A Pilgrim

When I looked in the mirror this morning, I was hit by a realization that I haven’t really looked at myself for a while. This sounds strange since I look in the mirror every day to make sure that my hair stays decent and my fashion isn’t outrageous.

Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. My version of that is probably putting on makeup in the morning, I complete the cat-eye stroke by stroke, and highlight my cheeks with just the right amount of highlighter, although sometimes I’d go overboard and friends say they are blinded by my cheeks. The point is, the action might appear mundane, but I keep at it long enough and it becomes both a contemplative and meditative act. So when I’m looking in the mirror every day, I never really look at myself.

What I saw in the mirror this morning was a familiar yet foreign image; it’s as if I am looking into the same ocean but the scenery around it has changed. So, what’s changed? I asked myself. Three years ago I wouldn’t have imagined I could actually be doing what I like for a living, and nine years ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of being able to put my soul on paper in English.

My parents made a deal with me almost a decade ago that if I could score high enough the English test as well as the prep school test, I’d be able to go the States for high school. I didn’t grow up going to international schools. Although I did grow up reading many English novels, my English is probably as good as my Spanish right now. No Hablo Español. What kept me up every night memorizing 800 vocabularies was something seething in me. It may have been some anger and a lot of “proving them what I'm capable of”, but regardless I started enjoying the extremely tedious process of memorizing tens and thousands from A to Z. The biggest reward from that was probably obtaining the ability to appreciate literature, but that’s the subject of another post.

Only a decade later, I start feeling comfortable sharing this publicly. I’ve always felt like I wanted to conceal this part of my life eternally, like Don Draper in Mad Men, who would pay everything to be forgotten as “Dick”. Unlike Don, I’m not particularly ashamed of my past, I just think it’s not quite worth mentioning, as many other peers probably went through similar fate, and I definitely have been quite lucky. However, this past has slowly reemerged in my life like a mountain that has drifted out of sight as you sail forward, but as you look back it still looms in the clouds.

The same patterns tend to repeat. I’d really hope for something, and then I’d make my way to get it. Sometimes the way to get there is painful, but here’s it is: pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Say you’re running a marathon and you start to think, Man this sucks, I can’t take it anymore. The sucky part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to you. I didn’t encounter stoicism until two years ago that helped me systemize my approach to life, but even before that I felt an instant connection when reading Nietzche at a young age — “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” The words themselves empower me long before Kelly Clarkson spread the gospel to the world.

I tend to see both the good and bad in things, but still believe almost irrationally in the good — symptoms of an undeniable idealist. Many friends asked me how to develop such optimism and will to always find passion and go for it. To be honest, I think the reason why I do what I do is simply that it suits me. I’m not religious, but I think I’m spiritual; I think when there are so many people problems to be solved and I’m given the resources to solve them, I should be contributing my part by following my calling. I believe many other people out there finding meaning in what they do would say the same, and those who say otherwise is probably crafting some narratives for themselves and others, which is also fine, but I think it’s important to be honest with oneself.

Have I always been honest with myself? I would have to admit that there are times that I choose to not listen to the inner voice in me telling me what really matters. That’s okay. A big part of growing up is changing your external image to sit comfortably with your core self and all the beliefs and visions it carries. It can take so long for us to realize that we are free; it can be a painful process.

We can wait for years for permission to leave an obligation that no one cares if we abandoned tomorrow; we live in terror that we will disappoint ‘public opinion’. We wait for praise from ‘those that know’, even though there might not know. It’s tempting then to also put on a visage that we know, when in fact, we know very little. Being able to embrace that takes courage, and only recently I could embrace my own vulnerability by feeling comfortable saying “I’m wrong” and “I don’t know”.

So what do I see in the mirror? Besides all the physical differences that I can’t pinpoint, I definitely look a lot calmer, even though I know I’d still get anxious when I don’t have work to do or stuff to play with. I know I’ve never been this happy and at ease, although there are times I freak out about whether I will still be this happy and at ease in the future. Whenever the thought hits me, I immediately turn to the same idea, accepting that pain is inevitable.

A lot has changed. There are, however, things that remain the same. I’m still a faithful pilgrim of knowledge. Day after day I’d encounter a new place, a new idea, a new book, a new person, and my learning will expand a bit further. Occasionally, the compass that guides my direction will be disturbed by noises and forces coming from all directions. It’s extremely hard to keep my head up in this situation. I just have to tell myself to focus on what remains the same and find patterns in them, because those are the footprints of the incremental steps that humans have taken towards a better future we’ve long believed in.