image by Brooke Lark from Unsplash
A few weeks ago, I dug out my journal, dusted off the dog-eared 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 tough year. Constantly feeling stretched and worn out, struggling with anxieties and fears I was reluctant to admit to myself. Carving out a living as a fresh grad. Learning on the job. Comparing myself, consciously or unconsciously, with peers, with our society's definitions of success and achievement. More and more rejection letters.
But what's new under the sun?
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 plumbing the depths of self-worth and trying 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, God 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 to, crying over.
In 2019, I hope:
to be less self-absorbed.
As we build our careers, try to use our educations, 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 affected what I was. 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 millennials, 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. What else do I need to do to make it? (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 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.
Photo by Jake Thacker on Unsplash
The little old lady perpetually wrapped up in a shawl, who smiles at you when you walk by. The old man with the wheezing voice, you can't really understand his mumbling but you're too embarrassed to admit it so you slink away with a strained, awkward smile. The silent one sitting in the corner that is a bit deaf and smells of herbal candies; you tell yourself she's probably dozing off anyway.
If you feel like you "don't know how" to relate or talk to the elderly in your church, then you need to remember that it isn't much different from "knowing how" to relate to anyone else. As long as you have a sincere love and desire to reach out to them, and patience (patience! patience!), you'll start learning how to see things from their perspective, understand their needs, challenges, and what makes them "click"--nothing at all different from getting to know anyone else.
For starters, though, here are some things that might help you start, since we all know that first steps often take the most courage:
1. acknowledge their presence. Greet them when you see them. Okay, this should apply to anyone actually, regardless of age--but especially the elderly. A very traditional Asian practice, maybe--my parents always told me that when visiting, I should find and greet the oldest person in the house to show respect--if dying out nowadays. But respect ought to transcend cultures, whether racial or social.
Often, because they're quiet, or not at the center of things, they get left out. People don't even acknowledge their presence. Maybe they don't hear that well, so make sure your greeting is loud and cheerful--or at least accompany it with a physical gesture to make it more obvious. A wave, a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug. There was an elderly man who could be seen feeding the cats under my block every day. He always looked fearfully grumpy, yet there was a kind of pathetic loneliness in how he would spend hours, with his favourite cat on his lap, simply sitting there silently. I used to smile at him in passing, but he never responded, and I felt--rather hurt--that he was as grumpy as he looked. It was only later on that my mom, taking the time to actually stop and talk to him, found out that his eyesight was poor. Sure enough, the next time I saw him I tried waving to him. His whole face lit up and he waved back, eagerly, smiling so widely my heart ached and I felt a pang of self-reproach.
2. talk to them. This sounds simple, and it is. Several of the older people in my church revealed how much it means to them when a young person comes up to them and spends time talking with them--regardless of age, different interests, even language barriers. It may take a while, it may feel awkward at first, but as with any other friendship, perseverance, patience, and sincerity work wonders.
3. be interested to hear their stories and be open to learn from them. Ask them to teach you how to cook that curry chicken you love. Ask them about themselves when they were your age. Ask them how they learnt to knit so well, or how they came to believe in Christ.
4. affirm their role in the church, what they do for the church. whether it's praying, cooking, or simply faithfully attending despite the rain or the backaches or the sleepless night, elderly people often play a greater role in our churches than we--or they themselves--realize. They may struggle with feeling irrelevant, useless, or unnecessary, as the way some of them talk about themselves--jokingly or otherwise--indicates. It's important to affirm and encourage them, to remind them that age and physical limitations do not define the impact we can have on others.
5. encourage them in their spiritual walk. As we get older, we face the same challenge that we had when we were young, for different reasons. We may be tempted to sink into selfishness, to live lives bogged down by self-centeredness--
--for young people, because we have our whole life before us, and all the world to explore and conquer, every reason to enjoy life. So many distractions! So many desires! So many dreams!
--but also, as we get older, because our body becomes more and more of a concern everyday. Because everyone else is rushing on in their lives at the same time we slow down more and more. Maybe we can't hear--taste--see--walk so well, we can't enjoy the same things others do, and we feel increasingly isolated from them. So many small little things which affect the quality of our daily lives, which are so simple and mundane to others that they can't fathom, but which are frustratingly significant to us--bad teeth, hearing loss, failing eyesight, sleeplessness, multiple doctor's appointments...which all have a direct impact on our quality of life and interactions with others.
6. help them to be involved and interacting with the lives of others in the church. Introduce young people to them, bring children over to say hi, ask them to pray for you/someone else/someone you're praying for. Tell them about that young mom who's been struggling with a new baby and ask them what advice they would give. Help them be aware about the needs of other people in church; the missionaries you're praying for, ministries you're involved in.
True healthy friendships aren't limited to the two people in the friendship alone but continue to have a 'splash effect' in the way they bless others outside of it, build other positive friendships--thereby bringing even more blessings to the two main people in it.
7. be thoughtful and considerate of their needs. Maybe you need to walk slower, talk louder, or just be a more patient listener. Maybe they need a hand when it's dark and it's hard to see the road clearly. Someone to send them back, or help them carry their bags. Preempt their needs and challenges, whether the challenge of stairs, or finding them a seat. Or the temperature. If they have trouble with their teeth when eating. Once when my grandma had been unwell, a sweet young sister in church prepared a box of grapes, washed clean and painstakingly peeled, for her. My grandma was very touched that she had spent enough time and attention talking to her, sitting with her, in church to know that, and to remember it. Small gestures like that demonstrate that you are sensitive to their needs and challenges, that you are looking out for them, that you care for them, in concrete and tangible ways.
Perhaps it starts with something as small as smile, as making them laugh...
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
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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