Finding light after darkness.

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The bottle sprung open, and the little orange pills inside of them flew across my desk and the floor. I tried to scoop up the ones that had survived the explosion and put them back in the bottle, knowing that they made the difference between a day of uncontrollable anxiety and a day of not feeling. And as the former kept becoming unbearable, I frequently found myself opting for the latter. Finally, I forced myself out of my room—my face unwashed, feeling a bit gross, but at least the outside of me matched what I was feeling inside. But as I walked outside, I heard the chirping of birds filling the silence and I knew things would be okay eventually. I made my way to the same place I’ve kept finding myself over the past week: in front of this large, red fountain outside of the library. The water falls from above, creating a circular wall and a crashing sound.

Here, many people congregate, often sitting alone, spending quiet time in front of it: resting, writing, talking, sunbathing. Even as I sat here writing this, a young woman approached the fountain, sat down on the steps in front of it, and lost herself in quiet reflection, watching the water fall. Passing behind the fountain are students, professors, and university staff and workers, making their way between the library, the café outside, and Main Quad nearby. It’s one of the few places on this campus where I can find solitude and mental clarity without actually having to be alone.

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The altar in Stanford’s Memorial Church during weekly University Public Worship

I’ve been finding that same sense of solitude in the weekly church service, University Public Worship, that I’ve been trying to go to most Sundays. A Protestant ecumenical service in our gorgeous Memorial Church, its services resemble the structure of a Catholic Mass. But unlike the Catholic Church, outdated practices—like the refusal to ordain women as priests—are thrown out the window. Each week, I walk in proudly with the rainbow watch band that I’ve started wearing again, and I can finally feel accepted. The people in the room range from all sorts of Christian and non-Christian traditions, and surprisingly, years and years ago, when a census on the congregation was done, a very large number of regular attendees considered themselves atheists or agnostics, even as the various ministers come from Anglican, Episcopal, Methodist, and other Christian traditions. This congregation is fairly private—I don’t know anyone’s names, and they don’t know me—creating a certain sense of anonymity that has been oddly comforting. It’s a similar vibe as sitting in front of the red fountain, a place I can be in solitude without having to truly be alone.

Re-enchantment amidst a Disenchanted World

Holy Wisdom gathers us together with tenderness and care.
With gentleness, She calls us into the dwelling place of God.

Our pain, our fears, and all our unmet longings—they are safe in Her embrace.
In the company of God, we tend honestly to the state of our souls.

In the depths of our being, She dwells with Her healing love.
In due time, God mends the broken heart.

The Beloved One says, “Come.”
Let all who long for restoration bring every ache and ill.

Last spring, I shared that I stopped believing in God after my brother’s cancer relapsed for the second time:

The day after [my brother relapsed], my pastoral tutor told me that it sounded as if I had died many times over, that death seemed cyclical to me. For the last nine years of my life, I feel as though I’ve been brutally murdered and then resurrected, only to be killed yet again. None of this feels like it has come out of nowhere; for the week before, I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown with absolutely no idea why. I had been having such horrific nightmares that I couldn’t sleep. I looked so exhausted and weary that other people began telling me that they were worried about me. I even considered going back on antidepressants after months of not needing them. And then I got the news, and it suddenly felt like it all made sense.

It’s been a month since I stopped believing in God. It’s been a whole month and I haven’t been able to find meaning in any of this. If you go back and read any of my previous posts, my outlook has always been, at its core, a spiritual one of hope, one that finds meaning in everything. Today marks yet another day I can’t find that.

Since then, I’ve managed to find meaning again. My brief stint with an “atheism of pain” could not be described in the same ways as the atheism of many of my friends and peers, those who, through rationality and logic, have come to the conclusion that there simply cannot be a God. Instead, my temporary atheism could best be described as a frustration with the random chaos of the world, a desire to believe in something more than the pain that I’m experiencing that I simply couldn’t feel connected to at the time. Meanwhile, I’ve always been a spiritual person, having grown up in the Catholic Church, educated by the Jesuits, and carrying the principles of Catholic social teaching—human dignity, solidarity, charity, distributism, and social justice—with me even as the Catholic Church more or less left me.

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The entrance to Main Quad

German sociologist Max Weber once described this decline in religiosity as “disenchantment.” With the rise of Western science, monotheistic religions were cast aside as irrational, and in this disenchanted world, bureaucratic, secularized Western society reigns supreme. As Weber famously wrote, modernity is characterized by the “progressive disenchantment of the world.” But this isn’t a prescription for the future: Weber’s disenchantment thesis is best understood as a dialectical relationship between disenchantment and re-enchantment, a cyclical process of becoming disenchanted and then finding re-enchantment. The slow death of God, to Weber, has culminated in the return of gods and demons who “strive to gain power over our lives and again … resume their eternal struggle with one another.”

This dialectical relationship between disenchantment and re-enchantment has played out on a personal level in my life, and after, as my pastoral tutor told me, “I had died many times over, that death seemed cyclical to me,” I’ve begun seeing my life become re-enchanted again. While most Christians probably wouldn’t consider me Christian—the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died and rose again for our sins is probably a non-negotiable that I cannot say I’ve honestly believed since about the age of 15—I’ve still found myself to clinging to “spirituality” in the broadest sense, without forcing myself to really have to believe in anything too dogmatically. I’ve found myself in church on Sundays. I find myself looking up at the stars on many nights, tracking their movements like the astrologers of old. I find myself sitting quietly, allowing my breath to match the breath of the Universe. I find myself returning to the cultural traditions I grew up, such as not eating meat on Fridays during Lent even if I no longer fear hellfire for not doing so.

In some ways, really immersing myself in my academics has been a curse. I take a lot of comfort in intellectualization, and it’s the way I come to terms with the mysteries of human understanding. The social world around us, as confusing as it is, is something I believe can be explained with the right tools and methodology, and that’s what has kept me in love with social anthropology (my major) as a discipline. But at the same time, it can be exhausting to constantly peer under the surface of every social interaction and phenomena. And when it comes to things as personal as spirituality, I usually leave the question of “what does this mean” for when I eventually have an existential crisis about how to reconcile my academic life with what I should or should not personally believe. But lately, I’ve found myself feeling more at peace with the inherent contradictions that come with this: I may understand re-enchantment as the social phenomenon it is while also finding myself needing to re-enchant the world in which I live in, even if my actual belief in these things is shallow and not deep. You may wonder what I actually believe. The answer? I believe in both everything and nothing.

Astrology, of which observance has been steadily rising in my generation, is something I find myself turning to more and more—not necessarily as a tool for divination, but as an intellectual exercise that helps me ascribe greater meaning to the celestial bodies in the sky. At the same time, I’m constantly thinking about how astrological belief itself is a unique case study, whose irrationality and lack of scientific basis challenges our notions of the modern and the idea that we have somehow reached modernity. And this isn’t unique to astrology: I’d even argue that the growth of Marxist thought and the rise of democratic socialism in American politics, of which I am an active participant given my unabashed socialist views, should really be understood less as a return of a political ideology and more as a new system of belief that has the possibility to create a sense of re-enchantment in our disenchanted society. (See the tension?)

Casting out the darkness

“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” — Dr. Jose Rizal, Filipino scholar, revolutionary, and national hero of the Filipino people

By this point, it would be reasonable to ask, “What exactly is the darkness that you’ve been trying to find light within?” If you had asked me many months ago, my answer would have been one word: cancer. But now, with my brother being cured of his cancer thanks to the development of CAR T-cell therapy, I can’t simply pin the darkness I’ve been wandering through on a biological disease, as if chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, or immunotherapy will be the be-all and end-all. What’s often ignored in discussions about cancer is the emotional and psychological pain that comes with it. Even though everything should be getting easier, in some ways I’ve felt like things have been getting harder. I find myself reaching for my anti-anxiety medications more frequently than before. I’ve told the story of my brother’s cancer more times than I can remember to the point where it’s become rehearsed. But it was only when, while having a long conversation with a friend in my room, that when I tried telling the story of his most recent relapse again, I burst into tears—something I don’t do very often.

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Green Library at Stanford University

When I told a friend today that I think I just needed another day off, despite all the academic obligations I have, she told me, “Think of it this way: you’ve had multiple weeks of craziness. Of course you need a day or two.” The truth is, it’s been a crazy past few weeks, a crazy past few months, even a crazy past decade that started in August 2010 when my brother was first diagnosed with cancer and my relationship to the world around me changed forever in irreparable ways. Maybe this is one of the marks that I’ve finally become comfortable in my academic career—now in my senior year at Stanford, I’m not afraid to advocate for myself and all that I need to thrive.

From the clinical depression and anxiety I was diagnosed with sometime between my brother’s second and third bout with cancer, to what I can only describe as Complex PTSD, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that comes as a response to chronic traumatization over the course of months or years, especially in childhood, these are all just some of the many battles that life has thrown at me at such a young age. Considering that 1 in 4 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer experience PTSD, the constant traumatization and re-traumatization of watching your younger brother be diagnosed with cancer and then relapse and relapse again since 2010, and even having to donate my own bone marrow at the age of 12 for what ended up becoming an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant, seems to have left an indelible mark on my psyche.

It can be frustrating that the “political capital” I’ve built up by being an active participant and critical thinker in my classes must be spent on what can only be described as time needed to manage my disability, a term I chose to intentionally embrace as it gives a medicalized understanding to those who may not understand how debilitating depression, anxiety, and PTSD can be on someone already as emotionally fragile I am. But at the same time, I am proud of the way that I’ve learned to put myself first, and I’m grateful for the kindness and understanding of my instructors who, throughout my college career, have told me to unabashedly protect my health. Because without taking the time to look back on how my past affects me, healing can never come.

When I’m stuck in these ruts, the ones where I feel petrified and lost whose frequency has been increasing, I think back to the words of Dr. Jose Rizal: “He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” These past few days, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at where I’ve come from. And thanks to the help and kindness of those close to me, many have been there to help show me how I’ve turned trauma into something beautiful—how I give my love to so many; how, even if I struggle to connect with my own emotions, I can be so emotionally in tune with others; how the radical honesty and authenticity I’ve been working towards adopting has helped my friends who are underclassmen feel the space and agency to also advocate for their needs.

Tomorrow, I am excited to wake up with the sunrise and head back to the red fountain outside the library with my morning cappuccino in hand, where I can read and write in peace. And then I’ll go to my anthropology class, refreshed and ready to grapple with ideas around asylum and prisons. After, I’ll finally chip away at all the schoolwork that I’ve abandoned during this needed period of introspection. And in the evening, I’m excited to eat teriyaki salmon with a friend I haven’t seen in so long, then go to a fraternity (yes, a frat) with a different friend for their study night with unlimited espresso beverages (much needed), study spaces, and an open mic night (you can tell I go to Stanford!). I look forward to the future, including to the next quarter, when I’ll be stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking a video & film production class where I’ll be producing a documentary: hopefully on pain at Stanford, since there really is so much unique potential for a juxtaposition between stories of suffering here and visual images of palm trees, sunshine, and sunbathing students.

But today, as I continue grappling with it all, I give myself the time and space to rest.

The Spirit sends us from this place with power:
to disrupt cycles of violence,
to practice healing within and around,
and to create bold alternatives to norms that harm and destroy.
With this knowledge and assurance,
may we go and make it so.

With love and power,
Josh

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