From 15th May 2020 till 15th June 2020, EMPOWER Malaysia organised an essay competition for aspiring writers aged 13 to 23 with the theme “The Freedom to Express Myself without Fear”. Roshini (aged 20) talks candidly about her personal experience in expressing herself and how she found her voice while overcoming the fear of performing and speaking in public.

Expression. A word that may seem unambiguous but no doubt holds a profound meaning. Yet it comes as no surprise that the ability to express oneself is not only seen as a selective skill but even prohibited in certain regions of the world. To express yourself would be suicide. To stand in the streets and speak of something with great passion and enthusiasm would perhaps even be diabolical to some. But how about the population that can speak freely but choose not to? How are we using our voices and exercising our free will?

As the great Abraham Lincoln once said, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction was to be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide”. Now that, is something I have always tried my best to live by though I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have my fair share of fear when it came to self expression.

Growing up I was always riddled with anxiety and anguish. Fear filled the very core of my existence the minute I even thought of speaking my mind. What if people didn’t like me or hated what I had to say? What if I ended up making a fool of myself? They say you never really know till you try. But making the first move is overrated anyways, don’t you think? So essentially, you’re just stuck there never really knowing while mulling over what could have been. I think back to all those times I never spoke up and ended up kicking myself. It wasn’t as though I did not have anything substantial to say but rather, I simply did not have the courage to open up.

Sometimes I would wonder if I loved myself and looked at myself as worthy. Worthy of praise, or recognition, or just worthy of being noticed. I think it’s funny how so many think that expressing yourself comes down to the way you view the world when in reality, expressing yourself actually has a lot to do with the way you view yourself. So many missed opportunities but defining moments in the making.

It all started the day I was asked to sing at my birthday party. A time I would never in a million years forget. Singing was one of the ways I expressed how I felt, but doing it in public, now that was a completely different thing. You see, I only ever sang in the shower and sometimes my room when I was home alone. I distinctively remember it being a warm and bright Saturday evening. The skies were ablaze with the fire of the setting sun. My doting mother had brought out the most lavishly frosted three-layer vanilla cake. She had spent all night making it and was so adamant that it had to be perfect. Well it definitely was perfect. In fact, I had never seen a cake so beautifully put together in all my life. I didn’t think the love I had for my mother could increase in any way, shape or form but there I was, so overwhelmed with love I was almost in tears.

As she brought it further into the living room, a soft but steady chorus of the Happy Birthday song erupted. And then it happened right after I blew out the candles, all eleven of them. My older sister had suggested that I sing a song for the guests. Looks like someone had been eavesdropping during my shower concerts. Instant fear overcame me as heads turned in my direction. How was I supposed to say no? I couldn’t have just bolted out the door could I? I wanted with all my might to run. I wanted to hide. I wish I could’ve conjured an invisibility cloak out of thin air and concealed myself from everyone there, perhaps even the world. But there I stood, transfixed, somehow still grinning nervously. This was it. This was how I would die, I thought. I slowly opened my mouth, trembling like crazy no doubt. I wondered if people could tell how scared and anxious I was but I had no time to scan the surroundings. I did the one thing that made me feel better instantly and that was imagining the audience butt naked. I started singing and although I was tremendously shaky, I reckon I wasn’t too bad. Somehow I managed to reach the ending of the song and relief swept over me. I had gotten it over and done with. I received a great round of applause but I still was not satisfied. Had I not been so fearful, I could perhaps have made a much better impression.

Another time that’s still quite fresh in my mind is probably the time I was pulled into a debate forum by default when I was 15. My school team had been selected among ten other schools to participate in the Annual Debate Meet that took part yearly. It was a Sunday morning when I had woken up to a call from Mrs. Grace, the English teacher in charge of the team. I remember being so confused that she was randomly calling me out of nowhere. Not many are able to say they’ve received a call from their teachers first thing in the morning but there I was. I picked up the call hesitantly and was shocked to find her hysterically screaming. “Get dressed and hurry to the school auditorium right now!”.

Without even taking the time to gather my thoughts, I got dressed and bolted out my front door. It’s a good thing my school was only about ten minutes away from the house. The first thing I saw as I approached the auditorium door was one of the debate team members, Jeremy, running towards me. “Are you ready??”, he asked me. “Ready for what??”, I asked him back. “Mrs. Grace said you would do it”, he said. Before I could ask him exactly what I was to do, Mrs. Grace had joined us and pulled me aside. She said that one of the debate members had a ruptured appendix and was brought to the emergency room. I was still confused. What did they need me for? Mrs. Grace explained that the team was now short of one member and desperately needed a replacement or we would lose any hope of being in the finals.

“You have got to be kidding”, I said. She was obviously deranged if she thought that I, of all people, would be able to replace anyone on any team especially for the purpose of debating but she seemed so desperate and if we really did stand a chance of getting into the finals, who was I to take that happiness away from them. So I caved in and said yes, not having a clue what I was doing or what I was about to do. We then walked into the auditorium and I Immediately regretted my decision. There were at least two hundred people seated in that hall, not to mention the five judges who looked super intimidating. I felt like peeing my pants. When we reached the desk on the stage that we would be competing from, I was handed a flashcard that had our topic on it. The topic was titled “Poverty is a result of economical and political factors”.

Now that, was something I was incredibly passionate about. Eradicating poverty. And here was my chance, to teach everyone a thing or two about the great complexities of poverty and how eradicating it wasn’t as impossible as people thought it was. But could I convince people? Could I actually stand tall for what I believed in? I had never spoken in front of that many people before. The same fear that overcame me when I was eleven had returned once more and whether I would survive this time, was the question. Still, my school was depending on me and I could not afford to let them down. I had to give it a shot, didn’t I? When it came to my turn I spoke and I didn’t look back once. I kept going and slowly I realised, it became almost effortless.

Now I wouldn’t say I was completely able to express myself without fear after the debate competition, but if there was one thing that was clear, it was that I had to explore many different ways of expressing myself. So I started involving myself in all types of clubs and societies and I even managed to get into the national choir, which my family was very proud of. I noticed that when I overcame my fear I surprised myself in various ways. I no longer busied myself with the opinions of others and I began to speak more eloquently. My self esteem had reached high leaps and bounds and I was soaring through my school years. Gone were the days where I would tremble with doubt and hide myself in a corner. I felt like a butterfly. I felt like I was reborn. I felt like an active member of society that was capable of bringing about the change that was necessary and most of all, the change that I wanted to see. What was really wonderful, was that now, I was able to help those who were going through what I was once going through. The way I viewed the world had changed a great deal. It was truly night and day.

If there was anything that these experiences taught me, it was that the power of expression regardless of its form, be it singing, debating or even talking to yourself in the confines of your own room, was actually one of the most beautiful gifts we’ve been given. We spend so much time wanting to belong, we often end up worrying whatever we have to offer would never be deemed as good enough. We look at ourselves as less than what we are and we deprive ourselves of finding our true potential, ultimately handicapping ourselves.

Society is definitely partly to be blamed for this. There are a handful of people who are so quick to judge, criticise and antagonise. It saddens me that in the pursuit of self expression, some even get hurt, not just mentally but physically. It’s a sad world we live in and it’s up to us to make the necessary changes so as to allow one another to express ourselves without any kind of fear of ostracism.

Let me end with a quote by Jim Morrison.

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.”

The views, opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EMPOWER Malaysia.

Photo from Pexels

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