“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
My family and I had quite a health scare last week.
As I drove my brother to the hospital for his COVID-19 test, my thoughts raced in a million different places. Yet, it was funny how on the outside, they were furtively blanketed under a cloak of calm, so-called “manly” bravado. As men, we don’t often realize that we naturally don’t always talk about feelings or worries, or anything that much to begin with. Any kind of trip would still be good, even if it was spent without more than a few words being uttered, leaving ourselves to our own thoughts, enjoying the sight of the road rushing under our wheels.
In the background I had The Cars’ Drive playing. Internalizing Benjamin Orr’s crooning, it felt as though he was living in my world, singing out the words that I had inside me, “You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong. Who’s gonna drive you home, tonight?”
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, and I was so in the groove that I accidentally honked at the car in front. We both laughed and it certainly lightened up the mood a little. I cracked a joke about being able to count with my fingers on how many times I’ve ever honked. It was true anyway, and all of those times were accidents.
When we arrived at the hospital, I was overcome with a strange nostalgia. For one thing, I was born there, though I was obviously too young to remember that. Maybe what gave it an awkward ambience was that 10 years ago, I was right there in the same emergency room, sitting with a broken arm after being hit by a car on my bike ride. I couldn’t swallow pills, and I remember thinking, “Man, this is gonna hurt tonight”, after they gave me painkillers to take home.
Sitting a meter apart from my brother, we both nervously waited. I was reading Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, and he, who had started copying my habit of bringing a book wherever I went, was reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States — A book of which I remember was included in Rage Against the Machine’s reading list. Till at last a nurse, immaculately dressed in her coverall suit, called his name.
When he came back a minute or two later, I asked, “Sakit tak? (Did it hurt?),” smiling behind my face mask. “Bapak sakit (It bloody hurt),” he responded. “She put this long-ass thing way down through my nose. I pushed the nurse’s hand away because of, you know, reflex.”
Sometimes when you’re in a bad place, life can seem like it’s full of pain, like that’s all there is to it. It could feel like everywhere you look, there’s something wrong somewhere, and there must be something to be worried about — The seemingly endless pandemic, the precarious political situation, or just the downs that come with everyday life.
But that’s only true if you choose to see it that way.
Because the thing is, as much as life comes with pain, it comes with a lot of beauty and love to be in awe at. As deeply as the world can break every one of us, that’s how deep our healing can be, and that’s how much we can change ourselves into better people. It’s like the philosophy of “kintsugi” — Sometimes we have to break in order to become better, as our broken places are mended with gold, as we turn our imperfections into our strengths.
And sometimes life is like that tube that goes through your nose. While it’s extremely uncomfortable, it helps to tell you if you’re alright, and what you need to do to get better.
Some time later, I had a conversation with my brother about the book he was reading. A People’s History of the United States narrates the country’s story not as a school textbook would, not from the victors’ perspective, but from that of the common people who lived through those times — Especially the victims.
“I already had a bleak view of the world before I started reading the book,” my brother told me. “Now that view has been taken up a notch.”
You know, there’s nothing with acknowledging the bleakness of this world. To not acknowledge it would mean to deny reality. In the case of the book’s topic, while politicians could bring advancement and promise good for the people, they are at the end of the day, politicians. If we peek behind the curtains and see how the sausages are made, we might find some ugly means that were used, or undocumented consequences that they rendered in attaining power or achieving whatever they wanted to.
But don’t let that falter whatever hope you have left inside of you. Don’t let it stop you from being able to see all that’s still good in the world.
As Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains”. These were her words to herself when she and her family were in hiding from the Gestapo, feeling the long hours of each day tick away in the narrow space of her home. She still managed to find reasons to be happy, as she started and ended each day with a gratitude prayer.
In my articles I’ve written a lot about appreciating the smallest things in life, because really, it’s the small things that matter most. If you could find beauty and blessing in them, you’ll be able to keep negativity at bay. Thankfully, my brother tested negative for COVID-19, and that’s already a huge relief. But besides family, one of the things I’m always grateful for is having the means to buy and read books (which is part of my everyday prayer), because I genuinely couldn’t imagine how life would be if I didn’t read.
Another great thing to do is getting yourself to notice the smallest details in art and in the world around you. Like a child, get curious about everything you love and stay connected to that sense of wonder.
I recently had one such experience myself, as I’ve been listening a lot to The Clash’s Live at Shea Stadium album. I noticed that if you paid really close attention to what you’re listening, you could hear the music and the sounds echoing throughout the stadium — The band rocking out, the crowd roaring, and the rain pouring down. It makes you wonder just how it was like to see The Clash that day, it makes you imagine how the stadium acoustics must have sounded to a first-hand listener. It makes you listen nearly as if you were right there, watching them play.
There’s always good and beauty in the world around you, if you choose to discern them. That’s one of the capabilities that art teaches us to have — Staying hopeful and passionately curious, no matter what’s going on in the world. To paraphrase a Tom Petty lyric from Leave Virginia Alone, we still find good where no one else could.