Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Mighty Millennials.

When you are 19, at the prime of your youth, and you suffer a stroke, life can appear to be playing a cruel joke on you. 

Lee Yong Jie (now 22) came face to face with death at 19, when he suffered a massive stroke while ending his Poly internship at a bank ironically at the point when he was giving a farewell speech.

He said this: "the left side of my body had shut down. I collapsed into the chair behind me." Yong Jie thought that he was going to die at 19.

The real mortality challenge happened in the hospital when Yong Jie discovered he had a congenital condition (from birth) known medically as brain arteriovenous malformation.

The malformation is that "abnormal mesh of blood vessels" in Yong Jie's brain, and "when it rupture and bleed, it causes a stroke."

FYI, Theresa Tan was the journalist who interviewed Yong Jie in the article today entitled "Stroke at 19, laid off at 22, but pushing on." 

And Yong Jie did push on against all obstacles.

His first obstacle was to relearn everything we normally take for granted like sitting up, drinking, bowels control, speaking to people to save his ability to speak, swallowing and moving his body to scratch an itch. 

His second obstacle was to graduate and find a job. He did find it through the Transition To Employment Programme at the SPD (it's a charity that helps those with disabilities). 

But adversity is usually blind and cold, and in Jan this year, Yong Jie was retrenched as the IT company he worked for fell on bad times. 

His third obstacle was to go back to school. He is currently studying in NUS for a degree course in the Arts and Social Sciences faculty. Yong Jie said that his ambition is to be a social worker.

Theresa Tan wrote about Yong Jie's life because she firmly believes that the millennials (those born in the 1990s) are not the strawberry generation that we have so cavalierly labeled to make the older generation look more unique and special. 

Here, Theresa recalled the lyrics of the 1988 Mike and the Mechanics hit, "The Living Years," with this catchline, "Every generation blames the one before." 

The reality is that they are not soft or fragile like strawberry. Theresa had in fact met many who faced great obstacles like Yong Jie and fought on to take their life back. 

Most of them do not come from privileged background but yet, they lived with determination, honour and hope. 

Lesson? I have three, and all three rides on Yong Jie's inspiring words.

You see, a young man like him can teach this stubborn "old man" (47) many things he takes for granted. Crudely put, a "strawberry" can enlighten a thorny durian like me. 

Here are Yong Jie's own words as my lessons unfold.

1) "It was like finding out I had lived with a time bomb all my life and never knew it. I had never had any major health problems and I used to swim, play badminton and lift weights."

I am not going to cushion the impact here. Let me just say that the reality is that our mortality is never a guarantee. That's ironically one bankable fact of life. 

Some live to their ripe old age. Others die young. But like they say, the heaviest coffin is the smallest - especially when it is our sons and daughters that we have to send off before us.

My point is that there is indeed a "time bomb" in our life. It starts to tick the moment we are born. 

There is no euphemism for that because we only live once, and within that short mortal span on earth, we have to decide how we want to make the most of that one fragile, brief life. 

So, the greatest delusion in our life is to allow ourselves to be lulled into a belief that death or terminal illness or disabilities are other people's problem, not ours. 

You see, one day the inevitable will come knocking. It always starts with a gentle knock, like a ringing whisper in our busy, activity-flooded life. Most of us will ignore it, dismissing it as a killjoy. 

But the whisper of mortality is never there to end life. On the contrary, as the example of Yong Jie's life has shown, it is there to deepen life, to enrich life, to flourish life. We dismiss it at our own peril, and this brings me to my second lesson in Yong Jie's words.

2) "In the end, what kept me going was the unwavering support of my family, girlfriend and friends. I also met someone my age in hospital, who had brain cancer. He didn't get the second chance I did. So, I felt that I couldn't give up."

I earnestly believe that second chances and never-giving-up share a special affinity. It is when we confront our adversity and brave through it with tears and hope that we find our second chances in life. 

Birth gives us our first chance, and living in an autopilot, unreflective manner squanders our first chance away, but going through trials and persevering to the end, opens up a horizon of second chances. 

It is like coming to a crossroad in life and making the decision to live for what truly counts that transforms our second chances into life-affirming values that will endure with us to a fruitful, rewarding end. 

You see, life served on a silver platter will not find growth or meaning. It is when we bravely come out of our comfort zone and do something lasting, enduring with our life that we start a chain reaction of growth and maturity. 

Here, I recall the words of an oral historian Studs Terkel who once said: "Work is about the search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."

Alas, what "sort of life" are we searching for (all our life)? Are we waiting to die or are we dying to live? 

This brings me to my third and final lesson...


3) "I grew up in a poor family. My dad is a school bus driver and my mother is a housewife. I always wanted to be the boss of a technology firm and make lots of money. But now, I feel it would be a waste of my second chance at life if I worked just for the sake of money."

Recently, I met a father who was working as a project manager, handling big projects for his company. But they fired him once he had secured the projects for them, and it came at the most painful time of his life. 

His wife just gave birth to their second child but the child was born premature. The child was placed under ICU and eventually lost the fight for life. The medical bills came up to more than $40k. 

The father needed the job to pay for the bills, and pleaded with the company to let him stay. But the company instead let him go. 

The father told me that the company often do this, that is, it has a high turnover rate because they can reset the salary of their employees at a lower figure by hiring new staff with the same vigor for work. 

The father's plight stunned me. Here is a man at his forties who have to grapple with the lost of his child, a mounting medical bill and the lost of his job. 

There is indeed a certain coldness in the way some people treat others, and money is the insatiable interlocutor that distances humanity from humanity. 

Materialism or money, whether we love it or not, sooner or later, turns us into creatures of apathy, arrogance and amorality. We lose our humanity when we pursue with blinded zeal the unending accumulation of wealth and power. 

Yong Jie's plight reminded me about this dark side of materialism. 

He said: "Before my stroke, I wanted different things. But now, I cherish my health, my friends and family more than I ever did before. And I want to make a difference to others."

Let me aptly end with Yong Jie's words. 

Immediately after he suffered the stroke, he recounted this: "Gripped by terror, I messaged my girlfriend to tell her I loved her. I asked her to tell my parents that I was sorry. I felt bad for them and guilty for dying so young."

Let me just say stoically that there shouldn't be any guilt for "dying so young." Death comes to all, young and old. 

The greatest guilt (one should feel) is however reserved for those who eventually die for nothing. In other words. they represent nothing in their life. They made no difference whatever. They fade away, forgotten, or best not remembered. 

And I believe the love of money and nothing else, and spending one's lifetime pursuing it at the expense of the many whom one has exploited is a life lived for nothing; however rich, powerful and famous that person can be. It is like a life chasing after the intemperate wind. 

Now, at some point and for a season, all of us are guilty of chasing the wind, pursuing things that will leave a bad taste to our legacy. 

But the difference is that those who once chased after the wind eventually wake up at their own crossroad, and they make a lasting choice to make a difference in the lives of others like Yong Jie did in his confrontation with mortality.

In other words, they channel the wind to lift their sail in the direction of hope, fulfilment and meaning. 

But there are others like the father's ex-boss who spend their lifetime chasing the wind and allowing it to throw them from one existential emptiness to another, thereby forsaking their humanity, abandoning relationships and selling out their character. 

In the end, they live a rudderless life, tormented by the tempest of the wind, and dying leaving a legacy of shame and regrets. As such, giving them second chances are like throwing pearls to swine. Cheerz.

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