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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