Separation Blues

Being the first kid in the family, I had been used to being the one who left. The one who is being dropped off, sent off, or called in from miles away.

My first departure from home took place way back when I was barely 14—it was my first night at the boarding school. I cried myself to sleep; wanting the separation to be over the next morning. I remembered feeling devastated. The darkness made it impossible to think about anything else than the comfortable place where everyone I loved were, where I could sleep with the lights on.

I remembered missing the familiar texture of my bed. I didn’t know then, but I know now that I cried for selfish reasons.

Good for me, I figured out soon that the distance between Tangerang Selatan and Bogor was less than two hours. I figured I could took an angkot every other week. I stopped crying the day after.

When I started out college three years later, I had been smarter. I skipped the crying part right into the conclusion that Depok, too, was only an hour away from Bogor. Going home was a piece of cake.

Fast forward to the time I had to live in Singapore for a while. This occasion, I spent a good hour crying the night before my flight—probably because apparently I was still smart. I knew what living abroad entails: being on your own, making friends with strangers, but worst of all, being away from your family and closest friends—this time by a distance that is much further than mere two-hour angkot ride or one-hour commuter line trip.

My first night at the dormitory, I cried again. Facing the side wall, trying to keep my voice close to non-existent because I didn’t want my new roommate to think I was a freak.

It was not so bad because it turned out my scholarship can cover a round-trip at least every two months. That aside, I’m pretty sure I also cried for selfish reasons.

Yesterday, though—yesterday was different.

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Before anything else, it’s probably relevant to highlight that Boston/Cambridge is not exactly close from Jakarta. You either have enough cash to afford a 24-hour flight, or you’re just stuck being away from each other for the rest of your program (20 months, that is).

Knowing how my hormones usually react to separations, I expected myself to wail either several days before, or at the airport scene.

And yet, there were no tears. Wikan and my entire nuclear family members and a couple of our best friends were present—which would’ve been the perfect let-go/crying scene for yours truly—but to my own surprise, we left very calmly. There were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

We waved for the last time, didn’t bother to take a final look, and off we went through the immigration desk to the boarding gate.

Before the airport, there were also farewell dinners. Ones you spent with your work colleagues, best friends, good friends, and intellectual friends. At each one’s end, there were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

It felt unnatural.

Was it because my subconscious perceives grad school as such a significant deal, separations seem like a sensible price? One that isn’t even worth a short, good cry? Was it because I have Wikan—my very definition of home—coming along, it doesn’t really feel like being away?

While I do consider the latter as truth, it still feels wrong not to at the very least feel sad about leaving everything behind. The familiar faces, roads, foods, scents, and rains. But there was nothing.

The answer arrived five hours later, when I broke down at the airplane.

It was midnight when the flight attendants switched the lights off. I put on my eye mask, and leaned to sleep on Wikan’s shoulderif anything, feeling a bit giddy because of the show I just watched.

In complete darkness however, without a cue, my mind floated itself home—playing a scene where my frail father struggled to pick up his mug because his muscles had now began rebelling, my kind mother juggling through responsibilities when she should’ve just stayed home and spoil herself, my grandmother stuck to her bed probably wondering how quiet our house would be when my youngest brother goes to college in a year. There was also my aunt and uncle whose only daughter just got into college—who else would they be taking care of? And just like that, I wailed.

I wailed, this time weirdly not because my family wouldn’t be there for me, but because I wouldn’t be there for them, probably in the period when they need me the most.

It suddenly hit me that without me or my cousin and younger brothers, they would be five old parents, getting even older, while taking care of one another. As much as it would make a beautiful movie story, the thought of it makes me sad.

Banda Neira’s Di Beranda triggered this realization a while back (sent it to my mother when she told me she’d been crying for how empty the house was after my wedding), but tonight it hit me much harder. Maybe because it lacks anticipation. Like a Katrina on a summer day.

Prior to writing this down (which was Wikan’s idea), I finally had the good cry. Partly because I felt sorry, but mostly because I felt sorry about not telling my parents about how sorry I felt, how I do wish I could spend more time with them, how I regret not making enough time for them when I still could.

I know for a fact that I would feel twice as devastated had Wikan not come along with me. But I wonder if that would be another selfish kind of sadness—of wanting to have him around, of not having to be apart, of never having to feel lonely again.

I wonder, if you can only start thinking about someone else when you stop being selfish—or can you do both? Do I start shifting to the other kind of separation blues because I finally have everything I need? Is this part of growing up?

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On Marrying Your Black Swan

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[Captured by Ben Laksana, July 23rd, 2016.]

Nobody thought I would’ve tied the knot at age 24—yours truly didn’t either. It seemed too early, rather rushed, and surprising. But as Nassim Taleb points out in The Black Swan, regardless how much we’d like to suppress it, unlikely events take place all the time and almost always, they are the ones that yield in massive consequences. It also observes that, upon discovering an outlying phenomenon, humans would tend to frantically search for a simpler explanation—a rationalization that would ease their anxiety about what weird thing just happened. Love, fate, momentum? And yet when you look closely, it really is just a random occurrence. Our wedding was, in itself, a personal-scaled black swan.

Translation: I did not see it coming.

The universal formula had always been that girls with ambition wouldn’t—shouldn’t—settle down so early. The less universal formula is that there’s a laundry list that has to be ticked and unless a perfect match is found, one shall never stop looking. Being in our early 20s, we still had a long time to go, and Wikan hardly fit in my then set of criteria, but here we are, married—for 20 good days.

The truth is: we figured out early on, that we’re not huge fans of being away from each other. Especially when it involves a distance of over 23 hours of cross-oceanic flights and 12-hour difference, which was what would’ve happened had I started my master’s program next month alone. We’ve heard the opposing arguments: temporary separations could make hearts grow fonder, and if anything, it would’ve been a legit test to how strong our feelings were.

Nonetheless, we’re also aware that it would result in humongous, unnecessary pain and loneliness. Some can work out long distance relationships, but why do we have to go through the same agonizing drill for two solar cycles when there’s an obvious remedy in front of us?

Not to mention the imminent the risk of growing apart—had we led separate lives, every day we would’ve met different people, exposed to potentially conflicting values, and constantly develop new understandings that might not be as easily synchronized the way we are able to do it today. Sure, Skype calls could help, but there are obvious limitations.What if your other half is facing a hard time and you couldn’t be there for them? What if you stop caring? Naturally, if there’s a way to mitigate that, we just had to take it. Now we’re legally bound to live together, to move across continents, time zones, and languages—nobody could forbid us to.

For any two people who just want to be there for each other in any possible circumstances, who dream of not only growing old but also growing up side by side: getting married feels like being granted the ultimate visa. You simply win more by obtaining it sooner, not the other way around.

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As for the checkboxes, Alain de Botton writes this eye-opening essay about why we will keep marrying the wrong person, which basically sums up the story of how Wikan has drastically changed the way I looked at relationships and, well, marriages. That it is more about making the effort to meet halfway than hunting for the person who is already sitting on the right spot from the beginning:

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

Lastly, there is also a good chance that both of us slightly see this whole marriage thing as, the way Ben Laksana put it, a ‘rite of passage to freedom’. That signing three times on the sacred pages of ‘marriage book’ would disarm our parents and family from the kinds of justifications that they could use to govern our lives, or force their values onto ours. Don’t take it the wrong way, however; we love both our parents and they are great, but being able to decide for ourselves and gaining more independence to do so is one of the things we look forward to. Please go read the entire piece for more on that topic.

[In case this is not what you’re looking for, the also-honest-but-more-romantic reason is parked on another lot. Hahaha.]

To be continued to Part II for more thoughts on the procedures and weddings themselves.

 

On Making Peace with Constant Sadness

I am sad. I’ve been sad many times before: when I couldn’t find a copy of this great book, when the people I considered close talked about me behind my back, or when I had to say good bye to a baby turtle I accidentally killed. All this time, I knew sadness as an uninvited stranger who just had to spend the night—a couple days at most—but eventually left. I did anticipate it to come back, but never once I wished that sadness would move in permanently.

Growing up, however, I learned that there would be things I couldn’t change—not even mend—and have to live with. Like the fact that your own parents are not as open minded and tolerant as you would wish they are. Like how the people you look up to actually subscribe to completely different values from yours. Like anticipating having to be thousands of miles and twelve-hour time zone away from the people you love the most for two good years. Like being left by one of the few best friends you have left. Like how the nation you’re supposed to be proud of, are the same humans who happen to doubt you. Like the reality that love isn’t served on a silver platter, but a grand prize you need to sacrifice for. Like how sometimes you’re just not good enough, and that you can’t always have what you really want.

Each of these opened up a bigger space in me for sadness to finally settle in.

At first, I tried to deny its lingering existence—I looked the other way and distracted myself with the familiar things that made me think I was happy. It was only later, that I would wail for hours and feel confused for not finding the reason why.

Stoicism never failed me before—I wasn’t a fan of expectations and I feel comfortable sliding into my indifferent skin—but some sadnesses are so fundamental not even a stoic can shield away from. Fed with a force so strong, sadness transformed from a visiting stranger into an indefinite tenant.

After a while, I understood that something needs to change—and that it had to be me. Now am still at the stage of figuring the ‘how’ out, but I hope that self-awareness is quite a decent first step.

A Plea for Fear

In the wake of #KamiTidakTakut hashtag and all the diverging sentiments toward it, I wondered why—and particularly when—did today’s society begin to fear (v.) fear (n.). Somebody must’ve given fear a bad name, so much so that we decided to put him in the corner—as the emotion we shall all avoid, because it makes mankind small; it makes us a coward, unworthy member of civilization.

Terrorism, at its core, is about creating fear. At the political level, though, it is mostly about exhibiting power: proving that, the state hasn’t been effective in preventing attacks and protecting its citizens. In this light, a communal fear (or its false lack thereof) becomes irrelevant; at the end of the day, asymmetric warfare has a lot more layers to it beyond the people’s state of mind.

The following paragraphs however do not plan to join the debate in any way. It rather aims to limn a gentler introduction to fear, including why it deserves our respect and amity—for good reasons.

Many claims that one shouldn’t do anything based on fear: you shouldn’t stay at a certain workplace because you fear being poor—rather, you should quit and follow your passion. You shouldn’t listen to your parents because you’re afraid to let them down, you should do what you believe is right. One of these days, heroes are the brave: the ones who ‘handled’ their fear and take down the villain—which, in this case, are a job that sucks and your parents’ expectations.

It would be pretty straightforward to argue that they’re right. After all, fear often clouds our judgment from seeing the bigger picture and aiming for the greater good. At other times, however, it occurs to me that maybe fearing these risks is the good instinct talking to you. Maybe it makes sense that you assess the cons—after all, having a safety net wouldn’t hurt, and your parents have provided you for quite a while, it’s your time to give in.

For what it’s worth, it is fear that tells us there’s something wrong.

We have all seen Inside Out (the movie which—quite literally—brings you into a girl’s head and understand the five primary emotions inside it). Fear was depicted as this anxious little guy who always drives Riley away from the adventures/exciting things a.k.a. ‘the boring one’. But he does so in the sole mission of avoiding risks that would’ve caused her pain and all other sorts of danger. Albeit Fear is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite (especially compared to Joy and Disgust—or, in my case, Sadness), he has his role and damn well aced it.

The crush you’ve wanted to ask out for so long, but haven’t got the confidence to? Maybe it is fear, alerting you that he/she has never signalled a positive note on your late-night chats. Maybe it is your subconscious, trying to save yourself from a possible sinking ship of broken heartedness.

You got my point.

Linking back to the terrorist attacks, I wondered if being not afraid only means that we’re starting to be immune about these dangerous fanatics living among us. Shouldn’t we be afraid? Shouldn’t we be telling the government to take serious measures to address the problem?

As this Guardian op-ed brilliantly pointed out, Indonesians may be trapped in a cognitive dissonance: despite realizing how it should be traumatizing, we have grown so used to thinking that ‘these things just happen’. To most of us not directly affected by the blasts, Bonni suggests, they seem no more than ceremonial. And this is bad.

Either way, maybe it’s time to give fear a second chance.

“Fear is wisdom in the face of danger, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, The Abominable Bride

Post-Facto Notes and Whatnots

Funny how our brains work. One day it fools us into believing that a colony of butterflies is building a home in our abdomen; a couple of weeks later, it tells them to completely migrate somewhere else. To their convenience, of course, there are leftovers—some haystack used to finish the ceiling, or dying flower petals in their kitchen.

This post will not, however, talk about the natural habitat of animals in the Insecta class—although I must concur that it is a very appealing subject. Instead, we will talk about pain and ego, two mythical creatures that—just like those butterflies—share a nest inside our chest, although—unlike those butterflies—they usually stay. In fact, they stick with you religiously even when you want them gone. They’re loyal like that.

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Pain

Remember Anna Karenina’s first sentence—“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’d like to anchor that proposition to an underlying possibility: all pleasures are similar, but every pain is irritating in its own way. Pain leaves a unique scar every time it touches you; depending on the degree, it also owns the power to change you into somebody you don’t want to be.

Whoever said pain demands to be felt, had no idea that pain is just a side effect of healing. When your body’s temperature rises, for instance, it’s not because the virus wants you to be aware of the trouble it causes you—it’s your immune system fighting back. If anything, mortals should embrace pain, for it signals the arrival of the remedial phase.

In other words: pain is not an end, it’s a means. A resource, if you might.

Of all pains, the most politically supported one to claim throne is that of a broken hearted person. Because what could’ve been more wounding than an unrequited love? To find out that the man/woman you dearly care about does not reciprocate, must’ve bashed your heart to the ground; or at least numbed it off for a little while.

I would’ve thought so, too—had I not been introduced to another breed of pain: that of not being able to love back, no matter how hard you’ve tried. You might think that being loved is simple: it’s a blessing from the universe, to have another living soul beaming affection onto your worthless self. But ‘being loved’ also endorses the power—or, as I’d like to call it, ‘the burden’—to hurt, to cause pain onto somebody else. And not just ‘somebody else’—it’s the very person who would trade the world to make you happy.

Love is beautiful when there is give and take—life is created upon cyclical patterns after all. Our lungs breath in and out, humans return to earth as soon as they die, while capitalism prevails because market lets you buy and sell at the same time. Mutualism sustains, but imbalanced bond destroys.

Being the party who only receives does not only make you an involuntary villain, but also a depressed black hole, incapable of providing back. And the thing about black holes, they grow. The more you feed them, the bigger they get, and sooner or later, they will end up eating themselves.

The most deranged part of this scheme: you have absolutely no control upon it. It’s like standing just one step behind the line to ‘perpetual happiness’ zone, and yet you could not move your foot any inch closer.

What a pain, don’t you think, to be deeply loved by someone you can’t love back.

Ego

Centuries of civilization has benefitted from ego—it sent ships to conquer a new world, delivered humans to the moon, and killed several along the way. For all I know, ego is an open-sourced energy, you are free to use it as you wish. When it comes to pain, however, one thing is clear: ego makes pain bearable. Your love for yourself, no matter how small it might be, helps you survive through pain—all kinds of them. The typically-evil thought of “you deserve better” or “this isn’t your fault” is exactly what you should hold on to, in order to get to the finish line and name yourself a champion.

Whenever an opportunity presents itself, ego walks around with hatred. Sometimes, the latter takes over and professes itself to be in charge. When this happens, of course, pain will hide and pretend it doesn’t exist, because obviously hatred makes you feel a lot better than pain does.

This is probably why most people succumb to hating the people they used to love. They don’t have to, you know, it’s just one of the easiest self-defense mechanism they could afford. Because the other alternative would hurt even more: declaration of dependence narrowly shows weakness, and one cannot bear pain unless they’re strong. Strong they’d rather become, without realizing that under the curtain, pain still works its due—altering them into a slightly less-trusting mind.

No two people experience the same pain, so maybe humans were never meant to really understand each other. Regardless, I know for a fact that there are people who opt for the most genuine interaction with pain—they do not let ego (nor hatred) distort what they should have felt.

They let pain humanize them, bringing back the primitiveness of being helpless and in need.

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Together, pain and ego dance their way off whenever our subconsciousness calls for them. Their favorite music, to nobody’s surprise, is human connection—although they might as well enjoy the internal doubts humans cast upon themselves.