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.
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
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.
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.
Saturday, March 10th, 2018. 6:55am – Watching the waves come in and the sun rise into the sky. Perfectly content.
It’s always at the beach where I remember it’s okay to write happy poems.
Writers cling to the melancholy, the alternative, the deeply emotional. Our most treasured writers were inspired by war, famine, slavery, and captivity. I appreciate these writers and their motivations. But it’s okay to write happy poems, to embrace the beautiful things in life. Though I have written my fair share of melodramatic poems and posts, I’m inspired even more by the simple beauty of life than the tragedy of it.
If you’ve ever been to the beach, you’ve probably seen those little tiny birds that roam along the shore. Not pelicans or seagulls (maybe these are the same birds) but the tiny little birds that could fit inside your hand. Those little tiny birds inspire me. As I’ve been sitting along the peaceful coast the past few days, I’ve been mesmerized by those little birds. All they do is run along the beach, chasing the waves, looking for pieces of food. They are so in sync, though. The tide comes up, they run up, the tide goes out, they run out. It’s a pattern of nature that is so simple yet captivating.
What I love most about those little tiny birds is that they are content with their purpose in life. All they do, all day long, is roam the beach to find food and to satisfy their needs. It’s incredibly simple – to me, it teaches me something. Life can become so confusing, tiring, and wearing on our hearts and minds. As a college student, I’m constantly around people who are trying to discern their life, figure out their purpose, fulfill a sometimes convoluted role they feel called to step into. I’m a part of this madness of uncertainty sometimes, questioning myself and my plans. I’ve never questioned by abilities, or what I love to do, but I certainly appropriately question the things I’m going to do. To me, questioning is a natural and important part of growing up and finding a career that you’re happy with for the long term.
But, these birds don’t care about careers or growing up. I’m not saying we are birds – but I am saying we could be more like them. This isn’t the first time that God used birds to teach a lesson. I’ve always felt like birds are strong messengers of Christ and have stories of where birds taught me something about myself.
Our purpose in life is not a lucrative, successful career, though I’m not saying that’s a bad or wrong ambition. I think we do find purpose in our work and in a meaningful vocation. The little tiny birds though, they seem to be perfectly content filling their simple, mundane role in the world. And God cares for them. He cares for them as he will care for us.
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” – Matthew 6:26-27
The little tiny birds aren’t saving the world, and they can’t showcase their trophy collection. They roam the skies – or the beaches – and the Father feeds them. I think God recognizes our need for meaningful vocation and for a purposeful life, whatever that may be to each individual person. I believe some people are called into certain areas of life more so than others and that each person is given a beautiful gift from God to use in this world. Whether or not we fulfill those requests of God – to reap and sow what we have been given – is up to us. But constant worry about those things, the type of endless, incessant worrying that I’ve experienced and observed, is not proclaimed by God. He wants us to achieve heavenly treasures, crowns of gold with the Almighty King. That should be our aim. It might be a lot simpler than we ever imagined, like being more like the little tiny birds who run along the beach and who are protected and valued by the Father. We are treasured, valued, loved. It’s as simple as that.
“Let the illuminating rays of the morning sun revive my spirit, renew my soul, and fill my heart with the hope of the descending dawn.” – mb
This morning I rolled over in my two-foot-wide bed and was greeted with the sunny and peaceful dawn of the morning. It has been rainy the past few days (or weeks, it feels like) and my spirits have felt the same dreary, sobering mood that the overcast, grey skies bring. But today, I rolled over and I saw sunshine and felt a joy and hope spring up inside me. I consider myself a somewhat-paradoxically optimistic yet skeptical person about things. I was raised on seeing the best in others, being the bigger person, and always finding forgiveness because life is too short to hold grudges against others. Skepticism, though, has woven its way into my life though and not in a necessarily bad way. Healthy skepticism can prevent pride, overconfidence, and faulty judgement. I’m at a place in my life, though, where I want to reevaluate what I’m making priority and what tendencies recur in my life. Periods of fasting and prayer have urged something deep within me to reconsider what I’m considering important in this life; what idols have I unintentionally set up? How do we as a society and especially as believers deconstruct those things that have begun to take root in our hearts and outcompete our love for others, doing good, and living Christ-like? What does it mean to live authentically as a Christian and a doctor, scientist, writer, teacher, lawyer, musician, etc.? How can I change my life in such a way that it is refocused, centered, and set on sights of above?
In my shallow attempt to answer some of these questions, I’ve quickly learned it is both complex and uncomfortable to address your life in such a way, as an observer or outsider. Life itself can be hard, and it’s my superstition that too many people are afraid of hiding their fears and insecurities, their big challenging questions. How are we supposed to parse through what is important in life if we can’t even discuss it with the people who are present in our lives every day? I am just as guilty about this as the next person, but for some reason I’ve felt the need to change that and to eliminate this hindrance in my relationship with others and with God. When I started this blog, one of my intentions was sincerity about the hard things in life, like body insecurity, loneliness, divorce, failure. This was my platform of exposing the vulnerabilities and being real with others. Now, my attempts to write are often displaced by obligations to study or work. So instead my goal has been to create real, vulnerable and truthful relationships with others. When I “feel the need” to start doing something different in my life, even if it so minute and seemingly insignificant, it is usually inspired by the heavenly Creator. I don’t want to wear these masks every day in front of others, always answering with the “right” question when someone asks something meaningful about your life. One time in church, I was so caught off guard because my pastor once asked me how I was doing. Of course, as we all do, I answered, “Oh I’m doing fine, how are you?” and his response was, “No, how are you really doing, what’s going on in your life?”. He caught me at a time where I was really struggling with some things behind the scenes, and this intentional, thoughtful question provoked something in me that is usually deeply buried in daily conversations. He didn’t just care about filling the space between us with empty words and conversation, but he wanted to dig deep into what was going on in my life. This type of real, intentional conversation and community with others is something that I long for these days. I’m tired of artificial conversation, wearing masks that make our lives look flawless and unrealistically strong. This is not what I want.
Jesus never said to avoid letting others into your mind where there may be insecurities, doubts, questions. In community, we have the opportunity to break down walls. My walls are pretty rigidly constructed after years of maintenance and reinforcement. I’m the first to admit to being the type that always appears put-together with “everything figured out” but let me first handedly say that this is not the case. My doubts and fears are cumbersome and admittedly scary and unwanted. I question things. I feel out of place, uncertain, and confused sometimes. Instead of bottling these feelings up, I’ve began to embrace them and talk through them with others. I’ve began, most importantly, to talk through them with God. As I would my best friend, I welcome God’s input on my situation and seek for His answers instead of my own. I really think our best bet at answering some of the hard, anxiety-inducing, and uncomfortable questions I mentioned above is partnering with God in prayer and in life. It requires a community of believers and friends that can help you navigate through life’s toughest issues.
I think something transformational is happening in my life right now, something that is helping me to reevaluate and rethink my old tendencies and desires. It feels small and subtle but present. For some reason I felt the need to write it down, talk it out, put it out there for the world. Maybe God is calling you into something more than artificial relationships and surface-level Christianity. My hopeful, optimistic heart is overpowering the skeptical, doubtful nature of the human being. I think there is more for us than achievement, recognition, reward, promotion, and perfection. Something urges me to articulate that when we partner with God, truly anything can happen. Let the renewing rays of the sunshine remind us that there is hope on the dawn.
“This is my command — be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:14