Birthday Reflections

“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions.

But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human — however imperfectly — and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”

Marcus Aurelius, 
Meditations 

 

So, I turned 24 last week. 

And since my birthday is in December, I guess this article works as a year-end reflection too.

To be really honest, birthdays for me would usually have me feeling and thinking to myself, “Gosh, I can’t believe I survived this year.” 

Only it wouldn’t be in a sense of gratitude. It would be in the sense of dread, of feeling tired, utterly exhausted inside. The thought of looking forward to the next year, to more birthdays, would seem too much for me to shoulder in the moment.

I still felt a bit of that last week, but this time around, it also came with a deeper sense of appreciation — for myself, for the people in my life, for my work, and just about everything else that I can look forward to. 

At first, I came up with a list of things I learned this year, like how I did for the last birthday article. But I feel that perhaps the most honest way to write it this time is to leave it at the most important lesson, and that is: life is short

So that’s it, huh? It sounds like a corny thing to say in reflection. 

Perhaps so. But this year, this lesson hit me hard.

On the evening of my birthday, a university friend of mine suddenly passed away. Though I was never close to him, I knew him well enough to know that he was a good man. I remember him for the upbeat and fun-loving person he was.

This year too, I lost two family members who were significant to me. 

On 9th May, a close uncle from my Dad’s side passed away, also unexpectedly. Shortly after he passed, I remember beating myself up for not showing up for hospital visits while he was still alive, thinking that he had “just a minor heart attack”. No one, not even his own wife and kids, expected that his condition would escalate into multiple organ failures.

I remember him for his warm hugs, his gentleness and for being soft-spoken, and how he would often just stay silent unless it was necessary for him to speak. 

On 1st October, another close uncle from my Mom’s side passed away. Though in his case, we had been preparing for this to happen for a period of years, since he was first diagnosed with his illness. 

This time, I was glad that I got to be with his family, especially at the hospital, during the morning of the day before his passing. Although visitors weren’t allowed to see him, it still meant a lot to myself that I was there.

I remember him for the strong-hearted person he was. Even though the doctor expected that he only had a few months left to live after his diagnosis, he survived for over three years. I remember him too for his intelligence, as he always had a book in hand. Also, for being that weird uncle who never stopped talking about politics. 

 

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On a lighter note, I also had my graduation ceremony earlier last week, and I got these flowers as a gift from my siblings. From taking good care for them, they still look as beautiful as ever now. And in doing so, it also reminded me of the impermanence of everything.

I know these flowers will eventually wilt and die, no matter what I do. Yet, I still clean the vase and replace the water every other day, and I still trim the stems whenever I need to.

The point isn’t to make these flowers live forever, because I know it’s impossible — but to care for them as best I can, to give them a beautiful life while they still have their time, and while I still have mine. 

With all of this taken into perspective, it’s worth sinking in that we could leave life right now.

The reality that we’re dying every day is one that is far too easy for all of us to forget. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that dying is something that can only happen in the long-distant future, in our old age. 

No, we all live on borrowed time. We may even die young. And that’s the thing, we rarely have any warning of when our time is up. 

Remembering death, whether our own or that of others, is what gives us a jolt, or a deep sense of purpose. We see things at least a little more clearly, in terms of what’s worth doing or not doing. 

Is it worth holding on to our petty grudges? Is it worth being fixated on our worries about the future and events that are ultimately not in our control? Is it not worth going through the discomfort in bettering ourselves, in healing from and processing our traumas? Is it not worth learning to let go of our addictions, of the things that make us miserable?

And from that, we can start turning inwards. We can focus on the things that we do have control over — to own the mistakes that we can reasonably own, to heal, to learn whatever lessons that life has us learn.

We can start opening ourselves to the world, too. We can start thinking of how we can be of service to other people. We can learn to see the good in the world that we had not been able to, when we shut ourselves out from it. 

We can try to be better than we were yesterday, however best we possibly can at the moment, anyway.

We don’t have to worry about how long we need to keep this up, to keep living. Just this moment is enough. 

Just one moment after another. 

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