I am leaving, because I can

on agency and self-love


In roughly two days I’ll leave the United States and will probably be unable to return again.

This has been a sharp about-turn for me, even for myself. I remember setting foot in San Francisco in 2011, feeling a sense of belonging for the first time in my life. That feeling was so certain, so absolute. I wanted to spend the rest of my life here, a country whose values align closer to mine than my birth country can probably ever be.


I tend to project the future with my current self, failing to realize that while I can make safeguards for external, macro events, it is much harder to do so when the transformation takes place on a much unconscious, deeper level. A lot of who I was, what I was capable of, what used to important to me, what I love, has changed. I think of change as either consciously incremental or dramatic, but sometimes it creeps up incrementally like a stealthy stranger, before it erupts in a way that traumatizes myself more than the people around me.

Letting go of what used to be familiar, what used to matter, is a very confusing, terrifying process. Who am I really, if I no longer had what used to define me?


If you ask me why I’m leaving, I’ll be able to give you a whole bunch of rational reasons. I need to heal from my terrible burnout, I want to stop having anxiety attacks for no apparent reason, I want to stop waking up at night feeling as if my heart is dropping, I want to be more present with my family, I want to learn how to love myself, I want to stop feeling like I am in the constant pursuit of something and just be.

I want to start living an existence that is not measured by some economic metric, to produce work that I must, or I’ll start to die. Work that may not change the world, or anybody, but will irreversibly change me, because it will be an extension of myself. I used to think I will and want to give all of myself for the betterment of the world, till I realize that it is intrinsically, complexly and yet simply, tied to the betterment of myself. I can only give my best, if I am at my best.

Those are all valid reasons, with a bit of self-awareness and self-psychoanalysis, but one moment in this process, I realized, I don’t need any justification, to anybody or to myself, to do anything. I could have a well-reasoned argument, but it wouldn’t matter if I simply didn’t want to make that choice. All reasons can fall apart in the face of a single emotion.

I am leaving, because I can.


Agency is

the capacity of an entity to act in any given environment. source

I have never learned this definition of this word till I started living in the United States. My surrogate country nurtured me in ways I was never nurtured in my birth country. It tears me apart to think that I may never be back again, to a place that has given me so much. It was here that I first learned to smile at strangers, to see an undeniable light in people’s eyes, to know what it means to belong, to be accepted because I am different. It was here that people demonstrated curiosity and love to my stories, that for once, my existence was being celebrated because I was like them, a huge contrast from the alienation I have felt throughout my life in Singapore.

I have relied upon the community, my community in San Francisco to provide sustenance to my existence, that without them I could not exist. Without the strength of the community I had found here, I believed I was nothing.

I did not bank upon that I would develop my own sense of agency, precisely because I was in a safe, nurturing place to grow. The mere realization that I wanted to learn how to love myself, stems from the belief that I am actually capable of doing so. This was not even possible six months ago. Most of my life, I had accepted that I was going to spend the rest of my life resenting myself, as a fact of my life, and I was going to try my best to cope with it anyway.

But I do love the world, greatly. It is an irrational love, for if I were to think about it intellectually, I honestly do not have much faith that humanity is capable of digging ourselves of this hole we have created. Love is not tested during times of peace, love is most keenly felt when things become so untenable, and yet we love, regardless.

I want the world to love herself, that requires wanting her people to love themselves, and there came the bare realization that I cannot possibly truly wish for our people to love ourselves when I can barely look at myself in the mirror, even though I have tried to give all I could to the world, just to warrant that I am worthy of just one look.


I am leaving, because I can. I have finally learned what it means to have agency. To act in any given environment. I want to believe I am capable of carrying this sense of agency, wherever I go. A warm cocoon is always meant to be emerged out of, into the cold, harsh world. Attempting to stay in, will only result in death.

If I had insisted on staying, it would have been a decision made out of fear that I was incapable surviving without. It would mean that I did not believe I had agency.

San Francisco will always have her amazing community. There are plenty of places around the world that require the love and support that San Francisco has an abundance of. But even without thinking of other places or people, I want to think of myself. What is it like to give love and support to myself, no matter who I become, what I produced, where I worked? Am I capable of believing I deserve to be loved even if everything turns awry and I end up having to sleep on the streets, or worse, having to ask for help? Am I willing to give up all the privilege I had, to discover who I am capable of being? Could I give up the city I love, in exchange for myself?

I am leaving, because I want to believe I can. I want to know I can.


Postscript:
It was still my burnout that triggered all of this, I don’t want to deny that a huge part of why I am leaving is because I don’t feel like I had much of a choice — it was either I try to do something audacious or continue to feel deathly. But some of my people kindly reminded me that I could have chosen to stubbornly hold on to the familiar precisely because I was sick. I had the option to go for a sabbatical, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank the kindness and support of my former team. But I could not take that option in good conscience, I honestly have no idea how long it is going to take, and I selfishly want my mind to be as free as possible from all concerns.

I would like to believe that some part of myself had become strong enough to believe that I am capable of giving up all I have in order to truly find the space to heal and love. The decision to go into healing is a decision made out of love for myself, that must be a good first step, isn’t it? All in, I am actually grateful for my burnout forcing me into a reevaluation of how I was living, and that I have an opportunity to redesign myself again. I also want to acknowledge that I am very privileged to actually be financially capable of doing this even for just a little while, and I know there are a ton of people who are not in the same position, but that is precisely why all the more I should do this, because I can, because I am morally obligated to pursue a better version of myself, so that I can love the world better, some time in the future, I sincerely hope.