Identity as our moral starting point

In June 2003, I flew from Belfast to Washington D.C as part of a programme called the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP). A programme that brings together young people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington D.C to work together, play together, break down prejudices and pre-conceived ideas about one another in the hope of building and sustaining peace in Ireland.

I always felt a bit different to the rest of the group. I am Irish-Malaysian. I was born in Ireland; I spent my childhood in Malaysia; my adolescence in England; and my young adulthood in Ireland. I found it hard to relate to the troubles of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the South. To boot, I have an English accent, which made me feel very self-conscious about having any claim to Ireland at all.

When I first came to Brussels, I was invited to a few events organised by the Irish Embassy. There, I met fellow Irish interns but I always felt uncomfortable being around them because I felt like a fake. When asked where I was from, I would say Dublin and name the area where I lived during my University years. I would then explain my accent, which ended up being a recount of my life in ten seconds. I always got the impression that they didn’t really believe that I was from Dublin. The truth is, I didn’t believe it either.

When I decided to not let things matter so much and be honest with myself, my Irish identity was one of the hardest things I had to grapple with and understand. The first thing I accepted was that I am not just Irish: I am Irish, I am Malaysian and I am – in a way – British too. Once I accepted that, I decided that I had every right to go to Irish events and to be considered Irish. But, I would be honest about who I was. Since taking this approach, I have felt more at ease and open at these events. I’ve made more Irish friends and I have felt – strangely – more Irish.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes about our nation’s history, culture, our ancestry and our family as constituting our moral starting point. He writes in his book After Virtue that all these circumstances and characteristics are in part – he quotes – “…what gives my life its own moral particularity“. It is from this moral starting point that we can move forward and figure out “the good life”.

My ancestors, my mother, my father, my birthplace, my nations’ histories and cultures all provide the framework of who I am. As I flip through my WIP scrapbook of ten years ago, I finally understand this touching note from one of my classmates given to me just before leaving D.C: “You have an amazing story – let the world hear it!! Be a foreign ambassador for us and Ireland. You go girl.”

As we continue to understand who we are and where we come from, we continue to move forward in figuring out our concept of the good life.

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Driving with the headlights on

My Dad is great at emailing me motivational and inspirational videos. I am very attentive when I listen, usually with a pen and paper in hand to jot down useful insights or words of advice, making sure some of it will stick. The one I saw lately was of the 2013 Ivy Orator speaker for the Havard Graduation Class, Blythe B Roberson. At first you wonder where she is going with her speech but keep watching, she’s incredibly smart and funny and she provided inspiration for this post.
The main theme of her speech is don’t try to construct a single narrative for your whole life. She encourages the Class of 2013 to make “whatever weird, scary choices” make them happy. She referred to a wonderful quote by the American author E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” When writing this blog, I sometimes struggle with my thoughts on what to write about; and in finding the right balance between providing entertainment and enlightenment.  This quote encourages me to just keep going.
Since I moved to Brussels, I too am moving away from a single narrative. I moved here two years ago to do an internship in law. I managed to convert my internship into a short-term post; however, I was only offered a two-month contract. Out of sheer desperation, I took it. I wanted to stay in Brussels until the end of 2011, and I felt that anything beyond that was simply a bonus.  
Since then, I have had three pretty different jobs. When one job was coming to an end, I managed to get another. I didn’t have to try so hard to find them, they were opportunities that seemed to pop up at the right place, at the right time.  Every time I got a job, I told myself the same thing: that I wanted to stay in Brussels until the end of the year and anything beyond that was a bonus. I never felt terrified of what was going to happen next, I just trusted that it was all going to be ok. 
I do laugh about the number of jobs I’ve had in the last two years and yet, I feel very proud of this feat. I’ve taken chances and gained a lot both professionally and personally. But, the most important lesson I can take away from all of this is that sometimes (or even most of the time) you just have to follow your gut, try something new and trust that it will all work out. I am by no means in a “stable” position job-wise but I have never felt more stable in myself.

As we approach the summer solstice, my goal is still to stay on until the end of the year. Yet, maybe next year it will be time to leave, to construct a new narrative, and to drive just as far as my “headlights” take me. As I finish this post, I am also reminded of one of my favourite quotes by Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

My prerogative to change my mind

“It is a lady’s prerogative to change her mind,” my Mum said to me the other day. For a while I had a big, bold ambition to do something big and bold in the near future, something which I had thought about doing six years ago and thought that maybe now was the time to go for it. But, circumstances in my life changed and I was starting to wonder whether I should still implement this big, bold ambition? I decided, no.

I was intrigued by the quote so I did a bit of googling. It looks like the quote’s original meaning stems from marriage contracts, where a woman was lawfully entitled to “breach her promise” of marriage. Googling this quote then brought up quotes about how women are fickle and change their minds very often. Putting my views on sexism to one side, I started to think more about the subject of “changing one’s mind”.

I used to think that changing one’s mind was a sign of weakness. When I was pursuing my plan to become a lawyer, I had doubts about whether this was what I really wanted to be. However, I had invested a lot of time, scholarship money, hard-work and perseverance into this career that the thought of it all going to waste scared me into submission.

But in the year of doing things differently, I have let my mind wonder free. The other day, when I told my career plans to a friend, she playfully exclaimed, “Gems, last year you were telling me you wanted to do this, now you are telling me you want to do that, make up your mind!” And the truth is, I am still making up my mind. I thought I wanted to be X, and then I decided that perhaps Y might be better, but who knows, maybe Z might be the best? I don’t owe it to myself to stick to a plan which is making me unhappy for the sake of sounding assured to others. I do owe it to myself to give something a go and change my mind if I don’t think it’s for me.

Changing one’s mind is not a sign of weakness or of being fickle; it is a sign of being brave and honest. It means being open to the possibility that what you thought you wanted may not be what is deep-down the right thing for you. Changing your mind means re-adjusting your position from time to time to help you get to where you would really like to be (irrespective of whether you get “there” or not).

One of my favourite columns is the Guardian’s Private Lives, particularly when the clinical psychologist Linda Blair used to respond to readers’ problems. I leave you with her reassuring passage which I like to associate with changing one’s mind: “Make the decision that feels right for you, and be prepared to review that decision from time to time. Remain open to changing your plans, but always base your decisions not on appearing “good” or “promising”, but rather on living the way that you believe is best“.

The prerogative to change one’s mind lies not just with the lady and I, but with everyone.

Lessons from an arch-nemesis

An arch-nemesis is more than just a rival. I’ve had quite a few rivals in my life: people who you are sort of in competition with, whether at work or playing football. They have been members of family, colleagues and sometimes very good friends. Yet, I never really minded the rivalry so much because we rivals generally liked each other (even loved one another) and the rivalry was usually in one aspect of life, not many.

An arch-nemesis somehow manages to sort of linger in and out of your life, and yet is always present: they share mutual friends; they go to the same places you do; they take the jobs you want; they go out with the men you fancy; they meddle in your life long after you have deleted them off Facebook.

I had an arch-nemesis. She was a friend of a good friend. When I first met her, I thought she was friendly and we had fairly common interests. Yet, something was niggling at me about our connection, that perhaps her friendliness was not completely genuine.

As she started hanging out more with my friend, I was spending more time with her. I noticed that she was quite secretive about job hunting and relationships. Since we three had just finished our studies, finding a job was starting to cause us anxiety. I eventually found out that she got a job that I had set my sights on. Around the same time, I also found out that she had started dating a guy that I had a crush on. This may sound a bit melodramatic but her getting the job and getting the guy didn’t just happen once, but twice!

I felt like the Universe was conspiring against me and she was deliberately out to get me. She was my arch-nemesis: every where I turned she would be there, grabbing any opportunity out of my hand.

In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. The problem did not lie with her, but with me. At the time I was threatened by her because she seemed to have the things I wanted: the jobs, the drive, the attractive personality and the sex appeal. I was feeling so inadequate and insecure on the inside that I was looking to the outside for blame, and she was the easiest target. I also realised that she wasn’t really my “arch-nemesis”: she was not out to get me, things just seemed to come to her more naturally and that was all. Whilst I was wasting my time feeling hard done-by, she was out there living her life, and I am sure not wasting a minute of it on me.

The last I heard, my former arch-nemesis was travelling the world pursuing her dreams. I wish her well and I am thankful for the lessons she taught me.

Making the world a better place

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
– Rumi

I always thought my mission in life was to make the world a better place. I tormented myself with these dreams and ideas and questions. The endless stream of questions was what tormented me the most: “How was I going to do it? Should I start my own charity? Maybe it’s by becoming a human rights lawyer or campaigner? How would I get there? Would I make my mark in this world? Would I save the world and would people remember my legacy?”

Gosh. Those are extremely demanding questions to ask of anyone, let alone of myself. I used to get extremely bogged down by these questions to which I had no answers to. Of course I would try: I did the volunteering, interning and working; I did the studies, I read the books, I even marked out a plan to my Mum, but I always felt lost, out of my depth. And when I started to feel all those things, I felt pretty useless and then I felt like a failure.

I remember one morning late last year when I was hanging up some clothes in my wardrobe, that a clear realisation hit me: perhaps I am not supposed to make the world a better place. Suddenly, with the weight of those words falling from the tip of my head to the depths of my stomach, I felt at peace. I accepted it and it felt ok.

That afternoon, a friend came round for a cup of tea. A lot had been weighing on her mind but I got the impression that she was at pains to talk about it. I had asked after her family. What I thought was an innocuous question opened the floodgates of tears, fears and regrets. I sat with her on my comfy couch, I held her hand and gave her a big bear hug, with all my might. She let it all out, and I was grateful.

When my friend left I suddenly knew. Making the world a better place is most of time not “saving the world”. Most of the time it’s the little things like telling a friend that you are there for them and are proud to be the person they opened up to.

It’s funny, you have an idea of what something ought to be, and then life turns round and shows you how limited in your thinking you were.

29

29 was the age when Buddha left his family, his palace, his old life in search for enlightenment. I have not taken such drastic steps but at 29 I realised that I was not being true to myself. A couple of years before, I was in a WH Smiths (a newsagent) in London looking at what to get my brother for his birthday. I am ashamed to say that in the bargain bin I came across a small picture book called, “The way of F**k It” by John C Parkin. I  flicked through it and thought it looked pretty funny. The book was about saying a big f**k it to things that don’t really matter so much and to encourage us to let go and be free. I bought it and gave it to my brother, not really thinking anything more about it.

Last summer, when I was 29, I came back to London for a job interview. I had convinced myself that this job was going to lead me to the career I wanted, a career that I had been building for the last six years. Six years spent doing internships; studying; working; seeing the world; and meeting extraordinary people. After the interview, which I knew wasn’t successful, I came back to my brother’s place and lay on the bed, exhausted. I noticed that on the bedside table was the F**k It picture book. Drawn to it, I picked it up and read it. After reading the funny yet bold captions, I decided that July 2012 would be my f**k it month and I would apply the principles of letting go, being honest with myself, enjoying the moment and not taking things so seriously to every situation in my life.

One year on and many great changes have happened in my life. Changes for the good. I am trying to live a life true to myself and be the best possible person I can be. I have realised that the more you give, the more you get back. So that is why I decided to write this blog. I was thinking about what themes or topics this blog should have and then I just thought, “Why not write about the things I have learnt over the past year and get the message out?”. So this blog is about self-help, philosophy, well-being, spirituality, health and anything else that I think is worth writing about! I hope that what I write can provide inspiration to those of you who want to live the fullest life possible.

At 29 years of age Buddha started his journey, and so did I.