on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

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.

social media & my existential loneliness

Last month I wrote about quitting facebook for a month as an experiment to examine my relationship with it. More than a month has gone by in a wink, and the fact that I didn’t actually notice it was the outcome of that experiment.

I had been reluctant to stop using facebook. Facebook has a different social graph than twitter for me. I move a lot – countries, jobs, circumstances – without facebook I wouldn’t be able to feel like I have a stable community around me. I am very introverted and was afraid to express myself in person, so I needed facebook to air my thoughts and feelings. During times of personal crises I had relied on facebook to garner support. I relied on its lists feature to write private, dark, painful thoughts to my closer circle of friends.

I don’t really consider myself lonely in a conventional sense. I am not afraid to be alone, travel alone, dine alone, go to the movies alone. I don’t feel like I need people to be physically around me, in fact I don’t actually enjoy hanging out with people that often. I like being alone, and now that I have a partner who lives with me, I don’t have much extroverted energy left for other people.

But I like being connected to people virtually. The asynchronous format gives me the space to interact with people’s thoughts at my own time, space and pace. I don’t seek out people to hang out with but I like knowing that like-minded people exists. I appreciate being able to witness how other people navigate their lives.

What I really wanted and needed, was resonance. Most of the time I feel like an alien, so there is a painful sense of chronic loneliness. It is not a loneliness that is soothed by people’s company but the discovery that I am not alone in feeling a certain way or experiencing something. It is an existential loneliness.

Facebook (and twitter) made me feel less existentially lonely because I know I am not alone in various feelings and experiences, but I have come to realise they also exacerbated my sense of alienation when I put something out there (especially if it is vulnerable) and nothing comes back.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Part of it is due to the algorithms. They are skewed to display content that is popular (but of course), so if we post something at the wrong time of the day or something and no one interacts with it, the likelihood is that it remains buried. So our connections don’t really see what we post half the time, unless you’re the type of person who likes looking at a live feed for a long time.

Another part of it is the phenomenon of the silent stalkers. Since every interaction can be seen by other parties, some people do not interact with any post as they do not want to leave their digital footprints, which is understandable in this shitty climate. So they view whatever we post, they may appreciate it or even think it is very meaningful to them, but we’ll never know. And I remain feeling that loneliness without knowing someone out there feels the same way.

The final part of it applies to me personally. I have consciously begun to deviate from the mainstream (maybe I was never really in it anyway), so I don’t usually post content that is popular: career/work updates, optimistic, motivating stuff, how I did X so you can do it too type of articles, milestones, celebratory moments, etc.

These days I think about what it means to be alive, and depending on your philosophy it is either at the top or bottom of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I am more interested in how do we bear suffering as part of the human condition than to increase my productivity. Else, I write about what it means to be human for me: instead of writing how I succeed I write about the struggles of having chronic disorders and how sometimes I feel like being buried six feet under feels better than being alive. Once in a while there’s real talk on how hard I try not to be an asshole because it is in my programming to be one.

I feel like a party-pooper, and I feel like nobody likes being near party poopers. Maybe I wouldn’t want to be near myself either.

I want to be authentic online, if that word means anything now these days. But throughout my entire life my desire to be my self has always come with a high cost to pay. Sometimes when people don’t understand our unconventional decisions or actions so they try to diminish us. So I have this pervasive feeling of being small, diminished, ignored and disempowered. Even if today that is no longer objectively true, my psyche is still behaving as though it is.

I guess that is a long-winded of saying that the dynamics of social media triggers me. The way it is designed amplifies my sense of alienation. We don’t notice things and feelings and how much they affect us when it is just part of our everyday reality.

Being away from social media gave me the space to reevaluate my feelings and the way I perceive my interactions with it. I actually discovered this by accident, because there was a period last year when I was so addicted to playing Stardew Valley that I didn’t even bother to check social media. It feels weird to say this, but a game addiction was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me realise how much less unhappy I was if I stopped exposing myself to certain stimuli.

That month without facebook, I didn’t miss it much. It was a little difficult in the first couple of days because I am so used to scrolling it whenever I had nothing better to do. These days I try to read instead. I try to work with my chronic sense of existential loneliness instead of depending on artificial means to alleviate it temporarily.

I discover I am okay being that tree falling down in a forest without anyone hearing it. I think the biggest gift to come out of this is the freedom to hold on to what truly matters, and to be capable of letting go everything that do not. Sometimes letting go seems unthinkable at first, but perhaps we just need the courage to walk down a different path.

Being an unheard falling tree sounded terrible but if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t know what it truly entails and mean. It is not so bad after all, and I like where I am now. Perhaps the truth underlying all of this is: even when there were people around, I still felt like an unheard falling tree.

Integrating my selves

For a long time, parts of me lived all over the internet. I was self-conscious of the fact that I was interested in too many things, and I was worried that people would get confused and leave if I put all these different parts together. I wrote seriously on Medium, expressed unfiltered, unedited thoughts on my public journal, hid my poetry on a partially-secret tumblr, hosted my interactive experiments on a whole separate site. I didn’t want people who were interested in my interactive experiments to see the embarrassing poetry.

Only upon hindsight and with a lot of self-examination, I realised I was the person most embarrassed of these parts of myself. I loved writing poetry but was afraid that they were crappy.

I don’t want to be embarrassed of myself anymore. I also believe that we shouldn’t only show things that is good, because what does good mean anyway? I never claimed to be a good poet or writer, I only want to be capable of expressing the true parts of myself, not hide them in some far-flung corners.

I may be writing about the motivation rearchitecting this site, but in essence I am also talking about my offline self. For most of my life I was afraid to show up as a whole person, because I didn’t want people to dislike the weird parts of me. So I became this person whom I thought I wanted to become, while I starved, suffocated and hid the parts of me which were probably the parts of me that really made me, me. I learned in reading books on psychotherapy that starving parts of ourselves would inevitably result in unconscious, unintended consequences. I will not go into that in this post, but all I can say is that I was a very incoherent, miserable person.

I want to try to honour all the different selves I have, so this site will be an expression of that. For now there are my journal entries and poetry, while I will work on importing my essays from Medium, and what excites me is the new sections I have in mind. I am intending to have a “notebooks” section where I’ll basically document everything I have learned – like a personal wikipedia. Accompanying it will be a feature named “collections”, where I’ll attempt to replicate my learning network idea in wordpress. It wouldn’t be a network anymore since it is just my data, but it would at least serve to be a personal library of things I have learned.

Through seeing some sites with a wealth of content, I realised I shouldn’t wait for the ideal form to exist. I will make do with what I know and have for now, and let the form evolve with my understanding and use.

I actually have the infrastructure in place to create notebooks and collections, but I haven’t had the space to work on the content. I am excited to see where all of this goes.

I’ll be writing about the technical details in another post. I wondered about mixing feelings, thought and code, but I realised people who read my writing are people capable of making choices and I shouldn’t have to decide or worry for them.

At the end, I’ll really like to have everything in one place because it is a pain in the ass to maintain so many sites, plus there are benefits like site-wide tags which will help to bring up related content even if they don’t exist in the same section.

Besides, I have heard from a friend that he can’t keep up with my writing because it exists in too many places. I hope this site will solve this problem, if not, subscribe to my tinyletter to get latest updates.

I haven’t had the chance to really work on the homepage, for now it is a bunch of curated content which I hope is a good reflection of the person I am now. I have deliberately kept the design efficient with no extraneous details. It may or may not stay this way depending on the evolution of my design philosophy. Please let me know if you come across any quirks.

Hopefully in the next post, I’ll be able to demonstrate some of the new content-types that will exist on this site.

dynamic living

I love reading books on zen, but it is not easy to find good ones in my opinion. Most are repetitive, and they either try too hard or they over-simplify everything. Good books on zen induce a head cramp because they often provoke me to think of ways I’ve never thought before, and they remind me that often profound truths lie in simplicity.

There is nothing simple about being simple. It is like how people say it is way easier to say or write something verbose and long, but it takes skill to be capable of expressing the same sentiment with clarity and brevity. I think life is similar: it is easier to live a complicated life, but knowing what and how to pare down, knowing what truly matters and being able to focus on that, takes a lifetime of wisdom.

What I appreciate about zen is the focus on what I describe as “dynamic living”. In tech we talk about dynamic software that enables the outcomes to change with different inputs and variables. Zen is the philosophical layer that encourages us to be open and fresh to whatever comes, which is way more difficult than it sounds, because we are creatures of habits and conditioning. Many of us are taught to design our lives as though the conditions will always be somewhat stable, and growth will somehow be linear – which we may discover to be lies by the time we hit 30, but by then it becomes difficult to change the ways we are used to living.

To be capable of living life dynamically with equanimity: through good times and bad times, sickness or health (I know this sounds like a wedding vow) – I think this will become especially useful as we are entering a period of climate change and geopolitical chaos. We are a culture that doesn’t deal well with failures and crises. I mean, why would we be, when the narrative has been: if you work hard and do x,y,z at certain milestones, life will reward you well; we should all work like soldiers and save well for retirement because interest will compound and we will all be millionaires by the time we hit 60, when we will live another 20 years at least in because modern technology has lengthened our life expectancy to about 80. That is also the narrative of many religions: if you live well, you would be rewarded.

I think we went too far with the reliability of science, that certain variables will define certain outcomes, so we live our lives like it is a science. But life is often chaotic and unpredictable. Just like they say, change is the only constant. If we have been told this right from the start, perhaps we would suffer less mentally and emotionally because that would have been within expectations. People lose jobs, lose money, fall sick, die; natural disasters happen, accidents occur, life can be often random, cruel and unforgiving. But somehow we have built this expectation that everything should go well until we grow old and die (hence people have a deep fear of ageing and death), so we are deeply impacted when something bad happens.

But what I really like about zen is that unlike buddhism (though it branched from it), cynicism, and stoicism, which can be pessimistic: that life sucks and we should just deal with it, zen attempts to be nothing. It is from this nothingness that the creative essence of life can be cultivated, because without preconceived ideas of how things should be, we have a wider capacity to respond dynamically to the situation. For example, instead of sadness when there is failure, we can perceive learnings and new beginnings.

Adjacent to the capacity to respond dynamically, is the ability to see things for what they really are, without the additional conditioning or biases that have become part and parcel of living in a modern society. It is the ability to see things as they are that will enable us to respond appropriately, not too much, not too little.

Personally I have become gradually aware how much I get stuck in unhealthy thought patterns, how much I tend to heap on my own biased interpretations of events, and how much all of that is affecting my capacity to live life as fully as possible. It is like life is constantly giving me new chess pieces and situations all the time, but I am stuck making the same old moves with the same old pieces.

I can’t really see things as what they are. I can’t even see you for who you are, because I am probably projecting on you. And perhaps more critically, I cannot see myself for who I am, because the image of myself in my mind is severely distorted. When everything is distorted, my behaviour and responses are inevitably distorted. It is like seeing through a dusty window, perceiving the world out there is grey and dark, but it never occurred that it is the window that is filtering my perception of the actual colours.

How can I clean my windows? Or perhaps I can open them, or knock them down? Maybe the windows aren’t even there in the first place, but I thought they were there because someone told me that they are supposed to be there.

I don’t know, but maybe for once I am getting better at not knowing, instead of always trying to be somewhere I think I ought to be.

moving towards silence

When I was younger, I felt alienated by the society I grew up in. Everyone pursued conventional paths, and I was/am gay, a drop-out, and a freelancer. Any one of those three could cause social discrimination, so I had it all.

I survived by living on the internet. There were plenty of gay people, drop-outs and freelancers, and it wasn’t uncommon to find people who were all of the above and even more. I couldn’t find acceptance among people I knew in my own country, but I thrived on the internet. Social media made it even easier to find like-minded people.

So for a very long while, I refused to give up on social media no matter what people would say about it. How can I contemplate abandoning the very thing that kept me alive?

But social media itself has evolved. It went from following random strangers’ blogs to following interesting people on twitter, to now: practically everyone you know is connected on facebook. Relatives, long-lost ex-schoolmates, someone you met at an event once, ex-colleagues from every company you’ve worked at, etc. Then, we have become contactable by practically everyone by any instant message platform.

I had felt tremendous guilt when I lost my capacity to respond to people’s messages, until one day I remembered, a long time ago, it was considered normal to give out our landline number to like five people. It was also not a big deal if we were unreachable at our landline.

I had loved and thrived on the speed of the internet. For the first time in my life, it felt overwhelming and noisy.

I see-sawed for a long while, but I decided that Facebook would be the first to go. Some people hate noise and exposure, so it is easy for them to quit Facebook. I loved being connected to people, I truly enjoyed reading micro-stories of what’s happening to my friends, and I don’t feel bad about my own life when I look at other people’s lives. But I felt bad if there was no response when I shared something particularly important to me. I think it is a trigger, a reminder of how I felt when I was younger and unheard.

I also liked sharing my highs and lows with people, or any thoughtful opinions I have about the world. I felt like it was important to add to the diversity of what is out there. People tend to share only celebrations, so I wanted to tip the balance by sharing my struggles. I read a lot, so sometimes I like sharing book highlights in case someone out there finds them interesting, because many a time I have ended up reading something important to me because someone else shared something.

But somehow all of this sharing and connecting started to feel tiring to me. It could be a phase as I am spending more energy on my inner-world now. But I think the crucial part of this is: I have never once truly stopped to question or examine my relationship to social media or my true motivations behind it. I thought I was adding to the world, but am I? Am I just using it to shape the narrative I have in my own head for myself? Is it just a way for me to soothe the feeling of being unheard when I was younger?

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Am I as good as dead if nobody finds me valuable? What if nobody gives a shit about the work I want to create? Will my friends still be my friends if I am no longer an “useful” person? If I publish something on this website and I don’t share it on facebook/twitter, is it still worth publishing?

These are some of the questions I have to contend with as I go deeper into the process of thinking about how I want to live. Fortunately there are plenty of historical cases of people who left their societies and/or produced work that wasn’t socially valued in their generation and yet still lived fulfilling lives, so I don’t feel that alone; but even if I have to feel alone, isn’t it important to do what is important to me?

I want to know if I could still lead a fulfilling life without the company and resonance of peers. I’ve been reading stories on hermits and contemplatives and they have been inspiring to me. Maybe I thought I needed a lot of things, but I didn’t try to go without to see what it is like at the other side. Or that I have been so addicted to noise that it didn’t occur to me silence may be better for me. I will probably not become a complete hermit because I still want to spend time with my family, but coming from a social-media laden world, I think there is a long distance that I can go where I can find a sweet spot closer to silence from my position of noise.

how travel changes me

Roughly 12 years ago I was backpacking in thailand for a month. It was the first trip that was for an extended period of time with no particular agenda. I have a vivid memory of me passing through a rural village, and there was a bunch of kids playing at a stream. They laughed and ran around with a sense of freedom that felt new to me. Back then there was no airbnb, so we would go into a town hoping there’s available rooms at guesthouses. That was my first taste of experiencing generosity and connection with my hosts.

That month I was supposedly in between jobs, but that trip had changed me profoundly. It made me question the narrative of happiness being tied to material wealth (I never really believed it but it was another thing to experience it in person). The kids I saw looked much happier than the kids I would see in Singapore. It could simply be my perception but I don’t think the objective truth matters because what truly matters is being able to experience another set of images that can break the stranglehold perceived reality can have on us.

It was that trip that made me go into remote work at a time when remote work was still rare and controversial. I wanted to be able to work from anywhere in the world. So I spent the next five years or so remote working, though it wasn’t as fun as it sounds, but it taught me that alternative ways of life can be possible.

Then I went to San Francisco for the first time, another life-changing trip. San Francisco in 2011 is different from the San Francisco I left in 2015. There was a chill, hippie vibe: I saw people playing their guitars on rooftops or while strolling on the streets (these days they are too stressed trying to pay their rent and out-compete everyone else to play guitars). Back then it was full of optimism, crazy ideas, life-changing technology, emerging communities (rent wasn’t crazy yet, I paid $50/night for an airbnb omg can you imagine that). I felt like finally I found a place that I could belong, a place where wild ideas can grow and weird people like me can flourish (because over there, I am really not that weird comparatively).

Eventually I left, but I will always owe a debt to San Francisco and her people. It was there that I had finally experienced a kind of freedom that I had never experienced in my own country, where people saw me in ways I was never seen. I felt like a deflated balloon being breathed into life, and I learned to develop the courage to leave a place that made me strong in the first place, like leaving a nest. Perhaps, the more subtle truth is that it made me brave enough to face myself and my wounds.

Then, there was New York:

“She made me learn that in order to have my identity I must accept that I have no fixed identity. That I am everything, nothing and anything. I am defined because I am really undefined. With San Francisco I understood what it means for me to belong somewhere. New York has shown me that perhaps ultimately I don’t need to belong anywhere, because I will still be me, everywhere.”

Together, books and travel, if I ever had a religion perhaps they are it. They have taught me more about people, love and grace more than anything else. They have expanded me, raised me up, increased my empathy and challenged the narrow ways I have perceived the world. I am like a sponge that has absorbed everything I have read and witnessed, becoming more human as these forces gently nourish me.

Here I am in New Zealand, and I am no longer the same person I was before. Just a few weeks and there will always be this additional dimension of me that I will carry henceforth. I get scared and tired of travelling as I age: because of my chronic anxiety I haunt myself by imagining every horrible scenario my mind can think of. Some mornings I wake up anxious, missing the illusory safety of my home. But in between writing this essay, I take breaks by walking to the window near me, and I see sheep grazing in acres of green. I feel wonder, an emotion that is elusive in a city full of concrete.

Travelling forces me out of my safe, comfortable shell. At home I avoid interacting with people, but as a traveller there will be inevitable questions that google will not answer, trails not on the map, unexpected invitations to meals, provocations to our otherwise dormant curiosity. I can only wish I had travelled more when I was younger and had more courage, less commitments, and also a less anxiety-ridden mind. Who would I have become if I had a much earlier opportunity to see that the world I grew up in is so utterly narrow? That there is a million ways to live one’s life. That there is so much more to life than climbing ladders and impressing our peers. That maybe, we struggle to save the world because we don’t know how to be with the world, because somewhere along the way, we forgot we are companions to each other and to the world. Instead, we are obsessed with domination with carefully architected stories of ourselves, when all it takes is a step out into the vast wilderness of beauty, diversity and richness, to see how horribly misguided we are in picking illusory wealth over the natural richness we were truly endowed with, and in danger of losing very soon.

I don’t want to forget that I am part of nature, and I want to continue to learn about the expansiveness of this world, so I hope to continue travelling more in spite of my chronic anxiety. I can only wish that the opportunity to travel for expansiveness is something that is afforded to more people if not everybody (I don’t know how yet but I hope I can be part of a long chain to make this possible and maybe through my writing and pictures I hope to bring a part of my travelling to other people). I don’t think I’ll see this in my lifetime, but I hope for the sake of our own human potential that we are somehow walking towards that equitable world, maybe with lots of twists and turns, but still walking towards that anyhow.

And it is travelling (and books, which are a different way of travelling) that makes me believe that it is crucial to our development as a species, and makes me want to hope, even if current indicators point otherwise.

growing old with books

When I was a teenager I often discussed with my friends the age I would like to live until (sigh, teenagers). That age was 30. I felt like 30 years of miserable living was all that I could stomach.

Today I was reading Krista Tippet’s book, and one of her interviewees was remarking how great it was to live till his 80s, insinuating that it enabled him to witness the changes that had occurred in his lifetime. Imagine being born in the 1930s living through a world war, witnessing the civil rights movement and all the momentous events since. There was suffering as well as progress of course, but that is the whole point: life was not, and never will be, a single dimensional experience.

Reading that made me suddenly conscious of a new curiosity that had probably emerged slowly in the last few months: what would it be like for me to live till my 80s? In the past my instinctual reaction to imagining a long life would only be dread and despair, now I feel curious.

I am not at all romantic about living a long life, and it is not something I actively desire, and I definitely support compassionate euthanasia if quality of life deteriorates in old age. But in context of my chronic suicidal tendencies I think it is interesting that I am feeling neutral and curious about it.

In the last 7 years or so, life suddenly expanded for me. I attribute a lot of this expansion to the sudden increase in the number of books I have been reading. I think I entered a dead zone in my 20s, probably reading way less than 50 books in that decade. I started recording my reading in 2011 on Goodreads: I started with 3 books in that year. Then in 2012 it was 38, and every year since I have read more than 50 books per year. It was a deliberate commitment, because if I didn’t gamify myself, I know I would forget to read. It isn’t the quantity of course, but I think if there is a commitment to a certain quantity, there is bound to be some quality somewhere.

Books have given me courage and perspective. They made me question and redefine my lived experiences. There were life-changing decisions I made because someone in history left an indelible mark on me with their writing. They expanded the way I see the world, made me aware of possibilities I would never have encountered if not for them. There is a whole other essay on books contained here, but today I want to write about growing old instead.

So what have books got to with me growing old? I think of all the internal change that has occurred and is still occurring in me is due to the books I have read, and I start to wonder about all the books I have yet to read, that I will be reading, and how they will change me. This year I read more than previous years intentionally (I have just finished book 76), because I felt like I needed more to cope with all the change I have been experiencing. The more I read, the more I want to read.

I feel like whatever I have read is just such a tiny slice of the human knowledge available and yet they are already so expansive, I cannot imagine what is it like to go further and deeper. Which are the oncoming books that will shape my life dramatically? What about the books that are yet to be written, what would it be like as a cranky 70 year old reading something written by a fiery 25 year old?

I know there will be hard times ahead. I think my generation has experienced an extended period of peace and will not be prepared to face what is to come. But in some strange way I hope to be capable of witnessing this unfolding of history, to see the choices we will make, the ways we try to cope, the resilience that we will demonstrate, the people we will become, the youth that will inspire. I want to know if we would learn, improve, remedy. 80 years of life: it would be enough to see a few sweeping changes of history, maybe it wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would be something to be a witness to it.

The world is what we make out of it, what would we choose? What would I choose? What are the books I would pick? Would I write some? Who would I become in another twenty, thirty years?

Five years of intensive reading and I have changed beyond my own recognition. What would be the compound effect of more of those years?

I hope I’ll never lose my love for reading. I could argue it made me less dreadful of living a long life and maybe the crux is this: a world that has books, that has people who want to write books and people who want to read them, is a world capable of beauty and deserves our stewardship.

what can I do

We’ve been spending a couple of nights at each location in New Zealand, then driving roughly two hours to the next. I would like to think we’d made a nice compromise by not attempting to see the entirety of the north island (some people attempt both islands!), choosing to drive around the upper half instead. Some part of me would like to stay at a place longer, but the part of me that fears missing out tends to win. We compensate by staying indoors on some days, foregoing any frantic sight seeing.

Travelling can be stressful and tiring for me, especially having to keep intense concentration levels driving at high speed on the roads. We have met a couple of aggressive drivers who would sound their horns while tailgating us because we were too “slow” even though in reality we were actually driving at the speed limit. I would try to go into the shoulder whenever possible to let them pass me, but at high speeds the last thing you want to do is to stop. So at long periods I would end up feeling like I’m being chased for miles and miles of road. Upon reaching our destination, I am entirely spent.

Something must have changed along the years, because only a few years back I was the person getting impatient and overtaking “slow” cars on highways, now all I want is just to take it easy, and I no longer feel the absolute sense of control I used to feel at the wheel in my younger days. I distrust that sense of control.

I guess all of the above could be metaphors for my life. I am no longer driven by an urgent sense of adventure, the person who would seek adventures at all cost. I have to actually convince myself to venture out now, to be less afraid. I have become one of those happily boring people who like staying indoors preferring to do my exploring in books instead. I no longer mind when people are ahead of me, I don’t even know what “ahead” actually means now. I told a friend I feel a lot more centered than before, no longer feeling like I have to do what other people are doing. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can accept myself.

Self-acceptance, I have learned, is not a one-time decision. It is an ongoing exercise, a ritual one has to repeat. Sometimes it is because we progress, we grow into new selves; sometimes it is because we regress, and there has to be reconciliation again with our past selves. I think one of the greatest sources of suffering comes from the belief that life is linear and logical, that somehow things go from A to B and eventually to Z, and that everything that happens should make sense and go according to plan.

Shitty things happen all the time, and the sooner we can accept that, the earlier we can go back to living our actual lives instead of mulling over why. But I don’t. I magnify the problem, over-analyse it, go over it again and again in my head, making myself really miserable for a long time. It is as though if I do that, I could find some secret door that I can unlock and all would be well again. I don’t really know how and when I learned this behavior. Most of the time there are no secret doors in life, sometimes there are no resolutions, other times life is often unfair and unreasonable.

We just have to look at nature. Is there justice and is it reasonable that a lion eats a deer? Religious beliefs aside, I think that justice is a human-invented concept, a beautiful one at that. We just forget that it is something to be fought for, to be protected, it is not something we are entitled to, neither is it a natural law. The world has to be constantly forged and created in every moment, just like our individual lives.

So I think that there is a creative tension between accepting life is just what it is, and consciously choosing when to exert our intelligence and creativity to shape our lives and the world. Over-do it and there is destruction, under-do it and we ignore potential and possibilities. I grapple with this all the time in my personal life, and I contemplate on this in view of the wider world. Where do we draw the line?

I discovered belatedly one of the best ways to endure long drives is to listen to podcasts. The one we listened to just now features an astrophysicist, Natalie Batalha — she commented that science (in context of space) feels like an indulgence now, when the sustainability of this planet is in danger. The two other participants had eloquent responses to why they disagree (I wouldn’t attempt to butcher it). I think about this a lot myself: is travelling and inner-work an indulgence, a luxury at a time like this?

I think everyone’s answer will differ but particularly for me, the more I work on myself, the more I travel, the more I appreciate life itself, and the beauty that this world can offer. The more I have the capacity to be human, to be genuinely present. I am not sure if I’ll ever have the capacity to do more, but keeping myself alive and trying to do no harm is the best I can do right now. Whenever I tried to do more, I’d end up hurting myself and the people around me. Maybe this is something I have to accept, that a tiny capacity is all I have. This is something that has brought me a lot of shame previously especially in a capitalistic society like ours that prides nothing more than productivity and value, but I think I have come to see it differently as I progress. We can’t ask fungi to grow into trees. I can’t keep asking myself to be a tree when I am not, and I am not even fungi because they are actually really important to the ecosystem, maybe I am just a tiny blade of grass. I stopped questioning the function I provide to society because I no longer want to steep myself in a value-oriented mindset. I guess it is enough to be alive so the people around me wouldn’t be inflicted with unnecessary grief. Maybe once in a while someone out there would feel less alone with the words I write.

Maybe one day I’ll discover the will to live for myself or maybe till the very end I’ll still think that life is not worth living for me. But perhaps it is a worthwhile endeavour to experience the truth, to ensure I will at least fully explore the dimensions of existence, at the very least I have tried to get as close to the truth as possible.

I feel more centered with all the inner work I am doing. In turn, I feel the need to consume less, I tend to waste less, and I am more mindful with my being and actions. Perhaps this is my little contribution to climate change, that in order to learn how to live in harmony with the world, I have to learn to live in harmony with myself. I have an evolving theory that climate change is a problem rooted in human psychology (unstable psychology -> fear and insecurity -> design of systems that is short sighted in favour of temporary gain -> destruction -> cycle back to unstable psychology), but that will have to wait till a time when I can string it all together.

race against time

I am in New Zealand now, checking one of the biggest items on my lifelong bucket list. It had always felt like a faraway unattainable dream, so it is surreal being here now, surrounded by endless trees and green rolling hills. And I am here with someone whom I want to share the experience with.

I once told a couple of friends that I live life as though I have a 50/50 chance of dying at any given moment. They laughed. It is grossly statistically inaccurate of course, but I don’t think unfortunate events care very much about statistics.

As I got older and had gone through several life-changing events, I learned it is not about literally dying but rather it is about being prepared for the death of metaphorical selves we had, events we have no way of anticipating, the unexpected departure of people. We think of life as linear and progressive but for me it feels more like sudden sharp turns and cliffs. There were so many events I didn’t see coming, so many partings I didn’t plan. It is like being swept up in a tide and there’s very little I can do except go along with it, though usually after a tiring period of resistance.

So I am sort of in a race against time, fervently trying to do what I want to do in case for some reason I can’t do them anymore. The older we get, the more commitments we are obligated to pick up, the less free we become. People around us are getting older, we ourselves are getting older, my health seems to have a life of its own. I have been through long periods when I am unable to do much except curl up in pain, so I feel extra appreciative of the times I can do a one-hour hike, take in the beautiful environment around me without a pounding sharp pain in my head and eyes. Half the time I am resentful of the pain, the other half I remain grateful to it because it has made me want to do a lot more in my pain-free time than I would normally have. If not for the constant threat of my health, I would have led a more unconscious life, letting it bob me along a path not even of my own choosing, thinking that I’ll always have time and energy to do the things I want later on.

Sometimes we have time, other times we have energy, for me it is precious to have both and be aware of it.

It is a contradiction, being chronically suicidal and yet also being unwilling to take life for granted. Sometimes I can be in the most beautiful of places but feel numb to it, still not understanding why are people so attached to life that they would do anything to protect it. My personal theory is that it takes some sort of a life-force to appreciate life itself, and I don’t have much of it, needing to live like a monastic to carefully nurture it. So I don’t always live life on the edge, because I burn out easily. I live like a hermit back home, eating a strict diet, exercising everyday, keeping a strict sleep schedule, just so I can feel a bit more alive during these exhausting but beautiful experiences.

We’ve been on the road for three days, and I’m already exhausted from just driving an hour or two each day. There’s a fear of missing out, not knowing if I’ll ever be back here in this part of New Zealand again, yet I can’t risk burning out in the middle of nowhere. I have to learn to let go.

I guess that is the story of my life, at least for now. Learning to let go of most things so I can have a deep appreciation of whatever that’s left I can have. I guess life is about assessing the risks we are willing to take and the trade-offs we are willing to make. I am uncertain about the future, so all I can do is to make the best out of now, in the ways I am capable of. I am not sure when health-scares are going to pop up, whether for me or my loved ones, not sure how life would be like under the effects of climate change, not sure about the geo-political stability of the world, not sure about the resources I can have in the future. But even without all these risks I know life will change, so I’m in a constant race against time to live as much as possible.

I think a lot of it comes from the desire to compensate for not living a very unconscious, fear-driven, societal-directed life in the first 35 years of my life. I am still figuring out what it means to be truly self-directed, and if it is even possible with all the inevitable conditioning and inter-dependency we have.

I do know that travel, apart from books, is one of the most life-shaping forces for me, and I want to do as much of it as possible while I still can.