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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

When I was younger, I didn't like to speak that much.

Being outside made me nervous. My arms were always tightly bound to my sides, held in place by the idea of a world so much bigger than me. A basic fight or flight response was waddling to the back of any room without letting anyone know, a book in hand and a pair of lips zipped shut.

But sometimes I would have no choice but to make my way to the front. There was always someone I had to greet — a neighbor, a distant relative I didn't know how to address, a family friend who apparently last saw me when I was the size of their palm.

At this point, I'd feel something pool at the bottom of my stomach. It was a numbing tug that pushed and pulled, left to right, like a tug of war that nobody was ever going to win. I would feel a flutter of light thumps, a shrill discomfort that rang like a bell and making the sides of my stomach itch.

It felt like wings flapping about 🦋

"You have musical butterflies in your stomach," my piano instructor back then, Miss Peggy, would always tell me. I was always nervous, always scared. She would wrap my little palms up in hers and invite me into class, promising me that the musical butterflies would come down after hearing her play a song.

Over the years, I picked up on new ways to see to numb the flapping wings, to make my way to the front of the room without falling to the floor.

Listening to music became one of them, but on the days that I couldn't, I played a game.

It was like playing a game of The Floor is Lava, but instead of avoiding the floor altogether, I would avoid stepping on any gaps between tiles on the floor. The larger the tiles, the easier it would be to avoid the little cement-filled lines running through them. This game worked best on tiled surfaces in places like shopping malls, school corridors, or the living room of someone's house. As you can imagine, marbled floors were incredibly unsettling and offered me no escape.

No matter where I ventured next within those four walls, the rule of the game was to only step on a clear floor tile until I finally found myself at the end of the room.

By then, the butterflies would be gone. A light headrush would settle on the air above my shoulders, where bob-length hair wrapped around the skin of my neck right beneath chubby little ears. It was a meaningless sense of accomplishment that symbolized a big defeat.

The slaying of wings.

On my 24th birthday, I felt the same numb tugging in the pit in my stomach. Wings flapping about. Were the butterflies back?

But this time I wasn't nervous. Instead, I was incredibly calm.

There was something refreshing about turning another year older this year. It was my first birthday where I found myself at peace with a reality far beyond my full comprehension. I could barely make out the shape of my role in this world, yet I was surprisingly OK with that.

I was reminded of the game once again.

In my head, I visualized myself standing on tippy toes in a giant hall, balancing myself as I squeezed my feet into a floor tile the size of a penny. Here I was at the back of the room, ready to jump from tile to tile to reach a destination I couldn't even see.

The stakes are raised now, the payoff heftier and the cost of defeat heavier. But I've played this game before. Mastered it even. So here are my three rules to taking it all the way to a win.

#1 Making the big scan

The first thing I did before kicking off this game was to take in the room. The size of it, the smell of it, the people in it, how close they were to each other, how close they were to me.

The big scan of the room — my playing grounds — was an assessment of how I would play. Did I want to draw the goal line at the very end of the room or just up the middle? Was it wiser to take big steps or inch forward with little ones?

To map out my path, I would count the cracks between the tiles, my mind fixed on everything I needed to avoid.

My solutions were rooted in a careful methodology to thread around and away from anything that could make me fail. It was a pretty accurate representation of how I was a person, always keeping my eyes fixed on pitfalls I needed to maneuver around.

At 24, I now know the world doesn't work much differently from this little childhood game. A big room with lots of players, with everyone getting in anyone's way as they inch or run toward the same finish line. But I've noticed a key difference.

The world isn't predictable. Regardless of how much I may have prepared or thought through a decision, sometimes you step on a pitfall crack on the ground and you lose. The only way to move forward is to forge a new one, a path that takes you to the same

destination although it looks completely different from the one you drew in your head.

These unchartered paths are surprisingly in abundance when I focus less on the cracks in the ground and instead keep my eyes locked on the wide spaces.

The big scan is an assessment of options. It's the eye of the storm, a small allowance amidst the chaos to digest my start and endpoint and to come to terms with the roadmap ahead of me.

I prepare for a path laid not with pitfalls, but opportunities. Not mistakes, but a chance to start over.

#2 Settling at the peak

Decisions are made after the big scan.

Even the most perfect plans mean nothing if there's no commitment to execution.

At this point in the game, I raise my knee ever so slightly — ready to make the first move, but with enough wiggle room for a change in direction. I call this exact moment the peak, the highest point my foot lifts to before I take a step.

It's a small range of motion that holds a lot of weight. At the peak, I could make a choice. That split second of a moment could dictate my next step or I could retract my foot back completely and put it down somewhere else.

It's a situation I know I'll find myself in a lot more often.

As I turn another year older, I feel as though the margin for error has yet again shrunk smaller. The cost of not meeting my own expectations rings heavier than that of the year before, but at the same time, the heights that I could reach have never felt more close.

Being 24 is being at a crossroads. It's about standing dumbstruck and gaping at the intersection of a perfect plan with your foot hovering in fear right above the gas pedal.

The pressure to make the right decisions has more often than not rushed me into the wrong ones.

I forget that for a split second, while I'm at the peak, I have just enough space to think things through one last time and convince myself of my choice. I realize now that it's easy to forget to pause. Most of all, it's easy to forget how much one small pause can change the tides of your game.

#3 Finding solid ground

I'm a little more realistic now. I know that I can't stay at the peak forever.

The only way to move forward from the highest point is to go back down, and that really isn't a bad thing.

After making my split-second decision at the peak of the game, I put my foot down. I'm firm in my decision, right or wrong. At that point in time, there's no turning back as my feet make contact with the ground.

If I step on the right floor tile, I'm safe. I make my way to the end of the room by running through steps 1 to 3 until I finally reach my end goal.

If I step on the gaps between those tiles, I lose and start over.

The beauty of seeing another year is continuing my lesson of realizing that life isn't black and white. The rules are never clear cut, and wins and losses aren't easy to define.

I've come to learn that there's nothing wrong with making the wrong step, or perhaps starting over. The most important thing to me is to have my feet on solid ground. I want my mind rooted on something I can feel, something I believe in, something that holds my place in this world even as my head wanders aimlessly through the clouds.

I've too often defined the days in my life as a series of ones and zeros — wins and losses, good days and bad days. As I look back on this simple game that found its place throughout most of my childhood, I remember a sense of relief as I put my foot down onto the floor, glad that I finally come to a decision and got it over with.

This last rule is about trusting my senses, even when they're wrong. Why? Because the world doesn't give us easy answers. Most of the time, we're carving those answers along as we go as we take the sights, sounds, and smells around us. I look around me and I see that nobody is 100% convinced that they're doing the right thing, and for that, I'd like to give us all credit for all the decisions we've ever made.

So there we have it. Three rules to set the stage for three ultimate outcomes.

Making the big scan 🔭

To shape the path before me by searching for opportunities — not dictating my direction to avoid all potential failures. Two very different views and perspectives.

Settling at the peak 🏔

To rest and to pause when I need it, with no fear of falling behind in a race being run by others around me.

Finding solid ground 🌎

To realize how beautiful it is to live a life that's grounded in what you believe in, regardless of how many steps I've taken both forward and backward.

I'm not entirely sure how this game will go. Neither am I certain on how I want to play it. The only thing I can say for sure is that I'll be cycling through these three steps on repeat — staying optimistic, giving myself a break, and being grateful for a chance to learn from wins and mistakes.

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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

When I started writing an introduction to understanding discomfort, I was in the process of figuring things out. I was clawing deeper into every fleeting thought, looking for a weakness to familiarize myself with, and seeking out strengths that I hoped were buried under all that busy traffic — moments frantically fleeting within a self desperate to catch and nurture them all.

I was desperate for a new outlook on life, for an overwhelming sense of excitement to reach for things that I wouldn't usually reach, and for the energy to plant my feet solid on the ground as I let my head roam above the clouds.

It's not easy to peer through the looking glass of those fleeting moments.

The glass is hazy, cracking in all the wrong places as they hover through your consciousness, quietly but with a presence that consumes.

It's not hard because it's hard to understand. It's hard because it's scary.

The looking glass cracks under the pressure of what you want to see, what you wish was different, and what you never want to look at again. The control you have over this fragility is what makes reflections so powerful.

It took a lot of reflections to narrow the scope of my anxiousness into 5 areas that I could try to work on. The first was to change my mindset on failure, success, joy, and loneliness. The second was dissecting my goals so I could focus on what was most important to me. The third was learning to love what I see in the mirror, which meant channeling just as much care and caution into the way I treated my health and body. The fourth was to think consciously, to pause, and remember my intentions and my sense of purpose in everything I do.

I realized that everything would have to come back full circle for my fifth and final step — to reflect. I was to reflect on my journey through each of those steps, documenting my tracks as I navigate through the unchartered and forgotten territory, turning my biggest doubts into new opportunities. I would reflect on my success, failures, epiphanies, and looming questions.

However, the most crucial point of this fifth and final step was to give me a reason to question myself if I was ever close to giving up.

I was to write about everything that went wrong, no holding back. I was to be completely honest with myself and be my biggest critic, but this time, I was to light a path for what I could do next. It wasn't just a recap of my day, it was a careful operation. One that could unravel everything I've worked so hard for if I lost my footing and fell heart first into the truth.

It's not that simple

I would say my reflections are quiet confrontations. They're sporadic, fragmented archives of high highs and low lows. I keep them in an app called Reflectly, pulling my iPad out right when I start to feel ready to head to sleep. My episodes of anxiety have historically kicked in around this point of the day, when all activity has lulled, bringing with it a different kind of quiet. So I wait until the very last moment when the air had always weighed heavier with a dense touch of loneliness.

I first started journaling the week I turned 23. Life had changed so drastically, and things were falling into place. It threw me off guard, and I was sitting on most nights out of breath, fearing all the 'what if's that I believed were inevitably around the corner.

My reflections were darker and heavier. I was painting a picture of the things that scared me, letter by letter, line by line. I didn't think, I didn't pause to read what I had just written. I let myself go uninterrupted because I wanted to peer through that looking glass, taking in all its cracks and feeling them shatter under the weight of contemplation. I always knew when it was time to stop, and my reflections would come to an end with some sort of a half-written conclusion.

July 5, 2020 |

"The next time I feel these waves creeping up, I need to find an activity. I shouldn't let myself stare off into nothing as my way to sort things out. Clearly, I'm not very good at that."

That's the last line of my journal entry, three days into this new habit. I was anxious, angry, and yet somehow in the middle of all that, I was pointing out an escape. Something I always knew I needed to do but never did. To see it written out in front of me left a different kind of impact. I listened to it like it was a voice I hadn't heard in a while. She was hopeful and determined. Most importantly, she was honest about things that were doing wrong.

Reflections are the truth, and that's not something simple to face.

Their vulnerable to your most genuine perception and emotion, never predictable yet ever so consistent with the person you are at your core. It's a Rolodex of all your locked up prized jewels, and all your demons buried deep underground.

Reflections are a period of healing. It's airing out the dirty laundry and finding a nasty stain smeared across everything that once made you feel at your most confident. Some obvious and some only noticeable if you take an extra minute to hold the fabric in your hand and stretch it out against the glaring rays of the sun.

I end up noticing actions often overlooked, words that slip past my lips too easily and recurring thoughts that I never realized had such a hold on me.

A day of many faces

It's impossible to keep track of the person you're showing up to be every second of the day. You're not always the same person in front of different people or when facing different circumstances. Sometimes you forget to consolidate those different faces when you grab some time alone for yourself at the end of the day. The more you let those faces craft out their journeys, the wider the gap between the person you are at your core, the person you want to be, and the person you are to the people who know you.

It gets confusing. It pulls you in different directions. If you're like me, you may end up feeling a little lost on where to listen. Which face do you turn to? How many faces must you keep to function properly?

For me, the answer wasn't as simple as finding that one single representation of myself and sticking by its side without question. For me, it was having as many faces as I needed — as long as I knew these faces were my truth, my most genuine and compassionate reactions to the moment I was in and the people I was with. It was unnatural for me to wear the same canvas at every moment. I was just as expressive as I was reserved. I was just as assertive as I was quiet. I was just as whimsical as I was serious. All of these faces were mine and I'm learning to be at peace with each and every one of them, without comparing them against each other and assuming one was better than the other.

The most important thing for me was making sure these faces were ones my loved ones could depend on, that they were safe for me to sit in when I was in my own quiet presence, that they could still give me clarity when the air weighed heavier in the middle of the night.

To reflect is to look for these faces, and to hear truth seeping out between lines of text or strokes of art — however you choose to express yourself, whatever gives you the most freedom to let yourself go.

It's often overlooked how important it is to create a space for yourself outside the life you show the world. A calm center that sits within you, an extension of you that sees yourself from a third-person point of view.

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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

Somewhere along with the rise of the like button, the idea of strength in (follower) numbers, and the need to turn every hobby into a business page, there came an idea that planted itself deep into our understanding of human nature.

This idea has encouraged many of us to look at our lives as a cycle of production and consumption. In a world run by products, we sit pretty on the throne as a textbook example. We’re in loop until we reach a pre-defined destination. We repeat the same level over and over again until ding! We get notified that the level has been cleared. The screen fades to black and we’re back in a new setting, waiting to find out what secret item we’ll need to travel the ends of the earth to get. We’re basically an algorithm. Relatively easy to control, easy to train, easy to keep within certain parameters based on a certain set of criteria that defined failure.

I guess you could say we create products in our image. It's not products that act like humans, we've just always acted like products. We treat ourselves like a scalable business model — which can be extremely beneficial when applied to certain aspects of our lives, but it must be approached with caution and balanced with a sense of awareness that extends beyond ourselves.

Anyway, what is this idea that could have been so detrimental and dystopian to our human identity? It’s simple. It’s our obsession with public opinion. Our human algorithm begs us to keep going until we've gained approval from public opinion, whether that's at home, in school, in the office, or online. When we digress, our value takes a hit.

In a previous blog, I talked about our need for validation in digital realms. I packaged our complicated online relationships into something called the audience. The audience, being an ever-present community of voices that we try to impress or be a part of. It's this same obsession with public opinion that drives the audience forward.

I'm not writing this to dismiss the idea of being opinionated and openly sharing views with strangers and unfamiliar communities. In fact, this form of honest and brave communication has moved mountains in regard to social progress and political productivity. I'm writing this to point out a fundamental problem in how we use public opinion to measure worth and what that does to the quality of our conversations.

How much is an opinion worth?

The value of an opinion has skyrocketed. The term 'influencers' can no longer be taken lightly as it's become something more than just a 'social media thing.' The influencer marketing market is expected to be worth more than $15 billion by 2022 with over 80% of marketers using some sort of influencer strategy to drive growth. With TikTok slowly taking over the influencer marketing reigns from Instagram, nano influencers (influencers with under 1000 followers) with less scripted content are every brand's new target for higher engagement — the volume of available opinions to be monetized has significantly increased.

Social media, arguably being the most accessible form of communication and news, can no longer be confined to a screen. Influencers drive revenue for corporations and services that impact our day-to-day lives. Influence mobilizes for causes as large as calling out racial injustice and impacting legislation. The role of an influencer is to shift public opinion toward the favor of something else, and it's a powerful role to play in our world today. This exactly why it's so sought after.

And that's completely okay.

But somewhere along with the rise of the like button, the idea of strength in follower numbers, and the need to turn every hobby into a business page, we've lost the plot and become transactional. I give you a version of myself that you enjoy watching or listening to, and in return, you give me your positive opinions, your time, and your attention.

There is a floating assumption that capability or subject matter expertise can only be found in the loudest voices. What comes out of this is a saturated space for a discussion filled with people shouting over each other. Worst of all, it blindly fills most of these spaces with opinions that hold no value.

We've decided that an opinion is needed for everything because we crave giving our voice some sort of value at all times. We feel a sense of responsibility to comment on anything another person does or says. It's a doubled-edged sword that causes just as much harm as it does good.

From a broad perspective, we've taken accountability a lot more seriously being a part of one connected global community. We want to help each other do better by pointing out the wrongs and getting public buy-in to drive wheels of change.

But when you zoom in a little closer, how we perceive accountability has become a blurrier line that is easier to overstep. If we have a problem with someone or something, we've programmed ourselves to think the best way to solve it is by being the loudest in the room.

What we haven't solved yet is how to best deal with those who perpetrate negativity by doing the exact same thing.

How do we give society a uniform scale to determine what we consider a problem and what people should say about it? How do we do this without getting our feet wet with political affiliation or religions that uphold their own benchmarks of morality? How do we show people what is right and what is wrong?

The truth is, I think we've taken advantage of our freedom to speak. Opinions have become weaponized as leverage over someone else. A way to say "I'm right" or "You don't know anything." We're so used to sharing, and viewing, and commenting on the lives of others that we've become accustomed to a false sense of right to include ourselves in the business of others.

We think it's acceptable — or better yet, some even consider it a favor — to reach out to strangers and feed them opinions before considering impact and most importantly, context.

Context collapse

As a writer, I've always valued social media as a space for me to express myself through words in a spontaneous and authentic way. I may not have the energy to write 1000-word posts every single day, but pushing out a bunch of 100-character sentences a day was a pretty great way to get things off my chest. In a sense, Twitter was therapeutic because I was able to consume content and react to content in real-time while all my thoughts were fresh.

Twitter thrives off of opinion. The platform laces comical takes and heavy public discourse seamlessly through some pretty great UX and algorithms that keep you hooked on conversations. It gives its users real-time visibility into conversations happening all around you and designs an experience that allows users to easily jump in and share what they think.

Pair that with an infinite scroll timeline and you have a perfect formula to keep users voicing their opinions in an instantaneous way. It's this reactionary nature of Twitter (and all social media platforms) that makes it easy for users to miss the context that each tweet may have — context that can be associated with something you may not be able to find or determine from their public profile. When everyone rushes to share their opinion, caught in a loop that tempts them to do so, nobody stops to get to know each other or the stories that may drive differing opinions.

I keep my Twitter account pretty lowkey since I've turned it into somewhat of a diary. I never held too much back from it, so anyone who looked through my tweets would be able to get a good idea of who I was from a surface-level perspective — like how you would get to know someone at a party after a couple of drinks.

One day I lost track of how connected this personal diary of mine was to the rest of the world, thanks to a perfectly crafted algorithm. I came across a tweet that angered me because I believed it painted a false assumption of international students in the United States. It was right at the peak of COVID-19, as the US government buckled down on restrictions that left many international students stranded and confused in a country that was doing little to get the pandemic under control.

I reacted in a fury, quoting the tweet and giving nobody, in particular, a piece of my mind. I was venting, directing my anger toward this user who I didn't really view as a person at that point in time. I didn't follow this person, I didn't know this person's name, I didn't even click into this person's profile. All I saw was a comment that was a part of my feed, and I shared my opinion on a whim without much thought.

The next thing I knew, I had become a Voodoo doll to a group of students who took my tweet entirely out of context. I soon realized I had taken the user's original tweet out of context as well.

I apologized, but by then it was too late to explain where I came from. The user did not want to hear it, and neither did the user's friends. They didn't want to know why I said the things I said, and they didn't care about the emotional triggers I felt that led me to react the way I did. All they saw was my one reactionary opinion, and they made their conclusion about me as a person.

I was at a loss. I didn't fully realize the fragility of context on social media until that moment. I didn't fully recognize that lack of context in the first place — or I did and I took it for granted. I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that they didn't want to listen to my explanation, and then I realized I didn't give them the same privilege from the start either.

I reacted first and gathered context later. They punished me with a narrative they thought I deserved. If you look at your social media feeds, you'll notice this vicious cycle on loop in every thread or reply section.

When opinions are treated as a form of currency, the collapse of context in conversations is inevitable.

For social media platforms, opinions mean user activity and engagement, which ultimately drives profit.

For users like me, an opinion is mobilized into a measure of social validation. Would I have been inclined to toss a reactionary opinion if I knew nobody would agree with me or retweet or like my comment? Would that user have been inclined to circulate my tweet across their network to mobilize people toward my profile? We were both caught up in our own circles, thrilled to be the loudest in the room.

But did we get anything out of sharing our opinions? Did we conclude our argument with a conclusion that called for unity and understanding considering how we were arguing about injustice?

No, we didn't. In fact, the user's anger toward me probably fed into their false assumptions even more.

Permission to not speak

Lately, I've been choosing to take a step back and reevaluate my intentions with my opinions. I'm both curious and exhausted — curious to see what I'd miss by not being so caught up in opinion wars online, and exhausted from watching countless conversations unfold before my eyes in such unproductive and uncompassionate ways.

As a journalism student, I conditioned myself to be vocal on social platforms and to take on a responsibility to inform, express my agreement and disagreement, and to always be tuned in. I found a great sense of satisfaction in sharing my thought processes openly and feeling a sense of community when my opinions resonated with people I knew and didn't know. I was guilty of measuring my subject matter expertise by how loud my voice was and how strong my opinions were because I grew up with the idea that those who were quiet were always left behind, forgotten, and ignored.

Many of us have been taught that not sharing an opinion is cowardice. If you don't raise your hand in class, your teachers aren't going to care about you. If you don't argue in the workplace, your boss isn't going to take you seriously. Yes, there is truth to both of these scenarios and I can attest to that. But I don't think we've unpacked these assumptions enough.

To this, I say: Hello, permission to not speak?

We don't spend enough time talking about the right time and place to share opinions, the substance that an opinion should hold, the context that must be present before an opinion is made, and the importance of respecting other voices in the room before shouting out selfishly to the heavens.

To observe the world quietly at times is not a measure of inactiveness, but is actually the most thoughtful form of participation. We need to embrace the permission to not speak so we can hear each other better and form opinions that can lead to something. Something good, something different, something to prove that we've learned to do better.

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