Church Testimony: The Transcript

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5 months from the last time I’ve been given the privilege to speak before an audience and so much has happened ever since. Life has a way of tossing you into the least expected places in the most surprising of twists and turn – today, in a much more humble setting, before an audience of 30, I shared my favourite story yet

“Church, today I am privileged and excited to be sharing my story with you – this is a story of how I grew up and how I ended up in Sydney, a story about who I thought I was and who I’ve found I am. This is a story that God has woven into a masterpiece through my life.

God has been working in and through me before I even came to recognise Him.

For many years in my life, I have been an active volunteer and it is something many people remember or recognise me for. When I was 16, I rallied my class to sponsor a child together in Uganda; by 17, I developed a social emotional learning curriculum that was adopted by a primary school in Singapore; at 18, I lead a team of adults mostly in their mid-twenties to Vietnam’s Ministry of Environment to share a waste management plan we had developed; at 19 (last year), I started a social enterprise with my sister called Strong Mind Fit Body. We bring elderly Singaporeans together with youth volunteers for strength training exercises.

I didn’t know then, but God had been working through me and using me in countless ways to bring blessing and light to the darkness of so many.

 God came at a time I was exhausted and hopeless.

In my family, my parents are Buddhist and my siblings and I grew up mostly regarding ourselves as ‘non-religious’. (I have an older sister and a younger brother) The rest of my extended family on my mother’s side are Christian, but because of past conflicts and other negative experiences for my parents, we pretty much grew up being taught to reject Christianity.

The teaching was, “There are many things in life we cannot explain and there might be a higher being. But this higher being is not here to love you but to punish you – so be careful, do good and you’ll receive goodness but do anything bad and be condemned.” If you understand the ‘karma’, the idea is that “if you want anything you must deserve it and to deserve it you must work for and earn it”. How absolutely wrong we were.

Growing up believing that, even love had to be earned.

In the days I started volunteering, I was schooling in one of the most prestigious institutions in Singapore. Every day, we were reminded of ‘noblesse oblige’, which is Latin for “the privileged have an obligation of serving”. The label that enslaved me was ‘privileged’. The more social needs I saw volunteering, the more I was reaffirmed that nothing in this life that I experience and enjoy are deserved – not this privilege of literacy when millions of children don’t have a pencil to hold, not this privilege of safety when so many live on the streets in fear, not this privilege of a proper meal when millions struggle to even be fed. With no concept of God’s grace, the only logical response to this horrific realization was to be constantly in service to others and to deny myself any more of it if I could help it.

Closer friends knew how terrible I became at taking care of myself – my days would be packed from even before the sky awakens to prepare for our workout sessions all over Singapore, meetings with volunteers to whom I became a personal counsellor, travelling to schools to do mentorships, conducting volunteer trainings, facilitating camps and leadership trainings, speaking at forums and conferences.

Deep within on days I was tired of this life, there would be a voice that says “Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are that you deserve anything more? Who are you that you deserve a better meal? Or a decent sleep?” What I didn’t know then, was that God was in all of it. All the times I held the hands of our elderly participants at workout sessions or gave hugs to those who cried, He was holding my hands and embracing me in His warmth. All the times I missed meals and someone would think of surprising me with a proper meal (that was not fast food), all the times my volunteers surprised me with handwritten notes and affirming messages, all the times random strangers came up to me wanting to pray for me and all the times He let people walk in on me crying from exasperation; I was clueless and faithless, yet He was knowing and faithful.

Just as God chose me; for all of my life, I want to choose Him.

One of the first things I did after coming to Sydney, was to enrol myself into a self-compassion course. I had come to a rock bottom where I almost had no reason at all to be loving or taking care of myself. The voice that said, “You deserve nothing” had grown too loud to be silenced. It was then that a coursemate invited me to a church camp over the Easter Break. The first sermon that broke me was about 1 Peter 2:9. It says “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  

The name of the camp was ‘Chosen’ and the pastor talked about how each of us were God’s chosen people. Not because of what we did or will do or can do, but because He loved us so. We did nothing to be worthy of being chosen but we were and because there is no condition for this unconditional love, there is also no reason the love will be lost. We are chosen, and God isn’t going to withdraw this choice ever – the response we get to make lies only in ‘accept’ or ‘ignore’. There is no option to ‘reject’, for it wouldn’t be withdrawn.

In this world that we live in, everything is transactional – in every relationship and every person, it is about what you can give me and what I can give in return. All my life, this is the only type of relationship I’ve recognised; I can’t even count the number of strangers I’ve spoken to, conversations I’ve had, relationships I’ve been in that came from the intention of putting forth a request – “Could you help us with this?”, “Could we meet you to ask you questions about this?”, “Can you be the one to do this?”

When God came to me, He came, too, with a request. But His was not about what I could give Him or what He wanted from me; His was an invitation to receive. To receive something so so precious, something unimaginable. He didn’t come to count tabs or take back what I did not deserve, He didn’t come to punish or to reprimand. He came first to love and embrace and to serve.

My entire self and life is God’s.

I am an avid reader, I absolutely love reading books and writing my own prose. In a recent read, Desiring God by John Piper, the author proposes that we each live a life pinning our hopes on a single treasure – the ‘treasure’ might be family, career ambitions, grades, that ‘comfortable life’ or that holiday dream. We pin our hopes on those treasures such that our lives would be a waste if the value of those treasures were not real.

I once settled for treasures that were going to fail me eventually, treasures that would truly have made my life a ‘waste’. It is by God’s grace alone, in His giving me what I do not deserve, that I live and breathe in His truth. Every day now, I want to live a life that would be a waste if Jesus didn’t love me, if the resurrection were not true or if God were not real. So I know for sure, it will not be a waste for there is no more certain truth I know than the fact that Jesus loves me more than I can even imagine, the resurrection is the most important historical fact in humanity’s past and God’s presence is undeniable – for all of my days, I will pin my hopes on the One who will continue to pick me up no matter how many times I let Him down, who will continue to forgive me no matter how many times I fall short.

In every moment that He breathes life into me, I wish only to bask in His relentless love and bring Him glory in all that I do. Jesus freed me from the burden of my sins and the weight of the chains upon my soul; I have decided to follow Him with all my heart, all my mind and all my soul. And I’m never turning back. Thank you Lord, for bringing to me a place of childlike faith and untradeable joy.”

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What Is Sorry For

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The Aboriginal flag painted on a brick wall.
©bigstockphoto.com/ budastock

National Sorry Day in Australia brings people together in unity towards the healing of the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. From 1788, British colonial powers arrived by boat to the shores of Australia in search for land and resources – this was the beginning of a nightmare for Indigenous Australians as countless were forcibly removed from their families and communities. Numerous massacres were committed in this time; the unimaginable atrocities became a blemished chapter in the history of the world’s longest-standing traditional cultures. The trauma, injustices and grief persist today in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who experience inequality in economic, social and health spheres amongst others.

The first National Sorry Day was in 1998; the first public and formal apology made belatedly. Everything that follows (the reports written, research done, compromises made) are attempts at turning ‘sorry’ into action and transforming reconciliation from just lip-service. As a history student since high school, I have always been appalled at the wrong-doings that we can commit against each other as human brothers and sisters over and over, as if we never learn. Time and again, we let the distracting veils of self-interest make paper-thin excuses for cruel acts against one another – we let the politics have full reign, let the media deceive. Our democracies are lies we tell ourselves, for our votes choose us (not the other way round).

We are on a broken treadmill that never stops, running away from shame and guilt. We play broken recorders that repeat ‘sorry’s in different languages. Calluses grow on our palms as we try relentlessly, to wash away stains of our past. We try to forget – there are countries that choose amnesia by erasing the stories, literally, from textbooks; we try to repent – there are others that build endless memorials for those who once lived. Patience will run out, and so will space. The most important lesson of history is to reflect on our present and consider the ongoing acts that will soon become history.  

Today, suffering of all sorts permeate society even on an individual level. A beautiful paragraph encapsulates it,

“Today we have higher buildings and wider highways but shorter temperaments and narrower points of view. We spend more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses but smaller families. We have more compromises but less time. More knowledge, but less judgment. We have more medicines, but less health. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk much, love only a little and hate too much. These are the times with more liberty but less joy; more food but less nutrition. These are the days in which two salaries come home but divorces increase. We have finer houses, but broken homes.”

This is the paradox of our time. All over, humankind is facing brokenness in more ways than one. On a day dedicated to reflection of the world we live in from history to today, this is my invitation to step out of the ‘state of transparency’, where human suffering remains transparent and where crises remain ignored just because we think they do not directly affect us. For the ‘state of transparency’ to even have been a choice is a privilege that we earned no entitlement to and in this state, we fall prey to apathy, to live lives of ignorance and to run on treadmills we can never step off.

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Asylum seekers signal for help while making their way across the Indian Ocean towards Australia in 2013. © Joel van Houdt / Hollandse Hoogte

Here’s my call to action. The first Indigenous Australians arrived on boats; then, in 1788, colonial masters from Britain arrived in boats. Today, ‘the boat people’ is part of everyday language to refer to refugees seeking asylum in other countries after fleeing their own. The tragedy of 59.5 million refugees in the world together struggling in-between, paying the human cost for our apathy and self-interest is a reality we can’t ignore – it is the ongoing act that will become history. There is always something you can do; start where you are and do what you can.

From today, I will be embarking on a month-long journey to lend my voice to those who go unheard, forgotten. In the lead-up to Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June 2017), I will be raising funds for the refugee support efforts in Jordan. Syria refugees will be provided with education, medical services and ration packs amongst other necessities with funds raised at bit.ly/sherms4refugees.

Hopefully, then as we each make our little efforts count, National Sorry Day wouldn’t just be a ritual where we strive towards saying “enough” ‘sorry’s. Can any number of apologies ever be enough for the lives that stop living the day the boats arrived?

I welcome thoughts, ideas and emotions at shng4630@uni.sydney.edu.au

 

Right Here, Right Now

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“Is it not bemusing the way we go through our lives, as though we were going to live forever? It was as though we had no concept of death. Or perhaps the notion of a permanent end to our existence were so abstract, it could not possibly hold true. So we go on with our seemingly interminable lives, filling the bulk of our days with an incessant busyness. The writing of letters to our beloved ones is then forgotten, or left to one of the endless tomorrows that would patiently await us.”

–  The Desire for Elsewhere by Agnes Chew

I am right here, right now – this leather seat cool from the night’s wind and this white table no wider than my forearm. Morning sounds accompany me as I wake. Birds take different parts of the choir, the murmurs of conversation in dialect from within the house and the occasional drive-by of cars or planes passing by in the cloudless sky. All these are real. The sound and touch from every key that I press; then, the alphabets that surface on the laptop screen of moderate brightness.

I am right here, right now; just as you are there – eyes on the screen, wondering where these words are going. Right there, you’ve probably lost notice of your breath until now. If you sat or stood with your back just slightly erect, took notice of the in and out of every breath, perhaps then you would also notice the fatigue hanging at the corner of your eyes or the tightness in your chest. Allow it to diffuse with every in and out; slow down. You are right there, right now.

Our everyday gradually take familiar forms that we practice into habit. We know the first thing we do when we emerge from the snuggly comfort of the bed, the sequence of small actions that begins our every day – only one of the many routines we have built into our muscle memories. Soon enough, we are no longer experiencing this sequence of tasks but only thinking about it. It is our mind’s clever way (evolutionarily) of freeing up headspace for the other challenging tasks that we may have to perform that day, like doing that difficult assignment, or going to that unfamiliar place.

With the recent leap of faith in committing to Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff and Brene Brown, I am learning that we think about events, circumstances and moments far more often than we experience them. We draw patterns to past experiences, search through the beliefs we have formulated slowly from every stumble and fall; we so quickly think about how to respond rather than allowing the experience to settle. The extraordinary complexity that life has to offer compromised by our defenses so quickly build up to protect the illusion of perfection.

Thoughts are not fluid as the reality is. We can think about the morning routine that we commit to to begin our days and it will be exactly the same every day, but it is never the same – the toothbrush always facing a different direction and the water from washing our hands always splattering a different way on the mirror; or the coolness of the tiles against our feet and the directions in which our hair decides to take shape. Every detail characteristic for the day.

The exact nuances of every experience are only truly embraced when we allow it to be felt. When you are ready, lift this understanding from the morning routine and apply it to the interactions, struggles and activities of your every day. How familiar are we with the pre-empting of what happens next: we know how this person will respond and we know what the day is going to be like. Our lives, like palettes of blended colour, are reduced to commercial shades of red, blue and green because we think we know. 

There is no need to think constantly, about what happens later or tomorrow, about where we were yesterday or about what others could be thinking. There is no need to contemplate in an experience that can be felt with the touch of our skin, wonders of our hearing or smell and the physiological ability that we innately possess to feel. May we allow not the thoughts to cloud the reality nor the impulse of our emotions to formulate a reaction; and instead respond with the knowing that there is no place we could be but here and no other time it could be but now.

And for we will die, we must live right here, right now.

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Recognising Love Away From Home

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The sun rays peeked through the blinds as a tinge of illumination; the sky first a rosy pink and then a fiery red, as if the sun was negotiating firmly for its turn to dominate. The dark blue gave way, leaving behind only the smell of rain washing the air fresh overnight as proof that night had once come. My back upright and distractions aside, over a bowl of milk and cereal, I take slow and deep breaths. There is a sunset and a sunrise every day, you can choose to be there for it, writes Cheryl Strayed in her novel Wild. For the past week, I have chosen to be entranced by nature’s beauty at the breaking of dawn – the only show we get to watch for free and yet holds priceless value. Overwhelming me each time is joy (different from happiness that is fleeting), a light that fills you with love and faith and hope because of the knowledge that the blessing of this new day presents such immense possibilities.

Every day has brought with it conversations and interactions, no short of awe-inspiring individuals each with incredible stories of being and becoming. As if touring an endless bookstore where each conversation is merely a chapter, every instant amplifies the vastness of what this place and its people has to offer. Within moments you least expect, there has also been random acts of kindness and love taking unfamiliar forms. This piece is about these indications of love that have come to teach me invaluable lessons in the midst of the tumultuous transition from familiarity.

It seems, the shapeless, colourless thing we call emotion that has no texture or mass can truly only be felt with consistency and not seen. The ways in which each individual, based on context of culture and social environment, expresses something as universal as love can take on such diverse forms. The danger of being uprooted from a place of familiarity comes with the danger of finding acts closely associated with love, kindness and joy absent – not because they no longer exist but because they now come in shapes and sizes you do not recognise, forms unlike those you have grown up to link closely with the deep emotions of connectedness.

The danger exists not because unfamiliarity always equates loneliness or that cultural differences necessarily form barriers; it exists because we too often look for connection with our eyes and not our hearts. We have subconsciously externalized our sense of belonging to those around us rather than affirming that sense of belonging within ourselves. We recognise love by matching them with persons we are certain love us dearly from family members to the closest friends – we play a ‘spot-the-similarities’ game to make conclusions about others we are new to and how capable they are at loving us. It is dangerous to try seeing something you can only feel and more so, to conclude falsely that we are unlovable beings as a result of what we think we cannot find.

Brought to the forefront of my awareness in being mindful of my interactions with self and others during this first month in Sydney, is how our worldview about where and how to find love, connection and belonging is made up of these small interactions and fleeting instances. It is that split second where we talk to ourselves after an awkward conversation with a person or an uncomfortable interaction with an experience that says that most to us about our worthiness of love and belonging. We have, oftentimes, looked for love and belonging outside of us rather than engage from a place where we believe we are worthy of it. In our moments of struggle, we first respond to ourselves with judgment and blame rather than the kindness and love that we would typically give to others around us if something similar had happened to them. In face of our imperfections, we conclude too quickly that this is why we are different or alone. What we forget in these instances, is that imperfection and struggle is a part of life and it does not separate us.

When we fail or make mistakes, that does not separate us from others; that is precisely what unites us. Slowly but surely, as we engage with love and belonging within us, may we begin to find space in our hearts for ourselves. Maybe then, truly, love is all we need.

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Never Imagined: Sydney

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I never imagined myself to stay in an apartment with bricked walls, the sort I am used to finding only in cultural buildings or forgotten pieces of architecture. Never imagined to be here, on a wooden chair at the basement of a two-storey abode in the company of Fischer, a big black dog; and never imagined living with three older folks (from my grandparents’ generation) showering unconditional love on me at every waking moment. There are crows in the sky cawing as they past, as if to assert their presence. The electrical cables line the view of the vast, cloudless sky and the sun, awake as I am. It is a beautiful day in Western Sydney. Over a glass of milk with relaxing acoustics playing from my device, this piece is in celebration of this new land that will come to be my second home.

In my latest read, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the author writes a first-hand account of her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)  – the physical rigour, the emotional turmoil, the people she meets who gives her strength for every next step and the inner peace she eventually discovers with contentment. She describes her journey on the trail that stretches over 2,000 miles as “a journey from lost to found” as she had embarked on the trail at the lowest point of her life only to find strength to bravely be her own person.

Two weeks into the new beginning, I have said my ‘good-bye’s and reflected upon my intentions moving forward.  There is anticipation and apprehension, flavoured with fleeting anxiety. More than a year from leaving school and experiencing the adventure of a gap year, this is my next great adventure as the PCT was Cheryl Strayed’s. This chapter begins with a week of learning the names of suburbs, cities, states and territories; finding familiarity in foreign land while unpacking, lots of unpacking; and learning the ropes of the new dynamics with the family I will live with here. The wonder of meeting people completely different from myself in a myriad of ways has been a privilege. At Orientation week, every conversation begins with a hello of varying shyness and accents; everything that follows feels like a miracle – to meet individuals with stories of becoming so different from mine, worldviews worlds apart and perspectives built on a context I never imagined. I am travelling with astounding breadth through each of these inspiring individuals, constantly reminded that we have become this very version of ourselves based on the culmination of chance. We were born in this certain place, at this certain time to enjoy this particular landscape of possibilities at this specific point in the human evolution.

Still grasping the accent and still learning my white wines from the red, here’s to immersing with contentment similar to Cheryl Strayed’s revelation. To be miles away from home but to admire the flora and fauna that now surrounds me and to be reminded that we don’t have to do this alone; to know that this is all enough. That this life may be wild, as Cheryl Strayed writes, and that we can let it be so. I never imagined myself leaving Singapore to pursue an overseas education for 4 years but here I am on this wooden chair and boy, am I in for something spectacular. 

PS Two days to being student again.

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Here and Elsewhere

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Eyes closed, the plane’s turbulence is amplified. We are somewhere in-between – “Time to Sydney: 4:14”, bold in white against the blue screen. On a flight between two countries, ‘near’ and ‘far’ is time-dependent, varying; emotional distance though, fixed. Weeks of basking in the familiarity and connectedness of Singapore (upon returning from America) fills me with gratitude and joy, like a light that fills you with faith, love and hope. I can ask for no more, for I’ve had enough in this beautiful home for the past 19 incredible years of my life. This piece is written in celebration of the beginning of a new chapter – where we can be certain only of uncertainty and where change is a constant.

In my latest read The Desire for Elsewhere by Agnes Chew, she writes about the “worlds we left behind”. In our transitions from phases of life to changing circumstances, we move geographically and emotionally through places and people. We grow, learn and sometimes without ourselves even realizing, change. As if each riding our own buses making rounds indefinitely, we pick up new individuals and allow some others to alight along the way. Our adventures through time is no different. The capacity of the vehicle representative of our capacity for meaningful relationships (see Dunbar’s Number), necessitating the give-and-take nature of passing time. We move to the rear of the bus and take turns alighting. Every couple of minutes, the configuration of those seated or standing, present or absent on board the vehicle changes.

Allow me to draw the parallel. Every given time corresponds with one of our countless states of being in our lives – the exact extent of closeness or distance to individuals, the precise sensations an experience offers and the moments that become memories in an instant. Our lenses, ever-changing, the world only looks this way with this complexity once. It is both liberating and surreal to be reminded that things are (or seem to be) the way they are now, only now. The liberation comes, then, in the realization that should these exact occurrences be fleeting, we must live now.

Seated on 31B in the Boeing 777, time is suspended in the moment of parting. I am at the in-between; desperately inking down emotions, inscribing the picture memory of those dear to me, remembering how their smiles look and how mine feels. I am, as Chew describes, both here and elsewhere. To all those who are wanderers like myself in their own way, constantly in travel, allow me to be the part of you the resides in Australia now so we may all be here and elsewhere.

Here’s to living in the present tense, for each is becomes was in a matter of time.

The Empathy Jar

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In a time where our stories can differ immensely, I would like to propose that the key to connecting with one another on an individual level, understanding communities around us and enhancing our international perspectives as global citizens is empathy – the practice of expressing emotions to draw similarities for connection. It is the ability to respond, especially in times of uncomfortable emotions, with the two most powerful words, me too. In this respect, the diversity of selves is an asset.

What we fail to realise is that each one of our stories is a book filled with not only facts and experiences, but emotions associated with them. Every book, then, comes with a deposit to our emotional banks that we turn to to practice empathy. The thing about empathy is this, it thrives on finding similarities. We must be able to listen to another person’s story, identify the emotions being experienced and immerse in it. What we have to remember is that we will rarely, if ever, have the exact same experiences or the same stories (as our minds have their way of drawing on our past to contextualize current circumstances); but we can experience similar emotions. Emotions is the language that surpass rifts of generations and barriers of cultures.

There are two dangerous practices in our culture, though, that are preventing us from embracing the diversity of selves and cultivating empathy.

First, we are quick in defining people with a single story. Growing up, I have most often been referred to by people who know little about me as “the Raffles one”. “You’re from Raffles what, this should be easy”, “She’s Raffles one mah, that’s why so zai” or the worst, “Raffles one, don’t study also can get ‘A’”. The last most frustrating because most of the afternoons that I remember as a student in Junior College were spent consulting teachers, doing and redoing my tutorials. What I have learned is that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. As a student, I struggled with competing expectations of effortless perfection. I was more often told what I should be like in conversations with people who were supposedly trying to get to know me better. “Wow, that sounds like a lot of commitments. But you’re Raffles one, so it should be easy for you right.” Each time we settle for ‘incomplete’, we compromise the diversity of selves and the countless stories every individual can tell about their being.

Second, we are obsessed with harmony. The opposite of harmony is the state of conflict. We are conflict averse to the point where we avoid any potential for conflict – run away from instability, shun uncertainty and settle down fast. The challenge is that empathy is built on emotional connection and emotions are one of the most unstable, uncertain elements of being human that we can never run away from. Conversations about intense emotions make us uncomfortable as it accentuates the deficit in our emotional word bank. We know happy, sad, angry, tired. Each of these emotions, though, are but a single point in an entire spectrum. The most incredible part of our beings is the capacity to experience the spectrum at its entirety – we can do ‘sad’ as in, slightly disappointed all the way to deep melancholy; or ‘happiness’ as in, tickled just a bit all the way to sustained joy that fills you with faith and hope. Yet, our only response to how are you, is fine.

Highly active in the youth volunteerism scene, youth workers often ask me, do you think youths today are empathetic? To me, every human being (youth or not) has the capacity to empathise. The diversity of selves enables us: it provides the repertoire of emotions and experiences upon which we can cultivate empathy as a practice. What differs from one individual to another, though, is our tendency to choose empathy. Every conversation that relates emotions presents to the listener this choice. The tendency to choose empathy, then, works like an imaginary jar. The contents of the jar, the common aggregate of an individual’s encounter with others – with every ‘how are you feeling’ and ‘what did you do today we’ add marbles into the jar. Conversely, with every ‘stop crying and be a man or get a grip, you’ll grow up and realise this doesn’t matter’, we empty the same jar.