2021: Stepping stone

Our second pandemic year has just passed. Suddenly, I remembered one particular quote that Gretchen Rubin used in her landmark book, “The Happiness Project”.

The days are long but the years are short.

Spot on, I have to say.

Like how did the past two years fly by that fast when our days felt monotonous and dragging? Seriously, I need an answer.

However, to my surprise, it seems that 2021 was quite eventful.

In its ordinary way, the year actually imparted extraordinary nuggets of wisdom that come handy as another year ushers once more. Now, brace yourself for a long-ass wall of text.

1. Material possessions make you happy, but they are not everything

2021 was surprisingly a year of material abundance. The sheer number of parcel deliveries throughout the year was at all-time high to the point that the couriers already know where to deliver them.

My secret? The Holy Trinity of academic work: teaching, research, and tutorials services.

Now, where did all the money go?

Personally, some of my major buys include new gadgets, home improvements, and my own motorcycle (which I haven’t driven myself along the road yet!). Some purchases also gave me a chance to relive childhood activities that I genuinely enjoyed. I bought a Kindle in April as a birthday gift and it kinda made me read more. In August, I checked out a Sony radio since I used to enjoy tuning in to my favourite radio channels as a teen. That was quite a wise buy since it has been putting my CDs into good use, especially that I started collecting albums of my favourite K-Pop acts (SHINee and DAY6). From physical albums, my K-Pop budol eventually translated to digital albums, light sticks, and even online events. Although the experience was quite different, attending six virtual concerts still elicited a feeling of communion with my idols and fellow fans without breaking the bank. Priceless.

Of course, my family has experienced the fruits of my labour, too. We finally moved out of our home of 20+ years, something that happened quite unexpectedly. And since our family business remains far from stable, I also had to cover many of our expenses and upgrades at home, including groceries and a better Internet connection. And I’m not complaining. In fact, I feel grateful to grab this perfect opportunity to give back to my parents who have been extremely supportive with my endeavours, especially with my San Francisco stint. I could proudly state that living conditions at home have been improving everyone’s well-being. That’s a feat like no other.

And amid the seemingly endless outflow of money (especially during 11.11 when I acted downright crazy buying stuff!), I still managed to save the entire year.

Okay, I might have already been sounding materialistic at this point. But frankly, I just feel extremely blessed.

Accumulating these material possessions made me realise that, inasmuch as blessings are given to me, blessings are also given through me. Admittedly, I do have tendencies to equate myself with what I do professionally that I tend to forget who I am to people around me — and what I can extend to them, be it material or otherwise. Living at home and sharing my endowments with my family have served as a constant reminder that much of what I need in this life is already in front of me.

That feels humbling and even motivating.

2. Value small, marginal wins; they build up.

The pandemic has posed many difficulties for an extrovert like me. No students bugging me in the classroom. No colleagues or friends inviting me for coffee or a quick meal. No outdoor activities such as sports. The overall lack of social interaction felt way too horrible.

Over time, however, I learnt (uhm, more like forced myself) to appreciate some of the perks associated with work from home. No need to wake up early to prepare for work. No traffic. Virtually unlimited naps and food supplies. Less annoying people (maybe save from some encounters with family members). Sure, I still whine about what I have been missing, yet I still choose to put in my best effort to accept the current situation.

Make lemonades when life gives you lemons, as they say.

Such decision somewhat pumped up my energy levels. I became quite eager to work a bit. The predictability of each day nudged me to use it to my advantage by attempting to follow a daily routine. Towards the end of 2021, I started blocking off parts of my day for various activities (e.g., working out, writing my thesis). While consistency remains an uphill battle, I felt that these routines provided structure to my days. I banked on getting small wins each day regardless of how messy or underwhelming they looked like. By trying to exercise follow-through, I eventually broke my year-long academic slump since mid-2020, allowing me resume on my thesis writing.

Despite the uncertainties at work and in school, this practice was enough to stamp a considerable degree of confidence to endure the monotony and to make the necessary adjustments should situations change again.

3. No lockdown can stop humans (like me!) from forging social connections.

Who would have thought that I would gain new friends in 2021? Neither did I — especially during a hard lockdown.

But when Twitter launched Spaces almost within the same time frame in March, talking with random strangers online became an inevitability. People started forming their circles as people felt a surge of excitement to share their stories with others. A bubble fatigue was quite evident. Clearly, I was part of that demographic.

All those random discussions on Twitter Spaces were fun for the most part.

And while not everyone I had initially “met” kept in touch, eventually I found my core group. The Bears has been instrumental in painting my 2021, splashing colour to a rather dull landscape. Our Zoom chikahans materialised into actual meet-ups, be it a short weekend getaway or a spontaneous bonding time at my new favourite coffee shop.

Besides injecting a sense of belongingness, my circle of friends help me gain a better understanding of who I am without them even knowing it. These people are gold; they are probably some of the most understanding people who will listen and keep an open mind despite differences in perspectives.

Your Twitter friends are not your real friends? Said no one ever.

4. Self-care is essential and a non-negotiable.

In 2020, I regained myself despite losing many opportunities the material world has to offer. It seems that such major victory deeply resonated with me in 2021 that self-care became the year’s overarching theme.

That journey started with my decision to undergo psychotherapy in January.

The latter part of 2020 was just battering on many fronts. I had been reeling from my interrupted San Francisco stint and remained highly nostalgic of my stay on the other side of the Pacific. As the lockdown fatigue continued to set in, I eventually had to nurse myself from a failed dating phase. These things mixed with the pandemic’s uncertainties drove me nuts that I decided to seek professional help. After all, I just wanted to know if there’s something fundamentally wrong with me.

I discovered there’s none.

Therapy, for the most part, was enjoyable for me. I looked forward to it, even with the absence of pressing emotional or mental concerns. Many sessions were amusing. Some even gave me eureka moments with me saying, “Oh, so that’s why I felt or acted like this.” No wonder I tend to feel refreshed after some of the sessions. After all, increasing self-awareness can be really fun.

But it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. Some days were extremely personal. And even difficult.

As someone not too expressive of his emotions at home, conducting virtual consultations at home adds to that burden of suffocation. Yet I just went on with it. On some days, I just closed my eyes, let my parts emerge (or re-emerge), and allow them to communicate their concerns. Each of them was given a platform to speak out their anger, frustration, fear, or even bliss. They were eventually understood and validated even if they sometimes did not seem to make sense — instead of being judged, blamed, or ridiculed. These were some of the most challenging conversations I have made with myself, and my tears would attest to that experience.

And perhaps I direly needed those moments with myself.

Towards the latter half of the year, noticeable changes occurred within me. The negative self-talk, which I worked on in 2020, remained less prominent. I became less judgmental of myself and more acknowledging of my efforts, something I tend to dispel since I used to be too hung up with my past mistakes. More importantly, I genuinely developed a much better understanding of the different parts of myself, their characteristics and tendencies, and their reactions to certain stimulus. These days, I can quickly identify a part that tries to speak to me and the message it has been trying to convey. Because of these skills (credits to my therapist who has been such a perfect fit), feeling and regulating my emotions have become less daunting.

And one more thing — I’ve learnt to live in the present.

The pandemic-laden world taught me that only one thing is certain: the here and the now. Cherish today. Enjoy my material abundance. Nurture relationships I consider as life-giving. Work on the things that personally matter to me. Keep looking after myself. These are the only things I could hold on to for now. All of them have become possible because of self-care.

Perhaps that’s why neither do I excessively idealise the past nor crave for the foreseeable future. I also refrained from seeking external validation or a special someone who would address my emotional needs. And while I sometimes wish being situated differently, I continually spot silver linings in my life because they are always there waiting to be recognised.

My progress in many respects in 2021 might be quite slower. But I feel glad for taking time to walk through the year. After all, I am content where I am right now — because this is where I am supposed to be.

Thank you for being kind, 2021.

Phew, that was quite a long narrative for a rather slow year.

It actually took me days to write and structure my piece, but there’s no deadline for yearend essays, anyway. I just willingly pen them every single year.

2021 has undoubtedly laid down my stepping stones for this year. May 2022 be a year of continuity filled with hope towards redemption.



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