Birthdays and Apocalypses

The first of December came and went just like any day, week, month, year, or chapter in my life. It was a day I woke up the same way I intend to start my day and end it, with meditation, exercise, writing, and creating art. In between, however, like any story, is what people care about, and the morning and evening bookends of my day are ways to prepare for what comes, and to learn from what has passed. Every birthday thus is a bookend to life chapters, and though not much happened on the day, I had plenty of opportunities to reflect on life for all of my years of living, and what is to come. As of the 21st, the world continues.


My day was mostly spent in solitude in my apartment in Bangkok’s Thong Lo area, but my highlight was watching Cloud Atlas for the first time, which as of this writing, I’ve seen six times and plan on seeing it more. As a believer of synchronicity, the message of hope, love, and connection between everyone and everything across space, time, and lives resonated with me; it was as if the actors were all old friends talking directly to me and reminding me of my path in life, showing that kindness echoes in eternity. Looking at the last six months of my life, I’ve done a few things that made a big difference in people’s lives, from my art to my humanitarian aid work, and my genuine wish to make the world a better place.

I can’t help but look back at who I was over the past two years, buying into the lie of society that was perpetuated with higher education, which in this article can be summarized like commercial branding: promise people a better life and job, and that it’s an investment in the future to distinguish themselves to have that career, offer them money, and take a little interest off of that. In less than fifteen years, the college bachelor’s degree went from being the pursuit of an education to a piece of paper that says “I am self-entitled to better work and higher pay” and instead has turned college into a rite of passage into life, the intermediary between life at home and life in the real world. After that, the master’s degree became the next license for life, and as I see my former colleagues unemployed, getting work unrelated to what they studied, or considering going back to school to “learn something useful” I see my withdrawal from IRPS as a blessing in disguise.

I don’t fault anyone’s decision to study what they do, but we’re back to a time when once the world is saturated with too many degrees, the value drops–simple Keynesian economics: too much supply, so demand peaks at a certain point and it no longer has that same “must have” value, yet it has made it mandatory in order to survive. I do not regret the rite of passage I went through in college and what I have learned, nor do I have reservations about one year of graduate school; self-edification and being prepared to better serve are NOT mutually exclusive, contrary to what some pedantic people attacking me for my reflections and observations have pettily and pitifully argued.

Where I have grown now is when not long after my birthday, I had discovered that degrees, titles, and possessions means nothing to the people whom I helped in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and those whom I call my friends. What they care about is who I am and what I do, my sincere desire to help others. As I detailed in my project blog, I met a war widow from the Sri Lankan Civil War, who broke down into tears, and all I could do was look her in the eyes, and speaking through my translator, taught her a mudra meditation, a sacred yogic hand gesture that heals the heart. Try it, and you will feel love and comfort; it’s like hugging yourself. I learned this from my time reading books on my own and going to temples, and as I saw the pain diminish, I knew I had touched one life, but as I left, I saw her teaching it to the other widows in the center I visited for work. This story repeated itself across every school and center I visited, with school children, widows, landmine victims, and others teaching it to each other. This is the power of love I have been channeling, and this is who I am: a young man who loves the world and gets upset because very few people want to wake up and give back to society and the planet. I am not my degrees, my possessions, my debt, my income, my height, my six pack of abs, my hairstyle, my vest, or the sum total of how many women I’ve had sex with to validate me; I’m Johnny C.

Everything is connected.

I met a young married couple, whom at the age of 30, are retired and spending their lives traveling and buying whatever is their heart’s desire, eating in fancy restaurants and staying in resorts. The man is the son of a rich Philippine plantation family, and his wife married him for that life. Though I wish I had the free time to travel and do as much as they do, I realized that they are parasites: they spend wantonly, consuming in excess, they travel a lot and in fancy cars and planes, leaving a huge carbon footprint without giving back to society or the world. Though I wish I had free time to travel, it would not be solely to enjoy myself, but to make use of my opportunities to learn and help the world. I may not earn more than a few hundred dollars a month, but my work has changed lives, influencing people to approve more funding to build schools for children, create more work and emotional support to widows, and give homes for refugees. Income is usually higher to measure one’s contribution to society; the more you do, the more you earn, and I’m doing more than what my income suggests, because flipping burgers and folding clothes earns more in America than what I do in Indonesia, Thailand, East Timor, Sri Lanka, or India and the Philippines. Yet, I still feel like the wealthiest man in Babylon for what I do.

My wealth is measured in my accumulating self-respect and the support from friends, the lives I have helped, the smiles on strangers’ faces, especially children and women in the downtrodden layers of reality. On my birthday, I challenged friends to play two games: the first was to wish for me one thing that they want me to have to make my birthday the happiest; the second was to look at a picture that has me as Man of the Year, and describe how they think I would have won that award.

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Out of 1066 friends, about eighty people replied, and fewer actually paid attention to the instructions, just going to the generic notification box in the upper right corner of Facebook that said “Johnny C’s birthday is today” and they said happy birthday out of politeness. There are a few who said it with genuine intent rather than habit and obligation, but they, along with those who paid attention to the games, and those who did not say anything, gave me exactly what I needed to know for every year moving forward in life: who is worth my time and who actually gives a damn about me.

Growing up being called stupid and abused, being the new guy all the time, and having my own interests that aren’t popular or “cool” to most, with a dad who showered my sisters with attention and money, trips to Europe and Korea, while I was told to stay at home, I didn’t have a happy upbringing. It was worsened when my younger sister would have extravagant parties with friends and surprise birthday parties, while I was usually alone and with maybe one or two friends who typically regretted being with me instead of with the “cool” people.

I’m like Wreck-it-Ralph: misunderstood for being who he is instead of trying to be something else, and when he tries to be someone else, it’s just not him. So if I’m a writer, an artist, a sensitive soul, a traveler, and a loner, that’s what I need to accept.

This is my gift to myself: I know who I am, and I am a traveler. I am just not the guy who has friends fighting for his attention on his birthday to the point he stays up all weekend showered with love and affection. I don’t have surprise birthdays or people missing me, calling me to ask if I’m okay. I’m a lone wolf, and I don’t have anyone to expect anything from, so I’ve come to terms with being alone and can happily live under the bridge and deep in my cave in the forest and mountains near the sea. But since I don’t have that territory to call my own, I’m a traveler, and because everyone is scattered, I don’t worry about people coming out to celebrate me since it’s not possible. Not that they do come out; time is precious and very few people can be bothered to put aside time for me. It’s why last year’s wish was to celebrate my birthday dinner in the company of good friends so that I know I have love, laughter, and support to keep on fighting, knowing that I’m on the right path. It’s why as silly as it sounds, a simple greeting or genuine effort to reach out to me on my birthday, the loneliest day of the year, means a lot to me.

Now before anyone starts saying that I’m petty and this is stupid, here is what I have in life: two pairs of socks, trousers, boxers, and shirts; a backpack, a suitcase, a camera, a laptop, and an iPod. I do not have much, so at least some love on my birthday from people I want to call friends is the energy I want and need to keep me on my path. But on the other hand I do have an opportunity travel, and it’s not a vacation, it’s my career, so even with few possessions, I feel I have much more when I see the world. This was most strongly felt in Sri Lanka one evening as I looked at the stars and felt that they were all mine; that we all live under the same sun, moon, and stars and share the planet–this is all that I need.

I try to hang on to that feeling of knowing I have everything I want and need, and it is a bit painful when I encounter friends who do not see the same way. I had two conversations with one friend, and he’ll likely read this missive too. The first was that he doesn’t care about Facebook birthday posts, he doesn’t wish anyone happy birthday on Facebook (even if my desire is not limited to Facebook, but phone calls, e-mails, and whatever is offered genuinely). The second was that he thought my new favorite movie of all time, Cloud Atlas, was the worst movie of the year.

So for the first part, it’s fine, he can say what he believes, but between friends, to dismiss what someone else holds dearly and indirectly imply that it’s petty isn’t typically a mark of respect or sensitivity between close friends. Secondly, I’m used to people disliking what I like. I don’t mind them having different tastes, but when their word choice phrases it in such a way that it implies my taste is horrible and abnormal, it’s a sign that tells me to not put too much emotional investment and expect equal reciprocity for anyone. Yet I still do no matter how often I am burned and disappointed. To be fair to him, I do have an intense personality and completely different tastes, and I’m not meant to be best friends with everyone either. However, in similar relationships, I’ve had other friends like this who talk about how they like me and support me, but as I’ve seen over the years, actions speak louder than words, especially when they post it on Facebook: they can say nice things and occasionally meet up with me, but not once am I invited to regular gatherings with their other friends. This was constant amongst just about everyone everywhere I’ve lived. It’s better to be alone than in the company of people who truly can’t stand me. He doesn’t dislike me, that’s for sure, we just have different outlooks and sensitivities. My friend still remains a friend though–I can value someone highly even if it’s not reciprocated in kind, because let’s face it: not many people value or appreciate friendships and relationships with others as much as I do, and those who do reciprocate my efforts and respect my personal feelings are amongst my closest friends. My best friend Patrick has zero in common with me, but where we remain close is this: we have respect for one another and make an effort to be a part of each other’s lives, fifteen years on.

This is why what little I possess, my personal interests, and friendships mean a lot to me: I do not have them in abundance to take for granted. I’ve lost many people in the past year; my first quarter in grad school had three friends die, and this year, my friend and aunt died within months of one another. Life is precious to me, and that I have my self-respect and self-worth, I can go ahead confidently on my own. There  are only a few people I call friends who care for me and pray that I’m safe even as I live in danger all the time now; there are even fewer who understand what I’ve gone through in my life; and still very few people in that smaller section who can actually help me.

People can read the about me and still not get it, the Third Culture Kid experience is dismissed as nothing more than a rich kid’s life, life on the streets and losing people is laughed at and called a lie, and my personal lessons are shrugged off as thinking too much. “So where do people fit in?” as my counselor asks all the time, and I now know that there are a few who are important and they will go away faster than they come, but when they are there, they are held dearly, and when they’re gone, I walk alone, confidently.

I’m still here, reaching out to people, and doing what I can to help, even as I am called a sucker. One girl I helped her father with his Alzheimer’s medication, paid her dental bill, and gave her my old computer instead of selling it, and she walked out on me, abandoning me. I call friends on their birthdays overseas and write letters to express my appreciation for them not just as dear friends, but as people the world is happy to have, and they don’t pay a single moment of attention to me on mine. I don’t expect reciprocity anymore, but when I have it, I have total appreciation for it and give back tenfold, since that reciprocity is precious to me.

I was born alone in this life, and if I die alone, at least I can be at peace with myself knowing that what my guru said to me still rings true: “For someone who has been hurt by everyone and alone all of his life, that your kind heart still wants to help others shows you are something more.” My grandmother said something that I also keep close to my heart: “Johnny, you weren’t meant to fit in, you were meant to stand out and shine.”

As this day on the 21st of December 2012 draws to an end, I know that if our time is up and Armageddon arrives, I have lived my final moments doing good with what I have. But time will continue, I know that, and I will continue living this life giving back to the world, with whatever I have. And as my guru says, “A heart with pure intent, love, and kindness is beyond measure.” I’m no messiah, I’m often treated as a pariah, but as Cloud Atlas shows, a simple kindness spans generations and echoes in time. I may never see the full effects of my work and my sacrifices, but I see the smiling faces of children, widows, David and Sisilia, and I can at last finally look at myself in the mirror without shame or trying to cover the mirror, and rest even in poverty every night knowing that I am doing good in the world, no matter what.

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