The Hunger And The Bread

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Koorong is a humble bookstore that sits at the crossroads of West Parade and Anthony Road, with endless wooden bookshelves and occasional couches for those who prefer immersing in their reads amidst other bookstore-goers. Soft music caresses our souls as we each pace calmly from one row of reads to the next. The day is beautiful; the sunshine, glorious. This morning, the chatter of old friends accompanies the waft of tea fragrance in Pages Cafe, snugged comfortably in the embrace of the bookstore. Midway through the Ration Challenge, it is my 8th meal comprising of a cup of water, a palm-sized serving of plain rice and one piece of flatbread. This piece attempts to articulate the midway revelation on the true hungers we each suffer from.

The Hunger

A hunger ache awakens me on chilly winter mornings, but it is bearable. The blandness of rice and water robs my excitement toward mealtimes, but it is bearable. Occasional headaches scream for a sip of a sugary drink, but it, too, is bearable. I close my eyes and imagine the refugees who take these meals every day – those drifting in the ocean on boats, those crawling under fences, those hiding amidst rubble, those separated from family indefinitely. I imagine the dishevelled faces and weak bodies. Dishevelled not because they don’t have what they need to wash and clean themselves; weak not because they haven’t been given enough to feed their stomachs. Dishevelled and weak because of the countless things they have lost, they have lost their ‘why’.

Why live? Why does it matter if I have not cleaned myself? Why does it matter if I haven’t filled my stomach? Why exist? Why have hope? The food is barely enough, but enough still; what is truly starved is the soul. In an instant, people who’ve built their lives around their careers have become unemployed after investing days and nights into the incessant busyness of work. Others who’ve built their lives around their families have lost them to fragile boats sitting in choppy waters. Yet others who’ve built their lives around their money, their friends, their prestige, their beauty, their possessions have lost them all in an instant – one gunshot, one bomb, one political conflict, one place they called ‘home’. What is truly starved is the soul. The despair so real: purposes once rock solid, seemingly unfailing, have been invested in through toil and labour with every waking moment. In an instant, the fallibility of these futile goals and fruitless harvests shows with such clarity one wonders why it was unforeseen. The true hunger is that for lasting purpose and significance.

Wherever I go, bright signboards and colourful advertisements tempt me, but I can turn away. Every street corner finds an alluring cafe seated, but I can, too, turn away. How, though, does one turn away from a hunger that is deeply embedded within? For ourselves, we can ask the same questions – Why live? Why exist? Why have hope? Every person who has an inkling of the impermanence of his or her life has to confront these questions to arrive at the mussel of strength that is required to get out of bed every morning and proceed with the endless daily tasks that we fill our time with. We are each hungry for that purpose and significance. Be still, in silence you will hear your soul’s constant grumble. We are each starving until we have discovered a ‘why’ so purposeful, so significant; one that does not fail us, one that is constant.

The Bread

We are living in a state of transparency, where this world’s suffering and humanity’s brokenness have become see-through. We have made way for a ‘normal’ of obsessions and addictions that blinds us – today, the friends who come from broken homes are plenty, the suicide rates skyrocket, the atrocities and terror attacks are frequent headlines. It is now normal for the corrupt and the wicked to reign, acceptable for the worshipping of material pursuits to distract us from what truly matters. We now serve as puppets of the very tools we created to serve us – time, money, competition, comparison. The price we continue to pay every single day stares back at us everywhere we look, glaring.

We are living in the perils of meaninglessness, where the line beyond which everything becomes insignificant has become so thin. On the surface, the refugee crisis finds the displacement of persons from homes by their circumstances; but it is merely a mirror of a suffering experienced by all of common humanity. We are all starving. The underlying challenge remains: to be a part and yet apart. How do we find our ‘why’ in the midst of such alluring mindlessness? What is your bread of life that fulfils your soul’s constant yearning; what is your purpose that will withstand any trial? And if you’ve found it, how do we clench tightly onto the bread of life we have found when so much of this world challenges us to replace it with the impermanent pursuits?

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Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35, NLT]

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Forgiving Our Fathers

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My father has big, warm hands. He gives the best bear hugs against his belly and beneath the stern appearance is a soft heart with his family at the centre of it. His narrow eyes are bordered by dark circles testament of his tireless working and wrinkles have amplified them. Miles away from home, some nights when I close my eyes, I can still hear his voice, trace the features of his tired face and feel the firmness of his forearm. I can still hear his heartbeat against his chest and I can still see the single teardrop shed as we hugged at the airport bidding farewell. This piece is a dedication to my father along with millions of others around the world, who find themselves frantically trying to fill the shoes of a father from the time his first child is born.

My father has taught me some of the most valuable lessons in life. Amongst which, is the lesson to love one’s family deeply. Etched in my heart by countless conversations we’ve had, I can almost hear the exact cadence with which he says “always do your humanly best” and “start from home first”. My father has dedicated his whole life to protecting his children and loving his wife: an ordinary man with an extraordinary heart for his family. The nights he would stay over at his workplace instead of returning home and the weekends he was absent were mysterious patterns that once caused confusion, sometimes anger. Even in his presence, most days he was too tired to ask about my day. I had questions with no answers, “Why work so hard?”, “Are you really listening?”, “Why do I barely see you?”, “How come you don’t say ‘I love you’?” Growing up, more and more answers are found and the confusion has been replaced by clarity. The answer is love.

The alluring adventure of the world beyond my father’s embrace distracted me over and over again from the relentless love of my father, who still, always, had his concerned gaze fixated on me and his tired arms stretched out to welcome me home every time. His love that awaits patiently for me to understand, awaits patiently for me to get over my tantrums, for me to find the words I am looking for. His love waits. His love that pursues endlessly even if I am always ten steps ahead stumbling and tripping – from my baby steps as a child to the ones I take now, as a young adult venturing into the wilderness. The answer has always been love.

Our imperfect relationship falls short often – our temperaments are match-made for combustion, manifesting themselves in heated conversations where we both forget to breathe. We have unintentionally hurt each other numerous times in the process and I live with these memories I cannot seem to forget. The fallibility of our fathers are often mistaken for the absence of love but I am learning that the fallibility is inherent to our nature, and if anything, the times we fall short are evidence of effort. The failures are there because of the trying, and we try because we love. Sometimes, those who love you most can also hurt you most (unintentionally). I have been trying to forget for a long time now, but I cannot.

This father’s day, I have a new proposal – to forgive. There are things we never forget, but forgiveness offers another way out. To forgive is to absorb all the debt and wrongs, to forgo the consolation of plotting revenge and it is a form of suffering. Forgiveness is mistakenly associated with weakness because it feels like we are ‘letting it slide’, we are ‘not holding people accountable’ or ‘not standing up for ourselves’; but truly, forgiveness is a tall order that we find challenging. Forgiveness is not forgetting, forgiveness is saying, “what happened was real, the hurt was real, but our relationship is more important”. It is choosing love in spite of our sense of injustice, our memories of hurt and anger, our reflexive defensiveness. In spite of it all, because of love. It is choosing love: to love and be loved. Here’s the challenge for us sons and daughters – to confront the hurt you have preserved over time, forgive yourselves and forgive those who’ve inflicted the hurt. And to all Singaporean fathers, Happy Father’s Day!

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. [Colossians 3:13, NLT]

The Ration Challenge

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In Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June), the Act for Peace Ration Challenge sees over 10,000 Australians come together to take rations that Syrian refugees in Jordan take, while actively raising awareness and funds to support the work of Act for Peace in the refugee crisis. This includes the provision of medical facilities, education support and food rations. The challenge organiser (Act for Peace) provides the rations that we eat – no meat, no coffee, no alcohol. This is not just about the dietary cravings dismissed or the privilege of choice forgone, it is an act of solidarity and a step forth towards peace. This piece is a pre-challenge reflection of my intentions of being a ‘ration challenger’. 

Compassion: We Are Family

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.” History has shown us over and over, how our trivial differences can distract us from our fundamental similarities – the wars fought, conflicts arisen; then, the countless apologies made and stories retold. The blemishes in the chapters of our past, each affirming that our differences in skin colour, languages spoken or geographic locality are but trivial differences. Fundamentally, we were created the same. The same human body, same human brain, same human heart; the same human frailties and vulnerabilities.

In the end, we are all members of the big human family and each of us, brothers and sisters. Arriving in Sydney as an international student, I have found home and love from individuals who were strangers less than 4 months ago. The depth of our relationships testament to our underlying humanity that connects us regardless of where we’ve grown up and the accent that coats our tongue.

Then, the refugee crisis is not a problem of ‘theirs’ or ‘ours’. There is no blame game or pointing fingers; it is collectively, a reality of the human family of which we are all a part.

Love: The Covenant

Growing up, as I learnt about more and more of the evil and suffering in this world, I found myself wanting so often to cower in the corner of ignorance. Like a child afraid of the dark covering her eyes with her hands, I preferred the view through the veil of oblivion – the thought of confronting these unsettling crises made me shrivel from helplessness. ‘Unnecessary,’ I thought. Time and again though, blessed with the courage lent by inspiring individuals each fighting important battles, I learned that the veil of oblivion might have protected me from the helplessness of confronting suffering, but it also shielded off the deep sense of hope that we need to feel to be truly, truly alive.

It is in darkness, that we find light; we can’t have one without the other. If you are, like I was, struggling with the fear of confronting evil and suffering in this world, I promise you that in the instant you lift the veil and delve in the darkness, you will simultaneously find light. There is a light that exists in each one of us, in every person – a God-given capacity to love. Without being taught or directed, we have an innate ability to care for a fellow human being, to cringe on the inside when we see a frail old man struggling to cross the road or to experience pain when we see someone else hurt. We were each made with that light in us, a light that calls us to love.

Gratitude: We Are Entitled To Nothing

This time last year, I stumbled into a Refugee Awareness Week event in Singapore where I was first introduced to the reality that the poorest nations in the world were paradoxically, the ones resettling the most refugees. It is as if the more we have, the more we earn, the less willing we are to give and share.  The more we possess materially, the less we embody as human beings. Sure, we are a product of the society that believes our nature is red in tooth and claw harnessing our defensive inclinations. We are holding onto our privilege, clinging on to save ourselves but from what? What are we trying so hard to protect by closing our eyes, hardening our hearts?

As we live our lives of impermanence, it is tempting to accumulate material treasures given the illusion of perfection – have that perfect job, perfect suit and tie, perfect family and somehow, maybe, then, that perfect life. We ask little meaningful questions about the beginning and the end, as if we have no concept of our finite time of existence. We never ask, “How did I come to be this privileged person in this safe country and not a refugee running away from home?” or “What is it that amounts to something in my final breath? What lasts?”

Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13, NLT] Perhaps, we could maintain our privileged positions in oblivion and come up with defensive reasons not to give, we could come up with an endless list of things we need to protect; but without love, we are nothing.

Step out of oblivion with me today. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, I dedicate this to the Empathy Taskforce that taught me the courage to be ever ready to make someone else’s reality my own in recognition that we are family; and to the God I’ve recently found who challenges me over and over to be a better person for His glory.

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If Home Was Safe

Joie de Vivre is the name of the University of Sydney’s Cumberland campus food court, and French for “a cheerful enjoyment in life”. Mornings here are characterised by the radio in the background accompanied by familiar sounds from the coffee machine; there are morning-goers interspersed across the separate varnished wooden tables, on grey chairs. Most of us, MacBook users and coffee drinkers. The whiff of caffeine blankets us and the sunshine streams in as if to greet us. Joie de vivre, absolument. What comfort we each immerse in, with no worry about tomorrow – no need to ask ourselves ‘will I live to tomorrow if I stay here’, ‘must I run away to keep my family safe’ and ‘if I run, where else could be home’, ‘if I plead to strangers for love and mercy, will I receive’.

This piece is about those who ask these daily questions at every waking moment, those who must answer these questions for themselves and for their families. For those whose struggle daily is about survival: not the sort of ‘survival’ we worry about concerning our professions or grades or climbing the ladder of ‘perfection’, but the sort of ‘survival’ concerning wading of oceans to avoid deadness.

There are 60 million displaced people in the world in the minute. There are myths surrounding these statistics that we, in a privileged position of safety and security, have the responsibility to unpack truth about. Only then, can we make informed decisions that have tantamount impact on vulnerable human lives. Allow me to take apart just one that I’ve commonly uncovered in my conversations:

At least seven migrants drowned after the heavily overcrowded boat they were sailing on overturned on May 25 CREDIT- AFP

At least seven migrants drowned after the heavily overcrowded boat they were sailing on overturned on May 25 CREDIT- AFP

MYTH | “If we stop the boats (of refugees) from entering the country, we dissuade people from getting on boats in the first place and risking their lives. We keep them safe.”

What is true – Refugees do die at sea.

The journeys are treacherous and the conditions on these boats have poor hygiene and sanitation; there have been reports of violence on board these boats (including sexual violence) especially for boats that drift at sea for long durations of time. In the first half of last year alone, at least 2,500 refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.

When we consider this option in isolation, it does seem dangerous and one cannot fathom why such an absurd decision is made. The myth itself is premised on the assumption that the decision to leave one’s home and get on a boat with one’s family is a “choice”. The reality is that for any refugee, one has to consider his/her situation in whole and compare the options relative to one another – the country mired in conflict and physical threats to survival or the waters toward other possibilities.

What is not true – Our policies that turn boats around back to where they came does not stop the boats. Quite the contrary, stopping the boats does not keep the refugees any safer and instead, places them in a position of greater vulnerability to danger.

When boats are turned around, they are chased back to sea, where they are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, piracy, kidnapping and violence. The ‘deterrence approach’ has abandoned refugees to their fate. When the refugees literally run away in desperation, reach their hands out to us for help and beg on their knees for mercy, we say, “No. Stay where you are.” Refugees being turned away from Australia end up in Southeast Asian countries and the numbers of asylum seekers in the poorest countries in the region are increasing dramatically.

As ongoing conflicts systematically destroy the homes of many, imagine the desperation and despair that accompanies the radical decision to leave behind all of home and get on a boat that never turns back. Photographer Brian Sokol and poet Jenifer Toksvig’s work brings the first-hand testimonies of refugees all over the world – in the eventual poem ‘What They Took With Them’, items that refugees mentioned were “national flag” and “house keys”. Who doesn’t want to stay home?

Who doesn’t want to stay home if home was safe.

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A young girl crowds with other asylum seekers under a tarp while making the three-day boat journey from Indonesia to Australia in 2013. Soon after this photo was taken, the Australian Navy took the passengers to Christmas Island and eventually on to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. © 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.

I am 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. For those who, too, deserve joie de vivre.

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What Is Sorry For

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The Aboriginal flag painted on a brick wall.
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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.