Updated: May 17, 2021
We often understand stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end. A coherent trajectory of personal triumph, growth and sacrifice, and redemption. Or the fall of the hero – the temptation that brings us to our downfall. These tend to be the prevalent understandings of how our stories make sense to us – how we are taught to make sense of our lives: that we can only be the villains or heroes in our stories.
But in all cases of life, our own experiences don't fit into a beginning, middle, or end. I was told, like many of you, that when I finish high school, I should go to university or TAFE. Have a fulfilling career and be so lucky to find someone and settle down – maybe have children or a pet. And while I do think these are still worthwhile pursuits and goals that many of my own peers have aspired to or already achieved, I was, and continue to be, preoccupied by a simple question that had nothing to do with jobs or course work or dating or children.
Why do I get up in the morning? Or why should I get up in the morning.
In my late teens and early twenties, I answered this question with work. I had many different jobs or roles over the years. I worked in McDonalds, retail at Superdry, cashier at Dan Murphy’s, waitress at a café, waitress at a wine bar, bar tender at the Casino, event coordinator for an arts organisation, a spoken word poet, tutor at UNSW, call-centre admin at an insurance company, content writer, content manager, researcher at an NDIS provider, digital copywriter. I even got fired from working at an ice-cream store.
When I was in year 10 and had to pick a career, I had wanted to be in publishing, and I did my work experience at Dolly Magazine. It was awful. I didn’t really do anything while I was there except clean out the wardrobe and write a painfully embarrassing 200-word paragraph about – well that doesn’t matter.
In year 11, I went to an engineering camp. I am clearly not an engineer, but I had thought about it sincerely and chosen my HSC subjects based on that trajectory.
By the end of high school, I had thought about being a psychologist. At the end of semester 1 of my university degree, I had decided to become an academic – or more specifically – a sociologist. And I’m happy to say that it’s something I stuck to, even though the path getting there wasn’t clear-cut.
I didn’t get offered a scholarship at the end of my Honours year. I didn’t get accepted into PhD programs for two years. In 2017, I was battling with deteriorating mental health, in and out of an Alcoholics Anonymous program, and spent some time in a mental health ward.
I had lost friends because for some of these people, I was the villain in the story and not the hero I thought I’d be. I was working multiple jobs but never had enough savings because I had an awful spending habit. I was back-to-back in toxic relationships.
These were my private battles while the people around me just saw that I had a good job, that I looked healthy, that I was in school and doing well. Even though, I wasn’t.
I thought it would be dishonest of me to tell you a hopeful story about success or give you advice about motivation that didn’t speak to the hardships and failures in the reality of my own life.
I worked hard to get where I am today. And that’s true but it came at the cost of my physical, mental and emotional well-being. Because whether or not we work really hard, there are societal barriers that we all face to get to our dreams. Racism. Sexism. Harmful stereotypes imposed on us that make people treat you less than human. Toxic traditions or restrictive expectations that our parents can place on us, that our communities might place on us. Addiction. Mental health issues. Abuse.
I didn’t want to come up here and tell you that it gets better. Because I remember sitting where you are and thinking, what if it doesn’t? What if there’s no reason to get up in the morning?
So that’s not the story I want to tell you because I know for some of you, school is a lot safer than home – and that’s a reality I’m not going to gloss over or deny you. I’m not going to pretend that we weren’t all born with a set of disadvantages and privileges that can make life easier or harder to navigate. I merely want to acknowledge that inspiration or motivation isn’t always enough. And in many cases, justice and systemic change will help many of us have easier lives.
So, I’m offering an honest story instead.
I was 16 when I had to leave home because of domestic violence, and this year, it’ll be almost ten years since I made the decision to be safe.
I work as a digital copywriter for a major telecommunications company. I start my PhD program in May. I’m a published poet. I’m an actor, performer, podcast host. I run workshops and creative developments. I’ve sat on arts panels. I love travelling, hiking, bouldering, and powerlifting. I have an unreasonable love of coffee and desserts. And I have an insane amount of houseplants.
But even as I say that those are the things I do, it’s not who I am. My success shouldn’t be based on my productivity or my output. That’s not why I’m worthy of life.
So, I start my PhD program in May because I believe in my heart of hearts that the research I do will be able to uplift the work I do within the Filipino-Australian community, and that it will be able to provide resources and justice to marginalised women. I do this because I believe justice is possible. I work towards this because I wanted to be part of making the world a little safer.
I thought about giving up many times – maybe I wasn’t good enough or smart enough. But that wasn’t it at all. I just needed to find another strategy to get where I wanted and, in the meantime, I used the research skills I had in another field – corporate. I didn’t want to work in a corporate environment – it was the last place I wanted to be, especially since I spent so much time in hospitality and the arts. But I saw it as a means to an end, a place where I would be more financially stable until I found my way back to research.
I’ve had a lot of jobs and many of them I absolutely hated. I used to come early to my job at Dan Murphy’s so I could cry in the bathroom stall before my shift. So yeah, if you needed to hear it – you’re not your job or your worth isn’t based on your job. And it’s extremely unrealistic to be expected to love your job living in this capitalist hellscape.
The story so far has a beginning, middle, and what seems like an end. For a time, work drove me to find a purpose in the mornings. Then money and stability. And in between moments, what I thought was my purpose in life, made me miserable and disconnected. Because life, I realised, wasn’t about work or money or the things you could buy based on work and money. And don’t get me wrong, there is still a level of work and money that is necessary to sustain a comfortable life. But it isn’t all we need to wake up in the morning.
I value my friendships, loyalty, that feeling you get when a stranger smiles at you, kindness, small joys like a perfectly brewed black coffee. I believe in giving more that you receive. I think about how important it is to say thank you and mean it. I practice saying I’m sorry when I’ve hurt someone or I’m wrong. I think living your life with integrity is important – that when you say you’re gonna do something, that you do it. And if you can’t, be honest about it. I believe in treating people with dignity and respect. I think everyone should go to therapy because you can learn so much about yourself. I believe in doing things that frighten you and getting out of your comfort zone because we grow when we are challenged. I believe in telling people you love them and appreciate them whenever you get the chance. I believe in forgiveness.
Your purpose in life isn’t your career or how much money you make. It’s not the job you do or what you can buy. It’s not how productive you can be or how many awards or accolades you have. Look at what you value in life. Look at what you are passionate about. And let that love lead the way.
While I don't pretend to have any answers, there are some things I have grown to accept as a generally decent guide to finding your spark – the thing that inspires you to keep on living, to keep waking up (I recently watched Soul so it’s fresh in my mind).
1. Have great friends be a good friend
2. Prioritise yourself
3. Find a community and give back
4. Do something with your failure - learn from failing
I'm still working on it. But each day, the sun still rises. Each day, I blur lines between a beginning, middle, and end. Each day I exist.