How to suffer gracefully

When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly.

Blessed Sebastian Valfrè

I came across the above quote a few years ago, while recovering from a depressive episode, and was at once bewitched. Those words by a seventeenth-century Italian Catholic priest presented to me a refreshing angle from which to view my own struggles. If one could suffer “badly”, as Valfrè wrote, then conversely one could suffer well. But how?

That was the question buzzing in my subconscious when, as my friends went around the table sharing our new year resolutions, I’d said, “Honestly, I just want to learn to live a little more gracefully.” The year was 2017, and I was entering into the second half of my twenties feeling rather battered. By then, four years had passed since the first mental health crisis that turned my life helter-skelter.

I was, at the time, a bright-eyed international student in America, gamely juggling a near-perfect GPA and a packed social calendar. I had no way of knowing that I was also skipping closer and closer towards the precipice of a total mental breakdown.  

Most people knew me as a calm, poised, and articulate young lady—I took pride playing that role. But that “Karen” was unceremoniously replaced by a paranoid, desperate, and hysterical understudy. Instead of rising early to make tea before any of her housemates arose, I would wake up a frozen shell, paralysed by the dreadful disappointment of still being alive. Rather than seamlessly weaving in and out of study parties and pub trivia nights, I would vanish and leave my friends’ frantic texts and calls unanswered. Once, my boyfriend found me flat on the floor of the library bookstacks, feverishly sobbing about being “the most pathetic person in existence”. On another occasion, my roommate found me wandering aimlessly around campus, stone-faced and mumbling about how good it would be to be a human vegetable. Yes, I was in pain, but I also suffered that pain oh so poorly. 

I eventually emerged refreshed and humbled, but when depression returned less than half a year later, I went back to being a black hole that threatened to suck my loved ones into my misery. It seemed certain that I would be stuck in this cyclical curse for the rest of my life.

Yet here I am now in 2021, eight years after that very first episode, and I’m proud to say that I’ve made significant headway in my quest to be a “better” sufferer. These are six rules of engagement I’ve picked up along the way, which I hope can help someone else on their own journey:

1. First, accept that you cannot escape suffering.

I spent a great deal of my youth under the illusion that if I worked hard enough and smart enough, I’d have a good shot at eliminating suffering from my future. So invested was I in learning how to not suffer, that it never occurred to me to learn how to suffer. I was never afflicted with unemployment, poverty, disability, bullying, or cancer — or perhaps not yet — but into each lot some rain must fall, and what landed in mine was mental illness.

2. Understand that you do not have to do this alone.

Recognising that depression was more than a one-time glitch, but potentially a recurring theme in my life was scary. Each time I recovered, I tiptoed around life fearing that the ground beneath my feet could crumble any moment, sending my hard-won sanity plummeting back to hell. It would be safer to not do or try anything, I thought, and give up all hope of the life I wanted to live. But the reason I saw no path forward was because it hadn’t been paved yet. With some help, brick by brick, this new path took shape. Help refers not only to psychiatry and psychotherapy, for most saliently it came in the form of heartfelt nagging by family members, blunt but loving conversations with close friends, electrifying memoirs and accounts of strangers who have suffered more gracefully than I… The more I was open to receive, the more solid the ground felt. And so I found my footing once more, along with the confidence to revisit old dreams and construct new ones.

3. Start small — learn to handle minor and mundane suffering.

In the beginning, I believed that the reason I suffered so poorly was due to the unbearable magnitude of my suffering. However, I came to realise as I recalled my growing years that I’d always had very poor tolerance for suffering of any degree—be it heartbreak, failure, rejection, fatigue, hunger, even humidity. I now know what seems to be so obvious: if you can’t suffer a little, you won’t be able to suffer a lot. Thus I secretly began to “train” myself. Sometimes this took the form of “elective” suffering, such as that period of time when I would opt to take the stairs instead of the escalator, or the time I abstained from my favourite iced milk tea for an entire month. I didn’t need to, but I just wanted to know that I could.

4. Take care of yourself as your would your own child.

This exhortation came from my friend Stephanie, who must have noticed that I hadn’t been feeding myself. I’d been consuming one meal a day, sometimes less; some days nothing. “Take care of yourself as you would your own child,” she texted one day, a peculiar phrase that gave me pause. I’d like to think I would feed my hypothetical daughter no matter how many mistakes she made; she would not cease to deserve it. And I’d speak to her not condemningly, but with a firmness tempered by gentleness. This sparked a journey towards self-compassion, and ultimately taking ownership of my pain. Learning to seek professional treatment independently, while a significant breakthrough, wasn’t enough. There’s a lot more I needed to do for myself and for the people I love: eat and sleep well, exercise regularly, be present for others, and simply keep moving.

5. Make room for laughter amidst your anguish.

Another one of my dearest friends, Manju, who had seen me through the earlier depressive episodes, told me one day that one of her favourite things about me was that I would break out in laughter even when crying. Again, a peculiar statement, and not the kind of compliment I would have sought in the past, but one for which I was grateful. Her observation made me realise another aspect of suffering gracefully: to allow joy to coexist with sorrow. In the earlier years, I would have been so adamant about the totality of my misery, and so obsessed with licking my own wounds, that I lost the ability to acknowledge anything good. To suffer well does not mean to never show grief or vulnerability, but to be able to partake in the joys of others even amidst pain.

6. Recognise in each painful moment an invitation to love.

I saved this one for last, as it cuts to the heart of everything I have been grasping for. All of the above would fall on deaf ears as long as one loses the will to get up. Why should I continue to bear with the pain if I had come to utterly despise myself? Eventually, I found my answer in Catholic theology: if I didn’t want to carry the “cross” for me, I could do it for someone else. There’s a phrase devout Catholics often use during unfavourable situations: “offer it up”. Instead of grumbling, offer it up. Rather than quit, offer it up. This means to intentionally offer up one’s pain or inconvenience as a sacrifice for the benefit of another soul. But one doesn’t need to be religious to appreciate the wisdom in turning our gaze outwards. (I, for one, wasn’t a Catholic at the time.)

While my brain told me I was utterly wretched and better off lying in bed all day, I could choose to focus instead on the people I lived with–a choice which got me out of bed to wash the dishes in the sink. When I felt the urge to send a barrage of despairing texts to my sister, I could choose to hold back and remember to ask how she was doing as well. However imperfectly, holding space for another person was a sacrifice I was still capable of making, a gift I was still capable of giving. A few years later, I was even able to keep my anguish in my pockets and stand tall as I emceed for a dear friend’s wedding, reminding myself that the best wedding gift I could give her was to set my pain aside for a day to welcome her joy.

These were all baby steps, but each one a powerful exercise in reconnecting with truth, goodness, and beauty even from a place of desolation.

To recognise in each painful moment an invitation to love, and to accept that invitation, that is to suffer gracefully.

Love that cannot suffer is not worthy of that name.

Saint Clare of Assisi
Ink illustration

A shorter version of this essay was first published on The Tapestry Project SG – an independent, non-profit online publication that aims to restore hope and reclaim dignity through the sharing of first person mental health narratives.

30 lessons from 30 years

This year, I was spared the expected 30th-birthday crisis – perhaps because it had already snuck up on me on my 29th – and so this post is born out of gratitude. I’ve traded the usual personal essay format for this listicle, the product of three weeks of churning. (As it turns out, brevity demands far more discipline!) Presenting 30 lessons I’ll carry with me as I continue on my sojourn, otherwise 30 pieces of unsolicited advice for younger folks:

  1. You are going to be wrong about many things, including how life will turn out.
  2. Your dreams do not have to take the form of a career.
  3. There will come a time when you will care more about being happy and being a good person a lot more than you care about being successful.
  4. You won’t magically grow up to be someone you like. Virtue requires lots of practice – start early!
  5. It’s more important for you to like you than for others to like you.
  6. Don’t aim to be skinnier. Aim to be healthier, stronger, happier.
  7. Take care of your body so it can sustain your spirit.
  8. Put on your seatbelt. And wear sunscreen.
  9. And you might want to sort out your finances, too.
  10. If you learn to appreciate many things (e.g. nature, art, music, silence, long commutes), you’ll enjoy more of life.
  11. Have conversations with children. Or create art with children. Even better, both at the same time!
  12. Heartbreaks don’t last forever.
  13. Heartbreaks also don’t have to destroy you. Let them expand your capacity to love, which includes letting go and wishing them happiness apart from you.
  14. Don’t hold other people, especially children, to standards you yourself can’t meet.
  15. You don’t have to like everyone, but respect them as fellow human beings anyway.
  16. Listen to understand, not to respond.
  17. Ask questions to learn, not to outsmart.
  18. There is much to learn, even from those whom you assume know less than you.
  19. Before you condemn something (e.g. the Catholic Church, or all of modern art), make a sincere effort to learn more about it.
  20. Don’t stop someone from crying just because it makes you feel uncomfortable.
  21. Don’t stop yourself from crying either! Let those tears go. As my therapist would say, “What are your tears trying to tell you?” Listen.
  22. Forgive generously, even if forgiveness wasn’t asked of you. Leave the door open for reconciliation.
  23. And forgive yourself even if others can’t forgive you.
  24. Take ownership of your pain. It doesn’t matter who caused it. The wound is yours, and you decide whether to nurse it or to let it fester.
  25. The antidote to despair, as it turns out, is humility.
  26. Hope is not an emotion. Choosing hope over and over again is hard work.
  27. Not everything needs to be done well. Sometimes it just needs to be done.
  28. There’s no need to have a good day. Simply have a day, and that is good enough.
  29. Befriend solitude and hiddenness. These are often where true growth will take place.
  30. If all else fails, just remember that soon you will be dead.

Does any of the above resonate particularly strongly? Or what you add to your list? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. 🙂

I’m monumentally grateful to have peacefully settled into a new year, especially recalling how I hadn’t wanted to be alive to see my 23rd birthday, and then my 25th, and then again my 27th. At each of those points in my twenties, life had felt so unbearable, and existence itself so inhospitable. I can’t take credit for still being alive today, nor for the above list of epiphanies, as I’ve gotten here only with the dogged support of the people God has placed all along my path. Thank you for helping me to discover that joy can coexist with sorrow, and to rediscover life as an inherently good gift.

I’m sometimes glad that 30 years are past and haven’t gone by without my learning something in them for the future, and I feel strength and zest for the next 30 – if I last that long … Yet at the same time a period of life is over, which makes one sad that this or that will never come back. And it isn’t weak sentimentality to feel a certain sorrow now and then. Anyway, much only begins when one is 30, and it’s certain that not everything is over by then. But one doesn’t expect from life what one already knows from experience that it cannot give. Rather, one begins to see much more clearly that life is only a time of fertilisation, and that the harvest is not here.

Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo (8 Feb 1883)
‘The Sower’ (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

The struggle for self-compassion

A few months ago, I turned 29. I’m embarrassed to admit that it bothered me a great deal. If you’re older than I am, I forgive you for rolling your eyes. As for those of you around my age, I hear your nervous chuckle!

We often hear the assertion that age is but a number, but for many of us each subsequent number serves as a checkpoint: what have I achieved in N number of years? Sure enough, on the morning of my birthday, I woke up feeling weighed down by a litany of personal failings and should-haves. 29. Should have gotten a promotion by now. Should have gotten published by now. Should have started a family by now. Should have resolved this conflict by now. Should have gotten over those vices by now. Should have become a better person by now.

‘After the ball’ (1899) by Ramon Casas

The list went on and left me staring down a rabbit hole. I recognised, given my mental health history and predisposition towards depression, that I was in danger of freefalling into a dark abyss. I have seen how easily such thoughts could morph into You are useless. You are disgusting. You are irredeemable. And when this mutation runs its course, I am transformed into a self-loathing, self-destructive alter ego. As I stood at this precipice again, I had a decision to make: to pay heed to the taunts, or to tune in to the quiet voice.

This quiet voice was one I discovered only after more than five years of weaving in and out of depressive episodes. With the help of my therapist, I came to recognise that I possessed two voices: a condemning voice and a compassionate voice. The condemning voice is loud, brash, and unrelenting. And because I had given it authority over most of my life, it has no qualms about shouting over all other thoughts and making its presence felt in any situation. I had unknowingly given it free rein to be my internal judge, jury and executioner.

The compassionate voice, on the other hand, is quiet and unassuming. It is easily overpowered and requires a lot more effort to discern from the noise.

For many years I neglected this quiet voice. Not because I didn’t know it existed, but because I viewed it with suspicion and distrust. To me, self-compassion was synonymous with self-deception. To be forgiving of my flaws and failings meant to sweep them under a rug and move through life wearing a veneer of saintliness. I also saw it as cowardice, because it meant not facing the truth of my own depravity. It was for these same reasons that I distrusted medication throughout my first few years of struggling with bipolar disorder. I believed I deserved to suffer as a consequence of my own wickedness, so to do anything to alleviate my pain would be to live in denial. Hence I could not, in good conscience, exercise ‘self-compassion’, be it accepting the medical help that I desperately needed, or simply speaking to myself with kindness.

But I have since arrived at a better understanding of self-compassion. Far from delusional, self-compassion is honest: it gives me permission to acknowledge my flaws, yet without dismissing the possibility of growth. Far from cowardly, it is courageous: it beckons me to stop slinking away from life, and to stand tall and tackle obstacles even with all my imperfections. It is also humble: while pride listens to no other voice but its own, self-compassion is vulnerable and teachable.

‘The birthday’ (1905) by Paul Fischer

As I stood at the precipice of my 29th-birthday crisis, I chose to tune in to the quiet voice. It is true that I had not accomplished many of the things I imagined I would have before 30. But life has turned out to be too great a mystery to be measured by the rubrics determined by my younger self. Among other unexpected turns in life, the onset of mental illness at the age of 22 might have derailed me from my pre-written script, yet it also opened the door to a different adventure. I have struggled more than I ever thought I would; but those very struggles endowed me with a strength and grit I never knew could be mine. They also made me more compassionate person who is attentive to those who are forgotten, which led me to become a special education teacher, a vocation I have fallen in love with. I also emerged with the humility to receive help, to be corrected, to forgive myself and others, and to always leave the door open for healing and reconciliation. Listening to the quiet voice helped me to see that life is much more than what I have (or have not) accomplished – it is about what I have received, what I have given, how I have grown and helped others grow.

The checklist of goals set by my younger self remains, but without the anxiety of it determining my life’s worth. After all, at the end of this life I would like to take with me not a checklist, but a full heart enriched by love, humility, hope, and courage. Perhaps 29 signals much more than the end of my 20s, but a new beginning.


This essay was first published on The Tapestry Project SG – an independent, non-profit online publication that aims to restore hope and reclaim dignity through the sharing of first person mental health narratives.


Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.

St. Francis of Assisi

Does it matter in what way we are happy?

Two years ago, a friar gave me a pocket-sized book that forever changed the way I defined and sought happiness. 129 pages of plainspoken wisdom to be savoured and re-savoured.

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“What does it matter in what way I am happy?”

A fuller excerpt from Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence: The Secret of Peace and Happiness, a classic containing the writings of Fr Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure and St Claude de la Colombiere:

Let me show you a good way to ask for happiness even in this world. It is a way that will oblige God to listen to you. Say to Him earnestly: Either give me so much money that my heart will be satisfied, or inspire me with such contempt for it that I no longer want it. Either free me from poverty, or make it so pleasant for me that I would not exchange it for all the wealth in the world. Either take away my suffering, or — which would be to your greater glory — change it into delight for me, and instead of causing me affliction, let it become a source of joy. You can take away the burden of my cross, or you can leave it with me without my feeling its weight. You can extinguish the fire that burns me, or you can let it burn in such a way that it refreshes me as it did the three youths in the fiery furnace. I ask you for either one thing or the other. What does it matter in what way I am happy? If I am happy through the possession of worldly goods, it is you I have to thank. If I am happy when deprived of them,it gives you greater glory and my thanks are all the greater.

St Claude de la Colombiere

Are there words that have changed your life, and changed you? (There has been no better time for new book recommendations!)

Memories and secrets

As I rifle through my happiest memories, I find many of them tinged with the sadness of absence. They are either memories of seasons long gone, or of moments shared with people no longer in my life. While precious nonetheless, these memories remain fragile, and I dare not peer too closely.

I decided to search not for a happy memory necessarily, but one that I could hold close to my heart without fear of it shattering. And then I found it.

It is a memory of hope.

It was January of 2018. I had just turned 27 and I found myself once again in a pit of despair. It became a daily routine to drag myself to the Cathedral during times of the day when I knew it would be empty. Day after day I wept and demanded that God tell me what else He wanted of me. Somewhere amidst that barren monotony, my heart grew weary enough to at last be silent. That was when I heard the still, small voice of Hope.

At this point in my life, the rest of that story is to be kept secret. You may be surprised, because over the years I may have come across as an open book in this space. But this entry isn’t about the value of my story, but the value of secrets.

Secrets have developed a bad rap; we tend to see them as antithetical to courage and authenticity, perhaps especially so in this age of social media (and of oversharing). As a millennial, surely I’m a product of this age! But in recent years, I have learned to see secrecy as an instrument of discernment. Secrets demarcate the boundary between our interior and exterior lives.

One book that was instrumental in inspiring me to hold tight to certain memories is The Love That Keeps Us Sane: Living the Little Way of St Therese of Lisieux by Fr Marc Foley:

[W]henever we expose an intimate part of ourselves, a quality of is lost. We can never look upon that part of ourselves in the same way again; our gaze has been altered and infected by the evaluations and judgments of others. It is like sharing with others how deeply we are touched by the beauty of a painting. If the people we are sharing with begin to criticize the quality of the painting, point out to us its flaws or the artist’s immature style and the like, we feel demeaned and diminished. . . . From that point on, we can never look at our beloved painting in the same way again, for our inner vision has been infected by the judgments of others. Even when we are alone with our painting, we are not alone. Because we have internalized the judgments of others, we feel that people are looking at the painting with us. As a result, we cannot allow ourselves to be touched by the beauty of the painting as we were previously, because we cannot risk being shamed again. In short, we cannot be present to it. A presence has vanished.

I found this to be true even with positive judgments! The thrill of flattery threatens to displace the promise of the original memory.

When we intuitively sense a special moment of grace, we need the discipline to water it, tend to it, watch it grow, and sit in its shade. There is great discipline in secrecy.

Because grace is still operative in memory, we need to exercise caution even in sharing the “past” experiences of our lives; some memories are meant to function as solitary haunts into which we can retreat and find refuge from the world.

Perhaps that’s what the Evangelist meant when he wrote that the Mother of Jesus “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19).


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: My favourite quote

Just go to sleep

The need for sleep is a constant through all seasons of life. I am thankful for the times it has been a reward for a day well-lived, and I am thankful for the times it has been a respite from the day’s struggles and failures.

That said, I have also learned to not give too much credence to a negative self-evaluation of a given day. It is like how I would tell my student to not despair over a single failure. It is but a blot of ink in a much more magnificent narrative of growth.

A beloved priest told me 5 years ago: “God is like an impressionist painter. Up close you have no idea what he’s doing, but take a step back and you’ll see a masterpiece.”

Give that critical mind a rest and just go to sleep. 🙂

Now that the daylight dies away,
By all Thy grace and love,
Thee, Maker of the world, we pray
To watch our bed above.

Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,
The offspring of the night,
Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,
Pure in our foe’s despite.

(From the Compline in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours)

Addendum: The doodle features some of my most memorable dreams: being chased by death eaters, traversing my college campus on a flying mattress, getting warded for COVID-19, and most recently giving birth to a baby boy at home during lockdown.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: My favourite memory

The monster in you

This was uncomfortable to draw and look at, but examining and acknowledging our flaws always is. What is the monster in you? In mine I see flaws in love.

When the loss of a relationship sets off an avalanche, I am forced to acknowledge once again the imperfections of my love. To what extent was it contingent upon the way it made me feel? Am I capable of willing the good of the other (and myself) without the compulsive need to be favoured in return?

For as long as you can remember, you have been a pleaser, depending on others to give you an identity. You need not look at that only in a negative way. You wanted to give your heart to others, and you did so quickly and easily. But now you are being asked to let go of all these self-made props and trust that God is enough for you. You must stop being a pleaser and reclaim your identity as a free self.

(From The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen)

The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Your love, insofar as it is from God, is permanent. You can claim the permanence of your love as a gift from God. And you can give that permanent love to others. When others stop loving you, you do not have to stop loving them. On a human level, changes might be necessary, but on the level of the divine, you can remain faithful to your love. One day you will be free to give gratuitous love, a love that does not ask for anything in return. One day also you will be free to receive gratuitous love. Often love is offered to you, but you do not recognize it. You discard it because you are fixed on receiving it from the same person to whom you gave it.

Next prompt: My favourite time of the day

The superhero in you

3) Me as a superhero

Through the deepest valleys of the past 8 years, I came to realise that feats of great strength often feel anything but heroic. A little Hope gets your foot out that door, and to keep it alive is worth the fight.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway, so you’re most welcome to join in!

If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: Me as a monster

Me as a 50-year-old

This was an interesting one. For some (like myself), 50 is decades into the future, while for some of my friends this would be in retrospect.

Either way, here’s to traveling light! Not because nothing matters, but because you know what does.


The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a daily creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway, so you’re most welcome to join in!

If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free. 

Next prompt: Me as a superhero