On Guilt


Sometimes, a text will cast unexpected light on your experience. Thomas Lecaque wrote an angry piece about Hurricane Katrina and LGBTIQA+ people. In the recovery phase, he says, a number of religious figures pointed the finger at the queer community. Forget about climate change. Katrina was just another case of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I’ve been struggling with guilt for most of my life. Part of it is the sin of pride, grandiosity, self-importance. Part of it is parental pressure to excel everywhere. But I started to wonder, to what extent is it also the product of homophobia. If queer people cause the wrath of God, should I take the blame for ecological collapse?


You know the type. ‘The system is broken,’ they say. Then comes an earnest explanation. ‘It’s the government’, ‘it’s human nature’, ‘there’s just too many people.’ Strangely, they seem exempt, as if their nature was more than human. Ask them which people are in excess exactly – they’re unlikely to point the finger at their own chest.


Philosophers around the world have tried understanding why the world is shit. Different traditions converge on different explanations. It’s original sin. It’s a test from God. It’s attachment.

During lockdown, with lots of time on my hands, I decided to read Atlas Shrugged. There, I found an original answer to the question above. Ayn Rand’s characters, staunch advocates of personal responsibility, know precisely why the world is shit. Because other people.


There is no such thing as a purely human achievement. We depend on the Earth to keep us vertical, provide mineral resources, and a sense of beauty. We depend on myriads of other life forms to breathe, eat, and find delight. We depend on material objects, the work of previous generations, tools, buildings, roads, nets, libraries, hammers, and computers. We depend on a shared framework to coordinate our action and find meaning, language as a shared commons, culture polishing behaviour, a sense of the divine. And yet, we continue to speak as if humans could make themselves, and hardly make room for the non-human in our institutions.


I remember two consecutive chats on LunchClub, during 2020. One was with the father of a three-month old. Lockdown was a perfect opportunity to bond with the baby. Another was with the father of a four-year-old. Life at home was hellish, work suffered, the family was under stress.  

That a child should be three months or four years old when the pandemic struck – pure matter of luck – this had clear impact on those two men, their mental health, their relationships, their business. What of individual accountability then? Is not success the sole result of wise decisions, discipline and hard work?


For money to work as a unit of account, the price we command must adequately reflect our value. If there is tension between doing well and doing good, the system cannot be trusted.  


This friend of mine was hoping to get investment for an app he developed. Something about sustainability. Create something good for the world. ‘We used open source software to do the prototype. Now I’m paying someone to rewrite the code, so that I can own the IP.’  


Detective fiction typically centres on a character seeking the truth. Not so with Michael Nava’s queer detective series. ‘My goal is not to bring the culprit to justice’, says Henry Rios, protagonist and defence lawyer, ‘but exonerate my client and show reasonable doubt’.


In a state of half sleep, I once imagined this rite of passage for social workers. At a railway station, the facilitator ties three homeless people on a track. A freight train is headed towards them. The candidate has the option to pull a switch, which will redirect the train to another track, where a program participant is attached. They have only seconds to make up their mind.

The feedback was glorious: ‘It’s amazing! I got to test my moral intuition in real time’.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #15

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

30 december

Before the year ends, I want to find my own centre of gravity – and I want to reconnect with my own story. As I looked outside the window, coming up from Guangzhou along the Yangtze basin, I realized I had no unified family story.

My father has a story – born from a modest family in the south, he studies and becomes an engineer in Strasbourg – his first marriage collapses but he loves his son. Successful, he goes up to Paris where he marries up into a Parisian family, and has two more children.

My mother has a story – last girl, unwanted, from a southern family migrated up north, her dream has always been to escape her local destiny and live in a beautiful sun-drenched warm country. For that, she may count on her charm. She marries a southern boy, handsome, successful – but things don’t work out, and she leaves him for someone else. Life is hard for a while, her new husband has money, but the relationship is tense. Where her son leaves for Paris, she opts for freedom, so moves to the West Indies, convincing her husband. He dies, she inherits, and marries again, a friendly local man.

But what is my story? Smart talented gay boy from divorced parents gets into the most prestigious college in France, with an ambition to become an intellectual and literary figure. Intelligent, he has academic success, but it is not his chosen path, and when he meets an Australian blog-artist, he follows him to Melbourne. There, he changes radically, embraces China, becomes a social entrepreneur and online editor? This, somehow, embraces the threads of both my parents.

I’m in Wuhan, the city of my childhood nanny Danhan. The faces here remind me of her. Wuhan was the capital of Chu, the city of the Dao De Jing and Laozi, the place where it was said that you should be like water, flow to your centre of gravity, because that is where your strength lies.

I will spend the last day of the year in Hangzhou, by the West Lake. A place I have always wanted to go, a place Marco Polo – my new role model – said was paradise on earth. I will be by a lake, a large mass of accumulated water, and ultimate expression of beauty.