on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

how do we dream in the face of climate change

There was news last week that CO2 on earth has reached 415ppm, the highest it has been in millions of years. Our permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate. The projections are depressing: even if we emit zero carbon now for the rest of our lives, we will still be facing dire climate change effects for at least the century to come:

So even if carbon emissions stopped completely right now, as the oceans catch up with the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature would rise about another 1.1F (0.6C). Scientists refer to this as committed warming. Ice, also responding to increasing heat in the ocean, will continue to melt. There’s already convincing evidence that significant glaciers in the West Antarctic ice sheets are lost. Ice, water, and air – the extra heat held on the Earth by carbon dioxide affects them all. That which has melted will stay melted – and more will melt. – source

Our food chains will be disrupted as insects, fish, etc die out, and it is a matter of time we’ll be facing food shortages, diseases and unliveable conditions.

So I find it disturbing that most people are still going about as though nothing is happening. I wonder what is truly needed for us to stop in our tracks and think seriously about how we are going to live. I am not even talking about dropping everything to become climate activists or changing our consumption habits dramatically. I am thinking of how do we plan our lives, even if we want to live a self-centered existence, when climate change is looming over our heads?

Say saving or investing for example. The conventional wisdom is that we invest our savings in an index fund and watch it compound at an interest rate of at least 4% for decades to come. But I’m really skeptical that investment instruments and assets will be afforded the space to grow for the years to come (central banks are already sounding the alarm), especially if we’re facing times of political and economical instability. So the question is: how much longer can we invest traditionally, what will be truly valuable when everything goes to shit?

In the letter published by the Bank of England on Wednesday, Mr Carney and Mr Villeroy de Galhau describe “the catastrophic effects of climate change” already having an impact on the planet, such as “blistering heatwaves in North America to typhoons in south-east Asia and droughts in Africa and Australia”. They say that “these events damage infrastructure and private property, negatively affect health, decrease productivity and destroy wealth”. – source

People seem to think that we wouldn’t be experiencing the catastrophic effects in our lifetime. I think we’re misled by looking at things linearly. I personally believe it will hit a tipping point and suddenly it will look like the apocalypse. Wars may breakout because of resource shortages. But everyday I encounter people talking about the lives and plans as though there is all the time in the world. We’re still celebrating the IPOs or fundraising of companies that are toxic or do not add value to society. Our governments and media are obviously not sufficiently alarmed.

I find it difficult to plan for my future. I am looking at a ten-year path into psychotherapy and I am not even sure what the state of the world would be like in ten years. Someone wrote in his newsletter about Ted Chiang taking four years to learn about linguistics in order to write “The Story of Your Life” – the short story which was made into “Arrival” – and my immediate reaction was: yes we’re sorely missing the time needed to craft something of substance, but how many four years can we now afford?

How do we dream? Of writing that book, of improving our craft, of stepping into that career in our mid-lives, of doing that PhD, when everything seems so unstable? Do we go wholeheartedly into doing something we truly want to do regardless of the timeline, because we don’t know when and living to the fullest in spite of existential despair is the best response? Or do we give up our dreams because dreams do take time, and instead we should use that time to love? To spend our last years of relative peace with the people we love, the nature that is going to die, the cities that may no longer be preserved in their beauty?

I would like to know what you think.

on the effects of being sick

I missed publishing a post last Sunday, because I was down with a cold turned migraine. I haven’t been sick for this amount of time since a long while ago, and it served as a reminder as well as a trigger. 

I started reading a lot of zen and buddhism at a time of my life when I was constantly sick, because being sick forces a person to learn how to let go. There is no choice, and the only thing I could do is to learn how to sit with the fact that I am powerless over the state of my body. I am still not very good at it now, but I do notice the effect such studies have had on the rest of my life during times when I am healthy. I am still not very good at being healthy either, but I know that I am less antagonistic overall, less of an enemy to myself. 

Being sick is to sit in endless frustration. There is the very noticeable pain, the discomfort of the entire body, the inability to do anything meaningful. I gradually learned to be more okay with being useless while being sick so often, though I definitely did not choose this lesson. But the past few years have been very enlightening on how much I saw other people and myself in terms of our productive value, and how much is actually left when the ability to work is taken away. I thought a lot about what does it mean to live, what does it mean to be a contributing member of society. It gave me the time I wouldn’t have taken to contemplate why things are the way they are, why do we seem to be swimming in endless vicious cycles. I am not sure what kind of person I would have grown to become had I not been sick so much. I think I would still be running headlessly around, trying to do more than I can do, hopelessly trying to build my sense of self-worth through professional and social achievements without stopping to think what is the whole point of it all, if upward progression is something I truly wanted, if that was the life I must live. I would continue to hurt a ton of people through the careless management of my relationships because I was simply drowning too much in my own feelings to truly consider theirs and their positions. I would still have a short temper that I would have no control over because I had never realised how terrible I was at regulating my stress and emotions. I would become old and bitter, without really understanding why, maybe then in the twilight of my years it would suddenly dawn upon me that I had exchanged my self-respect for societal approval, and what I mistook for self-respect was actually the silent soothing of the fear that I would be abandoned by my society.

I dislike being sick, and I cannot describe what it is like to try to sleep feeling as though a dull knife is cutting through my brain, but I have to say I am profoundly grateful for it. It cuts through all the bullshit and forces me to reevaluate my life.

I wrote in previous entries that I have been starting to contemplate of this is simply my new normal. I have been trying to get better for years, and days like these make me feel like I am not having much progress. I came across a lawyer on twitter who tweeted that migraine is considered a disability in the US: 

I think a lot of work I have done in the past few years is working up the self-compassion to accept that I may be living with a disability and yet I am still a whole person. Also, to cope with the profound loneliness that comes with people not understanding the limitations I have to live with or worse, people who simply don’t take my illness seriously. I often have to put up with the frequent jokes that my illness is a result of my imagination. I mean, first I have to put up with people telling me my depression is imagined, then the pain of a dull knife sawing through my brain is also deemed to be imagined. I would love to tell them why psychosomatic illnesses are real, but few people would take me seriously enough to sit through a 30-minute neuroscience pseudo-lecture.

I have disengaged a lot from people in the past year or so. I have realised that my issues are my own and therefore I have no obligation to explain my decisions to most people (well, except my patreons which I do send them updates).

I have to work through a lot of feelings of guilt and grief. I am grateful for this point in my life to reevaluate who I wish to become, but still I grieve over the person I was. I was a person who would work as hard and as long as I chose to, and that was such a part of me I cherished – mostly for the wrong reasons but it is really nice to be able to work long enough to enter the flow without feeling my head is going to split apart. 

Now I am a person who has to regularly police myself. Each time my migraine occurs I interrogate myself on everything I could have done wrong: sleep, diet, exercise, stress, over-exertion, stimuli, etc. Who knows? Was it the pasta I ate? Was it because I chose to stay out a little while longer? 

A lot of life is about being able to sit through things without letting it frustrate us too much, to be able to face things full on. My illness has taught me an invaluable lesson in sitting through difficult feelings and still trying to live as well as I can despite whatever is happening. Unfortunately I think this would be useful in the time to come because of climate change. Not only do I have to accept that I have little control over my body at times, I will have to learn how to live in a world that is decaying as we speak, to deal with the knowledge that I am also complicit in its decay, there is so little I can do about it, yet I have to try to do whatever I can in my limited power to live with my head held up high.

I would like to be able to look back at my life and know that however I lived, I met my life and the world with as much lucidity as I can muster, without denial of the truth.

on metaphysical beliefs and the determination of worthiness

I was having a conversation with my partner – I can’t remember what exactly I was responding to, but I said something along the lines of, “That’s why I try to cherish our time together now, in case this is actually a dream I wake up from and you’re no longer here with me”. She asked, isn’t it the opposite? If it is a dream and all of this is not real, wouldn’t all of it be worthless?

We launched into one of our long philosophical debates of: what does “real” even mean in the first place, and does an illusion have less worth because it is not “real”? Will we ever know what is the ultimate reality, whether we are the dreamers or the dream?

I asked her in return: if one day she were to realise I wasn’t real, would she think whatever we have shared in this time together, worthless?

I used to believe in reincarnation for a long period of my life. It gave me comfort: a reason for my existence and suffering. After a lot of reading – I guess that is why they say knowledge and questioning can be poisonous – quantum physicists argue that time is not linear or that time may not even exist; I am not even sure if the universe that contains us is the only universe or is it simply a child of an infinite series of russian doll-like universes, or like what tech hippies like to think: we are just a simulation of an advanced civilisation.

We could probably think of infinite theories, or for some people they believe in an absolute truth of their own choosing. But what I’ve concluded personally is I may never know, and it doesn’t really matter.

How can it not matter!? Personally, no matter how I think, whether there is an absolute truth or not, should not alter the way I choose to live my life. If I am a good human being because of what awaits me in an afterlife, am I really a good human being? In my opinion, the point of being human is the capacity to exercise agency, and agency requires free will, and a choice made freely should not be governed by the promise of reward and punishment. Isn’t the point of having consciousness the potential to develop the capacity to discern what right, wrong or grey?

And so what if there are multiple lifetimes, parallel existences, or not? Even if there is an infinity of lives, the life I am living now is the only version of the one which will exist. This is an assumption that the set of variables and conditions will never be replicated in another lifetime. If they are being replicated exactly, it doesn’t mean the outcomes will be the same, with the assumption that every entity capable making of choices in that lifetime has the capacity to have a range of responses to the same stimuli.

Let’s say we don’t actually have free will, and everything is replicated a million times, in the exact same way – we wouldn’t absolutely know anyway, so for our own sanity it is better to err on the side of caution, that we have free will, and therefore, responsibility.

That being said, I don’t necessarily think life is innately precious because there is only one perceived version of it. I don’t think scarcity should determine worth. There is an abundance of oxygen and water (for now), that doesn’t mean it is not precious. And just because no two snowflakes look the same doesn’t mean we have to find a way to freeze all snowflakes permanently.

Neither do I think the realness of life should determine its worth. Our consciousness is still being transformed whether we are living in a simulation, an infinity of universes, or a single planet capable of sustaining life. Similarly, if one decides life is meaningless, would it be enough if we tell them they are the consequence of a billion years of evolution?

I want to live in a way that I could live with, regardless of metaphysics. Because along the way if I knew that I didn’t live the life I could have lived and wanted to live, I would be slowly dying, not living. It wouldn’t matter if there was nothing or something after the end.

While having the argument with my partner it suddenly occurred to me that I was arguing for the worthiness of life, even if temporal or illusory. I guess what I was really arguing for is the worthiness of our time together, but the deeper question to myself is: would I relive this life all over again just to have this time with her?

I am not sure. Maybe if I am lucky enough to live long enough, the answer would unfold itself. If not, then perhaps it is enough for the question to exist.

rare lucidity

In my last post I mentioned that out of nowhere while travelling I could feel a discernible feeling that my depression had lifted. It returned for a couple of days before and after I came home, then I felt it lift again.

There is a lucidity I feel that makes me know when I am in a non-depressed state. My mind feels clear and light, not foggy and weighed-down. There is no sensation of discomfort around my chest area, a sensation I typically associate with sadness. Being an experimental person I actually tried to induce my depression by thinking of things that used to make me depressed, but I could hardly remember those things, even if it was just a few days ago that I remember feeling so.

I am confused, and I don’t really understand what has happened or what happened. I also know due to my personal experience that my current state is not permanent, that there is a high likelihood that I will slip back into a depressed state. But I regularly document those states, and I would like to write about the one I am currently in before I slip out of it.

I have been happy before. Usually they are associated with extreme external circumstances. Being in SF for the first time made me happy. Living in SF made me happy for a very long time – the longest stable period of my life I can recall. Being in love obviously made me happy, but I am skeptical of those states now.

But it is hard for me to be happy now. Back then I was a person trapped in our narrative-driven world. I could be happy as long as “good” things happened to me or if the life I was living fitted the narrative I had about life and my self. Then I discovered everything in life is a story we make up. We could believe in God, in evolution, in meaning, in virtually anything we want as long as it made sense of life and made us feel at peace with living it. For some people it means pursuing happiness. For others it meant living life with a self-derived meaning. A lot of times I have found that “meaning” for many meant living a utilitarian life. Work, purpose, service, material achievements, being a parent, being a good human being, etc.

I am not in a position to really comment whether that is the right way to live or not. But I knew I didn’t want that for myself. I didn’t want to live because of a purpose. Because everything changes, we change. More often than not our imagined purposes change. I don’t have a stable sense of self, so finding out that I have outgrown whatever meaning and purpose I have decided for myself was particularly traumatic. I lived entirely based on a belief that I had a purpose. What happens when that belief gets taken away, sometimes against our will?

The common thing that people say to suicidal people is: think about the people who love you. But from my perspective, it is really depressing to hang on to life because of other people. When life is always about other people or doing something important so there’s value, it is difficult to foster an inherent will to live. Is there nothing inherently worthwhile in our selves?

I don’t feel particularly depressed now. I am not happy either. But I am lucid, or what I label as lucidity. The depressing thoughts that used to plague me seems to have gone into hiding somewhere. I eat, I read, I write, I talk to my partner, I sleep. There are no stories haunting me. There is no obsessive compulsive anxiety. It is really unexpected, because I am supposed to be PMS-ing right now. I am not eating particularly well. I am not sure how long this will last.

I have a few theories. That somehow being away was a much-needed break from my typical policing self. I stopped controlling myself so much. Away from the cities, I witnessed how other people live. It was a particularly powerful lesson to know that what we obsess about in certain environments are not being obsessed over in others, but once in a while I needed a reminder. Every human being tries to find a way to cope with life, once in a while I’ll have the luck to witness one’s beautiful way of living. These days I don’t admire the trailblazers or the people who appear in press interviews. I admire people who go on quietly living their lives with as much aliveness as possible, in the ways they know how.

In psychology they say having the courage to meet our shadows is the first step to integrating our whole selves. In a similar vein, to admit one’s fears or weaknesses is a step in reducing their power over us. I feel like what contributed to this particular period of lucidity is the knowing that I am no longer pretending to be who I’m not. I am okay to be uninteresting, unsuccessful, irrelevant. I don’t try to force myself to be a good person anymore. The older I grow, the more I don’t know what good means.

I just know we live in cycles, and plenty of vicious ones. Sometimes good intentions become unintended ripples. Sometimes we are unaware that our shadows are making us expressing ourselves in unhealthy ways. Sometimes we don’t know that caring for a friend is causing them hurt instead. I am learning to tread lightly on this world, and not make everything about me, to not leave my heavy footprints everywhere I go. I am learning to know myself without the stories.

I have this suspicion what we need as human beings is not happiness. It is having the space to live, to not be compressed into a generalisation or statistic. To not feel like we’re always trying to live out a story we cannot fulfil, and/or very commonly, trying to live out a story someone else has decided for us. But again I don’t think I am in a position to comment for other people but myself.

When I first started reading zen, it felt to me very abstract or very reductive. I have now learned (and am still learning) that it is because we live in a very intellectual world. And I don’t mean intellectual in a good way. We try to intellectualise everything, we try to explain every phenomenon in words or formulas, we try to explain people’s behaviour with economic theory or evolutionary science.

I actually love that. I love finding explanations and learning about all the possible science and theories why we are the way we are. But that is not the complete experience of life. There is something what zen calls “direct experience” that I couldn’t comprehend and only now that I feel I am beginning to. Sometimes trying to put an explanation to everything creates an unbridgeable distance. Some things just have to be directly experienced, and some experiences are just very individual. I find deep beauty in seeing the elderly doing public group exercises. I cannot articulate why, and I don’t wish to. Articulating it will only reduce my experience.

I feel like I am giving more space to all the different parts of me that I have previously denied or repressed. Sometimes I am just uncaring and mean. But I’ve learned that I’ll rather be outright uncaring than to try to have the emotional capacity for something I am not equipped to deal with. Meeting limitations truthfully (not critically or negatively) opens up space.

This is very much a stream of consciousness post. There is no particular agenda, except to document my current state truthfully, as much as I can be truthful. Perhaps for this while I feel like I am not splintered into ten thousand pieces because every little piece feels disjointed.

It is new, rare, and I want to see how this develops.

on coping with life

Last week there was a very lucid moment when I realised my physical depression had been lifted off, and I got momentarily confused. When I travel I can’t exercise or be on a healthy diet, so I tend to get worse instead of better. I tried to think of reasons: was it the act of travelling itself, the novelty effect? No, because not all my travels made me feel better. Now that I’m back in the city center I think I have a working hypothesis: crowded cities make me feel depressed. I thought I was imagining this, but initial fMRI studies seem to reaffirm my suspicion.

I think we’re in very early stages of researching how the human body can be stressed by over-stimuli, and I believe one day the science will clearly demonstrate this. I am just not sure if I’ll see this in my lifetime, not because of the lack of technology, but rather the lack of an economical incentive. We as a society just don’t prioritise human well-being enough, it seems like only rich people can get concerned enough to buy Peloton bikes and go for expensive retreats.

These days I tend to differentiate between what I term as “physical depression” and “existential depression”. Physical depression is when the body itself gives up: there is a lack of energy, motivation, and a general sense of malaise. We could probably detect physical depression with MRI and appropriate blood work. The brain atrophies, the immune system is chronically under attack, and hormonal levels are all over the place.

Existential depression for me, is the philosophical belief that life is suffering and no amount of health hacks can fix what we perceive as the existential truth.

We generally try to “fix” depression, seeing it as an illness. I think it is an illness when you actually think life is precious and meaningful, and you want to live, but somehow your body goes into a state where you can’t feel positive about life anymore. I think there is a small number of people like me who struggle to believe that life is worth living even at the best of our states. I often wonder if this is a neurological state or is this an existential truth that I perceive? Am I existentially depressed because I’m born with the neurological lack of ability to feel pleasure from life, or is it because I can’t unsee the unpleasantness of this world?

I can’t help but feel the sinking suspicion that the “happiest” portions of my life were periods when I can be distracted enough with personal developments (like a new relationship or the hope of a new job) enough to forget about everything else that is unpleasant. To be happy, one has to actively filter out knowledge. In a way we have to take what is good about our own lives and try to ignore that a large part of the world is dysfunctional, unjust and full of suffering.

I oscillate between these phases. I get so depressed at times that I know the only thing I can do is to keep myself alive, one day at a time. So I try to eat, sleep and wake up to see another day. I keep repeating to myself the oxygen mask theory, that we need to take care of ourselves before taking care of others. Other times I feel profound sadness for the suffering that exists and on top of that, existential guilt that I exist and I’m lucky enough to be privileged enough to have a certain level of mobility and comfort. It is this part of me that I know for a certainty that I feel this way not because I am ill. In fact, it is probably my feelings about this world that is making me ill. The existential depression leads to physical depression.

People tell me I have very much to be grateful for and therefore I should be optimistic and positive. What they don’t understand is everything that I am grateful for becomes an existential weight that sometimes feels too much to bear. Why is it so unfair that some people are born into poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunities to rise above the circumstances?

Do something about it, people say. Don’t just sit there and complain. I’ll just come out and say this: I am not existentially strong enough to withstand whatever it takes to “do something”. It is perhaps a source of shame to admit this, but I’m really fragile. Maybe if I was born 500 years ago I’ll be dead by now, because natural selection will just ensure my early death. I’ll be socially rejected by my tribe because of my mental weakness and be left out to die. I mean, in some ways, this is still happening in modern times, the stigma against people mentally disordered people. (Although sometimes I wonder who are the mentally disordered ones, is it really a sign of health to be okay in living in an oppressive world?)

But I guess on a meta level, this is the issue I see with the current state of the world. We perceive strength in a narrow way, and we believe only the strong should survive. We celebrate usefulness and discriminate weaknesses. Perhaps physical strength was what that enabled us to survive thousands of years in the wild and that inevitably came with violence and aggression. Without those traits we may be killed by tribes or animals with more violence and aggression. Oppression was a “good” thing in the survival game, because fear is a powerful tool to make other living beings afraid of us and not try to kill us.

Isn’t that depressing? We have somewhat naturally selected into a species of violence and aggression, because the peaceful ones couldn’t put up much of a fight. I mean, we just have to look at the course of history…

So today we are stuck with these people in power who are mostly there because their power is inherited and/or because they were power hungry in the first place. We keep trying to plead for human decency in these people, but the mistake we make is believing they are just like us. Everyone has a conscience don’t they? What if it is the ruthlessness in evolution that has eradicated that trait in them? I think in order to gain power it is inevitable that we have to silence parts of our conscience, if not the entire thing. These people thrived precisely because their conscience is not functioning.

The tragedy is that they are also the ones who designed the systems the rest of us live in. They are the ones who get to decide the education we undertake, the type of financial conditions we commit to, the conditions of our employment, the necessity of employment in the first place. To have any hope of changing this status quo, there are some of us who bravely participate in a massively unequal fight that will invite a lifetime of fatigue and abuse, if not incarceration. We will have to develop a thick skin and be as aggressive as our ethics and conscience allow us to get, debate with illogical unintelligent opponents, try to fight above the belt whereas the opposition will not hesitate to kick us repeatedly under the belt. Well, I can at least say that at least in modern times it is somewhat harder to just outright kill us off. I guess that is progress?

There are bright spots. Like some of the brave women and/or minority politicians out there today. But it is still painful to see the abuse they have to endure. I think there is a heavy psychological cost for this bravery. We have to silence parts of our humanity for humanity. We can have hope in humanity, in the long view that as a species we will evolve. But evolution has no conscience. I don’t believe the universe has a natural long moral arc of justice. Justice is a human concept and we aspire to be just. Yet it doesn’t mean we will naturally evolve to be compassionate and intelligent enough to not self-sabotage.

What can I personally do, as a thin-skinned, physically weak and chronically unhealthy person? I think part of coming to terms with long-term ill-health is the acceptance of my own limitations, no matter how personally shameful it feels, even if knowing the fact that I even feel shame is a consequence of our capitalistic society. I don’t think I’ve fully accepted them yet, based on the number of guilt trips I go on every day. So I do what I can. Like keeping myself alive, because at the very least I should not do harm to people who love me, but this is only possible because I still retain much of my logical faculties, and I just want to make it clear that I remain in solidarity with people who are so haunted by their own brains that there is just no way out except choosing the end. I don’t believe that life for the sake of simply living is ethical, I think life is possibly worth living if we have the possibility to have individual power and agency.

I participate in my own personal rebellion. I try not to perpetuate what I think are unhealthy capitalistic values, as best to my conscious knowledge. I fail sometimes. I am a hypocrite most of the time, like how I am typing on an iphone now. I like my material creature comforts like the bed I sleep in. But I no longer think it is congratulatory for people to raise billions of dollars or to grow disproportionately in power. I find it disturbing that at the verge of ecological collapse we are still not yet questioning our roles and still celebrating Uber-esque IPOs. We are celebrating the people and companies who are destroying us. And we still love power more than we love ourselves.

I think it is very difficult to be an ethical human being in this day and age. No matter where we turn, how we choose, we are inevitably complicit in a system that perpetuates unnecessary suffering. We are interdependent, there is almost no way to opt out of this complicity, the hope lies in collectively improving the system. But I think it is important to bear the entire psychological weight of making choices. Use money, but know what we are paying for, what we are complicit in. In Singapore, by all means vote for the incumbent party if we prioritise certain values, but be conscious what that vote comes with, and what we are giving up.

I don’t believe in absolutes, and I think sometimes in order to have less suffering we do have to choose the lesser of evils, but I believe we have to know what we are choosing.

I don’t pretend to know the answers, or know what is the best way to live. I can only continue to question, challenge and think. I think this is the least I can do with my thin skin. I just want to acknowledge I’m a hypocrite, and maybe admitting it makes my existential guilt a little lighter and doesn’t serve any moral purpose, but for me being human is about bearing the guilt that comes with existence and participating in the web of life. To deny the suffering, to simply focus on the good, I think it invalidates the lived experience of many sentient beings.

I wonder if there will come a day where I can be physically healthy enough to bear my existential depression in the most equanimous, least destructive way possible, or the ill-health is an unavoidable consequence of witnessing, knowing and feeling suffering.


I write one of these every year. I read last year’s and was slightly amused how serious I sounded. But this is typical of me, I oscillate between thinking I take myself too seriously and not taking myself seriously enough.

Perhaps it is the consequence of reading too many psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and zen books — in recent times I have found myself observing myself in a third-party observer mode. Maybe it is the start of developing true empathy and compassion for myself. It is not the self-pity and outrage I am accustomed to, but a sort of sadness and acceptance in noticing my behavioural patterns and understanding why they are the way they are. At times there is confusion because I have become aware I was expressing an unhealthy pattern, but I still remained helpless to its unfolding. I feel like I’m watching a movie play out on the screen, knowing what is to come, and yet unable to change the script.

In therapy and zen they say true self-acceptance is the precursor to transforming ourselves. I have found that self-acceptance is not a linear journey, like most parts of life. Maybe it is more like a repetitive commitment akin to physical exercise, some days we get ourselves to do it, other days we sit there unable to move out of a stationary impasse.

I am a self-quantifier, for years I have believed that with enough data and well designed habits we can make healthy changes to our selves. It is still true to an extent, but it is not the complete picture. I think we as a human race are so obsessed with improvements that we fail to see that failures, mistakes and helplessness is very much part of being human and the human experience.

I like the taoist belief of yin and yang: that everything must co-exist in a healthy balance. Too much of anything is not healthy, even improvements. It is like the Buddhist idea that being attached to anything is not desirable, even grasping for goodness is still seen is a desire.

I now see that one of my major themes in life is demanding too much of everything, including myself. Even in learning to be less of a workaholic I demanded myself to be better at doing nothing. There is very little compassion for myself, that I needed time and practice to shift behavioural states, especially chronic patterns that have existed for most of my life. I have also realised compassion for ourselves in directly tied to true compassion for the other. All of us need space, time and practice, but the current reality doesn’t allow most of us that space.

If we study neuroscience just a little, even on a very superficial level, there is a mix of bad and good news. The bad news is that it is really, really hard to change fundamental human behaviour because a lot of it is hard wired into our brains. Some people believe our brains are simply designed that way so that we can survive (I guess traditionally it is easy to believe we have to kill our competitors so that we ourselves can live, which is depressing because it means genetically nature favours violence, so in a way we can never get rid of that predisposition since it is the thing that allows the human species to perpetuate), but there is a minority (myself included) who believes that we are a young species and hence our brain is still evolving.

The good news is we have recently discovered that our brains are actually plastic, with the right interventions the brain seems capable of learning a whole lot of previously unimaginable things. It is not impossible like we thought, but it is not that easy, and yet it is not that difficult.

But again, most of it requires time and practice. Most people don’t have time. I have more time than most people, but the practice is hard.

But above time and practice, there is a question of priority. We as a society don’t believe personal transformation is important, so we have designed society in the opposite direction: a society that oppresses everything based on competition. We are so competitive that we don’t see that we are slowly making ourselves go extinct while trying to compete each other to our deaths.

So why am I ruminating about society’s ills in my birthday post? Because there is an intrinsic relationship between my society and me. I am a consequence of the society I am raised in. To believe otherwise is hubris. From the moment we are capable of thought we are raised to believe we must be better than other people, we must constantly strive upwards, we must acquire power so we don’t suffer.

I have believed the opposite since I was capable of basic reasoning, but still I was not spared the unconscious conditioning. People judged me constantly, I judged myself constantly, I imagine people judging me constantly. I don’t know a single human being who doesn’t judge themselves based on some societal-defined value. The more obvious judgments are based on material wealth and status, the subtler and perhaps more insidious judgment is based on morals. Am I a good enough person?

Too much of anything is not healthy. Look what we have subjected people to because of our own moral beliefs. Believing in a different God is wrong. Not believing in God is also wrong. Being suicidal is wrong. Believing in the right to die is wrong. Believing in the right to terminate our own pregnancy is wrong. Being depressed is wrong. Being gay is wrong. Being an artist is wrong. Not earning enough money is wrong. Mot wanting to be a 9-5 slave is wrong. Not being interested in capitalism is wrong. Believing in social welfare is wrong. In some places, being raped is also wrong.

I don’t know. Maybe if you were told your entire existence is wrong you would also be suicidal like me.

I am reading a book based on a twitter friend’s recommendation. In that book there is a monastery, and there is a belief that out of the monastery the food they eat raises the level of something in their blood that takes their true feelings away, keeping people happy and placated. The monastics don’t eat the same food, and hence they have to cope with a lot more mental and emotional disturbances. Some of them kill themselves, unable to cope with truth. But there is a promise that true happiness awaits.

Many times in my life I have wished for myself to be more “normal”. Why couldn’t I just be like other people (well, apart from being gay. I like being gay). There is this deep-rooted struggle within me: wanting to be authentically who I am versus what society expects out of me. I wish I can say that I love being myself and who cares about what people think, but that is not true. Most of my life I feel like I have no choice but to be myself and yet I hate myself for not being “normal”. There is this complex pride that I still chose to be myself regardless and also this deep shame.

But I think the thing with ageing is that if we are lucky enough, we start to find out that it is all a ruse. The things they say are important didn’t make our lives feel much better if not worse; that at some point, we really start to truly feel that people’s opinions matter less, and we start to think of what is the life we truly want to lead?

Turning 38 today, I write this with awareness that I am constantly evolving, that my views change. That is why it is interesting for me to do this as a ritual, to witness my own becoming. I also think it is funny to laugh at my old selves for being so serious. But this is where I am now: I don’t believe true happiness awaits nor do I believe it should be the goal of life. In fact I don’t think there should be goals of life except the act of living itself. I think what is important is to figure out what works for ourselves — that everyone is different so don’t make the mistake of making someone else’s life our own. I mean, what sort of universe this is if every one is the same? So I believe there are people who love life and thrive on it, there are some who are okay going through life like everyone else, and then there are grinches like me who often wonder if non-existence is a preferred mode of existence.

I am not like the people in the book who can be happy and placated eating their food (or soma in Brave New World). It is not like I didn’t try. Something inevitably rebels in me and feeling intensely suicidal is the response to trying to live like everyone else.

So I hope with time and practice, with enough self-compassion along the way, I can rise above my internal conditioning and live life as it is, not as some dysfunctional narrative repeating itself in my head. It is hard for me because I get upset with myself very easily and I go into spirals, but I want to be okay with that too, because I am human.

They say suffering is the disconnect between reality and what is expected. Perhaps to secret to living life is a combination of acceptance yet having the capacity to harbour hope, coupled with the empowerment to take small steps towards wherever we hope to be, or the courage to stay if that is what we want. The demand for too much is a form of violence and it creates violence. I can only hope to remember this as I grow older, to be a little less serious, to become a person capable of treating myself like I would treat a child when she stumbles: a bit of amusement, a dose of empathy, a pat on the back, the willingness to pick myself back up, and to be brave enough to stumble again. And to be okay if all I want to do is to sit there and cry for a bit.

I feel like I am also more accepting of myself being a not-so-good person. That I can be self-centered, greedy and unkind. I think believing myself to be a good person has caused a lot of suffering in me, because I end up doing things I am not capable of doing and end up building resentment for them, in addition to all the guilt-tripping and admonishing to myself in the head.

I am who I am because of where I am. Personal growth is not a pretense, not simply an acting out of a narrative I want to believe in. I am okay with being not-so-good, because I am starting to meet myself where I am, so I can walk along with this person, instead of trying to make her bridge an unrealistic gap and then being upset at something that she was never set up to do in the first place.

Our relationship with ourselves is often a microcosm of our relationship with the world. When I recognised everyone is stumbling in their own ways, everyone is responding to their conditioning, what arose out of me isn’t disappointment or judgement, but a sense of compassion and relatedness. That’s where a true relationship can start.

I don’t embody this thought every minute of the day, half the time if not more I am angry with both the world and myself, but it is never easy to start learning to love something authentically. Not just loving the idea or the best parts of it, but the wholeness and complexity of it all.

the center cannot hold

I finished reading “The center cannot hold” in three consecutive settings. It is an memoir written by a conventionally successful professor on her journey struggling with schizophrenia. I guess it says a lot that these days I can almost only find comfort in relating to depressed philosophers, reclusive hermits and people with mental disorders.

In the book she wrote considerably about the profound isolation she felt because of her mental illness. In her life, perhaps there was only one person she felt who understood her: Mrs Jones, her first psychoanalyst. I don’t think I can recall one living person whom I felt understood how I feel in relation to the world (apart from depressed philosophers but in some way you can only get a tiny slice of a person through reading their writing, a tiny but deep slice nevertheless). So I sort of clumsily understood why Mrs Jones meant so much to her, why she couldn’t deal with their separation when she had to return to the US from Oxford, the depth of her grief when Mrs Jones passed.

It was Anthony Storr, a well-known psychoanalyst who wrote after seeing her once, that for her it is analysis or nothing. She was hospitalised twice, after threatening harm to both herself and other people, and she would often hallucinate and have extreme delusions. But she acknowledged throughout her book that while it was medication that helped manage her disorder, it was psychoanalysis that gave meaning to her life. It was being in analysis with Mrs Jones that she credited for enabling her to finish graduate school at Oxford, and set the foundation to her being in analysis permanently, eventually cumulating in her undergoing psychoanalytic training as well. For what it is worth, she has two philosophy degrees and one law degree, completed alongside while she suffered through the worst periods of her schizophrenia (and she readily admits that her privilege allowed her the space to cope, because she didn’t have to cope with any financial worries).

The memoir is written with a lot of detail, and I can’t help but wonder how she managed to recall so many details when she was undergoing perpetual brain fog during those times. But I appreciate it nonetheless. It is her professional standing that allowed her to write something like this without having to suffer serious professional consequences, but it is also her professional standing that was at risk when she made that choice. Many of her colleagues were unaware she has schizophrenia and would make discriminatory remarks about mentally-disordered people in front of her. Imagine working exceptionally hard to have a semblance of professional success in her life, only to have it permanently tagged to the label of being crazy (her word, not mine). But she has had an impressive body of work published prior to her memoir to serve as her record, and if someone like her cannot reduce the stigma to schizophrenia, nobody can, she thinks, and I concur.

That was similar to how I felt when I started writing about my chronic depression more than 10 years ago. I was only a moderately successful freelancer, but I believed that if I couldn’t survive coming out with a mental disorder even though I had a visible body of work in a forgiving industry, then where is the hope of a regular person? The stigma causes more isolation on top of the isolation that already comes with the disorder, and it often snowballs into a loneliness that pushes a person into a untenable corner.

I have friends and a loving partner. There are multiple parts of me, and people know that part of me I present as my front. I would say that is the most superficial part of me, the part of me raised and conditioned by society. To be capable of jokes, self-deprecating humour, smiles, no matter how I was feeling inside. Then there is the part of me who is chronically suicidal, often thinks that life is meaningless, feels profoundly empty and sad no matter what goes on externally. I often feel that most people don’t truly know me and they would rather see me as the superficial self I present. Now, is that the truth or is that an artifact of my depressed brain? Am I depressed because of my depressed brain or because of my fundamental philosophical beliefs? Can an improved brain chemistry change someone’s philosophy?

These days I don’t interact with people much, by choice. I find comfort in taking my own pain seriously for once instead of belittling myself, though it is a constant challenge. I have a ton of self-pity combined with self-hatred, because I feel guilty at not being able to love and appreciate life when I know there is a ton of people who would do anything to live a little longer, whereas I think about cutting mine short all the time. That in itself is a kind of deep existential pain, the belief I am taking up precious space I don’t deserve.

I don’t wish to be my superficial self anymore, but I don’t know how else to be when I am physically with people. So I opt out of the whole thing. I think I am only beginning to learn how to be authentic even to myself, to not be dismissive of my own feelings.

I don’t wish to become a happier, more optimistic person, which is something difficult for people to accept. I just wish to be more coherent/congruent as a person, more accepting of myself, less of splitting into superficiality and defences. I often thought of sparing people’s feelings, so I starved mine. I still want to spare people’s feelings but I no longer want to starve mine, so I limit my social sphere to my partner and I.

It is only with her that I am capable of being who I truly am. A frightened, anxious, insecure child. Yes, I’ll be 40 in a couple of years, and I am publicly calling myself a child. At this point I am not sure if I’ll ever grow up.

The author loved her Mrs Jones like no other because it was only with her that she felt she could be authentic with her very disturbing thoughts. I have something similar with my partner, an unconditional acceptance of the perceived ugliness within me. But I would like to find my own Mrs Jones one day: someone who is able to see me for who I am without the emotional investment of a life partner, someone I can be fully ugly with without having to be protective towards.

if I die

Nobody knows (with very rare exceptions) when our time on this earth will come to an end. Most of us are not very conscious of this. I think about death a lot compared to the average person, but even so I had found myself blindsided sometimes.

Last week while undergoing an ultrasound I had found myself thinking: what if something is really wrong? What if I discover I have only months to live? Perhaps one may think this is extreme paranoia, but it is the reality for many people who have to live with their new realities upon an unfavourable medical diagnosis.

I am very afraid of my loved ones dying, so I have been trying to live in a way that would minimise regrets for myself if one day the unfortunate should happen. But what if I am the one going to die?

There is a lot of contradictory feelings and thoughts. Having been chronically suicidal I have assumed that I would face my death with a sense of relief. But last week while contemplating my own death I have felt a sense of profound sadness. I would be relieved still, no doubt about that, but there will be a lot I will miss.

And I think I have transformed into a person who has something to miss instead of somebody who felt like she had nothing to lose, precisely because of all the personal changes I have gone through in the past few years alone.

So, I am going to write a letter every now and then. I am not sure how frequent the interval should be, but it would be at least once a year. If I do suddenly die, this is what I would want people to know. I also think this is a great opportunity to take stock of my life and seriously reflect on it.

reflecting on the life I’ve lived

I think I have had a full, great life, despite my chronic suicidal tendencies. I could argue that I have had a full, great life, because of my chronic suicidal tendencies. I am not saying that it is good to be chronically suicidal, please don’t take this the wrong way. I cannot have known otherwise, because there is no option for me to turn this setting off. But from my own personal biased point of view, my detachment to life in general had been a very powerful compass in terms of how I choose to live my life.

Do I want to feel like killing myself, or do I make this very painful choice to do this very painful thing? This has been my decision making process for every major decision I have made in my life. Dropping out of school, quitting jobs, leaving relationships, burning bridges, moving across oceans, disappointing the people who love me, any unconventional choice away from the mainstream.

I am not trivialising or downplaying my chronic suicidal tendencies. Each and every time I feel like killing myself, I cannot find the words to describe the pits I have been in. I don’t know how I have managed to dig myself out of those pits all those times. A lot of tears, a lot of crumbling, a lot of whys, a lot of self-hatred, a lot of my heart getting broken, a lot of numbing, a lot of parts of me slowly dying.

I have many scars, many of them self-inflicted. In my every day life now I struggle to become a person who is capable of living above those scars. I am haunted by my past, my fears, my neuroses, my previous tormentors, my own torment, every single day. I can barely look at the mirror, and I don’t find myself likeable. I can hardly bear to like myself.

Still, I have had a full, great life, given the variables and conditions I have had. I can think of people who had accomplished a lot more than me, but I know I have accomplished everything I can possibly accomplish given how paralysed I feel most of the time. I have learned not to compare myself with other people, despite the culture I have been raised in. It took me a very long time, but thanks to some great dead humans before me, I have learned that there is no point comparing the value of an insect to a fish.

In spite of my limitations, whether given or self-inflicted, I would like to think I have tried my best to live. I did whatever I thought was right for me with the limited knowledge I had at any given point in time. I made a lot of mistakes, hurt a lot of people, hurt myself a lot, but in exchange for all of that I experienced an array of experiences I couldn’t have had otherwise.

Yet when the time came I have also learned to stay when it mattered. To learn the value of commitment and what it means to live as though I am in it for the long-haul. I am still learning this lesson.

I would like to think I am still in the infancy of developing some decent emotional maturity, and I apologise to anyone who have suffered at the consequences of my immaturity. If I should die prematurely, I would be disappointed at being unable to know the person I could have become, given more doses of ageing.

I am thankful for the privilege I have been given, and exceptionally thankful I am now wise enough to recognise it. I have faced several limitations in my life but socio-economic privilege is not one of them. I remain incredulous at humanity for thinking inequality is acceptable and not seeing the potential we are missing through it, and if I remain alive I would like to continue contemplating deeply about this. I want to acknowledge that even though I had faced limitations my socio-economic privilege gave me opportunities to rise above them, and I am upset that not everyone can have the same array of opportunities.

I have led a very lucky life. Maybe I could say I was lucky because I took the necessary risks to place myself in the route of luck. I think a certain amount of that is true, but it is also true that for every person who took the risks and got lucky, there are countless others who took the same risks and didn’t get lucky.

I got to meet some of my personal hero(in)es, and I even got to work with some of them, and even though I have come to realise that the notion of heroes in society is unhealthy, and that no matter how heroic they are they are still very much flawed human beings like the rest of us, I feel grateful I got to experience it first-hand. I no longer believe in hero(in)es though (because I think it discourages active participation for the ordinary individual).

At the end, the great lesson of life is that what truly matters is learning to live well. Perhaps living well differs from person to person. For me, it is to know who I am, be capable of expressing that into the world, and to reduce unnecessary suffering. It is also to know that a lot of unnecessary suffering is generated through poor self-awareness and poor knowledge of the human psyche.

If I were to live life all over knowing what I know now, I would not pursue accomplishments, approval, validation, statuses. I would start learning to live well, right from the very beginning. I would learn to appreciate the act of living itself, the unfolding of life. I would spend a lot less time wondering about the meaning of life and the meaning of my existence. That perhaps the meaning of life cannot be known intellectually – it has to be lived fully, to be experienced as a phenomenon.

But if I am given the choice to live life again: would I? At this point, I am not sure. I have lived a great, full life in spite of everything, but I am not sure if I want to do it all over again.

Being alive, hurts. Being fully alive, hurts a lot. I am tired.

what I would miss if I were to die today

I would miss my partner, most of all. I would hate that she would have to carry on without me (but she’ll be fine, eventually). That at this point now we are only three years old, and there is so much more to unfold. I would miss the opportunity to deepen our love, to live through difficult experiences together, to experience growing old together. I would miss witnessing her unfolding. I would miss us being together.

I would also resent that the elders in my life would have to bear with my passing before them. I hope they know despite of all my personal limitations I have done my best to love them.

My friends, my poor friends. I apologise for ghosting every so often because of my health, introversion, my desire to be a hermit and my inability to handle too many interactions. I don’t deserve their friendship, and I hope they find better friends than me.

I would miss witnessing the indomitable spirit of some human beings, their ingenuity, their compassion, and their will to survive, thrive even, in the circumstances they have been given. But I am not sure if living life to witness this is worth putting up with the rest. If I remain alive, I hope to change my mind.

I would miss knowing if I had lived a long enough life, would I change my mind about life being worth living? But not knowing wouldn’t kill me.

I don’t have many regrets apart from not being able to spend more time with the people I love. Would I regret not seeing some of my experiments come to fruition, or not knowing what I could have made as I learn more as I age? A little bit, but work is at the end, just work. I think I have expressed most of the basic ideas of what I would like to exist in this world and if I didn’t live to make them it wouldn’t kill me. I would be sad if I didn’t even try to express them at all.

As I have mentioned above, I would miss knowing who I could have become, especially since it has only been a few years that I have started on this journey of personal experimentation. I would like to have known what it feels like to be physically fit, and if my brain would ever become a life-loving brain instead of a chronically depressed one. I would have liked to develop this framework of living well further, more than anything else I could have worked on (wow I wasn’t conscious of this until I wrote this).

Overall till date, I think I have lived a great, full life. I have done a lot of the things I wanted, and I have everything I can possibly wish to have, except good health.

If I survive to write more incarnations of this, I hope I will be able to reaffirm this sentiment over and over again: that I have lived a great, full life. I hope I’ll never have to wonder about too many what ifs. That I will always be actively living to minimise any potential regrets.

If I live a long enough life, I think it would be interesting to look at all the changes in these incarnations over the years.

don’t wait too long

Originally I scheduled myself today to write a post on the decisions I’d made while building this website, but an alumni of one of places I worked at passed away in a tragic bike crash in SF. It was also yesterday that I learned why I should use the word “crash” instead of “accident”.

I didn’t work with her, she was after my time. But I would have loved her if I did, like many of my ex-colleagues. I wonder if grief by proxy is a thing, because I deeply feel the loss that my friends and ex-colleagues are feeling. Even if she was completely unrelated to me, I mourn at the loss of potential and love from a very promising, well-loved thirty year old.

I am yet again reminded how fragile, random and cruel life can be.

(Note: people in SF are fighting for protected bike lanes, over here in Singapore we don’t even have reserved bike lanes with very rare exceptions, it is disturbing how far we have to go. It is also poignant to be that they formed a human barrier between the bike lane and cars in the aftermath, something we can’t do in Singapore without being arrested for illegal public assembly. These are to me not just mere differences in law or inconveniences, but the very way we perceive what it means to be human, express ourselves as fellow human beings, and what by extension, what it means to design a liveable, humane city.)

Yesterday, I did something for very important people to me that I had put off for almost a year. I had put it off because I am always feeling tired, and it takes considerable energy to put something in motion, especially if it involves the schedule of other people. But I couldn’t put it off any longer, with the awareness that time is not on my side. It was weighing on me for a long time, and I am annoyed at myself for the procrastination. But afterwards I was so glad I did it. Sometimes when we cannot say the words to tell people we care and that we have never forgotten them no matter how far away we have drifted, we can only accomplish this expression by actions.

I spent a lot of my life working hard to prove myself and being hung up on things that didn’t matter. Before I moved to SF I was aware of the fact that anything could happen to my loved ones while I was gone, but I rationalised it away. Sometimes scenarios sound acceptable when imagined, but we still get unhinged by the full force of their magnitude when they truly happen.

Everything changed when my grandmother passed away. I had to stand in the shadows of mortality to know what it truly felt like. That time the grief I felt wasn’t for the loss of the person, but the regret of not having been done more for them. Perhaps the grief was for the loss of my self, the part of me that I had abandoned in favour of “a brighter future”.

I don’t regret moving away, I regret not doing more while I could. I regret not being present during the rare times I was back. I was permanently scarred by the sudden phone call from home back then, and till today I get really frightened when people call me (because most of the time they reach me via text).

Very often we measure life spans by life expectancy, whether for ourselves or for other people. There is always next week, next month, next year, next arbitrary milestone. But as Tim Urban illustrates, even if we live till our life-expectancies, we don’t actually have that much time left:

Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years…It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

Wait but why: The Tail End

I am haunted by thinking of the tail end everyday. It informs a lot of my decision making, which is why my life choices may seem unconventional. I am not sure if I’ll have later, the only certainty I have is now.

So before I embark on overseas travel I make sure to visit everyone I care about, from the time to time I text people to let them know I care, yet also accepting that some people want to be let go of, and there’s also some I should let go. When time is acutely perceived as limited there is just no incentive to put up with appearances or bother with extraneous matters anymore.

I try not to put off expressions of affection or gifts. If it was my life getting cut short I would like people to know that I cared. I think in this random, cruel universe, perhaps the only redeeming quality is the irrational, deep, wide, love we can have for another.

Sometime ago someone tweeted to me after reading a post. I am not sure why, but she read more into it than I was aware of myself writing. I found myself replying to her that all I am seeking to do now is to grow the capacity to contain and bear those moments of loss that will inevitably come. I wasn’t conscious of this.

But truly, all I am doing now: studying, contemplating, exercising, travelling, compensating, loving – everything I actively do – is so that I hope I will be better equipped to deal with grief.

Grief, doesn’t only come from the loss of what you love, but it also comes from the loss of our selves: of what we could have done, what we shouldn’t have missed, how we could have lived, and how we could have loved.

I know I will be broken anyway, no amount of preparation will equip us to deal with loss, but at the very least I know I would have tried my best to be spared the grief of being unaware and unprepared, that loss can happen any moment.

ruminating thoughts on inequality, mental illness and what it means to be human

Some days I browse the local subreddit, and it is saddening how lost, anxious and depressed youths get when they struggle with their grades. The stories told by Teo You Yenn in “This is what inequality looks like” by Teo You Yenn are a demonstration of how inequality exacerbates the issue. It is bad enough being a middle-class Singaporean and being constantly told you’re not good enough by the system when you don’t fulfill the metrics it uses to value a person – imagine what it is like to struggle to fill your stomach, be told you are stupid because you never had the environment or the resources to be otherwise, and the fact that you struggle to fill your stomach also makes you the subject of discrimination (that you must be lazy, useless or to have done something wrong to be so poor).

I spent a lot of my life trying to advocate for empathy for people with mental illnesses because it is a step up from the social stigma: the perception that if you are depressed or anxious, it means something is wrong with you and you are weak. These days I think a lot about what it means to help a person. That sometimes we could be perpetuating a mistaken narrative by thinking the problem lies with and can be solved with the individual. There is this insinuation that if you are poor or ill, you deserve help because you are weak, something went wrong with your brain, that you cannot live a “normal” life.

But there is something disturbing about this. I am not sure if I can articulate how I feel, but I am going to try.

I guess the TLDR version of what I am trying to convey is: we are so far off from being an enlightened society that sometimes it makes me laugh in learned helplessness. People’s value are derived from how they perform as machines: how hard they work, how long they work, how much money they generate. We are judged by really weird signals if we stop to think about it: the career position we hold, the type of house we stay in, the schools we could go to. These are still held as things to be proud of, but why are we proud of the fact that we brand ourselves like meat? What does it mean to be human? Is it to strive to be at the top, to demonstrate we are the best among our peers? Are our egos so fragile that we need that sort of validation to feel good about ourselves? Even for those of us who are less materialistic, we chase after other forms of signalling: social capital, “awards”, social media numbers, press, accolades, etc.

We have to think about what all of this really means: it means that if we don’t win awards or go to a top school or have a good enough career, we are automatically deemed to be inferior. In the case of Singapore, if kids don’t get streamed into “Express” or they don’t do well in their O/A levels, they are told whether by insinuation or just in their faces (as I have been told before), that they are hopeless.

These are not just societal perceptions. They have real-world repercussions in multiple dimensions. The jobs we qualify for are determined mostly by the qualifications we are able to attain, with the exception of some outlier occupations or some outlying individuals. Having dropped out of polytechnic when I was 18, I am tremendously lucky to be able to find a career in design, an industry that cares less about qualifications. I used to think that if I could do it, anyone could, only to cringe in embarrassment how wrong I was. I really loved how Teo You Yenn puts it:

“The problem with this mindset—not of those who are powerless but those who are relatively powerful—is that power is not a frame of mind but a material condition. People sitting in positions of authority are powerful not because they feel empowered but because they have power. Their feelings of empowerment are an outcome of their actual ownership of power, not the cause. One can think—and indeed many of the low-income people I speak with do this—”I can do this. I must try.” But if one is in fact lacking in power-lacking in control over time; lacking in leverage in the labor market; lacking in bargaining power with managers, teachers, social workers, landlords, creditors—no amount of merely changing how they think about themselves will change these realities.”

Teo You Yenn, This is what inequality looks like

For many, the insinuation that they are “hopeless” is grounded in reality. Not because they are lacking in will, intention or the ability to work hard, but society screws them up because we believe that our academic abilities determine our capabilities, so we reinforce those conditions. I haven’t even begun to talk about the other prejudices that exist that makes improving one’s conditions even harder.

So, why are we wondering why depression and anxiety (again, not even including other complex mental conditions) are on the rise? Are we supposed to be optimistic and chill when from a very young age we are valued as though we are weighed on scales? Are young kids supposed to be life-loving when they spend their entire childhoods having tuition and supplementary classes, and being told that if they don’t pass their exams they are going to sleep on the streets?

“One (university-educated) mother told me candidly that the high-pressure school system, and her anxiety about her child keeping up, makes the time she spends with her daughter rather unpleasant. She can see, and yet feels helpless to stop, the behavioral patterns that are damaging their relationship.”

Teo You Yenn, This is what inequality looks like

Are adults, supposed to “think positively” when they emerge into the workforce and realise by middle age that all the myths they have been living by are all lies? They told us: if we get streamed into the upper rungs, go to good schools, get a good-paying job, marry someone, buy a property, we will be happy and have a good life. (I just want to comment again that this is sad that this is our vision for what it means to have a good life.)

Then there are others, who never really believed into the above narrative anyway, who fought hard against the mainstream to lead a life of their own making…I cannot speak for others, but it is very tiring, so tiring that sometimes I really feel like ending it all. If you think Chinese New Year is tiring because relatives try in various ways to find out whether you are “successful” in their eyes, try living it everyday.

Isn’t it a perfectly rational response to be depressed and anxious when you are constantly signalled or plain-told since you can understand language that you are not good enough, and you have to try harder, when all you’ve been doing is working your ass off and it is never enough and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight? And you have no time to eat or sleep, much less time to yourself or your family, or haha hobbies. Am I crazy for suggesting that there is something very questionable about the way we think it is “normal” to live?

I give less of a damn these days, but it took me so long and so much. I still feel like crying whenever I think of the feelings I had to endure in my younger days. I am about to enter my 38th year of life, and I still get nightmares about exams and teachers.

And I have had a very blessed life, in spite of it all. I am still alive, and I have been very lucky. But everyday I think of all the times I could have ended it all on a sudden, painful impulse, I think of how much I used to hate myself because I truly believed what they said – that I was not good enough; I think of the younger kids now, believing that their entire value and worth are hinged upon exams in the first eighteen years of their lives, then I think of the ones who don’t even have enough to have a stable education, much less do well, about how we always ascribe blame to the individuals for not coping, for not doing enough, when the system can be rigid, unforgiving and oppressive, I think whether this is the best we can do as human beings and as a society. I have no answers, but I am willing to be haunted by these questions for a very long time.

Misrecognition happens when we think that a system is based on a certain set of principles when it really works on the basis of another, when we think it rewards each individual’s hard work when in reality it rewards economic and cultural capital passed on from parents to children. Where there is misrecognition of its real principles and mechanisms, meritocracy is a system that legitimizes those who end up its victors, casting them as individuals who have succeeded on their own hard work and intelligence rather than on any inherited unfair advantages. It is also a system that tells us a specific story about failures, casting those too as individual lacks rather than systemic disadvantages.

Teo You Yenn, This is what inequality looks like

But, I remain comforted by some of the kids I have come across. I hope by the time they enter the workforce the society will not try to break them too much, that different dimensions of how we can live will open up for them, just like they did for me.

Yet I am aware of the fact that for every door that opened for me, they remain shut for many more.

This world we live in treats us like machines, rewards people who are obedient to its oppressive rules and hierarchy. Isn’t it a sign of a healthy psyche to rebel against it, rather than being compliant and numb to it?

“The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does. They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

Is this an economic necessity? Will Singapore have to send her daughters to other countries to work if the narrative changes?

I don’t know. I do think there is a high cost to pay, and I do believe in the long-term future we are depriving ourselves of our own human potential if we continue to measure ourselves like machines. There are people who have gone and done well in their lives despite their limiting circumstances because they were lucky enough to meet a mentoring figure in their lives. Sometimes we just need one person to see us.

What about those who never had the opportunity to see themselves as more? I myself shudder to think of what would happen to me if the internet did not exist.

I would like to close this with a question of: “what does it mean to live well?” I would like to propose that living well goes further than quantifiable metrics. For some it is having autonomy, for others it is to bring up their kids well, for me, it is the ability to appreciate an ordinary life. No ambition, no excellence, no signalling, just plenty of time with my loved ones, books, experiments and my writing, and a sense of groundedness and acceptance in being who I am. That in itself, is perhaps extraordinary when juxtaposed with a society so obsessed with gains and busyness.