Twigs, Logs, and Conversations with Grandpa

A week ago I got to sit down with my grandpa for several hours. At 89 years old, he’s seen a lot and if I’m honest, the older I get, the less patience I have for the repetitive nature of my grandparents’ storytelling. Regardless, I always seem to learn a LOT about life whenever I take the time to slowdown and listen.

My grandpa was the youngest of his siblings and even though he was often in poor health, he managed to outlive his wife and most of his colleagues. As he spoke, I could sense his overall pessimism with the concept of happiness. He kept referring to how when people would ask “how are you doing?” that the socially acceptable thing to respond with is “I’m doing great,” even though if people really cared and asked a follow up “but really how you are doing” that he would answer more honestly with a “I am very dissatisfied and unhappy with my life.”

A younger me might have steamrolled his emotions with a “There are so many good things happening around you. Look at your son spending time with you, or your granddaughters coming to visit you!” However, I just took the moment to nod and gave him the space to continue.

As we continued, he recounted how he met and courted his wife, how they got married, how they had their son, how they grew old together, and then how the breast cancer and the chemo took her away from him.

It was at this moment that I realized that it had been over 14 years since she had passed. Over the course of those years, slowly his liberties were stripped away from him. A few falls meant that my family had to move him closer to them and so he left his one community without any real hope of staying in contact. A few more scares meant he lost his ability to drive and so he mainly just stays at home now.

He smiled for a second and told me how throughout his life, his favorite past time was eating. If you ever spent time with my grandpa, you would know that eating was definitely a vice of sorts. But if you dug into the context, you would see how this coping mechanism was a response to the trauma caused by the Chinese Communist Party. My great grandfather had a pharmaceutical company in China and it was all taken away when the CCP came into power. My grandpa knows a plethora of languages and dialects because being on the run and being an immigrant were just a way of life. Eating became this privilege and struggling to make ends meet became a norm. There is this enormous scarcity mentality that I’m sure stems from that trauma.

His smile disappeared as he said, “Nowadays, because I’m getting old… even eating doesn’t bring me joy any more.” Steward your body, was the theme he kept repeating as he recounted story after story of how his older brothers and sisters would eat together. He recounted with joy the times that they got along, but he also mourned the times when they bullied him for being the youngest.

Somehow my grandpa kept returning to themes of eternal hope and gratefulness for what had temporarily been. It was quite literally a therapy session of a conversation where we felt all the emotions on the spectrum.

It was the first time where my grandfather ever told me, “I’ve done bad things and I always remember that I need Jesus.” It sounds sooo cliche, almost as if I’m adding this just to romanticize faith. But he really said that, and it really struck a chord within me.

See when I was a child (and some of my close friends would even argue now) I was ridiculously needy. I live and die for acceptance from family, friends, and the general public. I’ve chased affection in the form of relationships and accolades and I’ve always come up short.

I remember crying in my crib (yes I actually remember this), and being obnoxiously loud in that time period right as the sun is going down where it’s obviously getting darker, but it’s not completely dark yet. I was still afraid of the dark, and my room had a light pink curtain that didn’t completely block out light from the window. Across from our apartment was another set of apartments and on the wall of those apartments was a lantern with two lightbulbs. I was scared of the dark and had just woken up from a nap and as I looked around I saw the two lights from the lantern I imagined them as eyes of a monster peering at me. I started crying for my parents who I had forgotten were not home and my grandpa walked in.

I was hysterical and I wanted out of the crib and into the light. I think I just wanted to know someone else was there with me. I kept gesturing to the lights and trying to articulate that they looked like the eyes of a monster. Apparently I was decent at communicating, because my grandpa understood that I thought I saw a monster. But because I was being loud and because I was afraid, he reinforced the idea that I was seeing a monster. He said if I kept crying and being loud that this monster would come and get me.

In hindsight, if I was a parent or grandparent who was unfortunately given the drama king of a child/grandchild that I was, I think I would do anything to shut me up as well. If a story of a fictitious monster would shut me up then I wouldn’t put it past myself to use the same tactics.

But as someone who has sunk maybe 2-3k into therapy, let me tell you that this interaction was pretty important for little me. So much of my outlook on my own self, how valid my feelings or fears are, and so much more was formed in situations like this.

Obviously, my grandpa is not defined by this scenario, and he is not the villain in my story, but if we circle back to his admission of being an imperfect man, this scenario is one of the reasons why that admission was so profound to me.

Lin Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire discuss the writing of the song “Wait for It” from Hamilton in a Netflix, Song Exploder episode. In response to the interviewer asking if they thought that Aaron Burr was a villain, Alex discusses how one theme from their work on Hamilton was “If our lives were judged by our worst days, wouldn’t we all be villains?”

I really enjoyed the shows Once Upon a Time, Dark, and Better Call Saul, because the characters in these shows have moments when they are heroes and moments when they are villains… just like real people in real life.

In 2020, we love cancelling people and organizations.

Let me rephrase that: In 2020, I love cancelling people.

I don’t think it was until I made some really large screw ups in my life that I realized that the world is not as black and white as I had thought as a child. It turns out that I’m not always the hero in my story. In fact many times I am the villain.

It turns out that despite my best efforts and my best intentions, I hurt and use people to get what I want.

Sometimes this is a result of trauma that I experienced in the past, but oftentimes it’s just a reflection of how human I am.

In Jesus’ most famous sermon on the mount, he preaches to this huge crowd of people on a mountain and He says (in summary), “Judge not lest you be judged. For whatever standard you use to judge others, you will be judged in the same manner. Why do you look at the twig in the eye of your brother but do not see the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘here let me take the twig out of your eye’ while there is a whole ass log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye so that you can see clearly in order to take the twig out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).

I find this passage very interesting especially in the context of our current culture.

I think it’s funny/sad how in general, Christians in the United States like to mix religion (Bible passages, teaching, campaigns, whatever) with everything else but specifically politics. Most churches will literally JUMP at the opportunity to publicly decry other people’s life choices while completely ignoring their own issues and sin.

We’ll talk for hours in “Christianese” circles about how we want to be like this romanticized notion of Jesus and how we want to be like the disciples that were just spending time with him all the time. We criticize Peter for not having enough faith to keep walking on water and we criticize Thomas for doubting. At the same time, we distance ourselves from and laugh at the hypocrisy of the pharisees, sadducees, and scribes (the Bible equivalent of church people) who literally spent their time trying to trip up Jesus on His theology and then eventually were the ones who initiated Jesus’ execution.

Like YO.

Hypocritical and religious church people like me were the people who literally put Jesus on that cross. It wasn’t the “radical left” or even the Roman government that put him there. I love how pastors will talk about how radical Jesus was and how the Romans saw him as a threat while literally glazing over the historical fact that THE CHURCH PEOPLE brought Him before the Roman powers to be executed.

The governor literally asked what Jesus had done wrong, and the religious people said that he was a criminal, that he needed to die, but that their traditions wouldn’t allow them to personally put him to death. When offered the choice of executing a known criminal or Jesus, the religious people chose Jesus.

This blogpost is kind of unique in the sense that it has really evolved from my original plans of what the message and theme would be.

What started as a reflection on time spent with my grandpa recounting the sorrow and joy of his long life, evolved into a personal reflection on fear and trauma, transitioned into an acknowledgement of the heroic and villainous nuances to each of our lives, and culminated in a Bible study lesson.

If you are reading this and you have questions about faith or Jesus, I think my message to you is that the Jesus and God of the Bible is actually a lot closer to us who are marginalized and what church people would call “sinners.” Religious people hated Jesus because his inner circle was literally the MOST hated people. There is a pretty large disconnect between the character of Jesus as depicted in the Bible, and the actions of the modern day church.

If you are reading this and you do consider yourself to be Christian, I would say that my message to you is that it is against everything we’ve been taught but we might need to re-visit scripture through the lens of the “villains.” Jesus addresses hypocrisy numerous times in His teachings. He constantly extends grace to people who we would consider “cancellable” while rebuking and admonishing religious people who try and condemn “sinners.” I think it’s dangerous for us to read the Bible and to try and learn about our place in all of this without accurately placing ourselves in the narrative contextually.

Initially, the title for this blog was going to be “Slow Down.” It was going to be an encouragement to take a breath and to sit and be present with those you care about without being distracted every two seconds by your phone.

I think thematically, I still implore you to slow down, albeit, I think now the meaning is twofold.

Obviously, slow down and cherish the time you have with those you care about because they won’t always be here, but also slow down when it comes to pointing fingers and judging others.

If you or I was judged by our worst day, we would all be cancelled.

I’m not saying don’t stand up for justice and just be a spineless person with no convictions, but there is a big difference between standing up for what you believe to be right and shaming and persecuting people who disagree with you.

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