By Alicia Tan
Life gets tough. In fact, life gets really tough. Suffering is simply a part of our human existence that we have to one day embrace in its entirety. Our generation has done a tremendous job in raising awareness about mental health issues, but more needs to be done. Something more fundamental has to be tackled, beneath all the campaigns meant to promote mental health awareness and events meant to foster bonding behind RHesidents.
Imagine you are walking along the corridor back to your room after an exhausting day, drained, tired and just wanting to curl up into a corner and cry. You spot your neighbour. He or she gives you a friendly smile and greeting. The corners of your mouth curl up into a smile, a social script you have been taught from young: “Be friendly. Always smile and greet people. Do not let others see the suffering that lies beneath the pristine facade of happy Instagram posts with your friends, aesthetic social media profiles and the oh-too-perfect life you lead.” He or she asks, “How’s your day?” You reply amicably, “It’s fine, what about yours?”
“Good!” The typical social script plays itself out as per usual.
“I guess I’ll see you around then,” you end the conversation on a high note, hoping to retreat into your haven and not have to deal with the world for a day.
Stepping into your mancave, you lay down on your bed exhausted; not sure whether to cry or scream in despair or agonize over your own plight, so you just lay there stoning, dull, somewhat numb. Almost by sheer instinct, your hand reaches towards the phone you carelessly threw onto the bed when you entered the room. You start to scroll through social media, looking at all the pristine facades being put up, just like yours. Some TikTok gal or guy looks so much better than you do. Your friends just went out to a fancy restaurant without you again, because you were busy with school or commitments or whatever university life tends to throw at you. Looking at the scars on your wrist from the nights you tormented yourself with self-hatred, you wonder when this suffering will ever end.
Although this scenario is meant to be hyperbolic, I’m very sure most of you can relate to at least one of the feelings aroused in this scenario: the FOMO (fear of missing out), the self-hatred, the meaninglessness of human existence, the facades carefully constructed to prevent others from being privy to our hurting, broken, and very real selves. These are all natural human emotions. Feel them. Understand how they have shaped who you are, especially if you are not the kind of person to openly feel or express emotions. Even though you may feel all alone, I want you to know that almost everyone around you has probably felt at least some variation of these feelings before. Unfortunately, our generation has been dominated by the rise of social media, with pictures of bikini-clad girls you wish you had the amazing figure of or young hunks with the 6-pack abs you’ve always dreamed of. Comparison, accentuated by the perceived loneliness of your suffering, is the thief of joy. However, this is not going to turn into a piece bashing social media and its detrimental effects on people. Too many articles, blog posts, journals and books have been written on that. Instead, I think the much wider question about our human suffering, meaninglessness and existence and what we can do about it is one worth covering even by a little bit.
It is all too easy to give in to the despair that results from the torrent of suffering thrown at us every day. Believe me or not, I’ve been there for as long as I have known, it’s really not a pretty place, and I’ve only started clawing out slowly from the years of self-made mess I created for myself. You get so accustomed to the mental suffering you endure you start to lay down in the depths of the dark well you’ve just dug for yourself, drowning in the pile of faeces (because the usage of a certain rather uncouth word would be much less flattering on paper than when it is usually uttered in person) life has thrown at you and you have continuously thrown at yourself because you’ve been so accustomed to the state you find yourself in, helpless to even climb out of there. Some will call this self-pity. I won’t be so quick to judge. People like these have come from circumstances that have not equipped them with the skills required to overcome adversity or existential dread, or they may have simply drawn the short end of the stick in life. As NUS students, many of us likely have had privileged upbringings may not understand this truth about life. Let me assure you there are so many real, breathing people who find themselves in this plight. Life’s challenges become too difficult for many people to bear, and they fall into the rabbit hole of despair; they indulge in vices, give up on themselves, develop a low sense of self worth, lash out their hurt by inflicting their pain onto others, the examples are endless.
But the important thing is climbing out of the hole. Most reasonable people can agree that action is the key to creating a better life for yourself. So stop binge-watching those self-improvement videos on YouTube for hours hoping for a quick fix and not being willing to put in the effort to change yourself. Go out and experience the world. Invite a friend you haven’t seen in ages for a quick lunch. Sign up for that damned audition you always wanted to go for. Even if your voice stutters or cracks, your fingers fail you at the most important part of your set-piece, and you walk out of the room feeling your face turn hotter than the very spicy mala you ate last week, remember there is always a next time and you can afford to try again. Study for that module you desperately want to do well in. Learn self-care tips (there’s many you can find all over the internet) so you don’t go crazy in that whirlpool of insanity that is life, because the most important person you will ever have is yourself. Set goals. Discover more about yourself every day. Go see a mental health expert if you need to deal with the existential crisis you have. There is no shame in that, and in NUS, the University Counselling Services and Specialist Clinic are there to help you (https://www.nus.edu.sg/uhc/mental-health/student/services). Continuously work on yourself, because you know you only live once and you want to make the best out of it without regrets. Even if everything around you falls apart, rest in the assurance that you have tried.
If you know anyone in this compromising position, exercise the best parts of your human nature and extend your compassion to them. It doesn’t matter if they’re someone you barely know or if they’re the most important person in your life. Show your appreciation for their existence wholeheartedly, and do it often. Greet them when you see them. Invite them to have a meal. Offer to pair up with them for a block event. Plan a date. Have those 1 am heart-to-heart talks for the both of you to get something off your chests. Validate their human existence. Help them climb out of the hole if they require your assistance. No matter how minuscule your action is, it is probably felt very deeply by the person on the receiving end of your kindness. And if they don’t? At least you did your best, give yourself a pat on the back.
How is this even related to Raffles Hall? If you have read up to this point of the article, I would like to congratulate you for entertaining the philosophical discussions about human suffering and existence permeating this article. If you only want the tl;dr though, here it is:
As one Raffles Hall, we can create a better culture for everyone, to make sure no one falls prey to the demons of mental illness, helplessness and insanity. We do this not just through the events organized to promote bonding and friendships among RHesidents, or the strong support network provided by NUS’s mental health services, but by acknowledging the very fundamental human nature everyone has: the wish to be treated with compassion.
Hopefully, when your neighbour passes by you in the corridor again and asks how’s your day, you will be able to respond with a tinge of truth about how it wasn’t actually that great, breaking away from the social script and bearing a little more of our true selves, allowing others the chance to exercise their compassion. More importantly, we practise self-compassion by learning to be truthful to ourselves and others and taking it from there.
If you need a professional to talk to, you can always walk into University Counselling Services at University Health Centre from 830am-12pm and 130pm-5pm. For life-threatening psychological emergencies (self-harm, suicidal ideation, intention to hurt others etc.), please call the 24h NUS Lifeline instead at +65 6516 7777.