images

I’m sitting 30,000 feet above the earth as I write this. I was elated when the American Airlines flight attendant poured my plastic, clear cup mostly full of ice and one quarter full of ginger ale and then, to my delight, passed over the entire can full of sugary goodness for me to enjoy. What an indulgence. I don’t normally drink soda, but my guilty pleasure is a nice, cold ginger ale, and I only drink them when I’m in the air, flying above the stretches of green and blue below. The distance between myself and the earth as I soar across the darkened North American sky creates a real sense of daredevil-ness, so I delight myself to one ginger ale. (Maybe this feeling is why my sister is becoming a pilot). I watch the dissolved carbon dioxide in my sugary elixir bubble up to the top like the joy I feel within myself. I rejoice in this feeling, because it may be fleeting, and I want to hold on as long as I can.

I’m convinced life is a series of catching the bubbles of joy, laughter, and happiness when they rise within us. They may be fleeting, but simply indulging in the goodness of life can bring them back.

I was reminded this past Sunday of an image I had a few weeks ago, in the midst of my medical school interview season. I was at Ethos church one Sunday when we were given some extra time to reflect and spend time in prayer and communion with God. In a moment of desperation to hear from God, I was given a powerful image that still lingers with me.

Last year I had a dream that I was in a small, wooden sailboat that had a beautiful orange and red sail that carried me through a little lake. The water was peaceful and calm and a dark, deep shade of blue. As I went along easily in this beautiful little serenity, I looked up to see – not physically see more than simply understand – that God was pulling my sailboat along the river. That he was the grand designer of all the adventures in my life, even the simple and mundane. Even the exotic and chaotic, he was the grandeur creator. I tucked this image away in my heart to grasp onto when I felt like I was aimlessly sailing my boat into the uncharted sea; someone greater than me already knows both the path and the destination.

Later that year, in the spring or summer of this year, I had another vision that I was walking through a series of wooden rooms with variously sized doors and windows. Except that it wasn’t really me more than I was just a set of big feet (it sounds strange) but it became clear that the purpose was for me to hone into these feet, the manifestation of our physical foundation. The things that carry us from place to place. In this image, I looked down to see God holding, gently, the tops of my feet as he picked up each one and set back down through the house of rooms and doors. Some doors we came to were closed, but I would glance over to see an open window filling with sunshine – and God brought me to that closed door for a reason. Had I walked through it, I would have never seen the beauty coming through the window. I continue to see this image of an omnipotent, kind God leading me gently and thoughtfully through the maze that is my life.

Finally, I had a vision within the last few months of another God moment. This one perhaps more connected to my feelings at the time. Early this year in the semester, I was dealing with some unwanted questioning about my life. I felt misplaced and out-of-order. I grappled with these feelings for a few weeks, always wondering where they came from and why I felt so odd and unfamiliar to even myself (the Queen of Self-Reflection!), but I did. I felt, maybe depressed? Maybe anxious? Maybe fearful of my uncertain future? Maybe scared of leaving a place like Belmont and the routine of my life? Who knows. I carried these thoughts with me into church one Sunday. As I sat in prayer, a time I’m so thankful Ethos gives us to have, I had a vision of myself standing along the edge of a beach. I was all alone, no one else was on the beach except me – desolate for miles to come. The vast ocean lay before me, always active while simultaneously calm. The stretch of shore expanded behind me. I thought to my previous images, and expectantly, I looked up and down the beach to see Jesus walking toward me or looking for me or something. But to my surprise – I saw nothing. No spirit. No person. Not a single movement. I stared ahead toward the ocean, thinking to myself, God, where are you? I expected him to show up. But then I looked down and saw the constant crashing of the ocean waves against my fragile human legs. The waves continued on, constantly washing across my feet, removing the remnants of sand that lingered from before, and immediately I heard, “Mary, I am the ocean. Constantly washing you anew. I’m always here, even in places you don’t expect me to be.” God painted this beautiful image in my head, and I rolled up the canvas to carry with me forever.

May your boat sail on, footsteps continue on, and waves carry on, washing you anew every day.

 

self-talk

I recently heard a story from a beautiful, African American woman who wore a stylish black cardigan and dark red lipstick. Her dark, silky hair was perfectly curled, and her smile illuminated our faces like a flashlight exposing the darkness. As she began to speak, her deep, rhythmic voice reverberated off our concrete classroom walls; her voice and its warmness filled the room like blowing breath into a balloon. I was touched by her presence even though we were separated a considerable distance. She held a sweet sense of humility, a knowingness and experience, in her voice. She told us a story.

This kind and gentle woman had been incarcerated for 14 years. Her story starts as a child, when she experienced domestic sexual trauma that continued into her teenage and adult life. She got wrapped up in some bad relationships which propelled themselves into criminal activity. Her story is not unlike many others; when trauma starts this early on, it isn’t a choice. It is a lifestyle given without any permission or consent. Among her triumphant stories was a small detail about how she began to tell herself lies and believe them. Her identity was built on false narratives, destructive words that shaped her, and a lifetime of untruths. She said eventually, she didn’t even know her real birthday.

Although I am very different from this woman, I share many of her same vulnerabilities. We all do. We are all capable of telling ourselves lies that become truth and this truth becomes our reality and this reality becomes our life. We can tell ourselves that we are worthless, purposeless, hopeless, that we have no friends, no choice in our life trajectory, and no control, or that we’re unattractive, disliked, stupid, or meaningless. We can say these things, and they will become true. I spent a lot of time in high school convincing myself that I needed to change; that I needed blonde hair and tan skin before I could be loved. Or that I needed bigger muscles and a smaller waist before I could be attractive. Or that if I spoke and acted a certain way, I would fit in. I began to believe myself. These lies became my reality and that reality became very grim and oppressing as I tried to fit into all the images that society tells us are important. My saving grace came when I began to tell myself something else: I am smart, I have importance that goes beyond physical appearances. I am loved exactly how I am. Then I began to tell myself something even more radical: Maybe I could even change the world. These things I told myself changed my life perspective. Our self-talk matters.

You may truly think you are worthless or unloved or a failure. I am not condemning your feelings or telling you that you are wrong. The thoughts you have about yourself are valid. That is really how you feel and that must be recognized. What I am saying, however, is that you should start telling yourself a new narrative. Every day wake up and tell yourself the truth that you want your reality to become. Roll out of bed and tell yourself, “I am loved. I am important. My work is meaningful. My life is valuable. I am kind, lovable, and gentle. I am free from addiction. I am free from sadness/anxiety/depression. I am in control. I am loved by something much larger than me. I was created with purpose. I was created with passion. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Or maybe just tell yourself one of those things or maybe all of them if you need it. Some days I do.

This week my mantra has been “I am strong, I am capable, I am confident” because each of those words touches on an insecurity I’ve felt this week. On Monday, I told myself this phrase as I walked to class, practiced a speech, worked my job, went about life. On Friday, my mantra became my reality: I endured the week with strength, competence, and self-assurance. My positive self-talk came true.

As you read this I ask you a simple question: What do you need to hear?

And I implore you to take on a simple task: start telling yourself that. Today, right now, this week. It may save your life.

thankful for the moment

I’m sitting in a hip, jazzy cafe in Palo Alto, California. I’m sipping on some water because I just indulged in a milk tea with boba that was absolutely delicious. I arrived in California this morning around 11:00am, after leaving my apartment at a shockingly early time of 3:30am (shout out of appreciation to my boyfriend, Avery, for waking up and driving me to the airport). All day, I’ve jumped from plane to plane, city to city, to finally land in this spot. This comfortable spot of sitting in a worn-out leather chair in a young and busy coffee shop in a beautiful city.

It is no accident that I’m here; it took years of hard work, focus, dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance to get to this place. It took planning, purchasing a plane ticket, organizing accommodation, and a lot of thought to get here. Yet, I keep thinking to myself, This must be a mistake. What if I show up to the interview and they say, “Sorry, we have no records of you. It must have been a miscommunication.” At least then it would all make sense. I don’t say these things to self-flatter or to self-deprecate, only to give a voice to my darkest fears in this moment. Tomorrow, though, I’m interviewing at Stanford Medical School and that is a reality I never dreamed of coming true. Flying in, over the beautiful city of San Francisco and after coming in from Los Angeles, I thought about my hometown and how drastically different this is from that. I feel like I don’t belong here, like it is all a big mistake and I’m the butt of the joke, but somehow I know this is where I’m supposed to be.

I’m overwhelmed with appreciation at how far I have come and how beautiful this moment is, like finally letting air out of a balloon that has been way too full for way too long. I never expected this moment, but I know I worked hard for it. I never felt entitled to anything but felt indebted to giving this dream everything I’ve got; I reflect on everything I’ve worked diligently for and how I have sacrificed some of the ordinary joys of a 20-something to make it this far. Those moments lost are worth it, because the feeling of accomplishment in this one is so, so sweet. I reflect back, and I feel grateful.

Grateful for the people who helped me get here, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Thankful for the people who have continuously believed in me, even when I was down on myself. I’m thankful for the people who pushed me to keep going when I wanted to give up. I’m thankful for the people who let me cry on their shoulder when I needed to. I’m not in medical school yet, and I’m certainly not a doctor, but I think it is worth celebrating this moment, no matter what happens in the future.

I have no idea what will occur in the next few weeks, but right now, in a warm and inviting cafe in Northern California, I am so happy. Happy for opportunities, for growth, and for truly having the chance to chase my biggest dreams.

breaking down

As I’m enjoying my morning coffee, with sunshine flooding into my small but comfy shoe-box of a bedroom, I google “how to show Christ’s love as a doctor”. It may be obvious how doctors have a platform for showing compassion, love, equality, and integrity towards their patients, but I’m a practical kind of gal so I wanted some real-life tips. One thing that stood out to me in an article that I read is the call to honor God with our lives – a seemingly simple task – but to avoid making medicine/success/accomplishment/money/etc. an idol before God. I started reflecting on my own life and realized how important and hard this is.

Avoiding idols is a slippery, hard-to-detect fine-line that I’ve even experienced as someone who is not a doctor yet. I find a sense of belonging and contentment in feeling like I’m making a difference, even if small, in someone’s life at this stage in my journey. I take pride in my accomplishments that I work so hard for, and I celebrate the opportunities that come to me throughout this journey. When I studied for the MCAT, I felt like that exam was truly determining my future, and I had to step back (or have others around me) to remind myself that God is in control of my destiny. There have been times where this career has become an idol in my life that I worshiped and thought about constantly, and it takes daily, continual action to break down that idol. My support system at my church reminds of the temporary nature of this life and how everything we do should be good but is truly only transient. When we break down those idols, liberation from anxiety, worry, and defeat ensues.

Idols don’t always look like golden calves. Sometimes they look like the pursuit of money so you can live a little more comfortably, a cute boy who you devote all your time to, the success and accomplishment of your children, perfection towards a hobby or skill, or the more deleterious but real-life idols like addiction, mental and physical illnesses, and sexual immorality. The hardest thing about breaking down idols is remembering to wake up every single day and chip away at that thing you think gives you worth in life. Whether or not we like it at all, those things will fail us and we will leave them behind us when we enter the kingdom of Heaven. I try to remember that although I want to be a physician more than anything, my life is worth so much more than that. My God has given me, and all of us, specific ways and tools to impact and gather his Kingdom. That may not be as immediately flattering or boast-worthy, but it is way more important. Every day, in a small but consistent way, start chipping away at the idol you’ve built in your life. You probably already know what it is. The effects are liberating in so, so many ways.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3

superheroes

It is no secret that I adore my nephew, Ezra, with all of my heart. He has the kindest, purest heart and possesses the unique capability to see the good in everything. He’s observant, hilarious, and open to exploration; the simple things that make him happy encourage me to see simplicity as so marvelous and beautiful as well. He has a room full of toys but finds complete satisfaction in simply running “super-speed” while shouting, “Hey Mimi watch me run like Dash!”. He’s adorable, but what intrigues me about my small nephew, and all young children, is their ability to see the good in people. As we grow older, we become hardened by the world and its cruelty, distrust, and pain. I’m trying to learn something important here from my wild and curious 3-year-old nephew.

Ezra loves superheroes. He’s always asking to show us his newest (or oldest) superheroes, exhibiting their heroic talent like Hulk-smashing or Superman-flying. He loves a good fight (he’s always Hulk, the opponent is always less strong). What intrigues me about him is that he also loves the “bad guys”. He shows off Thanos (who I think is a bad guy) and others with equivalent excitement and satisfaction. He conservatively tells you, “He’s a bad guy,” but continues to interact and play with the “bad guy” understanding he is still pretty cool and interesting. What I think is so important about this is the childlike ability to empathize with and connect with the bad guy. I think there’s a lot of merit in listening to the other side.

In real life, we despise the bad guys. We even shy away from the “Other” in ways that I think are harmful for our growth and character. We don’t care about hearing what the bad guys have to say. Our lives are compartmentalized into “safe” and “unsafe” and we rarely venture to the side that makes us feel uncomfortable. I write this because I certainly feel this way. The world makes us fear the unknown, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar. It’s easy to live within your mindset, friend group, daily schedule and never venture into the marvelous world of the superheroes and bad guys, where things often become a little less binary than “good” or “bad”. The blurred middle is where we live, where a verdict can’t be placed on every person we meet without understanding the baggage, experiences, and tragedy they carry just like we do. This morning, I want to set a simple intention for this week to be more like my small, curious, and loving nephew. I’m not going to change the world or save a group of people, but hopefully I will save at least a small part of humanity that is quickly fading in the drowning depths of fear. I’ll always believe that love triumphs fear. This week, I hope to listen to the bad guys for just a little longer, step outside of my comfort zone to become a little wiser, and spread my love just a little wider.

cancer

Today at work I got emotional.

I work in a cardio-oncology lab, and I spend most of my days writing and reading about cancer therapies, cancers, and heart disease. Sometimes, I write and read so much that I dream I actually have breast cancer, and I wake up gripping for reality and feel overwhelmingly thankful that I do not. I read about it so much that sometimes I forget that actual people get cancer, not just numbers and statistics published in journals, and I’m humbly reminded of this when I see patients in the clinic who cling to an unwavering hope. I don’t typically get emotional at work, because when I’m not sitting at my computer planning things or shadowing in the clinic, I’m working with mice that I’m treating with immunotherapy. While I do get attached to my mice and I’m thankful for the role they play in scientific discovery, they don’t typically make me emotional. Sometimes, they even bite me and claw at me and elicit a response very opposite of thankful. Today, though, I had a conference call with the physician I work with and a group of our collaborators from MD Anderson Cancer Center. We all got together to talk because we are interested in understanding why and how the immune system can fight off cancer. We as a cardio-oncology group are interested in the heart, and why some patients develop fatal heart disease when they receive immune-checkpoint inhibitors (a cancer treatment). This is what all of my research projects are focused on, and I’m very passionate about this topic. I think one day I may become a cancer doctor, or a cardio-oncologist, or continue asking questions like these, but that’s too far away for me to speculate. The other group, hailing from one of the most prominent cancer centers in the world, discovered immunotherapy and specifically how the immune system can attack cancer cells in the body. While I was a bit star-struck to be talking to people who have literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives, something every doctor or scientist dreams of doing, I was even more touched by their sincerity and care for patients. I think a lot of times people think humanity is heading in the wrong direction, but moments like these tell me differently. I’m reminded that biomedical research is truly a selfless act of love for humanity. If you have cancer, or if anyone you love has cancer, please know that there are scientists, physicians, pharmacists, students, and every part of the biomedical research industry who are out there working for you. Day and night, there are people thinking of how to combat the disease that maliciously steals our children, parents, friends, and neighbors. I’ve heard people jadedly and suspiciously tell me they believe that there is a cure for cancer that the government is holding it from us. This is incredibly discouraging to me, because I see the hearts of scientists and doctors who are diligently searching for cures and treatments. I see them behind masculine, poised faces, behind white coats and dress pants, behind strong words and distant demeanors; I see people who care for humanity and spend their lives working to cure someone they will never even meet. While most days I just let these encounters go unnoticed, today I appreciated that there is something incredibly powerful and moving in that reality.

faith

Following Jesus can be hard. Temptations abound in a world that glorifies temporary pleasure over long-term happiness and quick intimacy over intentional relationships. It’s easy to fall prey to superficial, surface-level friendship on social media and to the black hole of beauty, trendy fads, and “aesthetic” that permeates our Instagram pages. It’s hard to remember to love your neighbor when your neighbor is someone who you feel alienated, victimized, or persecuted by and it’s especially hard to imagine loving our worldwide neighbors when we shut them out and make them feel neglected and orphaned. Remembering to focus on your inner adornments is forgotten when we aspire to look like Kylie Jenner and celebrities who battle the same insecurities that we do. Being a follower of Jesus Christ in a society of trendy, oftentimes hypocritical Christianity is especially challenging. People mistrust Christians because they’ve been hurt by us, whether because of some outspoken, radically conservative voices or because they see an absence of love and acceptance like they thought Jesus gave. Overcoming the mistrust that pollutes our society is our responsibility as Christians, to be vessels of Truth, acceptance, and compassion. But following Jesus can be hard, and the difficulty starts within ourselves.

I read in Colossians 2:12 this morning: “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” The words that caught my attention were “buried” and “faith”. Our societal burdens and insecurities can be easily buried with Christ through baptism, a literal washing away of all those things that bring us down. I imagine going under water in an act of commitment and proclamation to God and leaving behind my desire to be perceived a certain way online, by the ones I love, and to total strangers. Leaving behind any addictions or weakness. Burying the things that stretch and test you — in the worst of ways. That is what baptism in Jesus Christ offers. There is a second aspect to this relationship with Christ that is the hard part, the daily struggle that we face that I described above.

And that is faith. When we come up out of those waters of forgiveness, a lifelong journey of faith ensues. And no, it isn’t easy. It requires waking up daily to thank God for whatever will happen that day — when you are peeved at work, stressed by finances, neglected by friends, hurt by significant others — God wants thanksgiving for even those moments. It can be easy to think, why didn’t the God of the universe make it easy to be a follower of Christ? Why am I constantly being inflicted with temptations and tragedy that feel far from God? Is it even possible to be close to my savior in a society that separated from Him? Why is this so hard? I ask these questions like any Christian does, and the only comforting conclusion I can come to is one of love.

It’s simple: no one wants to be in love with someone who didn’t have to choose to love them back. Love requires sacrifice and compromise, commitment and compassion. Christ showed us the most radical act of love possible and simply asks for a fraction of that given back to Him. It may be hard, but it is worth it.