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Atonement Theory & The Idolatry of God

In Christian theology salvation tends to refer to God’s intent to restore that which has been broken in the world, including the earth and the creatures that inhabit it. The doctrine of salvation has a robust Christological interior. Soteriology (lit. “the study of salvation”) primarily centers around the “life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ in relation to human salvation.” Because of my chronic health problems, particular imposed soteriologies have caused me and my faith the most trauma. What I am interested in is the ‘implicacy’ of the doctrine of salvation in systems of meaning and power that ultimately disavow those in similar positions of vulnerability. One of the primary ways this gets played out is in the construction and exhortation of atonement theologies as modes of theodicy and meaning-making—that is, as theories designed to explain the existence of evil and make sense of the human predicament. I want to argue that insofar as atonement theologies function as defense mechanisms against facing systems of oppression, adherents are implicated in the idolatry of an antichrist.  

Let us begin by defining the “dominant Western view of the atonement” and its relation to salvation. Leanne van Dyk articulates that in this view “the death of the beloved Son is the substituted punishment for the accumulated total of human sin. … Punishment, [therefore,] is rooted in the divine economy.” This theory essentially frames the incarnation of Jesus as an “anthropomorphic reaction to human sin.” The death of Jesus, then, is the event which satisfies the wrath of God and makes possible the ability for sinful humanity to inherit holy salvation. Such sin-based theology is so enraptured in a Christ that redeems human sin that it tends to place redemptive value on the suffering of others, and, at its worst, forces the justification of such suffering. For most of my young adult life, this theology was the bedrock of my Christian faith.

Growing up in the Evangelical Church, my understanding of the doctrine of salvation was primarily informed by a scripturally dislocated John 3:16. Hence, the concept of salvation was inextricably linked to a certain interpretation of the crucifixion and a redemptive grace that was imparted to all who professed belief in the divinity of Christ. We ended up drawing the Godhead into an egoic longing for “retribution, judicial resolution and punishment.” This theology implicitly assumed God the Father to be fundamentally wrathful, dangerous, and subject to supposed cosmic laws of offended justice, and yet this God was spoken of as fundamentally interventionist in nature. However, in the elementary stages of my faith this boded well for me and my young mind that longed for a majestic Zeus-like God who had control over the dealings of the world.

We may ask, “What is disavowed in the dance between theological predications of atonement and Western cultural logic?” With such an individual, ahistorical, legalistic, mathematical formula-based theology being the center of many dominant notions of the Gospel, to what extent does this notion of salvation “[mask], even [legitimate], the violence which is such a painful characteristic of our society?” Dr. J. Kameron Carter argues that the inability to confess America as a genocidal society built off of slavery keeps the doctrine of salvation implicated in the idolatry of whiteness. He describes whiteness as “a practice of government, of population management and in this way of sovereignty.” He poses a striking polemical question, albeit indirectly, in conversation with Dyk: How does whiteness as a brutalizing practice of sovereignty intersect and inform the dominant Western view of the atonement? Carter reveals that whiteness has aided and abetted imperialist images of God that have been received in the Church as normative. He calls this “the reduction of the sacred to a brutalizing property-concept.” We ended up with a rather primitive notion of God who exists outside the realm of creation judging the world from afar.

When my health began to erode in 2006, this interventionist (and monarchical) deity—the one who enabled Jesus to heal the sick (cf. Matt 8:3, 8:13, 8:16), to give sight to the blind (cf. John 9:6-7), and to exorcise people of demons (cf. Luke 8:26-33) was apparently, for reasons unknown, apathetic to my suffering, to the countless prayers I prayed, and to every hand that was laid on me for my healing. This began to render the Crucified Christ a meaningless, even harmful, metaphor for me. I began to see that because atonement theologies so strongly emphasized the redemptive blessing of Jesus’ blood, the wounds of others almost inherently became glorified centers of meaning leaving them to grieve their pain in isolation. I longed for an alternative theology and still do.  

Substitutionary atonement makes room for the perpetuation of individual and corporate systems of oppression under the guise that “all is paid for and eschatologically secured in Christ.” Slavoj Žižek says new age Asiatic thought has become the underlying ideology of postmodern post-industrial capitalism because it allows people to participate in a system that’s still rooted in domination and aggression while maintaining this inner sense of detachment. Though I do not claim to know how to approach the doctrine of salvation in a way that fully honors the experience of suffering people, I fear that framing the Crucified Christ in terms of atonement is the Christian equivalent of the white bourgeoisie appropriation of simplified Eastern philosophy. The notion of salvation in the dominant Western view of the atonement is so caught up in the restorative reality of the eschaton that social activism is practically rendered futile. But what if the crucifixion was not about changing the mind of God about humanity, but about transforming humanity’s monarchical conception of the divine? What if being ‘saved’ was never about accessing God’s kingdom through gaining the forgiveness of God, but about being freed to live in a new way? Perhaps, then, we are saved not to escape this world, but to help transform it.


Control & The Antithesis of Faith

(Sermon delivered 9/27/17 to my preaching class—middler’s of the Divinity School.)

Matthew chapter 28 vv. 1-7 & 16-18:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. … Go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’” … Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”

The major climactic moment post-resurrection when Jesus appears to his disciples after having died and “proves” his messiahship, the text says, “They worshipped; but some doubted.” It’s horrible Jesus propaganda, but brilliant insight, I think, into what it means to be human. There’s something called Christian Atheism, which sounds like an irreconcilable paradox, but I think it gives us good insight into what this little detail in Matthew may be getting at. What Christian Atheism asserts is that actually all of us live in the liminality between belief and unbelief. In other words, doubt and faith, theism and atheism aren’t actually diametrically opposed; they’re two dimensions of being human. In other words, belief is a spectrum, and our dance between the polarities is what makes us human.

When things like mystery, liminality and questioning are actually portrayed in scripture as normative for the life of faith why do we reinforce the stigmatization of doubt? When some worshipped and some doubted but all were commissioned to go and love the world, why do we persist in pathologizing skepticism?

I’m passionate about this because nobody brought this to my attention when I needed it most. In early high school I began developing major complications with my health. My severe bodily suffering was compounded by my own shame for the ways I found myself questioning my faith, the nature of scripture, and the existence of God. Consequently, I found myself doubting my own self-worth in deeply isolating ways. I prayed for years that God would give me some ounce of theological clarity, that God would give me some revelation into Godself that would make the doubt go away.

I wish I could tell my younger self that wanting this sort of clarity and certitude is actually a seeking of cosmic control—a flashlight to illumine the darkness of the open road of our ambiguous lives vis a vis unimaginably vast mysteries that we can never hope to comprehend (i.e., “Why do we suffer?” “Is Jesus the only way to God?” “Is there a God at all?”). But as someone who continues to walk the road of chronic illness, let me say that the darkness does us a favor by exposing control as an illusion. I think the reality is that sooner or later we discover that we can’t actually control what happens to us, only how we respond to what happens. And the great project of our lives is to learn to surrender in gratitude to the mystery of being. That means doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s control. If you can hear this now, then maybe the next time pain, anxiety, and doubt knocks upon your door you can have the courage to unabashedly invite it in, allowing it to transform you into someone who is ready to journey even deeper into the mystery of the risen Christ.


A Gift Worth Preserving

I mourn for this beleaguered Earth,

The only home we’ve known.

I stand with the Native Water Protectors,

But from behind the security of a Macbook.

I mourn for every sea creature with stomachs full of plastic,

Every newborn welcomed into a progressively toxic atmosphere.

What will it take to convince us of the grave importance of ecological preservation

Over the lie of capitalist consumerism?

Perhaps a child of our own

Rays of light through the desolate woods—

A gift worth preserving.

Sin: A Theology of Death

Why do people die?” It’s a question all must inevitably confront, and, if we are to live without paralyzing anxiety, a question all must paradoxically embrace and transcend. To pretend to know the answer to this question of why anything exists then ceases to exist is to perpetuate our enslavement to what Peter Enns calls ‘the sin of certainty.’ Obviously, we can never know why we die, only that we do in fact die. However, to ask this unanswerable question is crucial in learning to live beyond it. For all its virtue, the Christian Church has largely failed to accept this notion. Christianity has historically attempted to solve the mystery of our dying by conflating sin and death—just look at the theology of substitutionary atonement. This is largely rooted in particular Christologies that embrace the doctrine of original sin to a dehumanizing extreme. It’s crucial, then, that this outdated paradigm for understanding our finitude be deconstructed and provided with a more expansive alternative.

In confronting the absurdity of our questions we begin to wake up to better questions. To ask, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is a sort of prerequisite to ask the more pressing question: “What do I do with this one life I’ve been given?” In the same way, to ask, “Was Jesus truly the Son of God, the Messiah that the ancient Jews eagerly awaited?” is to discover the deeper and more imminent question that Amma the Hugging Saint most profoundly posed: “The question is not if there is a God, but if there is suffering.” In learning to ask the latter, one can devote themselves to alleviate the sorrows of the world without needing to answer an impossible question about the divine nature of Jesus. As Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, writes, “The ability to act selflessly for others transcends religion.” What he points out is that activism is not contingent on belief. Sure, it informs the way we act in the world, but it doesn’t presuppose our ability to act. That notion is just used to trap non-theists in religious prejudice. Secular humanists arrive at this basic notion more naturally than even the most progressive Christians do. Faith is clearly learning to live without knowing, and until the Church embraces that, it will continue to perpetuate damaging theologies that attempt to provide firm answers to the fundamental mysteries and tragedies of life.

The question, “Why do people die?” is not a question of imminent significance—a better question might be, “We’re all going to die, so what do we do in light of this?” Unlike the former question, this is one that can indeed be answered because it doesn’t hinge on objective truth. Here, we could explore the infinite responses to this simple question from the diverse perspectives of every world religion and nonreligious philosophy, and they would all be subjectively right for the sheer reason that there is no singular “right” answer. But for our purposes, we turn to the Christian perspective as a starting place.

Paul famously said, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 NRSV), but let’s ponder that for a moment. Is death actually related to human sin? If so, the implicit corollary is that sin is somehow related to deaths that are not clearly related to human sinfulness (e.g., the death of an infant or the assassination of Gandhi). What’s clear is that people need to have the ubiquity of human suffering acknowledged theologically, and perhaps this is in large part why the doctrine of original sin exists in the first place. But the Church would do well to tread carefully here because such sin-based Christianity is so concerned with explaining suffering through original sin that often it forces the justification of such suffering. Stanley Hauerwas thoroughly explains why this is problematic: “If we try to attribute these terrible results to God’s secret providence, that cannot help but make God at best a tyrant and at worst a cosmic torturer. What we must finally do in the face of… suffering…is to show the patience that does not try to discern any ‘purpose’ behind suffering, but without in any way caring less for [ourselves and others].” [3] Death is tragic, but it’s not a result of sin. That’s a crucial distinction. If this isn’t recognized, the Church is in real danger of disenfranchising those who suffer against their own will and lose the people they most dearly love. We will, in short, explicitly or covertly blame them for their adversities. It’s of incredible importance, then, that death is acknowledged as a phenomenon built into creation, but not synonymous with sin.

So what’s the alternative? How can Christianity inform the way we live in light of our death? What does Christianity have to offer us as finite creatures on a tiny rock of finite resources hurtling around an inhospitable void? It is, in its stark simplicity, Christ. Of course, for some, Christ has been so minimized that those seeking a more expansive worldview have rejected him entirely. Often one of the negative consequences of the doctrine of original sin is violent atonement theologies that are often used to say one’s suffering can be redemptive. This is dangerous and bad theology. Jesus’ act of redemption was a once-and-for-all act and none of us are called to replicate that in our suffering. The search for meaning-making out of suffering is an important one, but it is never appropriate from a third party perspective to impose upon another person a redemptive value to their suffering.

What the Church of the twenty first century needs is to move away an a priori reading of reality and reconceive of a cosmic Christ. Most of religion is ideological; it operates from a top-down model of God that is stuck in the pre-Copernican cosmology of a three-tiered universe. But what if Jesus came to enhance our humanity, to point us to a larger reality of God, and not as a one-time phenomenon, but as a manifestation of the Word (the “cosmic Christ”) that has always been right there in front of us waiting to be seen? This would enable us to see God in the ordinary and to honor God in “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40 NRSV). Jesus could become, for us, the doorway to perceive everything as shot through with the glory of God, to see that every bush is burning and always has been. Teilhard de Chardin said, “Everything that rises must converge,”[4] meaning that greater consciousness and greater evolution is always a step towards greater unity. This Jesus transforms our psyche, expands our consciousness, and invites us to draw closer to one another, to be more deeply and fully human, not to atone for some unforgivable, inherited sinfulness. Until we conceive of this cosmic Christ, Christians will continue to conflate sin with death, sin with disability, sin with miscarriage, sin with chronic illness, and sin, quite frankly, with life, thereby perpetuating the disenfranchisement of those who so painfully endure suffering against their own volition. 

[1] This is a phrase that Peter Enns coins in his book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (New York: HarperCollins, 2016). It is used to describe the evangelical tendency to retain theological certitude at all costs when the Spirit may be inviting us, through our questions and doubts, into a richer faith with greater spiritual depth. Insisting upon the order that we were fed in the earliest stages of our faith journeys makes us love order; it does not make us love Jesus.  
[2] Chris Stedman. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 109.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas. God, Medicine, and Suffering. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 89.
[4] From Teilhard’s essay “Omega Point” in which he lays out his theory of cosmogenesis, or evolution of the world. For Teilhard, the universe is in a state of progression in which human consciousness and evolution will ultimately converge, reaching its cosmic apex with the Omega Point, the Logos that was revealed through Christ. Some argue that his cosmogenesis errs dangerously close to transhumanism and the idea that prioritizing longevity of life through biotechnology is the real source of our salvation, but this is taking his theory to an extreme. Teilhard articulates a panentheistic reality in which Christ “comes again” whenever we are able to perceive the spiritual through the material world.

Trader Joes

Pushing what was now my full cart down the quietly untouched bodily hygiene and animal food aisle, I looked to my right and saw the bag of dog treats that had so often been the meeting point of Lucy’s whiskers and my hand.

I stopped for a moment and just stood there looking over at them and the picture on the front of the Portuguese Water Dog. I recalled Lucy’s thick black fur and youthful energy, her realist sensibility and sassy resilience, her unconditional wagging of the tail regardless of how late I came home at night.

I remembered the habitual twinkling of her collar tags as she would follow the sound of my guitar to find me playing alone in the living room. And I remember staying by her side after she came home from surgery and nursing her with those same treats. Then, with that old familiar ache, I remembered with piercing accuracy how it felt to see her bed without her in it, to play my guitar and hear still the echo of those tags now imagined.

You can carry a wound for a child, a parent, a dear friend, even someone you’ve loved but never met. But I’m finding just as well that your heart can break wide open for an animal—indeed, for a dog; and it turns out that you can cry even in that cold, dormant aisle of Trader Joes.

Come Inside

In more ways than one the past five months have silenced me. I simply haven’t found the energy or the words to voice my experience. This has been a season of immense pain, of learning, of hope, and of pain once more. It’s the sort of pain that isolates, apparently even from my own voice, as it seems this dark existential pit of being has no sufficient words. I have journaled mere details of my days without a hint of poeticism and started songs just to scrap them because they have become clichés. I’ve been desperately searching for something to catalyze my healing. But this… this suffering is persistent.

Journeying with me from Tacoma, Washington to Durham, North Carolina and the community of Duke Divinity School, this suffering goes with me more than ever before. I have said over and over again to my poor health, “This really isn’t a good time. Could you please leave me alone?” But at its core is this fundamental insistence on being experienced fully and without reprieve, to break me wide open for reasons unknown, and silence me at a crucial moment when I could be making new connections with new people.

I think there is simply no making sense of our suffering, you just learn to grapple with your two options of resisting your reality or embracing it. Today I break the silence because I’m feeling ready to take up the latter. Perhaps our pain and suffering knocks upon our door not to taunt us away from fulfillment, but to befriend us and teach us all that it can about true love and true joy—those virtues that we culturally unlearn.

now silence your core

heed the knocking wound

and with a resounding breath

prepare a room for a resurrected heart

The Dragon

In Chinese culture, dragons represent traditionally masculine traits like strength and ferocity, but also perseverance, divine spirit, and success through overcoming hardship. For years now I’ve had large dragon tapestries on my bedroom walls and they’ve meant different things to me along the way.

Let me begin by giving a very brief backstory. Towards the end of elementary school and all throughout middle school, I was a victim of racist bullying. To be honest, it’s not something that I’ve given much thought until rather recently with the Black Lives Matter movement. Coming to terms with my own experience of racism has allowed me to better understand the racism of others and work to shake off its roots in our American culture.

My sophomore year of college, I bought my first dragon tapestry at a street market in Fremont, Seattle. I bought it simply for its aesthetic qualities, and didn’t think too much of it. But this was also around the time that I began to reclaim my Chinese identity. I proudly put up my dragon tapestry as a way to remind myself of my Chinese heritage and that I was proud of my family’s history. Looking back, it was also, in large part, a personal permission slip to give up the grudges I had held for so long against the racist bullies of my childhood.

When I moved to Davis, California I met someone who introduced me to a sort of mythic iconography where, in a visible place in your house, you put an animal or beast that represents your weakest traits, and the objective is to have this rich dialogue with it that becomes instinctual as you face the challenges of life. Essentially, one listens to it and learns from it not so much in an attempt to become it, but to become better as a result of it. I found this idea really fascinating. After all, I never fully identified in what the Chinese Dragon symbolized. I had, for the last six years or so, battled with weakness as a result of chronic insomnia and uncorrelated chronic fatigue. I knew that I had already found the perfect beast for this project, and so I decided I would give this iconography a try.

I bought another dragon tapestry at a tibetan store downtown. I paid the quiet and mysterious store owner, rolled it up, put it in my backpack, and biked it all the way back to my apartment.

When I got back, I surveyed the room, looking for a good place to put this new dragon. There was hardly any room in my bedroom for such a large sheet.

“Maybe I’ll put it downstairs in the kitchen. Better there than nowhere at all.”

So I walked it downstairs and found that there was definitely no room for it there, especially since I had another tapestry on the wall, which I had forgotten was there. So I brought it back upstairs to my room.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have bought this,” I said to myself.

I really thought there would be room. I laid down on my bed for a moment out of physical fatigue and looked up at an empty ceiling, and there, just like that, I had found both the physical space for my tapestry, and the perfect location for such a habitual practice of mythic iconography.

That year I spent countless miserable nights awake with insomnia looking at a dragon on my ceiling, and, call me crazy, but I think I became a better person for it. On those nights I would look up at my dragon and he would stare down at me and we would talk. Many times he would mock me and my weakness. He would tempt me to give into hopelessness. He would say, “You’re not a Chinese! You can’t overcome your suffering!” But I would think back to the stories of my grandparents, and remember where they came from and where they ended up. Poverty, prison camps, providing for their entire families just to be deserted by them, then going to college on their own dime, becoming successful lawyers, starting a family and paving the way for the life that would one day be mine. This history was also my history.

A year later, the dragons are up in my bedroom in Tacoma. This is the room where I continue to suffer with insomnia, and where my conversations with the dragons continue. I’m learning to identify with them more and more because I feel that in some small way I really am overcoming my hardship by facing my suffering. It’s through this long and consistent battle with insomnia and fatigue that the importance of fiercely loving myself and powerfully standing up to hopelessness becomes so clear to me. I simply cannot survive if on top of my suffering I am tearing myself down in my own heart. Although the Dragon is, in many seasons, my nemesis, he is also my teacher. He is teaching me that I can in fact become a lot like him, although it might take the subversion of the traditional model of power and success (hint hint… Jesus).

This week I am not at home. I am in Winthrop, WA with my father and there are no dragon tapestries here. But last night, I had insomnia again and discovered that there was one hiding in the shadows.

2:45am. I leave my room. It’s better not to stay in one’s bed tossing and turning all night because of negative conditioning. So I go to the dimly lit living room where the fire place is still on. I sit for a moment with my head down in defeat.

“Why me? What did I do wrong today to throw off my sleep cycle? Why the hell can’t I just be like other people and sleep like a normal human being? My vacation with my dad is going to be ruined if I don’t sleep.”

And like an avatar from another reality, this dragon suddenly appears with a fierce gust of wind directly above me to my right. I look up at it and it says,

“You’re weak! You will never know success. You will never be able to help others if you yourself are in need of help! You embarrass me. You bring no honor to your family. You are worthless!”

It takes me only a few seconds tonight to spit back with my own sleep deprived but fiery conviction.

“No!! Dragon, don’t you see? This is the only way to retain my true identity! Without facing my own pain I will never come to see the true gift that my life is. For as long as I drink this cup of suffering, I proclaim my victory until it comes.”

The Dragon usually gives up when I start to make parallels to my experience with the scriptures of my faith tradition. In this moment I feel victorious. However, to be honest, I felt a little lonely once the Dragon left. I enjoyed having a conversation partner at that late hour, even if it was a bit of a contentious dialogue.

I realize that the Dragon stops talking to me when I have all I need to accept my conditions, retain my power to see myself as beautiful and worthy, and remember that I contain a piece of divinity, a piece of God’s sacred spirit inside of me. I’m thankful for that because I need every reminder I can get that all the tools for success, for inner peace, are already within me. This capacity for love and peace is in me because it’s in all of us. I believe that. And I’m trying to infuse every facet of my life with this belief and am endeavoring to live like it moment to moment authentically whether it’s with my experience as an insomniac, my service to others, my friendships, my letting go of grudges, or my relationship with my family. To unlock these treasures within us requires only a subtle shift in perspective, although it has dramatically huge implications. For me, that has everything to do with the way I view my suffering in the context of success.

As Rumi said over seven hundred years ago, what cleans the dirt is dirt itself. It’s only in my present circumstance of my chronic insomnia that I have begun to understand this. What if the “dirt” of our finite, mortal lives is actually the path to heal and transform the dirt we see in the world? The exploration of our own dirt, our own ugliness, hate, aggression, fear, and weakness is where the journey begins. May we find our own creaturely teachers and tempters, and may it be a journey of healing for each and every one of us.


As I continue to walk this path of dealing with my insomnia head on like never before, this desire to live and breathe without regret grows deeper and deeper within me. When this health crisis has subsided, and I do believe it will, I so want to look back on it all without an ounce of regret or self-loathing. I want my story with insomnia to be one that brings me and others some sort of hope.

I was thinking the other day about suffering, about the pains in each of our lives and how so often we view them as detracting us from the progressive plot-line of our lives. I know I’ve viewed my own struggle with insomnia as a detour from the narrative of success that I trace in my own life. Things like getting a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, winning skateboard competitions, being in a band, graduating from college. All these milestones are easy to place in my life story. They make my life seem exciting, and most of all, they portray me as someone with talent, someone who’s never struggled to accomplish one’s dreams.

But a consistent, miserable, deeply personal struggle with sleep is so hard for me to accept and reconcile with the rest of my story because of how uninspiring it often seems to me. It’s one of those topics that make party conversations fall kind of flat. Do you ever feel that way about yourself? Like you’re a natural conversation ender, for lack of a better term? I feel like people just often feel bad for me, and that’s actually really hard for me to deal with.

But, whether I want it to or not, my insomnia is largely what makes me who I am. Naturally, every aspect of our lives is the fabric of our very being.

I find myself dwelling on things like how I can’t pursue my dream of being a long distance runner, or how I can’t play live shows anymore, or how I presently can’t keep a normal job. But, the other day I drew this straight line of dots on my hand and as I sat there looking at it I was struck with this thought that maybe a better way to think of our lives is as a continuous trajectory towards self-awareness and inner peace. That seems to be a much more sustainable metanarrative, as opposed to viewing one’s life as a means of accumulating worldly success. (This reflection doesn’t end with a cute little Bible verse, so you can ease up.)

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should still make goals for ourselves like publishing a book, running that 5k, or landing a cool job, because doing those things can make us better people. My point is that no matter what happens to us, our stories get to include all of it, suffering and all, and we have the gift of making the most of whatever comes our way even if that is chronic insomnia, or the death of a loved one, or a battle with a disease, or spiritual doubt. Our pain isn’t a deviation from our lives; it is our lives.

These days I’ve been attempting to pull my hardship back into the center of my story, not in an effort to dwell on negative energy, but to acknowledge that my life isn’t on hold now because I am suffering. Of course, this is hard to do considering the circumstances. I wake up with a level of fatigue that prohibits me from driving anymore. I don’t get to see my friends and I feel very alienated as a result. I have to cancel lunch dates with my grandparents, my cognitive faculties of memory, problem solving, and decision making seem to be depleting the longer my chronic insomnia persists, and my depression comes in large, sometimes unexpected and unfathomable, waves.

But I remind myself that every day is another opportunity to respond to my pain with increasing love for myself. Sometimes I literally have to tell myself, “None of this is your fault.” I tell myself to relax. I get the opportunity to make something of my pain. And I’m finding that my biggest joy through all of this is the process of learning how to love myself more and more. This chronic insomnia is providing me every opportunity to care for my self in ways I have neglected all my life.

I’m sure you’ve heard before that our experiences with hardship can make us stronger. It’s become somewhat of a cliché, but I suppose there’s a bit of truth to that sentiment. Our suffering can ultimately bring us together if we adopt the spirit of transparency and extend empathy towards one another. They can even begin to heal our deepest wounds that would have been otherwise untouchable without our painful experiences. So I ask myself, “What can I do to care for myself today?” “Is there a way I can begin to allow my pain to heal me?” And who knows, perhaps meditating on those questions can help you as well.

Memory & Place

I woke up with a cold this morning, which was too bad, but I ended up embracing it because it meant I could have a sick day and sick days can be fun if you let them. My dog was sick today too—some stomach thing—so I got to lay pathetically next to her in solidarity. I think she liked that.

I did a number of little things today, but nothing that significant to write about. Though I will tell you something that I thought, which is that I miss living in the city. I found that living there can make the mundane tasks of every day life seem less pointless. I could water my plants and look out the window at a city also in the midst of the mundane. And “going out” was as easy as stepping out my front door. When you’re in the city it doesn’t feel like you have to leave to find the world because you’re already in it.

Here in Tacoma I live in a neighborhood about fifteen minutes from downtown, which is far enough from the city to feel alone. It’s not my parents’ fault. It’s a really nice home and a pleasant neighborhood. We’re on top of a series of hills tucked away from the elementary and middle school, the golf course, the corner store and the old Blockbuster that’s parking lot is now a place where kids skate and smoke weed.

I have no friends here, although I used to. He used to live across the street in that mansion. I always felt a little less cool than him mainly because of their house and how young and trendy his parents were. We’d call each other on our home phones and hang out usually at his house, for obvious reasons. We’d skateboard on our quarter pipe that our dads built together.

I had another friend the next street over. I’d walk to the street, then I’d crawl through the brush to top of the hill that marked the end of his backyard. I’d slide down and make my way to his back door and I’d knock and wait. Most days he’d answer and we’d watch scary movies and skate in the street. If we were lucky we’d convince his mom to drive us to a skatepark and we’d just skate for hours.

I miss all of that. That’s when living here made the most sense. That’s kind of when my life made the most sense. It wasn’t so complicated. Now it’s all about finding some job that’ll give you enough money to do the mundane, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy your work. Now without a job, I spend lots of time watching nothing in particular from my window feeling nostalgic and remembering all of those things. Nowadays this street is pretty deserted during the day, but maybe it’s always been like that. I think most of them go to work around 6 in the morning. Sometimes I’m finally falling asleep when they pull out of their driveways.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I really don’t. I’m twenty three. I don’t have a job. I’m living with my parents. I’m in this stagnant pool of young adulthood and it’s like I’m just learning to swim all over again. All I want to do is have fun with my friends, but I don’t have friends here anymore and the friends I do have are busy living their lives that look nothing like mine. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so alone in my entire life. It’s partly this amazing privilege to be living here with a mom and dad who are willing to put me up until I figure out my next steps, but it’s also this incredibly lonely experience.

Before dinner tonight I took a walk back to my middle school. The school is a ghost town at night. The detritus of Halloween night litter some corners of the school property and remind me why it’s a holiday that I mainly avoid aside from rarely getting invited any where. I started tracing the perimeter of my school counter clockwise. I looked into the gym. The lights were on and I could see it was remodeled now. But I could still make out the area that me and my first girlfriend sat during PE. I thought back to that one day after band class when her friend dumped me because she was probably too afraid to tell me herself. It’s funny how it felt nothing at all like being dumped the next time in college.

I went around and found the stairs and walked up to the where the library is located. I peered in the windows of the dimly lit library. Everything looked nicer now. I wondered to myself why my schools always get better looking once I leave. This looked like a library I could have spent hours in, but back then it wasn’t anything to retreat to. I walked down to the basketball court that I mainly avoided because of the assholes who felt the need to pick on me during lunch and in between classes. I didn’t stay there long. These weren’t memories to dwell on. So finally I went around to the entrance of the school and found the curb I would sit on to eat my lunch alone. I just stood there for awhile taking it all in. It was dark now.

I remembered how alone and unlikeable I felt as a seventh and eighth grader. I remembered all the friends I lost. I remembered the time I came home from my first school dance in tears. I can usually find it somewhere within me to see the humor in the past, but as I was standing there in the deserted school yard I never once felt like laughing at these old memories. The pain was still too real. It’s manifested itself in different ways over the years. I’ve felt alone all my life. But I also remembered how so much changed for the better once I moved on to high school. I made friends. I got a better haircut. A couple of girls liked me. I got asked to my second school dance with one of the popular girls and I actually had a good time. In high school I finally felt like I was worth something again. Then I thought about where I was now, in my twenties and once again lost and confused and lonely, and I knew in my heart that this too would pass; that I would move on from the ambiguous space of feeling too old to skateboard all day and too young to give my time to some boring and meaningless day job. This too would turn into something beautiful and unexpected just as everything else has. The secret was to just keep walking, to keep taking chances and learning from the past.