Art, and More

Art is defined by one video as the purposeful expression of human creative skill or imagination that makes the audience feel something. German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe proposed three questions for one to characterize a creative work as art: 1) did it have a goal, 2) did it achieve that goal, and 3) was it worth pursuing? We’ve all been told by at least one lecturer in the halls of Chung Te that the practice of medicine is both an art and a science. Back in my second year of medical school, I caught myself rolling my eyes to the side and thinking at the back of my mind, “Ang mema.” I now realize that to think this way is to concede that the past three years of my life are complete futility. Is the practice of medicine therefore worth pursuing? If so, as a doctor-in-training, what is my goal in undergoing this long, lifetime endeavor?

During my undergraduate studies, I developed an interest in philosophy, particularly in existentialism. This school of thought is largely about how the human person thinks and perceives the world around them. Martin Heidegger was one well-known existentialist philosopher, and I was exposed to his ideas back in Philosophy 101. His work Being and Time (in German, Sein und Zeit) explored the ideas of what it meant to be. He discusses being in two senses of the word: a being, or an entity that exists, and be-ing, the act or the verb of existence.

Humans see the world around us in how we relate to the world, more than just by characteristics of objects around us. I can describe a stethoscope to be an object with three long hollow tubes protruding from a rubber center, with two of these tubes composed of metal and one tube made of flexible rubber. For a medical student, it is much easier to appreciate what I just described than it would be for an accountant or a law student. A medical student, because of their background and involvement in the medical field, can better understand what a stethoscope is and its purpose as a medical tool.

But other students have stethoscopes that are different from mine. My stethoscope is of a dark green hue tubing, with a bell-diaphragm unit that can spin on an axle to switch modes, and is of the Littman brand. On the other hand, there are other students who have stethoscopes with golden binaurals, bright neon-pink tubing, made by other manufacturers. And as such, because of all our differences, we would each have described the stethoscope differently.

And we differ in many more ways than by just what kind of stethoscope we own. We all vary in background, undergraduate course, high school, upbringing, nationality, gender, age, height, and even in the time we were born. We are all different in what Heidegger calls thrownness, as we all were thrown into the world. Each of us is created differently, with a different experience to bring to the plate, and a different set of experiences that made us who we are. This individuality, Heidegger says, is inauthentic when we base it too heavily on the routine of everyday life, when it is grounded upon a standard to please others or to live life according to the demands that others pile upon us. We are all beings bound by time, and ultimately we are all destined for nothingness. Eventually, all of us are going to leave this planet. Heidegger says that that it is therefore futile to try to live life in an attempt to please others, and that we should start living life determined by ourselves in order to live authentically.

Paul Ricoeur, a student of Heidegger’s, critiques this and offers another layer of thought in the work Oneself as Another. He says it is meaningless to live life on the sole basis of being bound by time. Life has meaning not because of the brevity of our time on earth, but despite it. If my pursuit to become a doctor is only because I am living for myself, then each day I struggle, complete with the entire coffee-study-repeat cycle, is meaningless. On the contrary, he says, our identity is the union of who we are and how we act in the context of the people around us.

The people around us are not just holograms that tickle our senses, but also selves by themselves. Each person we encounter is an Other—like me, a human with a background, a heritage and a history. A self, like me, with their own pains and passions. When we glance upon the face of the other, we don’t just see the outward manifestation of another human creature; we see a masterpiece bearing the signature of a master Artist. We see a being asking—no—demanding our pity, our mercy, crying out for our attention in words similar to the lyrics of the song This is Me. “I am brave. I am bruised. I am who I’m meant to be. This is me.” It is up to us, whether we choose to help them or to hurt them, the least of our brethren. But what we choose to do to them, we do to God himself.

It is here, he says, that we arrive at this realization: “I too am an Other.” We too are weak and vulnerable, with problems and struggles, in need of the same pity and mercy. Not one man is greater than his neighbor, but all men are created equally. All people are made in the same likeness, bearing the semblance of the same infinite Creator. This is a burden and a responsibility that is far greater than we ourselves are worthy of handling. The implication, when we acknowledge that our lives are not our own, is that we cannot live life by ourselves. And we then conclude, we should not live our lives for ourselves. We live for Him, and we live for others. It is then that we can live authentically, serving a cause greater than our own mere human existence.

Ricoeur then takes this into a more practical sense, introducing his well-known threefold mimesis, a three-step model of prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration. Mimesis is a word that means, “imitation”. As an artist will first examine a live model or recollect a distant memory even before the first drop of paint bleeds on to his plain, white canvas, our actions are prefigured. Prefigured by memories of people who impacted us, events that affected us, and the customs and cultures that shape the way we live. Even abstract art, though it may not represent any distinct object, is influenced by a thought, a feeling, or idea in the artist’s mind. These memories are far more than just “background noise” that we simply pass by in the hurriedness of regular routine. This is where “the face of the Other” comes in, as even if we may try so hard to ignore the Other-s around us, the Other-s are truly the ones who inspire us to think the way we do.

After this first step comes configuration, which Ricoeur likens to the thoughts of a person reading a narrative text. As the eyes of the reader graze through the grassy fields of letters and words, they are in the process of constructing a world of the text in their mind. Likewise, our own experiences cause us to form connections, associations, and neural networks, configuring our priorities, passions, and paradigms. These shape the way we think and how we view the world.

As we build our worldview, we the arrive at the final step of refiguration, or refiguring the world around us. When we act, speak, and live our lives, we share our worldview and perspective with those who live around us. Though our ideas are never completely our own, when we act based on these experiences, we then contribute to the ever-continuous process of rebuilding this world that we live in. We, acting by principle by how we understand the world around us, then come full circle and impact the lives of others, causing them to repeat the cycle again.

The concept of threefold mimesis has been applied in several fields and disciplines. It has found its way into the realms of popular culture, theology, art, and even neuroscience. (See Author’s Note.) Ricoeur invites us to engage with those around us through discourse, challenging us to see ourselves not as lone wolves but as characters in an overarching narrative. He wants us to understand that our individual actions is not futile dust in the wind. But after we reflect (configuration) upon the summation of our memories and experiences (prefiguration) it is inevitable that our response will impact our world in the long run (refiguration). Everything that we do exposes truths, changes perspectives, and shakes the foundations of society as we know it. It is just as every single hair on the brush of a skilled painter leaves a tiny but lasting smear of paint on the canvas of time.

What we do as medical students, and future doctors, will impact on the lives of those around us. It was last Sunday at church when a young woman approached me, greeting me as “Doc.” I was delighted to see the face of someone whom I had helped in a previous patient encounter. Though I was still a medical student, what I did back then when I took her history, gave her physical examination, and prescribed her management (under the guidance of the supervising physician) had a lasting impact on her. I was reminded once again of my “Why.” If I was able to touch her life while just a medical student, then how many more patients could I impact as a doctor in the future?

To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.” This popular aphorism constitutes the three success indicators I will bear when I begin my practice as a doctor. And my goal, in the vein of the Great Healer himself, is to do the will of Him who sends me to heal. I believe these are goals worth pursuing. Only by Christ’s help, will I ever achieve these goals. More than an art, I believe that medicine is a mission.

That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion:
Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do,
including every secret thing, whether good or bad.

– Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, NLT

This article was originally written for, and will be published in SCOPE, the official student publication of the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health.

Bibliography

Changeux, J.-P., & Ricoeur, P. (2002). What Makes Us Think? A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain. (M. DeBevoise, Trans.) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and Time: A translation of Sein und Zeit. (J. Stambaugh, Trans.) State University of New York.

Messmer, J. (Director). (2017). What makes something art? [Motion Picture]. Canada: YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vV2cc_fFgmA

Ricoeur, P. (1984). Time and Narrative. (K. B. McLaughlin, & D. Pellauer, Trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as Another. (K. Blamey, Trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turnau, T. (2015). Ricoeur’s Theory of Narrative as a Theory of Popular Cultural Religion. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from Faith-Popular Culture-Imagination: http://www.turnau.cz/node/31

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Hope

“I make everything new.”
– Revelation 21:5

I stand at a crossroads everyday. Each day, I’m met with the decision to either lug behind me the burden of a colorful (a rather pretty way to put it) past filled with guilt, regret, and rotten seeds, or to open my curtains and absorb the light of a new day filled with opportunity, hope, and purpose.

When you have it rough, one can always bring up the argument of how other people always have it worse than you. How other people aren’t as blessed with the same resources, the same giftings, the same experiences as you. But if you really think about it objectively, there’s really no objective way to prove this to any person. When it all comes down to it, one person’s problems are that one person’s problems. And when someone goes through hardship, to that them, it will probably feel like nothing short of suffering with a capital s. Each and every time.

Yeah. I could totally ruminate on the guilt of the wrong choices of the past. I could totally stuff my heart with anger and disappointment. But each time I choose to do that, it only sends me spiraling down a cycle of more guilt, more anger, more disappointment. It’s an easy choice to make, understandably, but the consequences only become more and more unbearable.

It doesn’t really make you feel better when you’re told that there are others who have it worse than you, implying that you should be ashamed that you’re making a fuss about how you’re feeling. I know that they mean well, but such words make you feel much worse about yourself, and it makes you want to bury your emotions deeper and deeper to a point that it hits so close to your spiritual brainstem. To the point that you feel brain dead, but in the soul.

When you’re at your worst, it takes a helluva lot of empathy–rather than blame, comparison, or judgment–to help you actually see the brighter side of things. Not someone who points a finger, but someone who reaches a hand. Someone to show you, “Hey, you’ve got it bad. But I’m here with you, and I’ll see to it that we make it through together.”

Here’s some news. 2000-so years ago, there’s someone who looked 2000 years into the future, and saw this trainwreck that I would be. But that didn’t stop him from looking even further into the future, and saw a miracle that I would become. And with his grace, his compassion, his mega-empathy, he showed me that he cared. He went as far as to die for me to show me that he was willing to go through the depths of the grave for me, so as to tell me that I didn’t have to be alone. Because of what he did, I know that there’s always someone there looking out for me, someone walking beside me. That even if I’m stuck in the stinkiest of dumpsters, he will never leave me alone.

He didn’t stop there.

After he died, he pulled off the impossible. He broke the seal of death and rose up from the grave. He gave me a reason to look up and look ahead, and a hope to see that my problems won’t be the end. That long after this life is gone, long after my body decays in the earth, my soul will still have something to look forward to. That I have a future and a promise spending the rest of eternity (and then some) with someone who loves me so much, no matter how imperfect I ever was. Someone who loves me for who I am, and for who I can become.

He promised me that regardless of how tainted I was, he would bleed three ten-trillion blood cells to see me made clean. And his flesh would taste the sting of three rusty nails to see me made new. He would spend three nights in a dark, stuffy cave to see me have a purpose. And he would break the power of death to see me have a future.

Each time I’m met with a crossroads, he’s there to remind me that I’m always allowed to take the second path, because of what he did for me.

And he wants to remind you too.

Thank you, Jesus, for a different kind of love.

Have a blessed Resurrection Sunday!

It Is Finished

I am on the third-to-the-last day of what I would say is a very peculiar One-Year-Bible plan. I forgot where I downloaded it exactly, but the plan had somewhat of an oscillation between the Old and New Testament. It started with Genesis, then it went to Matthew, back to Exodus, Mark, and so forth. Some of the smaller books of the Bible, such as the minor prophets and the letters of John, were clustered together during this period, and the books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations seemed to be in their own category entirely. Towards the end the sequence, it ended up looking something like this:

I John ➡ Jeremiah ➡ Psalms 134-140 ➡ II John-Jude ➡ Lamentations ➡ Ezekiel ➡ Psalms 141-150 ➡ Daniel-Malachi ➡ Revelation.

The plan ends exactly on my birthday (so timely) with Revelation chapters 21-22. By following this reading plan, I am able to understand more the different perspectives of the different books as they were written in their context, and the clear message that each book brought to the table. This type of plan does tend to hit a dry spell towards the middle, as you might understand that there seems to be some repetitiveness that comes with reading psalm after psalm or prophet after prophet for several days in a row. Although I now see the value of reading the Bible in a year, I don’t think I would do it again for 2018 due to the dry spell, and I think I’m going to start with more topical Bible reading plans. Regardless, I do now appreciate the Bible a bit more as a whole.

All this is beside the point. What brought me to writing this entry is what I read in today’s reading, in Revelation 16. In verse 17, the last of seven angels pours out a bowl of God’s wrathful judgment over the world, which causes a terrible combo of storms and earthquakes throughout the earth, shattering buildings and cities into pieces and bringing forth God’s punishment upon Babylon and the rebellious nations of the world. This theme was touched upon again in again in the books of the prophets, both major and minor, so this was a familiar topic for me. But what caught my attention with this verse was a shout that came from the throne of the Temple of the Lord in heaven.

It is finished!”

It was from this same Temple that God sent his seven angels, with his seven bowls of wrath, to pour upon the nations in fury. This shout had a familiar ring to it, reminiscent of what Christ shouted when He had finished suffering on the cross on Golgotha, before giving up his spirit to the Father (see also Matthew 27:50 and Luke 23:46).

I was a nice blend of astounded, amazed, and terrified when I read this phrase once again in the book of Revelation. I was told that when Jesus died on the cross, He shouted this phrase to signify that He had finished atoning for the sins of the world, having received the suffering and the pain that we would justly receive for our sins.

We in the 21st century have a tendency to take for granted these phrases in the Bible, as we fail to appreciate the context of these phrases as they are read in the Scripture. Consequently, their meanings to us today is different by several steps from what was understood by the authors and readers of the time. This is one of the reasons that I believe attending Sunday worship as well as meeting with other believers is crucial in the life of a Christian. Fellowship, especially with those who are more versed in the Word, allows us to broaden our perspectives and understand the Bible deeper in its Hebrew and Greek context. Although it is vital for us to read the Bible on our own, we cannot neglect fellowship with others who are in Christ.

All this to say that only in attending Sunday service did I appreciate this phrase in its deeper meaning. It was not just something you would utter when you were finished with just anything, like a meal, or an exam, or an exercise routine. In Greek, the phrase that came Jesus’ lips was “Tetelestai,” which means “paid in full.” In Rome, when citizens committed a crime, they would be taken to prison to serve a sentence. And when their time was complete, a statement would be written over their record saying these exact words, to signify that their punishment had been received.

Boom.

Now we can understand that when Jesus said this on the cross, it did not just mean that His shift was over, now ready to time out of the office and get some heavenly R&R. (Though God the Father did this in Creation!) His shout meant that the sins of the world were atoned for, over and done with, the punishment had been delivered, and God’s fiery anger had been quenched. See, all of us have sinned, all are impure, none could please God apart from the love of Christ for us. Contrary to what popular culture may tell you, we are all sinners at the core, and none of us was capable of making ourselves right with God. It was out of love that Christ died, for only He the perfect Son of God could atone for our sins by offering the perfect sacrifice.

So why then does He give this shout once more from the throne of His Temple? We recall that when He died for us, He was literally God forsaken. A scapegoat forgotten and thrown away from the presence of the Father. And yet, when He shouts this in Revelation, He is in a completely different form–so magnificent and terrifying! Why would he die for us, then punish us again… what gives?

The answer is that He doesn’t. Rather it is twice, that the sins of humanity as a whole are atoned for. But my God is not a redundant God, and thus these two atonements are for two different halves of humanity. The first time, Christ gave Himself up on the cross to pay (in completion!) for anyone who would confess their sins and believe that He was Lord. And the second time? It will paid for by everyone else–those who choose not to turn to God. Whether we accept His blood and His lordship is what determines whether we end up in category A or B.

It does not make sense for Christ to die for the sins of humanity, and again punish humanity once again for what He already died for. Christ’s sacrifice is complete, and it is only by His sacrifice that we can be made right with God. And other than through Him, we are cursed, forsaken vagabonds deserving of His wrath. Other than through Him, we cannot glorify the Father.

This only reinforces in me that there is no such thing as “coexist”. I stand firm knowing that my God is not the god of another religion by another name. My God is YAHWEH! It is only my God who would choose to become man for the sake of His children. Only my God would choose to bear my suffering in my place. It is only my God who will run to me when He sees me far off, limping my way home. Only my God says that not by my effort, but by His power, am I reunited with Him. Only my God can fulfill His promise, and finish what He started.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Sacrifice of the Firstborn

There was a ritual in the Old Testament, the firstborn sons would be brought to the Tabernacle and sacrificed to the Lord, in a stark contrast to cultures of surrounding nations of the day. Other nations practiced the abomination of slaughtering their children in worship of their idols. On the flipside, the children of the Israelites would be presented to God, after being informed of how their nation was saved from slavery in Egypt, to then be substituted by the Levites who would then serve Yahweh in their place.

I am reminded of two discernible events in the Old Testament. The first was the Passover and the Exodus, which I already alluded to in the previous paragraph. Prior to the final plague of Egypt, the Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb, from which they would take blood to wipe on their doorposts. That night, all the firstborn were slaughtered throughout Egypt, and only those who had the blood of the lamb on their doorposts were spared. It was during this onslaught that the Hebrews established the feast of the Passover, as well as the dedication of the firstborn. When the Israelites were in their most sinful state, God still cared for them and remembered His covenant with his people for ages to come.

The other event I recall was Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac his son. At a time that Abraham was trusting God for a grand promise of being the father of an entire nation, God challenged Abraham by asking him to dedicate his own son as a sacrifice on the altar, in a way that mirrored evil pagan practices that Moses would warn against in the future. At this time, no such laws were present that would prevent Abraham from conducting such a sacrifice, but it was out of faith that he went on with obeying God’s command. As we all know, God stopped him at the last minute by sending an angel, and a ram to take the place of his son.

Myself being the firstborn, these verses touch my heart in such a way that I often wonder how I manage to live life from day to day. So much emotion, so much conflict and struggles, and yet I still manage to make it through. I often have to remind myself that my hope and my future are nothing that I have earned, and nothing I deserve.

I am a sinner, and I often stumble and fall. I deserve death, and nothing less. But having been born again as a son of God, I recognize how Christ gave himself up for me so I could be forgiven. And because he rose up, I have that chance to rise up again and again whenever I fall. So I have no reason to live a life of fear or mediocrity. Because of what Christ did for me, I am a new creation. And everyday is beautiful, each day a brand new chance to thank him.