Commentary

Generation Grit: Millennials who faced adversity and found a better version of themselves

The Pod is a space on the 16th floor of the National Library which allows for an almost 360-degree view of the city. Most days it is beautiful, yesterday it was exceptional. Not for what you could see outside, but for what lay within.

Yesterday was The Straits Times' Generation Grit Award 2018 and resilience was in the room. So was faith and hope, purpose and patience. Stubbornness showed up and positivity was on quiet parade. All of it in the form of young people, some in wheelchairs, most rather shy, all with a story horrific yet heartening.

Wong Zi Heng is paralysed from the chest down while Lim Bo Zhi lost his mother at 14 and his father five years later. Lee Wee Yong had a stroke at 20 and Zulayqha Zulkifli, now 24, had days at school when she had no money for food. They wept and suffered, endured and rebounded. They took on adversity and held it to a draw.

Now we were gathered to hand them our respect even as we stripped away a stereotype. Part of the arrogance of older folk is to believe that generations who follow them never work as hard. The entitled millennial is a cliche and it was refuted by the young citizens in this room.

Here was courage worn without a swagger. Here were young people meeting for the first time, of different sexes and various races, all so beautifully dissimilar and yet tied together by conviction - like gritty echoes of each other. It was a room of a hopeful future.

Azlin Amran fell into an escalator shaft at 28, damaged her spinal chord and is confined to a wheelchair. So much of her was fractured and yet she did not break. Asked about the one thing she'd like to do, she paused and said: "Have a baby." There's always a new life out there, she was telling us.

This was a morning of lessons in the sun. Of how life does not care if you're old enough, or ready enough, before it trips you. At 45 we're somewhat experienced in the roughness of life, but at 18, at 23, you're unschooled in life's capriciousness, you're not yet armed for tragedy.

 

Suddenly you find you have cancer, or your mother commits suicide, or the doctor says you'll never speak again. It's like your fairytale has lost its footing and your dream has been flattened. These young people might have asked "Why me?" but they fought, they survived, they discovered what many people never find: a better version of themselves.

"I am more resilient than I think I am," said Ms Azlin. "I underestimated my limits," added Ms Zulayqha. "My inner strength is more than I thought," insisted Mr Lee. This is a tribe bound by misfortune, by age and by a willingness to reach inside themselves. Grit might lie within everyone, but it has to be dug for. Bravery is a choice.

Almost no one came alone yesterday because almost no one fought alone. Revival requires family and restoration often needs community. Some were advised by nurses, shielded by friends, guided by counsellors or taken home by strangers. The worst of their days sometimes found the best of this city.

It is fitting then that these young folk now reach out, teach from their wheelchairs, help people find jobs and work with those who have disabilities. They do it while equipped with the most capable weapons: spirit and empathy. They know more of pain than they rightfully should.

They are the offspring of carpenters, bus drivers and fruit sellers, ordinary citizens who understand the extraordinary value of their stories. "It might help them," said Mr Lim, speaking of others out there, the young and the hurt, the lost and the lonely, who need to believe that adversity can be overcome.

Grit is "small loose particles of stone or sand" and in a way this is what these young people are. Hardy. Unyielding. Tougher than we give them credit for. Inside the room they shook hands, outside the sea seemed to stretch on forever. But sometimes it's not about the distance you can see, but how far you have come.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2019, with the headline 'Faced adversity and found a better version of themselves'. Print Edition | Subscribe