The first Sunday of digital detox June had me privileged to speak before this year’s participants of the Asia Student Leadership Conference (ASLC). It is organized by The Smile Mission National Student Executive Committee in partnership with the various student chapters from 9 secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. The Smile Mission is a global independent charity with activities in 19 countries working together to treat children with facial deformities such as cleft palates. To date, the charity has had 87 completed missions in 13 Asian countries, with a total of 6,843 children benefitting from its operations.
The theme for this year’s ASLC is “INSIDE OUT”, which focuses on how a leaders’ journey intrinsically begins with themselves – from their values and intentions to the strengths and weaknesses that define them. It is only from the inside that they may find their passion, purpose and drive to serve.
“When I recount my service learning experiences today – the volunteering commitments, ad-hoc events or the advocacy initiatives – have faded into fuzzy memories, I remember little of the details of each experience. What I remember so vividly, though, are the emotions I experienced in every one of these experiences. You know the saying “People may not remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”? I find that especially true for myself. I am an “extrovert feeler”; this means that I feel more than I think logically and I respond first to my gut than to my critical analysis of the situation. I tend to be reactive rather than responsive.
I was often taught, while growing up, to think of crying as a flaw; an admission to failure. But one of my closest friends taught me that “tears are not a sign of weakness, they are a sign of alignment” – indeed, some of the most precious lessons I have learned came to me when I was crying unstoppably, and when I had asked myself “why do I feel the way I do?”.
In JC 1, 2 years ago about this time in the year, I had embarked on my first overseas service learning trip to Cambodia with my school’s Interact Club. We had visited the slums for a food distribution exercise along with a non-governmental organization and that was my first time witnessing true, true poverty, in almost its ugliest form and yet, the people were some of the most beautiful. There wasn’t the cement ground that I was familiar with, only drenched rags and trash piled into what they stepped barefoot on to get around. We had to tread carefully, eyes glued to our feet, to make sure we didn’t get our entire feet soaked in the murky rainwater. When we finally came to a halt, I had lifted my head up, away from my feet, to take a look at my surroundings for the first time. I remember so clearly, in that moment my heart skipped a beat. It was a mess. There were children walking around naked and barefoot in the trash and some bathing with dirty rainwater in the open. The houses were no more than scrap pieces of metal piled together to make shelters – ones that allowed rainwater to leak through.
I asked myself “what makes them so different from me, that I deserve to live such a comfortable life?” and “how?”, “how can we make this reality different for them?” After distributing all the food, we headed back into the bus. The whole time I thought carefully for the answers to those questions… and I spent the rest of the half an hour on the bus ride crying uncontrollably. By the time I alighted from the bus, my eyes were red and swollen. At that time, when a friend beside me asked “why?”, I had no answer. I could not explain the tears. It is only in hindsight and my asking myself “why did I feel the way I did?” that I understood – the sight of the slums was a trigger; helplessness, the feeling.
Helplessness has been an important emotion that I have experienced time and again in service. Often, the emotional breakdown represents the alignment of the complexities in their problems and the realization of the gap between “the way it could be” and “the way it is” – this gap is wherein lies the suffering. An important mentor from my Junior College days told me once, to remember the feeling of helplessness as vividly as possible, just so I can continue to try over and over to bring this gap closer together with my future acts of service.
For the past two years, I have volunteered regularly at the Sunlove Home Dementia Daycare Centre. As the name suggests, this is home to many dementia patients. Everyday is the same, but different (because they forget). Helplessness visited us time and again – we could do little to influence their medical condition and the value of the moments we shared with them depleted with every mood swing, every time they forgot who we were. Some days, it felt like our efforts went nowhere.
The helplessness is a double-edged sword: it could cripple us from doing whatever we can or it could fuel a search for hope. To harness this effectively, an important skill would be to practice self care – that means allowing your emotions to have a healthy outlet for circulation. It could be a friend, your family, fellow volunteers. An essential part of this practice that we often leave out, though, is the part where we forgive ourselves. Forgive ourselves for the problems we couldn’t solve, the solutions were delivered imperfectly and for saying “no”.
The reality of today is a paradox: we have higher buildings and wider highways, but shorter temperaments and narrower points of view. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We reached the moon and came back, but we find it troublesome to cross our own street and meet our neighbours. We have conquered the outer space, but not our inner space.
An axiom that has remained for long is the presence of personal influence in each and every one of us – some realize through introspection, others subconsciously exercise it. I challenge you today to live life mindfully, aware of the way you’re exercising your influence already and give thought to the values you hope to exemplify through your influence. With consistent checks to your emotions and values, I promise, you will go far.”