Monday, January 19, 2015

Lessons from 2014

It's been forever since I last shared a thought here. This space was particularly silent throughout last year, not because I had stopped writing, but because everything that I wrote in my journal felt too personal to be transferred here. Also, every time I have something to say, I tell them in too many words and think I'll bore you with my wordiness. This first post itself is already evident of it, but this year I've made the decision to go ahead with my words even if I worry I may drown you in their multitude.

I'm kicking this new beginning with a few things that 2014 has taught me:

1. It's okay to rest. And it's okay if it took a little longer than usual.

If I have to describe year 2014 in a word or two, I'll call it a restful year. Ironically, this year is the actual year of rest, the Sabbath year in the Hebrew calendar; not last year. That said, I think each of these two years is going to call for a different kind of rest. As announced in my church, 2015 will be a year of abiding and resting in restlessness (John 15:4-5), so I think a lot of transitions and challenges are going to take place that will threaten to shake me, but I'll be fine as long as I rest in God's strength and my faith in Him.

As for last year, it was a much needed period of rest in the recovery sense after burning out from the years of over-committing myself to responsibilities in college. Not that I regretted making Christian Fellowship a huge part of my college life and putting aside hundreds of hours into nurturing meaningful and challenging friendships, but those years have taught me the importance of finding a balance in everything I do. Even if the thing I do is 'for God's ministry'. Trying to do too much of everything that I understood as good only left me overwhelmed, which means I started putting half a heart into all that I did, including my academic work.

In the beginning of that year, as I had one semester left in my college in Kuala Lumpur before I would head to Liverpool for a summer semester, I was so relieved and almost euphoric when I past down my leadership position in CF that I ended up spending most of last year wanting only to mind my own business, bask in solitude and explore places on my own (all of which I did a lot of both in my last semester in KL and in Liverpool). My favorite hideout became the library. I didn't care if it was the college library back home or the grand public libraries in the UK. If they had a corner in which I could settle in for hours without being seen by a familiar face, I leeched unto the space. Was that a healthy recovery? I think so. Or maybe no. Perhaps I enjoyed my solitude a little too much and became quite unavailable to friends old and new during last year, but I think I needed it to save myself.

This period of rest also brought me back to a fundamental act of worship. Because I wasn't busy serving God in any organized ministry last year, I learnt to enjoy again the time spent either alone or with my best friend singing spontaneous songs about His glory, and spending hours in the outdoors simply being in awe of His creation.

I'm not proposing that serving in His ministry is bad, because it is good and needed. However, in my busyness working for Him, I had become a Martha who kept on toiling and forgot about enjoying Christ. It was crucial that I returned to walking closely with Him before attempting to serve Him in a ministry again.

2. Close friends hardly stay close forever. No matter how sincere we all were when we talked about the future and being present in each other's tea party or how fun we would have when our kids have play dates together, this visualization of the future usually unfolds in time not with the friends we were talking to about it, but with the ones we would only come to know in a later part of our lives.

Over the span of last year, I went from being a college student surrounded with a ton (which actually amounts to about 14 people, I guesstimate) of the closest friends anyone could ask for, to a person who was nearing graduation as I worked on my dissertation at home and struggling to come to term with the gradual loss of connection with many people I had thought were the linchpin of my well-being. Turns out, it is tremendously difficult to continually make someone a big part of your life once you no longer share a common place in which daily activities take place for you and the person.

It's not that we have become strangers to each other by now, but at the same time, it's not as easy to maintain an intimate friendship when you no longer can spend the hours between tutorials catching a movie together instead of studying for tomorrow's test, or sit by the road in the wee hours as we try to eloquently answer one another's big questions about life. Contrary to my initial qualms though, in the absence of the social privileges that usually come with being a college student, my well-being is still pretty much intact and my social life has naturally evolved into slowly allowing new people into my life.

In this transition, intimate friends may have been lost to distance, but the most sobering experience is the one in which relationship is cut short in the wake of a frightening revelation of lies and manipulation. Both types of loss taught me a powerful lesson though: to never hold on too tightly to a person. I'm not saying that all the most important people in my life have disappeared. There are a precious few with whom I still talk on the phone regularly just because we like to share the extraordinary and the mundane with each other, and the ones whose ties are never truly broken because we are linked by a connection thicker than water. In the event of this change and loss, the ones who remain close have become more valuable a treasure than they ever were before. But that doesn't mean I'll definitely still have them with me when another five years have gone, because I'll never truly understand the future.

I remember a time back in high school when I was crying to my mom about not feeling as close to my best friend as I did before because another classmate had become a threat to our friendship, and my mom's advice to me was to know that five years down the road, I would probably have a different best friend anyway and how I would laugh at my younger self for thinking my world had ended just because I was jealous of another girl. I look back now and see how right she has been. The people in my close circle now is very different from the ones I had five years ago, and they will be different again five years later.

3. Always apply insect repellent before heading out to the great outdoor for an extended time. No matter how idyllic the place may appear to be. I learnt that after a family vacation in Kelantan, just a week or two before I was to fly to Liverpool for my summer semester nearing the end of May. Our holiday resort sat right by the sea, and I'm a beach girl through and through (not the surfer or extreme water sport type, mind you). So naturally, I spent most mornings and evenings there sifting through the sand for seashells, thinking myself a warrior for braving the annoying bites of a surprisingly big but invisible population of mosquitoes while foolishly ignoring the wisdom of my mom who had advised me to apply the insect repellent she had bought for me.

In any roomful of people, I have always been the first and main attraction to mosquitoes, so getting multiple bites was something quite expected in my daily life (yes, if you have a different kind of logic, you're only right to argue that that should have been a greater reason to make the repellent useful, but my logic fails me sometimes). I began to scratch myself even as I was picking the pretty shells but didn't think much of it. Like I said, it was common occurrence in the life of me. Except, the bugs in Kelantan seemed to be bionic or genetically enhanced, and their insidious bites began to truly manifest themselves 48 hours post action.

By the end of our vacation, my limbs were red with rashes and itching all over, and I watched my legs start to swell into curious shapes. Have you ever heard of gnats? I did, but before, I had somehow only associated them with cow dungs and landfills, never the beach. While I was in the middle of one of my scratching frenzies, falsely cursing the mosquitoes for my plight, my mom casually mentioned for the first time that I'd probably been bitten by sand gnats. 

Upon returning home, my legs were itching so bad that I couldn't stop scratching them and lamenting about how I was to be scarred for life with every passing failure to control my wandering fingers, but I couldn't stop either because all I could think about was the itch, the itch, the itch. I fished out my smartphone for my companion encyclopedia (Wikipedia) and read that bites from these sand flies are especially nasty and are frequently several times itchier than mosquito bites. And longer lasting too. My mom suggested that I wrap my hands in old socks to prevent scratching. Naturally, I didn't listen but continued to scratch and made myself redder. I thought about how I would be the worst patient for chickenpox in chickenpox history, and prayed that I never would have to come face to face with the virus in my lifetime.

The sensational itch stayed with me for two eternal weeks. The scars stayed longer. That summer, I carried regrets and red spots on my legs with me to the UK. Now, eight months after the trauma, I can still spot the faint legacy of the gnats' handiwork.

On second thought, the lesson here should be to always heed mom's advice.

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