A Decennial Self-Audit

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.

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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?

V.

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.

Cheers.

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?

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