on living

One of my favourite videogame quotes is spoken by grizzled Russian WW2 veteran Viktor Reznov (voiced by Gary Oldman, no less) in Call of Duty: Black Ops. It goes something like this:

“Dimitri Petrenko was a hero, he deserved a hero’s death. Instead of giving his life for the glory of the Motherland, he died for nothing, like an animal. He should have died in Berlin.”

Those of you who’ve played Call of Duty: World at War will find this extra poignant. But even for those who haven’t played, it’s a powerful quote. The profound sorrow in Reznov’s words, the bitterness, the world-weariness, the hatred for those who did this to his friend. And above all, knowing the horrors of the Battle of Berlin, the thought: what the hell happened to Petrenko that made Reznov wish his friend had actually died in Berlin?

Or this couplet I imagined in my head once when teaching about the German reaction to Treaty of Versailles, has always stuck with me:

What did you do

The day you learned

Our fathers died

For nothing?

Wish I’d died with them

There is something darkly romantic about wishing to end things on our own terms. In my darker moments I sometimes find myself somehow wishing my life could have ended in London: I had left that place, that church ministry, a hero. Now I am staring down a long, winding road with no end in sight, coming to terms with compromise, disappointment, weariness, and a lot of self doubt and regret. I feel so old.

Hong Kong’s headlines have seen a lot of discussion on student suicide lately. And I don’t want to cheapen what’s going on here by making some glib commentary, or sales pitch, or giving my own two cents – no cheap remarks, no solutions. And I know this might ring hollow and insincere, but I want to say this, not only as a teacher, but as a person:

I sometimes wish I could end it too.

I really do. Not just in that lame-Christian-joke way (Jesus, please come back now before all my marking is due!); not in the #JeSuisCharlie kind of way; but I really do feel it in my bones sometimes. The best days are behind, the sky is bronze, and ahead there’s nothing but churning mud and pulling something out of your ass every, single day, for systems and bodies, and, frankly, for people, that mostly do not care about you (but neither do you them, mostly). Where are your allies? the demons taunt, Where is your hope? Shouldn’t things be better now, after all these years?

I can’t say I’ve really tried to take my life (the closest I came was when I was maybe 10, because of Math homework, but that was mostly just dark thoughts, and I never even really came close to doing it). But again, all I can honestly say is that I also sometimes want to end things. I should have died in London

But life won’t let me go. It would be a lie if I said I’m glad about all the new things I’ve seen and learned, therefore I’m glad I didn’t die in London – but I have learned a lot. A lot of painful lessons, a lot of things I did to hurt people, a lot of things people did to hurt me. I have come far as a man since London, even if it was learning a lot of painful lessons, negative lessons. And if I’d died in London I would’ve died with some very immature and stupid thoughts in my head (not that there is a dearth of them right now), but now I know better: am I capable of breathtaking selfishness? Hell yes. Am I good at pushing the envelope in my drawing when I try? Sure. Am I willing to turn my back on people in need? You bet. Am I big enough to let go of grudges? Nope. Am I capable of being a two-faced womaniser? No, but not for lack of trying, asshole.

I’ve learned a lot about people. If I’d died in London, I would’ve done so with a fairly rosy picture of what people are like. Almost a decade later, I feel much more jaded – people are often jerks, I’ve learned, and that absolutely applies to myself. Am I sprinkly, unicornly glad that I’ve learned all this and am now a better person for it? No, but again I know in my bones that I’ve come far as a man, a thinking adult, since London. I’ve learned a lot of painful, dark lessons, but would I rather I’d died in London with a very incomplete picture of what people are like, thinking like a kid that the world is great? Or rather I now know that people are mostly awful but still need selfless love, as applies exactly to me too?

And above all, holding it all together, is my God. In keeping with the rather sombre tone of this piece, I’m not going to paint myself as a faithful follower. I’ve been a rotten son, and if I’d died in London I would’ve died without plumbing so much of my rottenness (and here’s to many more years of plumbing!) – and yet, and yet, my God won’t let me go. It’s reassuring, but it’s also disturbing and frustrating.

He won’t let me go.

Remember Psalm 139? I don’t think David wrote that merely as a piece of fluff. That feeling that God actually refuses to let you go, that’s something I’m glad I’ve been able to see, having not died in London. In the years since I’ve experienced more meltdowns than I’d thought possible, and through these I’ve turned my back on a lot of friends, and a lot of friends have turned their backs on me (and I am amazed by those who’ve stuck around). But somehow I haven’t been able to run away from God. I have tried, honestly I have. But through all my running away, my cursing, my self-destructive addictions, my repeated mistakes, my pride, my willful disobedience, my hypocrisy, my wishing this guy would just leave me the hell alone

he won’t let me go.

He didn’t let me die in London. He doesn’t let me die though I wish for it sometimes, to just go to sleep and not wake up. And no, he doesn’t come back on a white horse no matter how many times I beg him in a deadline-induced panic. I’m still alive. He won’t let me go.

I often still wish it would end. I sometimes still wish I’d died in London. I still have to perform day after day, pulling miracles out of my ass, like many of you do. I have to face down agonising reconstruction of who I am, sometimes complete collapses in morale. But I have a family that I know loves me very deeply, though I suck at reciprocating it. I have a God who has shown his love and won’t let me go. I can look back since London and know that I’ve come very far, though I don’t say this lightly or unicornly or sprinkly – it comes with a sorrow, a world-weariness, a bitterness, a certain hatred. I’ve come far since London. I can’t go back, nor does it help to wish and pine that I’d died there. Ahead is a fight, and there are people who are counting on me, though I sometimes wish (as, no doubt, they sometimes do too) that that weren’t the case.

What hope is there ahead? I don’t know, but neither did I know, at any point since London, how the hell I could have bungled through all those years. And maybe bungling is what we do best. And churning. And slogging. And daily ass-pulling. I can wish for the King to come back on a white horse all I want, but it’s on his terms, not mine. In the meantime he won’t let me go. And I’ve got a lot of learning and plumbing to do still. It will end someday. Just probably not now, not yet.

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