Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 13.9: Revival and Arrival

"Last night was one of those times in my life that I felt like I was in the right place with the right people at the right time, experiencing exactly what I was supposed to be experiencing."

In my book, Facebuddha, I write that “social media is a new religion. The Tweet is our Call to Prayers. We thumb our Phones like Rosaries. The status update is our Sermon on the Mount.” Instead of saying grace, we take food pics.

One of my reviewers didn’t realize I was writing tongue-in-cheek, and wrote that I was “ranting.” Another reviewer wrote that she enjoyed my book, but it was long, and “I could do without all the India talk.” (A big section of my book is a travel memoir, describing the IRL relationships in my life.)

That India talk. All that gosh-darn India talk.

And there’s Buddhist talk. Perhaps many of my MOSF readers could do without all the Buddhist talk in these posts too. After all, only 0.7% of Americans are Buddhist (although 10% of the world’s population is Buddhist). If I was trying to reach the biggest market in America, I should have titled my book FaceChrist (there are 100 times more Christians than Buddhists here.) That would have been a very different book, to say the least. More of a homily than an exploration, probably. And it wouldn’t have been me. I actually got baptized when I was 30, inspired by the social justice focus I saw in Christianity and the example of Christ, but left the church because it didn’t feel quite right for me. Buddhism helped me relieve my personal suffering, and cultivate my personal purpose in life (‘to love more deeply, and see more clearly’). Still, I have to admit, the Christians have a lot better music than the Buddhists – at least so far. I joke. Christians and Christianity have done a lot of good, although every religion is quite a mixed bag. Any religion can become corrupted by human will, or become narcissistic and tribalistic, devaluing non-believers.

That last point is probably much of why we are living in an increasingly secular age. Most of my patients are secular, or that grab bag “spiritual but not religious.” I’ve gotten a lot from Buddhism and cultivating mindfulness and compassion, but that’s who I am. My Buddhist practice has brought me closer to my own personhood and purpose. People of other faiths (or agnostics and atheists) would likely say the same thing.

We’re all on our own individual paths in life, and some of us are privileged enough to be able to use many resources to further our personal growth.

Film and film festivals are one such privilege, and I am privileged enough to be able to afford an All Access Pass, as well as the time to devote to the pursuit of film viewing. I’ve certainly donated more to CAAM than to any religious organization over the years, so I guess that makes CAAM my official church. If there’s any gospel I’m part of, it’s the power of film to entertain us and make us think. And perhaps have some influence on the world. Well, if a film changes us and the way we think, then it has changed the world. Still, it’s a heck of a picture show outside, and I’m still not sure where the “director/directors” are going.

Even a collection of shorts can rock my world. On Wednesday night, WOMEN ON THE RISE: SOUTH KOREAN SHORTS pretty much had me wrapped around its finger. In PRAGMA (available online), I felt the soft, pure warmth of teen love, and also subtle markers of conflict – the teens falling in love are both girls, and one of them has a boy in pursuit, and also a prejudiced teacher. Pragma means either longstanding or pragmatic love, in Greek, the love of longterm partners. 170 BUCKS FOR A CAB, ONE RIDE, ONE NIGHT placed a young woman on the hunt for the truth about an evening “soaking in booze” that left her with a bruised temple. Her single-minded pursuit comes to a horrific conclusion that left me with questions. What happens in the world when we focus on our own personal problem too narrowly? Do we get some version of “justice” or karma – or do we just cause injury to someone who may or may not be at fault? And even if they are at fault, is the injury to them remotely proportionate to our trauma.? I mean – what if they die, for goodness sake? How much should we care about who bruises our temples, as opposed to just letting them heal? How much should we look for closure with our relationships, as opposed to just letting things go? How do we help each other heal, while we are in this world together? My experience has been mixed on this last question; not everyone is interested in being a force for healing and reconciliation. Many simply live in neglect of their fellow humans, or defend themselves against intimacy and their fears of vengeance. Others are not motivated for reconciliation and healing, but play the blame game for laughs and sadistic victories. I’ve played the blame game in my mind too, under extreme pressure. The seeds of suffering and our own mental patterns have to rise before we can heal them with mindfulness, compassion and relationship. (See my article from Hyphen, These Three Things.)

A Letter for Sang-Ah

Finally, A LETTER FOR SANG-AH took me to another facet of the trauma I’ve learned about from the autobiographical documentaries of Deann Borshay-Liem (FIRST PERSON PLURAL, IN THE MATTER OF CHA JUNG HEE), and others, and more recently, the poetry of Julayne Lee (Not My White Savior): Korean transracial adoption. Korean society leans hard against single motherhood, feeding the transnational adoption pipeline, and all that it entails. Here, we see the agonizing lifelong ache of a mother who gave up her child years ago, and is still trying to find a way to connect, if the child chooses, and to let her know that she was loved, but that circumstances prevented her mother from keeping her. We also see a single mom doing her best to raise her son, with moments of tension. She yells at her boy and tells him not to be a crybaby; he leaps into her arms anyway, and she comforts him with her touch; she later joyfully plays with him and allows herself to be hit on the head. Perhaps he’s playfully getting back at her; perhaps she knows this, perhaps not. But the repair happens, because mom is there. What happens to the child whose mom is not there to soothe the hurt she feels inside? What if mom is all hurt, and no soothe? Who picks us up and hugs us?

As Justice Hugo Black said, “we are all just children grown tall.” Inside all of us, there’s that vulnerable and joyful child. We put on big person shoes and play big person roles, but we shouldn’t forget our earliest imprint. It comes to us whether we want it or not. That little boy I was shows up time and again, to remind me of his pain and confusion – my pain and confusion – and also his joy and love for people – my joy and love for people. I often regret not being more focused when I was younger, and deciding to delve only superficially into the issues that were most intensely emotional for me (racism, the treatment of women by men as exemplified by my father’s treatment of my mother, and her incredible strength). I think it would have brought me to myself much more solidly, and perhaps I would have been able to help more people as a result. Anyway, that’s a pipe dream, and Buddhists are just supposed to “let go” of regrets, right? But I’m human first, Buddhist second.

Anyway, last night was one of those times in my life that I felt like I was in the right place with the right people at the right time, experiencing exactly what I was supposed to be experiencing. That feeling of ‘not quite belonging’ that I wrote about in MOSF 13.7 (“I Didn’t Land In America: America Landed on Me”) dissipated, and I felt restful, accepted and at peace, just because those films “unf–ked” me just a little, as I wrote about in MOSF 13.6 (“Asian American Han”). The Church worked.

Afterwards, I asked a question (paraphrased):

You all have human level, identity level traumas in your film. All your characters are also facing some kind of structural, larger-than-human, or human issue. What do you think is going on? Is there a way to connect all your films?

I had some thoughts or preconceptions, but I really wanted to hear what these three filmmakers thought. Thank god no one in this country shoots you for asking difficult questions at a film festival, LOL!

Yena Kang (170 BUCKS FOR A CAB, ONE RIDE, ONE NIGHT): “Maybe the main character remembers their trauma nowadays. All the main characters maintain their trauma in their heads.”

Dina Park (PRAGMA): “All the characters are trying to solve their problems through how the story goes on.”

Mina Fitzpatrick (A LETTER FOR SANG-AH): “I think they got it!” (And later, after the next question, “I’m still thinking about that last question a little bit…” That’s a koan-man-Superfan for you!)

Sierra Lee: “Whatever culture you’re coming from, you’re facing your own inequities, and when you’re telling your own stories, that’s what comes up for us. That is our truth.”

What was on my mind? I guess I carry a one-size-fits-all narrative around with me (even though psychiatrists are not supposed to do that) about how we harm each other when we think too much of ourselves and not enough of our effects on others. The essential trauma of the world is self-centeredness, either through ignorance or malice, or perpetuated in institutions or cultural-historic factors that force people into roles where they forget their common humanity. The world is divided into those who are right, divided into teams that want to win at all costs. But we’re in transition, I think.

Maybe all we need in this world is more experiences of shedding our roles and just being human again. More conversations, more relationship, more love. Maybe we could all get unf—ked if we just told our stories to each other, or told the human story, to the people who matter to us, and then let go of our stories, to really decide what the bigger story of Earth is all about.

Or maybe we just have to each keep working on the story of our lives.

Ted Chiang’s short story called Story of Your Life became the movie ARRIVAL, about contact with an alien species that ultimately aimed for benevolent global cooperation, in preparation for events far in the future. I won’t give away the human tragedy in the film, but suffice it to say, we choose to suffer for and love the people we care about, even though no one lives forever, in this world. The experience of loving and caring for each other is powerful indeed. But I always wondered, if the aliens were making humanity come together just because they needed us for something later on – was that their narcissism? Hmmm…I’m not sure, but I don’t think the humans were in much of a position to question the aliens about their self-centeredness at that point. Maybe when they sit down for a matcha latte in 50,000 years…. ARRIVAL: DEALING WITH OUR COLLECTIVE TRANSFERENCE, to be in theaters soon. (Transference is basically all the unconscious and conscious emotions a patient has towards their therapist.)

But joking aside, all the synchronicity in my life right now feels like there’s some kind of message here. Is there a collective unconscious that we are all moving through, aching for some notes of cooperation? Or higher consciousnesses directing human traffic? I tend to think there’s a mix, but the more we allow the collective unconscious to work, the more we let go of our egos and get motivated by the bigger picture outside ourselves, the better off we’ll be.

Paul Virilio wrote that “every ship contains its shipwreck.” However we construct the ship of our minds creates the seeds of its destruction. It feels more and more like the ship of the human mind has hit an iceberg, and many large egos are simply rearranging the deck chairs to maintain their positions. When I hit an iceberg like this, when my mind hits its shipwrecks, I have to do my best to transform myself from the base. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi said.

What change do I long for? A country of hearts. A world of hearts. Or at least a world in our hearts. So I have to keep cultivating my heart, and help it heal my shipwreck.

But maybe that’s just more India talk…that gosh darn India talk.

+ + +

The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the views CAAM.

Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His full-length nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. He just found out Thich Nhat Hanh won the Gold – so he can’t really complain. His latest longform essay on gun psychology, Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! is available now. He also leads compassion and self-compassion workshops. More MOSF posts can be found here. You can sign up for his occasional newsletter, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.