Agape About Agape

The old man listened, mouth agape with cynicism as he listened to a friend’s story about unconditional love. It felt far-fetched to him that there can be agape love in this world. There are biblical examples of this highest form of love, of course, but he thought they were just stories told in faraway lands over two thousand years ago. Even God has shown His love can be conditional, he thought to himself as the friend’s euphonious voice got increasingly higher-pitched and his busy hands gesticulated wildly. He learned at age seven in catechism class that there were sticks and carrots involved in religion. If he wanted to avoid purgatory in hell, he had to obey God and be a good boy. The young boy understood even then that it was quite the norm in life for people in authority to adopt the carrot and stick methodology to induce proper behaviour. In his Malay class, the ‘stick’ the teacher resorted to was pulling and twisting his students’ nipples to demand full attention during his lessons. An example of a ‘carrot’ was his brother offering kopilui to the local policeman when he was caught cycling with a faulty dynamo after sunset. Everyone in their community referred to a bribe as kopilui, in broken Malay for kopi duit (coffee money). It was in adulthood that the young boy discovered kopilui was also payable to reduce one’s sentence in purgatory through “indulgences” paid to the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation wars. The catechism class teacher taught the young boy in Std 1 that God’s carrot for everyone was a promised trip to heaven after death. Paradise forever. Perfect days for eternity – no surprises, no shocks, no disappointments, no stormy weather, no calamity, nothing interesting to write home about except maybe the wonderful candy stores that sprout out magically in every corner handing out heavenly sweet lollies, all free of charge for the residents in heaven. Every day would be perfect, perfectly calm, perfectly the same and therefore predictable. Boring, the young boy said to himself. But, if he were to do bad things, his sins would be known to the all-knowing God and oh-my-god, you would pee in your pants if the wrath of almighty God descended on you. God carried a big stick. The teacher had already told the boy he was born a sinner in an earlier class. All he had to do to save himself from hell was believe and trust God. “Confess your sins,” the teacher said. The young boy said it was a silly thing to do, to confess to the priest what God already knew. Why tell someone so that that someone can tell God what he already knew? “God’s love is unconditional. He had already sent his Son to die for our sins,” the teacher continued. So either way, the young boy felt everyone would be saved. Otherwise, Jesus would have died for nothing and that wouldn’t be right. The all-knowing God would not, could not make such a silly mistake. Gotta trust God, He wouldn’t dangle a carrot and not give it to me. It was logical to believe that God, although known to be vengeful and wrathful and often raged against his enemies, would ultimately show compassion and demonstrate his capacity to love us, his children, unconditionally. Good or bad, kind or evil, filial or disobedient, sorry or not, happy or sad, we will have our carrot, unconditionally. That is agape love. No wonder the old man looked at me, mouth agape.

Apparently, agape love is not promoted only in Christianity. A Greek word, agape is the purest form of love, sacrificial and willingly given without any expectations and it wouldn’t be withheld under any conditions. The love of God for man is said to be agape. The boy’s teacher said so. “God won’t punish us because Jesus already took that punishment.” How unfair, the young boy said to himself at the time. It was just the night before when his mother sent him to bed hungry for a misdeed that was done by a friend who lived next door. Why did ma punish me, I’m the innocent one? He remembered asking God as his tummy complained loudly. The other religions talked about unconditional love too, although “bhakti” in Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion by far, is more concerned about unconditional devotion of a devotee whereas Buddhism, without a deity, expresses unconditional love as loving-kindness and compassion for all living things.

I coined the word urghhlings when I wrote about ugly earthlings. In the early 70s, I read in a newspaper article people in Hong Kong enjoying a meal of raw brains straight from the open skulls of screeching monkeys. I remember witnessing a roadside vendor outside the Chowrasta Market in Penang ripping off the skin of live frogs before chopping them into pieces with his cleaver. In a cooking programme on SBS, a proud restaurateur in China spoke proudly of her chef whose knife skills and wok skills were applauded by diners who were in awe of how he gutted, scaled and deep-fried the fish in a matter of a minute or so. The camera focused on the poor fish, its glistening sad eyes staring blankly into the camera as its mouth struggled with desperation, gasping for air as it laid on a plate, fried to perfection from tail to cheeks. A dog is a man’s best friend. So, all the more reason that I can’t forget the video of a vile woman who stomped on a puppy with her stilettos. Recently, a friend posted a TikTok clip of a Cambodian woman munching on live tarantulas dipped in sweet chilli sauce. She could not stop mmmm, mmmm, mmmm’ing during her meal, tearing each apart one at a time, some with her hands and others with her teeth, all the while savouring the remains of spiders in her obnoxious mouth. God, should cruel people be shown unconditional love too? Would not that leave you agape too should agape love be given to such undeserving people?

“It is nigh on impossible to witness unconditional love, is it not?” the old man asked.

“We are just the unlucky ones,” I said.

“I don’t think there is anyone capable of giving unconditional love,” he said. “Sad, but it’s true.”

“There has to be,” I replied.

He got me thinking. My mind wandered off, desperately hoping to come up with a name, any name, that might prove him wrong.

“Can you make me a cup of tea?” he asked.

Apart from the monotonous sound of running water from the aquarium, the room was quiet. The old man broke the silence with a raspy weak voice, a reminder of a terrible cough he had weeks earlier.

“Are you there?” he asked again.

“Hey, can I get a cup of tea?” he asked, sounding annoyed.

I was pulling my hair, sitting on my sofa, opposite him. The afternoon sun was weakening, its rays less intrusive, visibly withdrawing from the family room. Soon, it will cool down enough for me to brave the summer heat and step out into the garden. There are always chores to do, chook poo to sweep, fish to feed, weeds to pull, rose bushes to prune, plants to water. But, I couldn’t stop pulling my hair. The more I think, the harder I pull. No, I can’t afford to pull my hair, not at this age. I’m losing hair fast as it is.

“Stop! I can’t think,” I said aloud.

“Of course, you can’t,” he said smugly, as he scratched at a spot near his butthole.

I did not bother to explain. It wasn’t that I couldn’t come up with a person who is capable of agape love, but I didn’t feel I needed to explain to him why I needed to prevent further hair loss.

Pulling my hair out over this just isn’t worth it.

“Sorry, did you say you wanted tea?” I asked. He waited till I looked at him to nod.

As I waited for the water to boil, I thought of The Mrs. “If there is anyone on earth capable of unconditional love, it has to be a mother,” I said to the old man. The Mrs’ love for our three kids was pure and unwavering. An ambitious young career-minded woman, she even sacrificed her career as a qualified accountant to become a stay-at-home mother. That speaks volumes of the power of a mother’s love. We lived on a single income – mine – that supported seven people in our household, us and her elderly parents. I was the head of the family but she was the heart. The heartbeat in the home, giving life to all of us. My family would not have functioned as a unit without her. She made sure there were hot meals for us, every day. Delicious, home-cooked meals, varied and memorable. “So that they will always remember to come home,” she said. For sure, she demonstrated unconditional love for our kids, always….except when one of them went to a music lesson with an empty violin case because he forgot to pack the violin inside the case or when another asked for help with his homework in the middle of the night because he forgot to get it done after watching Seinfeld, or when two of them cried on stage because they found the first time on stage too scary. Her love was always unconditional until something flared up that caused her to stress.

“What about The Mrs’ love for you?” the old man asked.

“Is her love not unconditional?”

“You know, for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health?” he added, the sarcasm in his voice deliberately obvious.

“How strong do you want your tea?” I asked, jiggling the teabag a few more times than I normally would, and evading his question.

I did not feel obliged to tell him about The Mrs’ love for me.

We watched Operation Red Snake last night. Together. A rare occurrence, that. Normally, she would have headed straight to her sanctuary after dinner. Upstairs in her bedroom with the door closed gives her peace and serenity – for her, a universe away from the violent movies I normally watch. Operation Red Snake is a film about women fighting ISIS alongside Kurdish forces. But, The Mrs could not bear to watch and she started to get restless. The beginning of the story was too graphic for her. The impending violence and the promised terror was enough for her to reach out for another handful of Ferrero Rocher balls. I glanced at the coffee table and saw there were already a few scrunched up golden foil wrappings. “You’ll complain tomorrow I didn’t stop you from over-eating,” I said with incredible prescience.

The Yazidis men who refused to renounce their belief in the Christian God were killed right in front of our eyes. The Mrs winced. I winced too, not because of the violence. I recoiled from the confronting images that agape love for their God brought them. Love of the purest form, demonstrated by their preparedness to die for their belief, being encapsulated by terror and bloodshed. Raw, barbaric but real. An assault on our senses that was too soon after a heavy meal. When the Yazidi girl was sold as a sex slave and then raped by her new master, The Mrs said, “Enough is enough! If you want me to sit here and watch a movie with you, then it has to be a comedy!” Unconditional love maybe but a very conditional requirement to sit with me. So, we watched Dog instead.

Dog was supposed to be a comedy but it made The Mrs cry. The last scenes were difficult to watch. I was surprised The Mrs did not reprimand me for choosing the comedy. It was raw, barbaric but real. Lulu, the retired military dog, was being processed to be euthanised. A war hero with a purple heart, she had served the US Army Rangers with distinction, saving many of the soldiers’ lives and contributing to many ‘kills’. I discovered that up until November 2000, military dogs were put down after they had served the army. Their use-by-dates generally last for about ten to twelve years. Dogs are the most loyal friends – unquestioning, supportive, trusting, protective and unwavering. “The best at demonstrating agape love, and they don’t ever withhold their love!” I said to The Mrs after the movie. But, they were treated as equipment, abandoned in the battlefield or euthanised even if they were purple heart recipients once they were injured in combat or slow due to age. “So much for loyalty and love, we humans cannot even reciprocate with kindness and gratitude,” The Mrs said, her face contorted with phantom pain. Understandably, these combat dogs come home exhausted, wounded and emotionally scarred with PTSD. They aren’t playful or sociable and may well be dangerous in our society having been trained to sniff out drugs and roadside bombs, and kill the Taliban and others. Where is the agape love for these wonderful loyal friends of ours?

Murray insists on sharing my pillow.

“We were in Melbourne last month,” the old man said. Talk about being mouth agape at Agape! I was captivated by his story and was almost disbelieving that such a blatant thing could happen in our society. “We were aghast at that Greek restaurant we went to in Richmond,” the old man continued.

“They didn’t tell us they had run out of the wine we ordered but kept serving a similar wine from the same wine region,” he said.

“Didn’t you test the wine first?” I asked with incredulity.

There are rules to follow before wine is served in a restaurant. The bottle’s label should be shown to the person who ordered the wine, to check that the correct wine is being served. Only then should the bottle be opened – at the table and not before – so that we can check for defects like a damaged cork.

Why didn’t you ask to see the label?” I asked again.

“I didn’t want to appear like I know a lot about wines, ” the old man said coyly.

“But, my curiosity got the better of me later, and upon checking the wine label, I was horrified at their dishonesty,” the old man said.

“What did you do?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“We didn’t want to cause a scene, all I said was ‘You should have told us,’”the old man whispered.

“So, I sat there, mouth agape at the Agape restaurant’s stealth in brand switching.”

2 thoughts on “Agape About Agape

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