The Spiritual War – My 3rd spirituality essay
By: Chirapon (Pete) Wangwongwiroj
“My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ ”
–Robert Kennedy on the day MLK was assassinated
This was what Bobby Kennedy said to a crowd in Indianapolis the night that our nation lost Martin Luther King. This verse is also a permanent fixture on the wall right above my desk, serving as my daily reminder to hold on to the promise of brighter and wiser days ahead.
It has been a difficult year. A really difficult year. I’m feeling the energy of 2014 to be quite heavy and turbulent. For me, it is a year of transitions. I said my final goodbye to the University of Michigan after I finished my master’s degree. I moved back home to Bangkok, a city in which I feel utterly out of place. Furthermore, now all the motorbike taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers and street vendors are starting to call me ‘P’ instead of ‘Nong,’ a pronoun reserved for an older person and a younger person respectively. These are common ways used by Thais to address a stranger in a more polite way than just ‘you,’ but it is absolutely terrifying when your city decides to move you over to the other side of the young-old gap without your consent). This one took me quite a while to get used to, and admittedly I’m still a little disturbed by being called ‘P.’ As I scramble to adjust to multiple changes all at the same time, chaos ensued. The outward struggle mirrors my turmoil within. The past year has been quite a year for mistakes, growth, exploration and transformation. Inevitably, before wisdom and clarity are bestowed upon us, there are pain, anxiety and desolation. Right now, I’m still subject to these emotions.
I feel compelled to again include a verse I cited in last year’s essay:
“None can usurp the height…
But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.”
–John Keats, in The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream
This is another one of Bobby Kennedy’s favorite verses—and one of mine too. The miseries of the world are indeed my misery, and they often do not let me rest as I do not let them rest. The same can be said of Bobby Kennedy. This is why I talk incessantly about him. In fact, I have told a couple friends this: I don’t think there will ever be a human being that I love as much as Bobby Kennedy. I respect him for the virtues that he always hold near and dear to his heart, I respect him even more for always remaining steadfast to his values. In fact, I would say that Robert Kennedy is the ideal man I would like to become one day. Allow me to expand.
Earlier this year Robert Kennedy and His Times, at 916 pages, became the longest book I’ve ever read. I invested my time in the book because I drew many parallels between his youth and my life, and was so inspired by the way he lived. I was elated, but not surprised, to also find out that RFK was also a fellow Scorpio. I am very aware of the Scorpio traits I possess; they define who I am—both the positives and negatives. Here’s a short paragraph that could easily be my introduction:
“Scorpio is the astrology sign of extremes and intensity. Scorpios are very deep, intense people, there is always more than meets the eye. They present a cool, detached and unemotional air to the world yet lying underneath is tremendous power, extreme strength, intense passion and a strong will and a persistent drive. Scorpios have a very penetrative mind, do not be surprised if they ask questions, they are trying to delve deeper and figure things out and survey the situation. They always want to know why, where and any other possible detail they can possibly know. Scorpio’s are very weary of the games that other people try to play and they are very aware of it. Scorpios tend to dominate and control anyone that lets them, or anyone that they find weak. The person that a Scorpio respects and holds close to them is treated with amazing kindness, loyalty and generosity. On the outside, a Scorpio has great secretiveness and mystery. This magnetically draws people to them. They are known to be controlling and too ambitious but only because they need control for this makes them feel safe.”
Let me also share a short section of what Robert Kennedy’s biographer Arthur Schlesinger said about him:
“Robert Francis Kennedy has a contemporary feel about him, a sense of enduring identification with the woes and injustices of today’s world. His causes—the growing disparities of income and opportunity in the United States, racial justice, the redemption of the dispossessed and humiliated—are with us every hour. Robert Kennedy represents unfulfilled possibilities—possibilities that we know in our hearts must be fulfilled if we are ever as a nation to redeem the promise of American life. … John Kennedy was a man of reason; Robert, a man of passion. John was objective, analytical, invulnerable (except to the assassin’s bullet). Robert was subjective, emotional and acutely vulnerable. John enjoyed his friends. Robert needed his friends. John was buoyant, Robert melancholy; John urbane, Robert brusque. As I have suggested in this book, John Kennedy was a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic, Robert a romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist” [emphases mine].
I, too, am a dreamer. I work with passion and a strong moral compass. I can be hard to convince otherwise once I make up my mind. I like to fix things at the root. I like to act with intensity and haste. Sometimes, these inadvertently lead to abandoned projects and hurt feelings, adding to my pain. I find comfort in knowing that Robert Kennedy had come before me, made mistakes, felt tremendous grief, overcome said grief, fought valiantly against organized crime and later for social justice, and continued to grow throughout his life. His story gave me the strength to believe that my own story is only beginning.
I chose to include a section about Bobby Kennedy because he too fought a war in his life—a spiritual one. He fought hard to overcome despair from his brother’s assassination. He fought hard to understand who he was meant to be. He fought hard to be that man.
I chose to name this essay The Spiritual War due to the extraordinary number of spiritual battles that I had to fight this year, and my spirit is embattled. It is lethargic and low on hope, hence the difficult year. As the miseries of the world keep increasing in both quantity and intensity, my spirit is not ready to usurp the height. Right now, I need rest. I am giving myself the time to heal and trying not to feel guilty about it. I know many of you will tell me that I deserve this rest, but it’s going to be hard to convince me. I understand the need for self-care, so I am permitting myself the rest, but I will always be uneasy as long as the miseries of the world exist. This will never change.
Every single day I question myself whether I am making enough impact. What pains me to no end is that my answer is always no. One could claim that this spiritual war is one that I volunteer to be a part of. I could choose to take what life gives me, stay with my job, save money, take vacations and not worry too much about the miseries of the world. Yet, this lifestyle is not what I am about. So I fight in this war. What am I fighting for? I am simply fighting to meet my own expectations. I have high expectations of who I should become, and in turn I, unlike many others, have strong expectations that life itself should provide me with the necessary conditions to allow my growth and enable my impact.
The conditions in my life are currently far from ideal. I live in a city with very little green space, awful heat, air pollution, heavy traffic and too much entertainment. I am in a job that misaligns with my passion. I have an hour-long commute with two transfers each way. This company gave me a scholarship for my 4.5 years at Michigan, and in return I am contractually obligated to work for them in the next 4.5 years, or otherwise pay back triple the amount I was given. Essentially, I am stuck. I am not happy. In fact, I am now miserable. I complain about it often to my sister. She told me this: “Since you cannot change it, why worry about it? Just accept it and stop thinking about it. Furthermore, without your transformation at Michigan, you wouldn’t even worry about these things.” She made a good point—my time at the University of Michigan transformed me. For this, I am truly grateful. However, I must respectfully disagree with her about my attitude towards my situation. I want change.
I have watched too many people who are dissatisfied with their current jobs resign to their fates and neglect their dreams. I hate that in the morning I merge with currents of disgruntled faces on my way to work. Is nobody really happy with their jobs anymore? I don’t think this is the way to live. If you know me, you know I like to swim against the current. I think we all should be entitled to expect greatness from life. We should be entitled to expect life to acknowledge our efforts and reward us with transformation. We should be able to work towards lasting happiness if we are determined to take the right steps. We should resist systems that turn us into robots from the hours of 8am to 5pm. We should be right when we expect life to help us out when we decide to fight.
“At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (also paraphrased by Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist)
So fight I shall. I will eventually find a way to enhance the conditions of my life and build my happy place. I expect the universe to help me out. In fact, the universe has been pretty kind to me. Sometimes it is hard for us all to remember that we are fortunate in many other ways. With the scholarship, I did not have to worry about money. I was pulled out of the dysfunctional education system in Thailand to a fine higher education institution that instilled in me my passion for sustainability and social justice. I’ve had the privilege to visit six continents (the seventh will be Antarctica in 2016 and you’re welcome to join J) and observe many lives unfold in front of me. Some of those lives brought me inspiration, and some brought me sorrow. All of them opened my eyes wider.
Despite my complaints, 2013-2014 was not such a bad year. The universe gave me challenges, but they were opportunities for growth. Perhaps there was none bigger than this one:
I came out as gay.
This news may come as a surprise to you, and I apologize for not being able to tell many of you in person. This essay, for me, is the most sincere form of communication save from face-to-face interaction. It was May 2014, and I had just finished writing my second spirituality essay, The Journey Within. I was feeling really uncomfortable, because the only part of my social identity that I avoided mentioning in that essay was my sexuality. To be honest, this has never been a huge deal for me, because I have always felt that I needed to be able to take care of myself well enough before I can think about taking care of a significant other. At times, I do feel lonely, but for an independent and introspective ambivert (someone who is both an introvert and extrovert and refuses to be boxed either way) like me, I am pretty adept at keeping myself occupied. What was disturbing me was not my loneliness, but my guilt.
The American writer and feminist Rita May Brown once said, “I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.” When I talk about social justice and happiness, I talk about being able to be who one truly is without being subject to discrimination. I talk about the fact that you always have a choice. After I wrote The Journey Within it suddenly hit me that I was not practicing what I preach, and I really disliked myself for that. I was conforming to societal and familial expectations as a male and as the oldest son. I worried that no one would take my message on well-being seriously if I myself am a member of a minority community.
In other words, I was scared of being judged.
In addition, I also subjected myself to tremendous guilt—for not having come out earlier. I was mad at myself for taking so long. This is yet another example of the high expectations I have of myself. I shared this thought with a mentor of mine, who told me something like this:
“I think you’re holding yourself to a much higher standard than your standards for other people. If you’re in my shoes and I’m telling you what you’re telling me now, would you be mad at me for taking so long?”
“No,” I said solemnly. That was the end of that. I had to come to terms with the fact that each and every single one of our lives are on separate timelines; there is no right or wrong. I still believe that God has a plan for everyone, and mine was just right for me.
In fact, God was kind enough to send me signals that it was my time to come out. If you recall, in the 2011 piece On Little Deaths and Small Miracles, I marveled at how God always had his way of making me almost miss a transformative event or almost deciding not to go, as was the case with LeaderShape, my Development Summer Internship, or the Martin Seligman talk. This time, he gave me three signals. The first was my unease after finishing The Journey Within that I touched on.
The second and third signs occurred when I was in my favorite city in the US, Seattle. I flew there from Detroit shortly after I finished the essay to meet up with my mentors, leaders of the happiness movement. I stayed with an old friend who studied in Singapore with me. She was newly married then, and liked to talk about relationships.
“Pete, do you have a girlfriend yet?”
“Really? I don’t believe you. You know… Some of our friends used to ask me if you were gay.”
I was terrified. “Oh, really? What did you say?”
“I said I don’t know. I really didn’t know then. … Are you?”
“No, I’m not. Really.”
I denied, because I still wasn’t quite ready at that time. Nevertheless, my sexuality became a bigger weight on my mind.
The day after this exchange, I went over to my mentor’s house for dinner. We were talking about happiness policies, Bhutan, the Happiness Initiative, life, relationships, and our families. It was a pleasant evening. The signal was delivered electronically afterwards in an email, which I am sure she would not mind me sharing:
“It was nice to talk with you yesterday. From our talks over the last (2?) years, I feel that there is something there that has not been addressed but needs to be, although perhaps not by me. So, to this, I do not intend to be presumption but suggest the following:
The reason we are drawn to the work we love is it is aligned with the basic nature of who we are and what we need to have a fulfilling life. (On this note, the Happiness Initiative is not just about the common notion of happiness, but about deep sustainability in the personal, natural, built, social and economic environments – something not all people have a deep connection to). Life is too short and unforgiving not to live fully, and one aspect of a full life is full integration, meaning you do not live so that you have to be one person in one situation, another in another [emphasis mine]. Here, I intend no insult, but your story of your circumstances do not fully make sense, so it seems to me that a part of you is hidden – from yourself, or from others I do not know- and so you are not fully integrated, or are preparing yourself to be able to live in such a manner. I think if you can find someone you trust and who is living in a way that you admire and want to be like, to really talk things over, you will find what you are seeking. I think that talking about things you can’t talk about is really really important, and no matter how much time you spend in meditation, in travel, in silence, in study etc, until you can talk things through, you end up in the same place.”
I think she was talking more about how I tend to be a different person with my family from being the real me around people who understand me, but it applied perfectly to my biggest struggle at that time. I took this as a third sign that it was time, so I came out.
The first three people I told were kindred souls that were supportive beyond my belief, and gave me more confidence to come out to my parents. The good news is that I did not get kicked out of my house, which is a tremendous fortune compared to many others. I told my parents sometime in July 2014. My mom first asked me if I wanted to see the psychiatrist, because maybe I was wrong. Somewhere between the awkward silences, my dad told me to wait and see because maybe it’s not true. I left the room shortly after, because I needed time to process, and I am sure they needed it too. We have not talked about this since then, but we are talking like normal. So I hope they are okay with it now.
Sometimes, I wondered whether the fact that I have never been close to my family had a purpose. I am different. I care about sustainability. I talk about social justice and spirituality. They don’t get it, and I don’t get them. There was not a lot of love in the first place. Maybe this moment was the reason. I was not so hurt from my parents’ comments because I did not feel like I lost anything; I did not lose my family or my parents’ love.
Reflecting on it almost a year out, I am glad I came out. It was a release. I still maintain that I need to learn how to take care of myself first before starting to look for a relationship. When I do, I will need to figure out this gay dating thing, which my friends tell me is a mess and involves way too much alcohol and hedonia than I can handle (Hint: Not that much). Heh. I am not completely out yet either (especially at work. So work friends, if you are reading this, now you know J), but maybe there is no need to be if being more open means subjecting myself to more questioning and judgment. I dream of a world where no one would be assumed gay or straight. I dream of a world where I am not asked whether I have a girlfriend, but instead whether I have a partner. I dream of a world where we can be free. I dream of a world where the words ‘out’ and ‘closet’ are not associated with sexuality. I believe this world is possible, and I will work hard at it. I know many of you are. We are all in this together.
Phew. That was a big one.
God was kind in his timing. He allowed me time to rest and recover in the latter part of 2014. Apart from coming out, I also had to deal with my exhaustion—both physical and mental, which was becoming a significant problem in 2014. I had not been taking very good care of myself during my four years at Michigan. I slept little and barely exercised. I was too caught up with grades and academics, neglecting what is truly important in life. I was stressed and lethargic all the time. My annual medical check-up results in June 2014 was bad. The doctor told me she could see the stress in my EKG. My BMI, cholesterol and FBS levels were pretty close to the high end of the normal range. I knew I had to do something different; I had to start taking care of myself better. It took me a long time to understand that self-care is not selfish; it is a necessary step to enable me to do my life’s work.
So the latter half of 2014 was devoted to self-care. I was able to take fewer classes and committed myself to exercise. I continued my yoga practice, which I started in January that year. As yoga helped me slow down and gave me respite from the chaos that is our world, I managed to shed off about twenty pounds that I gained over the last four years. In my opinion, this number is not that important; it is more about feeling good about yourself and having the positive energy to go through the day.
Self-care for me also means building meaningful connections, which can simply be summed up by a quote I serendipitously discovered while walking down a passageway called The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, Japan. A man named Lawrence Block once said, “Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” This cannot be truer. What I discovered that day in Japan was a wonderful little shop run by a small family, selling paintings featuring different quotes of an artist who lost his hearing ability but refused to give up on life. One of the quotes captivated me:
“I’m so happy. Because I met you in this infinite Universe.”
Friends who translate these words into emotion are the ones I will remember for life; I can’t forget them even if I tried. You know who you are. I love you to death. I knew right away that I had to buy the postcards featuring this quote. There is such richness, elegance and power in this simple phrase, and I am incredibly privileged to have friends who make me believe this with full conviction.
Ultimately, regardless of how well you take care of yourself, how many friends you have or how much you make, one truth still holds—we all will eventually face what Steve Jobs said is “very likely the single best invention of life”—death. What Steve Jobs said, along with the second best interview question I’ve ever been asked: “If you’re on your deathbed and about to die, what would you like your legacy to be?” remind me to live my life the way I want to each and every day. Many of us fear death, but there really is nothing to fear. As long as we are alive, death is a gift—a reminder that we should live our life.
My intuition tells me that I am not going to be here for very long. I am not sure if I will be able to see my life’s work through till the end, but that does not matter. Life is a journey, and happiness is the destination. If I were to die today, I am happy and lucky to have had the opportunity to do my work.
Sometimes, self-care also necessitates a break from your life’s work. All sustainability advocates will invariably face periods of depression or hopelessness induced by the amount of negative news surrounding the issues and the lack of social consensus and action to preserve our planet. My spirit was dejected. All I had done up to that point virtually had no impact. I was not I the mood to care. In fact, at this moment, I do not care. When the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change last year reported that they are now 95% sure that climate change is anthropogenic, up from 90% in 2007, my only response was a laugh. I laughed not because I found the news ridiculous (as a scientist, I know that this 5% increase in confidence is massive), but because this changes essentially nothing. Social consensus is what we need for meaningful action on climate change, the lack of which has discouraged many sustainability practitioners.
For me, science has done more than enough. I don’t think science is not what we need for a social consensus. What we need is nothing short of an awakening; people need to be able to feel that they are not living right before they will start believing. This process will take time. What is fascinating is that the ability to not think about climate change is a first world privilege, but the ability to think about climate change is also very likely a first world privilege. Most street food vendors in Thailand don’t have the time or money to care about where their vegetables are from or whether to use paper or plastic. We, on the other hand, have the privilege to choose whether to care about these choices. Most of us still choose not to, myself included. In my weakest moments, particularly when my spirit is low on energy, I choose convenience over conscience. One of my greatest wishes for the world is that we will have the strength to care.
Although I am currently on a yearlong hiatus, my sense of urgency and seriousness still remains. Now more so than ever, I can sense the anger. Many of us are angry. We are angry at the myriad forms in which injustices manifests in our world. We are angry that money holds the power to thwart efforts that may potentially rectify many of the injustices. We are angry at the growing income disparity, the rising cost of education, the lack of action on climate change, the stigma that the LGBTQQ community still faces, the increasing severity of mental health concerns, and many more.
What frustrates me is that you are taught in university that you will change the world one day. It is just not that easy. While in college, you are made to believe that you are change agents and difference makers about to burst onto the scene and shock the world. In reality, very few of us will do just that, and it takes time. The only shock that I encountered was the shock I received when I realized the real world is massively divergent from one I was exposed to during my four years in Ann Arbor. The bubble burst. It is unacceptable for universities to continue to glorify the post-college life this way.
The truth needs to be told; the real world is not easy to digest. Inequality and unhappiness are everywhere. I see so many grumpy faces every morning on the subway to work. Are we just like robots? Many of us are stuck in an 8-to-5 job, following the same old routine everyday. Not many things excite you anymore. It’s just… not real. It seems contrived, artificial, sad, and so so so infuriating. It is also easy outside of Ann Arbor to see that the world is not composed of wealthy elites that are richer than you. Yes, signs of wealth and extravagance can be seen anywhere, but what is more flagrant is the number of people you see that are struggling to make ends meet day in and day out. I see senior citizens selling food on the street from 7am till 9pm. I see people stuck in jobs that I would never consider doing—and this is a huge privilege for me. I feel lucky to be middle class, and especially to be street-smart and “travel hack” my way around the world. But I have never ever felt more… responsible—or irresponsible rather. What is worse is that along with the sense of responsibility is powerlessness. I feel powerless. How can I improve the life of the motorbike taxi drivers that take me to the subway station every day for 15 baht? How can I help the custodian on my floor who cleans after the mess we make but get paid so little? How do I change the pay structure in a world where corporate executives are overpaid and their bonuses combined can probably feed a whole continent?
We are running into more issues, but we are running out of time. Social unrest and climate change will continue to plague us until our demise. I am increasingly restless and impatient. I am also growing increasingly antiestablishment, for the establishment has failed for way too long. “Incrementalism is dead,” my friend posted on Facebook earlier this year, calling for a bolder approach to tackling climate change. I found myself agreeing with him. We can no longer afford to take incremental steps that we are accustomed to taking. We can no longer afford to greenwash. We can no longer afford to hide behind CSR posters. It is time for a real leap, a radical change. A Robin Hood-esque taking from the rich to give to the poor suddenly does not feel wrong, for the rich hath taken much from the poor. If the laws are unjust, they must be broken one way or the other.
My thought process and the type of work I did in the past year reflected this change in mindset. I found myself pulled to working outside the system more so than within the system as I tried to nudge the world towards a new direction. Invariably, there was a lot more resistance and differing opinions. Along the way, I have hastily and angrily written words that unintentionally hurt some of my friends and mentors, which I still feel sorry about today. Hurting others is never my intent, and I hope my friends who read this can forgive me if I have hurt them. I was in unfamiliar territory—my work on happiness rarely received criticism, but as I tackled social issues that I feel passionately about, many disagreed with me on the approach, the language or even the whole premise of my work. I suspect that whenever I am ready to jump back into social issues, I will have to get better at expressing myself unambiguously and succinctly—a tall task for a non-native.
While I am still unsure of my exact career choice in the future, I know one thing: I am a much better thinker than a doer. In the past, I am perhaps too hard on myself for not being able to accomplish much. Once again, some of you will not let me believe so, but I am too stubborn. I admire people like Robert Kennedy, MLK, Bill McKibben and Billie Jean King who display both thought leadership and ability to “get shit done”. While I wish I can be a 21st century Bobby Kennedy, I realized that I am more skilled as a thinker than an actor—and I enjoy thinking more too! Perhaps there is a place for me, particularly in the field of higher education. I believe strongly in higher education’s power to facilitate human transformation and personal growth. Without the mentorship of various faculty and staff members at the University of Michigan, I would not be who I am today. The mentor-mentee relationships I have experienced at Michigan have always been powerful, and I often dream of being on the other side, playing the role of an inspirer and a thought leader. Higher education will have to change radically in the next few decades, and I hope to be a part of that change. Soon, I will begin taking online courses in the Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education Program at Michigan State University to explore possible pathways for me to make a positive impact. I am still unsure if this is the right place for me, but you never know unless you open the doors.
You may notice that this essay is much more grounded in the social issues of our world, as opposed to the usual abstractness that typically occupy my mind. As I continue my spiritual journey this year, I feel more strongly than ever that we all have our own responsibilities—be it to the planet, to one’s country, to one’s family, to oneself, or to all of the above. I think my responsibility to myself is to continue the study of what those who have come before me call ecospirituality, understand it and articulate it in a way that can help me achieve my planetary responsibility—to inspire the next generation of change agents.
I would argue that all our responsibilities can be summed up simply—the responsibility to defend our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes I forget this myself—by not defending my right to my own happiness. So perhaps it is apt to end by once again acknowledging that, despite my protests, I cannot carry out my responsibility for the planet without fulfilling the responsibility to myself.
Right now, my body is tired. My mind is forlorn. My brain is no longer sharp (as is reflected in my writing this year. Accept my apologies for this fragmented piece). Most importantly, my spirit is exhausted. For now, I need rest. My spirit needs rest. This is my weak moment, but I shall rebound. I will be back. Soon, my spirit and I will find our common strategy, and we’ll charge on to our next battle.
Till next time!