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

 

Ubuntu Means You’re Never Alone

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Rustic chairs, wooden tables and bricked walls; there are Singer sewing machines bordering the sides of the café and the familiar whiff of caffeine embraces us mid-day. Murmurs of different languages (mostly Korean) blend into one as relationships of all sorts are deepened this Sunday afternoon – there are lovers, friends, sisters, colleagues and families. Right here, right now in this instant, we share this space and this moment. Imagine the possibilities in this instant where strangers are brought into common space so that for once in our lives when our steps are in sync, our breaths in harmony, paths crossed. This piece is about how moments like this one string together one after another in our lives as testament that we are all connected.

Waves of inspiration from an ongoing online self-compassion course brought me to my recent read, The Book of Joy by The Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams. The insight exchanged by two most influential spiritual masters of our time affirms that the distractions of our secondary differences are just that, distractions. The secondary differences that are our nationality, ethnicity, race, gender or how we look and speak; differences that disappear when we don’t only look at a person but experience the person. These traits we think define and divide us are distracting us from the truth about unity in our common humanity.

Consciously blinding the secondary differences, what is left when we look at one another is the same human body, human brain, human heart; the same human frailties and vulnerabilities. Lending from the Archbishop’s wisdom, Ubuntu is a South African ideology that recognises our solidarity in humaneness. Indeed, where we stop comparing and competing our suffering and struggles against each other, we realise there is no ‘harder’ or ‘more stressful’, there is just ‘hard’ and ‘stressful’. We share the same fundamental desire to be joyful and avoid suffering, an innate pursuit that transcends what tries to separate us. In truth, we are together, each living out the same human experience that is imperfect, winding and impermanent by nature.

In the words of the Archbishop, “A person is a person through other persons” and no story we tell ourselves about how we came to be is a story with a single character in isolation. Each of them with the imprints of many others. Who we are is constantly tried, test and affirmed or challenged by those around us, each contributing to the moulding process that makes us us. It is the strength of the secondary differences that it sometimes takes a major disaster for followers of different faiths or people from different countries to come together and see that in the end, we are all human brothers and sisters. The Holiness the Dalai Lama describes the antidote as “a sense of oneness of all 7 billion human beings – irrespective of our beliefs, we are all the same human beings who all want a happy life.”

Growing up in a culture where independence meant going alone strong and armouring up against vulnerability, the true internalisation of Ubuntu starts with greeting my big human family. It starts with the recognition of our interdependence – unlearning the modern trance, the relentless march and the endless comparison and competition. Martin Luther King Jr puts it rightly that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools. I am mindful of the suffering that humanity takes the toll of collectively today – the refugee crisis, the rising suicide rates, the political amnesia that hurts us; all of which that is reason for us to grieve. There are, though, more reasons to celebrate, as we are 7-billion strong in our capacity for love, great devotions and courageous pursuits.

Brave New Beginning

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Tucked in humbly at the corner of Allen Street, full-length glass surrounds the beautiful Cuppa Flower café and lets in just enough sunlight for us to collectively bask in the morning illumination. Lush greenery traces the compound and warm, fluorescent lights complement this morning’s peace. With the aftertaste of flat white from a yellow mug, cool breeze coming in through the entrance and the conversations that fade into the background, this piece is in celebration of 10 weeks down under.

These days I confront my struggle with floccinaucinihilipilification, the habit of estimating something as worthless. We have a tendency to build boundaries around ourselves, using shields or armours of different forms to defend against what might make us vulnerable – my defenses often start from the basis that “this is probably worthless anyway”. This new experience, that difficult conversation or this attempt to do things differently than before all probably worthless, so why try. Floccinaucinihilipilification is one of the longest words in the English language and as Kristin Neff writes, the mystery of why we do it is as baffling as how to pronounce it.

Wired for survival rather than for joy, our aversion towards vulnerability stand guard at the frontline of our responses to anything. The fear of vulnerability like an imaginary big, red, flashing ‘flight-or-fight’ button in our minds waiting to be pressed. Floccinaucinihilipilification is ‘flight’. To save ourselves from the daunting prospects of attack, we subscribe to the one life we know to lead because it has been tried and tested to death. We stop trying, suppress curiosity and murder possibilities. We settle.

With the blessing of time and support while in Australia, enrolling into the Courageworks Self-Compassion Course by Kristin Neff and Brene Brown has proposed an antidote. “Self-compassion is one of the biggest sources of strength and resilience that we have available to us,” Kristin Neff encompasses the crux of the power of being kind to ourselves. How often have we responded to someone else’s pain and suffering with love and kindness, while turning to our own with judgement and blame? The most fear-inducing element of vulnerability is the lie that we have been sold growing up – that if you stumble, fall, struggle or fail, you are different and isolated by imperfection that deems you undeserving of joy.

Let’s unlearn these lessons of isolation and choose to tell ourselves in times of hurt or difficulty that: “I am suffering.”, “This is part of the shared human experience, I am not alone” and “May I give myself the compassion that I need.” The endless runaway from our shadows ceases the moment we acquaint ourselves with darkness as a critical part of being human. It takes courage, it is scary but where there is darkness, there is light. With the strength from knowing that we’ve got our own backs through thick and thin, may we arrive at bolder and unimaginable possibilities.

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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3 Minutes: Harmony in Diversity

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Thankful for the opportunity to speak at the International Women’s Forum, themed ‘Harmony in Diversity’ as part of a soapbox session titled ‘Perspectives Across Generations’. The forum was organised with International Women’s Forum Singapore. Singapore identifies itself as a multi-racial and cultural society – the session was about hearing from Singaporeans from different walks of life on their views and experiences growing up in this environment. The soapbox is a raised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech. Along with two inspiring individuals (Quek Siu Rui and Michelle Khoo) representing the ‘young people’, we took turns standing on a small wooden crate, before 20 tables of 10 curious eyes each.

On the wooden crate, with a mic in one hand and nervousness in the other, we each had 3 minutes. Here’s my 3 minutes, on the emotional connection that I believe will take us forward:

“I am a 19-going-on-20, growing up in the most exciting of times. Choices are in abundance – Local universities or overseas? Doctor, lawyer, finance or a job not created yet? The privilege of these choices we get to make today contributes to the increasing diversity of selves. Within a single generation, we are more different from one another than ever before. As we bask in infinite possibilities, though, there are inconsistencies.

The paradox of our times has shown itself. Our material possessions and consuming power are greater than ever; but we still feel short of something. Our cities are denser than before, but more and more admit to being “lonely”. We have created medicines and done research to live longer and better, yet suicide rates amongst young adults are at an all-time high. I am 19-going-on-20, but in the past year alone I know of 2 people close to heart who have taken their lives. I would like to propose that against the backdrop of our diversity of selves, the ingredient we have overlooked in the recipe is empathy; our ability to connect with one another on an emotional level.

A frequently asked question today is do you think youths today are empathetic? The thing is this, 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, is our tendency to choose empathy. And now imagine this: if the ‘tendency to choose empathy’ were an imaginary jar, the contents of the jar would depend on an individual’s encounters with others – with every ‘how are you feeling’ and ‘what did you do today’ we fill this jar slightly. And with every ‘stop crying and be a man’ or ‘showing your emotions makes you weak’, we empty that same jar.

We are, today, adept at comparison and measurement of all things tangible but we are highly lacking in heartware. May the presence of this imaginary jar flow into our stream consciousness so we remember that our every interaction every day, fills us up in a way immeasurable with just numbers.”

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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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