Oftentimes I find the concept of “eternity” difficult to comprehend. Suppose you’re a painter, with what colors do you paint eternity? Suppose you’re a songwriter, in what chords, what progressions, what tonality do you compose?
It’s just over midnight when I decide to have a short walk before sleeping. I find all the boys are sound asleep except one.
“That your wife?”
“Uh, no, sir,” he replies while swiftly tucking a photograph of a beautiful young lady inside his pocket.
“You’re a lucky guy.”
“I guess so.”
“How long have you two been together?”
“Wow. That’s quite a long time.”
“Not without our ups and downs.” He chuckles nervously.
“Have some trouble sleepin’ in the dirt?”
“No, sarge, it’s just I don’t feel like sleeping already.”
I sat down next to him. It was full moon and I could see his weary face clearly. There’s a momentary silence as his mind begins to wander.
“I really miss her,” he says, out of nowhere. Then another silence follows.
“Do you think the war will soon be over, sir?”
“I don’t know.” I know that sort of answer would not give him relief but I honestly don’t know. Personally, I’m tired of this war.
His face becomes solemn. “When I go back to Jakarta, I will propose to her.”
“I’ll cut your throat if you don’t invite me.”
He chuckles again. This young man has a contagious kind of jolly and warm chuckle which immediately lifts your mood up.
“Tell me, do you believe in heaven and hell, private?”
“Yeah, I do. What of it, sir?” He turns his head towards me, interested in my unexpected question.
“I never get it.” I pause for a moment. “It’s funny, though, how temporary our lives here on Earth seem to be.” He looks intently at me, waiting to hear my next sentences.
“This war makes me think again, deep inside. I’ve seen plenty of deaths already. A grenade falls, bang! You’re dead. Just weeks ago we’re hit by an ambush. We were eating! There was this man, he hadn’t even finished sayin’ his prayer yet.”
“It’s horrible,” he says. He looks upset. Now he turns his head back, looking to the darkness in front of us. The darkness seems to stare back, as if mocking our complete inability in knowing when the war will be over.
“Sarge, what if this war won’t be over? What if… this war continues forever?”
“Oh, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, kid. What’s ‘forever’? What do you mean by that?”
“Uh, like, forever, sir.”
“I can’t make sense of ‘forever’. Guess that’s why I have trouble believin’ in heaven and hell.”
“I too, sir, have a difficulty in making sense of it. But dare I say to you, it might help if you look at it from another perspective.”
“Yeah. I mean, ‘forever’ is almost crazy, right? You have this stretch of time,” he stretches his arms wide open, “and it has no beginning and no end. But then again, if you think about it, there is no time there.”
He is silent for a while, trying to find a way to communicate his idea. “Oh, now I’m blabbering.”
“No, no. Please continue.”
“Are you sure? My friends would be bored whenever I start to talk about things like this.” He chuckles again.
“Right. So you have this concept of a place where there is no time. How can a man make sense of a place without time? It’s very puzzling! We’re so used to the concept of time. All our lives, we cannot escape from time.
“But I try to approach it from the other direction. In my attempt to make sense of the ‘forever’, I’d think first of the ‘never’. The two are somewhat similar, in a sense that they’re both timeless. There is no time also in the ‘never’. I’d ponder about things that hasn’t happened yet, and extrapolate it so that it would never happen. Like, what if we’d never land on Mars, or… or, what if I would never marry her. Well, that knocks my brain!”
We look again into the darkness. Sometimes I have the feeling that I would never see peace again. This war has been going for three years I almost forget my previous life. Experiencing so many horrors sets a new normal in my mind.
“And then I’d compare those images of ’never’ with images of ‘ever’: the image of me living in Mars, for example. Or, the image of my wedding day. Well, even though ‘ever’ isn’t exactly the same as ‘forever’, but it helps, you know.”
Now it’s me who chuckle. “Funny. I compare the images of war and peace side by side. I can vividly imagine this war going on and on and on, but it just no longer makes sense to me that we can have eternal peace. Guess I’ve been here for too long.”
“Uh, in our original context of heaven and hell, it does make sense, sir. If I’m asked to imagine a place where there is torture forever, I cannot do that. But if I am to picture a place where no one can ever see Peace and Love, well, I can do that. Same goes for the opposite.”
The darkness in front of us is pitch black. It is a terrible thing to have no light at all. I get up, quietly thanking in my downtrodden heart for the full moon above us.
“It’s a helpful technique, sarge,” says he, with a cordial smile on his face.
“It is. Go to sleep, private, it’s almost one.”
As I walk back, I’m reminded of a story my grandmother used to tell me when I was a little boy. It was about a really bad man who never did any good during his life. He stole, he beat people up, he lied, he cheated. As the story goes, one day he was arrested and sentenced to death. No one would even dare to think that he could be forgiven. But on his last day on Earth, he said to the man beside him, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” And as the story goes, that criminal be with him in paradise.
All of a sudden, the ‘never’ becomes ‘forever’.
I once dreamed of a garden with a gigantic Tree inside.
A caterpillar was wiggling on a particular leaf of that Tree.
Suddenly the Tree shook violently and the caterpillar fell down.
The caterpillar looked around and found that its eyes had been severely injured.
“Hey, Tree! What’s wrong with you?”
The Tree was silent.
The caterpillar became as angry as it can ever be and it screamed and it shouted and it cursed, in hope of getting the Tree to open its mouth.
But the Tree remained silent.
Days gone by and its eyes still had not been healed.
It wiggled and wiggled but it could not find fresh leaves here.
Decayed leaves on the ground became its food.
In fact, the caterpillar became used to it so much that whenever he found newly-fallen leaf he didn’t like the taste.
Then the caterpillar became content with his condition.
And one day it became sure that there never was any Tree.
“If the Tree exists surely it can be sensed.”
Dear oh dear, see how the sober-but-injured eyes tried to find the gigantic Tree!
“Lack of evidence,” it muttered.
So the caterpillar went on living and became a cocoon.
“Oh, this is even better!”
It became dormant in comfort.
Months gone by and it had become a beautiful butterfly.
It learned to fly and went upward.
“How awesome it is to be up here!”
The butterfly could sense everything in the garden except the forgotten Tree.
Then it met other butterflies in the air.
They seemed to be discussing something interesting.
“We butterflies are awesome.”
Then a sacred game was devised to display their awesome-ness.
“If we flap our wings together, we can create a hurricane strong enough.”
So they flapped their wings together.
Butterflies, billions of them, in their colors, flapping in the name of Butterfly-ity.
Some even dared to hope that it would uproot the Tree.
Then they left.
They thought they had killed the Tree with their questions.
They thought they were free.
Years gone by.
—written as a humble consideration for 83% of so-called “atheist” out there: deep inside you know He exists. Does something inside still stirs whenever you heard the phrase “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him”?
(Don’t be so serious, of course that number 83% is not ‘scientific’ at all; I made it up)
***OPENING NOTE: This post was meant to be posted on December 13, the peak of Geminid meteor shower. However, as circumstance dictate, it was not posted until now. The circumstance is briefly narrated on the closing note.***
Hello again, dear courteous reader! Well, the ship has been docking for three weeks now and I have taken great pleasure in recharging myself back from a distressing, albeit interesting, voyage abroad. During the voyage I didn’t have the opportunity to sit leisurely underneath the night sky because when I came back to my cabin every evening I was too tired to even think about it. So it’s good to be able to do it again, especially at a time like this.
“What time like this?” you ask. Now you might have read somewhere that in these recent days there is a particularly bright meteor shower by the name of Geminid. This meteor shower was the one I wrote about last year. It was an amazing experience of stargazing, you know, because there were so many of them at that time.
Then you ask again: “What’s so amazing about that? They are mere shooting stars, aren’t they?” Great, now I have the opportunity to tell you one or two things about meteors.
First off, they’re spectacular. Really. One has to see a meteor shower at least once in his/her entire course of a lifetime. Yes, it’s not full of exploding colors, and yes, it doesn’t last for more than seconds, yet you sense yourself being overwhelmed with a bizarre jubilant feeling. It’s like watching a green field from a distance and, after quite a long period of watching, suddenly a white rabbit pops out of it, innocently looks to its left and right, and then—after realizing that there is a human nearby—disappears again into its burrow. Surely you can’t help smiling on that playful, almost comic, scene? It is playful, yet it is splendid in its simplicity. I think in terms of astronomical splendour it can only be surpassed by the Auroras, the Milky Way, and the Nebulae.
But that’s not as significant reason as the second. And because this second reason is significant, I’m afraid I have to bore you a bit, dear courteous reader, by recounting a little story from my yesteryear. Well, there was a time when this humble sailor of yours often climbed to the deck, sat down, and watch the night sky for hours. On one particular evening I was lying flat on my back on the wooden deck when all of a sudden one brilliant shooting star emerged from the constellation Crux.
This meteor flashed splendidly, as if prompting myself to make a wish. So I asked, “May I?” And the reply came swift: “Yes.”
“How many wishes do I get? Two, please,” I begged.
So there you go, the second reason why meteors are not mere shooting stars: they are somehow capable to become a sign, a promise, an accord. You may dismiss that as delusive product of imagination, but at least for me, personally, that is not the case here. I felt the presence of a strong intuitive knowledge in this particular case.
“What are you talking about? Pure nonsense!” I hear you saying, in a prejudicial manner.
You fire back: “Now you call me prejudicial? Goodness be, it’s you who is being prejudicial here. After all, your wishes haven’t been fulfilled, have they? And you don’t even mention what your wishes are.”
Well, I think what my wishes are is not relevant to our present discussion. Whether I had wished for a cat’s longevity or for universal peace, it doesn’t make my case any stronger. So I ignore that comment and move to the fulfillment question, and the answer is: yes, they haven’t been fulfilled yet. However, you cannot laugh victoriously yet; I have another little story in store for you.
On another particular evening—a few weeks after the aforementioned encounter with a brilliant meteor—I climbed up to the deck again. I wasn’t looking for meteors. In fact, I was praying. The prayer was sent in a successive order; I prayed for myself first, and then for my parents, and then for my siblings, and on it goes to less and less familiar objects. I saw no meteor in the sky up until the moment I pray for a friend. This particular friend had been harassed on a social media and I thought it was a subject worth praying for. As the prayer was being uttered, ZAP! I saw a meteor blazing and then came the same strange feeling again that ‘it is not a mere shooting star’. Several days after that, the harassment stopped.
But then again, I don’t always feel that way every time I see a meteor. On one dusk I sat with my friends and suddenly there appeared a bright meteor. It was very bright I thought it was a fireball. However, I did not sense any specialness about this meteor.
You replied: “Okay, maybe those meteors are not mere shooting stars. But still, I am against your view because that’s not the right way to lead a Christian life! In Matthew 12:39 Jesus said, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign…’ If one is to follow Christ, he/she has to immediately do it without waiting for a sign. By looking for a sign you’re reducing the concept of Faith to bits and pieces!”
Exactly. I know. One friend—after I recounted my story—told me how lucky I was to be given a sign and she envied that. But surely that was not something to be envied! The sign was given, I think, because my faith is immeasurably small. So the fact is, it is me who should envy her, because, however hard she asked, God has not given any sign to her.
Think of it as a measure of one’s spiritual maturity. Had those meteors not been sent, I—who really was a spiritual crybaby—might have chosen the wrong way again. On the other hand, she has not been given any sign because she’s already—spiritually speaking—mature enough to keep walking on the right path whatever the outcome is with her request.
So at this year’s Geminid meteor shower period, I’m glad I haven’t seen any meteor. I have to be honest, though, at first I was a bit upset because those meteors were really splendid. But I meditated again on His reply to the Pharisees, smiled, and said to myself: “Onwards!”
***CLOSING NOTE: I have been thinking of closing this blog because I think it’s pretty useless and because writing this stuff requires me—nay, forces me, to not only write, but also to act it out in my daily life. But my, how hard it is even just to walk! Days after writing those words above, I began to ask for a sign again. Almost an ultimatum, indeed. Yeah, pardon my inconsistency, dear courteous reader, but that was me: this humble sailor of yours are no saints. But praise be to the Captain for His mercy, I was given yet another meteor while I was requesting defiantly. So I put out my cigarette, smiled, and again, said to myself: “Onwards!”***
Eu acredito! (I believe!)
Dear courteous reader, I am sorry if this starts to annoy you. I thought there would be no part three, but what can I say? Watching the drama of yesterday’s penalty shootout sent shivers down my spine, bringing me back to the memories of my own penalty shootouts. Well, for your convenience, I promise I’ll make this one a tad shorter than the second part.
The referee blew the whistle. It was the end of 120 minutes of nerve-racking conflict between two equal sides. Everyone knew what it meant: the dreaded penalty shootout―a lottery contest to determine the winner and the loser. The horror of failing to qualify was plainly written in the Brazilian players’ faces. Captain Thiago Silva covered his face as he couldn’t bear to look at the massive yellow crowd in front of him. Poor him! I don’t need to explain how great the pressure was on the players. It might take another sixty years before Brazil would host the World Cup again. Every Brazilians were dreaming, dreaming of winning the World Cup in their own land, and now that dream hung heavily on the shoulders of the penalty takers.
The scoreline read 2-2. Up stepped Neymar, Brazil’s fifth penalty taker. He knew if he missed this one, that dream would be very likely to shatter to pieces. A nation’s dream, Ladies and Gentlemen! Imagine the suspense, listen to his heart thumping as he walked from the halfway line forward. He put the ball on the white spot. His complexion changed. Just a minute ago he was agitated and uneasy. Now, though, he seemed very composed and so sure that he would score. He looked intently at the goal and made up his mind. He ran forward. He swung his leg…
It is never easy for me to fully believe in something. I don’t know why―maybe it’s in my DNA―I always open some rooms to suspicion. This doesn’t help me at all when I am searching for that Hand in darkness. No, don’t misunderstand me, I do believe in Him, but it just feels agonizingly hard for me to surrender completely to a God that I don’t know really well. There’s always the doubt that there is nothing at all up there. I have asked numerous times for a conclusive proof to settle this once and for all―call me Thomas if you’d like―but nothing has been given yet.
Things get rough when I am having a navigational problem. As you have probably known, my ship had been struck by a heavy storm. Even without a storm the voyage itself is already frightening me a lot, and now what happened? A heavy storm, Ladies and Gentlemen!―as if the wave itself is not enough. It is not surprising, really, that I then looked for the Hand. Sadly, though, I don’t know Him well enough. It was very hard to be assured when one doesn’t know Him well.
It is frustrating to realize that no matter how hard I tried to suppress it, doubt always manage to arrive (rather on time, unfortunately). The result is predictable: I become afraid. Although fear is a normal thing during situation like this, sometimes―if it is allowed to grow larger―it can impair one’s ability to fight back.
The Brazilians are not the only ones dreaming. I am dreaming too. Without any offense to His omnipotence, I think I won’t get there with doubt still lingering inside me.
My friend once asked me on how to take a penalty―I had a pretty good record on penalties. Straight out, I answered: “Well, first of all you have to ask yourself whether you’re ready or not to take it. If you’re not ready, don’t take it. If you’re ready, take it. At this stage it is okay to have some doubts in your heart, but once you step up to take it you have to be 100% blindly sure that you will score. This won’t make your leg stronger, but somehow it will condition your mind to give its best. That’s the art of penalty taking, to achieve a state of mind where doubt no longer exist.”
When I watched yesterday’s penalty shootout I can understand how it was like to be in Neymar’s shoe at that moment. Somehow I could relate his tension with my own tension, and zap! It occurred to me that maybe living is―to some extent―similar to penalty taking: let no doubt take away the goal, the dream.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Katharina von Schlegel
P.S.: After Chile’s last taker of the shootout failed to score, Brazilians in São Paulo lit up fireworks to celebrate the thrilling victory. I hope one day Jakarta would be doing the same.
P.P.S.: I apologize yet again, dear courteous reader, for I can’t keep my promise. This post is longer than the second part.
Yesterday was special. Yesterday was unforgettable. Yesterday was special and unforgettable, yet the dreadful aftertaste remains. To where can I seek refuge other than aboard my own ship? Alas, it was broken.
Woe to me, oh woe, and the birds no longer sing.”
―Rammstein, Ohne Dich
It was nine in the morning and the alarm was blaring like a newborn species of idiot. Snooze. His head was severely aching and his ears hurt. A short message written on a yellow sticky note caught his glimpse.
TOEFL Test―Tue 11.00 a.m.
His eyebrows frowned. It hurt badly, the headache. He closed his eyes, as if it might alleviate the pain, but the pain didn’t recede so he got up and sat on his bed, trying to figure out what was happening. Confusion set in when he saw there were blood stains on his bed. His head still ached. He was very slow in getting himself together.
Where did these stains come from?
He checked his arms first, but there were no wounds. He checked his legs, but there were no wounds. He rechecked and then he saw a single drop of blood clot on his bedside. He was on the point of near collapse when suddenly the alarm blared again. Almost with no beckoning, something electrified his mind. He was unconscious, apparently. What the neighbors didn’t know was that it was intentionally done. He chose to electrocute himself, he chose to drown, he chose to die.
The path to Paradise begins in Hell.”
―Dante Alighieri, Inferno
There was no one in Hell. There was only the Grand Inquisitor with his many loyal servants.
Facing this highly-personalized version of Hell, he was struck with terror. It was frightening, indeed, but somehow it imposed respect because of its sheer resplendence. Even the Joker didn’t dare to play his music out loud here.
“You were found guilty, and, because of the nature of your crime, I sentence you to a slow and agonizing death by a lifetime of exile, here. Your name shall be for nothing, your rights will be abdicated, and your many hours to come will not be worthwhile,” said the Judge. The Judge closed his book and turned himself into the Executioner as he walked solemnly down the staircase. One by one, the people attending the trial mysteriously disappeared, until―exactly when the Executioner stepped on the last stair―there were none left but the Just Knight.
No, please, no! Pardon, mercy, please! Please!
The Executioner stopped. “What is it, convict?” he asked with a harsh and aggressive tone.
Woe to those who live but choose not to be alive.
Suddenly, a new set of fresh pains hurled themselves at him. His vision blurred, his sensory perception numbed. His body trembled, his skin burned; his teeth clenched as the pains slowly made their way towards his brain.
The pains were tormenting. Tip-toeing on the brink of mental exhaustion, he tried to lift his blood-stained head. The crows squawked and flew in circle, just above his head. His shoulder was still shuddering when a pebble―thrown by a boy―hit him in his temple. A fresh stream of blood flowed through his cheekbone and straight into his lips. He mumbled indistinctly. His pale and tired voice was drowned by the crowd’s accusations; he knew he was a criminal. He cried, but it seemed like it hardly mattered at that point.
Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
The tear was mingling with the blood when he saw the Hand reaching out to him. He would be home, soon.
Can the ship sail with its rudders broken? Can the flower blossom with no water?
In His will, our peace.
There are few things worth dying for.
A dream so vivid. An order so compelling. A constant remainder of where this ship is heading.
Theirs not to make reply
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Lord Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade
What? Another football-related post?
an annoyed reader
Dear courteous reader, I’ve never intended to make a sequel to this post, but what can I say? To not write the second part would be a real shame. And to not read it would be a disgrace. So if you’ve already felt like clicking that small ‘x’ button on your browser, for Pete’s sake, please hang on a minute.
Four days after I posted the first part, we had yet another penalty shootout. Yes, another penalty shootout. It was a dreadful situation and surely took its toll on the players. As soon as the referee signaled the end of extra time, anxiety was painted on the players’ face. Actually, the sheer simplicity of penalty shootout made it worse: if you miss the kick, you let your team down. It was as simple as that. So everybody was praying like crazy, like there’s a swarm of intergalactic spaceships en route to obliterate the entire Life on Earth.
I hate to recount that shootout, so to your relief I will make it short: we lost. It was tragic, given we worked that hard to equalize twice during normal time. And nothing was more tragic than to realize that all the sweat on the training ground didn’t pay off, that all the dream had shattered into pieces. So vivid was the dream that some players even cried on the pitch.
Well, maybe I exaggerated the description a bit, maybe those who cried were sentimental blokes, but you get the picture. After the match, all heads were bent down, contemplating, “what’s the use of training that hard if I was to be beaten on penalty shootout?”. But not me, ladies and gentlemen, not me. I was contemplating a completely different thing.
“So what’s the use of all that prayer?” thought I. Well, from an engineering point of view, if there’s no output, then the efficiency is zero. If the efficiency is zero, it means it isn’t working. Not a bit. And believe me, nothing was more miserable than seeing your machine not working.
Further up the afternoon I wondered, “Why did they win the shootout?” Does that mean He loves them more than us? Oh you poor creature, forsaken by your Lord. How brilliant it must be to be His chosen people. I sunk on my chair and puffed a fag. Throughout the entire evening my mood swung from bad to awful, and I have to be honest, nothing was more heartbreaking than realizing that that Hand, who had guided you all along, is now simply gone.
But is the machine not working, really? I don’t hold a degree in theology and I’m not a saint either, so I can’t say I have the perfect authority to say this, but I think it’s not a machine. Working or not working is not in a prayer’s nature. What’s the true nature, then? Well, frankly, it’s still a mystery to me.
And is the Hand really gone? Nope. Not a chance, mate. The ship is still on course.
In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.
Clive Staples Lewis, The Efficacy of Prayer