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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 recently 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

Me, myself and I

1) Me, myself and I

This wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when I first set the prompt – but the phrase later called to mind this idea of navel-gazing. It is toxic, addictive, and destructive. It is when we look within ourselves in a desperate search for answers, only to stare down a devastating abyss. I often need to be reminded to look up and out.

Next prompt: Me as a 50-year-old


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!

And 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. 

 

The fruits of vengeance and mercy

Vengeance dominates the tide of social media these days. Sometimes it comes in the form of mob justice descending upon the perpetrator of a crime inadequately punished, and other times as smaller and subtler smears against those who have wronged or offended us.

The desire for revenge is rooted deep in us. We want those who hurt us to hurt, those who shamed us to be shamed. Whether we inflict the retaliatory attacks ourselves or by inciting others, the root of that thirst is one and the same. Sometimes we confuse the desire for revenge with the desire for justice, and certainly there seems to be an overlap. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that at some point the streams diverge. Justice ends (ideally) in some kind of restoration, whereas unabated revenge ends in destruction.

But too often missing from the dialogue is Mercy. Where vengeance seeks to destroy, mercy seeks to redeem. There’s no doubt that mercy presents itself as a heavy demand on the one who has been wronged. Anyone who claims it is easy does not know what they are talking about. Mercy is epitomised by a Man of Sorrows who, while nailed to the cross prays for those jeering at Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Perhaps such radical mercy is a weight none of us can bear. But when we truly contemplate the fruits of such a mercy, perhaps we would at least desire the capacity for it.

No story of radical mercy has captivated me as much as that of Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old girl from a small town in Italy who died a most tragic death in 1902. Maria’s neighbour, 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, had developed some kind of a sick and vile desire for the girl. When Alessandro attempted to rape Maria, her resistance and insistence that she would rather die than yield to him propelled him into an unfathomable rage, which ended in him stabbing her no less than 14 times.

The only known photo of Maria Goretti

As she lay dying on the hospital bed, Maria’s last words were: “I forgive Alessandro…and I want him with me in heaven forever.

(Those words make me tremble; they echo the dying words of the Love and Mercy himself : “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”)

Meanwhile, Alessandro was not immediately contrite. He was even reported to have said in court that Maria would not have died had she just given in to him. However, a few years into his prison sentence, Alessandro recounted a dream to the visiting Bishop in which Maria appeared to him and handed him 14 lilies, as if a symbolic reminder of her forgiveness for each stab wound inflicted. Profoundly moved, he began living a converted life.

Alessandro was released from prison in 1929, after serving 27 out of 30 years. After being rejected by several communities, he found lodging at a Capuchin Franciscan monastery, where he began living a quiet life working in their garden as a lay brother. Said Alessandro, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.

On Christmas of 1934, he sought his victim’s mother, Assunta Goretti, and got on his knees to beg for her forgiveness. And imagine this: that night they attended Christmas vigil Mass together at their parish, and received Holy Communion side by side. Before the stunned congregation, Alessandro asked for God’s forgiveness and for the pardon of the community. Assunta later even adopted him as her own son. She said, “Maria has forgiven you, and surely God has forgiven you. Who am I to withhold my forgiveness?

Assunta Goretti with Alessandro Serenelli, the man who murdered her daughter.

If Maria’s mercy wasn’t miracle enough, the chain of events it precipitated surely were. An excerpt from a public letter written by Alessandro Serenelli, dated 5 May 1961:

Alessandro Serenelli before an image of Maria Goretti.

At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart. She prayed for me, interceding for her killer. Thirty years in prison followed. If I had not been a minor in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved. Resigned, I atoned for my sin.

Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress. With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well. When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly. With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother. I have lived with them for 24 years. Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.

May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.

The-Repentant-Murderer
The repentant murderer in his 80s

Peace and all good.
Alessandro Serenelli
Macerata, Italy
5 May 1961

 

 

Maria Goretti is one of the Catholic Church’s youngest canonised saints. She did not live to see the fruits of her mercy, and there’s no guarantee that we would see the fruits of ours in this lifetime either. But nonetheless, may the life of St. Maria Goretti, brief yet so intimately configured to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, sprout lasting fruits of mercy in our own hearts.

 

Almond Blossoms (1890) by Vincent van Gogh
Almond Blossoms (1890) by Vincent van Gogh