The Fault in our Characters

Characters were usually what makes a book interesting for me. I can appreciate stories with deeply intricate plotlines and thought-provoking ideas, but the stories that I love –  the stories that I keep close to my heart, that stirs my spirit and leaves me feeling melancholic when I turn that last page – are often stories with compelling characters I can sympathise with. Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird, Rudy from The Book Thief, Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities, just to name a few.

But there is a danger of liking the book solely for its characters. We get so attached to them, that we are blinded to the bigger picture.  Like in real life, when you are too taken with someone, there is a tendency to overlook their flaws. And flaws are important, because they point to some of the important themes the author is working hard to flesh out.

One of my biggest pet peeves, literary interpretation-wise, is when Romeo and Juliet is said to be the synonym of an epic romance. I do think that Shakespeare is trying to showcase the beauty and ecstasy of falling in love, and the tragedy of when it all falls apart. But he was also depicting the impulsiveness of love, how rash and unthinking and foolish we are when we are infatuated. Is it any coincidence that Juliet’s young age was specifically mentioned? Or that Romeo was mooning over Rosalind just before he fell for Juliet?

[Side note: I think Franco Zeffirelli produced the most faithful R&J film; the actors were young and they portrayed characters that were impetuous in proceeding with their newfound love. Yet, there was something endearing about it, something that reminds the viewers of the rush and sting of one’s first love].

There is King Lear too. Yes the audience is meant to sympathise with him. Who can watch Lear grieving over Cordelia without shedding tears of commiseration? But Lear was by no means a guilt-free character. He was the one who banished Cordelia in a petulant tantrum, despite having it carefully arranged that she was to (rightly) inherit the best portion of his land. More than that, while people are outraged at Goneril and Regan’s cruelty, can anyone say the fault is entirely theirs when Lear refused to relinquish control even though he had already handed over his kingdom to his daughters? [An excellent essay of this was written by George Orwell]

The story that I personally feel is the most misinterpreted is Wuthering Heights. All of the films focus on Cathy and Heathcliff, with most of them ending the story after Cathy senior dies. But the romance of Hareton and Cathy is of equal importance, I feel, as a foil to Heathcliff and Cathy’s love. Heathcliff and Cathy’s love is fascinating and intriguing, but one watches it with a mixture of repulsion and morbid curiosity: it was not to be admired or emulated. In fact, Nellie, the central narrator of the tale, was repulsed by the amount of self-centredness, loathing, and obsessiveness that govern the relationship. And in the end, their toxic relationship exploded, bringing misery and pain to everyone around them. But Cathy and Hareton were an example of how loving someone means encouraging one another, and forgiving past wrongs. It was tamer, and I suppose, less dramatic than Heathcliff and Cathy’s tumultuous relationship, but it was significant enough to be dedicated a half-book worth of writing by Bronte.

Characters that fascinate us, that we sympathise with, that we even identify with, are not necessarily characters to be emulated. When we get so caught up with a character’s story, we overlook the big message the author is trying to tell us.

We sometimes do that with the Bible as well. We get shocked when so-called “godly” people marry multiple wives, when they commit murder, when they get drunk and appear naked in front of their children. But while the Bible shows how God used these men for His greater purposes, their flaws and faults and shortcomings are important because it ultimately points to the fact that humans are sinners, and we have such a huge, huge need for grace.

It is tempting to read the Bible and say “Clearly, God wanted me to be more like these people, so what can I do to follow their example?” When we do that, we lose the plot of the bigger picture. We lose the plot that there’s someone bigger, more perfect, more important to look out for. When we are hung up with Heathcliff and Cathy, we forget Hareton and Cathy Jr who are infinitely better and nobler than Heathcliff.

So with the Bible. If we focus our attention on wanting to be like Jonah, or Abraham, or XYZ, we forget Christ who became man to deal with our sins by dying on the tree, and who defeated death by being raised to life.

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Security and Transparency

The issue of national security has been thrust into the limelight as the recent attacks on Paris, Nice, and Munich are added to a growing list of terrorist attacks. The security systems in Nice is called to question when policewoman Sandra Bertin alleged that she had been told to alter her report to cover up lapses in the security force. Germany’s Interior Minister proposes tighter security measures after a spate of attacks in the country. A little closer to home, Southeast Asian countries are under a ticking timebomb as it was reported that terrorist activities are brewing in the region, with countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are target countries for the recruitment and transit of Islamic militants. Jakarta was attacked early in January and Malaysia experienced the first terrorist attack on its shores as Movida, a nightclub in Puchong, was bombed.

It is in this state of high alert that the Prime Minister of Malaysia introduces new security measures to beef up efforts against the threat of terrorism. Last year, the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed, and only recently, the National Security Council (NSC) Act was launched. The National Security Council has the power to declare security areas – zones that are perceived to contain security threats, and that will be subject to martial law – and the council is chaired by the Prime Minister himself. The act allows the military full authority to seize properties and make arrests without warrants.

Many human right activists sounded the alarm that such wide-ranging and unchecked powers could lead to potential abuse, and that the crackdown on terrorist threats is done at the expense of civil liberties. Josef Benedict, the Deputy Director for South East Asia and the Pacific of Amnesty International, even asserts that “There is good reason to fear that the Act will be yet another tool in the hands of the government to crack down on peaceful protests under the guise of national security”. The Prime Minister’s response to such allegations is that the safety and security of the Malaysian public must be prioritised.

The contentious debate surrounding the trade-off between security and civil liberties germinated as skepticism towards governmental surveillance emerges. The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that “[h]istory has shown that powerful, secret surveillance tools will almost certainly be abused for political ends and turned disproportionately on disfavoured minorities.” The stakes got higher as the advent of the Internet made it easier and easier for state secrets to be leaked and disseminated. When whistleblowing website WikiLeaks burst into fame in 2010 for releasing data on the Iraq War, it was hailed as a shining example of fulfilling the watchdog mandate with which the media is entrusted. In a 2010 Al Jazeera article, it was claimed that had WikiLeaks existed pre-9/11, the fatal attack that had left such an indelible scar on American consciousness might never even have taken place.

The whistleblowing website epitomizes the power of transparency, and it has emboldened and enabled journalists to be more radical in their disclosure of information. The calls for greater transparency has never been louder. The Foundation of Free Press, set up by a group of journalists, advocates for more freedoms to report news. More than that, it was not solely the journalists and media reporters who opined that transparency must be upheld at all costs. A Pew Research survey in 2015 discovers that  54% of Americans stated that they disapprove of the government’s collection of data in the name of national security. As John Cusack, a journalist at the Guardian, once wrote, “People know they have a right to know what the government is doing in their names.”

Yet a survey in 2016 by the Pew Research Centre also observes a trend back towards a “security first” mentality, as terrorist attacks occur the world over. Public opinions are now shifting back towards maintaining greater security, even if that comes at the expense of privacy, civil liberties, and the ideal of transparency. In the very same society that hailed Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, a hero, there is also a tremendous amount of unease and fear at the thought of having national secrets made publicly and internationally known.

“You can’t handle the truth,” goes the famous line from A Few Good Men. Parodied countless times, the quote has become stale and even hammy. yet when one hears the monologue of Colonel Jessep (acted by Jack Nicholson), who tries to justify the murder of a soldier in the name of national interest, one cannot but hear the disconcerting truth in his diatribe:

“You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”

Now as society has been thrown into a debilitating sense of instability, the value and benefits of indiscriminate leaking of state secrets are questioned. WikiLeaks, once seen as the exemplar of fetterless and fearless journalism, became the subject of much heat and public outrage when it published the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) emails without redaction, disclosing private information such as Social Security Numbers and addresses. Other than revealing the DNC’s attempts to undermine Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the emails did not disclose any outrageously reprehensible dealings of the DNC. On the other hand, WikiLeaks has been accused of allowing Russian authorities engineer the US elections by leaking documents in order to wage a smear campaign against Hillary Clinton. The organisation is later embroiled in another scandal when it promised to leak emails from the server of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This it did in bulk, but the sheer volume of the documents made news outlets unsure as to exactly how incriminating or relevant the content of the leak is.  Meanwhile, the indiscriminate leaking has actually allowed for the publication of the personal info of over a million Turkish female voters, jeopardising their security.

Transparency for transparency’s sake has become dangerous for wider society, especially as the global community is gearing up to combat terrorism. Edward Snowden, famous for exposing the National Security Agency’s unethical surveillance programs, is more careful in publishing leaked documents, preferring to go quietly to reputed news establishment to give the inside scoop. He has come to criticise Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for their “hostility to even a modest curation” of leaked documents.

A TIME article claims that WikiLeaks is getting scarier than the NSA. A WIRED article lambasted WikiLeaks for having served its own personal agenda and interests, and very astutely, the writer reminds us that the humans behind WikiLeaks are just that – humans. Humans with biases, prejudices, and motivations. Journalists may have different opinions on what type of expose constitutes national interest, but they must have a justifiable reason for thinking so. Acknowledgment of one’s biases is more honest, more frank, more beneficent to the free press movement than harbouring what The New York Times claim Julian Assange as having, a “noble cause corruption”, which is a conception that celebrates vigilante justice even by morally dubious means.

The WIRED article concludes by calling WikiLeaks a “damaged filter”. Chris Blackhurst uses the similar term “unqualified filter” in an article lamenting how news establishments has become a dumping site for all sorts of leaked documents and dirty laundry. Glenn Greenwald has criticized Blackhurst’s journalistic ethics on the grounds for not wanting to publish stories because he was told to by authorities. But one cannot ignore Blackhurst’s question about publishing hacked state secrets, “Where is the story?” In trawling through the myriads of top secret official documents, we have gotten so caught up in the details that we lose the plot. The implications of the documents need to be at the forefront driving discussions, not the sensationalism surrounding the notion of leaked documents – a phenomenon not unlike the gossip mill. We need journalists who play their role as the government’s watchdog, not a channel for publishing anything remotely top-secret for a surge in sales or pageviews. We need journalists who pick out stories to highlight wrongdoing, not ones who produce mere chatter.

We should laud the journalists who, as Roy Greenslade defends, “have trawled through the documents in order to ascertain which of them were in the public interest”. However, we must also be wary of his unqualified assertion that society should “revel in the opportunity to increase transparency”, even if that should come to “journalistic law-breaking”.  If the government is to be faulted for its unscrupulous dealings in the name of “national interest”, what makes it more acceptable when media outlets and journalists do the same? The role of the journalist, the lengths to which reporters would go in the name for public interests must be re-examined.

In delivering a lecture at Durham University’s St Cuthbert’s Society, journalist-turned-writer Ted Gup notes that the public does not want transparency. What they want is a government that would be discriminatory and scrupulous about how they handle sensitive information. In short, they want a government they can trust. The media is not excluded from this remarkable responsibility of being vanguards of public interest. They are placed in that unique position of selecting and filtering what information is absolutely imperative for the public to know.

Even there exists a tug-and-pull between security and transparency, there is one common overlap: trust. In the aforementioned 2016 Pew Research piece, it was found that members of the public are less opposed to government surveillance activities when explained that it was done for “national security”. Ultimately, the public wavers between the two, for essentially, trustworthiness involves both keeping and disclosing information – but in a discriminate manner. Is it right for governments to infringe upon our freedoms in the name of national security? The crux of the matter is not one of transparency, but of trustworthiness. For this, context matters. Governments who have track records of serving their own interests instead of the public, who have motives other than the greater good of society, are less likely to be trusted even if they claim that they are prioritising the safety and security of the public.

The anti-establishment faction would not like this, for it means placing their trust in bodies that wield great power, and that may abuse that power. However, all the more, it calls for greater judgment, as it requires the public to observe the character of security officials and media journalists. It requires the public to stress great importance on being fastidious with whom they select as the vanguards of both the public’s security and their freedom. The question we should ask ourselves is no longer to what extent is someone transparent, but rather – how much can I trust them, given what I know about them?

In summary: Life in Durham Uni

Before viewing my university results slip, I asked myself “Would I still be praising God – even if I don’t get what I wanted?”

I had told myself that the results weren’t important, and that I did the best I could. And I sincerely believe that. But I had not realised that I still craved for a First. When I opened the slip, I didn’t see what I wanted to see. All of  a sudden, the high of graduating and being done with my degree dampened. It had seemed like my entire academic career fizzled out into a nothing instead of ending with a bang. It had seemed to me a very sour failure.

What perhaps stung the most was that it was a subject that I thought I was good at and that I was passionate about. I wasn’t a standout in a lot of things at school: I flee from numbers, science wasn’t my forte, sports was done only for fun, and ask me to sing or play a musical instrument and banshees would boo me off the stage. My peers, on the other hand, seem to wield talent in multitudinous fields, and always there are those who are better than me in every single thing. But I derived consolation from the thought that I was good with words.

Coming to Durham University, I dared not harbour any ambition. It was daunting coming to the motherland of English Literature, and intimidating to be set alongside peers whose native tongue is English. I just wanted to pass my tests. But doing considerably alright for my second year, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I would have a shot at a First?

So when I finally received my results, all notion of (perceived) self-worth dissipated.

Will I still praise God?

There is much danger in settling your identity and hope on things outside of God. Danger – not only because God often cripples our petty attempts of “self-definition”, but also because we don’t understand the hollowness that undergirds the fruitless enterprise of seeking fulfilment that is not Christ Himself. To give an example, I had only first wanted to enter university. Then I had only hoped to pass my degree. And then soon, I wanted more and more and more. I suspect that even if results went the way I wanted, I would still be looking for the next “big” thing to achieve.

Reflecting upon it, the motive is to fuel my narcissism. And narcissism is something that can never be satiated. Instead, it can only be trampled down by gratitude. Looking back in retrospect, I’ve learnt so much in my journey in Durham, and I am growing more and more content that it was not in vain. He, in His sovereignty, has placed me here in this little city, and there is so much to be thankful for.

It was here where I learnt much about the beauties of the English language, where I first dared to publish my writing publicly – both in the university newspaper and at this blog – where I appreciated the necessity of precision and the importance of defamiliarisation,  where I dared to critique and discuss ideas that challenged and stretched me and oftentimes overwhelmed me.

It was here where I could delight in taking long walks along the river, admiring the abundant riches the scenery lays forth. Durham is beautiful in all seasons, and the city – small, quaint, yet dignified – shines in magnificence. I could walk through the cobblestoned streets or the leaf-strewn footpaths for the millionth time, and still be amazed at this gem of a city.

It was here also where I could enjoy some solitude, to carve out time to reflect, to think, and to be lifted out from my comfort zone, exploring new ideas and experiences. Living out, cooking meals (that are actually edible in most cases!), managing finances, and handling bills (and all the utter chaos it entails). It was here where I tried new things like Zumba, ceilidh dancing, rowing, park run, eating haggis, going to seminars by professors I admire from afar. Seeing new sights, travelling within the UK and without. Most of all, meeting people from all over the globe, seeing how different cultures intersect, or more funnily, when they do not.

On the subject of people, I am grateful for the family I have here. God has placed such wonderful friends around me, in college, in my course, in Malaysian society, in church. I remember World Web where I met some of the loveliest people who cared for me, nurtured me, disciple me. And where I met others whom hopefully I have helped in their walk with God too.

And of course, iFocus, the Bible study group for international students over at Christchurch Durham. When I first joined, I never thought that we would become this close. We had been through much together, slight rifts, misunderstandings, hurts, challenges. But I am glad that God preserved our relationship and brought good out of it all, strengthening our excitement in His gospel daily. We love each other much, and I am glad for this group who had challenged me to grow in my love and knowledge of God, and who cared for me enough to say things that were at times hard for me to swallow. They have encouraged me daily to look to Christ, and I am grateful for that. And man, can this group play music / Articulate / Sardines like no other.

Yet, as much as Durham has monumentally shaped me, I am perhaps right in saying that the euphoria I have felt surrounding my existence there will melt into a memory. As I leave the town, I felt a poignant sadness, not so much because I would be leaving the city, but because I would soon be okay with the separation. Life is such. You taste the delights of one stage of life, but you will move on to other stages. I will miss Durham and the people there, but time will soon wear away my attachment. And I too will be forgotten.

Will I still praise God?

My reaction to my results will show that although I know in my head “Soli Deo Gloria”, I still have a while to go before I live it out fully. And perhaps it is a struggle that would continue till eternity is ushered in. But truly, God alone deserves the glory, and that I am happiest when offering Him due praise. He had created me, and has moulded the universe. He has given me good things to enjoy. But above all, I was and am a sinner, and He has plucked me from eternal separation from Him to eternal enjoyment of His presence. The things I had in Durham – as great and beautiful and wonderful as they are – still cannot compare to the unsurpassable joy of this honour: that of knowing Jesus Christ, and being known by Him.

Storygram: Rainbow

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I’m starting this project where I write a piece of short fiction as caption for a photo I’ve taken! 🙂  I’m calling this project “Storygram”; hopefully I would be able to come out with a short story each week haha. You can also now find me on Instagram as clarissac123 or project_storygram

Rainbows look nothing like they do in children’s books or cartoons.

She used to hate it. She hated the grey skies that inevitably accompanied the arch of colours, she hated the dappled clouds, the dull patches that blurred the edges of the rainbow. She hated the bleakness that marred its beauty.

But now it’s different.

She knows now it wasn’t just the sky that was grey. But it was what was inside her. She saw grey because she was grey. She didn’t understand the rainbow. She didn’t want to. In the light of the darkness, it is easy to miss sight of the rainbow, the promises it yields and the hope it provides.

So now it’s different.

When she sees the rainbow, she still sees the grey. She still sees the imperfections that she can’t rub out. But she no longer sees just the grey. She sees the rainbow – pristine and perfect, formed in the certainty that the Sun will come back again.

“I’m Manuel” Can’t

Manuel needs at least three Bs to be deemed worthy enough for a university education. His excellence in basketball, his fierce overprotectiveness towards his little sister, his insurmountable ability in making fluffy pancakes – they mean nothing.

It’s strange how a paper determines who you are. Manuel supposes it’s because people like making things fast, snappy, and, worst of all, easy. People like reading a something short, as if that would give them the whole picture.

So Manuel stops his basketball. He stops taking Isabella to the park. Pancake-making belonged to a past he has severed from himself now.

Now who is he? A shiny gold plate stating his “achievements”. A culmination of certificates, grades, and the calculated utility he brings to society. These are what he must use to justify the little space he occupies in this planet.

 

“I’m Manuel” can’t be the reason for his existence any longer.

Submitted for Ad Hoc Fiction’s flash fiction competition.

No Other Name

Recently one of my friends shared on Facebook something about her latest achievement.  And while I’m supremely glad for her, the niggling desire to achieve greatness myself and the profound sadness at not having achieved it, punctured me.

This isn’t anything new for me. Since an unbeknownst age, a competitive spirit, or a prideful spirit, or a spirit in need of validation, has been germinating in me. At times it remains dormant, but sometimes it springs up and displays its ugly thorns. More often than not, those jealous, insecure feelings prick me when people appear to be doing better than me, achieving more in life.

In my head, and deep down in my heart, I know that as much as I should strive to be the best self that I can be and that I should strive always to improve myself, I shouldn’t hinge my entire identity on achievements, or relationships, or even about how good I feel about myself. These things are inconstant, ephemeral, changing always like the shifting shadows. Instead, the foundation of who I am, the very fibre of my being is laid on being a rescued child of God. This I know changes not.

This is my challenge: to do the things that need to be done not for my validation, but for the glory of God and the service of men. If I do get recognized or appreciated, through my service, through my ministry, through my career, may it be. But if not, may I be more than content, more than joyful in the station allotted to me.

But these feelings of jealousy, of insecurity, of discontent, this overwhelming sense of failure wash over me at times. I feel sickened by my greed, the greed of wanting greatness in the conventional sense of the word, of wanting my successes acknowledged, of wanting to be admired and lauded. There’s always more to be wanted.

As I’m struggling with all these conflicting feelings, these desires both noble and wicked, God’s word, unfailingly, pierces through the murky depths of my heart:

“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give Him glory!”
-Revelation 19:6-7

Reading these words, I really feel it: the greatest joy is not in puffing up my own self-esteem which desires to be petted and soothed like a ravenous beast, but the greatest joy is in the simple joy of knowing Jesus and calling Him my Lord.

Avatar the Last Airbender

Went on a nostalgia trip and started binge-watching Avatar the Last Airbender again.

For so many many reasons, Aang was – or rather, is – my favourite character of the show.

I get that some people don’t like him, and that some people find him annoying. I get it, I understand it, and I’m not going to force anyone to like him.

But what bugs me is when people comment on his age, use it as proof for his so-called “immaturity”. He’s too young for Katara not because of his personality, or anything he’s actually done, but because he’s… *gasp* twelve.

Apparently, for such people, a 12 year-old is old enough to master all four elements, defeat the Fire Lord, and bring peace to the world, but not old enough to love a girl only 2 years older than him.

Watching the series again, I shall reaffirm without hesitation that as much as every character has laid stakes on my little fangirl heart (with the exception of Combustion Man), Aang’s stake is undeniably the largest. He’s so different from other protagonists I’ve seen from other shows. Aang was a character who had as many flaws as he has commendable qualities.He wasn’t a brooding, anguished kid, but he wasn’t a naive, goofy kid either. He’s made mistakes, he carries around his brand of shame and guilt; but instead of letting it weigh him down, he turns it into motivation for helping others, for helping the world.

He has seen the world in all its ugliness and brokenness, but yet possesses the courage, the audacity, to smile, to laugh, and to cling onto the good and the beauty.

#seriousfangirlposts