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.

Dignity of work

St Joseph the Worker (square with quote)
Ink illustration

1st May: Feast of St. Joseph the Worker / Labour Day

There are many magnificent quotes about this great and most humble Saint. The one above seems particularly fitting during these times, as we recognise in a special way the dignity of honest labour and essential work.

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. 

 

Love is the only way

I was asked to represent, on paper, what was most valuable in a friend. A few people came to mind, and they had this in common: someone who, though coming from a different sphere, is able to see your gifts and helps you recognise them when you can’t.

It’s a friendship that’s mutually compassionate, unpossessive, and life-giving.

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Marker doodle

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities.

– Viktor Frankl  in Man’s Search for Meaning

It is so, or it ought to be, with the love of a true friend, a partner, a parent, a teacher… After all, it is so with the love of God.