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.

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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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.

The Resolution: Take Courage

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Saying goodbye is a process; typically, long-drawn and characterized by the search for closure with the passing of time. In the refreshing start of a new year, we bid farewell to the year that has past and the time for resolutions (or revolutions) have arrived. There is, though, continuity that persists regardless of how we try to convince ourselves of episodic progression – we’d like to say 2016 I was like this but 2017 I am going to be like that, or 2016 was about this but no more in 2017. Ambitious ventures, each one of these claims no less than a tall order. As a history student, I am more inclined to recognise the thread of consistency that stretches through time regardless of the arbitrary measure of time that humankind has imposed upon ourselves. This piece, on my resolution for 2017, builds itself on the foundations from lessons of 2016 and dig deep into the principle that I would like to hold close in the year to come.

‘Courage’ is derived from the Latin word ‘cor’ that means heart. A fair share of Brene Brown reads in the past year has lead me to believe that what this truly entails is to be wholehearted in living. From earlier days, to have courage has always been associated with devoting one’s whole heart. This requires a whole lot of vulnerability and the willingness to show up where challenges are plentiful. In reflection of the most fulfilling moments I’ve had – the brave moments speaking before an audience, the times I stood up for something I believe in, the community projects executed in spite of fear of judgment and the difficult conversations confronted – I notice the importance of being in a space where I engage only with convictions I am aligned with, where I am being real.

Courage in being myself: I would like to respond to the learning from discovery and exploration with self-compassion. The road ahead is once more filled with uncertainty with unprecedented turns and U-turns, only few amber lights to slow down at. The decisions we make along the way and the stories we tell ourselves, with extra thought, allow us to investigate elements of our truer self. The ‘discovery and exploration’ of our circumstances and environment can transform into that about ourselves. Too often, we respond to lessons about ourselves with blame or shame for being a certain way; for just being the way we are. Our ‘I have done something bad’ too quickly transforms into ‘I am bad’ and the mold of ‘how we ought to be’ perpetuated by media and social shaming does little to assure us that we are okay (when in fact, we are). I would like to strive for the courage, not necessarily confidence or certainty, just the willingness to engage from a place where I believe that I am enough, however I am.

Courage in being vulnerable: I believe the relationships we hold dear significantly deepen with a conscious willingness to be vulnerable. When we are ready to say I am not okay and I am thankful for you, we are also ready to interact on a whole new (deeper) level of authenticity and courage. Painfully learning the down sides of a society that doesn’t know how to cry in front each other or admit unhappiness even, I am even more convinced of the importance of connecting with others on an emotional level. From our earliest days, we have experienced emotions without learning – we wail at discomfort and laugh heartily when tickled. Now, let’s unlearn the years of ‘masks’ and ‘shields’ that we have mastered with proficiency. The choice does not lie in whether or not we experience emotion, but in whether or not we engage with our emotion.

The Choice Theory states that the only person whose behavior we can control is our own and no one else’s. We can only give others information and allow him/her to act upon that information based on his/her own choices. You might not realise it but at all points, we have a choice. I am ready and excited to exercise personal choice consciously this year. It is in subscribing to choice theory that we avoid the external control psychology that lies on the other end of the spectrum, where we each manipulate feelings and thwart facts to achieve what we hope for at the expense of trust and connection. On a more spiritual level, choice liberates us when we choose to take ownership of circumstances. Every circumstance, just as a story, has equal chances of swaying toward infinite possibilities – it can pan out in different ways and mean different things to us, all within our control. If we own our stories, all of it (those that make us afraid, brave, betrayed, refreshed, all of it), then in exercising personal choice, we write the ending. I’d like for the courage to make choices where I own each of my stories.

In all honesty, there is fear for the year ahead: What would the preceding 4 years away from home look like? What happens to the support circles that I have become deeply connected with in the nation I call home? What lies ahead in the foreign university? But just as darkness is necessary for us to recognise light, I believe we are most cognizant of courage in the presence of fear.

For 2017, I choose Courage. This isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about showing up and being real.

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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.

Wholehearted Living

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Peanut butter cookies and a warm glass of Milo; that’s breakfast in a nutshell. Days have started early ever since we touched down; in part a result of jetlag and a large proportion thanks to our daily fitness regimes that begin before sunrise. We are a week into our 27-day Adventure at America starting in Orlando, Florida. In less than a year, we find ourselves in a different space together once more, rediscovering ourselves and each other. Isn’t it alarming how much can change in a single year? A year ago, the time in the States was very much one to relax – to take a breather from a years’ worth of doing and shift to just being. For this year, I hope to consciously experience last year’s head fakes and cultivate Wholeheartedness.

As a ‘Class of 2015’ Junior College graduate, the frequently asked questions revolve around “what are you studying in University” and “what do you want to be in future”. The answer is one that rolls off my tongue with ease (from practice) – “I am awaiting to read Occupational Therapy in University of Sydney, commencing in March 2017.” Many then jump with excitement, or sometimes horror, clarifying “So this is a gap year!?” In my family, we don’t call it a gap year; mostly due to the unfamiliarity of the concept and also because we have been conditioned to search for certainty; clinging onto its silhouette in the distance or chasing its shadow constantly. Call it what you may; if I had to give it a name, I would like to call this episode ‘Wholehearted Living’.

A practice I’ve been cultivating all year round but never had a name to until recently with Brene Brown reads. This year, with the privilege of speaking before an audience numerous times, I have often started my sharing with a well-known excerpt that I refer to as ‘The Paradox of Our Times’. Today we have higher building 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, less judgment. We have more medicines, but less health… We talk much, we love only a little and hate too much. We have reached the moon and came back, but we find it too troublesome to cross our own street and meet our neighbours. These are days in which two salaries come home, but divorces increase. We have finer houses, but broken homes. This resonates deeply as I am often puzzled at the inconsistency of human beings – the greatest of which is we recognise our desire for emotional connection and remain hungry for relationships of depth; yet, we ferociously defend ourselves against the vulnerability that is absolutely necessary for any extent of emotional satisfaction. It appears that the developments in the centuries have only increased our material possessions; distractions from the true investments that will bring us joy. Not just happiness, but joy – something a step beyond happiness. Where happiness is an atmosphere you can live in fleetingly when you’re lucky, joy is a light that fills you with hope and faith and love.

Dunbar’s number, ‘150’, is the number of stable relationships one can have because of the limited cognitive resources we have to know each other. Given that these resources are exhaustive and that the number of relationships we can possibly sustain is limited, it dawns upon me that there is tantamount importance that we invest in each one of them as effectively as possible to be emotionally satisfied. (Read a friend’s insightful perspectives on this here). The year since I’ve left Junior College has seen internships at Raffles Hospital and Early Childhood Development Agency, induction as a healthcare scholar. Everything in between an immersion in service and advocacy through communities that are family (read more about Dreamcatcher, Room to Read Global Organisation, Strong Mind Fit Body and Youth Corps Singapore). Time and again, I have found deep relationships only in engaging with vulnerability. Presenting ourselves in our most authentic forms has appeared to be the most effective in creating space for truly meaningful interactions.

Still attempting to be better at cultivating Wholeheartedness and still learning the ropes of daring greatly, but for now I am thankful for this time for reflection and practice. Here’s the proposal: let’s not keep anything for a special occasion, because every day that you live is a special occasion. Search for knowledge, read more. Pass more time with family, eat your favourite food and visit places you love. Life is a chain of moments of enjoyment and Wholehearted Living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It’s about cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. Then, when we are ready to carry a sense of belonging and worthiness within us as we engage with others, we stop interacting to find affirmation and just interact to be with another and connect deeply.

It is scary, even terrifying. We will feel afraid, for sure; but it will also come with the feeling of courage, and of being very very alive. Perhaps then, we will be emotionally satisfied.

No Choice

The HIV/AIDS Simulation Experience at Crossroads Village was one of the most memorable experiences from the Youth Corps Singapore Hong Kong Learning Journey – a 5-day experience I was privileged to have been a part of; to have immersed myself in a city that, in comparison to ours, is same but different. With the purpose of exposing Aspirant Leaders to the service-learning and social service landscape in Hong Kong, the Learning Journey included visits to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social enterprises and universities. Exchanges came in the form of formal paper presentations and conference-style panel discussions, candid conversations over the dinner table and cultural immersion every other time in between. This piece is a reflection zoomed into the HIV/AIDS Simulation Experience that, for me, raised questions about my consistency between what I claim to believe in and what I truly practice.

The HIV/AIDS Simulation immersed Aspirant Leaders into the stories of 3 different characters who eventually meet with the probability of being diagnosed HIV positive. The stories were experienced through static displays of physical settings (e.g. character’s bedroom, the clinic, the hospital) and an audio recording that is being played throughout the short trail from one display to another. The simulation lasted for about 45 minutes, with 15 minutes dedicated to each story and the stories were chosen out of 4 excerpts given in the beginning of the Simulation. Here are brief descriptions of the stories I had chosen with my partner (simulations were experienced in pairs):

  • Story 1 – A Hong Kong University student headed for Medicine studies in university faces peer pressure in his younger days and submits to vices, engaging prostitutes and taking drugs. The drug intake came in the form of needle insertion and the engagement of prostitutes sometimes did not come with the necessary contraceptive measures. Later in his life, he meets a female partner whom he falls in love with and hopes to marry. The story ends with her finding out about her pregnancy and her HIV positive diagnosis.
  • Story 2 – The main character is an East European lady who is working hard to earn a livelihood with her husband. Their daughter had earlier passed away from Leukemia and in a car accident after which, the East European lady is hospitalized in a run-down healthcare facility. In her stay, she receives a blood transfusion. In weeks, she is discharged because there is a lack of bed space at the hospital. Her slow recovery necessitates a visit from the nurse, who upon examination of the lady, informs her that she might have contracted HIV due to inadequate sterilization at the hospital.
  • Story 3 – An Asian teenager from an impoverished family gets tricked into being a prostitute in another country. Her father had recently passed away and her grandmother is gravely ill, incurring high healthcare costs. She is told there is an opportunity to serve as a waitress overseas for a high pay but ends up working in a brothel. There is a surprise visit from some journalists from the United Kingdom – they ask her questions about her story and decide to “buy her over” from the owner of the brothel. Just as they are about to bring her away, they receive a call asking them to run an important errand for their boss. They are unable to bring the teenager away from the brothel and leave her with some cash. At the same time, she receives a call from her family – her grandmother’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and her mother has signed a longer contract with her boss to have her continue working there because they need the money urgently. By the end of the story, her health begins to worsen and she is sent for a HIV assessment.

Rather than the myriad of coincidences that culminated in the eventual contracting of HIV/AIDS, what was more appalling to me was my subconscious judgment of the choices made by the above-mentioned characters during the course of the simulation. The fleeting questions I posed in the immersion – What was he thinking? Why couldn’t she choose differently? How did she not see this coming?  As a fervent believer of choice theory, it appears counter-intuitive to explore the limitations upon which our choices are based, but here’s where I’ll start. The gap between my reality and theirs was where the questions emerged – the only bridge to the gap, empathy. My judgment of their choices assumed that the context against which their choices were made were similar to that I’m familiar with – the privilege of having money just be a number, family support rid of vices ever being an option and of having healthcare facilities of high quality. The momentary shame experienced was born from the realization that my blanket of comfort had also blinded me from the possible reality that others face (vastly different from my own). The blanket, a shield of oblivion and an excuse for apathy.

Earlier this year, in my reads by storyteller and shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, I learned about the power of operating on the basis that everybody, in general, is always trying their best (refer to Note at the end) Therein lies the crux to empathy, where we are ready to assume the best and then plough through the realities, priorities and hence perspectives that may differ; seeking to understand rather than to judge, in search of connection instead of contempt. This is the process where we reconcile social injustice, transform shame (about privilege) into gratitude and allow empathy to take action. The simulation came as timely reminder to judge what appears to be choices less than I seek to find the driving forces upon which they are based.

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Note: On Believing We Are Always Trying Our Best

Storyteller and shame researcher, Brene Brown, once asked a large sample size of test subjects if they believed that, in general, people were “always trying their best”. The yes/no question quickly divided the sample into two large groups – those who believed that people were, in general, “always trying their best” and those who did not believe this was possible. Those with the latter response often elaborated with confessions that they themselves were not always trying their best and explained that they did not expect from others what they could not achieve. The crux to her analysis, though, lie in that those with the former response often displayed “Wholeheartedness” to a greater extent.

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It is about cultivating compassion and connection, to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” It is about carrying a sense of worthiness, belonging and authenticity within rather than finding it outside of us. It requires that we believe that we are “always trying our best” and that our best is enough. That there is sufficiency in our being and to function against a landscape of ‘enough’ rather than ‘scarcity’.

I am striving for a mastery in wholeheartedness and this is but one of the internal challenges I will choose to battle.

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