All the World's a Classroom
Sometimes life throws something unexpected that requires you to be more resilient, more pliable, and tensile. It calls you to come up higher, and you just have to figure out how to.
I had one of these recently. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, requiring me to transform life habits and diet overnight. It’s not an uncommon complication—many people have gone through it—and by no means the hardest thing someone could ever face in a pregnancy, though severe consequences are possible.
Since living with the diagnosis, the number of internal dialogues in my mind has gone up. It goes from being fine, feeling guilty, discouraged, hopeful… all cycling multiple times a day. It seems to me like something that needs resilience, a virtue that combines patience and endurance, as opposed to a one-time event that I can get over. There’s a time element to it, and the way to face it requires small forms of courage every day.
I’d be remiss to not learn something about resilience from this experience. So here are some of the things I’m learning, and have to tell myself often, on how to be more resilient.
1. Resilience Requires Obstacles
No strength can be built without resistance. This is true in every realm of life: physical, emotional, mental, intellectual, spiritual, professional. We grow because we face challenges. There is a desired amount of misery that is good for our life education.
So the first step to resilience is to realize the necessity of difficult situations and obstacles, to not resist but embrace them.
Sure, the diagnosis sucks, and it may take some time to accept your given situation. But as a student of Tim Ferriss, I have to believe—and I am, in fact, convinced—that every disadvantage can be turned into an advantage. I’ve read all these books and blogs. Now it’s time to practice them.
The obstacle becomes the teacher, the tool, the stepping-stone to go higher. They’re not necessary evil. They’re just necessary.
2. Keep Your Eyes Forward
Keep your eyes and mind on the thing you need to overcome. Resist the temptation to look around.
It’s easy to compare yourself with others and with you didn’t have to go through this challenge, envying what others have instead. This is not helpful and it doesn’t change reality one bit. It will weaken your spirit instead. Focus on the path forward and embrace its uniqueness.
3. Take Time to be Quiet
Another temptation is to multiply the company for your misery and complain to every ear in sight. Resist this impulse too. There’s strength to be gained by simply being quiet. Keep some of your challenges to yourself. Don’t cheapen the experience by complaining or over-sharing. Sure, talk to your trusted few, but no one’s really entitled to know every single thought and feeling that you have. They probably don’t want to know. Too much talking may weaken your resilience. So don’t discourage yourself by your words.
4. Be Open to Advice…with Limits
Those with whom you share will undoubtedly have an infinite amount of advice. And the probability of all of that advice being correct is a big fat zero. They mean well, of course, or they just want to self-affirm.
Regardless, be open to what people say. It’s going to be tempting to be defiant: “You don’t know what it’s like.” But don’t do yourself a disservice by being too stubborn. Listen, take what you can, and discard the rest. Don’t fight advice, but don’t accept everything. Receive help, as long as it is helpful.
5. Your Path is Yours Alone
Ultimately, you are on the path to resilience alone. No one else can strengthen your muscles. You may have company and others’ support, but our human experience is ours along to bear. No one else will understand completely your thoughts, feelings, and motives. And that is how it should be.
If you were to be more resilient, you alone are responsible in developing that strength.
6. Ask the What-If Question
Because resilience is about strength over time, it’s not a bad exercise to ask the what-if question. What if this challenge persists forever, if things won’t ever change? What if I can never eat a Nutella crepe ever again?
Sometimes we can develop strength momentarily, when we know a certain situation is finite. But sometimes, there is no guarantee that it will be over. What then?
If we could make peace with a persistent condition, then maybe we would have learned something about true resilience.
Writing is always a function of life. Whatever inputs received, whether through reading or experiences, eventually get out on paper, or digital paper. When something as big, literally, as pregnancy happens, it is inevitable that my writing would be influenced by it. These are the 3 ways that pregnancy has changed my writing.
1. The Setback
Unfortunately, the first change it brought was a setback. During the beginning of pregnancy, writing essentially halted because I was too busy barfing to form coherent sentences. I had a good momentum beforehand too, so I had to re-build it after that season passed.
2. Thinking about Home
As evident in recent posts, the experience of witnessing another identity forming inside me makes me think about my own identity and the idea of home. I am a host, a landlord or some sort, to someone else. I’m very involved, yet the process is still distinct from me. This other identity is intimately connected to me, yet also foreign.
Obviously, this other identity is unconscious of this whole process. In a way, he is so much at home that he’s not aware that he’s a guest.
In the U.S., recent events and political discourse have made me feel more aware of being a foreigner than ever before, even though I’ve lived here for a long time. Do I even have a home anymore?
I know that these sentiments are not unique, because the posts on Home-Longing and Home in Language have brought upon conversations with friends, especially fellow Indonesians, who resonate with these thoughts.
Perhaps as adults, or displaced adults, home is less about geography and more about the relationships we form. A friend told me that he doesn’t feel at home anywhere anymore, but he said, “When I look at my son, though, I feel home. I feel I belong.” He assured me that I would feel the same way too, and I look forward to that.
3. Letters to My Unborn Child
I was stuck, writing-wise, for a while. Not because there was nothing to write about, but because the thoughts were too private, emotional, and raw. In other words, not blogging material. So I started to write privately to my unborn child about the thoughts, feelings, and confusions that I have at this moment of time. I’m no Ta-Nehisi Coates or Omar Saif Ghobash, but I would assume my reflections would be most relevant to my own child.
It’s not so much for the baby as it is for me, though, to record feelings and hopes contemporarily, as evidence of a thinking and conscious being in 2017. Writing for a specific audience just makes the process easier.
But, also, if the said child were ever curious about me, he would at least have some data. After all, there’s no guarantee I will be around when that happens, or have the chance to have these conversations with him someday. You never know. I may be an emotionally inaccessible Asian parent in the future. If these writings remain, then at least there would be some breadcrumbs that he can track.
We are all influenced by our parents’ identity, in good and bad ways. Sometimes there are things about ourselves that we can’t explain simply because we inherit them. And we may never understand these cause and effects because we don’t know much about our lineage. Hopefully, these letters can help my future progeny discover who they are and explain their own identities one day.
Some songs that connect with me these days.
Part 1 of a series of posts on Home-Longing.
If my sister speaks English to me, there is a first, instinctive reaction within me that says, “Why are you speaking to me like that?” It’s not because there’s anything wrong with her tone or words, but simply because English is not our first language.
English was a foreign language that we acquired. We did not grow up speaking English, did not fight or argue in English, and did not learn sisterly affection in English. Consequently, English doesn’t fully reflect the nature of our relationship, nor does it capture exactly the sentiments that we want to express to each other. The language that does these things is Indonesian, our mother tongue.
Of course, we get more used to speaking English to each other because we live in the U.S. Yet the psychology of speaking Indonesian vs. English is something that, I don’t think, we can change. Speaking a foreign language to each other makes us feel foreign to each other. It just feels weird, too formal, we often say, as if the language puts a distance between us.
To Understand and Be Understood
Language plays a powerful role in creating that visceral sense of home and belonging in a person. There’s nothing simpler than feeling like you belong when you hear people speak in your native language, especially in a foreign place. This homey feeling comes from the very basic premise of language, which is to connect and communicate to another person on the same terms. To understand and be understood, without having to explain much to say something simple, is to feel at rest, at home.
On the flip side, there’s nothing that makes you feel more foreign than being in a room of people who speak an entirely different language. In this sense, language difference is the first obvious signal of your foreignness. And to find people who speak the way you do is to find your tribe.
The Need for Exposure
As in other cultural experiences, the realization of how deep your mother tongue relates to your psyche probably would not come until you step out of your own world or take on another language. If you never left home, then you’d probably never feel homesick. The more prevalent feeling may be, “I need to get out and see the world.” Yet often, you learn more about yourself and your origin once you can compare and contrast it with a different experience.
Which is why I’m an advocate of multilingualism. Learning a second language is always a good idea. Learning a third or fourth, and for the masters, fifth, sixth language, and so on, brings a different experience each time. And adding a language enriches rather than diminishes your ability in any particular language, analogous to C.S. Lewis’ description of friendship when it is expanded from two to three people: the more we share our minds with different languages, the more we have of each, since each language shines a light on another, whether by comparison or by contrast.
Back to the Mother Tongue
Yet through all the tours of other world languages, nothing will compare to the intimacy and dearness of your own mother tongue.
Nelson Mandela said,
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Your mother tongue is your home. My reading interview with Justin Kim touched on this point a little bit, on the difference between reading in our first and second languages. For me, reading in English is more cerebral, even though this is the primary language I read in these days. The analytical part of my brain is engaged more to make sure I understand what the sentence is saying. Reading in Indonesian, though, is entirely different. It’s more natural, and more often than not, I can read faster in Indonesian. I can sense the musicality of the language more, appreciate the poetry in the sentences more, and feel the text more viscerally. When I read a piece of Indonesian literature, I could feel the humidity of the air, the muddy soil, the smell after the rain, the cracks and stains on the wall, the corner kitchen with blackened wall, the vibrant green that only belongs to tropical floras. It is an echo of where I came from.
Now, another person’s mother tongue is just as precious to them as it is to you, and as Trevor Noah writes, when you reach out to communicate to someone else in their mother tongue, it becomes a powerful acknowledgement and affirmation of their identity and culture… More on this in a future post.
If you happen to be bilingual/multilingual, how have other languages make you appreciate your mother tongue? What’s your experience in reading in multiple languages? Comment below! I would love to hear your story.