So 2020 has officially begun...and everyone who was born before the 2000's is silently feeling terribly old. *raises hand*
There's a pretty daily planner with a marbled cover on my desk--I'd been wanting one from this brand for years; this year was the first time the price wasn't ridiculously high. That has helped anchor me to reality, to make 2020 sink in. Call me superficial, but there is a considerable amount of satisfaction you can get from nice stationery, especially if you're using said stationery everyday first thing in the mornings!
thoughts on 2019:
2019 was finally--finally--a less stressful year for me. I was starting to get the hang of my different jobs, picking myself up after the crushing and mildly traumatic sink-or-swim phase that came with starting every new job. Learning to not care so much about what people thought about me and just focus on faithfully doing my job well, humbly accepting that I was not good at it and had much to learn. Conscientiously working on the bad and unhealthy coping mechanisms I'd become aware of. Learning to find refreshing and encouragement in serving, and to have healthier perspectives and mindsets towards people and problems. To see God's bigger picture, even when it--usually--went against the grain of my comfort/convenience/ideal of what things should be like.
Having said that, there are still many things I'd like to grow away from, looking forward to 2020. Yes, I've gone through Donald Whitney's 10 Questions! (a little tradition I've started for transitioning to a new year) I also had some important experiences and realizations over the end of the year, which made me more thoughtful about relationships and interactions, and motivated to be more purposeful about them this year.
In 2020 I want to:
--be more active and intentional in cultivating meaningful friendships and spending quality time= having meaningful conversations.
I'm very good at small talk. Too good. I want to pursue conversations which matter, conversations which bring your friendship to a new level and hopefully encourage growth in each other as well. To talk about what matters. I've had a similar such resolution before I imagine, but it's been getting more specific over the years. How exactly do you pursue meaningful and strong friendships? I've been slowly discovering that, I believe. Coming a step close each year. Wishing I'd started thinking about this earlier, of course, but all in good time.
Related to this, also a resolution to--don't laugh--not talk too much. I'm just as scared of awkward pauses as anyone. So that means that I often jump to fill the gaps, leaping from one lead to another, and with quieter people who don't talk easily, I end up talking incessantly for the sake of keeping the conversation going.
Listen more. Learn to ask people what they think, listen, instead of jumping in to talk or feeling like I need to give advice/my take immediately. This is something I learnt from teaching Sunday School, but funnily enough I hadn't thought about applying it with adults, in my friendships.
--to grow in prayer. Now, this has been popping up with embarrassing regularity on all my new year's resolutions. Embarrassing because it shows how the only consistency in my prayer life so far has been inconsistency. Now and then I hit a good streak, and feel pleased, only to break down all the good habits over a holiday or when something new pops up to make me busy. It's discouraging, but it also keeps me from becoming complacent. It just shows me how unreliable discipline and self-control are, as tempting as it may seem to see them as the solution.
I thought carefully about this, how I could really make some change in this area, and felt that there were some things I had never given thought to, which would help me to make this change. But more on that another day!
--not to let pride/social expectations/insecurities consume you. There is always the temptation to develop insecurities or try to justify so-called failures or lacks (eg. salary, future, ambitions, social life, lovelife etc) When you compare yourself with others, there are always things you feel you're missing out on. And since this is a difficult blow for our pride to accept, we tend to respond by slavishly chasing after those things, or finding reasons to justify it to ourselves so we can feel better. "If I hadn't chosen to serve more in church, I could have gotten better grades/a better job/that opportunity, but ah, you see my priorities were in the right place." I'm not being snarky here, neither am I dissing the fact that sacrifices like that can genuinely happen in a good and godly way. But it's a very real temptation, to cling to "legitimate" excuses which give us a sense of comfort that we didn't miss out--actually just another subtle form of blame-shifting, onto circumstances, onto people, onto God.
I'm being honest here.
I found myself, when I was feeling sorry for myself and wishing my dreams had worked out the way I wanted them to, tempted to blame it on those auditions/opportunities which I passed up, because they fell on Sundays.
I could have opened up a very different--more exciting!--road, and be in a very different place now. But it wasn't my fault, it was *God's*.
To be honest, humble, and not to live life in slavery to creating certain image of success/happiness/fulfilment.
--to be gentle. I realize that, though people often think I'm a loving/gentle person because of petty external things like care-packs, being sensitive/helpful etc. But much of this is often just a child-like desire to be kind, to make people happy. Not actual Christ-like love, the true type which endures. When it comes to the real, gritty work of dying to self, of living out love in a gory everyday way, I am anything but gentle and loving. Hardheartedness, pride, selfishness, they're all there.
It reminds me of a quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (truly an amazing book if you ever have the patience and courage to embark on it) "A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life." A warning that love is not merely the pretty, pleasant externalities we tend to associate it with, which are easy to talk about and easy to perform, like buying someone a bouquet or saying "I love you." We should not measure how loving we are, or how great our love is, by how often or how well we can perform these things. Just as the monk in the novel realized that his professed love for mankind was an abstract, theoretical love that actually shied away from the tough, often unpleasant work of loving individuals: "I love mankind...but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular."
--*continue* learning to trust more. I thought it would get clearer, as it has been the past two years, but it's again reached a crossroads/ uncertainty. Having to learn to trust again, especially after expectations that things would start to sort themselves out and get clearer. Things which seemed to have been becoming clearer have led to (seeming) deadends, whether in relationships or career or just general life direction. It's been frustrating as I assumed that they would sort themselves out by now, to feel that I'm back at square one.
But it really goes to show that trust is something that we never stop needing to learn. We are so tempted to think that once we pass this current hurdle--once God gives us a job, or helps us reach that level of financial stability, or gives us certainty about our career paths, or the right person to marry, or when our children believe in Christ--we would have done with it. But it never stops. We are always anxiously trying to control our lives, to make sure they turn out well, to ensure we live comfortably and pleasantly. Being aware of this is in itself a learning point. At least, for me.
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.
Two years ago, my dad handed out little slips of paper he had prepared, with ten questions.
He encouraged us to take the time and thought to answer Donald Whitney's Questions for a Fruitful New Year on our own, taking a day for each question so we wouldn't be tempted to rush through the list with vague or superficial answers.
I grimaced inwardly when I glanced at the list. These were soul-searching questions which would disturb you, poke you out from your comfort-zone. Questions you couldn't just answer with a yes or no. Tucking it into my Bible, I mentally tucked it away in my mind under the convenient label when I have time. (this label is where we stash all the stuff we know we ought to do, but are too lazy to take the mental energy to plan time for; we call it when I have time, but in reality it's more like 10yearstorage.)
Thankfully, it didn't stay in 10yearstorage till it crumbled into dust. Somehow I discovered the slip of paper (very wrinkled by now) and somehow decided to give it a go. Since then, it's become one of my little routines for transitioning to a new year. The piece of paper is sitting before me now; still hopelessly wrinkled---but this time because it's been well-used, not because it's been tucked away for a year and a day.
I'd like to share those 10 Questions here, in the hopes that you too will be helped by it. Whether or not you end up writing out all the answers, or whether you simply browse through and mull over the thoughts these questions should instinctively arouse in your mind.
Some are deeply personal. Some are wake-up calls.
All of them are specific.
1. What's one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?
I appreciate that this question came first of all--it was a timely reminder that we need to seek to grow in our joy and love for God. and not only agonize over our spiritual disciplines, our failures, our 'walk'.
Our heart comes first of all.
2. What's the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?
Sometimes, we get so focused on our spiritual life, our struggles, that we forget to focus on the person of God. We're out of touch with His attributes. We doubt, because we forget He's faithful. We get cynical, because we forget He is powerful. We fear, because we forget He is good.
We need to stop looking only at ourselves, and look up.
3. What's the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life?
4. In what spiritual disciplines do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?
5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it?
(I think I can hear echoes of the ouch this question stung from me!)
6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?
7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?
8. What's the most important way you will, by God's grace, make this year different from last year?
The previous questions had forced me, from my comfortably zoomed out view of the year, to a close look at the specific, practical details and actions I needed to take.
Question 8, however, suddenly zoomed me back out to a big picture view with breathless speed.
But this time, having dealt with the practical details that I had previously comfortably blurred out, the year became simpler, clearer. If I had had to answer this question first I would have probably dashed off something generically correct and hopelessly vague, such as 'grow spiritually' (and most likely end up doing nothing about it.)
This time, after having first thought through practical steps in the previous questions, I knew that what I wrote in answer to this question reflected the ultimate outcome I hoped those practical steps would have. That put the whole year into a different perspective. My answer to question 8 was something which tied in with my answers to the other questions--no longer hopelessly vague, but the overall effect, so to speak, of a concrete plan.
9. What 1 thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?
10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in 10 years--in eternity?
Eternity is a big word.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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