They asked if I could swim in the open sea.
“What do you mean? Just put 10 for everything,” his voice came through distractedly over the phone.
I had consulted my (ex)friend, regarding how I should fill in a swimming competency declaration form. It was sent to me when I applied for a voluntourism package with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program, and was asking me things like whether I could swim a certain distance with fins and snorkel, if I could do it in the open sea, if I could duck dive, hold my breath underwater etc. And I had to rate myself on a scale of 1 to 10.
I didn’t have any notion for whether I could do any of these things. I had never measured or timed myself. My physical activity – while not completely sedentary – had lapsed in recent years. I was only just beginning to be active again, after moving out into my own place.
How could I give myself a 10?? I have no evidence!
Maybe I should pick the turtle project instead. I know for sure I could do that.
That was fear talking. I was afraid just because I didn’t already know I could. And now I couldn’t live with myself if I took the turtle project.
I figured 5’s and 6’s would maybe be fair. A few 4’s. What if I oversell myself, and then trouble them when I couldn’t hack it? I timidly asked him, bracing for the inevitable. I knew my second-guessing was a longstanding point of exasperation with him.
“So train for it between now and then.” He had a thing for ‘training’. “Do you want to be accepted or not?” he added irritably.
I did. “Well, maybe put in some 9’s,” he said, a little more softly. “You can do it! Besides, you’re a paying participant. It’s not likely they will let you drown.”
Irritatingly blithe though he is, he had a point.
I followed his advice. And I swam with whale sharks that year.
My Childhood Dreams
As a child I thought a lot about the world. We had a globe at home that fascinated me. The shapes, names of the countries, how many they were, near and far from the little specks which are mine.
And the stories too – folk tales and myths, with such diversity, eagerly devoured from books and the backs of cereal boxes and encyclopaedias (I grew up in a pre-Wikipedia age). I remember trying to make sense of exactly how the Greek pantheon were related to each other. I also remember being pointedly ignored by a devout Christian English teacher for offering ‘god and goddess’ as an example of male/female noun forms, due to this recreational reading I was doing. Despite being maybe 9, I knew it was unfair given it was English class, not theology.
But I digress.
As a child you simply enjoy your fascination, without particularly thinking whether you could or couldn’t get to these places. I held in superposition the presumption that I would see them myself, and also the tacit sense that this wasn’t likely.
Most of our dreams stay in this potential state. Most of the rest, are eventually laid down and buried.
Do you think I could?
The reason for this is when you actually start to think, maybe this dream or that dream is what I will pursue, it clothes itself in the limits of reality. Inherently, something you dream of is something you don’t already have.
And getting it often requires that you do – and become – new things.
And when it comes to travelling the world, if you’ve been lucky enough to spend your childhood safe, nothing in the nursery of life would have prepared you. The mental state of distant places is almost opposite to the one of staying put.
What’s even less helpful, is if your home culture also has a strong inertia, and an aversion to risk. That you’re opposed to something different, simply because you hadn’t done it yesterday. Which is the case for much of Malaysian society.
Which is strange, because if you think about it, everyone wants to go to heaven. But heaven is a place no one has ever been to, yesterday.
We wait to be told what we could do, as if we don’t know it ourselves. As if someone else would know us better.
And so, raised under these influences, I hesitate. Even with a father who presumed I could be great at whatever I liked, I still asked of myself and others, Who am I to claim I could do these things? and, Do you think I could?
Literature says, people either wallow dramatically, or just get on with it.
It wasn’t always like this.
Because of all the Malay folk tales I read in childhood, I knew travel once had a special place in our culture.
We once sent our young (ok, only the male ones back then) to travel, to berkelana. Gently shoved out into the world to make his fortune, or at least return wiser than if he had simply stayed back like a frog under a coconut shell.
And that’s for the non-seafaring tribes of the region.
The seafaring ones simply presumed voyaging of some kind was a fact of life. After all, we have Awang, a seaman conscripted to Ferdinand Magellan’s ship in then-Portuguese occupied Malacca, who actually did circumnavigate the globe since he returned to Malacca. (Despite popular assumption, Magellan himself did not, since he was killed in the Philippines and never finished the voyage.)
But these days, the intrepid getting on with it part is absent from culture. Soap operas mainly just depict the dramatic wallowing part as a virtue that somehow karmically brings about the happy ending, through the lack of any assertive action whatsoever (especially for the heroine). Apparently this is patience, sabr.
We borrow this Arab word, sabar. But it seems we don’t really understand it, equating it with pasrah, resignation.
Yet I know (because I read) sabr is actually an industrious sort of patience. You’re calm and take restriction with grace, yes.
But you help yourself – so that you don’t waste the chance to learn those things whose time is now, and prepare for the things whose time will be in the future.
The time when I finally finished growing up.
People in such sheltered cultures can clock decades of life, hold down jobs, even marry and raise families – and yet remain children.
I was not that different.
And I might not have grown up, if I hadn’t had to initiate my divorce. But there was no one else to do it, no one who could tell me if I could – let alone if I could do it with compassion and forgiveness.
Thereafter I moved out from my parents’ home, but I didn’t quite know what to do with myself at first.
Nonetheless events happened in that first year, confronting me with my unfinished growth.
I made excuses. There were all these rational and perfectly true reasons why I could not be this person I was called to be. Stay sensible – and small.
But the thing is, they were all someone else’s words, from someone else’s mindset. I had not actually tested if any of these reasons were true – for me.
And I knew it. I was led down this path of reasonableness and dependence before, and it only prolonged a dead end.
So I tested the excuses. I did things that were supposed to be too risky – for people who remain as children. And I learned to listen for my own voice among the voices in my head.
When I went to Nepal, I no longer asked anyone if I could.
I read a cool article about travel words, and came across this word, schwellenangst. The Germans have apparently named this very specific fear, of threshold anxiety.
That fear you feel when you’re just about to do something new. You’re totally going. This is it. You’re at the last step, at the threshold beyond which you really have to do it and there’s no turning back – now go!
(By the way, it seems I might be secretly German, considering how many of the German words resonate with me… gaaahhh!).
At the end of the day, what it takes to finally try something new, is the same thing to be someone new. You step, or leap, off the threshold.
I scoff at this fear even as I have it myself.
I rolled my eyes listening to corporate colleagues asking to be walked through step by step on how to get a taxi from Goa airport, in a prep call for a corporate volunteer program. Even though I was also secretly nervous to go to India for the first time, and have to find the hotel myself.
Even though I myself was in trepidation over whether I really could cope purposely arriving early to Goa. It seems a kind of place in a kind of country I did not have the experience to engage. It all seems so mystical and exotic and strange, to read travellers blog about it. Could I?
But in the end, Goa surprisingly turned out to feel just like Southeast Asia. Why, even the garden plants are so typical and similar to the ones favoured in Malaysian homes!
I had forgotten that, being Malaysian – I am ‘exotic’!
Belief becomes fact.
This type of fear always vanishes after the thing isn’t new anymore.
I felt it again, arriving in Malé. I was disoriented. It was too overwhelming to choose which island to stay at for my layover, after the MWSRP portion ended (I ended up in Dhiffushi). I didn’t even know how to manage getting to the city, in a country made up entirely of small atolls.
But I returned a few months later to visit a friend I made from the first time (the photographer credited for several photos featured in this article). And the second time, I managed the transfers as if I did it every other week.
Each time – Kathmandu, Varanasi – was the same.
It is a fear simply from not having done the thing before. And maybe that’s why I was never really afraid to go to England. I had read broadly from its literature since I was a child. Even if it wasn’t the most accurate image of contemporary England, I felt like I could manage it. I felt like I knew what it would be like.
In the past year I realised that this feeling is all that you need – more powerful than the knowledge that you could do it.
To grow up – just do it.
Growing up is a major threshold that each of us will face, but none of us would have done – yesterday. And ultimately adulthood is about assuming power.
By its very nature, possession of power is proved when you don’t have to ask – it can simply be taken.
Growing up is when you come to the realisation that the authority of your life – is you. And you assume that authority, whether other people agree with it or not. Nor do you need them to – even if that’s always preferred.
You stop asking permission to do what is true to your own life.
It’s simple and it’s hard. Especially if you happen not to have supportive family, or even an unhealthy co-dependent one, and so face almost certain opposition. You might be cut off. Or you might be disinherited. Suppose you lose some friends, who don’t understand your changes to gain what’s true to you.
I know people who chose to grow up against such opposition. Find out what would really happen. Make this terrifying new thing, a yesterday thing. And so, no longer terrifying.
I also know people who chose to remain children.
It’s only now that I understand why 40 is referred to in the Qur’an as ‘the age of maturity’. Not 18. Not 21. But 40.
Sure, there are many life skills you can (should!) acquire, relationships you can make, and a lot of knowledge to pick up, that would make ‘adulting’ easier.
But in the end, growing up is when you stop trying to be an adult.
You just do it.
That’s when you know that you finally understand what it means.