My sister turned 20 last Monday. She and I are about 7 years apart (oops gave away my age there!) and I sometimes see her as a reflection of what I was when I was younger. These days, I admire the confidence she has in carrying herself and wished only that I had the same when I was her age too. It felt like not too long ago when my mum made a call home from the hospital to let us know that she had delivered my baby sister and that she was OK. I remembered her telling me the name she intends to give to my sister. I remembered weeks before that, flipping through page by page of the Muslim Baby Names book and picking out my favorites.
And I remembered telling my mum, during the same conversation that she should name her ‘Hanisah’ instead because it means ‘the pious one’ in Arabic and because if we got lazy, she will have a cool nickname that could possibly sound like ‘Honey’.
When she was 16, she had a row with my mum about her future and what she intends to study in University. Ironically, it was the exact same thing that I argued with my parents about at exactly her age – we both wanted to pursue fashion design, and we were both told that we could do anything that we want… just not fashion design. Funny how uncanny things can be sometimes.
I thought turning 20 is a big deal. Bigger than 21. Because I think when you reach 20, you no longer have the ‘teen in your age and in some sort of way stepping away from the adolescent years and into early adulthood. It’s like finally being given the key to access the rest of the world.
It also made me step back and thought about what I would have appreciated to receive when I turned 20. If only I knew what I know now when I was 20. This lead to the idea of gathering stories from a handful of my close friends who are all in their late 20s to mid 30s and putting it together into a simple PDF format e-book. Their stories and essays answers a simple question I had posed to them – “What was the one important thing you learnt and wished you knew when you were 20?”
Mine was on knowing your own self worth, defining that clearly and honoring it. Here is my own piece, a direct copy of what appears in the copy I sent to her on her birthday:
I was in my second of 3 year undergraduate course when I turned 20. It was also the year when I experienced my first real relationship, and subsequently my first break up 6 months later. You could say that I was late bloomer when it comes to dating and relationships.
Academically, I think I did pretty well. I was offered a position as a graduate management trainee, 4 months before graduation. When I joined the bank, I was one of the youngest to be recruited under the program. Of course all of these function as a great ego-boost. I was the youngest in the group and felt so much more wiser than my age. It was also in this job that I met a guy, Mr. H who became a defining figure for me throughout my early to mid twenties. He was also the one that I fell in love with, crashing head first into what so many poets both dead and alive have described before.
It wasn’t long into my first job that I began to question what in the world was I doing working in a bank. I knew working in a bank was never part of my plan, but viewed it more as a stepping stone to something better. And this was one of the first lessons I learnt – that your decisions will never amount to nothing, nothing is ever a waste of time if you believe that each experience is like a brick that stacks up to make you a better, stronger person.
It’s also worth remembering that having a Multinational Corporation as a name on your resume will not hurt your future employability either!
I gave in my first resignation letter a year later, just as I was turning 22. The years that followed after that was exciting, confusing, scary and exhilarating all at the same time. A Roman Philosopher by the name of Seneca once said “Fata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt” – Fate carries the willing man, and drags those who are not. When you are open to experiences, it can lead you to the most wonderful places you can ever wish for.
It can also lead you to experience some of the most painful emotions that you never knew of before. I always thought I would marry the guy that I fell in love with and that I would only know how to love him and no one else after that. In my determination to make my relationship work with Mr. H, I had sacrificed the most important thing one could ever do for themselves – and that is to love yourself, unconditionally.
Although we started out great, and I believe deep down that we were most compatible for each other, as the years accumulated and comfort sets in, routine became our biggest enemy. I don’t know how it went wrong or at which point it started going downhill, but I knew that for a lot of those time I was treated in a way that was less than what I deserved. A lot of my closest friends couldn’t understand why I put up with such a behaviour, or why even after all those tears, I always pick myself up, wipe the snot off my face, and soldier on. It was because that was what I thought love should be. I thought love should be unwavering. Love should be constant and that you don’t ever give up on someone whom you love. I thought if you stand by that person, bad behaviour and all, your loyalty will eventually be paid off, and they will change for the better and love you like you want them to. Little did I know that kind of love only exists between a dog and human. Never make the mistake of thinking you can change anyone but yourself.
Because I was too engrossed attending to his feelings, I forgot about my own feelings. I forgot to grant myself the same level of unwavering love that I was fighting for. I forgot to honor the things that were important to me. In short, I pushed aside my own needs, tolerated less than acceptable treatment, all in the quest of trying to make it all work. And of course this was a guaranteed recipe to disaster.
When it all ended, my world felt like it literally stopped for a second. Who was I outside of this relationship? What is important to me? What do I really like? What do I want to achieve outside of work? What does my ‘before I turn 30’ bucket list looks like?
When you are a kid, you turn onto your parents to comfort you when you are upset. Someone to tell you that things will be OK. When you started dating and enter into long term relationships, you look onto that person to chase away a bad day and cheer you up. When you are on your own however, you begin to realise that although yes, you have your friends to help smack some good sense and set you back on the track, ultimately you are the only one who will eventually have to dust yourself off, stick your chin up and let a bad day slide away on its own. And this is what I call self-love.
I had to re-learn the things I had forgotten and discover things that makes me happy. And although I know there are other things in life that merits more grieving like death of loved one, I still do not wish unto anyone to go through what I did or feel the extent of emotions as I did when it all fell apart. I am however thankful the experience has taught me the most important lesson thus far and that is the value of self worth and how sometimes, your unintentional actions translates into how much you value yourself.
People around you will treat you as well or as crap as you allow them to.
You define your own self worth. When you place little importance to your own feelings, your own happiness at the expense of keeping other people happy, you are defining your self worth (or rather the lack of it). When you stand up for what is important to you, or voice out your own opinion over matters that you feel strongly for, you are defining your own self worth.
Make yourself worthy of your own love, then love yourself unconditionally. Because how can anyone love you in the way you want them to, if you can’t even grant yourself the same level and extent of love to yourself first? The rest, they say will come at its own time. I wished I knew this when I was 20.
I wish I could show you, When you are lonely or in darkness, The astonishing light of your own being. ~Hafiz