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 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 Jamie Dench from Unsplash
With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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