To My 20 Year Old Self

Hi Jarl,

In a few hours, I’ll be saying goodbye to another decade of my life and will be bidding hello to a brand new chapter of life. Birthdays are always special episodes of remembering the year that was and feeling the excitement of what’s yet to unfold. But this year’s extraordinary because I’m inclined to remember the ‘decade’ that was and couldn’t help but feel immense gratitude for having reached this far in life. It’s not so much the length of time adding up but more about the depth and richness of life that was lived.

This letter seems useless, specifically addressing it to a self that’s long gone and changed over the years. But allow me to write this one to you nevertheless and share, for posterity’s sake.

I’ll tell the bad news first. YOU MESSED UP, JARL. You made a lot of significant, irreparable mistakes and bad decisions over the past decade. You stumbled miserably, several times. It seems that one bad decision wasn’t bad enough for you to learn from, and without even fully noticing it, you’ve taken another bad move. I tell you, it wasn’t your most stellar chapter, with emotional bruises, smears and wounds all over, but I would have to say it’s the most memorable and colourful yet.

My memory’s not that crystal clear anymore but I could still faintly remember your excitement as you welcomed your 20th, eager to close off another decade because you lost 4 friends when you were 17, 18 and 19 years old, respectively. You thought grief was a simple mental process of predisposing yourself to be strong and move on. Sorry to burst your bubble, but living life in your 20s doesn’t automatically remove the pain and the hurt, that voila, you start your emotions on a clean slate. Grief, sadness, loneliness and emptiness each have their own sneaky and persistent ways of catching up on you. Isolating yourself, self-destructing and escaping from it all is never the answer, Jarl. It didn’t work and never will.

You know what kept me going? It’s because of an invisible power called FAITH IN GOD and HOPE, and also because of me being so much blessed with PEOPLE who understood, loved, accepted and journeyed with me. Don’t you give up on those invisible anchors and desperately hold on to those people, whatever it takes.

I’m hours away from potentially making the same mistake again — to be excited in closing off a chapter and writing a new one. They say that you have to let go of things that weigh you down to allow yourself to fly. But trust me, it’s easier said than done. It takes a whole lot of energy and willpower to keep your head above water. Starting off anew is refreshing and exciting but not ideal all the time. I learned that you have to be brave in sorting through the mess, and to have the grit to press on in whatever thing you’re working on.

You’ll see in your 20s how technology will change the world, for the better and worse. You’ll see how sharing of information has never been easier, and will also learn how behind those screens and keyboards, people are more empowered to express themselves. To live your life in the digital age is tricky and treacherous, though. With speed and availability of information on one hand, there’s the sad reality of people wearing ‘masks’ on the other. You don’t give in to what society dictates you to do, how you should look, what you should buy, where you should go or what you should have. I’ve gone down that path and it’s a path with no end. More than being an expensive and time-consuming journey, it will never satisfy you. What’s even worse, you’ll end up not knowing what you’ve turned into, because you’re a person already eaten up by the system.Sadly, you are about to enter an era where you have to consciously make an effort to stay away from your screens and phones. Do not forget that no virtual communication can ever replace the magic of handwritten letters, physically flipping over book pages and face-to-face conversations.

Travel far and wide but do not let accumulation of stamps and fridge magnets be your only goal. More than taking Instagram-worthy shots, understand the story of each new place, get to know the people, meet the locals, soak in the new scenery and try something new. I realised over the years that the most memorable journeys I’ve taken are those countries and places where I can associate a new-found friend.

Believe in the goodness of people, no matter what. You will eventually let some people down, but let that serve as your constant reminder that no one should be judged for the worst thing one’s ever done to you. As what Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘If we are to always match an eye for an eye, the whole world will end up blind.’ Life is harsh and cruel, but do not let it harden your heart.

Enjoy your 20s Jarl, you’ll never go through this same phase in life. Drink and chat with friends, dance like no one’s watching, sing to your heart’s content. Savour the glory in sunrise and sunsets. Read books, write as often as you can. Never compare, and do your best in everything. No matter what, show up. Be responsible and be accountable. Dare to walk a different path. ALWAYS live life as if it’s your last. I wish I could rewind time, but there’s no turning back. I can only look back but will have to move on.

10 years ago, I imagined a 30-year old me — married, with kids, with flat abs, with considerable life savings, paying for a home and car mortgage, forging ahead in my career. I’ve only ticked one in my ‘ideal 30’ checklist, but I totally have no regrets. What I lacked in the checklist was replaced by far more enriching memories, embarrassing but memorable experiences, and heaps of lessons to learn from. Oh, and there’s the achievement of fully paying my credit card before I turn 30. Yay!

Goodbye 20s, hello 30s! Attraversiamo! (Let’s cross over).

Thank you Lord, for the gift of life. Thank you Lord for everything.

Enjoying the sunset in Hanoi over beer and good company (May 2011)
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