In the past few months, I find myself receiving sad news from friends living abroad. The death of a loved one, a child inflicted with illness, frustration in relationships and the breakdown of a marriage. It has been a long time since I’ve heard someone ranting about something as mundane and inconsequential as office politics.
I am uncertain whether it’s because I’m an adult now and hence the people I know are bound to experience adult problems, or it’s simply a dark cloud lingering above us waiting to past, just like the economy.
Adulthood seemed to hit me once I got married three years ago. Gone are the days when I could just pack my bags and travel to post conflict countries like Timor Leste, got myself into life-threatening situations in Afghanistan and then still dream of doing something for the people in Darfur. The days of having only myself to account for are numbered.
During the last few years, I found myself living in the shadows of my husband. We travelled to Ethiopia and Cambodia for his work and what would normally have been a gratifying experience, ended up in self-deprecation. In case you’re wondering, the problem wasn’t my husband. It was the state of unemployment which nudged me into questioning my individual sense of purpose.
It wasn’t until I met a photographer in Ethiopia that I began to see that sense of purpose again. It has taken me a long and tumultuous journey before arriving here today.
The journey started on the day when I agreed to take a trip with my photographer friend to South Omo Valley, a region in Ethiopia where the lip-plated Mursi tribe habitates. She wanted to take some photos and needed a travel companion. Anything to do with travelling thrills me and although I was ready to go, I was unhappy with the fact that such rare and precious occasion would end up being just another fading memory.
Unwilling to settle as a tourist, I turned the images I saw and the conversation I had into child-like scribbles while sitting at the back of a Toyoto Cobra on a rocky journey to Mursiland. Once converted into typed-out letters, we submitted our stories and photos to travel magazines.
Unfortunately, our story didn’t sell but it reminded me how much I love to write. Since then, I’ve chanelled a lot of my thoughts and energy into writing. I became more focussed and happier as a person.
Although it was purely self-indulgent, it opened up my mind and heart in ways I never knew I could. I begin to pay attention to small details such as colour, smell, taste and sound; things I often took for granted.
Before, I thought the formula for my happiness includes having a family, friends and a well-paid job. If one of them was missing, it meant something was wrong and hence, I couldn’t be happy.
When we moved to Cambodia last year, I was more prepared to deal with the consequences of unemployment. I started a blog and although it’s not as successful as I’ve hoped for, I continue to write as fervently as I could. Writing became a reassuring comfort in the midst of great uncertainties.
I applied for a writing course and submitted a couple of short stories for competition but they were all met without success.
Yet, I continue to write. Some of you might wonder why don’t I just give up? It obviously proves that I’m not good at it.
The simple answer is, I was writing for myself. It was the only thing which I understand and in return, understands me.
It would seem that many of us sometimes forget the essence of our own happiness. We get caught up with family affairs, work stress, security threats, global miseries and all the sad stories surrounding us that we forget to live.
When a loved one is sick, a friend is in distress, a neighbour is wrongly persecuted or when our country is falling apart, we feel that it is selfish to indulge in what makes us happy.
On the contrary, I feel that it’s even more important for each and everyone of us to find that happiness during such bleak moments. For most parts, it helps to restore our hope for life and humanity. We all know that it’s easier to feel pessimistic and miserable about life when we’re down than when we’re up and yet we turn out backs on logical solutions such as finding joy and meaning in life.
Not too long ago, I asked my photographer friend whether she has ever felt uninspired with what she does. She admitted that she has her down days; when everything seems to go wrong and nothing she does ever feels good enough.
When I asked her whether she has any miracle cure for that, she answered, “Once a month, I take photographs of whatever I like. I set these photos aside and keep them for myself. Even if they’re really good, I don’t sell them. They are for me alone. This is how I remind myself why I love photography in the first place. I don’t do it just for money or glory but simply for myself.”
So when a friend confides in me how they are struggling with life, I often tell them to take some time and space to find something that fulfils them emotionally and spiritually. Like our bodies, these aspects of our lives need nourishment but sadly are too often being ignored. It is not being selfish, but self-feeding. We need to respond to the distress calls from our inner self rather than just hoping it would go away by itself.
Having said this, I don’t mean to advocate for people to start burying their heads in the sand. I’m advocating for people not to bury themselves in misery and learn to find some goodness and happiness in their lives.
If I had allowed myself to drown instead of looking for that buoy of life, I wouldn’t have gotten this column. Finding happiness during times of depression is like the first drop of cold water on your bare skin on a hot sunny day, the first gulp of air as you submerge from the pool and the first moment your head hit the pillow after a tiring day. It’s a gift that will help you gain the strength to brave life’s challenges.
When someone from the Malaysian Insider told me that I’ll be given a column and I can write anything I want, I thought to myself, “After four years, something good finally happens to me.”
I was wrong.
The good thing already started when I got married, when sixty job applications were turned down, when I was second-guessing my own worth and above all, when I thought I would never find my own sense of direction again.
The good thing started when I learn to embrace what makes me happy.
P/s: What would be a miracle cure for you? If you haven’t found one already, perhaps it’s time to look for one that works for you.
This piece was featured on The Malaysian Insider, 22 August 2009: http://www.themalaysianinsider.net.my/index.php/opinion/lim-ka-ea