best friend's wedding was a little spark of joy, the few weeks leading up to it were pretty damn bleak, and I had a lot of fingers pointed in anger at God during that time. Quietly, she bore my accusations of her hating me, and even my claims that maybe she didn't exist after all, and certainly didn't give a rip about me (among other things, I have learned since then that God and religion and spirituality are not All About Me. More on that some other time.) As with my relationship with the lovely exgirlfriendoseyo, the faith I'd kept until then, too, didn't seem built to bear the weight of that giant black obelisk of grief, which turned out to pretty much be a wrecking ball.

And so that first year passed by. For a few months, I went to the dance clubs every weekend, not to meet girls or hang out, or have fun drinking, but to dance until I was a sweating, exhausted rag doll, to try and vent at least a bit of my grief and anger. My dad came and visited me, and we shared the kinds of silences that only we two could have shared, having been the two living in the house day by day, watching mom turn away more and more of the meals we set before her, blander in taste and smaller in portion as time went by, until she finally rejected food altogether.

The one-year anniversary of mom's death came and went, and a couple of coworkers took me out for beer so I didn't have to spend it alone in my apartment, staring at a wall and reliving the death-rattle (three years later, I can still conjure exactly the sound, and even the smell of that room. Sour milk and unwashed hair.) We didn't find out until shortly later that one of the two was totally batshit insane.

And one of my coworkers introduced me to a friend of hers: a former student whose family she had met and befriended. I'd heard her talking about them a few times, and asked if I could meet them before she left. Fortunately, she complied, and I was lucky enough to meet a really nice family that included two wonderful young ladies, aged ten and seven at the time. The ten year-old was just ridiculously smart: she showed me a story she wrote, and it was about what I'd expect from a very bright fourteen-year-old Canadian girl, not a ten-year-old Korean kid who'd never been out of the country.



circa November 2006

The younger one quickly earned the nickname Giggles, because she was the funniest little thing you've ever met, and the two sisters loved each other fiercely: the younger one, Lisa, had taught herself to speak English nearly as well as her older sister, mostly out of sheer adulation as far as I can tell, and the older one took care of Lisa like a mother bear. Mom was a bit serious, pushing high expectations on her brilliant eldest, and Dad was a pretty quiet background presence all the way through, but Lisa was without a doubt, the joy in that household, and any time I spent time with that family, she made sure there were bubbles and sloshes of laughter spilling all over the place.

One day I got a phone call from the older sister. "Guess where Lisa went."
As usual, I started off silly. "Um, to Thailand? To Italy?"
"Rob. This is serious." And her voice stopped me in my tracks.
"Lisa went to heaven. She was in an accident and she went to heaven."


It feels impossibly narcissistic to talk about how I felt, in the face of a family losing their youngest sister and daughter. Even now, two years after, I can only type about three words at a time before taking a break to think about what it would be like to have something like that happen in my family, and pause, staggered all over again, and in the face of a tragedy like that, I have half a mind to end the post altogether...

but here's the thing.

That June, if you'd asked me point blank, I would have told you I wasn't a Christian (the label I'd had for myself all my life).  I'd have told you I didn't believe in God at all.  I'd have told you it hurt too much to believe in God, because then somebody must have LET all those life-changing, soul-scouring things happen to me, that it hurt less to believe it was total, random shit-happens chance, than to believe something out there had some kind of PLAN that REQUIRED me to go through what I did.

(by the way, I'm fully aware, and you don't have to remind me, that people have gone through much worse than I did: I've met some of them, and they broke my heart...but they can write their own stories on their own blogs)

But that's where I was at that time. It would have been easier to abandon the idea of meaning, than to have to hash through all the shit that happens to people, and try to keep looking for it, to insist that there IS a meaning, when faced with Erin, who lost her two brothers to malaria at age ten, and her parents to a plane crash at age twenty, and if you'd asked me what I thought about God, I would probably have had a few choice words for you. One of them starts with F.

But a funny thing happened when I got that phone call from Sally, and I still can't explain it. See, as soon as I finished talking to Sally (during which I was very intently focused on talking to this wonderful young lady who looked at me like some kind of big brother or kindly uncle, who'd lent me her Animorphs books), my mind went in two directions simultaneously. One part of me said "Well, fuck. That's it. In case I doubted before, God has very conveniently shown me she doesn't give a flying fuck about any of us here earthside, so fuck her too," and registered that this, if there ever had been, was a perfect moment to abandon God, purpose, pattern, and the search for meaning entirely. That door was hanging wide open, and I don't think anybody could have blamed me for stepping through it, and slamming it shut as hard as I goddamn pleased.

But you see...

at the same time, another part, somewhere in the deeper, vaguer parts of my mind, where thoughts come out as shapes and half-formed pictures and gestures instead of in neat words and phrases, this urgent need to pray for Sally and her family pulled me away from that gaping doorway, before I could make a single motion toward the door, before I could even ponder a post-God life, even though I had practically forgotten the language people use when they pray.

To this day, it remains one of the more mysterious moments in my life, and frankly, I'm still trying to make sense of it.

So where does Sufjan Stevens figure in?

Hang in there, and I'll tell you in part two.


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to part 2, friend! I may have some questions for you.... :-) Love you, Rob!

elizabeth said...

I have not commented in a while... but I don't know what I would say about a lot of the more Korea-centred posts, though when I lived in BC and tutored a family from Korea, I really enjoyed it and have a great respect for them.

But I CAN relate to this one. Yep. I think most people come across this, or at least in my life it seems that people have.

The first time I think actually was when I was 10 years old, but I did not know it (as in what was happening to me internally). A classmate who I loved died and I was devastated. I prayed and prayed for him and then he was gone.

Second time I was 17-18 years old. Two neighbours I knew (both mothers) died in unexpected accidents. Other things were also going on; it was a dark time and I think I would of destroyed myself inadvertently, save that I went to work at a Bible camp, where I met my spiritual mother.

Third time, a few years later my spiritual mother died and it was hard - it was not the dark anger this time as much as a huge sea change within me; within a year God seemed so far; I was angry but at the same time Tamie told me about Kathleen Norris' books (Cloister Walk, etc). She is a poet that understands metaphor, darkness and that life is messy...

That was when we were classmates Rob - seems like a long time ago now.

I trust you notice that I wrote 'I can relate' not 'I fully understand exactly the pain you Rob went though'. Everyone's lives are different and I would not pretend otherwise. That said, some of the reactions you describe, I understand, lived through similar reactions, emotions.

Will be happy to read Part 2. Take good care Rob.

Anonymous said...

if you write it, we will read...

Caryn Ouwehand said...

Rob, I just have to comment that you are officially the most eloquent person I know. At times while reading this I was like, "Wow, Rob can describe emotions, and experiences....well just... better than most people." (note my eloquence there...)

Thats all.

Amazing post.