Letting go of what I cannot change

My best memory of jetlag is from when the children were four and five and we were in New York near Christmas time.

They had given up the ghost at about 6pm and I knew they would wake up hungry in the middle of the night, so I popped into a convenience store to buy some cup noodles.

Sure enough, the chicks were wide awake and ready for lunch at 2am. I congratulated myself on my foresight as I started the kettle in our hotel room and filled the cups with hot water.

Three minutes later, when the noodles were ready to eat, I discovered the fatal flaw in my cunning plan: We had nothing to eat them with. Not even a coffee stirrer.

But all was not lost. We hit on the idea of improvising with their toothbrushes. The stick ends made very decent chopsticks and the children enjoyed their snack in the dead of night.


Over the years, we got used to navigating the 12-hour difference between the east coast of the United States and Singapore. I've always maintained that it's an easier adjustment than a time difference of three to eight hours. All you have to do is stay awake till dinnertime, and then you can sleep.

In fact, as the years pass, I find myself increasingly inured to the jetlag. Sure, I may be a little sleepy in the mid-afternoon, when my body is telling me it's 4am , but I can usually shrug it off and get into the swing of things right away. I blame my age for making me insensitive.

So I was somewhat annoyed to find jetlag dogging me on our annual trip back to Singapore last month.

Going there and coming back, I slept badly in the first week, unable to fall in step with the rhythm of the time zone as smoothly as before.

In an effort to reset my sleep pattern as quickly as possible, I tried - sometimes in the same night - solutions such as taking medication, listening to an audio book, meditating, playing mood music and going back to medication again when none of the above worked.

But each night, I struggled with wakefulness.

And then I got lucky.

One night, a couple of weeks ago, as the soothing voice in my guided meditation exhorted me to acknowledge the distracting thoughts in my head and let them go, I realised I had the answer to the question I had not known to ask.

Much as I had tried to fight the jetlag, nothing was working.

I was better off simply accepting that my body needed the time to adjust.

Patience, not war, was my best friend. Thanks to the guided- meditation-woman, I could see this when I detached myself from the emotional stress of being sleepless.

This ability to roll with the punches, I thought, is useful not just for insomnia, but also other tough situations that all of us will invariably find ourselves facing.

Still, it is a mindset that can run counter to modern existence, predicated as it is on not letting chaos overwhelm us.

We tame the world and bend it to our will so we can turn our dreams to reality. We build neat nests and furnish them and act as obedient and functioning members of society to hold it all together, so that we can all move forward.

After all, what is progress but to constantly improve and expect improvement?

If something is broken, we try to fix it. If we are ill, we look for a cure. To make time work for us, we schedule it.

Our species has thrived because man would not accept things as they were.

It is the source of our greatest achievements, but it has also cost us, for it takes so little to rip away the veil and see the chaos just underneath.

Life can come undone in such little time. An elderly parent can fall and break a leg and it can become clear that she may never return to her former condition.

You can be six months shy of being cancer-free for five years and be told that it has come back.

You can lose a well-paying job at age 50 and know your odds of finding something commensurate are small, but you still have to put your children through college.

None of these real-life situations has positive outcomes that are assured and that's what shakes us to the core because, deep inside, we've always believed that life can get only better.

It doesn't. And sometimes all we can do is acknowledge it and let go of what we can't change.

While we were back earlier this month, we made a short trip to the beautiful Perhentian islands in Malaysia for some sun and sea and for my daughter to get some diving practice.

She got her licence in Tioman last year and this was her first time back in the water.

"How was it?" I asked enthusiastically after she returned from a dive.

"Terrible," she said. It turned out she'd had a blinding headache throughout, a sore throat, chapped lips, was hungry and thirsty, and the rented fins were cutting blisters into her heels. To top it all, the visibility at the dive site? Nada.

"I'm so sorry," I said.

"Oh no," she replied. "It was really good for me. I always think these are things I can't do without. I'm so scared of being uncomfortable. But I discovered that I can be hungry, thirsty and in pain and yet still be okay."

That was not the reply I'd expected. Who would have thought the ocean's riches would include the discovery of how to distance yourself from the situation and find out you are tougher than you thought?

I think the only thing that makes life bearable is that we are here for one another.

If we are lucky, there will be someone who will hand you a couple of toothbrushes you can turn into chopsticks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Letting go of what I cannot change'. Print Edition | Subscribe