In Retrospect: Twenty Thirteen

Inle Lake, Myanmar, 2013.

Inle Lake, Myanmar, 2013.

Our time on this earth is ephemeral, evanescent. My experiences hitherto have affirmed my belief that it is only when we carry this knowledge in our hearts each day that we are able to truly pursue a meaningful life, to garner the courage to make the decisions we deem right, and, most of all, to seek our raison d’etre and make the difference that only we ourselves are capable of making. As time passes me by, I find it essential to pause and reflect on the lessons to be learnt from this departing year, before embarking on the journey in the year ahead and beyond.

A perfunctory review of my 2013 would appear, upon first glance, to be a rather dismal one, especially when contrasted with the preceding two years in which I have had some of the best and most perspective-shaping experiences of my life. However, ruminating on the trials and triumphs I have experienced this year has helped me to conclude that, contrary to my initial dismissive assessment, 2013 may well be one of the most significant and defining years of my adult life in learning, discovering, and uncovering my inner self.

The World of Words: On Reading 

This year has helped me to realise that it is only when one becomes a young working adult does one learn to truly appreciate the scarce and precious commodity that is time. Mentally, psychologically, and sometimes even physically drained from work, the (sub)-conscious choices you make as to how you spend the limited remainder of your time suddenly becomes extremely stark, mirroring the priorities you place on the different aspects of your life.

Despite a tumultuous work year, one thing I am happy to have accomplished outside of work is the conscious effort I have put into reading. I made sure that I read and got inspired a little each day – regardless of how exhausted I was or the length of time spent – either on the train en route to the office, or a quarter hour in bed before surrendering to sleep.

This departing year has also seen me becoming increasingly exploratory in my literature tastes and tendencies, venturing more deeply and extensively into the realm of non-fiction. It has been a fun, fruitful, and perhaps fortuitous journey. In a year fraught with much ambiguity and uncertainty, I have found comfort, solace, and inspiration through words in ways unprecedented and unexpected.

Maelstrom of Mayhem: On Antifragility

Among the books I read this year was Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, in which he introduced the concept of antifragility as that which transcends mere resilience. According to Taleb, the resilient remains sturdy in face of shocks, while the antifragile benefits and becomes better when exposed to stressors and disorder. Looking back on my year, I found this notion of antifragility a particularly apt theme underpinning my personal growth in the arena of work.

2013 marks the year in which I celebrated my first year work anniversary. Given the unremitting tsunamis of surprises that have relentlessly threatened to breech my levees of sanity and to drown me in a sea of inconceivable chaos, I have been truly, wholly, and ceaselessly amazed by, firstly, my level of resilience and perseverance, and subsequently, my new-found sense of antifragility. As macabre as this may sound, I am actually glad to have met with and survived largely unscathed through this maelstrom of mayhem, thereby emerging a much better, stronger, and more antifragile person than before.

I recall a scene from early 2013 in which I was seated in a café with a person whom I admire very much, who had very kindly taken time out to talk to me in light of the impending circumstances then. His advice to me was to make the best out of the situation, and to perceive it as a golden opportunity in which to shine brighter than ever amid the apparent, looming darkness. These may not have been his exact words, but the main gist of his message resounded strongly and loudly within me in the arduous months that followed, helping to keep me afloat when savage undercurrents stirred.

It is true that you learn most about yourself and the people around you in times of extremities. I have pleasantly surprised myself this year, and hope to continue doing so in the years that follow.

Tests, Quandaries, and Afflictions: On Successful Suffering 

The act of surprising myself manifested in more ways than one. On hindsight, 2013 has been the most challenging and trying of my 24 years, ladening me with a plethora of unforeseen tests, quandaries, and afflictions in various aspects of my life. I became intimately reacquainted with salinity, and was often dangerously on the cusp of a quarter-life crisis. My list of books read this year can bear testament to this. One such book was Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. Of the nine sections in his book, one section, How to Suffer Successfully, particularly resonated with me.

Here, suffering is portrayed in an unconventional light. Rather than being viewed as undesirable, it is instead deemed to be essential in enabling us to learn things that we would otherwise not know anything of. Cautioning us against becoming what Proust would coin bad sufferers, de Botton highlights the mindless ease with which we could allow our suffering to plunge us into baneful depths – where we conceive nothing new and yet employ ruinous defense mechanisms entailing anger and spite – rather than to actively harness our sufferings to alchemise new ideas productively. In Proust’s words:

The whole art of living is to make use of the individuals through whom we suffer. Grief, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.

The gem I gleaned from this was, really, to adopt new lenses with which to perceive, learn from, and leverage on the inevitable sufferings in everyday life. Instead of lamenting endlessly about things that I was in no capacity to change, I now feel compelled to view all sufferings as offerings of wisdom in masked form, waiting to be unveiled and be put into good use.

Inspired by Proust, I am happy to have accomplished several things in 2013 that I would otherwise probably not have done had I not channeled my quasi-negative energies to more productive pursuits. The most significant of these was starting to write again. There is an ineffable joy in writing that allows for a complete immersion in personal introspection. Anais Nin describes the experience of writing as such:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely. We write as the birds sing, as the primitives dance their rituals.

I do not suppose validation in your writing to ever be unwelcome; this year, I celebrate the sharing of my words on this public platform, my writing flying me to foreign lands (quite literally from having won a travel writing competition), and my successful application to become contributing writer for an online publication based in New York City. For this, I thank all who/that have caused my sufferings in 2013.

A State of Comfort, Contentment, or Fulfillment: On Questioning 

What makes you happy? Are you spending your days doing what makes you happy? Are the people around you a positive influence, motivating you to do better each day? If you were to meet the bright-eyed, little person you used to be right now, what do you think he or she would say to you? Would those words make you happy, or sad? What would you do about it? How would you describe yourself? What are your dreams? Do you think your dreams define who you are as a person? If not, what would you say are your defining attributes?

How would you describe your current state of being? Do you feel comfortable, content, or fulfilled with your life at present? What makes you feel this way? Do you wish to change the status quo? Do you feel a sense of excitement or dread climbing out of bed each morning? Does your work inspire you? Do you think it necessary to define for yourself the role and purpose of work in your life? If so, what is the role and purpose of work in life? Do you believe in the notion of a work-life balance? Does such a balance exist? Should working be tantamount to pursuing your passions in life insofar as it invalidates any distinction between work and life?

Do you follow your heart or mind when making life decisions, or do you believe in destiny? Do you aspire to do greater things? Are the things you are currently doing moving you closer or further away from the mountain representing your overarching goals and dreams? Have you ever touched the lives of others through your own? Do you want to make a difference, and if so, what kind of difference would you want to make? What is the purpose of your existence? What is the meaning of life? Do you think about death? Do you think death an essential prerequisite to living a full life? If an elixir granting immortality were presented to you, would you choose to lead an eternal life or accept mortality as a human condition?

2013 was a year of endless self-questioning for me. I struggled with the difficult questions, grappling with the colossal ones to which there were no answers. I seemed to be falling into an abyss of despair and doubt when, quite opportunely, I happened to come across a particular book when I was at the national library during lunch one afternoon. It was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, storing within its pages the set of ten letters the Austrian poet wrote to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old aspiring poet seeking scholarly and existential advice. Reading the letters, I was deeply moved by the patience, kindness, and wisdom inherent in Rilke’s words, which seemed to speak directly to me and to address all that was stirring in my heart:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

And so I shall be good and I shall be patient. I will strive to live the questions in the present moment such that one day when I find myself living the answers themselves, I shall smile and look back with fondness on these days of yore, and reread Rilke’s ten letters once more.

Travelling, Friendships, and Love: On Happiness 

Of course, my 2013 has not been as sombre as I have painted it out to be thus far. There were intermittent flashes of unadulterated happiness, for which I am extremely thankful.

While I cannot lay claim to have satiated my appetite for travel – I do not know if this is even a remote possibility – I am glad to explored several new places this year, thereby bringing the number of countries I have travelled to thus far to a total of 45. My family trip to Krabi marked the first of a series of short trips that I took this year, followed by my spontaneous booking of an air ticket to Jakarta to meet an old friend, where we explored the quaint little cafes and bars that dotted the lovely city of Bandung while taking in breathtaking mountainous views. Subsequent weekend getaways saw me leaving for Bangkok, Batam, Hong Kong, and Ho Chi Minh, all of which have been wonderful trips with even more wonderful company.

As for my best trip of the year, it is without a doubt the one to Myanmar in June 2013. This country has touched me in so many ways; the richness of her history and culture, the mystical beauty that envelops her so tenderly, and most of all, the generosity and kindness of all the amazing strangers-turned-friends I encountered in Bagan, Inle Lake, and in Kyaiktiyo, where we nearly lost our lives. Each time I go on a trip like this, I am immensely humbled by the diversity of humanity and the sublimity of nature, and am once again reminded of all that life has to offer beyond the quotidian. This is something I shall never, ever, forget: to continually seek new experiences and adventures in life; to never lose my childlike sense of curiosity and wonder; to pursue beauty to its lairs and find charm even in things of the everyday; to revel in the vastness of nature; to learn of cultures and communities different from my own; to meet new people from all walks of life and learn of their struggles and successes, their dreams and aspirations; to learn to gracefully receive and to give back even more; to get lost, to find myself, and to return a better person.

My trip to Myanmar has truly been an adventure that has left an indelible mark on my heart, one that also precipitated the writing of a winning entry to a travel story writing competition. I cannot deny the delight from having random people come up to me telling me that they had read my story in the magazine and having enjoyed it. This also translated into a few other subsequent trips for which I did not have to worry about the flight costs, which is a most glorious thing. If only I were a travel writer!

Travels aside, 2013 has also been a year in which I witnessed first-hand the love, patience, and sincerity from my family, friends and mentors, both old and new, especially in my darkest days. Words can never express my gratitude and appreciation, and I am ever so thankful to have all these amazing people in my life.

On this note, I cannot thank enough my friends from Hong Kong who have showered me with such hospitality during the time I was there, making my trip such a memorable one – you have shown me the way in which friendships can transcend the boundaries of time and distance. I am so happy to have met all of you again after sorrowfully parting in Vienna two years ago, and hope to see all of you again soon, anyplace we may be.

The last quarter of this year also saw me picking up my fourth instrument that is the flute, and rediscovering my love for playing music. There is something magical about the unbridled, free-flowing expression of self and emotions afforded by the playing of an instrument, and I look forward to continuing this musical journey well into 2014 and beyond.

Lastly, the one final thing I am happy for in 2013 is to have learned the joy of spontaneity, to have become much more open-minded in various regards, and most of all, to have become better at not only appreciating but also embracing the ambiguity, change, and novelty inherent in life.

2014, and Beyond: On Looking Ahead

I am thankful for all that I have experienced in 2013, and shall take these lessons with me into 2014, and beyond. Finally, I shall end off with my favourite words from Neil Gaiman, which I am always reminded of at this time of each year, and which I hope will inspire you too:

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously. Don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself. 

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

– Agnes Chew


2 thoughts on “In Retrospect: Twenty Thirteen

  1. Pingback: 2013 Retrospective and Happy New Year! | The Literary Syndicate

  2. Pingback: On Transitions: A Personal Reflection | Exhaust yourself in the glorious pursuit of life.

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