Last year, one of my friends turned anti-vaxxer. There was an aggressive Facebook comment, a confused exchange on Messenger, a meeting in person after lockdown, and a few back and forth emails. Then silence.
He was not a very close friend, but we’d known each other for a while, and supported each other on various projects. This lost relationship affected me. So, a few weeks ago, I got curious and cyber-stalked him.
His Twitter feed got me locked in fascinated horror. I had expected links and videos vindicating Ivermectin and the dangers of the vaccine. The rest was a surprise: memes mocking trans-rights or vegan food, articles framing climate change as a hoax, and a snippet from a One nation senator, captioned ‘absolute legend’.
I sensed a spiralling anger in myself, as I doom-scrolled through that feed. We used to build community together, joined efforts to make the world more hospitable. Now we were on opposite sides. I felt an urge to debate in my head, engage, change his mind.
I doubted it would achieve much. I let it cool down. Luckily, I had a martial arts class to go to. On the way back, anger washed off by sparring, I pondered. Apart from an occasional caption, nothing on that feed was my friend’s actual writing. It was all re-tweets and shares.
I started seeing the grotesque humour in the situation. Here he was, a proud advocate of independent thinking, serving as an echo chamber only. As if a grumpy conspiracy-bot had taken over his handle.
With this came greater empathy. Savvy communicators, no doubt, crafted the content he shared. They got inside his brain, and reproduced there. I thought of the zombies in Dawn of the dead, repeating the routines of their past lives, locked inside a shopping mall. Like them, my friend was stuck in a loop of self-reinforcing belief. His brain was mush, and he wanted mine.
‘He’s gone’, I thought, ‘let’s run.’ It was no longer about truth or justice. It was about staying alive, and safe. Certainly, any sense of blame had passed, and I was able to let go. I looked at his feed again, just now. I was amused, and a little bit sad. I think this is how mourning progresses.
The tragic character says ‘I would rather suffer and die than compromise my identity’. That’s Antigone, that’s Elektra, that’s Oedipus. By contrast, the comic character says: ‘I’ve got so many faces, I’m sure we can find an angle that will satisfy everyone.’
I see this approach as a celebration of human intelligence, in the service of peace. Things go wrong, the character shape-shifts, and projects an illusion to prevent catastrophe.
Contrast the romance of West Side Story with that in The Barber of Seville. The first unfolds like a doomsday machine, external forces pressing identities towards enormous pain, mutually assured destruction. In the latter, the lovers use tricks and costumes to bypass the desires of the old man who stands in their way. Desire trumps ego: they would much rather get what they want than remain who they are.
It’s my first time seeing Kabuki. I’m in Tokyo for just a few days. It seemed like a thing I should do. Plus, the friend hosting me suggested it. It felt rude to say no.
We’re sitting inside the dark theatre. I have no clear idea what’s happening. I know nothing about the art form. I notice, however, that once in a while, the actor takes a pose and freezes. The audience claps and shouts a name. Then the actor starts moving again.
Here’s what I noted then: it’s not a series of well-executed steps, not a melody, not a compelling monologue, that will yield admiration from the audience. It’s not movement, but stillness. And I thought, what if this was the result of a different stance towards the world? One where life is not perceived as a pile of rocks we must push up the slope until we die, but a constant whirlwind beyond our control – and noble effort is just about holding the flow for a moment. Then we detach, and let things return to their natural chaos.
The Catholic tradition presents a set of seven deadly sins, and seven virtues. Because the numbers match and I like symmetry, I’ve often reflected on the best way to match them.
For a long time, I used to think in terms of frontal opposites: deploy temperance as an austere shield against lust or gluttony, in a frontal battle for the soul. It didn’t work, and I would blame myself, or fall into moral despair.
More recently, I developed a different approach, where each sin is the perverted form of a virtue. Resistance, then, becomes a lateral strategy. It’s not temperance raised up to keep out desire from the body. Rather, it’s temperance as the deflector of sloth. It’s finding joy and meaning in simply being there, rather than frenetically running around in pursuit of desire.
The change maker paradigm sets young people, with a burning desire for justice, against the rigid structures of the world. It teaches rebellion as the art of pushing walls till they crumble. When I think about change, I prefer chemistry to mechanics. Bring the right molecules in contact, and let them react.