What would my 18-year-old self think had she met me today? Would my somewhat inflated vanity disgust her? Would she take me as a superficial woman who is not sophisticated enough to deserve her respect? Which parts of my life would she approve and others she despise? But more importantly: why should her opinion matter?
Several days ago, I came across Mbak Ayu Kartika Dewi’s video about the importance of ‘auditing’ your friendships. She asked the audience to list down 10 names of the people they interact the most with on a daily basis, and identify which ones make you feel good vs. bad about yourself. Based on this information, restructure some of those relationships strategically—basically cut off those who have been toxic to your well being.
Beyond auditing friendships, what the post effectively did was prompting me to evaluate my entire life instead, which sent me only half an inch away from spiraling into a whole other level of anxiety on whether I have the life that I wanted. This post is an attempt to regulate and put some of those thoughts into perspective.
First and foremost: I’m married, have been for almost four years. I remembered being adamant about exclusively marrying my twin flame when I was younger (used to have really looong conversations with Diku about this), but I also remember tweeting a lot about Alain de Botton’s ‘compatibility is an achievement’ tenet. I must say, if twin flames are what twin flames supposed to be, I did not end up marrying my twin flame (although Wikan doesn’t believe in this astrological nonsense). Wikan and I are almost exact opposites in many ways, and while we therefore balance each other almost perfectly, sometimes it will take a lot of work for us to meet in the middle. One thing I never had any doubt on, however, is that we love each other (the kind that runs way too deep to ever change regardless of the circumstances; the kind where I will still love him even if we ever get separated), and that we are both committed to make this work. Over the past four years, we get better and better at post-fight making up, and to quote de Botton again—he’s the only person with whom I could “negotiate our differences intelligently”. Wikan is the rock that gave me the strength to soar, to grow, and to become who I am today. We may not have the same topical interests (books and research vs. music and filmmaking), or communicate in exactly the same way (lengthy written words vs. oral and visual) as spiritually connected twin flames but we share the same taste, we care about the same things, and we both have strong bullshit radars. So yes, he might not be my twin flame, but he is exactly what I need and I’m grateful that we stuck together. So yes I’ll take some credits for that.
That said, I think I have phenomenally failed at being a good friend. Or any kind of ‘friend’ for that matter. I even lost a few of the closest friends I had at the beginning of the decade. Poof. Sometimes there’s a clear stopper: roommateship that didn’t quite work out, one confrontation that did go where it should have, and a move to a different city for school or work. But others are more elusive: it wasn’t quite clear what happened, or who did what. I often resort to blaming my two years in Cambridge as the reason why I lost constant contact—as an introvert who feels really uncomfortable about picking up calls but has no time to write long emails, no facetime almost means like a death sentence to the friendship. I used to think that I could pick it up right where we left off—but maybe it’s not that simple, maybe you could also grow apart. It also applies the other way around—now that I’m back in Jakarta, it’s been hard to maintain connection with the family and friends from Cambridge time.
These days, there’s been a lot of second-guessing what the other person feels about our friendship, how they already have much cooler friends now, how our conversations did not spark the same way it used to. It is possible that I don’t enjoy some of these friendships as much as I used to, as I’ve become more obsessed with work. Although maybe, I have been distracting myself with work just so I didn’t have to face how lame I am to my friends? Does it have anything to do with the fact that I’m married? Has my complete vulnerability to Wikan effectively disabled me from being emotionally available to others? The possibility is endless. Recently someone I considered a best friend even told me that I didn’t care about him as much as he did about me, that I did not make time for us—and the part that hurt the most there was maybe the fact that he’s right. The truth is, I miss my friends, but I also know that it will never be the same as our lives have fundamentally changed. Maybe I should accept that the things I could afford—like periodic Instagram DMs and modest lebaran hampers—is what friendships in my late 20s look like, and that it’s okay. I should say though that my younger self—who was all about grand gestures and treasuring friends—would probably say that I could do a lot better on this aspect. Point deductions for me here. Sorry, self.
Next, career. I feel like this is one area where there’s no clear benchmark and hence there’s no way that I would let my younger self down. I know 18-year-old Afu would think that working where I am would be just as respectable as anywhere else, as long as I do what I love(d) doing: tinkering with knowledge—its creation, transmission, and more importantly finding ways to use it to drive impact. I know that some people really have strong opinions about the institution I decided to work with: some think it’s the best place to produce robust research and influence policy, others think we have some hidden agenda to advance capitalism. Let me just say that I’m fully aware that it’s not perfect: there are trade offs between working for a massive international organization with the government as your direct client vis-a-vis working for a smaller civil society organizations. It’ll take working for both to really understand how complex it is. What my younger self should probably be proud of, however, is the fact that I know myself enough that I turned down the temptation of trying out the private sector when I finished grad school. I am one heck of an indecisive mess, but at least I knew that I would probably despise working just to sell products (even when the products ought to improve lives).
On a slightly related note, I also just realized how I keep doing the same thing in the past 10 years: use my extracurricular time to build organizations that empower young people with knowledge—it used to be Indonesian Future Leaders (2009), Indonesia IR Students (2012), Parlemen Muda Indonesia (2013), Podium.ID (2015); none of them quite made it but they also lead me to where I am now, and I have a good feeling about this one. All those other products that allowed me to learn enough about what we did wrong, about unfounded conceit. With Think Policy Society, I will now take my time, which is only possible because I have amazing people who to build it together with. So stick around, self, as we are barely at the beginning.
One thing she will perhaps be deeply disappointed about is the fact that I have stopped writing in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, I write every day at work and publish papers, but I don’t really blog (except for these personal journaling), and I don’t share my authentic voice on printed media anymore. What she might find hard to accept, is that I know that people don’t really read these days, and that it means I have to choose a different medium to say the things I would’ve said in a written form: speaking forums, video essays, and podcasts. I hope she finds solace in the fact that quite a handful of people see value in my content regardless of its forms. She would probably have mixed feelings and told me that they’re different, and that I written thoughts are irreplaceable, that I should write anyway. “And what about that book you’ve been trying to publish since you were 18?” Well, between making a home, excelling at work, being a mediocre friend, building an organization, and speaking up, I only had a little time left to write. And frankly, I wonder if at this point publishing a book is just fulfilling an ego to see my name on a shelf of Gramedia or actually getting my point across to reach as many people as possible. Because if it’s the latter, I really should just keep making videos with Wikan, shouldn’t I?
I want to close this reflection with some thoughts about my family, and how I have been as a daughter and sister. I put this last because it’s the most difficult one, the one I’ve been trying to avoid. I am not sure how I could be a better sister and daughter. There, I said it. I know that my parents want some things I could not give them. I realized that I don’t check up on them often enough. I tried to make time for my little brothers but we never really open up to one another that much. Even though I know we love one another in the family—I’m still one lousy daughter and sister by regular standard. I warned myself that I might be stuck with this label for a long time. As I traced back, I realized that I’ve been an outcast since they put me in boarding school when I was 14. It’s possible that I left my nest way too early to have roots that grounded me. I’m the only third-culture child in the family—when my brothers left for college, they went to schools with similar values (I’m the only one who took liberal arts and spent another two years in the US). I’m a chameleon who could fit perfectly at home, but with the painful awareness that I could never really connect at a much deeper level with them the way some siblings or families do. I’m sorry, self.
With that, I’ll maybe give myself a score of 2.5 out of 5? But my baseline is somewhere in the minus area so I’m actually doing pretty well? Regardless, I have thoroughly enjoyed this self-audit and think that maybe I should do this again in 5 years. What about you? Where are you guys in terms of self-audit score? Feel free to share on the comment section if you feel like it.