My Pain is Greater Than Your Pain

Dear Seafarer,

As promised. I wanted to keep up with writing at least one blog post per week. No matter how short it is, I must write.

Today, I want to talk about personal demons.

Have you ever been told to “get over it”, “suck it up”? Have you ever been told to be grateful, that at least your situation is “not as bad as X” (where-in X is the unfortunate individual who never asked to be compared with you but whose apparently worser circumstances is now being used to make you feel better). Have you ever been accused of being “lazy” because you are overweight? Or that you have “all the opportunity in the world, so you have no reason to fail?”

This is going to be a slightly challenging post to write, because it can sound like I am justifying a sense of entitlement, or that I am advocating for one’s right to remain complacent.

However, please hear me out, and I shall hopefully communicate the delicate balance between being “grateful”, not “trying hard enough”, and having a sense of respect for personal battles.

I recall having a conversation with a lovely friend, someone so wonderful and grounded, that she sometimes gets overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude. To her, happiness is in the small things. Being able to breathe. Being able to eat. Being able to have an education. In her own words, “What more could I ask for?” She had an interesting theory that sadness and depression is born from the luxury of having the time to think about things. If you were simply doing what you needed to do, and focusing on the task at hand, you wouldn’t have time to wallow in your feelings. Less thinking, more doing, hence less sadness.

As a child, I was also frequently told that I was very fortunate. I had a father who could provide for me, a comfortable home, and all the opportunities I needed for success. More than once, I was cited cases of people suffering in third-world countries, who had to eat “grass” to survive, and various other stories of poverty on the far end of the spectrum.

“So remember. There are kids in Africa who are starving with no chance at education. This kid who had to help his/her father at their family hawker stall is now doing medicine. There is no excuse for someone as lucky as you.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that gratitude is a beautiful thing. I like my friend’s philosophy on being able to appreciate the small things in life. I think that the less you need, the happier and lighter you get. I also believe that focusing on the present, and keeping busy has its merits, even if it is a temporary solution to deeper issues. I understand that my friend may be referring to moving forward in life; because sometimes that is the only way to heal, and to get better. It is not an inherently flawed theory.

Consequently, I also have nothing against being exposed to suffering. I think it is important to be aware of the harsher realities of life. It can be a sobering reminder of how fortunate we can be, and of the opportunities we have been blessed with. One must not live in a bubble-wrapped world.

However, here lies the crucial difference:

An awareness of your privilege should be used to check yourself, not to guilt yourself. Telling someone that they have “no excuse for failure, or that they should be happy because they have X,Y or Z” is like saying that people have no right to feel sad, to struggle, to fail, because of certain things they possess.

Using a “worse than, better than” statement can also imply that individual pain can be quantified and compared on equal grounds. Clearly, to a starving child in a poverty-stricken country, food is an immediate priority, and hence an immediate blessing. However, to someone living in less extreme conditions, priorities in the hierarchy of needs will logically shift to accommodate their personal circumstances. To”normal” people, having secured basic needs, the natural progression would be to work out existential issues. Just because I’m not struggling for food, it doesn’t mean that the emotional distress I experience is any less painful.

I recall feeling depressed at one point. I had lost all interest in studying, and I was near the point of giving up with myself. I had let myself go, and I lacked the motivation I needed to pull myself together. Everything seemed pointless. The future meant nothing to me. I wanted to die. I hated school. I was unbearably lonely. I was crying every day, and I didn’t understand why.

My well meaning parents advised me to keep studying. If I had studied hard, everything would fall into place. I should be grateful that I had everything. I had no reason to be depressed.

Somehow, being told that I had no reason to be depressed made it even worse. Focusing on my studies was clearly the logical step, but it felt like something was broken deep down inside me, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. As a result, I couldn’t bring myself to study. Because of that, I resented myself even more. I thought I was weak. I bashed myself up internally. I would wake up every day whispering, “I hate myself.”

You cannot force gratitude. You certainly aren’t going to get anywhere near feeling grateful, if you’re half stewing in resentment for yourself, for feeling a certain way in the first place. It is counter-productive. Rather than teach someone to feel guilty over their feelings, teach them how to deal with these feelings, as they come, in the most constructive manner possible.

Yes, I feel upset. Why am I feeling upset? And what can I do about it?

We all have our demons. It is important to respect our internal battles, and the internal battles of others.

To somebody suffering from social anxiety, looking for a job requires immense bouts of courage. To someone who has never experienced loneliness, sitting alone at lunch can be terrifying. To someone with depression, going out of the house is an ongoing struggle. To someone who has been overweight their whole life, going to the gym might mean having to battle a slew of judgment and stigma. You cannot quantify pain without comprehending the journey the individual has walked.

You get my meaning.

We are complex human beings. We feel. We respond and react to things. We have irrational fears. Sometimes, we cry for no reason, laugh for no reason.

You are allowed to fail. You are allowed to struggle. You are allowed to feel upset.  You are allowed to have a bad day.

…and you don’t need to be a starving child in a poverty-stricken country to experience each of these.

With that, dear seafarer, no matter what your circumstances or blessings are in life, I hope you forgive yourself for struggling. I hope gratitude becomes a natural state of being, not a forced reminder. And along with that, I hope you find it within yourself to keep walking forward.

Take care.

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Jacaranda Days

Dear seafarer,

The jacarandas are in full bloom. The trees look like they are steeped in pools of purple. I wish that the petals weren’t swept away, and were allowed to accumulate. We could have acres and acres of purple replacing concrete, at least for the time being.

A funny story, about jacarandas. I significantly associate them to how I chose my current university, The University of Queensland. When researching up other universities, I recall having a dozen tabs open, but I always came back to this one; because I was inherently drawn to the website, which featured a banner of purple jacarandas, against a backdrop of sandstone buildings.

Even the name sounded intuitively “attractive”, inside my head. I said it over and over again.

The University of Queensland.

And here I am today.

Really, if you asked me why I am, where I am; despite the ridiculous amount of overthinking I did, in the end the decision was made with snap judgment. Sure, I could tell you what seems right; they have an established history in this and that, there is a good research base for honours, prestige, etcetera. But I can tell you now that none of those reasons made me feel particularly compelled about anything. All I recall was that I analysed myself into a corner, I was extremely upset and confused, I had an awareness that I needed to make a move, now, or risk living the rest of my life in regret, that I was running out of time, that I was a disappointment, what are the pros and cons of choosing this over that, which job could I do which would earn me a stable income, is this respectable enough, would I be employable, could I do it, would I like it, where would I live, who would I meet….

Somehow, in the noise of the moment, there was this single, clear, quiet thought:

Jacarandas. They look pretty. I think I want to go there. 

I am always moved by emotion; whether or not something “feels” right. The bigger the implications of the decision, the harder it becomes for me to make a decision. While logic comes with reason, “feeling” comes with something which makes sense on an abstract level, and these may change depending on circumstances. I can promise you that the sun will shine tomorrow by knowledge of science, but I can’t promise you that I’ll feel happy tomorrow. To think that some of my biggest decisions were made on something so unreliable is a little scary. I wish I could believe more in logic and reason.

It is a luxury to be given choice, but with choice; comes risk and responsibility. If things go terribly wrong, you have only yourself to blame. Ten years down the road, if I am in a cardboard box or struggling to pay the bills, I’m not sure if it would make me feel any better to know that I had a part in picking my own poison.

Humans are full of contradiction. We want autonomy, but freedom of choice only becomes attractive when we are certain of the value we want, and the probability of us obtaining it. I’d naturally rather be responsible for my own success, than my own failures.

Still, I think that there is something beautiful in people who take charge of their own lives. Even if they don’t have all the answers. Even if they are scared witless. Even if it means living in turbulent uncertainty. I genuinely think that human courage is one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring things you could witness. From little things like speaking out in a crowd, to bigger things like giving up a “guaranteed future”, to taking up a leadership position… incredible stuff. Truly incredible stuff. 

I suppose it is fear which makes the pay-off so much more worth it, in the end. Whatever the pay-off ends up becoming, experiencing courage alone is worth falling, fearing, fighting for.

Fast forward from that snap decision.

Yesterday, I stood under jacaranda trees, watching the petals fall, in a strange country miles away from home, half in awe, half in disbelief, but full of budding hope.

Until we meet again, dear seafarer.

Springling

Dear seafarer,

Spring is here. It is so hot. Too hot.

I woke up with beads of sweat trickling down my back.

The electric fan was on, buzzing softly in the background.

Propelled by the wind against my face, I fell asleep.

I wish I did not need to do anything. Just to float in nothingness.

Before that, I recalled trying out this thing called “mindfulness”. It was an awareness, of my own awareness. It felt rather strange.

As I lay in bed, I tried to immerse myself into the present moment. I wanted to feel every nuanced second of being alive, with every sense and fibre of my being. Sights, smells, sounds, touch, taste.

I listened to the birds outside. Sunlight was filtering in through the blinds. They looked like sharp golden blades, interspersed with shadows. Their radiance was glaring. I had to avert my eyes.

Somewhere in the distance, the faint beat of party music. Perhaps a spring festival.

Inside my room, I shifted my awareness to myself, and how I was experiencing a multitude of sensations at once. I tried to peel these sensations apart, to put them on different layers.

I felt my the weight of my body, sinking into the mattress of my bed. I felt the warmth that was generated between that space, from bedsheet to clothes. And with my clothes, I tried to feel out the points where they connected to my skin. I thought of the temperature of the room. The hair flayed out behind me, onto the pillow. My foot, nearest to the window. The texture of my blankets; synthesized fur.

I was alive, but not quite. I was an ebbing presence.  A tiny, breathing particle in the expansive matrix of life. I was insignificant, but significant enough that I was here, in the now, coursing with feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Receiving information from the environment, and letting it pass through me.

It was a lazy day. I did little to save myself from the torrential weeks ahead. But I could think of nothing else but to remain so still, that life would stream past me. For the rest of the day, I slipped in and out of consciousness, just like that- burning slowly in the spring heat of my room. At night, a conversation with charismatic people, and some dinner. And now back to my room.

It is 11.47 pm now. I have an assignment due soon. I should be worried. It is a nagging thought.

Tomorrow, life begins again, loud and noisy and bustling, and exams, exams, exams. 

Dear seafarer, where will I go next?