A while ago an old friend texted me that an unexpected event had once again reminded her how transient life can be, and she thought of me because I was one of the first people she knew who actively aimed to live well due to the inherent impermanence of life.
I’ve known this person for more than ten years, so it is testament to my chronic attitude towards life – that I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember.
When I was younger a large part of this is due to my chronic suicide ideation: I’ve always thought I would not live for very long, so I wanted to maximise whatever time I have left. I also go through lengthy periods of time in a numbed state, so if I am interested in doing something I should do it because I can’t take my state of interest for granted. I was also a strong believer of fate, and I’ve countlessly witnessed how life as we know it can suddenly be cut short. All in, I’ve never felt like it was natural to expect that I can live to my natural lifespan without any upheavals. My problem is that I expect the opposite: I think something terrible is bound to happen. This is unhealthy too, as it induces too much existential anxiety which can be severely paralysing and depressing.
What does it actually mean to live well? My younger self believed living well equates to maximising her life. She took a lot of risks and made quite a bit of decisions that the average person wouldn’t make. I mean, if I believed I was going to die soon a lot of things people tend to worry about became inconsequential. Thankfully I was adverse to debt (or actually allergic to any form of psychological burden), so I was never in debt no matter what I did, however I was constantly flirting with a near-zero balance with my bank account. That was its own psychological stress and it contributed to my chronic depression. It is interesting to look back and see how trying not to be depressed in the short-term could lead to more depression in the long term. It felt like I was constantly made to choose between lesser evils on a tightrope.
This attitude provided both the courage and detachment I needed to generate major turning points in my life. It was with this I took the leap to quit studying computing to study multimedia instead when I was a teenager, it was also with this I became a remote independent designer in the 2000s when both being remote and being independent was frowned upon. Later on again with this attitude I flew to san francisco with not much money left seriously thinking I would end my life if things didn’t work out, and it was also exactly this that gave me the courage to leave a few years later.
I don’t know what it says about me that I was constantly thinking of ending my life. With what I know now I can see that I was very dysregulated, but I am tremendously grateful to that younger self. She did what she could to turn things around against all the odds, societal disapprovals and discouragements she faced. I think I am more emotionally mature now, and I now know my past self was really naive and idealistic, but without those qualities where and who would I be now?
It is really perverse to think that I truly believe I ended up with better outcomes because I had that unwarranted bravado. But I can’t help but think that if I was a rational young person with a steady head on my shoulders I would rationalise myself into a life I do not want to lead. But who knows, unless I have access to a self in a parallel universe. I know of people who made major life changes by rationally strategically planning for them, but I feel like with my personality it would be difficult to leave my comfort zones without major triggers.
I am at an age and a point of my life where I no longer need major dramatic life changes to feel like I am living well. Part of it is because I am now wise enough to stop putting myself in circumstances that require dramatic stops and starts. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. Maybe in the grand scheme of things there is neither good or bad, just whether we can live with. So thinking about what it means to live well no longer takes on a trying-to-maximise-everything sort of quality. I have learnt that if I am constantly always looking for major upheavals then the normalcy of life would be unbearable to me.
The other day I found myself looking forward to cooking breakfast the next day, because I had this sudden idea to cook my own version of a gyudon with some sliced tamago I bought from a japanese supermarket. In the next moment I was surprised with myself, because it is not typical of me to look forward to things in general – unless it is an overseas trip. These moments are still rare for me, but I relished that particular moment. I realised there and then: this is what it means to me to live well – to learn to truly love these mundane moments.
It is just how our brain works. We grow numb to things we used to desire so much for, and we can’t help but seek new stimuli or rewards to feel that rush again. Without this hedonic treadmill humans will still be cavemen I suppose.
It takes a lot of work to re-recognise the preciousness of everyday things. Like our ability to breathe, the blue skies, green growing plants, waking up for another day, our loved ones being a phone call away, public transport, hawker centres, a steady heart rate, the gifts of hearing and sight, the sleepy face of the love of your life, internet access, fast internet, seeing colours, music, art, books, imagination, peace, etc.
My younger self would not be able to imagine or believe it is possible to have the life and love I have now, but my depressed brain plays, life is meaningless over and over again in my brain like a broken record. The accumulated sadness I carry can be overwhelming in the greatest of days. Perhaps that is why I was always seeking some major upheaval in my life, to escape from the inherent feelings I possess.
My partner sees her time as creative opportunities, and I see my time as existential dread. One can have so much, but a healthy inner world is required to engage with it. It is like walking around with chains on my feet locking myself in an invisible prison, and I cannot touch the grass around me, see the blue skies above me, or feel the fresh air surrounding me.
If not for my obsessive documentation and records in my journals, I would genuinely believe this is who I am and I’ll never emerge out of this. But with equally obsessive reviews I have learnt that even if it feels like I am locked into this self since forever and it seems like it would last forever more, I am a different person than I was this time last year, and almost unrecognisable from the self I was ten years ago.
So I continue to hope. The journalling helps a lot. I am recording even more with Obsidian these days. I note down meaningful texts friends send me, interesting responses from mastodon, delicious food I’ve eaten, exercise milestones I am able to make since recovering from covid. What I feel about reality is different from what actually transpired, so the journalling helps me bridge this disconnect. Sometimes I tell people I am actually studying myself and they think it is a joke, but it is not. Without understanding my self I have no hope going forward because I am just auto-piloting in programmed loops. I don’t even know what program I am running on unless I examine it closely. In software we have to know where and what is the bug to fix it. We review the code and refactor it if it is not efficient. Sometimes there are cascading effects because of some code committed several commits behind. But when it comes to our selves we just let our minds run free somehow believing it will course-correct on its own.
I wish to keep on resolving the bugs I have, and keep on rewriting my self until I can directly engage with reality without all that layers of conditioned programming. In zen they do zazen (sitting meditation) to achieve a similar purpose. In these traditional practices they would probably frown upon using too many tools, to many words, and too much intellectualising and analysing. But I have discovered for myself it I need to go through that period of intellectualising and analysing before it becomes implicit in me. Over a long period the change subtly occurs, and it feels like an overnight intuitive unconscious leap. I’ve learnt that spaced-repetition really works for our brains even when it comes to behavioural changes. By constantly writing down things that I wish to remember and/or appreciate, it sets the stage for these feelings to spontaneously emerge during unexpected times. Fortunately and unfortunately for us, the brain is both intelligent and rudimentary. We can learn to reprogram our selves. It just takes what it seems like forever.
Why do I wish to directly engage with reality? Because I have no way to truly know whether life is worth living in, or what life is truly about, or who am I in context with reality, unless I am able to engage with it and myself directly without all the layers society has heaped upon us. Years ago I asked who was I without my job title and back then it honestly felt like a question from a horror movie. Now I have an inkling of who I am without my job title, but I still don’t know who I am, because I have always been plagued by the weight of chronic trauma. Will my trauma and my self always be one and inseparable? What is it like to be a person always bursting with creative energy like my partner? How much rewiring is possible for a chronically depressed brain?
I think in one short life, it is important to make decisions and suffer the consequences with lucidity, and as our selves. But I propose that many of us are not living as our selves. How many of us have chosen college majors, careers, hobbies and even relationships because we truly wanted them versus who we think we ought to be? Even our interactions with other human beings are plagued by conventions, perceived politeness and psychological projections. Are we truly us when we are with our friends or even spouses, or are we playing roles we have been shaped to play?
Like many people, I wish to have as little regrets as possible. But this is an impossible task if I am not truly directing my own life. Making decisions from a healthy inner world which has a healthy regard for my self is very different from making decisions out of trauma-laden fear and insecurity. I haven’t been able to fully feel my life and the world because of my chronically fatigued, sad, numbed state. I may not have much control over external events and my chronic health conditions, but with the help of my journals I know I can shape my inner world to an extent.
I hope before I die: I can get to truly know my self, and what truly exists between the space between the world, and I. That I can finally experience all the daily miracles which are now mistakenly disguised as mundaneness.
right after publishing this, I discovered I tweeted this on this day in 2016 – the universe (or my programmed mind) is really freaky sometimes:
without daily archival, life seems to be mundane and forgettable. But in reality, everyday is full of details and richness.– 20th Aug 2016, twitter
on the journey and outcomes of freeing ourselves
hand-picked posts that are representative of my writing