30 lessons from 30 years

This year, I was spared the expected 30th-birthday crisis – perhaps because it had already snuck up on me on my 29th – and so this post is born out of gratitude. I’ve traded the usual personal essay format for this listicle, the product of three weeks of churning. (As it turns out, brevity demands far more discipline!) Presenting 30 lessons I’ll carry with me as I continue on my sojourn, otherwise 30 pieces of unsolicited advice for younger folks:

  1. You are going to be wrong about many things, including how life will turn out.
  2. Your dreams do not have to take the form of a career.
  3. There will come a time when you will care more about being happy and being a good person a lot more than you care about being successful.
  4. You won’t magically grow up to be someone you like. Virtue requires lots of practice – start early!
  5. It’s more important for you to like you than for others to like you.
  6. Don’t aim to be skinnier. Aim to be healthier, stronger, happier.
  7. Take care of your body so it can sustain your spirit.
  8. Put on your seatbelt. And wear sunscreen.
  9. And you might want to sort out your finances, too.
  10. If you learn to appreciate many things (e.g. nature, art, music, silence, long commutes), you’ll enjoy more of life.
  11. Have conversations with children. Or create art with children. Even better, both at the same time!
  12. Heartbreaks don’t last forever.
  13. Heartbreaks also don’t have to destroy you. Let them expand your capacity to love, which includes letting go and wishing them happiness apart from you.
  14. Don’t hold other people, especially children, to standards you yourself can’t meet.
  15. You don’t have to like everyone, but respect them as fellow human beings anyway.
  16. Listen to understand, not to respond.
  17. Ask questions to learn, not to outsmart.
  18. There is much to learn, even from those whom you assume know less than you.
  19. Before you condemn something (e.g. the Catholic Church, or all of modern art), make a sincere effort to learn more about it.
  20. Don’t stop someone from crying just because it makes you feel uncomfortable.
  21. Don’t stop yourself from crying either! Let those tears go. As my therapist would say, “What are your tears trying to tell you?” Listen.
  22. Forgive generously, even if forgiveness wasn’t asked of you. Leave the door open for reconciliation.
  23. And forgive yourself even if others can’t forgive you.
  24. Take ownership of your pain. It doesn’t matter who caused it. The wound is yours, and you decide whether to nurse it or to let it fester.
  25. The antidote to despair, as it turns out, is humility.
  26. Hope is not an emotion. Choosing hope over and over again is hard work.
  27. Not everything needs to be done well. Sometimes it just needs to be done.
  28. There’s no need to have a good day. Simply have a day, and that is good enough.
  29. Befriend solitude and hiddenness. These are often where true growth will take place.
  30. If all else fails, just remember that soon you will be dead.

Does any of the above resonate particularly strongly? Or what you add to your list? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. ūüôā

I’m monumentally grateful to have peacefully settled into a new year, especially recalling how I hadn’t wanted to be alive to see my 23rd birthday, and then my 25th, and then again my 27th. At each of those points in my twenties, life had felt so unbearable, and existence itself so inhospitable. I can’t take credit for still being alive today, nor for the above list of epiphanies, as I’ve gotten here only with the dogged support of the people God has placed all along my path. Thank you for helping me to discover that joy can coexist with sorrow, and to rediscover life as an inherently good gift.

I’m sometimes glad that 30 years are past and haven’t gone by without my learning something in them for the future, and I feel strength and zest for the next 30 – if I last that long … Yet at the same time a period of life is over, which makes one sad that this or that will never come back. And it isn’t weak sentimentality to feel a certain sorrow now and then. Anyway, much only begins when one is 30, and it’s certain that not everything is over by then. But one doesn’t expect from life what one already knows from experience that it cannot give. Rather, one begins to see much more clearly that life is only a time of fertilisation, and that the harvest is not here.

Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo (8 Feb 1883)
‘The Sower’ (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

Don’t settle for an open mind when we can have Truth

And the difference between us was very deep, because it was a difference as to the object of the whole thing called broad-mindedness or the opening of the intellect. For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid. I was doing it at the moment. And as I truly pointed out, it would look uncommonly silly if I went on opening my mouth infinitely, for ever and ever.

–G.K. Chesterton, “The Extraordinary Cabman


The highest form of liberty: to choose love over liberty

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words¬†‚ÄĒ ‚Äėfree-love‚Äô ‚ÄĒ as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment.

–G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows

sacrifice and love

The reason I loved English class is the reason my students hate it

I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on a teacher-bashing spree, because I have huge respect for teachers (who respect their students and their profession). But being “fresh” in the public education sector, I’ve been reflecting on my on-the-field observations and¬†my own 12 years¬†as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What’s on my mind today is how students learn their¬†primary language, English.

My rather “extreme” personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but¬†I see clear parallels here in Chicago.

I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore (the year was 1998), I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally. Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.

I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary school), and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite was its ability to prepare students to outsmart the system.

The concept of “good words” was again and again drilled in us. What made a word “good”? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were¬†the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.

Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don’t write “beautiful butterflies” if you can say “beauteous butterflies”, or “blue skies” when there’s the superior “azure blue”! No one told me that, and I don’t think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we’d need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying “I was surrounded by gargantuan trees” and “the math problem obfuscated me”? And what good comes out of “my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands” apart from chuckles for the grader?

You'd think this was a parody flashcard.
You’d think this was a parody flashcard…

I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false grasp of the English language by telling me how “good”¬†my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: “Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good.” That’s how common and widespread this (mis)understanding of language was.

In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had “no choice” but to write a “simple” and “plain” essay about why homemade gifts will always be¬†superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was “lovely”, and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn’t want¬†that essay¬†to be read by everyone! There weren’t enough “good words” in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to believe that¬†this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.

A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-meaning (I can’t decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. “It’s clear that you’ve read a lot,” she wrote, “but it’s also clear that English is not your first language.”¬†Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.

What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, it’s not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we’re talking about linguistics). It’s not about the “quality” of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words…), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it.¬†

I currently teach Math. But I don’t have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run¬†would surely turn off any kid who isn’t one.

If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I’d be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so¬†valuable that the words they pick to communicate¬†them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe,¬†if they also come to see how valuable¬†their ideas and opinions are, they’d be willing to put in some effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills¬†that would help them better convey them.

Does any of this resonate with your own experiences? Do you have other comments or thoughts on how the English language should be thought? I would love to hear from your experiences!


Please don’t be a teacher if you’re not going to love your job

At the beginning of the academic year, I noticed a few high school freshmen ¬†getting confused between¬†simplifying algebraic expressions and¬†solving¬†algebraic equations. It took just 15 minutes to get to¬†the root of the problem:¬†they don’t understand the concept of the equal sign. You know, our ubiquitous and seemingly benign friend: “=”. And then I saw the same problem in some sophomores, and then even a junior.

My first instinct was to wonder if they had a learning disability of some sort that’s hindered them from grasping basic mathematical concepts all these years. But then I see that they read just fine, write just fine, count just fine…so what’s the problem here?

Well, I’m inclined to think that if a teenager enters high school not understanding the equal sign, some certified “teachers” out there have been doing them a big¬†— no — monumental¬†disservice (and continuing to do so for many other kids).

They say it takes a village to raise a child. If parents/guardians are the village chief, teachers rank a close second on the hierarchy of influence, considering how much time¬†kids spend in school. The average American child spends¬†1,260 hours¬†in school per year (let that sink in…). Teachers simply cannot afford to not care about their job.

Well, maybe they can afford to. But kids can’t afford to have their teachers¬†conducting half-assed lessons. Parents can’t afford to have their kids be exposed¬†to an awful role model every day. And our society can’t afford¬†the results of¬†classrooms operating like this:

A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don't have that technology, but this depiction isn't too far from the truth...
A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don’t have that technology, but this isn’t too far from reality. This is lazy, homogenized education.

As a teacher, you cannot afford to not like your job. There are plenty of other jobs where you can excel without¬†being particularly fond of your duties. That’s because Excel sheets/Powerpoint slides aren’t going to be ruined because you whipped them up in an hour when you were supposed to do it in three. You can always print a new set if you spilled coffee all over whatever it is people carry in those leather-bound folders, and your clients will never have to know it happened. But children and teenagers are human beings, for goodness’ sake. You¬†leave permanent imprints in their minds, their characters, their ideals, values, aspirations, their¬†whole lives.

For every dedicated and engaged teacher out there, there are going to be a few who are “bad” just because they’re not particularly gifted at teaching, or because they are overburdened by a bureaucratic and unsupportive system. That’s unfortunate, and should definitely be fixed, but the scarier question is this: for every teacher who does a good and thorough job, how many are lazy, entitled, and uncaring? I don’t think there are official statistics for this, and I’d be too¬†afraid to find out the answer anyway.

I had a 7th grade History teacher who napped at her desk while we copied notes off the screen. 13-year-old me decided I hated history and never took another history class. Then there was an 11th-grade Economics teacher who would roll her eyes at our questions, which made me determined never to ask another question in class. But I was lucky that the number of good teachers I had outweighed the number of bad ones, so I turned out quite okay overall.

I hope all teachers love their job. What does loving your job mean in the context of teaching? I don’t mean you have to feel like sunshine and rainbows all the time, because it’s obviously hard work with many ups and downs. I don’t (yet) have much experience in the education sector, but I believe loving your job quite simply comes down to:

1. Recognizing the responsibility and privilege you have to be able to do life with your students.

2. Recognizing the value of every young person your serve on a daily basis.

And of course, acting upon those recognitions.

If I can have my way and if future circumstances allow it, I’m homeschooling my kids. And if I can’t I pray and hope they never end up with teachers who let them get away with not understanding the equal sign.

Under Reconstruction (Round Two)

It’s been eight months since I last wrote here. I’m starting to crawl out of another major depressive episode. If I remember correctly, the last time this happened it also took me about eight months before I began to find the will, courage, and ability to open myself up to other people again. I wish it was as easy as “picking up where I left off”. But the damage and hurt I have inflicted on myself and the people who love me are all very real. There’s a lot of rubble to sift through, a lot of re-examination, mending, and rebuilding to be done. With God’s grace and guidance I will find healing. Not just restoration, but transformation. I have faith. I am reminded once again of why I named this blog “Under Reconstruction”. From this point on I will let God rebuild me, my life, and my relationships in whatever way He deems best. My Creator knows best.

Darkness is as light to you

“I am the¬†Lord;¬†I have called you¬†in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.”¬†
(Isaiah 42:6-7)

Taken with an iPhone 5s at Goodspeed Hall, University of Chicago

Gold-lined silhouettes

Gold-lined silhouettes

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. (Isaiah 40:21-23)

Gold-lined silhouettes
Taken with an iPhone 4s at Silver Falls State Park in Oregon