I Am Deeply In Love: The Encounter

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Second in a series of three, the story continues from where the search for purpose began. This piece speaks of the encounter where answers are uncovered. At 19-going-on-20, my crippling struggle was that I could not love myself. We each have a harmatia – in a superhero movie, this is the protagonist’s greatest strength that is also his fatal flaw. It is his deepest vulnerability that eventually leads to downfall. It is the critical ingredient in the villain’s scheming plot and the turning point of the story. We each have a harmatia – the one thing that gifts us with immense power and yet, paralyses us. I believe that one of the ways God shows Himself is through our deepest wounds that even we are unaware of. Mine is empathy.

The many forms through which emotions are expressed come to me as easily as the English Language. As we converse, the furrowed eyebrows, downcast eyes or milliseconds of silence speak more clearly to me than spoken word. In an instant, it is as if our hearts are in sync and I experience another’s brokenness as my own. ‘Pain’ and ‘suffering’ do no justice to what is excruciating. Then, just as the rewards of deep emotional connection are plentiful, the fall that comes with overwhelming helplessness is steep. The cost of harmatia high. As an active volunteer, I could never make sense of the deep injustices I learned of – ‘How can I grow up with such privilege when another struggles to survive?’, ‘Why do I get the gift of literacy while others cannot afford a pencil?’ and ‘What did I do to deserve this life?’ A million questions had no answers. I was on an endless treadmill running away from the truth that I did nothing to deserve any of these blessings. The empathy that had connected me with the suffering of millions had now become the reason for paralysis; my life was overcome with incessant busyness to meet needs, while my own were trampled underfoot. A part of me was desperately trying to dissolve the shame and guilt. The recurring thought ruminated, if I did nothing to deserve this life, then the least I should do is to give it all away to others and give nothing more to myself. Not even care, especially not love.

Leaving Singapore for Sydney, was a brand new chapter. The clean slate provided opportunities for self-care and I signed up for an online self-compassion course by Kristin Neff and Brene Brown that had been on my ‘to-do list’ for months now – creating sleeping habits, eating practices and journaling routines that protected my emotional and physical health became structures to support my attempts at taking care of myself. God was preparing my heart without my knowledge.

The Encounter

Barely three months into Sydney and weeks after ‘graduating’ from the online course, I was invited enthusiastically, to a church camp during the Easter Break. I had expected Christians coming together for fun, games and singing in what would be a ‘feel-good’ retreat (growing up in an anti-Christian environment that preached ‘non-religiosity’ created unhelpful and unrepresentative associations), no more. Instead, the camp itenary consisted mostly of worship sessions (where songs are sung in praise of God’s glory), sermons (where pastors preach referring to parts of the Bible to guide the growth of Christians) and ministry time (where everyone splits into designated groups to reflect on what has been preached). Being in the midst of the Christian community with an openness I never had before was the start on a path that God had laid out for me towards Him, and now I do not wish to turn any other way from this path for all of eternity.

The Bible says, “But 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.” [1 Peter 2:9, NIV]

The first sermon that broke me during the camp was one based on this verse – it was not that we chose God but that God chose us, and we are his first choice. In the words of the pastor, “the burden of choice is on God, not us”. He chose us out of love for us and there is nothing for us to do to prove ourselves worthy of being chosen; for if there were a reason, that reason could be lost. We are chosen, that’s it. The room was silent and the air of revelation was thick. People are not Christian because their parents are Christian or because their friends are Christian. They themselves are chosen. Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all the nations” [Matthew 28:19, NLT], because we are all chosen just because our God is a God of love. He is one who wants “everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4, NLT].

One would think that a three-month long self-compassion course could prepare me to accept any form of love that came my way, but at the pastor’s call to action, I could not bring myself to acknowledge that I had been chosen just as everyone else. Our God has loved this big human family He created from the beginning and he will continue to till the very end. God loves me even after all the times I’ve rolled my eyes at His attempts at sharing Himself with me, after all the wrong things I’ve done in spite of Him tugging at my conscience. He loves me even when I fail and He loves me even if I can never love Him back the same way He loves me.

Here I quote one of the best reads I’ve been blessed with from the time I encountered God, Life Is _____ by Judah Smith where he dissects one of the most commonly quoted verses in the Bible – “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:16, NLT] It doesn’t say, ‘God loved some of the world’. It doesn’t say ‘God loved those who loved him back’. It simply says ‘God loved the world’. And if you just read that without feeling a bit uncomfortable, you read it too fast. God loves the whole world? This doesn’t make sense. This is crazy. What about the bad people? What about the indifferent people? What about those who mock Him to His face, who flaunt their evil and flout His commands? God loves the world. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to understand that.

I prayed that He would assure me that He loves me, demanding of endless signs to fulfil my insecure heart. I made threats in prayer along the lines of, “God, if you really love me why do I feel so alone?” and “God, if you say seek and I shall find; I’m going to start seeking and if I don’t find you I get to move on with my life.” The reason I can tell this story today is because every single time, even when I didn’t think He was listening, He was and He answers. Our God is faithful and He “causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God” [Romans 8:28, NLT]. In the words of Ravi Zacharias, I came to Him because I did not know which way to turn. I remain with Him because there is no other way I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something I did not have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about my future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny.

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I have decided to follow Jesus and I am never turning back.

Young in my Christian walk, I am learning about our infinitely incredible God who surprises and astounds me every single day. Our God is relentless in pursuit of us because He loves us in a way that we can barely even begin to comprehend. He is pursuing you just as He pursues me. No matter how many times we turn away, no matter how many times we choose to ignore, He is stretching out his arms in invitation of us to lead a life in Him over and over again. Rejecting Him is not an option, He will not withdraw the invitation; you can only accept or ignore. The promise is that if you seek, you shall find [Matthew 7:7, NLT] – to accept you only have to start seeking, He is listening to your every prayer.

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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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.

What I Now Know

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Three weeks back in Singapore and three weeks left to Sydney, we are at the midpoint. This morning is characterized by warm sunlight, slow traffic and glistening waters of the Singapore River; the aftertaste of an early coffee fix and comfort of my go-to outfit on days where self-care tops my priorities spell joy. Five-stars. What a privilege it is to have had mornings like this, where I stop doing and just be. The intentions for the month was to tie up the loose ends in this beautiful place I call ‘home’ – to bid temporary goodbyes to sights and sounds, place a comma on the stories of friendships and bask in the company of those who love me as dearly as I love them. This piece, inspired by the recent bedtime read What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey and ventures into the learning space of students younger than myself, is written with the benefit of hindsight.

Days ago, I had the opportunity to stand before the January Induction Programme (JIP) ladies in Raffles Institution. JIP invites Rafflesians from the secondary counterparts, together with the Direct School Admission (DSA) students, to enroll into Junior College weeks earlier than the remaining one-third of their batch. Majority of whom from the alma mater close to my heart, this sharing was one that reminded me of the incredible growth I have experienced in the past years with the blessing of some inspiring educators and my family. I vividly recall the confusion with which we brought ourselves through the school gates every morning of JIP, asking in our heads why must we start school earlier than the others? What I now know is that JIP is largely a relief to the administrative weight of enrolling hundreds of students at once, and importantly, a subtle touch of sensitivity to the transition of expectations.

On the way, I asked myself what do I now know that I wish to share with them. “Shame was once at least a two-person game – it took one to shame the other. As we grow up though, we’ve learned to do it all by ourselves. We learn to, on our own, transform ‘I failed Mathematics’ into just ‘I failed’ and ‘I made a mistake’ into ‘I am a mistake’.” The Lecture Theatre fell silent. What I now know is that no one is ever a mistake or a failure, including ourselves, and it takes compassion to slowly forgive ourselves and one another. Those who will stay in our lives and embrace us for our authentic selves, will stay; you tell that with time. What I now know is that boy who dismissed my convictions or the girl who made fun of my hair, were not going to stay anyway.

Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, refer to these people who earn the rights to our greatest vulnerabilities and truest selves as Dutch Uncles. What I now know is that they are plenty and the key to finding them is to first be true to who we are. It takes courage.

Last night, the first Strong Mind Fit Body Student Champion Development Programme (SCDP) team gathered for our first session proper together. SCDP is designed to benefit students aged 15-17 in self-development capabilities while equipping them with project management skills necessary for serving community needs with greater effectiveness. The first session together saw self-discovery exercises based on Bozyati’s Theory of Self-Directed Learning – the honesty to self, critical; bravery in sharing, commendable. What I now know is that in finding the courage to share one’s thoughts and one’s being with authenticity, we get better at being whoever we want to be (instead of who we think others want us to be). May we be bravely ourselves and find the ones who truly love us.

Joy, For Sure

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Rays of sunshine peek in through the windows of my bedroom and the overhead fan whirs above me. With the aftertaste of warm Milo and Oreo cookies lingering in my mouth, I have spent the past hour reading The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz while awaiting sunrise. Jetlag had me up early this morning. It is the second day back in Singapore after a 27-day adventure in America, filled with reflection and learning, I can’t help but think How incredibly lovely it is to be back home.

This time last year I basked in a new normal – no more studying day and night, no more anxiety, but instead the taste of liberty bringing pleasure. My days were freestyle, guided only by my own aspirations and appointments with loved ones. The school timetable that dictated my expense of time was replaced by a planner. I remember then, as I have now, I cleared out my cupboards and rearranged my desk. A trip to town had me return with new stationery and accessories to my humble abode. I bought new books, sold old ones; got a haircut and clipped my nails. I remember thinking to myself, What a beautiful life. As if these little routines have become my occasional practices to feel rejuvenated, the beginning of a new year and the return to Singapore has seen exactly that. I’d like to think that practicing a year of wholeheartedness and reframing with intentions rather than goals has allowed me to be more adept at experiencing the joy.

My bedtime go-to is now What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey. Categorized by themes, the first is ‘Joy’. In which, she writes, “the gift of deciding to face your mortality without turning or flinching is the gift of recognizing that because you will die, you must live now. Your journey begins with the choice to get up, step out and live fully.” Perhaps these seemingly mundane and insignificant practices mean so much to me because it represents taking ownership; being responsible for the environment and frame of mind with which I ‘live fully’.

In 2016, an incredible practice was a gratitude journal. For every day of the year, I took the last waking minutes before turning in to write at least three moments from the day for which I am thankful into my planner. Brene Brown explains that joy is an emotion associated with vulnerability because we are uncertain of whether we are deserving of joy. As a defense, we sometimes do not allow ourselves completely experience the joy – to dampen the vulnerability we necessarily dampen the joy. To kick the bad habit, this piece is truly an expansion of what goes on in my head at different points of the day as I take pictures with my mind of the fleeting moments and the gratitude journal practice I am once more practicing for the year ahead.

Moments that fill us with hope and love and faith can often be fleeting, but with every moment comes a choice. The choice is to sit it out or dance and each time, I hope you dance.

On Embracing Imperfection

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The lights outside are beautiful; having spent hours on a high stool before a vintage-style bar table against the full-length glass window, I have fallen completely in love with the view from here. Thinking Cup is a café recommendation by a friend – the panoramic view of Boston Common, a central public park in downtown Boston, is absolutely breathtaking. The rain drizzles incessantly, but does little to blur the scene of the colourful lights outlining the silhouette of each tree. The pavilion in the distance is a work of art on its own with lights of red, blue, green and yellow dotted along its shelter. Passing cars and people taking quick, small steps bring life to what would otherwise be static. Overhead is a cylindrical wire-meshed casing that wraps around a dim, yellow lamp. There is a surreal knowing that life is beautiful and that so much lie ahead of us; all thoughts I am privileged to bask in. These thoughts, remind me of the time I shaved – with the struggles aside and dilemmas reconciled, the inner peace seated in the chair two years ago; I remember thinking then, as I am thinking now, that I want to remember this moment forever.

The current read is Grit by Angela Duckworth, another investment to the Strong Mind Fit Body Student Champion Development Programme which we have been working hard to develop during this trip to America. The Programme is designed to empower students in secondary school with project management skills and self-development techniques to be better – better at finding out the needs of community and meeting them, better at investigating themselves and who they are. It is, really, a thoughtful curation of all the skills, tools, strategies and capabilities from renowned, game-changing academic researchers, essential for the 21st century millennial. This piece is about embracing imperfection: because the hard truth to all who are awaiting perfection before trying is that we are all, truly, waiting for nothing.

Growing up, I have lost count of the talks or lessons, motivational speeches and enrichment programmes that have employed the “what is your passion?” opening strategy. An awfully open-ended question that is meant to pry into your gut for ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’, it gives a false promise that the answer to this singular question will rid our lives of uncertainty and misguides young individuals into searching for some form of a magical entity that will come to you one day. Finding one’s ‘passion’ has so often brought to mind a vivid image of a highly motivated individual doing something (anything) day and night, with a smile on his or her face and a deep sense of satisfaction. It is usually described as an end-point more than a process and the message sold, then, becomes that “all you’re doing now will become worthwhile when you’ve found your ‘passion’, that one thing you’re willing to do anything for.” In the words of Angela Duckworth, “Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming, they’d rather show you the highlight of what they’ve become.”

We are conditioned to applaud good performances, praise excellent results or nod in agreement to brilliant products of innovation. Too little attention and time is spent on reading biographies, listening to stories of lives besides our own and way too little affirmation returned for smaller victories – a job well done in a single assignment, one choice that exemplifies an invaluable core value or the absence of negativity, for example. The result is that while we are deeply inspired by those who appear extremely devoted to their line of work and dare say, “I love what I do”, we fail to appreciate that this does not happen overnight. We consciously understand that it takes hard work and effort, but intuitively we are attracted to the idea that it is divine and God-given, it just happens. We prefer a story of an accomplished pianist who “one day, just knew that music was his ‘calling’,” than a story with the same accomplished pianist who “practiced and did little but practice for his entire college life, dropping out of school and facing disapproval at home”.

This unhelpful message creates a cloud of confusion around the idea of passion and of the more important purpose that we are truly in search of for fulfilment. Did you know that the root word of “passion” is the Latin word “passio”, which means “suffering”? Analysis of the etymology of passion has it that at the core of what we today know as ‘passion’ is ‘suffering’ and the willingness to be in the state of suffering. The starting point of discovering passion – that thing you’re willing to suffer for – is not an easy on either. It takes a whole lot of exploration and experimenting to find out what it is that you’re interested in, and then, what you’re so interested in to transform into passion. If we truly acknowledge the value of ‘passion’ and the importance of it for dedicated and sustained (possibly life-long) good work, then we have to start inspiring passion, truly.

Perhaps, where we might start is by embracing imperfection. The fear of rejection and disconnection is found everywhere, even in the classroom which is meant to be a safe space to learn. Given that failure is a necessary part of learning, the implications have it that the classroom is also meant to be a safe space for failing. Yet, it is in these classrooms that we have learned to be afraid of failure. The sniggers from classmates that are left unaddressed, the subtle social hints we give one another and the different messages that are sent about grades; we implicitly learn to not fail. The irony lies in that while it is common sense that perfection is impossible, we expect from others (and ourselves) perfection. We cringe at shortcomings and reject flaws. This is unhelpful to the necessary process of finding passion – it is through the route of discovering interests that we find this so-called ‘passion’.

So I think, perhaps, where we might start is by embracing imperfection and this piece is dedicated to the incredible dutch uncles who have embraced mine.

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Celebrate 2016

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Culture Espresso sits at the junction of 38th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, New York City. Seated at a high stool before a marble table facing the full-length glass panels that surround this café, I’d like to think I’ve found the New York equivalent to the Delfi Orchard Starbucks where I have incredible memories I hold dear – the pace of footsteps has significantly decreased at this junction, population density even more so. The fireplace exits of the residential bricked-buildings create uncanny symmetry across the street and most of the remaining stores remain closed. This is the street that awakens naturally; as opposed to the ever-awake Broadway Avenue where lights and sounds are no less than a sensory overload. This is the morning of the last day of 2016 for me, there is a playful sense of victory as if I’ve ‘bought an extra day’ by spending countdown in America. That aside, this piece is in reflection and celebration of the year that has come and gone.

I guess you can say this was my gap year. If you’ve heard this story before, please skip this paragraph completely and go to the compartmentalized lessons I have attempted to draw from the countless, precious experiences and people from the year. Awaiting to read Occupational Therapy in the University Sydney, I only commence studies in March 2017 (departing for Australia in February). A vastly different new normal from the one I have imagined while I was studying for ‘A’ Levels, I never expected to take anything more than an 8-month break nor leave this country that I feel deeply connected with. In my family, we don’t call this a gap year, the word is almost taboo – it comes with connotation of too much uncertainty, even a ‘waste of time’. There is a slippery slope projection into the future that comes with the idea of a gap year that ends with my retirement alone and failing in my career. Of course, I respond to the ridiculous ‘timeline of life’ that we too often subject ourselves to with more laughter than pressure. (For now, at least.)

There is immense importance in the stories we tell ourselves: they reflect certain principles and beliefs we hold dear and sometimes act as reinforcements to our character; other times they can mislead us or contribute to a narrow-minded conviction that it’s ‘our way or the highway’. The only antidote is non-stop learning. My WordPress pieces have often attempted to achieve that balance in separate pieces, but for my series of ‘Celebrate (insert year)’ pieces (see Celebrate 2013Celebrate 2014 and Celebrate 2015), they have more often been about the former.

Uncertainty and Learning

slide01slide02slide03The ‘A’ Levels, in theory, is a series of exams that lasts no more than a month and a half. It is widely accepted that the implications are felt even before the month of exams commences – they say ‘It is not about the outcome, it’s the process.’ Now though, I can vouch for the anxiety that persists even after the series of examinations. Like a knot in our hearts, the tendency to place the worth of the years of hard work in a single result transcript is tempting; the social construct has it so. The first important lesson from the beginning of the year, then, was to forgive ourselves and unlearn what we have learnt about self-worth growing up in education characterized by paper chase and portfolio-driven assessments.

More than ever, I miss dearly the structured environment for learning that I have been blessed with. The unchartered terrains of internships in Raffles Hospital then in Early Childhood Development Authority have been space for self-discovery and continued learning, a legacy left behind by being in the Raffles Programme for 6 years. Persisting from July, is the space of Healthcare Scholarship and a Giving Week Stint raising funds for the Room to Read Global Organisation at the end of this year was very much dedicated to the appreciation for quality education that was an immense privilege. As I exit through the Rafflesian gates, I find myself in spaces where learning opportunities are abundant but must be actively sought after. I continue to craft the questions and revisit them out of habit but answers are no longer found in a single conversation with an inspired educator and knowledge-hungry peers, they are found in the processing of numerous sources and days of research. A newfound appreciation for the community of learning and excellence has found me visiting my alma mater and Junior College countless times across the year, each time rejuvenated by the unconditional love and desire to inspire of the teaching and non-teaching staff.

In face of the uncertainty post-Junior College that people don’t talk about enough, there has been necessary reading and reflection on solitude and being my own person, an idea not unfamiliar but necessitated only in this year.

Gratitude and Giving Back

slide10slide11In Junior College, I was always reminded that grades matter, but who you are matters more. The privilege of crossing paths with Halogen Foundation Singapore and Youth Corps Singapore was the constant source of this important reminder. Built on a foundation of educators and of family, who believed that I was worth a whole lot more than my achievements and that my achievements were simply reflections of more important values that I possessed, I owe my resilience today to these people. I used to negotiate for a gap year to devote time to not only the abovementioned learning, but also to the service I hoped to give back to these people and communities.

I am incredibly thankful for these spaces that have continued to embrace me in spite of my formal departure and regardless of my absence while I was a full-time student. The opportunities I’ve had to represent teams or causes larger than myself have continued to reaffirm my belief that nothing important gets done alone, and together, we can do great things.

In one of my favourite reads in the world, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, I have learned of the ‘culture of scarcity’ that has plagued us. We never find anything or anyone enough, including ourselves. The time never enough to accomplish our tasks, the resources never enough to go around (so we ‘must compete’), the recognition never enough to feel worthy. In the past, shame was a two-person affair, at least. Today, we learn to do it all by ourselves – we convince ourselves we are not enough (not skinny enough, not smart enough, not capable enough). In a lifestyle of service, I have learned to be more empathetic, mindful and compassionate – these practices central to the person I want to be. This keeps me focused on personal development and being thankful. This is the antidote I have found for scarcity. Remember this: the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is not abundance (because abundance suggests excess); the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is enough.

Still learning from each volunteer I work with and still immersing with every partner in service, my perspective of the world is constantly recalibrated in a way that reminds me that we are all global citizens in a place so much larger (both physically and metaphorically) than ourselves. Only when we engage with the world around us from a place where we believe in enough, will we find joy.

Wholeheartedness

slide04slide05slide06slide07slide08slide09I mention in my earlier piece on Wholehearted Living about the concept’s principles. The idea, in a nutshell, has it that we find peace with the earlier mentioned culture of scarcity so that we can meaningfully engage with those around us. This has been a struggle that surfaced in this year relatively distant from the tight-knit communities I have found strength from. In having to actively reach out and be a part, there has been self-doubt and no short of self-assessment about the person that I am.

The challenge to living with wholeheartedness is that we often lack courage to be who we are bravely. It makes us vulnerable to a point of discomfort. In the month where I investigated the issue of suicide prevalence and the roots of depression, it was painful to find that we have created a society where so many cannot feel okay being the person that they are and even more so to have these thoughts of self-doubt find resonance within me. I am still practicing. On this road of self-compassion and mastering vulnerability, I owe thanks to the closest of friends who truly, truly love me not regardless of my flaws but because of them. It is because of the genuine company of people like you that I am slowly learning to believe that people, in general, are always trying their best (and so am I).

Daring Greatly

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If you’ve heard my quote the Man in the Arena Speech by Theodore Roosevelt before, you’re welcome to skip this paragraph. Here goes – it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Ever since I’ve fallen in love with this quote so telling of true bravery, I have newfound courage to pursue feats, tread untrodden paths and take calculated risks. If I played word association with the phrase ‘Daring Greatly’, the outcome would be: Strong Mind Fit Body, Empathy Taskforce, Dreamcatcher and newspapers.

  • Born from a dream to bring neighbours together for functional fitness, Strong Mind Fit Body is today, a budding social enterprise that works extremely hard to create meaningful experiences to impart strength training awareness and promote inter-generational bonding. We believe that together, we can build a nation that is unafraid to age. With Champions and Fit Elves, like those who helped us pull off the biggest event of the year hitting at headcount of more than 200 at SMFB Christmas Special, we believe so more than ever. If you’d like in on our better tomorrow that we commit time and energy to work towards, please let us know at SMFBgeneral@gmail.com or apply to be a Champion (regular volunteer) at bit.ly/SMFBchampapply
  • Before Youth Corps Singapore’s first Empathy Taskforce was formed, we pulled off a Human Library surrounding the theme of service and giving. Today, we explore various issues of concern by curating programmes that bring life to the Red Box and inculcate empathy in our fellow peers and Youth Corps members. There are immense opportunities that lie ahead in what we can do. This year, peppered with uncertainty and surprises for us, I am thankful for how whenever I look at these teammates that I’ve only gotten to know for less than a year, I always always know that we can do it.
  • Dreamcatcher, a camp for a Primary 6 cohort on imagination, creativity and problem-finding/solving was an opportunity that I stumbled upon. Setting the record for one of the most enjoyable camps I’ve experienced (along with the Youth Corps Induction Camp), being Camp Captain was no less than a privilege. Reflecting upon this experience, I owe immense thanks to the 56 strangers-turned-friends who earned my trust from giving their best to create an experience that we can today, call our collective masterpiece. Thank you for reigniting hope for me in a time that was trying. They say house is a building and home is a feeling; the way we lead the camp shoulder-to-shoulder felt like home.
  • Finally, newspapers. I started a record of social and traditional features of my face, story or reflection pieces I have once written – when you have your opinions and thoughts rewritten that many times or quoted (sometimes out of context), you start to learn the diverse standpoints that each site has and these features are about anything but you. As an individual, I have found to represent something other than myself in these media features. Still undecided about some of these articles, I am certain of the gratitude I have towards those who have stood by me and kept me grounded to the person that I am amidst razzle dazzle. Thank you, also, for appreciating my WordPress pieces as I articulate my thoughts and self in pursuit of clarity and authenticity.

My cup of latte is three-quarter full and the latte art on the surface is long gone, whatever remains is bittersweet. The espresso stronger than the milk, the aftertaste of caffeine lingers. Here’s to a beautiful last day of 2016; where we aren’t closing a chapter, and the adventures are truly only just beginning. Happy New Year, may this (actually arbitrary) time for celebration and rejuvenation also be one of reflection for us all; where we ask important questions like What have I learned about myself and the world around me in this year? How does that change who I want to be in 2017? and How do I get there, what kind of choices can I make? It is a pity if we live in constant inconsistency with who we hope to be and what we hope to be doing, where we “claim to believe in something but constantly act otherwise” – let’s live in a mindful way so we can never say this about ourselves. Carpe diem.