The Key To Life: The Willingness To Suffer

 

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I think the key to living is to be willing to suffer, and suffer terribly. For much of my life, I avoided suffering. I am very bad at suffering. Whenever any suffering lands on my head, I start to writhe and squirm and cry out, my face contorted, to wax poetical and sing songs as if the noise pouring out of my throat will save me. I lie there, my heart breaking, wallowing in the agony and hating it and screaming.

As a sensitive and anxious person, the tiniest bit of suffering can grate across my nerves like nails digging into an open flesh wound. An ant crawling across my hand is enough to send me into an anxiety attack. But what I have found is that the key to life, and to happiness, is to face suffering, whatever it is, head-on. Rather than hide behind bushes or rocks, or skirt and dodge the bullets, duck down into trenches, the only way to truly live and grow is to walk out onto the battlefield with open arms and a smile on your face as bullets tear you apart, touch a thousand blossoms of red on your clothes. The best way to understand anything is to spend a few minutes, hours, days, alone and screaming. You have to drop the beehive onto your head, hack off your own foot—then inspect the blood and the blisters and the wounds, to learn what they have to teach you.

Like I said, as a sensitive person, I am highly averse to suffering, both physical and psychological; at the doctor’s, even as a grown woman, when I get my blood drawn, or a flu injection, I will cringe and shed tears. If someone screams in my face, they may as well be pummeling me with bricks until my flesh is bruised and my bones are broken.

I know suffering, just like anyone who walks a day on this planet. Suffering is my lover, its every hard edge and plane intimately explored each and every second of my life. It is the key to life, because it is life. Dissatisfaction, a niggling sense of “not-rightness”, the constant looming fear of death, feelings of insecurity, a deep desire for the warmth and safety of the womb that will never be fulfilled—life is suffering, through and through. We are born, screaming, and we live, silently screaming, and we die, screaming, in our minds and our hearts. In between the screams, however, there are smiles, there is laughter, and the only way to cultivate more of these things is to scream your way to them. Anything worth having or achieving takes years of gritted teeth and groans and gasps of agony, often in solitude and silence.

You see, the point of life isn’t to be happy while you’re living, but to die happy. And the only way to die happy is by accomplishing what you need to accomplish while you are alive, which takes work and sweat and blood, a couple of mushy pieces of guts, and a lot of agonized yelling. What’s more, what you are often left with at the end isn’t even happiness, which is, in a way, it’s own kind of suffering. Instead, it’s just sort of a small, tiny prick of satisfaction, before you close your eyes and leave this world for the last time, a twinge of peace that, no matter how miniscule, in that moment, will be worth more than anything else possible could.

A Tiny Heaven After An Enormous Hell

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So I wrote a post about racial discrimination, in particular, my experience with it as an INFP with social anxiety, like a couple of days ago, and posted it; then the next day, when I received no comments or likes, promptly deleted it, out of despair that no-one could relate. And so began the first sizzling days of my tiny purgatory.

Why was writing and deleting this post such a big deal for me? Why did it light the fuse on a couple of days of deep, internal suffering, burning in my flesh and my bones to the point where every second every cell of my body screamed a long, silent scream?

Here it is: when I mused upon racial discrimination, I started thinking about the history of colonialism. As I started thinking about colonialism, the millions of death it caused, I started thinking about the capacity for evil within humans. From there, I started to see the evil present all around us in society and the world today, how some people have everything and others have nothing, how people will hurt and even kill other people and not care. Then I started thinking about the many ways I had suffered or been disadvantaged in life. First off, I was born extremely sensitive, I thought to myself, with growing indignation, which meant any suffering that hurtled in my direction multiplied a thousandfold in strength along the way. Then I was born a woman, incidentally with an abusive father. I am a minority, a person of colour, so I have had to deal with racism and identity issues. I have always been poor. I am introvert, forced to adapt to an extroverted world, and unable to. I have struggled with self-hatred for most of my life and carry with me lifelong shame. I have been bullied. I have anxiety and Asperger’s and all sorts of other quirks which make leaving the house and social interaction difficult. Honestly—I should just kill myself! The world sucks, people suck, I suck, my life sucks, so what is the point?

The truth is, no-one cares about anyone. Indifference kills millions everyday. Everyone is too busy stuck inside their own worlds, with their own problems, to bother with yours. So, the long and short of it is, I went through, for the couple of days, deep suffering, entirely alone, just like every single human being in history. My mind burnt me alive. I screamed. I screamed. Most of the screaming wasn’t because my life was so hard, but because I couldn’t understand why I lived in a world where so many suffered, where there was so much evil and cruelty. I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t deal with it. I just couldn’t. When I see a person suffering, an animal suffering, it is as if I am the one suffering. I couldn’t understand how millions of people could starve on one side of the world while on the other people feasted in their nine-million-dollar mansions.

I couldn’t understand it. I was afraid of the depths and power of human cruelty. I was afraid of the lack of compassion, imagination and empathy in the world. People spend hours designing clothes even as somewhere, someone is curling up into a ball and dying of hunger! What kind of insane, tiny planet was this? I was afraid. I was confused. I was going insane, myself, trying to puzzle it out. I couldn’t understand it, so I went mad, I went crazy, I tore myself apart trying to understand why the world insisted on being so mad and crazy. Throughout history to the present day, people have tortured, raped, killed, disemboweled, people have watched their loved ones killed right before their eyes, people just don’t care, do they, they just don’t care—and I couldn’t cope.

My insanity lasted for quite some time. Three days, I think. I felt like I was dying. I read many suicide reports. I read a suicide report about a young Asian-American woman who took her life after suffering from years of racial abuse and bullying. She was thirteen. I read about the suicide rate of Indigenous Australians, about Indigenous children who killed themselves, one after the other, because they hated themselves, living in a world where the British had taken over their land, and decided what was beautiful, what was good, what was right, and discriminated against them. CHILDREN KILLING THEMSELVES. That is disgusting. That is unbelievable. Innocent, beautiful, sweet, darling things—I just couldn’t cope with the hatred, the ignorance, the madness, the fear, I just couldn’t cope!

When one’s threshold for coping has reached its limit, there are two choices: death, or insanity; and I chose the latter. In an insane world, the only way to cope is sometimes to go insane yourself. I told myself, “Snap out of it, at least you’re not dying of cancer!” or “At least you’re not starving!” But that only made things worse, because then I started to think about cancer and starvation and how stupidly powerless and stupidly useless I was and how it was a privilege to even get to have a meltdown over the misery and suffering of other people when I wasn’t even starving or dying of cancer myself. And it was just this huge, huge, huge ball of confusion and pain and self-hatred and despair and I rolled around and around and around, going in circles and screaming in pain, around and around and around.

And then I stopped. I stopped. The madness. How, you ask? How? I stopped, because I realised that the only way, the other option, I suppose you could say, other than going mad or killing myself, was to relax. To accept suffering, in all its myriad forms, no matter how horrible. To simply let go, and let it happen, life, the world, everything, even if it was horrific, even if every second my heart bled and tore open afresh; all I could do, as one person in a sea of seven billion, was accept, and live.

By living, however, I mean adopting a new life philosophy, which is that from now on, whatever I do, say, or think, shall not be for the benefit of myself, but for others. Seeing as so many people in the world, such as writers, have helped me, seeing as the world would not be what it is today without the efforts of people who do not despair, did not kill themselves and kept working, I must also stay alive, and keep working, for the sake of those who I might touch, help and soothe.

So. I went bad,.I burned, I broke, and now I am still broken, but the jagged pieces of me, shivering and rattling and scraping in silent agony, will go on forth and make something, do something, to make things slightly better, for some people. And then I shall die, very soon, after a life of suffering, but somehow, somewhere, it will have been worth it, somehow. Because other people exist, and will always exist, it will be worth it, my work and my efforts. I shake with fear and I shake with pain, but I will shake towards action, because that is, at the end of the day, all that counts. So I am going to relax, and just keep moving forward, blind and stupid but at peace.

Why Artists Must Embrace Pain

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Everyone suffers in life. Suffering is woven into every weft and strand of existence. To pluck it out would be to unravel life itself. From the beautiful and wealthy and talented, to the poor and homely and unskilled, suffering exists at every strata of society. Insects suffer, and whales suffer. Suffering knows no boundaries. For every living creature, there are only two certainties in life: death, and suffering.

Of course, if we shift the lens back to humans for the sake of this discussion (though I am of the firm belief certain animals suffer agonies more terrible by a thousandfold than those experienced by man), there are different degrees to suffering. A wealthy person living in a first-world country might feel as though their loneliness is carving them open like a knife, but would certainly not, if asked, trade places with someone who is actually being tortured and cut up somewhere in the world. A White person will still struggle in life to get where they want to be, like any human being—but their suffering is nevertheless still less than that of, say, a Black person, who, on top of the usual struggles of life, must deal with racial prejudices and the setbacks and reduced opportunities that come with being dark-skinned in a society under White hegemony. An emotionally-healthy person will suffer less than someone with mental illnesses. A woman, statistically, is likely to suffer more than a man. An able-bodied person will suffer less than someone with disabilities. A child of divorced parents suffers more than a child who grew up in a loving, cohesive family. Heck—you could even say sensitive people technically suffer more as we experience pain more strongly than someone who is thick-skinned. Life is not a level playing field, no matter how voraciously we may extol the values of justice, fairness, equality. If history and our present world is anything to go by, Earth is most definitely no utopia, and often downright hellish for many people.

However, while we might all suffer in various and complex ways, because we’re all individuals, we all deal with suffering differently. Very differently. Some people flare up in fits of rage. Others stew and simmer in their anger and misery for months until pimples pop out on their skin and cankersores on their tongue, emotional energy releasing itself in the form of physical symptoms. People cry alone, or on the shoulders of others. They scream into pillows, break things, laugh hysterically, hurt themselves. Some withdraw; others reach out, becoming more desperate for affection the more miserable they are; and still more grow detached, emotionally numbing themselves from both the pain and pleasures of life. Many escape into addictions, other worlds where they can forget their pain and troubles: videogames, sex, relationships, drugs, alcohol, fantasy. They retreat into denial, or lies, because the truth makes them want to tear their own heart out; and others put up barricades of selfishness and coldness, to protect themselves and gain some measure of security in a heartless and chaotic universe.

And some create art. They write books, make films, draw and paint. They make up tunes, construct pottery pieces or sculptures. They take the messy conglomeration that is life and try to cobble together something beautiful and interesting out of it to share with other people.

What these methods of coping with pain all have in common—except the last one—is that they all involve escape from the source of their suffering. They all involve directing one’s attention towards something else rather than the source of their troubles. It is easy to wriggle out of truly experiencing your pain when you are screaming so loudly the world contains nothing else. It is easy to turn away from your pain when you are preening yourself in front of a mirror and accumulating buckets of money. It is easy to turn away from your own pain when you are too busy hurting others.

Artists, however, do not have that luxury. They must face life and its pain, in all its glory, in order to create anything even slightly noteworthy. They have to dig their fingers into the blood and guts, even if the stench makes them want to throw up. They need to look in the Beast in the eye even if doing so makes them wet themselves. Then, through whatever medium they are working with, they must find a way to crystallise that pain, every facet and edge, for others to feel, understand, know and analyse.

It took a while for me to realise this. I have experienced a lot of pain in my life. Obviously nothing on the scale of extreme starvation or thirst, living as I do in a first-world country—but I know anxiety, I know depression, I know panic attacks, I know mental breakdowns, I know being desperately hungry yet psychologically unable to leave the house to buy anything from the grocery store, I know eating disorders, I know abusive and neglectful parenting, I know sensitivity, I know introversion, I know what it’s like to be different, I know loneliness and despair and self-hatred and shame, I know racism, I know poverty, I know the fear of becoming homeless, I know sexism. It’s not been easy. For the longest time, my coping mechanism was repression. To get on with my life, for years, I repressed my true identity, I repressed my anxiety, I repressed my internalized racism, I repressed my fear of men, I repressed my hunger urges, I repressed my loneliness and shame and self-hatred, I repressed thoughts of my father, I repressed my feelings, I repressed myself. I couldn’t even articulate any of my pain through writing; it was so immense, so complicated, twisted and gnarled together like the tangled roots of a tree.

So I bottled it down, in the hopes that it would all just go away—only to land myself in hospital for a suicide attempt. Luckily a highly unsuccessful one, but sobering nonetheless. But after a year or two passed, I fell back into my old patterns of repression. I knew this was the case when I found myself once again unable to connect with the characters’ pain in any of the books I read, to actually feel their turmoils and troubles as a naturally empathetic person would. I couldn’t even connect with my own characters, which was worse. Everything I wrote was terrible because there was no emotion behind it; I was maneuvering puppets in the hope that one of them would come alive and do the job for me. Quite quickly I realised the only way I would be able to write anything good in my life was if I opened my heart to and embraced my pain and suffering.

It was so hard. I had put the pain away in a box in the attic of my mind, where it sat, dusty and untouched, with several tons of bricks heaped upon it. I had treated it as someone might a poisonous spider: trap it, and hope it dies off on its own sooner or later. But pain isn’t like insects. Pain isn’t living. Pain is just dead memories, able to live on until the day we ourselves die. And I had to release it. I had to release agony, blood and broken bones.

I started off tentatively at first, picking up a file here and there, never upending the whole lot out onto the floor. For the first time in years, I thought of my father, the man who, quite frankly, was the sole perpetrator of a great deal of my woes as a child, and now also as an adult, for your childhood never leaves you. I dredged up one very, very painful memory: waiting at the train station in the middle of the night after a school event. My father could drive, owned a car, a very a nice one, in fact—yet he insisted on taking public transport whenever he deigned to take me places. As I sat there, on the bench, in the gloom and the silence (he spoke little whenever he was only in my company), kicking my legs and staring down at the faint, moonlit glisten on the wet asphalt, my father got up, and walked away, disappearing into the darkness.

My head jerked up. I looked around, peering into the rain-spattered blackness. I still remember the sensation of my long hair, swishing over my shoulders, as I turned my head and looked and looked. Where did he go? I was alone, in the darkness, in a strange place, in the middle of the night. My terror was so thick I felt as though a piece of cloth had been forcibly crammed down my throat, but that was nothing compared to the sting of abandonment. This wasn’t the first time I had felt abandoned by him. He used to take himself on holidays during Christmas when I had never left the country in my life and speak not a word about it and grumble when my mother asked him for grocery money when he came back. He used to buy himself suits and gadgets, deck out his room in the finest sound system under the sun, then complain when I needed money for an excursion. He used to buy ridiculously lavish presents for the daughter of his employee as I stood by and watched, sick with jealousy, and forget my birthdays, and my siblings’ birthdays. I existed for much of my childhood in a state of bewildered misery. But this was new. A fresh form of abandonment. This was blatant. He had actually, physically stood up and walked away. He had left me behind.

No. No! No, no! I stood up and stumbled along the train station; there were lights, fluorescent ones, but only a few, the reach of their luminescence fading away to a pale silver a couple of metres beyond the benches facing the tracks. I ran, into the darkness, to find my father. With each step, my heart roared my fury and despair. One step. Why don’t you love me? Another step. Love me! Please, Daddy, please! Another step. Why would you do this? Another. I hate you! I hate you so much I could kill you! I hate you, hate you, hate you!

Eventually, after much sobbing and stumbling in the darkness, feeling terribly disorientated, like some planet bumped out of its orbit, I found him sitting on a bench on the other side of the platform, absorbed in his phone. He didn’t look up as I sat down beside him, tears trekking down my cheeks. I said, “Why did you do that.” I said it very calmly, calm and serene, as my body shook. He had given me a fright—I was only seven—but to look at him, you would not know it. He just sat in silence for a minute or so longer, looking down at his phone—and then he stood up again and walked away. I sat there, dumbstruck. I didn’t understand what was going on or what he was doing, only that it was somehow very childish, and that it hurt. Again, I got up, and I followed him. I followed him quite desperately, a tiny figure, tottering along in the darkness, frightened and determined both at once. Sometimes, when I look back on this incident, I almost wish I had thrown myself down onto the tracks. Perhaps he would have paid attention then, said something to me, at least to save his own skin. A child lying dead on the tracks and her father nearby doesn’t look good. It would be bad for his company’s reputation.

This time, it took longer to find him, I went around the platform three times, then went around back again and found him back in the spot where he was before, sitting down. Again, I sat down beside him. And then the train came, so my father had to stop the game he was playing with me, and I got on and sat beside him on the train and looked out the window as he sat there looking down at his phone. Looking back on his incident, I see it as a blatant expression of his distaste for responsibility. He was a selfish man, that was certain, but more than that, he was a childish man, who desired no commitments in life except the fulfilment of his own pleasures. For someone like him, three children clinging to his ankles served only as deadweight. Heaven knows why he had us in the first place, if he didn’t even mean to take care of us. This incident at the train station, when my mother and brother and sister wasn’t around, was his way of telling me he didn’t want to be responsible for me. I was the first child. I started off the chain reaction. He not only did not love me—he didn’t want me to exist. He wanted to get rid of me, leave me behind, and like a stray dog at a pound who loves his owner no matter how badly he is mistreated, I played right into his hand and followed him, tongue hanging and panting for acceptance and affection. For him to keep me, to pet me, to love and to approve.

As this memory tore through me, I felt as though my skin was being unzipped, organs spilling out hot and steamy onto the carpet. I wanted to—to hurt myself. No, to hurt him. I wanted him to feel just a fraction of the agony I suffered under his roof, as his daughter. I felt broken. I felt unloved. I felt disgusting. I couldn’t look at myself. I hated being inside my own skin. I wanted to shed it, slip free and twine through the air into some more pleasant sphere.

Instead, I just cried. As you can expect, these tears were long overdue. I cried and cried, letting myself feel the pain, luxuriating in it, even, submerging myself in the misery, wallowing in the broken glass shards until my body was cut and bleeding from head to foot, and then I stopped crying, and got up. I wiped away the blood, tended to my wounds. I took care of myself. And I could suddenly feel again. My emotions came back. I could properly get into the heads of characters, feel their pain and suffering as if it were my own. Reclaiming my pain allowed me to write.

So my advice is, especially for artists and creative types out there who might be reading this, the best thing to do with pain is to embrace it and learn from it. Use it to your advantage. You might as well; you’ve certainly suffered for it. Use it as fodder to create good art, to provide the truest and best reflection of the human experience as you can through your work. Take what was, in the moment, ugly, disgusting and repulsive, manure and droppings, and use it to fertilise soil, make it grow, flourish, bloom and make something beautiful for others to bask in. Art comes from pain. It is terrible to experience, but it is also what connects us to other human beings. We write and paint and draw with our blood, use our skin as paper, sacrifice ourselves, body and soul, to our craft, to one day finally emerge from the dirt and the mud and the grass, holding aloft our creation to the sunlight: a globed fruit, sweeter than honey and bright as a jewel.

Do You Have To Understand Something To Love It?

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Or someone?

For a long time, I thought this was so.

I thought, as someone who had built her identity around being “unique” and “different” in order to bulwark her self-esteem after years of social exclusion–and in a way I am unique, but so is everyone else—no-one would be capable of understanding what it was like to be inside my head, see the world through the lens of my eyes, experience my thoughts and feelings. And what was more, I certainly could not know what it was like to be in someone else’s head, no matter how far I strained my imagination or empathetic powers, for each human heart is the greatest mystery under the sun. According to this logic, then, there was no point in, or no possibility of, anyone truly loving anyone, as we were all puzzles, impossible to get close enough to properly solve, and therefore properly love.

I was wrong.

You don’t need to understand something to love it, a rule applicable to almost everything in life. I don’t understand life, yet much of the time, even in the throes of despair, I still subconsciously love it, adore the emotions coursing through my veins, the black misery pumping in my heart. I love the universe even though I find its complexity baffling. I love writing and the creative process, but, once again, I don’t understand exactly why I love it, or how it works; all I know is stories and characters come to me, and they need to be written down, almost as though I have been assigned to do it, and it makes me very happy to do it even when it is hard. So much human effort is spent on figuring things out, decoding and dissecting, and while that is not a bad thing—curiosity has landed us on the moon and given us fantastic works of literature and computers and light bulbs, just to name a few—sometimes, one simply must accept things, like affection or art, without trying to deduce its origins.

I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the only ones to true happiness, or at least satisfaction, in life. To just enjoy whatever comes to you, each a little tidbit of happiness to be savored, with the deep, subconscious awareness that life is beautiful, even when it is bad, that life is a gift, even when it pops open like Jack-In-The-Box in your face, that life is something to be loved, even when you don’t understand it in the slightest—just like love. Whenever someone says “love is the meaning of life”, many people believe they are referring to romantic love, or the love one feels for family or friends. But that’s not true. Family and friends and spouses and children are often not enough to sustain a person. What they truly mean is that love for everything, for every facet of life, from the tiny dead flies on the windowsill to the sun shining in the sky each morning, delight at the immense complexity dancing and shivering around you, is where the meaning in life lies. Love is what propels us to do whatever we do, to struggle and work in face of meaninglessness and loneliness. We don’t understand anything, but we love many things, so we use that to keep us going.

Like everyone, I have loved before. And I’ll tell you this: all love is the same. Whether it is love for a man or a woman, or a brother, or a book, or an art form, or any piece of the universe, it gives you the same sensation of happiness and pleasure inside your chest. It reaches down into the very nooks and crevices of your essence, in tiny, golden spurts of liquid happiness. It also often aches, pain experienced along with the pleasure, because all sources of our love are transitory, including life itself, but it is a nice ache, nice and beautiful, just like everything else, a kind of sweet agony.

My advice to you, then, is to love freely, passionately, and deeply, without fear of failure or pain. When you love, inevitably, you will fail, and you will get hurt. But you will also succeed and experience moments of such blinding joy it will be as if the sun is shining out through your pores. In the past, I have not followed this principle of acceptance. For instance, for many years, I denied myself my love for writing and the imagination, believing I was no good at it and would never be any good at it after a bad incident with one teacher; but these days, I don’t think or worry so much, and just follow the honey-trail of love to where it leads me. I have also avoided people I loved, not only because I did not love myself enough at the time (an enormous problem when it comes to forming any relationships), but also because I was afraid of trusting love. I was afraid of getting hurt, abandoned, feeling lost, ashamed or rejected. I was afraid they would not understand me and my anxiety, my myriad quirks that make it difficult to feel comfortable outside the home or amongst society, especially when my struggles already made me feel defective. Should they have shunned me or exhibited scorn at my shortcomings, my heart would have died. So I pushed them away, and pushed them away hard. It was the right decision at the time—but perhaps a great deal of suffering could have been lifted, had I simply allowed myself to accept my feelings, followed them to wherever they might have led me, be that the tip of a cliff or the depths of an abyss.

This principle, to love something or someone, even when you do not understand them or it, is very useful when it comes to fending off existential angst. We don’t understand life or death, so we are afraid of both, and thus never really live or die. We just exist in this perpetuity of fearful stasis. Don’t do that. Trust love. Trust it. Whenever something speaks to your heart, makes it curl over and purr like a contented kitten inside your chest, do it, speak to it, work at it, look at it, enjoy it. That is what it truly means to follow your heart: whatever gives you a great leap of joy can only be good for you. Love desperately and passionately and gloriously, and when the end comes, remaining loving until the very last second, kiss the world goodbye with a smile on your face and a tear running down your cheek.

The Difficulty Of Amusing Oneself

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Depression sucks the words out of you. Because the entire world is made dull and lacklustre by it, life become one endless series of dissatisfying days, everything you do or think or say turned into worthless, cliched junk dropping from between your lips like counterfeit coins. What does it matter, who cares? Fortunately for me as a writer, it has quite the opposite effect when it comes to creativity. Depression makes everything boring, which makes one slightly more motivated, during moments when the fug of lassitude thins, to make life more interesting —and one of the best ways to do this is through telling stories. Interesting stories. Fantastical, strange and wondrous tales.

Now, this brings its own share of problems—nothing is easy!—and it’s something I have never really had to chance to discuss with anyone about it before. So why not write it on my blog? Really, that’s my solution for almost every mental quandary these days; I always feel much better after sharing pieces of myself online, it’s quite the release. The problem is this: because my desire for escapism is so deep and extreme, anything that veers the slightest bit towards reality bores me to bits. The slightest bit. Basically, what this means is that I—and I think this is the sole reason creative people feel so isolated from others and the general humdrum of society—have a very, very, very low tolerance for boredom. Almost non-existent, really. Why else do you think writers like to escape into their imagination so often? Because it’s so much more interesting than reality, that’s why! Reality is so incredibly dissatisfying, and these days much of the films and books saturating the market recycles the same old tropes and concepts so the world of imagination, once so rich and lovely, is now growing just as boring. What’s more—and this is the cardinal rule of novelty—things get more boring the more you are exposed to them. It’s a common sense rule, but nevertheless quite astonishing when you put it into practice, apply it to real-world experiences.

Say, reality, for instance. Now, the world we live in is a very fascinating place. Life on earth is bizarre, and we don’t really understand anything, will never be able to see the whole picture, only glimpses and glimmers—yet because we see things like our own bodies and the sun everyday, we grow desensitized to the great miracles they are, and find them ordinary, and, at least when we’re not actively pondering them, boring. Likewise, with creative works, the more you are exposed to something, the more dull it becomes. Let’s take one of the most delightful and creative animated movies in the history of the world: Howl’s Moving Castle, directed by the wonderful and brilliant Hayao Miyazaki. The first time I watched this, I was stunned and flabbergasted by the beauty on the screen. In particular, I recall Howl’s bedroom, with its quietly shifting pieces and glinting intricacy, so detailed and beautiful and wonderful I could only gaze in pure awe and delight at the screen. However, if you were to watch that scene every morning before you went off to work or school or to your desk, it would lose its magic. It would become ordinary.

As a writer, this effect is extraordinarily problematic because with whatever I am writing, I am constantly having to work hard at keeping things interesting for myself. This is where the low tolerance for boredom comes in. While others might be able to still find Howl’s bedroom magical after six or so viewings, after the second viewing, I have already integrated the scene into the fabric of reality so it becomes no more wondrous than the sight of cars on the streets. My threshold or desire for novelty is ridiculously high, endless, really, which means I find it very hard to keep myself from getting bored. I feel as though there are two people inside of me, one the teacher standing in front of the board, the one churning out the creative work and ideas, and the other the child, sitting at a little table and chair in front of her, the one who gasps and cries at the magic and wonders of the universe being unraveled on the blackboard. The moment I lose the kid’s interest, the piece of writing I am working on is done, over, finished—or at least until the teacher wracks her brain and finds a more creative way to transmit the lesson. Basically, every second, every minute, every day, when I write, or daydream, which are both almost the same thing, I am constantly struggling to amuse myself.

This is the true wellspring of creativity, I think: dissatisfaction, and boredom; and while luckily I experience enough of these two emotions to last several lifetimes, it also means I bore myself very easily. What seems like a wonderful, fantastical idea, after much pondering, turns dull and bland, and I find myself casting it aside with a huff of exasperation. I wrote an entire story—well over 12,000 words—only to find I couldn’t edit and polish it, not out of laziness, but boredom with what I had written. Having lived through the character’s experiences once, I could not rewrite and live through their experiences again; my brain required something new and fresh to feed upon. Such incidents have happened multiple times. Forty, maybe fifty times. Maybe more.

My Holy Grail, then, as someone who suffers from this condition—an extreme allergic reaction to a lack of novelty—is to find an idea, a concept, a story, a book to write which remain interesting no matter how many times I write it or re-read it. No small task. In essence, I have to captivate and amuse for the duration of a 100,000 words, or more, the creature most difficult to astound and delight in the world: myself. With, I might add, one piece of work, one work I shall have to read again and again, and fix, and rewrite and twiddle with endlessly. I have to—to find something complex and interesting enough to fall in love with for the many months or even years I shall be working on it, wonderful enough to satisfy the distaste in myself for all things real, true and existing even though the base material I have to work with is reality, as it is all I know. I have to come up with something psychedelic. Strange. Something.

Sigh. Wish me luck.

On Paths

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In life, to occupy ourselves in the time between birth and death, at some point, all of us choose a path, and make it our life mission to walk from point A to B. Once we reach B, often after years of effort, we will achieve happiness, or at least something close to contentment. Once we reach B, death will begin to look a lot less frightening, and more like coming home after a long and wonderful holiday.

The trouble is, not all paths are made equal. There are hills and valleys. Holes and poles. Every landscape is unique. Some paths are harder to take than others, riddled with potholes and obstacles, filled with detours to point C and D and E, sometimes even all the way down to Z. Others take you underwater, through the heart of mountains, into volcanoes and whirlpools, or are mazes in which you get lost in, forever circling back on itself, or, worse, lead to dead-ends, shift destination halfway along, and are generally fickle and difficult. But it’s not just the path; you, yourself, will make many mistakes along the way, some of them irrevocable. Sometimes, people walk off the path into the wilderness, never to find their way back onto it. Sometimes, just when they are reaching the end of it, they sit down and give up and decide to snack on the last of their mushrooms. Sometimes, people get too tired, too weak, to go on, and perish where they stand. Whatever the path is, no matter how short or long or flat, it is never easy. Even the very few who choose no path at all and simply stroll on without a destination in mind towards the horizon must suffer from the pain of aimlessness, and in time reach the same final outpost as the rest of us.

The way to my path seems very clear. I have a map, with a red line squiggling across it telling me exactly how to get from point A to B. Millions of others have walked similar paths before, so, even though every path is different and unique, I have their experience and their knowledge to guide me. I have my backpack, my compass, enough water and food to last me the entire journey. The sun is high, the sky is blue, the birds are singing and the trees are swaying in the breeze. By all accounts, I am set. There is only one problem: my legs have been hacked off. I have no legs. In order to move along down the path, I must crawl and lurch and squirm across the hot, dusty ground, only able to cover a few metres each day. Having no legs and still having to keep inching forwards also means I get very discouraged, and sometimes spend days doing nothing except lying there with my nose to the ground, hating the path and hating myself.

One of the worst things to happen when you are walking along your path is to have someone pass you by on theirs, usually someone who is still in possession of both their legs, moving ahead of you at a rapid pace, curving around a bend in the trees and sprinting out of sight. It is very easy to give up then, to just lie there and wait for the final outpost, which is magical and can move to wherever you are when the time is right, to come to you. As everyone knows, it is must easier to stop than to keep on going, especially if you’re grazed bloody from crawling and your entire body is itching from mosquito bites and your flesh is baking and blistering in the sun like a pig on a spit held over a fire.

Yet somehow each of us keep on going. We keep on going. Each day we seem to make hardly any progress and the landscape around us seems unchanging, the same rocks and grass and pine trees, the same rabbits in the bushes and eagles perched in the trees. Occasionally it even rains or snows or thunders, which, needless to say, does nothing to improve matters. But we keep on going, like an ant trekking across the immense landscape of a terrace, hoping to reach the end, to arrive at our little point B, and drink our tiny drop of sweet happiness.

INFPs Are Silly, Naive And Weak

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Or so many people seem to think upon meeting us or truly getting to know us. That we are these very soft, very fragile creatures, full of intense emotion, easily hurt, easily broken, self-hating and entirely disconnected from reality. And they’re right (though they’re certainly not right when they try to “fix” us). We can be a bit silly sometimes. We do find building up our self-esteem a very difficult task to do, one we must chip away at every minute of our lives. We can be naïve, and weak-willed. We are quite avoidant by nature, very bad at dealing with conflict and any sort of discomfort in general, and immensely good at escaping into fantasy when our current reality is no longer to our liking. But since when did these traits become bad qualities?

I can tell you this, with great certainty: everyone who has ever hurt me, most of whom were my bullies in school as well as a handful boys I liked and admired secretly from the sidelines, were people who did not understand my nature, or were highly logical themselves and possessed very little empathy. Next to them, I could not help but feel woefully inadequate. They were so confident, so sure of themselves, so beautiful, hard and smiling and bright, lean and full of energy. It was like being a single candle flickering in a sea of blazing bonfires, I simply could not compete. And when those same people teased me and hurt me, or worse, looked at me blankly, with a complete lack of understanding of who I was as a person, the pain and loneliness cut me like a knife. As an INFP, my tendency to idealise everything, needless to say, worked against me in this regard in the worst way possible. I saw these bold, extroverted people, who saw me as silly, naïve and weak, as small gods strolling across the land, capable of building cities and tearing them down again, of charming their way in and out of any situation. I idolized them, aided by my overactive imagination. They were everything I was not, and some of them made sure I knew it. I hated myself, admired them, desperately wanted to be them; I was the candle, overwhelmed by the burning blazes around me, wishing I could spit and flare just as brightly, wishing I was bigger and better.

INFPs only start to really grow up when they realise sometimes there are good things about being a candle, even if our light is dim and quiet. Sometimes, it’s better to provide soft illumination, than fiery heat, for there is a gentle beauty to candles no bonfire can ever hope to match and things in this world only candles can do, like sit in a lamp held in the hand of a young woman exploring the corridors of a haunted house. It’s funny. So many INFPs throughout history, from writers to filmmakers, who are now lauded for their achievements, would have been ridiculed and disdained by the very same people who now enjoy their creative efforts had they met those INFPs in person, or known them personally. We’re very quiet, a little odd, and loners. Most of us don’t possess a drop of charisma, and can only charm cats and children, on the best of days. We go about our days with a vacant look on our faces, absorbed in our own minds or quietly watching the world and the people in it around us. We prefer to stay at home, in our bedrooms, with our books and our fantasy worlds, than face the world outside our doorstep. We say the oddest things, and have the oddest thoughts, which are often not received well should we miraculously pluck up the courage to share them. Of course, this isn’t applicable to all INFPs—there is always variation in every group—but some of these apply to most INFPs. As a result, we are seen as silly, naïve and weak, sometimes even useless, when, really, our talents just lie elsewhere, somewhere over the rainbow.

For the longest time, due to this disconnect between who I was, and who the rest of society seemed to be, I disliked myself. I tried to change myself, by acting more extroverted, straining myself socially beyond the breaking point, trying to fend off the bullies who suddenly found me more entertaining now that I was chattier and therefore an easier target—only to end up, after twelve or so years of “faking it”, in hospital, for a severe mental breakdown. My mother and psychologist thought I was sick, I was mad, and in a way I was, but not in the way they thought I was. I was sick and mad because I had been forcing myself to be someone I was not for too long. Years of my life I lost to this false self, simply because I wanted to be accepted and loved by people who would never truly understand me. What I learned from that experience was this: no company at all is a thousand times better than bad company, and the only path to true happiness is to do what you love, for yourself, and let that be enough to fill the void inside your heart.

At the end of the day it matters little whether people scorn or disdain the essence of who we are, believe us weak and small, cowards, find us too anxious and neurotic, too strange, lacking in confidence, pathetic. What they think does not matter, and most likely they do not care what we get up to with our lives, our failures and successes, anymore than we care for theirs. In this life, each of us are alone, and each of us are responsible for our own happiness and achievements, and we would do well to remember this, hold these two truths close to our hearts, each and everyone of us, as a talisman to carry us through the many dark days of our lives.

My Life Is Over. Maybe.

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I sound like an angst-ridden teenager, I know, but there is good reason for it. Recently, whilst looking over some old pieces of my writing, I was shocked to find the stuff I was churning out six or so months ago was much better than what I was producing now.

It was very unsettling. And, considering the small hell the last six months of my life have been, even a tiny bit infuriating. It’s almost as if the words I wrote in those six months before—and in those six months I have molted and shed layers of my old self as wildly as any snake—were written by someone wiser, more talented, who allowed their imagination free reign and gloried in the work for its own sake. Someone who didn’t think when they wrote, and simply let the words settle onto the page naturally, like fallen snow. Someone who wasn’t me, and who I wouldn’t be able to reclaim, absorb back into myself, ever again.

I’m trying too hard. I’m not sure if every artist encounters such a block in their life, but I see very clearly that this is the crux of the problem. In between moving houses and struggling with mental illness, I grew desperate at all the time I was losing, and to compensate for this, banged away at the Art like I some smith in a forge behind on orders until I was blackened and sweating and panting. Only I don’t think that is how Art works. It has to come from love, a place of fun and delight, for it to be anything worth reading. Or at least not from a place of hatred, despair, desperation and sheer doggedness.

At least from my recent perusal I know I was doing something right six months ago, as the pieces I wrote, while not of publishable quality, actually possessed a few gleams and glitters of potential, whereas everything I am writing now would need several more rewrites before they become anything better than printed toilet paper.

Heck, even the characters were more realistic and believable—even though I was not actually trying to make them so. Now, despite analyzing characters from the inside out before putting pencil to paper, they still come out stiff as wooden dolls.

You can’t imagine how despairing this realisation is. I honestly don’t know how to return to a place of “unthinking”, when I just let the words flow out as they pleased. Sure, I can do that in a blog post, but that’s because it’s just a blog post, a place where I can relax and spill my mind, not an actual fictional work requiring actual concentration with actual stakes at hand. I don’t know how to transplant the relaxation I feel when writing blog posts, or writing pieces six months ago, to what I am scribbling away at these days. It’s a conundrum.

Oh, you can’t imagine how—it’s like being someone who sings for their bread and butter waking up and finding they have lost their voice. Forever. A bird unable to fly; a pirate confined to a prison on land, forced to gaze at the endless blue sea between the black bars of her high, prison cell window. Alright, perhaps I am being a little dramatic, maybe even a little whiny, but I can’t help it, it’s just very, very frustrating to know that when it comes to writing, sometimes, the harder and more furiously you work to make up for lost time, the worse the end product ends up being. In any other field, you are rewarded for working hard, doggedly—but when it comes to writing, some measure of relaxation is required for any good, creative work to be made. And as someone who is high-strung at the best of times, especially with the move this year, the changes in my home situation, it’s very difficult to relax. I wonder if that’s why people are less creative these days, because we’re all so anxious and focused on surviving in a capitalist society to even bother with obsolete concepts like joy and wonder and delight.

Fingers crossed that this is merely a natural progression in the life of any writer, and that things sometimes need to take a turn for the worse before they can get better. I really have no idea as to how I am going to “unthink” my way out of this, to return myself to a place where writing was done purely for the joy of it, without any pressures or anxieties involved. The more I live, the more I am aware of how very dream-like life is, the way the days seem to blur into one another, memory the only marker of passing time. From the earliest reaches of my memory up until this present moment, my entire life so far seems to have transpired in less than a blink of an eye.

Taken in this context, art, then, merely serves the purpose of making the dream a little more enjoyable, which, if you think about, isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t an ignoble pursuit to devote one’s life to.  I just wish I knew how all the other creators and filmmakers and writers and artists working today and throughout history manage to relax enough to create despite being naturally more predisposed to depression and thinking about death and the meaning of life. Then again, many ended up taking their own lives, boggled by the existential emptiness of existence, so perhaps they’re not the best role models to turn to. Life truly is a series of silent sighs, expelled deep inside our souls.

The Hardest Thing About Writing

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Writing is hard. But what exactly is the most difficult part of the craft? Creating realistic characters, perhaps? Writing dialogue? World-building? Coming up with an idea that isn’t boring and overdone like the thousands of novels flooding into the market every week? No, no, and nope.

The hardest part about writing—for me at least—is getting the words right. See, when you first start out writing–and I’m still sort of trying to tread water in that stage–you overwrite. And by overwriting, I mean you use a thousand words to describe a single exchange between two people, including unimportant details like gestures and hair and the thoughts of the characters, when three hundred would have sufficed. But overwriting isn’t the only faux-pas amateur writers commit. We also have a great deal of trouble describing things in the first place, and this is because translating real-life or imaginary objects or buildings or people or places into words, dead words on paper, mere brushstrokes of ink, is very difficult.

It’s not like other forms of art, like painting, or photography, where the artist can simply jot down, curve by plane by angle, exactly what something looks like. As a writer, you have to make something, using only words, oftentimes things you have never seen before except in the realm of your own imagination, come alive. You are an artist, words are your paintbrush and paint, and you have to use them to paint a picture inside the reader’s mind, to the point where they feel like they are in the story themselves, without the convenience of pictures, or photographs, or diagrams (though some books do include maps to ground the fantasy world in reality). If you were to ask someone on the street who isn’t a writer to describe, say, a church, they would probably fumble along with words like “doors” and “cross” and “stone”. And guess what? If you were to stop a writer on the street and ask them the same question, on the spot, they would probably give a similar answer. That is because writers actually sit down for a very long time to re-write and rework descriptions and sentences that initially started off as “a church made of stone adorned with a cross over its front door” until it conveys both sound, colour, sight, smell and texture. Until it becomes real. Which, may I point out again, is very hard.

It’s one of the reasons why so many writers often have to undertake real-world research before writing a book by actually traveling to the country or the place their book is set in, or resembles the world their book is set in. If the world and the people in it aren’t “real” to the writer, then it won’t come to life for the reader. Think of actors: when they speak their lines, they momentarily delude themselves into thinking that what they are saying is actually true. That they’re not just speaking to a camera, or someone else who is also acting. In other words, the best actors forget they are acting, and embody their characters and the scenes entirely. Writers, who are the actors and the director and in charge of props and scenery all at once, are the same. And to describe a whole world, all while juggling characters and the pace of the plot, using only words, to make it actually feel real, takes hours and hours of practice, carried out over years—probably why some books can take up to ten years to write, at the end of which it isn’t even a guarantee the book will sell well, if at all.

I’m not even close to being even adequate at it yet. I haven’t clocked in all my hours, found out what exactly lives inside me and brought it out in tangible form. I haven’t found a voice, though I have picked up a few characters and worlds along the way, quietly brewing inside the back of my mind. In the years to come, I hope to master the tricks and techniques of writing enough to be able to put on a good show, make people think, delight and astound and amuse. In the meantime, I’ll be in my workshop, working quietly away carving figurine after figurine and throwing them aside, living for a dream.