147. Finding Joy

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a college student in the face of looming deadlines must be in possession of an existential crisis. (Or at least, I hope it isn’t just me.) It occurred to me the other day how my panic attacks and general existential crises had been accumulating in frequency more and more since I returned to Law school for the second semester of my first year- that “life had not mirrored her spirit back to her with its old, perfect, sparkling clearness” (Anne of the Island). And there is no set way to get this clarity of mind back. I guess the image I had in my head was that of a rubber ball, and wondering why I wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as I used to be able to, until I realized that a more appropriate image would be a bunch of rubber bands that had gotten so tied up together that they couldn’t bounce back unless they were untangled. I needed to untangle the many worries I had in my mind, before I could set my mind at rest and move on.

It usually helps to look at the bigger picture, and that’s when I got my first epiphany. Being someone who very much looks to books and movies for life advice and kind of charting the way my life is going, it took me a while to realize this, but somewhere along the way it stopped being me looking ahead to fiction to see how things were supposed to pan out, but rather me looking sideways to fiction. Fiction began to run parallel to my life, instead of the runner in front of you whose number tag you focus on to keep your feet steady. I was so used to the groove of holding fiction as an ideal for my own life; I held its characters on pedestals, and felt like adulthood could only be achieved through stepping over a magical, indeterminable, inextricable threshold of age. I couldn’t see it coming, but I would definitely know when I had crossed it, and I definitely hadn’t.

But I suddenly realized that when my life started to echo the questions I saw in books and movies, when fiction wasn’t so fictitious anymore, when I started having my own questions that didn’t have so direct an answer –or any at all- I realized that all these struggles- all this thinking- is a sign that we are at that magical age betwixt youth and old age. Taylor Swift got it right when she said “we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time/ it’s miserable and magical”. This is what songs are written about. This is what books are written about. This is what films are made about. We’ve reached. We’re here.

And what do we do now?

It takes a lot to find liberation in this confusion. A couple of days ago, I was telling my mum quite frankly that I didn’t like who I was becoming in Law school. I felt like I was losing the discipline, and the generosity, to love. I felt like, when given “the choice between what is right, and what is easy” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), I had, too many times, chosen what was easy. And that was to give in to a life that was mediocre and ordinary, which was only scratching the surface in terms of the depth and wealth of significance that life has to offer. I felt like I had failed the little girl in me, who at 7 thought that 20 was just such a magical grown-up number at which I would of course have my life figured out. At 7, I probably did not imagine that it was possible 20-year-old me would be stumbling.

To this colossal sense of failure, my mum smiled (and possibly laughed internally, though more out of commiseration than scorn). “That’s growing up,” she said.

But what does growing up mean? I always thought there was just one step between being a kid and being an adult, but now it seems it’s more of an ocean. More importantly, what does growing up in God mean?

I think our sense of failure is based on that mind-set of viewing life on rigid scales instead of as a very indeterminate ocean, but once we let go of that mind-set, it becomes a lot easier to live in Christ. During one of his Lenten addresses, Pope Francis said something that really stuck with me: “The Lord never tires of forgiving. We are the ones who tire of asking forgiveness.” Past redefining the word ‘failure’, it’s time to chuck it out of our vocabulary. I think it’s very dangerous when we scale life down to a kind of list where we just check in the boxes. God’s view of our life is so much more than that. “Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created” (Esther 4:14), and God is not waiting for you to reach a certain checkbox on the list. He is with you every uncertain step of the way.

Therefore, I think it’s time to think of life more as a long journey in which we constantly strive for God’s image. Failure implies that one day, we are going to succeed. But it’s just like that earlier image of growing up, that one day we’re not and one day we just magically are. There is never going to be a day in which we wake up magically perfect in God’s image. The whole point of Lent, as this rather illuminating article suggests, is that we are never enough. The point of making sacrifices in our lives is not so much that after we are done, we’re on the next level (and therefore, if we somehow tripped up in our Lenten sacrifices, it’s not so much a fatal step backwards to Hell and doom). The whole point of Lent is that we will only be enough with God, when we recognize that we are smaller than Him, and can only be made whole with His hand. Our only greatness is in His greatness. As Mother Teresa said, “He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.”

It is quite easy to acknowledge that it’s “the end of the day” that matters. When we are caught up in results and deadlines, it is easy to escape stress by consoling yourself that it’s God who matters. But that can sometimes fall into the trap of creating a dichotomy, between following the rat race and following God. It’s a bit like that “Sunday Catholic” phenomenon- you’re only a Catholic when you go to Mass on Sundays. But once you leave the Church physically, you snap back into your “other” identity. Grace, Law student; or Grace, ballet dancer. We need to translate this acknowledgment into our daily lives. Our identity as a child of God can and should be assimilated wholly into our “other”, secular identities as students, workers, siblings, daughters, and friends. After all, it is for this that you were created.

“How on earth do those people make the time to love?” one of my friends said today. ‘Those people’ refer to the same people this article referenced: those incandescently good people who seem to have life figured out, and life, for them, is radiating that joy and that goodness. Again, there’s that sense of the step dichotomy: that one day you’re just ordinary, and the next day you climb a step and you’re there. But I think the answer is that love is not something you make time for. Love –and the generosity of love- is a habit.

Part of my moral crisis was the sense that as I grow up, love becomes more of a choice than an instinct. It pains me to have to make the choice. There are people who are going to frustrate you, hurt you, but as the Lord’s Prayer goes, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” While it is true that the childlike mind chooses love so easily it’s not even like a choice, it is not necessarily fatal to our identity as a child of God if we recognize how difficult this choice really is. Rather, it reinforces the strength of our eventual decision to love as He loved us. Someone wise (I forget who) said that we don’t have to like people, we just have to love them.

Shailene Woodley in her acceptance speech for Best Female Performance at the recently concluded 2015 MTV Movie Awards thanked the author John Green for “wearing integrity and compassion on your sleeve”. And while this shouldn’t be such a novel thing (pardon the pun) as to warrant mention in an awards acceptance speech, it is. Being kind and loving does take courage, because it’s not what everyone does. It’s not what is commonly prioritized today. It’s not easy.

Going back to how to concretely translate the concept of “glorifying the Lord by your life” into your daily life, I think the answer is in how you measure the success of a day. Again, the idea of success (and, therefore, failure)! But again, this is not a yes-no dichotomy. The ocean of love is an infinite scale. And I think the best measure of how a day has gone is in how you have reflected God in your dealings with others, and in your life. How happy have you made others? How much love have you given- and given freely? One of my favourite hymns (and I have many) goes, “Freely, freely you have received- freely, freely give/ Go in my name, and because you believe, others will know that I live.”

God lives. God has arisen. And it is up to us to reflect that joy in our everyday choices. “Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5: 16-18) There is so much we don’t know. There is a plethora of uncertainty. But the liberation in our confusion is the knowledge that God has planned for it all. You are so small in His sure and wondrous hand- rejoice, and trust!

146. 2015

Photo taken by me- 30 December, 2014
Looking back at “a year of blog posts”, I realized I haven’t really been writing much this year. (My 2013 wrap-up post was just six posts ago!) But I have posted some pretty monumental posts in 2014- monumental, for the depth of personal connection which I finally dared to post on a public domain; monumental, for the way I am learning to grapple with religion in my writing; and monumental, for the surprising number of people whom my writing has managed to touch.

Odd, that as I grow older I grow more introspective, but at the same time more willing to open up and reach out to other people. This year, I’ve learnt how everyone is fighting a battle you may not always know about, and yet, everyone has similar battles. So when you unsheathe your battle scars, and be open and honest about what it’s done to you and how you are trying to grow stronger, you help others as well as yourself.

My annual wrap-up posts (for lack of a better word) are usually in point form, I suppose to encourage brevity and aid my future selves in scanning through past posts. But this year I feel a little more like ruminating- perhaps because, like my roll of blog posts, 2014 has been quick but monumental.

Where to begin?

On a purely factual list, I began this year with the stuff of all students’ dreams: a half-year break between JC and university (sorry, boys). I chose to spend (most of) it doing a five-month internship at an e-commerce firm. I had long harboured wispy notions of entrepreneurship, particularly in the fashion line- in primary school, I had no idea what a lawyer was, but would tell literally anyone that I planned to be a fashion designer. In secondary school, this gave way to slightly more practical (if humdrum) ambitions, although I began to nurse an interest in graphic design, which continued into publicity work for my JC CCAs. My internship, therefore, was a culmination of sorts of buried ambitions and secret hopes which I planned to shelve once I entered university. 

There was once when I really couldn’t imagine a future outside fashion. My mother once told me that I could always “settle” for being the best-dressed employee wherever I went, but I couldn’t imagine settling for such; I had heady dreams of magazines, runways, and big cities. Growing older has changed me in a myriad of little ways, but my internship, if anything, settled the fact for me that fashion could only be on the back burner throughout a career pursuing other burgeoning interests that seemed more tailored to my personality and skills (or lack thereof). That said, I am thankful for the five months I spent doing everything from manning the counter, to styling photoshoots, to managing social media. It was a crash-course to everything I’d dreamed of (and more), that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

That cramped little office an hour away from my home became the setting where I dealt with much bigger changes that dwelt on my horizon. I filled out university applications in a side room, using my friend’s hot spot when the office’s Wifi was down. I took leave to attend university and scholarship interviews, and told my boss about them when I returned. It was at my office when a very kindly NUS staff member told me over the phone that it was “highly likely” I hadn’t gotten into NUS; and at my office, in that same side room, a few minutes to closing time, when a scholarship officer told me the same, and suggested (kindly, but painfully) to think of other options.

But God has dealt his cards kindly this year.

Even as He gave me things which I hadn’t wished for, He knew –so much more than I did- what I needed. 2014 was the year of God proving me wrong, and 2014 was the year in which I am so glad my life is in His hands. I didn’t get the internship I wanted initially- but I got something totally different, and one I really enjoyed. I didn’t get the A level results I wanted- I got a bit less, but less enough that it made my scholarship and university applications difficult, particularly when I aspired to such competitive fields. I didn’t get the scholarship I wanted- but the one I got (thanks be to God), sent me to a place where I find things to thank Him about every single day. And in those nights alone in hostel, when the single light over my bed made my eyes strain to read my notes, and no amount of music could make me feel any less alone, He taught me to pray.

Where I am today is nowhere I could have envisaged myself being a year ago, let alone twelve. And this is what I remind myself, when sometimes (all the time) I get impatient and demand God to show His hand. “Show me what’s next. Show me where I’m going.” But if He did, would I believe Him? And if He did, would I let Him? The path 2014 took was so unexpected, so difficult, so painful, and yet, I am so thankful for 2014. You taught me a lot.

In 2014, I got my first job, in the field I’d always dreamed of, and learnt why perhaps it wasn't the right field for me.

In 2014, I realized that my personality meant I needed a career giving back to something, a career which meant something to me, a career worth fighting for. I realized that some things are worth fighting for.

In 2014, I realized that comparisons are odious when the path God has planned for you is unique, and tailored to your interests, your inclinations, your passions. I realized that better than wailing and comparing, is sitting up and making a battle plan- and making it through.

In 2014, I realized that friends come from unlikely places. And if you find them, fight to keep them.

Best of all, in 2014, I realized (in the words of a prayer I wrote just before starting university), “…how small I am, not in the face of difficulties or the ‘real world’, but in the palm of God's hand”. He is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

Making yearly resolutions doesn’t seem to make much sense- particularly when, as I read in an article a few days ago, every new beginning inspires a re-evaluation of where we’re going next. 2014 was chock-full of new beginnings (perhaps enough for a lifetime), and therefore, necessarily, chock-full of introspective re-evaluations. Looking back on 2014’s wrap-up post, I planned to “not compare myself to the 2%” (struggled, but more or less succeeded); “stop being so harsh on myself” (struggled, still struggling); “stop being so harsh on others” (struggled- urhgihwh); and “to sleep earlier” (hello, law school). I also continued a one- or two-year long tradition of paying tribute to this wine-red asymmetrical skirt which I bought around this time years ago, and promised to wear forever (which I didn’t, but hey, marsala is the colour of 2015! Close enough).

If anything, for 2015, I want to stop making conscious plans insofar as I want to start leaving my plans in God’s hands. “Those who leave everything in God’s hands will eventually see God’s hand in everything”, right? Then again, it would be good if I survived my first law exams (upcoming next semester). Also, if I learnt to procrastinate less, and take better care of my health, and be kinder in my thoughts and in my words. I would like to leave 2015 a better person, having touched people around me for the better, than I was in 2014. 

Now, dare I say- God, go ahead and prove me wrong in all my expectations. You always know better.

145. New Desktop Backgrounds for Christmas and New Year!

Ho ho ho!

A strange combination of Christmas shopping, present wrapping, and learning calligraphy have led to me hastily downloading my very old Photoshop (really, it's probably five years old, or more) onto my new laptop and churning out four desktop backgrounds that I'm more or less proud of. Help yourselves- but let me know if you use them, I'd love to know! Screenshots of them in use are purely optional but would be very lovely to look at (considering you don't have any strange things on your desktop).

Dimensions are all 1280 x 800 pixels.
Customized versions available to my convenience- comment or email me!

Credits: Brusheezy - Dafont - Google Images

Have a belated Christmas, and happy New Year in advance :)