journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the story that binds us

Yesterday, two of my favorite people from Singapore dropped in to hang out with me separately, but due to an lucky overlap in schedules, three of us managed to spend some time together.

These are people I hardly see, once a year if I am lucky, twice if I am extremely fortunate. Throughout the years since I’ve known them, the number of times I’ve seen them barely exceeds the fingers on my hands. I tell them half-jokingly that we have only managed to see each other at least once a year precisely because we live in two ends of the world, if I had been in Singapore, the proximity would ironically allow our work to always be in precedence over spending time together.

It is the distance that makes every time we connect precious, because we know it is really a luxury to be in the same time and space together. People say it is always quality over quantity, I am mostly skeptical because I have seen relationships disintegrate over time, because time is indeed a factor in nurturing most connections. I think that is because communication and understanding between people often do not come naturally, so time is needed to facilitate the strength of a connection. Out of sight, out of mind.

But once every in a long while, the connection I make with someone defies all natural laws and physics, and right from the beginning there exists something that feels truly timeless. It does not matter how much time has passed in between or how often we meet, conversations are resumed where we left off, the sentiment is always carried over, the range of what we talk about never shy, apologetic or cautious.

In a world where there is so much noise and fear, it is rare to meet such people, and it seems to be a silent understanding among those of us – we are connected to an over-arching story that binds us all: a past we had to overcome in order to realize ourselves, and a hopeful future we not only desire to co-create, but a incessant obligation to be responsible towards.

We know the same thread runs through us, inadvertently laughing at each other’s morbid sense of humor, as well as keenly feeling the other’s pain. Their existence remind me that I am not alone in feeling this weight. The heaviness I feel can be very overwhelming, but like yesterday, the universe reminded me that I am connected to people who care as much, if not more.

That even if there is time and distance between us, I am still ultimately very blessed, to be bound to these people by the narrative we are all consciously choosing to be in.

Somewhere out there, tears are flowing for the same reasons, footsteps are taken towards a common destination, dreams are weaved together for a shared vision.

a love that inspires

In a world that can feel mostly alienating to me sometimes, there are a few people whom I feel a kindred spirit to. Min and Alam are two such people. Today, I am very privileged to witness their marriage.

Seeing them together makes me want to reverse any cynicism I have about love. I have known them for five years now, throughout the years their love has grown exponentially. Each time I see them they are more bonded than the last. If there is such a thing as soulmates, they would be a testament for it. For they are two amazing individuals who not only bring out the best in each other, they bring out the best in other people, together.

They possess an innate understanding that their being together is not only for themselves, but for their shared purpose towards humanity. It is one thing to listen to them talk about it, and a whole other level to hear them etch that into a sacred formalization through their marriage vows. How beautiful it is – I am at a loss of words to describe – for two human beings who vowed to share that love with the world, on top of their love for each other?

I am only too blessed to know them in person to have experienced their shared love for humanity, and it gives me immense pride to call them my fellow human beings. Being a friend to them is really a huge bonus.

We hardly have the time and space to spend time with each other, but each time we manage share a space, I have felt nothing but love and support from them. Their presence in this world anchors my faith in humanity, they also make me feel so much less alone for believing we are capable of making a much better world for ourselves.

I am actually terrible at keeping in touch with all the people I love, so through the written word, I hope to be at least capable of expressing just a little bit, how much their friendship has inspired and supported me. Thank you, Min and Alam, I know you will both continue to be a much needed force of love.

A photo posted by Winnie Lim (@wynlim) on

why I still write when I do not feel like writing

There are some days like today: a Sunday, a day that I have habitually reserved for publishing posts, but the last thing I really feel like doing, is to write. This scares me, because this time is one of my favorite times of the week, and not feeling like writing, is akin to taking away something that fundamentally belongs to me.

Sometimes it is because I have too much to write. Today, I feel like I am almost afraid to write, because my emotions are not in a good place. However, on a philosophical level, I do not want to look back at a series of posts and only find a certain dimension of me.

I have come back to the same question over and over again. Is there a point to religiously publishing a post a week even if I don’t want to? I could journal privately, and that could fulfill some of my motivations for writing – to examine myself deeply. But there is some form of accountability I cherish when I write publicly, that the story I share to the world is not just full of light, that would not be authentically human. We all know to varying degrees, there are shadows everywhere that accompany places of light. Perhaps one thing that we fail to realize, is that the brighter light is, the darker our shadows become.

I am not lost on the fact that part of this trying period is because of my conscious choices of wanting to take on more weight. I can only allow myself to live a rose-tinted existence to an extent. I could, hypothetically, lead a life that is comfortable emotionally. I could remain blind and shield myself from the uncomfortable parts of existence, consciously or unconsciously.

To take a hard look on the world on a macro level, then at the world that surrounds me, all the way down to myself as a person, to be able to be brutally honest with that viewpoint: plenty of times I wish I can hide under a blanket and cry. (Believe me, hiding under a blanket and crying is the much milder version of the other things I think about.)

It never gets easier or more comfortable. The stronger I get, the more I wish to take on, the more painful it gets. Strength to me is not cultivating a personality that feels less pain, but it is one who is willing to feel more pain.

What I could do better though, is to truly understand that there is a thin line between having a hugely uncomfortable existence versus one that is just paralyzed and dysfunctional. In startup land we like to say growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of cancer, I think I stretch myself so much that I am always on the verge of killing myself, metaphorically, or literally.

It is okay to take a break from it all sometimes, I guess. Just like a muscle that needs time to heal.

Just like that, I remember why I insist on writing. I start a post confused about the purpose, and I end it having a much clearer sense through the mere act of it. Just like life, I suppose.

on existential pain

I’ve just finished two books that brought me great comfort at a very difficult time, Stitches by Anne Lamott and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky.

It is telling that in times of difficulty it is not really books of optimism and positivity that helped me, but books that deal with similar tones of existential pain. I am not alone in this, I have to keep telling myself.

I guess there is a same thread running through some of my own writing, in many ways I am paying a really weird debt forward. I have survived and coped by knowing that there are others like me out there, so I want to be part of that effort to keep the circle running. You are not alone, because I am here.

There is always this conflicted ball of feelings when I try to process my feelings about the passing of someone like David Foster Wallace. Not only I understand why, I relate to it and I am perversely envious. Yet my feelings are mixed with some form of despair – does it mean a similar fate await for me; sometimes it does not have to be literal suicide that takes life away, the seemingly inescapable gradual numbing that takes place in order to survive, is a form of death too. There is also a sense of betrayal, for those of us left behind.

We understand that though there is an intellectual understanding that escaping life does not solve the problem, yet there is no point in trying to tell that to us when we are in that terrible depth. It is so easy for people to tell us to stop trying to give up, when they are not the one having to live with that darkness. A darkness that feels so foreign and yet so intimate at the same time.

It is difficult when I am so used to this that I have learned to become highly functional – I can no longer tell which is worse, being so acutely afflicted that there has to be some desperate intervention, or being in this state of chronic perpetual dysfunction that it becomes dishonored. Everything on the surface is great: supportive family and friends, professional work that aligns with personal mission, after three decades of living I have finally realized I do not have to put up with people’s bullshit, blessed with a privileged amount of mobility not afforded to most people in the world. I have a ton of guilt, for not being able to do more when I have so much because half the time I am really trying to breathe, for causing people hurt because I have to be so goddamned honest with my pain.

But it is that same pain and honesty that makes me, me. I would not be able to do the work I do, write the way I write, love the world so profoundly – which still trips me up, why do I love so much of what tries to kill me – without that pain and the precise sensitivity to it. It has become a source of strength and it will continue to grow as one, if it doesn’t kill me first. It is like injecting poison to build up immunity to it. It could either be life-saving or lethal.

There is always a trade-off. I have traded off some form of robustness in order to always be susceptible to the pain, maybe because in the end, it is really the same susceptibility to joy and life itself too. It may not have been a trade-off I was consciously capable of making, because is life truly life to me without the fullest expression of sentience we have been gifted?

I hope I do have the conscious choice of being someone capable of sharing every dimension of me, the pain, the joy, the ugliness, the beauty, the struggles and the celebrations.

in times of darkness

In times of fatigue and stress, my mind gets messed up: my adrenals get fried, my hormones are all over the place, I lose the cognitive ability to regulate my thoughts and emotions. I used to blame it on my personality, thankfully due to modern research on neuroscience, I now understand how little conscious control we actually have over ourselves.

During these times it is really important for me to examine my motivations for life itself. I need something to hold on to, because unlike most other people, I don’t find living for the sake of living compelling. This doesn’t change regardless of my mood or state. I question my existence by default, being stressed out just exacerbates it.

In recent years, I have found some meaning in my realization that I have the agency to live however I want to – that the meaning of life to me is that we, as conscious beings, are free to determine our own meanings. If you think the meaning of your life is to procreate or to save the world, no one can argue with that. It is your meaning, only you can decide for yourself what it should be.

This was very liberating and empowering to me when I first had the epiphany. I sought meaning in the faith that I could be an agent for the greater good. My life didn’t seem to be valuable to me on its own, and I wanted it to mean something, that meant finding a cause I could firmly believe in. If I could give myself to the world, that must at least mean something, wouldn’t it?

But it wasn’t enough. Or it was too much, depending on which perspective. I tried to give so much of myself that during times when I had nothing left but an empty shell, I have found it really difficult to believe that I should carry on. I relied too much on external factors and motivation to keep me going.

Intrinsic motivation is what will keep people going when there is nothing left externally. How do I, build that intrinsic motivation when I have no will to live for myself?

Sometimes I cannot help but think, perhaps willfully or irrationally that it doesn’t fucking matter if I cease to exist. These are dark times when I just need to hold on so desperately to convince myself otherwise. I want to have intrinsic reasons to live, but it feels hollow when I have such a flawed perception of myself.

However, once in a while someone tells me I have made a difference to their lives, and although it feels almost narcissistic to me, it does make me re-think my own assumptions about my existence. Maybe I am somewhat useful after all.

In the end, I have to hinge my existence on my family – I have no heart to break their hearts and I can only hope that I will always be conscious enough to remember that, that no amount of darkness or pain will overwhelm my desire to not inflict pain on other people; I also need periodic reinforcement from people close to me, that even if I didn’t value my own existence, they can somehow leverage some use out of me, that I may have brought some comfort or joy to their lives by just being present.

It is extremely difficult, especially during times when I find myself tiring and a pain to live with. It feels very exhausting to cope with my emotions and sensitivity at times. I feel incredibly fragile and unable to withstand shocks, I feel like the world is too harsh for people like me (don’t even want to start on how unjust it is for a whole lot of people) and it makes me not want to be here.

If there is any intrinsic motivation at all, I can only hope that I live well and long enough to make this world slightly better to live in for people like me. It is still somewhat extrinsic I guess, needing a potential outcome to have some vested interest in this world.

Just by merely existing, I hope that others will find the courage to exist too. At least that is the story I try to tell myself, in order to keep on living.

Thank you to those of you who have made the effort to tell me that I mean something to you. It may seem trivial, but you have no idea how much it means to someone like me, who needs very single bit of reason to live.

P.S. yes, I have survivors’ guilt. Knowing that I am incredibly blessed and privileged does not make me feel better, in fact it makes me feel worse.

hope on the horizon of despair

A friend passed me a book she said she loved, “Behind the beautiful forevers” by Katherine Boo. Throughout the process I thought it was fiction based on inspiration from reality. I had only found out from the author’s note at the end that it was non-fiction (yes, I’m embarrassed). She had documented the stories from Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, for three years.

When I read of people like her – another one that comes to my mind immediately is Christina Lamb – I feel a strange combination of emotions: shame, guilt, inspiration and pride. Sometimes I feel like I want to throw in the towel even from the comfort of my armchair, while these people visit war zones or environments of despair in order to do their part in trying to bring these horrendous issues to our collective consciousness.

I cannot comprehend how they can be exposed to so much ugliness, suffering and injustice, to know and see that the people they are writing about are just as human as they are, and yet persevere without being broken themselves.

I don’t know how I will ever reconcile my own perpetual existential crisis to the stories of pure defiance and resilience arising from people who are born into conditions of despair:

”The slumdwellers I’d already come to know in India were neither mythic nor pathetic. They were certainly not passive. Across the country, in communities decidedly short on saviors, they were improvising, often ingeniously, in pursuit of the new economic possibilities of the twenty-first century.”

More than three years, Katherine Boo spent in those slums, interviewing, investigating, asking, living. It was hard for me to read, her book, and perhaps that is the purpose she wanted to achieve. For people like me to flinch at its contents.

I am really disturbed by the portraits of the slum life she had so beautifully painted and I wonder at the eternal question – why do people have more simply because of the geographical location of their births? In trying to seek my answer, perhaps I am lifted out of the hope that at the very least, I am trying to ask the question.

I find great comfort in the below quote, because it represents the faith I am trying to hold, that even we are perhaps beyond repair, there must lie some hope on the horizon – our younger ones:

”I found Annawadi children to be the most dependable witnesses. They were largely indifferent to the political, economic, and religious contentions of their elders, and unconcerned about how their accounts might sound.”

words I write

I try to publish something publicly every week. Some weeks the words rush out of me, other weeks they come to me when I make myself sit in front of a screen, rarely, like this week, they struggle to be written.

When I struggle, it is not because I have nothing to write about. Often, the opposite is true – my mind and heart are both so overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings that the linearity of words don’t seem to be sufficient for me to adequately express myself. All that comes out is are random fragments that pretend to be some representation of what that goes on in me. I wish I could write five paragraphs visually structured in a single row, all on disparate subjects but still somewhat intertwined together. I can understand why people use other mediums.

I still want to write though. Sometimes I wonder why I maintain two separate streams of writing at Medium and at my blog here, and days like this I remember why. Writing at Medium is like deliberately shouting something out to the world, writing here is like whispering to the wind, hoping that it will carry a piece of me somewhere out there. It doesn’t matter if it is nowhere, as long as it is out there.

I have realized that I write in different voices to different audiences. You would think my most authentic voice comes out in my private journal, but there is a deep, hidden part of me, so hidden that I barely knows that she exists, that comes out when I write privately to people I love. It is perhaps both ironic and telling that I reserve the innermost parts of me not to myself, but to the people I love, for I can be not forthcoming to myself yet I cannot help but be beautifully and painfully vulnerable to those I love.

Maybe one day, the strings of words I write will have a different dimension, if I could think of myself as someone I love.

on self-love and working hard

I spent the last five days working remotely, because I needed to be alone and near nature. In between sprints, I took time to be under the sun, doing nothing, except closing my eyes and allowing my thoughts to wash over me. 

This was not voluntary. I was forced to take lengthy breaks, because I have been nursing a chronic eye strain that wouldn’t go away. It was either I rest my eyes, or I will be in pain. If I was in perfect health, I would be either working my bones out, or trying to sponge myself in information. 

I ended up feeling like I accomplished more than I ever would if I had sat eight hours straight in the office, but I had this ambient sense that I didn’t work hard enough, precisely because I didn’t sit in front of a screen for eight hours straight. 

This is not logical, and it is ridiculous. Why am I measuring the quality of my work with the time I had spent on it? 

I think society has conditioned us to believe that we have to feel all drained, stressed and anxious to feel like we have really worked our asses off. It seems wrong to feel relaxed and centered after finishing a challenging task. Yet dealing with complexity requires mental clarity and focus. How do we solve problems when we keep feeling like we are about to break apart anytime?

I blame my lack of self-love. Really. If I loved myself enough, I would know that I am enough. I don’t have to feel like I have to wear myself out to deserve a seat at the table. If I trusted myself enough, I would have faith that I would be able to accomplish the work, regardless of how much time I have spent on it, or how hard I felt like I worked at it.

If I truly care about the work, I need to rise above my personal neuroses and see that the work itself is not asking me to over-work myself, it is asking of me to do it well.

It is an on-going journey, fraught with more challenges, to be more honest with myself. Am I working so hard because of the work, or because I need to be validated?

Sometimes, it becomes worse as I realize I am not seeking validation from other people, but from myself, because I just do not love myself, enough.

taking a break from myself

I remember on my first week at Medium, I was asked to introduce myself to the company, and one of the questions was, “What do you do for fun?”. I answered, almost embarrased, “I contemplate on life.”

20 months later, I was having a conversation with Joyce, and she was telling me how she feels, day after day, passing by cold and hungry people in front of our office.

I alluded to her that I was having similar feelings – except that I am having a chronic fatigue of having these feelings. It was in that moment that I realized once again, that I really don’t have a separation of work and life. At work, I think about how to make people care about financial inclusion, out of work, even before working at Stellar, I’ve been reading, writing, conversing on how to facilitate change. It is what I do out of work that defines me, it is just that I am really blessed to do the same at my day job.

I was tossing and turning in bed last night, and I had a sudden onslaught of panic, where I had another realization that I will never be able to get away from my thoughts, ever. I’m stuck in my own head – I have claustrophobia, and I can tell you right now that that moment wasn’t very pleasant for me. This is why people meditate, and also why people kill themselves.

The worst thing is, I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. It is not like I can give up being myself, or the work I care about, and go on a party binge or something. I would still be stuck with these feelings, these thoughts, wherever I go, whatever I do.

I don’t have any answers for myself, except I will probably need to work out how to transmute these feelings of weight and fatigue. I go through these phases where I feel like I’m growing into a new self, and I am like getting to know myself over again. This is where all my previous assumptions of myself will fail, and it is extremely uncomfortable.

I am in one of such phases right now, where I am trying to put pieces of myself back together again, in order to fit in new pieces, and throw away the ones which no longer fit.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is easier if I simply accept that these pieces will never truly fit together, and the protruding edges are what that truly makes me, me.

pace

One of the hardest things I have to learn, is how to pace myself. The more I love something, the more energy I expend upon it, the faster I burn out. It is counter-intuitive that in order to sustain myself, I have to moderate the way I love.

It is not helping that I am constantly feeling like I am in a race against time. The more I understand morality, the more I accept transience, the more I wish to cherish the present, the more I try to squeeze what I can in these moments. I end up asking more of myself, I just want to do more of everything, deathly afraid that one day I will lose the privilege of doing the things I love. It is not just about me either, at the back of my head I am always aware that the planet is also in a race against time. I don’t feel good at all that San Francisco is experiencing twenty-something degree celcius weather in mid-february.

I feel like I either need to be either always working or have my head in a book, so I am not taking even a single second for granted. As a result, I have been having a chronic strain in my eyes, permeating the left side of my head since the turn of the year.

It upsets me. It upsets me that it is no longer about how much I wish to accomplish, but I am limited by the fragility of my body. I can probably stretch my mental or physical energy with diet and exercise, but I am not sure if I can do much about my eyes, apart from resting them. I am forced to read a lot less, even for pleasure. I set out the year wanting to both write and read much more than the last, but within a month I had to re-evaluate everything.

I am exhausted, and I am finding it more difficult to recover to a full charge. I am experiencing signs of burn out, and I am terrified. They say you don’t experience burn out if you love your work, I think I am experiencing burn out because I love my work too much. I just can’t stop thinking about all the things we should be doing or can be doing.

I feel like I am forced to take a step back because I know what happens if I continue down this path. I have experienced severe burn out before and it is not pretty. It upsets me that I seem to have a weaker constitution than average, or it could simply be that I am simply more prone to over-stimulation than the average. There is always a tradeoff, a price to pay.

This time I am learning that loving something sometimes means having the capacity to remove myself from it, take a few steps back and take a good hard look at the bigger picture.

Perhaps for someone like me, giving myself intensely in an all-consuming manner is the easy part, learning to pace myself so that I can sustain the longer journey, is a much harder lesson to learn.