image by Manki Kim from Unsplash
The idea that stress is an unavoidable part of (specifically) Singaporean everyday life is so widely accepted that I was surprised when someone challenged that assumption.
On one hand, it is a legitimate reason that our culture doesn’t make it easy to maintain control and balance over your life. The systems and infrastructures in place often are built without any consideration for anything other tha KPI, and are not conducive for people who want more than KPI. Education, workplace culture and expectations, the goals and lifestyle standards and values that our culture subconsciously and implicitly incalcate in us, all these function on the basis that people devote themselves 100% to them. Success, at least within the context of those systems, is not programmed to come otherwise.
It's tempting to think the problem is just your culture. I’ve heard people fantasize about how working or living overseas would let them escape from the stress in Singapore, that there’s nothing we can do about it as it’s everywhere, it’s the basis of all our infrastructures, we just have to suck it up. But this minimizes the impact and role of individual responsibility. It’s naïve to think that other people in other cultures don’t face this problem—they do, perhaps manifested differently, but they do. Changing your location is just a quick-fix. Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself feeling stressed again, and the answer is not packing your bags once more.
This is my own opinion, but I think of Christ’s words when He called us to “be in the world, not of it.” The importance of the individual witness we have, each in our corner—not isolating ourselves and avoiding the problems in the world, but actively doing what we can to make a difference, wherever we are.
The next easiest response to fantasizing about moving overseas is to play the cynic and shrug in fatalistic doom. Just suck it up. Everyone you know is complaining of the same thing, after all. If you don’t want to be broke or an absolute failure you just have to accept being stressed out, right?
This again is actually just another way of accepting to, and conforming to, the culture around us—not exactly a very godly culture either, as you can see if you consider its role models, goals, definition of success, and the route to get there.
How do we respond to stress? How do we deal with stress and perhaps more importantly, are we unconsciously expecting/reinforcing stress in our lives?
Like it or not, the choices you make reflect your priorities, since much of life is about trade-offs/opportunity cost. We can make choices that enable us to live more thoughtfully, more purposefully, more meaningfully; more restfully, more peacefully, with more time for others, with more time for things that matter. It sounds so ideal, doesn’t it? Everyone talks about work life balance, but it’s become just another impossibly unrealistic concept like owning your own car and house for millenials—and a whole lot more abstract.
What exactly is work life balance and how do we achieve it? Don’t wait for the perfect job to fall into your lap, a family which doesn’t give you problems, supportive friends who chio (invite out) you at convenient times, an understanding boss, the end of this big project, when you’ve caught up on your sleep debt, when you’ve gotten into the habit of getting up early instead of sleeping through six alarms every morning and rushing out of the door.
For most people, most of the time, it’s not a big drastic decision that radically alters your everyday schedule and your plan for the next five years (there are too many “taking off to travel the world for a year how about you?” posts online giving people the wrong impression that it’s all or nothing; either you continue being stressed out or you have to do something radical that usually entails you quitting your job and throwing responsibilities—financial or otherwise—to the wind. That’s nice, Karen, but we can’t all be doing that.
If you can do that, well, that’s nice; but for those of us who can’t, does it mean we can’t do anything about our current situation?
Whether this boils down to the decisions you make on saving/spending money, the goals you form for yourself, leaving a job or changing the way you work in it, finding alternatives, or managing your time, each choice you make is the same thing—you sacrifice or give up one thing in order to achieve more of the other. Which, and why?
Again, “be in the world, not of it;” be the difference. Challenge cultural expectations, when you see a need to challenge the values they're based on. Help others to see alternatives, to think twice instead of simply blindly accepting whatever is thrown at them. Redefine priorities if you need to. Let go of certain unhelpful habits. Think about whether the way you're spending your every day now is something you can thank God for sincerely, something you can present to Him with gladness. Consider that we were made for so much more than than the endless cycle of generating and using money. Remember that our lack of peace, our lack of contentment, even our lack of enjoyment of our lives, reflects our lack of spiritual understanding of Who God is, and what it means to serve Him, to glorify Him.
Be the salt and the light. Even if it means you need to sit down and think about how to live more purposefully--not exactly the activity you feel drawn to after a long day, if we're being honest...
image by Andre Benz from Unsplash
My church recently had our annual church camp, and it was an unspoken understanding that the theme--Living Out Faith in a Stressful World--was uniquely relevant for Singaporean. I don't think I was the only one who went to camp with a pretty strong sense of anticipation for this topic, and I'm thankful for God's timeliness in moving our speaker--Pastor David Yan of Emmanuel Church, New Zealand--to choose this theme. God knows we all needed it. Both collectively, as a small church struggling with all the standard challenges of small churches, and individually, each one dealing with the different burdens of work, school, commitments, family problems, spiritual struggles.
I want to share some of the points from the talks which really resonated me, because they were an effective mixture of epiphany, encouragement, self-awareness, and a convicting challenge in what it would mean to apply these truths to your life.
First of all, how we handle stress and rest is important as it has a direct influence on our spiritual life. It's foolish, and perhaps even proud, to think otherwise, to imagine that our life is nicely compartmentalized such that the secular and spiritual are as neatly separated as the seaweed and Honey Stars in a child's lunchbox. As such, we can't just shrug off the stress we complain about, avoid dealing purposefully with it, on the grounds that "I just have to get used to it," "life is like that," "what can I do anyway?" or even "I don't have the time/energy to think about that." (though honestly it is a legitimate challenge; feeling, at your most overwhelmed, that you don't even have the emotional/mental energy or capacity to be thinking about how to deal with stress; that you're stretched to the utmost already just keeping up with every day, just to keep going, just surviving. That is undoubtedly the worst.)
God cares for us. He calls us to be resting in Him, not living in frantic activity, one nervous breakdown away. Living out faith in a stressful world--how, in our individual contexts, do we do this? How do we make a difference, be a difference to the others around us?
Secondly. Rest can be physical, but in many cases in our first-world context today, it is also emotional and mental.
Amen. Did this resonate with me. Feeling like a wimp because I wasn't facing the kind of physical stress that I see people like my sister, who works in healthcare with its long and draining hours, only added to the emotional and mental stress I was struggling with. Not being able to acknowledge this as a legitimate form of stress, and instead feeling like I was a greater failure for not being able to handle this, were just some things that made it harder.
But truly. Not just from work--emotional and mental stress from people and relationship problems has a huge impact on me as well, and on others, as I heard during my discussion group. It ruins your mood, your concentration, your whole day. It burdens you, haunting your mind, so that even when you're supposed to be resting you're worrying about that conversation, about that text, about what they said, replaying it constantly, trying to analyze what to do.
This kind of stress is also what Jesus promised us rest from. Acknowledging that, and turning to Him, will help us more than if we try to forget about it, frustratedly wonder why we can't stop thinking about it, despair over our inability to maintain our peace of mind--or heart.
Thirdly--what have we been defining as rest, and do we need to redefine our definitions? To be honest, this was phrased quite differently in the discussion questions: "What are the unnecessary activities that we can eliminate from our lives?" However, my personal takeaway went a bit deeper. I realized that often when work--or studies--is stressing us out, we feel strongly entitled to our rest time, our me-time. And we usually lapse into the most extreme, passive sort of rest, the sort that is the easiest to slip into; aimlessly browsing videos, scrolling through social media, looking for entertainment on our screens, generally nua-ing on an appropriate surface (think bed or sofa or even floor in some cases; I plead guilty.) For those unfamiliar with the term, nua is a very apt Singlish term, derived from Hokkien, which denotes laziness, idling, or just generally being a bum. However, unlike those unimaginative English terms, nua denotes a physical change of state, from solid to a pasty/gooey/semi-solid state (think slime, or bread dough.) If that isn't graphic enough I don't know what is.
Singlish appreciation post aside--I unconsciously think this is rest, simply because it's so opposite of what I associate with work/stress. However, upon serious examination--at least for myself--it's really more escapism. Distraction. It's not rest in the sense that I'm not refreshed and recharged, ready to go back to work after it...far from it! If anything it's the opposite; having to exit nua mode, to return to solid state, so to speak, is torturous. You're only more reluctant to return to work. I feel entitled to my nua time because I argue that it's rest I deserve and need after all that stress, but really it's more like a form of distraction, trying (only fleetingly) to escape from the mental and emotional stress. With this deluded sense of entitlement in mind, often I get annoyed when anything impinges or interrupts that nua time; seeing that as "rest," I get impatient with others, start to equate spending time with others, relationships, as merely other non-essential energy-sappers. I don't know if this is partly an introvert problem, though it's definitely mainly original sin, but you start to live with a very self-centered, selfish/miserly attitude towards your stock of energy, as I discussed previously.
So, nua consciously. It's not necessarily evil--there's a place for it, as with lumping--but see it for what is is.
I've realized that rest, specifically emotional and mental rest, is not about the actual energy levels as much as priorities. It may even be simply a change in activities. It may simply be a change of heart, or attitude. It may simply be encouragement from someone, from what you read today, from your prayer time. Just like how this camp was for me--a refreshing mental and emotional rest from the constant worries and mental burden of work. For just those few days, I felt more rested than I had for a long time. Even though camp is not exactly what you would associate with rest, at least if you're on the camp committee. Lack of sleep, keeping an eye on the schedule, last minute changes, cleaning up, facilitating discussion groups and activities...these kept me busy, yet I was conscious of a very real sense of peace and rest throughout the camp, that left me refreshed and encouraged when it was time to go back to work.
Fourthly, and lastly--rest is found in a person, not a place. At least in Singapore, where travelling is a common and even convenient norm (the British didn't choose us as a trading port for nothing) so many people I know live for their overseas trip every year, the holiday getaway that keeps them motivated for the slogging at work the rest of the time. The #tbt and scenic beach photos that keep reappearing throughout the year on their Instagram even when it's been months since their trip, as if their actual day-to-day life now doesn't count, doesn't matter. In fact, whenever you see one of those photos appear it usually means they're feeling the stress more than ever, craving for that getaway even more. I feel more sympathy than criticism here, if you feel attacked; I can actually relate, believe it or not, even though I may not have the same 9-5 job challenges or experiences that you face. What strikes me poignantly about this phenomenon is how urgently the yearning for rest, the desire to escape, becomes. It's hardly a matter of which country you go to, or how; getting away from Singapore and the work stress that you associate with it emerges as the goal instead. And, more sobering, the bleak realization that even when you manage to escape, these happy hours are only so many percentage of your whole year.
Don't you feel that something's wrong, that we aren't meant to be living like this, spending the majority of our lives yearning and enduring for brief reprieves? Surely the answer isn't throwing up your hands and saying "Well, but this is Singapore! We're compulsively stressed out, due to our culture and workplace habits and education system and etc...it's as much a requirement of being Singaporean as National Service is for boys!" Which is pretty much the response I've often heard, the end-all conclusion to the frequent discussion of mutual stress levels.
Rest is in a person. Not a place. I believe this because of real-life examples I've seen, people who made certain choices as a conscious effort to live differently; people who are in the same situation as others, yet respond differently, with grace and peace and joy. It's possible. God didn't call us to an earthly kingdom, but to a spiritual one, at least during our time here. Until Heaven, we're all on the same earth, and no matter where we are, the same challenges, the same root problems and temptations, confront us all. Rest, whether due to your attitude, your heart; due to people who support and care for you; but most of all, in a Person--in He who promised us, Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy-ladened, and I will give you rest.
image by Marcelo Vaz from Unsplash
This past period, I find myself struggling with discouragement. Learning on the job. Adapting to a new, busier schedule. Working with new people and new challenges. Unfamiliarity, insecurity, a lack of confidence. Not that there's anything earth-shaking about this. It's the standard experience of starting a new job, a new phase in life, in managing new responsibilities while maintaining existing ones. Basically what every young adult faces as they try to be financially independent and navigate the workplace and this whole thing about being grown up, am I right?
I wondered why I was feeling so burnt out and discouraged. I knew I already had it much better than so many of my peers, and knowing that made me feel like a wimp--I couldn't even indulge in a wallow in self-pity, to put it wryly.
Every morning as I went through my devotions I would open my Bible and hope vaguely that my eye would fall on something encouraging, something comforting, something to remind me that I wasn't alone. And most of the time as I flipped through it looking for the book I was currently studying with Search the Scriptures, somehow Psalm 18 would be what I found myself looking at. A specific part of psalm 18, at that--the middle section (...mostly because I happened to have some post-its that covered the beginning and end, anticlimactic as that sounds)
If you too have been struggling with similar feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, and insecurity, do take the time to turn to this psalm.
With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
26 With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
27 For You will save the humble people,
But will bring down haughty looks.
28 For You will light my lamp;
The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.
At a time like this, pride and humility become even more relatable. Often we feel anything but proud--we feel painfully, cringingly humbled, forced to face our limitations and inabilities.
Or maybe our stress comes from the unthinking pressure to do it all and do it well. From our reluctance to accept that we can't. From our pressure to impress others, to do as well or better than others. And the pride that underlies all those concerns.
Maybe we need a reminder that this humbling experience is not so much proof that we failed, but windows for God's grace and our growth.
Maybe we need to realize that the root of our stress is pride.
Maybe we need to consider that instead of pursuing efficiency, success, multi-tasking, praise, competency, and a nice steadily growing bank account--there are other things, quieter, subtler things. Mercy. Blamelessness. Purity.
29 For by You I can run against a troop,
By my God I can leap over a wall.
30 As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
31 For who is God, except the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?
I remember the first time I saw these lines during this dry season of discouragement. The reckless scale of David's lavish, military-esque imagery took my breath away.
Running face on towards a troop of armed hostile soldiers, alone except for God?
Vaulting over a wall in one of those breathtakingly effortless gravity (and current body state) defying leaps that you see in Chinese wuxia movies? (I'm afraid I honestly came away with the rosy delusion that as long as you trained hard enough, you really could pull those off. I came back to earth when I saw BTS footage revealing the wires and ropes involved, and felt vaguely--no, not betrayed; just more discontented that I wasn't living in the JiangHu*)
*the world as structured by different sects and martial arts communities; the background of most wuxia and xianxia epics
By my God...
Not by trying harder!
Not by being more disciplined with my time!
Not by persevering and gritting my teeth!
Not by sleeping less or doing my best to adapt--
...which are legitimate but often overrated and overused means we resort to in order to try and get more control over our lives.
And it is at this point in life, facing these specific challenges, that I really relate to David's emphasis on courage throughout the Psalms. Courage was a very real and necessary quality for someone with his adrenaline-pumped, political and military high-profile background and context. Fighting for your life, never quite sure when someone might try to poison you or stab you in the back (literally) or which battle would be your last.
Situations most of us can't relate to today. But we need, among many other more obvious things, courage for living. Courage to face uncertain futures. To bear the consequences of our decisions and mistakes. Courage to try and fail, to pursue dreams, to develop and maintain relationships...
I remember, from Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, Amanda telling her chronically shy daughter: "I've got to put courage in you, honey, for living." That phrase sometimes echoes in my head whenever I feel that crippling sense of dread--fear--self-doubt. Courage for living.
32 It is God who arms me with strength,
And makes my way perfect.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of deer,
And sets me on my high places.
34 He teaches my hands to make war,
So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
And there you have it!
How much more clearly could David have phrased it?
I particularly love the imagery here. Every word choice reflects David, the shepherd boy cum warrior cum king, used to the rough, merciless, unpredictable surroundings of nature, the battlefield, the court. And yet every word choice likewise speaks to me. Strength to arm me for what I don't want to face. To make my way, with the grace and sure-footed agility of a deer, through a rocky and uncertain path at a dizzying height. To be gifted the skill and talent my hands lack so conspicuously now, to be enabled to do the impossible--
Elizabeth George Spear wrote a moving book set in Jesus's time about a young blacksmith struggling with faith, bitterness, hatred, and loss. She uses this specific verse and points out how impossible it is to bend a bow of bronze. Remember how much trouble it was to bend Odysseus's bow? That would have been a bow of wood. Basically, David's reckless metaphor of a bronze bow is declaring that God can enable us to do anything. Anything.
35 You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great.
36 You enlarged my path under me,
So my feet did not slip.
Help that is both very personal and very applicable. And gentle. Oh, so gentle. I clung to this verse especially. Yes, I need to grow--I need to learn--but deal with me gently, please, Lord. My heart feels like I can't take very much right now.
Again, the imagery of finding your way--not stumbling in the dark, frightened and slipping and bruising yourself; unsure if you're lost or not. A "perfect way," as in verse 32. And I appreciate how it is specified this time: God does not just give us the ability to travel our paths, (as in the previous verses) but also "enlarges" it for us, making it easier for us, so that our feet do not slip.
He enables but He also accommodates. The God behind 1 Corinthians 10:13; the God Who knows us in a deeply personal way, and Who understands our limitations and weaknesses to an extent that is soul-searchingly humbling, and liberating.
image by Ryoji Iwata from Unsplash
I can't handle everything.
To be honest--I'm overwhelmed.
When I look around, other people in the same situation as me seem to be thriving, to be managing everything.
I'm struggling so hard but the results that I get hardly pay off--do I just have to work even harder?
Am I a wimp for feeling like I'm overwhelmed, when I already have it so much better than some people?
Am I dumber than other people? Why do I feel like I'm working so hard, am so stretched already, yet I can't seem to get everything done?
How do they do it?
Why can't I do it?
I don't have answers for these questions either. I often hear them whispered in my head, see them written in the eyes of others when they share about how their week has gone, in the sighs, in the sleep-deprived eyes and the helpless shrug, "well, what to do about it?"
Since I reached the end of my course and started looking towards the future, an attractive vision hovered in my mind's eye. In it, I'm able to manage the different jobs I'm currently working at, learning and honing new skills while I affirm my strengths and what I enjoy. I'm disciplined--I get up early every morning, spend time with God, exercise, and get in a good block of writing before I go out to teach. I diligently work at a running list of writing projects, pursuing my dream to be a published writer while serving actively in church, caring for my family, earning my keep, and developing my own business. I manage to balance all these commitments through the magical formula of hard work, efficiency, and discipline--I am happy, productive, useful, enjoying my work and excelling at it. And of course, eventually, after an impressive amount of hard work and perseverance, that long-awaited acceptance letter comes and everything makes sense...
I close my eyes and see this image get yet more faded, yet more unreal, as it seems further and further away from reality.
Feeling confident, in control, and on top of everything is seldom the means God uses to bring about growth.
The problem is that we tend to equate "excellence" with "glorifying God."
Glorifying God in all we do means it extends to much more than simply "excellence"--a problematic term already once you consider how we understand it. Excellence as defined by ourselves? As defined by our society? As defined by our boss, our co-workers, our peers, our parents, our role models? What exactly is the excellence we're striving at, building our lives around, and why did we decide to settle for this particular definition?
And once we accept it, we end up being sucked into a constant, vicious cycle of comparison, trying frantically to match up to the definitions of success and happiness held up for us, trying to squeeze ourselves into this mould and wondering why it hurts when it--doesn't fit.
Worse--feeling like God isn't helping you by giving you the supernatural time and strength you asked for. Feeling like you're failing Him, for not managing to do it all gracefully and happily, for not managing to be the role model others can point to. Wondering why it's so hard; feeling guilt and resentment and helplessness all mixed together.
Glorifying God often has much more to do with acknowledging our need of Him, our brokenness, our longing for something greater than the hum and buzz and shiny lights of our life here--than with achieving our society's definition of a balanced life, of a successful career, of a functional family. Even though that may seem the most straightforward and logical way of glorifying God to us, with all the best intentions in the world, we serve a God Who has "chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and...the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.." (1 Corinthians 1:27)
When we let His strength be made perfect--not in our strength--but in our weakness.
We glorify Him most in the way we react and respond to what each day brings us. Especially the failures. The struggles. The routine. The tears in the dark, the weariness, the dreariness. Those parts you are the most ashamed of, the parts that the world would least envy and admire, are the most precious to Him. The most significant.
Those are the times when He is the closest, when we are closer to understanding fully just what it means to have Him, because we are closer to realizing how much we need Him.
The next time you feel hopelessly out of control, overwhelmed--consider that feeling confident and in control (desirable as that is) is the direct opposite of learning to put our faith in God, and trusting Him to work out our lives, to provide for us.
How else can we learn, if we do not first realize how inadequate we are?
My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.
2 Corinthians 12:9
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
Click to set custom HTML
ALL IMAGES FROM PINTEREST UNLESS OTHERWISE SPECIFIED. THANKS, PINTEREST!