Small victories

Among secular people, the absence of an afterlife raises the stakes. In “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life” the psychologist Adam Phillips warns that “once the next life — the better life, the fuller life — has to be in this one, we have a considerable task on our hands.” Given just a single shot at existence, we owe it to ourselves to hit the mark; we must not just survive but thrive. It’s no wonder that for many of us “the story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living.”

- from "What If You Could Do It All Over?" by Joshua Rothman via The New Yorker

On a visit by our college friends my wife dubbed me as someone who is in an ‘achiever’ phase: I am currently juggling my master’s degree, my full-time job, my professional development, a couple of side projects, my running and fitness routine and my family. Though there’s accuracy to this phase, I shrug it off. But some of my friends pressed about the reason behind the phase. Underpinning that desire to live life fully can be partly explained by that quotation above, which I just read last week, at the beginning of my ten-day annual leave. While I’ve known this since two decades ago as a teenager, this fact came nagging at me during the height of the pandemic: like anyone who looks at the Covid-19 death tolls every single day, I realized how fragile life is: how literally anyone who got exposed to the virus can die, and in those early days it oftentimes did not come with an explanation. The first-hand cautionary tales from colleagues and friends made this even more pronounced. Those two years also felt like precious time lost, and I am glad that by some stroke of luck (and maybe with an ounce of determination) I was able to continue my workouts, stayed sane with books despite being cooped up at home most of the time, developed new hobbies such as cycling and running, hiked to Mount Makiling’s Mud Springs, Flat Rocks and the Botanic Gardens for the first time in years, met a bunch of new people, and was more or less unharmed by the virus. Out of the seven master’s degrees I applied for overseas, two were approved – and although I didn’t get any scholarships for it, it gave me a bit of confidence to just try my best on everything I do. My son made a lot of his firsts during this time: from coding to virtual workouts from Joe Wicks, these have informed him to take Kumon classes (with some prodding from myself) and has led his intention to become a computer programmer, as well as taking taekwondo classes every Saturdays. And my wife started taking art classes and practicing her art more seriously, launching a small business in between looking for a more fulfilling online job.

I would always remind myself that although the lockdowns have ended, the Covid-19 pandemic has not: the virus is still out there, morphing and evolving from person to person, devising ways to evade our antibodies. This explains my reluctance in celebrating (for the lack of a better term) whatever resilience my family had as I know it would seem callous to do so, especially at the expense of so many lives and livelihoods, both familiar and unfamiliar. (I also cringe at the idea of congratulating oneself in public online spaces…)

But yesterday, at a coffee shop studying for my presentation next Saturday on Modern East Asia, I just felt grateful that I am alive.

This gets me to think that I need to brace myself for the challenges ahead – what else could go right anyway? – but right now I’m just thankful to be able to just make it here, writing this piece. In the same New Yorker piece about “the allure of unlived lives”, Rothman wrote something about Jean-Paul Sartre and the fact that we put so much focus on the possibilities (what we might have done or could do) but rarely reflect on the actualities or certainties (what we have already done or what we will do) in our lives. Rothman then posited that perhaps keeping a diary such as this works to help us assess whatever small victories we have?

An artist, he maintains, is not to be “judged solely by his works of art, for a thousand other things also help to define him.” We do more than we give ourselves credit for; our real lives are richer than we think. This is why, if you keep a diary, you may feel more satisfied with the life you live.

- from "What If You Could Do It All Over?" by Joshua Rothman via The New Yorker

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