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Monday, 18 January 2021

just keep swimming

After 26 years of living, I've come to realise that the best feeling in the world is not one of blissful ignorance or a prolonged state of happiness.

It is that few moments of deep conviction that everything is okay and that there's something - or someone - worth smiling for, amidst the weariness and affliction. 

Am I a masochist or am I just getting older?

Friday, 1 January 2021

Things that I have learned about growing up


I think one of the most surreal things in life is how fast time passes by. It seems like it was just yesterday that the government announced that our country would go into lockdown, that I graduated from university, that I took the leap of faith and enlisted into the Army...

In a blink of an eye, so much has happened, so much has changed, and so have I. I recall the days when I wouldn't think twice about doing something 'fun', regardless of the risk or how out of the way it is. Or when I got so frustrated that I would spend the whole day just thinking about how frustrated I am. Or the amount of time and effort I spent on making myself appear more likeable. I still see some of this in my baby sister, who's now a teenager.

Over the past few years, I've learned a couple of things about growing up that makes people become more mellow (almost by default) as they enter into adulthood.

1. The Art of Compartmentalising

As though studying for A Levels wasn't hard enough, I remember being completely useless and unable to focus on writing my essays whenever I fought with my boyfriend back then. I couldn't put my emotions aside and focus on the task at hand. It was just impossible. As a result, we would spend hours going in circles trying to settle the problem while we were still so emotional. Today, I'm amused by my ability to tell myself to get my act together, put on my K-POP playlist to distract myself from the negative emotions and complete my staff paper that is due in a couple of hours. 

Compartmentalising. I realised that a huge part of becoming an adult is learning how to put aside your emotions and go into 'fire-fighting mode' when you have an important task to complete.

2. Tact and Half-Truths

I'm a very blunt person. I always thought it was better to be honest and say things as it is rather than to beat around the bush and sugarcoat my words. When I first enlisted into the Army, I remember saying whatever the hell I liked, regardless of who I was talking to - and that got me into a lot of trouble. Over the years, like a dog being trained by its owner on how to behave, I learned how to say things in way that I could bring across my point without offending anyone. 

His ego, her face, your opportunities, the dynamics of the team, office politics, a good night's sleep... these are things you learn to consider before uttering a word. And most of the time, the words that come out of your mouth isn't the entire truth. Tact and half-truths - these the weapons and shields that help you survive adulthood. 

3. How Insignificant You Are

One of the things that I miss (and not miss at the same time) about the younger days are the friendship cliques (or #squad?). Bummin' around together after school every other day, late night phone calls, slumber parties, and sharing every little detail of your life... I look back at those days with fond memories but I also realised that I didn't exactly enjoy my time doing those things - I'm not sure if anyone really does. You do things you don't really want to do just because you want to be part of the clique. It's fun as a teenager but but as you grow older, you realise that life is too short for that and you start prioritising other things like personal development or family. You care less about being accepted into social circles. Why? You realise that the number of people who truly care about you is minimal and that's okay. Friendships come and go, and only a handful will make the effort to stay regardless of the circumstances. 

Becoming an adult involves coming to terms with how insignificant you are to most people and learning to channel your energy to those who truly matter.

4. Get Acquainted with Disappointment

Life is full of disappointments. And I've learned that the faster you come to terms with it, the easier it will be. I remember sobbing my heart out for an entire day (or two) when I got back my A Level results, which didn't meet my scholarship conditions. I was disappointed for a very long time and stopped giving my best in other areas - some of which I still feel the repercussions today. On hindsight, I wish I had accepted my reality sooner and focused on righting the wrongs rather than crying over spilled milk. I'm not sure if I've become more pessimistic or resilient (or both) but it now seems much easier to look disappointment in the fact, nod, and move on.

To effectively navigate your way through adulthood, I think you have to learn how to get acquainted with disappointment. Don't get too chummy with it but learn how to shake its hands when it visits and bid it farewell so that it doesn't overstay its welcome.

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These are the things that I have learned about growing up. But then again, when I think about the brilliant people in this world, I realised that they are fuelled by passion, and their work and emotions are meshed together perfectly. That they never nuance their words; they say things the way they are because of their conviction. That they cannot stand to be insignificant and will keep striving towards being extraordinary. That they are so afraid of disappointment that they will do what it takes to make sure that they succeed. 

What a strange, strange world. 

Monday, 28 December 2020

What do you do when life is meh?


I recently read Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and it made me realise one thing - that my lack of zeal in life isn't because of my past experiences or current predicament but my lack of meaning. 

There was a period of time, after reading Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, that I became slightly doubtful about whether life in itself has any meaning. Harari argues that "from a purely scientific view, human life has no meaning." From an evolutionary perspective, there was no such thing as the pursuit of meaning until homo sapiens (humans), at some point of time, started to do so. In addition, he argues that the state of happiness is merely a reaction of biochemicals in our body; that regardless of our circumstances, our individual level of happiness would always eventually return to its default level. With these, he concludes that "any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion." I didn't want to live my life based on a delusion and hence, I began to ponder that perhaps, life is really just about earning our keep, eating, drinking and being merry. All is vanity and a striving after wind.

But to what end? I found myself becoming increasingly self-centered and depressed. I realised that when you live life without meaning, pretty much like an animal, all you care about is self-preservation. You're afraid of getting hurt, and you don't let people in because you don't want to give them the power to hurt you. Sometimes, you also forget what kindness looks like. At the same time, you don't really know what you want in life or what you're living for either. You just get by. For me, getting by meant doing my due diligence at work, fulfilling my social obligations, and enjoying my daily cups of coffee and glasses of gin and tonic. But as time went by, life began to feel extremely pointless. And lonely. And there were days that were just so difficult to get by. 

Frankl founded Logotherapy, a type of psychotherapy which argues that "man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life." He cites an extensive example of his time in Auschwitz, as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps. He observed that it wasn't the 'fittest' who survived, but the ones that had something to live for, whether it be a person, a duty or a cause. For him, it was the thought of his wife and the profound understanding that suffering gives life meaning - that your circumstances can only go as far as affecting your physical being and that at the end of the day, it is your choice to rise above your circumstances and find a deeper reason to live. 

I was inspired by the fact that someone in a concentration camp had greater zest for life than I do, in my stable career and happy family. It then dawned upon me that it wasn't about my circumstances. For the longest time ever, I have been attributing my pain and sadness to certain decisions that I've made and events that have happened in my life. But really, there's so much more to life than that. In his postscript, titled The Case for a Tragic Optimism, Frankl discusses three aspects of human existence - pain, guilt and death - and how there is potential to find the silver lining in each of them. For guilt (which is what I tend to wrestle with the most), he talks about "deriving the opportunity to change oneself for the better." In simple terms, I should stop dwelling on my mistakes and start focusing on how to become a better person instead.

It took me so long to learn this simple lesson but I guess it's only because I've recently started to find my meaning in life - not anyone's or society's meaning for me but my own meaning in life. 

The key to a lasting sense of fulfilment in life is not that weekend getaway to Bali (which is practically impossible in a lockdown) or the Friday night drinks (which does nothing but gives you a bad hangover the day after) but to be clear of what you are living for.

Harari may (or may not) be right that the pursuit of life's meaning is a social construct but regardless, it has become an essential part of human survival and makes us who we are.

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"Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." 

Romans 5:3-4


Saturday, 5 December 2020

Is it okay to be a sad person?


My boyfriend told me that I'm a sad person - not depressed, just sad. I can be happy, like when I take the first sip of coffee every morning, when I finally send a climbing route that I've been attempting again and again, or during that few moments before the sun sets beyond the horizon...but my default emotion is sadness.

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in The World as Will and Representation that "life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom."

In some ways, I agree with him. I can't imagine a person (by person, I mean an adult who has been through the full spate of experiences that life brings) who is constantly happy. Life, to me, seems to be characterised by occasional spikes of happiness while mostly teetering between sadness and boredom. And I think that's okay. That's manageable.

But what makes it increasingly unbearable is that society tells us it's not okay.

For years upon years, we have subscribed to Paul the Apostle's teaching that there is joy in suffering (Romans 5:3-5) or Buddha's philosophy that all existence is dukkha/suffering (Four Noble Truths). We have long acknowledged that life is filled with suffering and there's no escape from that. And that a huge part about being human is learning to endure through the pain.

But consumerism, which seems to be the religion of today, preaches something entirely different. "You deserve to be happy," they say. GOOD VIBES ONLY is the banner that they fly. "Life is too short to be unhappy" is their motto. As a result, happiness is normalised while sadness, pain and suffering have become oddball. And sad people (like myself?) seem peculiar and at risk. 

But the truth is, many of us - if not most - are high-functioning individuals who are able to hold deep and meaningful conversations (perhaps even on a deeper level than many people if we choose to) and perform well at work. The difference is that we constantly ponder about how fleeting life is and have a more pessimistic worldview. 

But as with every overthinker, I question whether my thought process is even sound in the first place. 

Should I start embracing the sad part of me and telling people that it's okay to not be okay?

Or should I stop reading Schopenhauer and start listening to the ✧ Feel Good Friday ✧ Spotify playlist that I created instead?

Someone, please enlighten me.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

My friend and foe

I feel the wind slapping against my face. My hair is in a mess but that's okay. We're at 120 kilometres per hour but my heart is racing even faster. The city lights loom overhead. They are so beautiful. I dance to the music in my head. I shout at the top of my lungs about just. how. awesome. this. is. The breeze. The speed. The pretty lights. The excitement. The alcohol in my blood. And you. Beautiful you.

But that's just today. Because tomorrow,

Who knows? I may be bawling my eyes out, and hitting my chest as though that would take the heavy, crushing feeling away. I may be hyperaware of what a mess I am; the feelings of despair heightened by Lewis Capaldi on loop. I may be screaming about just. how. terrible. this. is. The stale air that stifles me. My Sisyphean life. My grotesque reflection. The monotony. The alcohol in my blood. And you. Poor you.

But you know, one thing that's for sure is that I will wake up with a hangover tomorrow. 

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