The Hustle for Worthiness

 

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“Joy seems to me a step beyond happiness. Happiness is a sort of atmosphere you can live in sometimes when you’re lucky. Joy is a light that fills you with hope and faith and love.” –Adela Rogers St. John

I have been thinking about maximizing joy; about immersing in the joyful moments that come so fleetingly and about embracing the warmth that accompanies it. Nowadays, with the preceding unpacking of issues like depression and suicide or the even earlier exploration of my subconscious privilege (given by one’s mere place of birth or by race), I find myself seeing the world around me through a new lens of gratitude. With more curiosity than ever before, I am questioning the norms we readily perpetuate that necessarily compromise the joyful moments that are actually so abundant, so accessible and so incredibly, incredibly beautiful.

In the words of Dr. Brene Brown, we are living in a culture of scarcity – one where everyone is hyperaware of lack and where we are always feeling “never enough”. Never good-looking enough, never rich nor stable enough, never certain enough; never smart enough. Today, we spend more but enjoy less, soaking in our thoughts of “if only” – if only you could have that or if only I could be her/him. I learn this from an incredible read, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, that until we are able to embrace our imperfections and acknowledge our vulnerability, until we can say “this is who I am and I am worthy of love and belonging”, we will constantly be awaiting the impossible ideal of perfection before we fully engage ourselves in experiences of joy and love. Until then, we deprive ourselves of feeling the depths of these emotions to their truest and most powerful intensity.

“Scarcity is the great lie,” says Lynne Twist, the author of The Soul of Money. When will we finally put down the rigid yardsticks of success and worthiness in our culture that prizes what we have over who we are? Perhaps, only then, will we believe truly that we are deserving of joy and that being vulnerable in embracing happy moments is okay.

We have a deep desire to connect with others – paradoxically, it is this very same desire to connect that drives us to evaluate (and re-evaluate) our worthiness for fear of disconnection. We wonder if we are ‘enough’ for the people around us, we hold back. We fit in by changing ourselves rather than truly belonging. In engaging with others with anything besides our truest selves, we experience further isolation and disconnection. Unfortunately, we use these feelings of isolation and disconnection, then, to reaffirm our conviction about scarcity – we say yes, we are lacking within and I am not enough. We despair about the worthiness that we cannot find. Slowly, we start to believe that maybe (just maybe) it does not exist.

I am hustling with worthiness; I am learning how to engage with others with my authentic self regardless of the tempting idea to “improve myself first, until I am enough” or the seductive mechanism of affirmation to lean into external judgment. I want my own “yes” to outweigh the external approval, the “you are enough” on the inside to overpower the measuring apparatus of worthiness that society creates for us – the you must be this by the time you’re 20 or the you should be like this because you’re a lady. I’ll pass; I want to carry a sense of authenticity and belonging within me, rather than search for it in external places.

We do not have to be extraordinary to be worthy, enough is enough. To engage with the world and the incredible rides it has to offer, we must begin in a place of authenticity. It may be scary, risky and even dangerous; but we shall also feel very, very alive. And isn’t that all we really want? To live and love with our whole hearts?

Dear Stranger, our culture of scarcity, of blaming and shaming, and the myth that vulnerability is weakness is distracting us from experiencing love and compassion towards the imperfect beings that we are. You are okay, enough and worthy of love and belonging; you are all that not in spite of imperfections but because of them. After all, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how light gets in. I hope you, too, will hustle for worthiness.

Never Enough: Time

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This is for the one who introduced Honesty Circle to me – here’s to being who we want to be and abandoning the race against time.  

It’s 7.27AM, I have 45 minutes (on this bus ride) on a good day:

Rainy days are best for sleeping. As the raindrops patter against the window pane and the view outside blurs, the clouds block the sunlight that reminds us it’s time to wake up. This morning, as the phone alarm rings, it triggers a ‘flight or fight’ response – so much so that I wake up, turn it off and roll out of bed within the first ring. Record time, always. On the way to work, with the aftertaste of this morning’s coffee fix still residing in my mouth, this morning’s bus ride is dedicated to reflections on time.

Hastened footsteps, shoving on public transport, multitasking on our mobile devices and our aversion to just doing nothing – they are proof of how much we ‘value’ time. Checking how long before the next bus arrives, incessantly referring to our iPhones and watches for the time and intuitively looking for the “x mins” sign on MRT platform screens. We even talk quickly in a group setting for fear that we will be ‘wasting the time of others’. Our everyday checklists of things ‘to do’ are dictated by deadlines – the when subsumes the how, why and what. The gears that crank away to display the seconds, minutes, hours on our clocks were tools created merely for measurement and synchrony in the Industrial Revolution. Centuries on, today, they are the rhythm to our footsteps and the metronome for our routines. Every breath, every heartbeat; carefully timed.

We are so fearful of ‘wasting’ time because we recognize that the nature of time has it that the minutes and hours are exhaustive – they are irreplaceable, irreversible and a scarce resource. The illusion of scarcity scares us for it seems that there is never enough time. Clearly, we have yet to embrace ‘sufficiency’. I quote Lynne Twist, the author of The Soul of Money – “Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough and that we are enough.” We are learning the ropes to sufficiency and our fear of regret is slowing us down. Our refusal to believe in the sufficiency of our moments is a product of our fear of regret. It makes us nervous, almost shameful. The 21st century “YOLO” (You only live once) mantra and consequently, the myriad of risks taken (sometimes foolishly) is one peppered with pride because of the lack of regret. It seems, it is an achievement for “regret” to be absent in our dictionaries. Regret, though, is the aftermath of learning and growth – the realization that some decisions could be made better and the lesson that reminds us our judgment is fallible. How much time will it take for us to let go of our fear of regret and embrace sufficiency?

Let’s reframe. What exactly are we rushing for anyway? Striving endlessly to do things as quickly as possible, but what for? Perhaps, the obsession with time and its value has distracted us. We are so afraid of ‘wasting’ time that we worry incessantly about making every moment productive. What a waste. There is confusion between “productivity” and “meaning”. The ‘Singapore success story’ is one defined by economic development: not just that of the nation, but that of ourselves. We even have an informally communicated timeline for every individual – by your 20s, be a university student and by the late 20s, get a head start in the workforce. The 30s should see you forming up a family unit, bringing in a steady flow of income, leading a life of security and certainty. Have a life of illustrious portfolio climbing up the career ladder, and retire at 65 to travel the world. Anywhere off tangent from this timeline and your presence would be an invite to ‘interrogations’ about how much time do you think you have?

I am a strong believer of creating fulfilling moments to make up our days that make us feel alive, of cultivating moments in pursuit of meaning. Though not mutually exclusive with productive work, I find our habits increasingly blurring the lines between the two. What are these ‘goals’ that we claim to be working to achieve? Begin the day at 8A.M. sharp just to wait for 5.30P.M., when we pack our bags and leave the office; begin the week on Monday, just to countdown to Friday. How is it that this tool that potentially promises seamless planning when we take control, has come to control us in ways we fail to notice? We are always counting down for the ‘later’, at the expense of the ‘now’ – from the primary school lesson on ‘Time’ where we learned the hour hands from the minute hands, we began to unlearn the innate skill of just being.

This time a year ago, my days were shaped by study plans, revision lists, remedial classes and consultation appointments. They were checklists to tick off (literally) every single day and my every moment was governed by the ticking of the clock. The countdown to the next lecture was followed by the countdown to the time for consultations after the lecture – task after task, we almost completely abandoned our human need for rest. There were sleepless nights, then anxiety. In the night, I would hear the ticking of the second-hand on the clock hanging in the living room clear as crystal, almost resounding even. Then, graduating from junior college, there are giants of the working world trying to convince us that “time is money” and hence, “valuable”. We are ticking off that unspoken checklist of where you should be by a certain age, ticking as the clock does – the confusion about what is to be considered valuable persists. Must it be tangible to be valuable? Must it be done to count for something, or can we just be?

One year on, I am untraining the brain – may I value time by maximizing the potential for joy and life of every moment, rather than chasing after productivity.

On Daring Greatly (and Being Vulnerable)

Finally, it’s Friday. The tragedies inspiring uncomfortable but important reflections has brought us all on a rollercoaster ride – the delicate balance between detaching oneself from the reality that scares (to protect oneself) and remembering carefully this taste of sadness (so as to transform it into meaningful convictions) has been a tiring one to maintain. Countless times in the past two weeks, I’ve had to remind myself to “just breathe”. I imagine our lives can be compared to being in a room full of strangers awaiting to have their hands shaken; just as the experiences and people await to be met and known, then understood and embraced. There is a spectrum for the extent to which sincerity is conveyed through a handshake, bearing semblance with the possible variance in how willing we are to be immersed in the experiences and with the people that come our way. I choose to maintain this steady handshake with the issue of suicide prevalence in Singapore for a bit more (albeit there is fear and discomfort) and this piece is written in hopes of making more sense of depression and suicide, breaking down the embedded culture at large that teaches us that ‘vulnerability is not okay’.

Dear readers, just like the issue of suicide prevalence in Singapore, this piece seeks first for your forgiveness and then for empathy (to yourself and to those around you). Forgiveness for the shortcomings of my research, the limits to my understanding and the fallibility of my judgment; then empathy, because embracing this issue requires for us to first forgive and be kind to ourselves before we can reserve judgment unto others.

To date, I have never thought of myself as ‘depressed’ nor had thoughts about taking my life, so what has puzzled me most is what kind of thoughts could lead to a decision so drastic (as taking one’s life). “I felt a funeral in my brain,” in his TED Talk, Andrew Solomon described the process as a “slow way of being dead”. I cannot think of a clearer articulation of what the recurring thoughts appear to be, besides to quote others as follows:

“You are nothing, you are nobody, you don’t even deserve to live”

“You’re not enough”

Nobody would even know you were gone”

“You are a waste of time”

“There was a period in my life where I felt nothing but hopelessness.”

Let’s slow down for a bit, and imagine. Imagine the hopelessness: as if there had previously been a veil of happiness in one’s worldview and since the veil has now fallen, the truth of this ugly, ugly world is revealed – one where we hold little or no value as individuals, where we are all getting by just awaiting the end of our lives, where no matter what we do, we’re all going to die anyway. Day after day, the mind is haunted by these thoughts that are believed to be ‘the truth’. There is no way out, no escape. There is a quote by Milan Kundera that goes as such – “It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning, convictions, faith, history.”

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.  Mark Henrick describes this as the richness of experiencing emotions deeply whether it is joy or sadness, anxiety or calm. It is immersing in these mental rides that make one feel alive and still feeling in control with the knowledge that they are temporal – that’s vitality. It’s feeling safe to immerse in the ride life has to offer. The lack of which sees one dreading the simplest of routines – bathing, grooming, travelling to work, having a meal. It is knowing all these errands are things normal people do perfectly alright every single day and yet requiring tantamount effort to accomplish each one. Can you imagine? Imagine that it requires so much self-coaxing to do every single thing, every single day – the amount of mental strength that we typically only require at the last quarter of a sports competition, or outside the exam hall of the final paper of the year or before confronting a friend about a betrayal… That amount of mental strength to do every single thing, every single day. This is the kind of hopelessness that grips you tightly around your lungs, leaving you gasping for help. But a big part of you does not want this help to come.

It escalates, for some, into a form of acute anxietylike the feeling you get when you’re walking and you slip or trip and the ground is rushing up at you, but instead of lasting half a second the way that does, you’re unable to see the end of it. It is the sensation of knowing that you’re afraid all the time, but not even knowing what it is that you’re afraid of. It is falling into a deep dark hole that one cannot get out of for (you believe that) you’re not good enough – you might try to climb out, scramble at the dirt that surrounds you and repeatedly say I am good enough as you are scrambling to the top, but just as you reach the surface of that hole, you’ll be shoved back down viciously by the voice in your head that asks, who do you think you are?

When you can imagine that, then, it helps one make sense of why one might choose death. Logically speaking the slow way of being dead can lead to actual deadness and when you’re living in a hurricane all the time, the feeling that one’s entire life is completely in your control (in the moment of suicide) is a really unfamiliar but really satisfying feeling. Dr Adrian Wang, a professional in this field, explains that “people who attempt suicide normally have psychiatric issues, the most common of which would be depression,” so it may be helpful for us to understand the psychology underlying depression.

 A model I found helpful for making sense of this was the continuum of sadness introduced by Henrick that places ‘sadness’, ‘grief’ and ‘depression’ on a scale. Grief is explicitly reactive – it is our reaction to a circumstance, often a loss; depression is far more than grief or sadness and a catastrophic circumstance may trigger it but sadness in itself is much too slight a cause. There is a poverty in our English Language that we use “depression” to describe how a kid feels when it rains on his birthday and to describe how somebody feels before they commit suicide. It is a mirror that reflects society’s lack of understanding because for too long, we have been afraid to speak about an issue too ‘sensitive’. Depression is what Solomon describes as “the flaw in love” – the combination of genetic vulnerability that is equally distributed across the population and one’s circumstances. An important reminder at this point is that our openness to essential conversations (about vulnerability) forms part of one’s ‘circumstances’.

We intuitively recognize that the likelihood of one suffering from depression is dependent on one’s mental health, but often we do not realise that our mental health is contingent on the state and flexibility of our perceptions. These perceptions, importantly, are created and continually informed by our biology, psychology and society – with that understanding, you begin to see that there are, really, so many entry points for helping and better understanding suicide.

Let’s unmute important conversations about deaths so real. We are the society that determine whether voices are left unheard just because of our discomfort with regard to unfamiliarity – for too long, people have been plenty eager to talk about mental illness and suicide just as long as it’s behind closed doors and in hushed voices. We have, time and again, tried to detach ourselves from the complexity of it all by claiming that the choice has consciously been made by the individual, but can suicide really be a choice, when it is the only choice available? These conversations are so difficult only because we are ashamed of vulnerability. It is because we dare not admit to vulnerability that depression becomes the family secret that everyone has, that schools and families fear externalizing their pain from the loss, that we fear crying before one another and that we can only mourn with whispers rather than with resounding cries for society to reflect.

Dr. Brene Brown, an academic who has earned my utmost respect in the span of my research over the past weeks, recounts a time she was invited to speak at a conference. The hosts who invited her had said, “we would appreciate it if you don’t mention vulnerability or shame”. When Dr. Brown responded asking what then would they like her to talk about, they answered that it would be about “innovation, creativity and change”. To which Dr. Brown pointed out the irony in that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. “To create,” she says, “is to make something that has never existed before” and this can only take place in our most vulnerable of moments. In our personal capacity, then, I would like to propose that we truly, truly believe that vulnerability is not weakness, debunking this myth that is profoundly dangerous.

The belief that vulnerability is weakness has muted many conversations and the shame that we experience in vulnerability has silenced us far too often. When people talk about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame and we stop confronting the double-edged sword in open, safe spaces necessary for emotional ventilation. When we talk about our unhappy thoughts, we are crippled by shame towards the display of our ‘weakness’. When we speak of important world issues, we feel shame towards our oblivion and when we speak of race, we feel shame towards our gaps in knowledge.

Shame, ultimately, is the fear of disconnection – the self-doubt that asks oneself will I be too different that others will not want to connect with me? I want to distinguish between shame and guilt for clarity: shame is “I am bad”, guilt is “I did something bad”. The former is a focus on self and amplifies the element of self-blame that suppresses important questions like what is the true cause of my unhappiness and how can I make it better. It hinders important thoughts like who can I talk to about this feeling and where can I get help to shift my perceptions. Shame hinders these thoughts because it perpetuates the belief that one is undeserving of the relief from this uncomfortable feeling. While we shun vulnerability, we entertain the shame – this shame that is highly correlated to depression, addiction, aggression, violence, bullying, suicide and eating disorders. (Guilt, by the way, places the blame off the self and is inversely correlated to these same things). Research on the mechanism of resilience reveals that it is, ironically, those who deny their depression and unhappiness (due to shame) that are most enslaved by what they have. It is only when we can be vulnerable without feeling shame that we are able to rise strongly after every fall. Our culture of silence is doing more harm than we can imagine.

We should not have to feel ashamed of our vulnerability. In our own spheres of influence, this can change – shame is an epidemic in our culture and empathy is the antidote. At the end of Solomon’s sharing, he expressed his aversion towards speaking about cure for depression and suicidal thoughts because he earlier could not decide if depression was a chemical problem or an emotional problem – did it require a chemical cure or a psychological one? But our understanding of either remain insufficient for sides to be taken. Helpless? Let’s take a few steps back, for the alternative pathways for rehabilitation are endless if one considers that depression is the illness of how you feel so if you feel better, you’re effectively ‘not depressed’ and you’ve been ‘cured’, even if just for that moment. There are countless solutions to be considered because so long as we can help one person feel better, we have essentially protected the human life for yet another day. Don’t stop trying. I quote Dr. Brown to introduce the two most powerful words in response to an expression of vulnerability – “me too”. Let’s start there, with forgiveness and empathy.

Numerous brave strangers, friends and acquaintances have related the terrifying cycle of relapse and emergence from depression that repeats itself that makes it even more shameful. It is as if one tries and tries, but fails each time. The belief that is brewing begins from I have failed (guilt) to I have failed again (guilt). Again and again, then it becomes I am a failure (shame). One can never guarantee that the thoughts will not come back or that the nightmare-like days will not return, but one is always in control of the meaning one can seek from the episodes. It is from the falling down and getting back up that we take away the most valuable lessons and it is only with the culmination of resilience that we grow. Undeniably after the countless struggles, it will still hurt when one falls again and it will still be terrifying when the thoughts return. The meaning one derives from the opportunity for growth, though, is the valuable takeaway that would make you, you.

Please allow a friend incredibly dear to me, who has bravely written the following beautiful piece to inspire those who have struggled or are struggling:

There was a period in my life where I felt nothing but hopelessness. The kind of hopelessness that grips you tightly around your lungs, leaving you gasping for help. But a big part of you does not want this help to come.

There is a quote by Milan Kundera that goes as such – “It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning, convictions, faith, history.” I fell into a deep, dark hole that I could not get myself out of. My friends were concerned, baffled by my sudden change in behaviour. But I could not explain to them why I wanted to be alone, why my head was just so full of negative thoughts about myself, why I despaired in humanity and the world. What I could see was a world that could, and would do better without me.

I did try to take my own life, unsuccessfully. But I am glad, now, that I did not manage to. I am not sharing a story of simple triumph, I am sharing a story of pain and struggle for meaning. There are many reasons why one would take his/her own life. There is no fixed solution. For me, what kept me breathing was my family, my friends, God. Picking myself up was not easy, it was messy and painful. It was slow. But it was – it is worth it.

And I urge you, it will be worth it. It will get better. You will have good days, and bad ones. Do not give up, do not allow yourself to. Be patient with yourself, pray, find a shred of purpose in your life – hold on to it. I still do go through bad days; days that fill my core with a foul, lingering taste.  On these days, when I am afraid that I might give in, I shut my eyes and pray. I pray for courage, and strength to serve my purpose on this Earth. I pray for hope and kindness. I pray for you. I cry. I remind myself why I live. Strength comes from each time you escape the neck deep of grime, when you make it through another day. It comes from the vulnerability of calling out for help. I plead with you, do not give up. Please. I believe that you can hold on. The world is dark, but there is goodness and hope. Look for it, acknowledge that it is there. Know that there must be some purpose in your life that has yet to be fulfilled.

I speak now to the friends and family of the precious lives lost. It is not your fault. You must be angry, and confused, and filled with inexplicable grief. My heart aches deeply for your pain.

And to all of us, please, be kind. Be kind not just when times are good, but also when they are tough. Reserve judgement in your heart and push it away. Think, before you speak and act. We are human. Apologise when you err, forgive each other, love each other. Help each other make living a little easier.

This is really all I have to say. I keep you in my prayers, but He keeps you in His hands.

Let’s find courage. When the word “courage” first came into the English language, it was derived from the Latin word cor, meaning heart. The original definition of courage, then, was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. Simply put, those who were deemed to be courageous simply had the bravery to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because you absolutely cannot be kind to others before first forgiving and loving yourself.

We can easily arrive at the consensus that we value human lives for their being but it would require more generous, compassionate and courageous steps to be consistent in living out this belief. For whatever our consolations and conversations may count for, with our influence, I urge for the above-mentioned understanding of difficult ideas like sadness, grief and depression; suicide, shame and vulnerability to shape our future conversations. May we strive to assure one another that:

  1. It is okay to be vulnerable.
  2. To talk about shame is to be courageous.
  3. We are all enough just being

If life were an invitation into the boxing ring (of struggles), then first and foremost, are we bystanders or fighters? Are we in or out of the arena? In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

There is value in daring greatly. On this difficult issue that has complexities to unpack on so many levels, it would require for us all to dare greatly to create conversations, to share openly and to slowly (but surely) shift our culture to be one built on compassion, forgiveness and empathy. In the time that followed my earlier piece entitled “Suicide: Let’s start with #howru”, I have received countless Facebook messages, emails and phone calls about what Solomon calls “the family secret that everyone has”. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to these many strangers and friends for their courage in sharing these uncomfortable, intimate stories of what might have been the darkest episodes of their life. It is in your daring greatly that I have written this piece.

I earlier wrote this with hesitation because I based it solely on my internalization of firsthand accounts that are not my own and my synthesis of present literature with little relevant academic background – to the highest level of clarity possible, though, I have found the courage to publish this final piece in a series of three pertaining to this difficult issue. (Borrowing much of this courage from the family, friends and strangers who have taught me the beauty of wholehearted living, and of daring greatly). Over the course of self-discovery while writing this piece, I have reaffirmed my conviction that if we are to find our way to loving ourselves and those around more deeply, vulnerability is going to be the path that leads us onwards.

The last time I was this vulnerable was when I picked up the mic on stage right before shaving for Hair for Hope and then braving the shaver. Hands cold, sweating inside and voice shaking too slightly for anyone to tell; I was afraid. Once more, as I step into this uncomfortable arena for a hustle that will leave me marred by dust and sweat and blood, I am reaching a hand out to invite you into the arena with me and it is in my deepest hopes that we all find courage to live wholeheartedly in our lives that lie ahead. I hope for cor (heart and courage) for us, to all dare greatly.

Do not hesitate to write to me: shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg

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