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"Doing enough" vs "Doing what I can"

Samseng Zhabor
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If you’ve been paying any attention to this odd and irregular little newsletter (and I don’t blame you at all if you don’t, there are enough things going on in life as it is), you’ll know that I’ve been grappling with work, stress, and burn-out for some time. I still haven’t come up with any answers for myself, but it feels like life has been throwing some hints and prompts my way.
Recently at a meeting with fellow activists we talked about intentionality — about the importance of paying attention to why we are doing the things we do. All too often we just end up getting caught up in producing output without giving ourselves time to reflect on what it’s all for, and whether it meets our needs and goals, as opposed to being something we’re doing for the sake of doing things.
We were talking about work that we were doing together, but I realised that it applies so much to my own work as well. It’s been a long time since I’ve reflected on the intention and motivation behind what I do, because I’ve been so overwhelmed by the doing.
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Once, in a workshop that I was facilitating at a high school, a student asked if I ever felt that I’d “done enough” on the issues I cared about, like the death penalty, or the exploitation of migrant workers.
I remember my answer: “I never feel like I’ve done enough.”
This answer is still true today; no matter what and how much I do, I still never feel like I’m doing enough to change the things that I wish could change in Singapore. What’s changed is how I feel about this answer. Back then, I remember it giving me a small sense of pride; a sense that I was doing something big and noble, which made me feel big and noble too. Today, I see it for what it is: a straight path to burn-out.
I’ll never feel like I’ve done enough, because big issues like capital punishment and labour exploitation and misogyny and racism aren’t things that we can do enough about, especially not on our own. Every day that the death penalty exists is a day in which I cannot possibly do enough to get rid of it. Using “enough” as the benchmark of how much I’ve done is setting myself up for failure.
Instead, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that I need to focus on doing what I can. This involves two challenges:
  1. Acknowledging the feeling that I’m not doing enough, but not giving in to it, and
  2. Recognising that actually “what I can” is not insignificant, and should be respected (especially by me) for what it is.
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Every time I work on a death row case, I get dogged by a feeling like I’ve forgotten something. It’s a niggling feeling at the back of my head that I’ve dropped the ball on something, that something important has slipped my mind. But it’s usually not because I’ve really forgotten anything; it’s just because, with an issue so big where the stakes are so high, it feels wrong to be still even for the briefest of moments. It feels like every minute, every second, needs to be packed with activity to convince anyone and everyone that the execution needs to be halted. Of course, the reality is that this is simply not feasible, and no one will be helped if I collapse into a puddle of exhaustion.
Recognising this is easy in theory, but difficult to really put in practice. The anxiety of never doing enough can manifest in odd ways. Sometimes it pops up in the form of gatekeeping impulses, where I feel threatened if someone else comes up with good comments or ideas for steps we can take. It’s incredible nonsense: on the one hand, I’m glad for anyone who can contribute, and know that I don’t want any more worked to be piled on my shoulders, but on the other hand, a part of me feels upset or frustrated that I wasn’t the one coming up with all the ideas or doing all the work. I have to constantly remind myself that these impulses and feelings come from illogical places, built upon a foundation of unrealistic demands of myself.
This sometimes happens with journalism too, when I come across a good story on Singapore and start asking myself why I wasn’t the one who wrote it, even while knowing that some days I can barely convince myself to get out of bed, much less write more than I’m already doing. I live in the trap that Wudan Yan writes about here, subsuming my work into my identity to the point where I feel like I have to be doing all this work, all the time, to still be relevant and worthy as a human being.
This needs to stop.
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In this last stretch of 2021, it’s really started to hit home that I don’t just need the one-week staycation that I took in October (its effects now well and truly gone), but some serious recalibration. As my husband Calum put it: I might not be fully burnt out, but I’m certainly crispy around the edges.
What I need to do now, I think, is reflect on what’s really important, what makes me tick, and why I do what I do. For this reflection to happen, things need to slow down — I will have to, somehow, shed the freelancer brain that is constantly worried about being on the brink of financial collapse if I’m not saying yes to every paying job that comes my way. This is, again, much harder to achieve than to write about. But I have to try, because otherwise my metamorphosis into Gudetama will be complete.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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