2020: Far from being zero-sum

2020.

A year when losses seem to be normal. A year that we are all tempted to simply cancel and regard as if it didn’t happen. That period in global history when the systemic inconsistencies and inefficiencies of governments and its officials were further exposed.

A year without redemption at all. Or so it seems.

Despite the negativity and the losses, we couldn’t deny the transformation we all had in 2020. Let me walk you through some of my realisations as this unprecedented year comes to a close.

1. Confidence-building requires trying.

Unknown to most people, I have suffered a huge blow in my self-esteem during the past years. Life didn’t seem to fair well. Career progression has felt slow. My achievements, while celebrated, looked trivial compared with other people’s milestones.

Those sentiments further amplified during my stay in San Francisco.

The honeymoon stage did not last that long. Eventually, adjustments with the university life overseas had not been that smooth-sailing. Most days were filled with self-doubt. Despite religiously attending lectures, I had difficulties keeping up with the level of discussion inside the classroom. I found myself struggling to complete my problem sets week after week. And while my classmates and professors had been receptive with my inputs, a part of me thought everyone was way better.

These musings induced more questions in my head. Do I really deserve this opportunity?

Good thing, the city had tons of distractions to offer. One Saturday night, I tried loosening up by going at a bar all by myself. It felt quite fun dancing and striking conversations with random people around. But towards the end, being unable to find someone to spend the night with worsened my insecurity. I felt isolated and unattractive. Unworthy of someone else's attention. I seemed ordinary who didn't have anything unique to offer. And that night, confidence issues finally hit rock bottom.

Still, I moved forward, even if I wasn't going anywhere.

Until one Tuesday night, my professor in Econometrics (the course I hated the most) gave us a pep talk before the class started.

It's okay to feel dumb. Because in these moments, you're learning the most. And when you're feeling dumb, you know there is something to still work on.

It was the cannonball I needed to get my act up.

From then on, I pledged to shut down the negative self-talk. I tried to pour in more work on my problem sets, even if I wasn't sure with my responses. I tried to participate more during class discussions. I tried learning a bit more.

I stopped confining myself in the dorm. I tried talking with more people, especially my classmates and dormmates. I didn't shy away from striking conversations everywhere — along the corridor, in the bus stop, inside bars. I tried being still and comfortable on my own, too. I visited parks alone to people-watch, to feel that expansive, natural green blanket, and to watch dogs playing with their owners and other dogs.

And as I kept trying, I felt better. Confidence, after all, should not be a prerequisite to try.

Those moments of inability are actually a nudge to try harder. Step by step. Without knowing it, the task has been done. Learning has been completed. And that builds a lot of confidence to try other things, too.

Little did I know that, after a few months, I would start dipping into research work. And that many of the things I've done in USF would become handy. Only then did I realise that my A was not pure luck; I worked for it and learnt something out of my courses.

Such confidence also spilled over my personal interactions. Over time, I started to feel emotionally ready to date again and to deal with what's ahead.

2. Sharing is indeed caring.

The pandemic has forced me to return to my parents' turf after five years of living independently.

It was an unwelcome development. With my overseas trip suddenly cut short and the impacts of being suddenly contained at home, staying at home felt being quarantined in the deepest part of hell. I didn’t just lose privacy; I was also robbed full control of my life decisions. And this was a hard pill to swallow.

Over time, I became more exposed with our household’s realities. The extended lockdown totally paralysed our family business, our steady source of income. My family was practically living off our savings. Economic insecurities at home heightened. Having been reliant on our business for decades, we felt staved off with new ideas on where and how to restart as the quarantine continued. The availability of jobs seemed low, even for someone like me with a relatively good education.

Thankfully, two major opportunities came right after completing my courses in USF: a teaching post in my previous school and two research gigs through Ateneo.

And while working from home poses its unique set of challenges, I could not be any more grateful for the chance to reassure my family, to make them feel that they could rely on me inasmuch as I lean on them. This new-found resilience and bayanihan within our family has been one of my greatest wins amid the uncertain climate, and I would not trade this off for anything in the world.

3. Connecting with others restored my faith in humanity.

Both my SF stint and the lockdown taught me the importance of recognising the goodness of people around me.

An exchange program in 2020 would not have been possible without a great deal of help from my family (including the extended ones) who have been extra supportive with my endeavour — emotionally and especially financially. I owe them a lot.

And beyond the Instagram-worthy snapshots of parks, nature, and food, the people I have met in the city made the ride even more worthwhile.

I would always take with me all the memories my dormmates and I shared in Pedro — shared meals at the lounge, karaoke, random morning runs, drinking at bars and inside our rooms, and doing grocery together, among others. I would not regret cutting my last Development Macroeconomics class just to drink and laugh like crazy at a bar with my classmates. And I would always cherish reuniting with my friends in the Bay Area, all of them were generous enough to spend some time to tour me around the city and beyond.

Equally important to me were the candid interactions with strangers around the city: bumping onto fellow Filipinos while touring around the San Francisco City Hall, talking with a guy about his girlfriend who apparently is an heir of an ethnic group in North America, drinking with unknown folks at bars, chatting with Uber/Lyft drivers, and asking assistance from sales associates at Target and Trader Joe's. Those random conversations, no matter how short and transitory, made me believe in the innate goodness of others.

The lockdown also paved the way for new means to keep in touch with others. Over the past months, reconnecting with old friends from work and school have become possible. Interactions were quite frequent over social media. Video calls and chats felt extremely awkward at first with all the Internet issues, but I realised that reaching out has been more convenient these days, only when we will ourselves to.

Still, I hope to go back to that mask-free world where hanging out with friends does not feel dreadful, where hugging people isn't scary, and where emotions could directly be seen through people's faces.

4. Expressing your emotions is a healthy practice.

Dealing with emotions is perhaps one department I have improved leaps and bounds this year.

2020 made me experience two extreme situations: living alone in a faraway land and being stuck at home for extended periods of time. Both were new to me, making me quite prone with sudden emotional swings. My old self would have just thrown every ounce of feeling out of the window.

But this year was different.

With my backs against the wall, I dealt both situations head-on. I confronted my feelings whenever I could. I labelled them. And I cried them out. Although I'm still quite closed off, I learnt communicating them with people close to me. If I couldn't, I tend to articulate my thoughts beyond writing; I even record videos to fully process my feelings as if I was simply sorting out the matter with a precious friend — without judgment and always with compassion.

Talking to myself more regularly kept me and my emotions in check — be it anger, frustration, sadness, or even joy. By expressing them often, I have regained a crisper understanding of who I was and who I am. I became aware of my tendencies. And I could weave life experiences together and create meaning out of the current situation. Ultimate me-time, indeed.

At the same time, the practice permits me to become more candid with what I feel in front of other people. Even I was astonished upon nonchalantly telling a dormmate that I was crying hard just before she knocked at my room, something we talked about while sharing our last meal together. To me, it signalled being more comfortable with vulnerability.

It was humbling.

5. Forgiving yourself is the best way to regain yourself.

This particular realisation has landed my list for years. And not without any good reason.

Forgiveness tends to be a long process. Arriving at a decision to forgive oneself is already a tall order in itself. But even when one feels decisive, the actual journey to self-forgiveness remains an ordeal. There is always no guarantee on the day it would finally happen. And that’s the hardest, most uncertain part.

Perhaps that was the reason why God allowed me to set foot in San Francisco.

One cold February afternoon, while watching this beautiful sunset at Alamo Square, I realised how unfair I have been with myself for years. I kept beating myself up for my wrongdoings. I believed that I need to suffer a bit more to commensurate for the hurt and trauma I have caused on other people. And that despite my abilities and efforts, I didn’t deserve my achievements, one of which was the exchange program.

I felt I deserve my karma and punishments, but never my blessings.

At that point, while being enamored by the beauty of the world before my very eyes, it dawned on me that I have not exacted self-forgiveness.

Incidentally, it was also the season of Lent, so I decided to fast on the negative self-talk.

Exercising self-compassion the way I would extend it to other people was surprisingly difficult, even harder than my problem sets in Econometrics. But it was the wisest decision I have ever made this year.

Self-compassion made me talk shit about myself less. I started to avoid berating myself whenever I could not complete my problem sets on time and to offload the pressure of getting As and competing with others to focus on learning. I started to cherish victories great and small. I became more comfortable in my own skin. I gained a better appreciation of being a Filipino. Little by little, it felt as if I was meant to be on that side of the world.

Eventually, I made conscious efforts to be more understanding. To view myself in a more objective way and to be gentle in pushing myself to put on the needed work. To persevere despite the odds and whatever life throws at me. To understand what I value the most. To be compassionate towards others and see the beauty in sunsets, smiles, and simple acts of kindness. To recognise injustices in the world and to contribute in my own way to lessen the gap.

2020 could have left me with what-could-have-beens.

What could have happened if my stay in SF was not cut short? What could have happened if the pandemic did not plague the world? What could have been my life now?

Perhaps wondering is already a futile task.

Sure, I might have lost some worldly experiences. But in an era when loss has become the norm, I also gained many things — better family relationships, wider career prospects, and improved knowledge in my chosen field.

Then I regained myself, too.

And even the end of the world could not take that away from me.

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Always searching and yearning.

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