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What folding 1,000 origami cranes taught me about living

Over 700 origami cranes in and I asked myself – what’s the point of it all?

09 Jul

It started with a need to prove myself. To have tangible evidence that shows I’m capable of change, growth and keeping the promises I make to myself. That’s what drove me to fold 1,000 origami cranes in one year. 

In Japanese folklore, it’s believed that folding 1,000 origami cranes grants you good fortune in the form of a wish from the Gods, eternal luck or happiness, or lifelong health. The first time I heard this myth was in 2018 when I was watching a random BuzzFeed video about tattoos. Usually, I’d file such tidbits away as interesting trivia but it wasn’t a usual day. It wasn’t even a usual year. 2018 was different. 

It was driving mom to chemo appointments, then radiation. It was endless tests and restless nights. It was worry, worry, worry, until the good news of recovery. It was tearing my ligaments and being off my feet for three weeks. It was watching colleagues leave one-by-one until I was the last one standing at a job I’d come to see as a graveyard of my ambitions and passions. It was isolating. And I carried this isolation with me into the next year. 

2019 was supposed to be a year of new experiences. I’d quit my job at the end of 2018, my mom was officially in the clear and I had a fellowship with a publication I’d long admired. I had my enthusiasm and my bucket list. I was raring to go. But I never did. Instead, the year passed by in a monotonous rut. I tried new things and pushed myself but it was half-hearted. I couldn’t bring myself to see anything to its end. It was frustrating. Lacklustre. Meaningless. Numbing. I spiralled. 

“In Japanese folklore, it’s believed that folding 1,000 origami cranes grants you good fortune”

What was I doing? What am I accomplishing? What do I have to show for anything? There I was, sitting in the same town I grew up in, working in the same field (remotely, at that), watching life pass by from the comfort of a screen. 

These were the thoughts I penned aggressively into my journal as the year drew to an end. I flipped through my entries, looking for something to inspire, when I came across my bucket list. There, in the middle, I had taped an origami crane. 

I’d picked up origami in 2018 after that video. For a few weeks, I’d taken to learning to fold simple designs – heart, crane, shuriken, flower, etc. These were then unceremoniously dumped into a box and shoved aside within a month, forgotten. 

Looking at that crane, flattened alongside the countless goals I’d promised to reach but never did, I was reminded of the myth.

“The 1,000 origami cranes would stand as a testament to the fact that I am capable of seeing things to their end”

“Maybe I’ll fold 1,000 cranes and then my life will magically be filled with eternal happiness,” I thought, half-exasperated. Maybe this is how I’d finally shake the perpetual state of ennui I kept spiralling into. If anything, the 1,000 origami cranes would stand as a testament to the fact that I am capable of seeing things to their end, of my own volition, rather than external factors driving that change.  

2020 started. I was in a new city, at a new job in a new field, and I was driven. All I had to do was fold three origami cranes a day. Easy. And it was. I was folding up to 10 cranes a day. Soon, as muscle memory took over, it became meditative. A time I’d use to reflect on the day while my hands deftly folded crane after crane. As work shifted to home, I found more time to myself and carried the sense of accomplishment every folded crane imbued me with to whatever other tasks and goals I’d set for myself that day.

Then, the pandemic and working from home began to take their toll. I missed days, weeks, then months of folding. Soon, the end of the year was drawing close and I was hundreds of cranes away from my goal. In a panic, I began folding to the point of cramping, yet when the last two weeks of December rolled in, I was still around 250 shy of my goal. 

I pushed ahead to 860 cranes, reaching a point where I was actively ditching plans to find time to finish. In my desperation to attach a pseudo-meaning to a hobby I’d genuinely come to enjoy, I’d soured the experience for myself. Meditation became mockery. 

“My focus on accomplishing things turned everything into an item to cross off, an end to reach”

With a few days left in 2020, I knew I could still end the year with 1,000 origami cranes but what was the point? 

I looked back at the year and realised that I was treating my life as a checklist. My focus on accomplishing things turned everything into an item to cross off, an end to reach. Every act was done hurriedly, for the sake of doing so I can say it’s been done, and then moving onto the next. No time taken to relish any of it.

10 more minutes till I complete my workout.

Seven more days till Eid and then counting down in dismay till work starts up again.

Five more pages till I finish this chapter. 

30 more minutes till I can leave this event. 

Two more classes till I’m done with this course. 

140 more origami cranes till I reach 1,000.

Living a checklist-driven life is no way to live. I was back to feeling how I had at the end of 2019 as if things were lacklustre, meaningless and numbing. Only this time it was because I’d overcompensated and committed to completing things for the sake of completing them.

“Focusing on accomplishments shouldn’t come at the expense of rushing past the present”

This realisation helped me decide to end 2020 with 860 cranes. The decision was bittersweet, its flavour tainted by the taste of incompletion and sweetened with the acceptance of a bigger truth. The truth being a lesson on what truly matters –- the present.

Focusing on accomplishments shouldn’t come at the expense of rushing past the present. As it is, true achievements rarely come through sporadic bursts of heightened action. They’re crafted over small yet consistent steps and not in moments where I’m hunched over a table, mindlessly folding crane after crane, focused only on reaching an end over enjoying, learning and benefitting from the journey.

After ending the year with 860 cranes, I continued folding into the new year. Maybe I’ve passed 1,000. Maybe not. Reaching 1,000 doesn’t matter anymore, because what I thought I wanted and what it ended up giving me became two different things – proving a shallow truth to myself versus tapping back into the meditative calm the act brings me in my day-to-day life.

It started with a need to prove myself. To have tangible evidence that shows I’m capable of change, growth and keeping the promises I make to myself. Almost two years later, I’ve changed in a way I hadn’t expected. It hasn’t ended and, for once, I’m not waiting for it to.