soul food. 2012

“Until you take the journey of self-reflection, it is almost impossible to grow or learn in life.” – Iyanla Van Zant

I’ve finally had some time to settle down and reflect a bit on the year that was. I’m usually pretty deep in my own head, but believe it or not I wish I had done more reflection this past year. About who I am and who I’m becoming, where I’m going, why I’m chasing after the things I’m chasing after, that sort of thing.

Certainly this past year went by in a flash, and initial indications have me pretty happy at how things turned out. I have no regrets about how 2012 went down. I’ve tried my hand in various things–failed at some, succeeded in some. Sure, I won’t lie, it feels good to reach some of those dreams I’ve had hanging for so long above me. I could probably feel proud about myself. But it’s not so much that.

More than what I did or didn’t achieve, more than anything else I think I’ve had to learn the hard way that character is far more valuable than anything I could ever accomplish. It’s hard to take in, but I had to come to terms with my own fleeting youth. I’m not trying to imply that I’m an old sap or garner sympathy points or anything, but I’m trying to get at this growing awareness that I become more of each decision that I make, whether good or bad, and that the stakes are only getting higher as I mature and take on more responsibilities. It’s at this point that I truly felt like I took a step back this past year. I’ve made some immature and selfish decisions that end up making some things messy further down the road for myself or somebody else. And it’s exactly this, knowing that your decisions aren’t made in a vacuum–they affect everyone else around you, whether or not they are conscious of it–that could cause unnecessary drama or tension in life.

This lesson is nothing new that I hadn’t known or learned before. But for whatever reason, it just seemed to be amplified more loudly in 2012 than in years past. I felt like I was rubbing up against this desperately wild “me” that wanted to cling onto the immaturity and squeeze every ounce of instant gratification. That little devil whispering, “Hey, you only get the chance to do this once before you’re really too old.” (I’m not talking about that YOLO crap–though it might have a little to do with FOMO…) And in a sense, why not, right? It seems so much easier and fun in the moment. Society’s pushing you to do it, people around you all seem to be doing it, even your closest friends are giving you crap for not doing it.

The hard thing is to constantly resist. There’s this little voice that would come in at just the right moment to remind you of who you are and what you’re living for. It’s not to chase after money or skirts or self-glory. It’s about living for a Kingdom that is bigger and greater than yourself and will live on long after my days are done. And I have to trust this is something that will ultimately satisfy me, because God says so–and that’s enough–even when I don’t believe it in the moment. (“Never trade what you know for what you don’t know.”) Yet, it’s scary to realize that I am hearing that voice less, and if I try hard enough, I can even tune him out. Which words will I choose to feed on this year?

I’ve never been much for resolutions because I believe most of them are based on good intention and nothing else. (I even wrote a long allegorical story about it.) Certainly it’s good to have dreams, to have things by which to measure your life. But I believe most of the work needs to be done in the deep. Everyday I have to wake up and make a conscious decision about who to follow (myself, others or God), what to live for, who I want to become. And all this takes much reflection, prayer, study, self-discipline and people who are willing to call you out on your BS. It’s so much easier to just mail it in, clock-in / clock-out, and waste my days away behind the tube. But I don’t want that story–anybody else could write that. I want my life to be great, I want my life to tell something meaningful.

So I guess I’m writing all this to say that we should all take stock of what matters most. Decide on what’s important to you, and be prepared to make some sacrifices and devote your time and energy to it. You become what you study, you study what you love. So love the right things.

I wish you all a wonderful and enlightening 2013. May we all come back at the end of this year and sing of the many great ways we’ve changed the world around us–and how we’ve been changed in the process.

Cheers & blessings,

MY

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Navigating the Story

I’ve always known that life is messy. It’s a concept that’s addressed through countless books and film and reinforced through personal experience. It’s a known fact. Yet, what I’m starting to wonder is how much of this inkblot is due to my own making. Let me explain.

As a writer and student of literature, I have always been taught to look for subtext. “Not everything is as it seems.” It is always more than meets the eye, deeper meanings hidden behind people and places and stories. Connotations. It’s the subtle nuances behind words and the contexts in which they are placed that allow us to arrive at the same destination and come to different conclusions. When I apply this sort of thinking beyond books and into the realm of life, I tend to look at my life as a story. The idea itself isn’t much of a stretch–after all, our lives are punctuated by the very conflicts, climaxes and resolutions from which our art is derived. Nor is it a wrong to think in this manner–in fact, more of us need to be aware of our place in the bigger picture.

Rather, what I am mainly addressing here is the problem that arises when one is not only aware his life is a story but begins to force elements into the story that do not belong. In other words, you begin to imagine the progression of your life and determine proudly to construct a conclusion by which it is the only way your story can end. For instance, if I believe I am supposed to find love like it is found in fairy tales, then I will sit at the coffee shop and wait for the “love at first sight” moment. In this case, I will not allow love to happen, perhaps more practically and less “romantically”, through online dating, set-ups, or the like–though it could very well be that is where you were meant to find it.

The chief issue is this–you want to be in control of your own story. You demand the pen. You want to write it. You want to shape your own plot, be the captain of your own ship. Thoreau novelized it with his beat of my own drummer ideology. Granted, who does not desire this sort of freedom? I do. In fact, I live most of my days as though this is true.

The problem is we are not capable of the task. You and I are no more capable of writing our own stories than a puppet is in creating his own speech. There are many things that fall out of my jurisdiction. I cannot control the stock market, my health, or even the people with whom I’m living. There are so many factors that are connected to life, why things do and do not happen. (How much of my life is reactionary as opposed to initialized?) It is nice to think that I have some semblance of freedom, of self-determinism, but in the end, as Shakespeare so tenderly puts it, “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.”

If so, then maybe the goal in life isn’t so much about trying to break rank as it is about discovering what our roles are in this grand play. Am I Horatio trying to play the part of Hamlet? Or have I been cast merely in the background? Our confusion and failures lie in the possibility that we have denied who we were meant to be, what we were meant to do, with the talents and passions uniquely gifted to us, and rather tried to indulge in fantasies shaped by comfort and safety. The issue is not that we are too ambitious but that we are not truly aware of our role and our purpose.

I once thought that being the captain was divine until I realized that I had no clue as to where I was going or how I’d get there. I was shipwrecked, before being found by a greater Captain, one who knows the way to True North and brought me on board to join his grand adventure.

Yes, I’m merely a sailor. It sounds less exciting than captain, more dutiful than daring. But I rather be a sailor on a ship towards paradise than command my own boat to wreckage. In the end, I trust that the beauty which I will have experienced in the journey and destination will prove my rightful surrender.

All the Little Colors

Sometimes I feel like life is moving too slow, though it is at the same time moving too fast. I’m talking about the big moments in life. Finding that special someone, moving out, getting that big promotion, launching that grand project. I feel like it is easy to pass through life waiting on these things to happen without enjoying the mundane and ordinary that make up the majority of our days. The real life where real moments, memories, and character are forged–it is easy to waste away. It is deceptive; the days can seem to drag out long and slow, but when you begin to add them up you get to wondering how you got so far out into the present.

I might have gotten used to thinking that everyday should offer some sort of fireworks spectacular. Something that would set my days apart, either jump-starting or lighting it up with emotion. Some films and novels would have me believe that. What’s so devastating is that most of my days, in fact, are no different from one another. I wake up, go to work for 9 hours, come back and eat dinner, do chores, read and write (and occasionally, exercise) before turning in to sleep. Then, I wake up the next morning and push repeat.

Yet, it is in this routine of life that I am finding what it means to be devoted to the small things, the little details and attention of life that can make the mundane magnificent and even sacred. It is learning to put every bit of heart into every moment you’ve been given. It is learning to look deeper than the surface, to discover what makes this day’s color sepia as opposed to mahogany. (It is easy to see a contrast between blue and red; it takes a whole other set of eyes to split and define shades.)

I remember contributing an article to an old publication several years ago, when I was just starting my post-graduate journey. As a jobless and poor young adult, I talked about how I felt like Moses when he was relegated to spending 40 years of his life in the desert, doing little more than tending sheep and wishing for a 7-Eleven to open up near his house. My focus was on how Moses eventually made it through that desert period and onto the next stage and calling for his life.

It’s almost five years later and I now revisit that story but with a different perspective. A part of me still feels like I’m in that desert (or have returned there). But this time, instead of looking to just get through it, I am now focusing on my life while being in it. I’m sure Moses learned it this way. Though Scripture is mum on the matter, something tells me that he made the most of his time. That as a careful shepherd he came to know each sheep and its unique features, why this one was missing a patch of wool above its ear or why that one always steered left of the herd. In my mind there is no doubt that he cared for each sheep dearly and studied each one intently. He learned how to be a great leader before he was ever called to be one.

We often look for the big moments and events by which we can mark our lives. It may be rightfully so. But what will we make of the other seemingly ordinary days that come before and after the fireworks? I am learning to see the colors beyond the surface, whether or not the smoke has cleared. And the days shall all be wonderful if we are willing to see them that way.

Let Life Write You

Before I move on to more serious matters, let me just say that I took THREE dumps today in a matter of two hours. Apparently, my stomach did not agree with the spicy fish ball curry and flaming hot ox tail soup and what other delectables I had at a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant last night in LA. This is the first time that I actually got onto the freeway and turned back home just to take a dump because I knew I wouldn’t make it to work without crapping my pants. Whew! Close call. And now…

Perhaps some of you might be wondering where I left for those six weeks or so when I haven’t been blogging. Or perhaps you haven’t because, quite frankly, neither I nor my blog–and I say this with a non-false-modesty–is that important. Whatever the case, I know it’s been a good break for me personally, to reflect on recent developments in my life. I know I am not the same Martin who ended 2008 as I am in this moment (I’ll talk more about that in my other blog). Hopefully, I can come to you, whether in person or through this cyber-developed intimacy, with a fresher, humbler and more honest perspective than I’ve ever had.

But this entry will be straight to the point. What I want to say is this: live your life. No, I mean it. Live your life. Not the life you think you should have because you see someone else who has it, or the life that has you escaping in some illusion (or delusion) of comfort through TV or magazines or fantasy worlds. Embrace your life. Embrace yourself. For who you are, with all your blemishes, faults and insecurities, as well as your talents, personality and hobbies. Live. Don’t give up on your ambitions. And don’t take the crud that people throw at you out of discouragement or fear.

None of that is groundbreaking; in fact, some of it might be cliche. But it is certainly easy to forget. I know it is for me. Society and the world is all about numbers and labels. It tries to put you in different compartments and boxes: pretty or ugly, smart or stupid, rich or poor, tall or short, married or single, White or other, and a thousand other labels. And their love towards you and me is dependent on whether or not we (as we cross our fingers) have fallen into the ones that are desired most.

Most of my struggles come from the fact that I try to be someone I am not. I try to be the next MJ on the basketball court, or the next Martin Luther when I teach Sunday school, or the next Robert Frost whenever I write. I do this, whether I know it or not, because I am not in love with who I am. My subconscious thinks, “If only I become like _____, I will be more loved.” Implicit in this thinking is the (faulty) principle of love exchange, and the basic principle not too unlike that of prostitution: I will whore my services (my good traits) in exchange for your money (conditional love). But the more I play the harlot, the less satisfied and loved I actually feel.

I try so hard to play the roles that people want me to play. To write my life out neatly, to make all the jumbled pieces fit into what I believed to be my life, when it was really the unique and sole life of my mentor’s or my co-worker’s or my idol’s–anybody’s but mine. But that’s not life. And I certainly cannot control what things will come my way. After all, how often do our plans work out exactly the way we wanted them to?

Can I be real for a moment? I don’t know about you, but I am vulnerable and insecure. Can I honestly say that I have no idea, no clue as to where my life is headed and what roads I am to take? Can I say that I’m scared to the bone of all the decisions and paths and things in between that I have to make as a responsible, fully matured adult? That I struggle with what it really means to be a man, not as society or the world defines it, but in the truest sense that God would define?

But, at last, it has come to this. And ironically enough, it is in my moment of weakness that I have discovered my true source of strength. God has spoken. “Martin, don’t try so hard to measure out your life. You always have, ever since you were young. But you don’t know if your job will be gone tomorrow or whether your savings will be depleted or health fail or friends leave you or how much longer you have here on earth. It’s time to let go. Now is the time to start living your todays and not your tomorrows.”

So I’ve stopped (or at least, I’m trying). I realized that I’m not my Pastor. I’m not my best friend. Or my mentor or my parents or my role models. What am I? I’m me. I’m 24. I’m single. And I have debt. Some, but not a lot. My conclusion? It’s time for me to stop living as though I have a wife and kids to support, a retirement to look forward to, and a future that might never come. What’s the point of working to save for this tomorrow that might never come? For a family I have not yet attained? For a house I might never own because of the ever-fluctuating economic market? It is time I start living like a 24 year old single man. And it is time I start being me.

So I’m here to tell you that I’m pulling out. I’m pulling up the anchor I once let down on fear. I’ve stopped sailing towards the little serene isle in hopes that I might discover some real land. I’ve decided, once and for all, to follow the North Star and let my journey, though certain to be rift with struggle, pain and doubtful times, write my life. After all, to live recklessly is foolish, but a life lived without risk and faith is a life not lived at all.

I don’t know where this ship is going and I don’t know what I’ll find. But I trust my Navigator. And perhaps, if you dare to join me, we’ll see what interesting tales we’ll have come to discover.

– – – – –

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We only have today. Let us begin.  – Mother Teresa

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” – St. Paul, 1 Cor. 15:10

“He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.” – Matthew 14:29