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.
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.
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