image by Brooke Lark from Unsplash
A few weeks ago, I dug out my journal, dusted off the dogeared copy of Donald Whitney's 10 Questions, and sat down to give some thought to the year that has gone by.
2018 has been another incredibly tough year. Constantly feeling stretched and worn out, struggling with anxieties, insecurities, and fears so painful you barely dare admit them to yourself. Carving out a living as a fresh grad. Learning on the job. Struggling with loneliness and insecurity as you try to make your business work, try to build up projects in your free time, wonder uneasily whether this would be able to sustain till next year, how long you're going to be doing this--trying. More and more rejection letters--if I print those emails I can start papering my bedroom with them, in lieu of some famous writer's advice. My first time brushing up against stress-induced depression and nervous breakdowns--serious terms I don't want to use lightly--which I was totally unprepared for.
But what's new under the sun? Isn't this what I find myself writing in every new year entry--"This year felt like the most stressful one of my life"--without fail?
Stress is a given.
What matters is how we cope with it, and how we react to it.
Looking back, I acknowledged that I'd survived 2018 by God's grace, had the strength (more like simply the endurance; I don't remember feeling strong at all in 2018) to push through. It was my first time feeling so needy and crushed, so starkly aware of how inadequate I was, over such an extended period of time. Talk about teenage insecurity. At this point in life, it felt like my whole future--and my whole past, which led up to this!--and my whole identity, or worth, depended on how responsibly I made my decisions, how successfully I managed to prove myself. A good article I saw recently on the Gospel Coalition (I wish I'd seen it sooner) reminded me that the symptoms were pretty much those of the Quarter Life Crisis. Well, apparently I'd gone through it without even knowing. *shrugs*
Humbling. That was the main takeaway from 2018. Realizing that our goals, beautiful and worthy as they may be, don't work out in the way we want them to--and that's ok. It's not--as we're so tempted to feel--the end of the world.
Realizing how fragile and needy I am, on my own, how inadequate just "trying my best" is, for myself and for others. Realizing how much we need God; and paradoxically, how little we tend to rely on Him. That we can get so consumed by our goals and visions they become part of ourselves, become glorified idealized visions of ourselves that we can't bear to relinquish. I was so determined to prove to myself that I was a "real" (read: published and paid) writer, it was devastating to be forced to admit that perhaps...that wasn't going to work out. It was too painful, too terrifying, to examine who you were without this dream/goal. I had forgotten who I was, forgotten that I had any identity other than what was found in my dreams and plans.
So as I look back--reluctantly--I try to avoid regrets, focus on the sobering, humbling lessons I learnt, focus on the grace I experienced when I so needed it, when I was so blind to it. Grace at a time when I was desperately trying to prove myself. Grace at a time when I was plunging my self-worth and trying to work hard, to earn success as well as deserve it.
But let's not throw the whole year away like that. There were good things too. I found an old phone note I had made halfway through the year, when I was finally starting to get out of my mental rut, where I made myself note down all the notable achievements and good things which I had been able to do so far. Some of these things were small, some were big--bigger than I realized then. Again, grace; grace, being gentle with me. Reminding me that He Whose strength is made perfect in weakness, values the seemingly small and foolish things of the world, above the wise. To rethink success and fulfilment from the narrow and shallow definitions I had been clinging, crying, to.
In 2019, I hope:
to be less self-absorbed.
As we build our careers, try to use our educations, try to reach out to people, fulfil all our roles and responsibilities, serve in our churches, find a life-partner, and still have time to pursue our dreams (who are we kidding, who even manages to do all this??) it's so easy to be mindlessly, unquestioningly, self-absorbed.
I want to let go of that. I want to live with a mind and heart that's purposefully open to others, open to God, and not just ceaselessly--unthinkingly--consumed by my own goals, concerns, and desires.
to live with less fear, and less self-consciousness.
A lot of the stress I went through in 2018 was due to the importance I had attached to certain things. So much fear. So much self-consciousness. Because I unthinkingly accepted that they reflected on me, affected how myself and others saw me. Not daring to risk failure or rejection, because my crushed ego and self-sufficiency were already floundering.
To live with less fear and less self-consciousness is also to live with less pride. I think, in my determination to do well, I forgot that there's a fine line between confidence and pride.
to cope with stress in healthier, more God-glorifying ways
We all get stressed. Heaven forbid I try to sound like I had it worse than others. I know so many coping with even more insane amounts of stress, from family issues, financial and job situations, mental health conditions, everything else you can imagine. What little I experienced this past year only opens my eyes to the crippling and devastating effects it can have. Regardless of stress levels--this is not a competition on who can claim to be most stressed, though that's sometimes how it feels like chatting with your friends in Singapore haha--each of us needs to find ways of coping with stress which actually help us.
One of the humbling things I learnt in 2018 was how stress brought out several negative aspects of myself. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms which I at first excused on the grounds of stress. I'm so exhausted and sick of worrying, I just need a little distraction. I've got no energy or time to listen; there's too much on my mind. And the list goes on.
As Christians, do we cope with stress by giving ourselves license to do things we wouldn't otherwise consider? Do we resort to consumerism, self-indulgence, mindless entertainment, addictions, relinquishing self-control? Do we redeem the time? Do we fill our minds and hearts with what is "good, noble, pure..." (Philippians 4:8), do we rest in ways that truly refresh us? Most importantly--does our stress teach us to draw closer to God? To trust in Him more. To know Him better. To rely less on ourselves.
to live with perspective and priorities
Hustle, hustle; I recently observed to a friend that for this generation of millenials, it feels like you need a new game plan every single year. Every year, a sense of instability and flux haunts you; you're driven to try and pin down more of that intangible dream of success, whether by moving house, changing your friends group, finding another job, getting promoted, improving yourself, and the list goes on. Have I made it? you wonder (cue Quarter Life Crisis theme song)
Work towards your own goals. But seek first God's work in your life, and through you.
Don't form your identity--self-worth--definition of success and happiness--on the wrong priorities. Keep your perspective, actively protect it, because it comes under threat so easily. Treasure it, see it as a weapon; as something which empowers you to live freely and fully.
image by Hunter Haley from Unsplash
It's common to long to be great. Not just to win the Nobel Peace Prize or make lots of money or be famous; to do great things for God, too. I remember the intensity with which I sustained and cherished this passion since I was young, and then as a young believer--to be someone great, someone famous, someone who makes change in the world, who is one of God's outstanding servants! (this was mainly the reason why the Rebelution had such a powerful appeal to me)
It was only inevitable, then, to find myself struggling with restlessness and discontent, when reality didn't align with that vision. What was I doing here, trapped in the ordinary mundane tasks and challenges of not being rude to my parents, putting up with annoying siblings, feeling lonely and insecure as a teenager, and failing at maths? I felt as if God wasn't utilizing me--a tool in the toolbox, getting dusty while I waited to be needed.
There's a reason why we use the analogy of ourselves being God's tools/instruments, but there are limitations to that analogy as well.
Thinking of ourselves as tools/instruments implies a passive, stagnant role (without undermining the importance of God's sovereignty, however) which may lead us to see our lives--especially since we already struggle to see God's hand working in the ordinary unglamness of our everyday!--as just incubation periods until the fit time arises for us to be useful!
God is working through each small event and trial we face, each circumstance, to shape us into what we should be. We are in the process of being shaped for use, right now; in that coffee you spilt over your laptop; in that stupid insensitive thing you said; in that compliment you thought about all day; in that sigh. In things that we tend to dismiss simply because they're repetitive, or small.
Instead, looking at David's life; those small, boring, repetitive things are not to be dismissed.
God was preparing him, through his ordinary life, his duties, roles, challenges, and strengths, to shape him into who he was. From killing lions to killing Goliath. Dealing diplomatically, humbly, and graciously with an overbearing older brother taught him how to act and behave in court, before the king, with politics (I can never get over how Eliab's older sibling vibes remain so tangily relevant centuries later; I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Younger siblings out there, there is nothing new under the sun.) Caring selflessly for the sheep, protecting them, reflected his future kingship duties and the mindset of a true leader--willing to risk his life to fulfill his duty in times of crisis, instead of running off and leaving the sheep to fend for themselves.
How many times did David take the sheep out? Probably every day. How many times did he get chivvied by Eliab? (not to mention all the rest of the older brothers--can you imagine being the youngest--read: lowest in the pecking order--of seven sons?) Probably all the time. How many times did he get swept out of the way, got thrown the boring tasks which no one wanted to do, told to go off and make himself useful, not disturb his older brothers with their "important" work? The fact that he wasn't even called before Samuel until the very last minute, when they suddenly remembered that "oh, actually David counts too," speaks volumes.
This sort of background formed the foundations of hard work, humility, selflessness, intimacy and reliance on God which made David the great man he was. He didn't become kingly in a day. Even before Samuel anointed him, and the Spirit came to him, God had been working in David's life, preparing him.
Don't dismiss today, tomorrow, the everyday. We are being shaped. Whether or not for greatness as you define it, God's purpose for us is being actively carried out each moment in what we experience. Live through the small things (the small thorns; the small issues; or the small joys, even) purposefully and mindfully, without dismissing them as insignificant, without acknowledging that they are not too small for God's plan.
image by simson petrol from Unsplash
I'm so frustrated and discouraged with my writing right now.
One rejection after another. Is it the formatting? Is it the enigma of the wrong match, the wrong editor for this specific piece, is the magic fit still out there, one submission away, three more submissions away?
Is it just because those few pieces were poor quality? Should I have rewritten them one more time, changed the ending, tried a new genre/stayed in a familiar one?
Am I just one of those countless nameless wannabes who ten years down the road will be smiling wryly and shaking my head at the naive me who was so convinced that this was "my field"--?
Am I just lazy? There's no concrete definition for "hard enough." You could always work harder. You could always be more disciplined. You could always push yourself further. You could always write more, edit more, polish more. Kafka and Kenneth Graham worked fulltime bank jobs which they hated and then came home and wrote into the wee hours of the morning; I don't even come close to that level of dedication, do I deserve to have expectations then?
Was I, all these years, simply deceiving myself?
Scribbled on my phone notes, just a few months ago, these bleakly honest questions came at a moment when I was struggling with despair--to be more accurate, tired of struggling with discouragement, tired of trying to be hopeful, optimistic, tired of trying hard when there didn't seem to be any success. Tired of trying again, for the third time--for the tenth time.
I think we're all familiar with the cliche of the aspiring writer, sending submissions desperately in hopes of finding that one-in-a-million-editor who will see potential in their work. I myself grew up accepting that these horror stories (that's really how they seemed to come across) as the inevitable reality of being a writer. After all, it seemed like every single famous writer had to be able to boast of ignominious beginnings. How many rejections. How many failures. How many editors turned them down. All the writing help books and advice for writers I read without fail included a section explaining to you that it was absolutely necessary to be turned down a hundred times, and I cheerfully accepted this as a formula almost. Hit one hundred rejection letters and you'd be bound to get accepted, somehow! With this mindset, I thought I was well prepared to take the leap and join the hordes of wistful aspiring writers trying to find takers for their armfuls of manuscripts.
All the same, discouragement was inevitable, and I should have known it. The year is drawing to a close, the year which I had so confidently intended to be the first year I could *really* focus on writing, without school to distract me (hahaha I somehow never thought that work could be distracting too??) and I find myself without any clear indications of progress, no open doors--not even a toehold--no shadow of opportunities. Seemingly, I haven't moved forward since the beginning of this year, despite multiple submissions, new work, and different strategies.
I thought I was mentally prepared for this, but the reality is that discouragement still hits. Hard. An editor sends a rejection email without knowing that it could be the tenth one you've received for that particular piece, or the second one you've gotten within a week. It's hard not to take it as an unequivocal judgment of your worth, and to maintain perspective.
And for a while, I struggled with despair. Panic. I've been thinking of this, dreaming of this, working towards this, heck, building my whole identity on this--for my whole life. Now that it doesn't seem to be working out, what do I do?
I prayed urgently, desperately, pleadingly. Please God, grant me some encouragement. Please give me some sign that yes, this is where I belong, this is what I ought to be doing. Please let me achieve this dream. Please give this to me--please. And in the wretchedness of my hurt dreams, like so many of us when we're conflicted, I questioned His goodness.
A fragment of a sermon I heard recently spoke gently to me, right when restlessness and discouragement threatened to turn into bitterness.
We were all born with desires. Many of them. This isn't necessary a bad thing either, contrary to what some people assume. But what we need to be careful of is when we turn these desires into needs. When we think we can't live without it. When we believe that our happiness and well-being is dependent on achieving it. When we feel that God cannot be good without first granting it to us. Though it varies between individuals and circumstances, the line between desires and needs is one that perhaps we haven't thought of examining more closely.
Are our desires dictating our lives as if they were needs? Uncontrolled or excessive desires lead us to sin, though we may not like to think of it--or to acknowledge to ourselves that that's what it is.
Instead, our real needs should be what we prioritize, what we plan our lives around, what we consider when we think of fulfilment, contentment, happiness. Our real needs--the most significant one of which is our need for God...
...to be continued
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"...my heart was hot within me."
I remember being struck by how accurate this description was. So many times I'd felt that hotness burning inside, the anger or bitterness threatening to spill out in a flood, feeling yourself almost trembling with the effort to be stronger than it. An almost physical sensation; as if it were something you could spit out.
"I said, I will guard my ways, that I might not sin with my tongue..."
David's response goes further than simply trying to keep it in check, out of a vague sense that it was the right thing to do. His clarity of mind even at such an emotional moment shows his maturity and experience in suffering, in understanding the weaknesses of the human heart, and its tendency to sinful coping mechanisms and reactions. David was keenly aware of the temptation to vent emotions in words--whether spoken ones or thoughts in our hearts and minds--which very easily could lead to sin. His response is to keep a strict check on himself, almost an external action-- "I will restrain myself with a muzzle."
However, David does acknowledge that the mere act of restraining ourselves from verbalizing or expressing our emotions is not a healthy coping mechanism, as it is not an end in itself: "I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; And my sorrow was stirred up. My heart was hot within me; While I was musing, the fire burned."
It doesn't resolve our emotional turmoil, even if it does keep us from sinning. It's not the answer, and we would be foolish to think that that external action of controlling ourselves alone is all that God cares about or wants from us. Having kept ourselves from "sinning with our tongue," what we need to do is to open our hearts--raw and surging with the morass of emotions--to God. For a real resolution.
"Then I spoke with my tongue:
Lord, make me know my end,
And what is the measure of my days. That I may know how frail I am...
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You.
Deliver me from all my transgressions."
David's life was so full of trials, dangers, and uncertainty--he had plenty of opportunities to test and apply what it meant to trust in a God, especially an omnipotent and omniscient God. What it meant, in the midst of trials, to apply humility, perspective, and trust. To reconcile your current emotional state with your belief and knowledge of the person of God, and His attributes.
Instead of lapsing into bitterness, reproaches, or anger when he starts to talk to God, David humbly and simply acknowledges his lack of understanding, his inability to accept God's providence. He confesses his sense of helplessness and frailty, his inability to cope or understand. And he asks for wisdom and humility to do so, affirming his need for God's deliverance.
“And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You..."
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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