Five years ago to this day, the start of an unpredictable health journey began to unfold… and despite living each day since then contemplating the meaning of life in the context of pain and constant recovery as well as processing the potential for unpreventable future occurrences, I know this to be true, I still have fears. Fears especially heightened when I went abroad and the fear of ever having the capacity to be completely loved when a scar that never disappears becomes a daily reminder. Though I wake up each morning and go to bed each night thinking about my health, I’ve grown from breathing in relief that the nightmare will re-commence to breathing in gratitude that I am still alive. I recognize now that my scars can fade over time but they will never fully disappear. So rather than holding onto such experiences from a place of shame or guilt they can only come from a place of compassion and admiration.

My February TedxSpeech for the Sciences Po Students Challenge is here below:

What do we think of when we think of fear? Quite often, we contextualize it within “negativity”. We recognize how gripping it can be. How no matter what context it’s talked about in, it’s life-changing. It’s a force of nature that drives diverse actions within different people.

Fear has always been contextualized within immensible pain yet it’s also brought me to some of the most unexpected as well as remarkable moments of my life. And today, I want to address that. How we can navigate between the fuzzy contours of its powers to hinder but at the same time discover, its power to enable?

Back on a foggy afternoon in April 2014th, I was walking home after a long day of uncomfortable shoulder pain. Dismissing this as a muscle knot that had probably developed from the gym the night prior, I went about my extracurriculars afterschool and slung on my heavy backpack. I distinctly remember the explosion I felt go off in my chest. The pain instantaneously bringing me to the mercy of gravity. I heard the thud of my backpack echo across the empty parking lot and I felt my hands scrape the cement. “Was I having a heart attack? Was I dying?”

Over the next three years, I would have five spontaneous pneumothorax’ and two lung surgeries. And each time, I was met with sympathetic doctors that were unable to explain the underlying factors of why this kept happening. Completely clean health record, no smoking, no previous family history, and certainly an addictive lifestyle to getting the recommended nutrients, daily exercise, and sleep. These events would continue to be unpredictable and unexplainable.

After realizing that my life was drastically going to change before and after my second lung surgery, naturally I, had an emotional breakdown. From 2017 to 2018 as I recovered and transferred back home to finish my degree, I faced the crippling feelings of fear I had never experienced before. Gone was the nonchalant attitude of conquering anything that I had during the previous four lung collapses, this time the fear was constant.

This story of mine, my life, is inevitably intertwined with who I am and I tell you it because for the past two years, the dominating emotions such as grief, anger, and especially fear left me feeling incredibly alone and in the dark. However, the fear propelled me to reflect and challenge myself to grow outside of my adapted comfort zone; to recapture aspects of my life worth living and to redefine the person I wanted to be.  I don’t have all the answers but the past years have been a discovery process of moving from that place of paranoia back into an area of self-development and growth.

We all have fears, we all have our own challenges…so I want to ask you:

What devastates you to the point that you can’t catch your breath? What ARE your deepest fears?

Now I’m going to tell you what I know to be true about fear:

1. Fear exists to protect us. It develops our perception of risk.

2. Fear is valid. It is an universal emotion.

3. Fear is a pointer, not a driver. Its power is in its ability to teach. It gets us to confront the “why”. 

One, fear is an integral and universal emotion. The ground-breaking work of Kahneman with Tversky and later on Lerner in behaviour and psychology, demonstrates how much integral emotions influence our decision making. Even the philosopher Hume once said “Reason is slave to the passions.” Emotions can be a bias. And so it’s with utmost importance to remain diligent by not allowing fear to shut us down and hinder our ability to make meaningful choices. We’ve unfortunately seen fear control the lives of people with antagonism or disrespect within events that have swept across the global stage. But recognizing it’s integral-ness in keeping us safe and mitigating risks also requires active reflection.

Two, fears are valid.

We often blame or judge ourselves and others for being scared. We work hard to actively push out the emotion and deny its existence. But rather than seeing or framing fear as a “negative” emotion, Harvard medical psychologist Susan David suggests that to truly deal with the uncomfortable situations in our life, there needs to be a “radical acceptance of ALL our emotions” which builds the resiliency for us to move on. Denial or not choosing to confront our fears, can actually amplify our fear and this is proven statistically.

Growing up we all remembered friends of ours or perhaps even ourselves who were made fun of if we were “too chicken” or a “scaredy-cat” to do something. Then during recovery, I was burdened with the feelings of shame and guilt for feeling so scared of the chest pain I would experience each week. Why couldn’t I just get over it?

We can be so tough on ourselves that we don’t allow acceptance of our fears to take their time and place. Recognizing that fear is a part of our contract with life can bridge understanding that we tackle unique struggles and since we perceive the world differently, THAT understanding should be the base of our conversations with one another. To foster connection rather than shame.

Two years ago close to this day, I woke up drenched with sweat and unable to move. My surgical wounds had just slowly start to close but in the moment of immense physical pain, all I could feel was despair. I had woken up from a nightmare that all my friends forgot who I was. Their faces were blank stares. At the time, I was devastated. Because that nightmare was my fear. To be forgotten. To be dismissed because of my health condition. To be unworthy of friendship or contribution to society.

Three, fear is a signal. It prodded me to go deeper and ask questions. In essence, it became my teacher.

My fear of being forgotten propels a lot of the work I do because I value the voices of others and want to spend my life, empowering those who feel unheard or unworthy. 

Have you ever asked yourself why you’re scared? Do your fears perhaps highlight your underlying values? Because our fears can actually help us discover our inner-most values, paving the way for us to seize or create opportunities that can actively shape our lives aligned according to those values.

Now, it’s not easy to open oneself to fear or to work towards “conquering it”. It really isn’t. The truth is that 2017 was hell for me. I was unable to thrive. I was doing the bare minimum to keep myself alive but every moment felt prolonged by the pain from the concurring chest pain and the pain of fear. Having to emotionally adapt to my activities with less rigour yet wanting to live my best life as a twenty year old was a constant battle. How could I pursue experiences while navigating the loud voices of my health related fears? The question I often was proposed with when I felt sensations in my lung, was this: was I going to be in the hospital experiencing the most excruciating pain of my life again?

The answers indeterminate. But I do know another thing that is true, something I didn’t know at the time. And that is, to be able to still feel this vulnerable and scared shitless sometimes, means that I’m alive. That I’m privileged to be able to breathe and to have an opportunity to pursue life again. It means for all of us that we have the capacity to feel something that the person we’re sitting next to feels. The person we see on the subway. The person we love. All of them. And isn’t that magical? To be able to experience something similar yet so different in the context of our own lives? And doesn’t that also mean it’s a first of many invitations to connect and to understand one another a little bit better?

As you go forward in life, I want you to know that your fears are real. And because they exist, there’s a reason for what brought them into being. Try to allow yourself compassion for what it is that you feel as opposed to shame or guilt. I want to challenge you to explore those fears and when the time comes, if you’re comfortable to talk about them. Because fear can be an invitation to finding solidarity with others or to better accommodate understanding in our communities. And as you go on and process whatever it is life throws you next, recognize THAT uncomfortability your fear is causing you, is actually a CONDITION to leading a meaningful life. Having the capacity to grow from owning your fears as opposed to denying them, is extremely difficult but truly rewarding. It brings us closer together and it shapes us to become a bit more courageous. 

It takes courage to tell people about our fears or if not speaking about them, confronting them in our daily lives. Fear creates vulnerability. Yet instead of my previous hatred for how my fears made me feel, I’ve now begun to have a greater appreciation for what it’s not only taught me but also brought me to experience. It was through opening up to my fears and allowing myself to be vulnerable with others about them, that I fostered my best relationships. Where the people I had the privilege and honour to encounter, gave me the beautiful opportunity to understand what it was truly like to ask for help or to laugh with at some of the irrationalities I will always have. And it’s because of that journey and doing everything in the best of my ability to mitigate the risks the past year, that I find myself here in front of all of you. Here, living in a city of my dreams and studying my passions. Speaking, breathing, alive. Each day the fear of something happening to my health still exists but rather than battling it as an enemy, it’s more like a guardian angel hovering over me. Something that has value and is powerful but will only ever be as powerful as I allow it.

*We must own our fears because our fears do not own us.

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