The Miracle of Re-Birth

“Oh, God of second chances and new beginnings—here I come again.”

The landscape rises up around me, contracting and undulating and pushing me forward as if in labor, giving birth to a new me.

There’s pain. As in any birthing process, pain and discomfort can devour hope, and, for a few harsh moments, obliterate the joy and anticipation of a new birth.

There’s power. As I push through the pain, meet the challenges head-on, I feel a new strength surging through me, filling all the empty spaces and energizing my soul.

There’s purpose. Every streak of pain, every spurt of joy; every jagged edge of confusion, every sparkling moment of clarity; when fatigue lures into a swamp of despondency, and when hope springs and sprouts wings: These all serve to sharpen my resolve, to remind me of all the reasons I must see this through.

There’s peace. Those golden moments when everything in the universe rejoices and whispers, You are here. You are whole. All is well.

Letting Go, Moving On

Here’s a profound thought for you:

If you want to move forward, you first have to let go.

Crazy, huh?

Reminds me of when I went ice-skating last winter. I never did learn how, and it had been years—decades—since the last time I tried. This time around I allowed a friend to coerce me into going, even though I was afraid I already knew how it would turn out.

As expected, I couldn’t let go of the rails. I watched as dozens of happy people flew past me, dancing and bobbing in glee while I chuck-chucked alongside the rails. My friend, a first-timer as well, was already gliding around and around, laughing in sheer delight and triumph. How I envied them all their fearlessness and accomplishment.

I knew I could just as easily join them in that experience. No one had tied me to the rails, after all.

But I could not—would not?—let go of the safety of the sidelines. Not when I could fall flat on my behind, or break an ankle, or simply exist, for just a moment, completely and utterly out of my element with nothing to hold on to.

Logically, I understood that I would never experience that sensation of floating on ice if I did not first risk falling flat.

Emotionally, I shrugged and declared, oh well. Ain’t gonna happen.

So I remain a non-skater. For the time being, at least (I haven’t quite given up on myself yet).

But here I am, with the certain knowledge that it’s time to move on with my life. And I realize I have to let go of some things first: particular thoughts, behaviors, beliefs—the sideline stuff, the forces I’ve clung to for safety on the sidelines of life.

For the longest while I believed those things held me back, kept me tethered when I wanted to be free.

But really, I’m the one who’s been holding on with an iron grip.

It’s infinitely safer to hang on to the belief that I am flawed, that I don’t deserve success, that I simply don’t have what it takes to step out onto the rink and fly. Or, I don’t have enough money. I don’t have the right credentials. I don’t know the right people.

At least if I keep hanging on to this sideline stuff, I won’t risk falling flat on my face, right?

But it’s time to let go. Time to move on. Time to trust.

I learned first to trust God. Now God teaches me to trust myself.

Time to let go. Time to move on. Time to trust.

Time to trust myself. Time to believe in me.

I Have a Dream

I have a dream.

Well, I’m working on it, at least.

It’s big and quite different from anything I’ve allowed myself to dream about in the past. It’s bold and brash and promises to challenge me at every turn, to push me out of my comfort zone at every opportunity.

It’s a dream that will test my commitment, my faith in myself, my vision.

It’s the kind of dream that gets scoffed at, dismissed as unattainable for little people like me. I myself direct the scoffing-and-dismissing choir. Often with precision and skill.

But it’s a dream born out of the conviction that it’s time to move on. Time to leave the past in the past and create a present and future of my own making, on my own terms.

And it frightens me.

Like ripe peaches on a tree, with just a little shake the doubts and questions and uncertainties rain down on my head.

Are you sure you want this? That’s a really wide chasm between here and there—what makes you think you have what it takes to make it across? Aren’t you being presumptuous to think you can make it? You don’t have enough talent, experience, know-how, connections, or skills. Ordinary people like you don’t get to live out dreams like that. No way you can make this happen.

The chasm between here and there, reality now and reality then, seems distressingly wide. But dreams often seem that way, don’t they?

Barbara Sher points out in her book, Wishcraft, that when it comes to taking actual steps toward our dreams, we stop ourselves and hide behind all the reasons it can’t be done. I don’t have the money. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the skills. I have to take care of my family. I have debt to repay. The time’s not right.

Here’s the real truth, though: We’re not afraid we cannot fulfill our dreams. We’re afraid we can!

Why else do we go into hiding? This truth is not easy to face.

But the obstacles and reasons-it-can’t-be-done only take on the level of invincibility we assign them. We actually have more say-so than we choose to acknowledge.

If we recognize this truth, our obstacles take on the consistency of play dough: solid, but pliable. Completely within our power to shape and mold.

If we recognize this truth, we’re left with no more excuses. Only the choice to move forward or stay put. Life, or death-by-same-old-same-old.

I have a dream.

Did I mention how big and scary it feels?

If I wait for the right time, the perfect conditions, the stars to align, I may wait forever.

So, even in the face of fear and awe, doubt and uncertainty, a long list of reasons-it-can’t-be-done, I take the first step. Just one step.

But it’s one step closer to bridging that chasm, one step closer to fulfilling my dream. Woo-hoo!

What’s your dream?

Freedom and Redemption: The Shawshank Edition

A couple of weeks ago I got to thinking about that movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” It just popped into my head one day as I pondered the often complex relationship between freedom and courage and fear.

I thought about the old guy in the movie, Brooks, who had completed 50 years as an inmate at Shawshank Prison. By the time we meet him, life outside of prison had become a distant memory for him, a non-reality. Red, the story’s narrator and another inmate, described Brooks as “institutionalized”—a part of the prison system for so long that he had absorbed its identity as his own. He could no longer separate Brooks, the man, from Brooks, the inmate.

Then one day, the powers that be handed Brooks the one essential thing his fellow inmates coveted and clamored for, the one thing that, indeed, most humans fight for, and the one thing on which he himself, at one point in time, had probably hung hopes and dreams.

Freedom.

Freedom to walk away, to make his own choices, to live his life by his own rules, to take back ownership of his life.

But as he stood on the threshold between a dark and narrow past, and a vast, open future, Brooks faltered.

The future, with all its bright possibilities and choices and freedoms turned out to be more than he could handle. He had come from a place where Big Brother controlled every minute of his day, every morsel of food he ate, every activity in which he engaged, practically every thought in his head. To suddenly be free of this weight threw him off-balance, left him feeling unmoored and adrift.

Lost.

He tried to make do in this new land of the free, to make sense of the vast and unfamiliar landscape. To find a new reason and purpose for his life. But he just could not find a firm grip.

In the end, the effort just didn’t seem worth it. One day, in the little apartment that posed as his new home, he hung himself. Cause of death: freedom.

Freedom can shock your senses when you’ve gotten so used to being tied down.

Believe me, I know.

I’ve written about how I spent a good part of my life feeling trapped by weaknesses, unrealistic expectations, and a large helping of fear. I yearned for my own freedom, for the day I could finally make my life my own. Turns out, unlike Brooks, the obstacles causing my entrapment were mostly false fronts with unlocked doors. With a little courage and strategic effort, I could easily walk through them.

Knowing this, I’d like to think I’d be more like the movie’s main character, Andy: brave, determined, willing to risk everything, even his life, for his freedom, for the sake of taking back ownership of his life. But the truth is, sometimes I fear I more resemble old man Brooks, who had become so institutionalized and re-formed that a life behind bars was the only life that made sense.

But even knowing that my sense of captivity is largely an illusion, I still hesitate at the threshold. Somehow the devil I know—the frustration, the yearnings, the maddening sense of being tethered to the ground—lures me back to its side with offerings I find difficult to resist: Safety. Familiarity. Comfort (such as it is) in that I at least I know my way around here.

Compelling things, those, and not to be underestimated.

Holding tightly to them, freedom looks like the devil I don’t know. From the vantage point of safety, freedom looks vast and intimidating and overwhelming, even as it intrigues and calls to me.

But freedom does beckon, slowly, patiently, coaxing me out like you would a frightened dog or skittish horse. Showing me where I can make different choices, embrace new assumptions and beliefs, and envision a different outcome. I learn to be patient with myself, to understand that I have to give my eyes enough time to adjust to this new landscape, to begin to recognize objects and forces—thoughts, promptings, ideas, dreams—that I had been blind to before.

Isn’t that what Andy did for Red in the movie? Andy helped Red to see beyond the walls of their prison, to envision an outcome other than life and death in captivity. Andy gave Red reason to hope. And when Red was finally released after more than 40 years of imprisonment, fully institutionalized, by his own admission, Andy saved his life by luring him towards a future and a hope.

Towards freedom. And redemption.

By the grace of God, that’s where I’m headed, too.

What’s Your Weakness?

You can do anything you want to, if you just put your mind to it.

I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase a million times.

You’ll forgive me if I don’t embrace it wholeheartedly.

I understand the message behind it. With a little sweat, grit and passion, we can accomplish much more than we might imagine. If we give up too easily, or fail to take full ownership of our dreams and goals, we may always fall short.

Still, the fact is, none of us can do anything we want to do. We all have limits. Weaknesses.

But in our society, “weakness” is a four-letter word, a distasteful burden we must strive to fix, eliminate or conceal at all cost.

To use the square peg/round hole analogy, our square edges prevent us from fitting into standard round holes, so those square edges become weaknesses to be sheared off and sandpapered down.

I myself spent a good part of my career trying to force my square edges to fit neatly into round holes. I had adopted the belief that, if I wanted to survive, much less succeed, I had to conform to round hole specifications. So I dedicated untold amounts of energy and effort trying to “fix” what was wrong with me.

I had a lot of help, too. In the office, well-meaning supervisors invested extra time and effort to my transformation. Goals and objectives, performance reviews, regular check-ins all became part of the strategy to turn me into a well-oiled, highly productive cog in the organizational machine. They were motivated to do this, at least initially, because of the untapped potential they saw in me. All that talent could be unleashed if we followed the plan to whittle away my square edges.

I welcomed this investment, at least initially, because I, too, believed that the key to my success, the answer to my career struggles and setbacks, involved forcing my weaknesses, my limits, into submission. The longer I failed to accomplish this goal, I feared, the deeper into the pit of mediocrity I would sink.

So I continuously sought after and accepted round hole positions. And with each new position and supervisory intervention, I prayed that this time I would finally conquer those weaknesses, bend them to my will, and thus earn my ticket into the kingdom of round holes where, finally, I could legitimately join the ranks of those whose abilities, skills and accomplishments—whose worth—remained unquestioned.

I always started out with good intentions and great hope, but at some point I would find myself bumping and crashing against my limits. Motivation turned to disappointment, frustration and a deep-seated puzzlement: I obviously had talent and brains—why then could I not consistently perform up to standard? I either could not or would not do what needed to be done to fit into that round hole. Mission failed.

And for me, every failed mission struck with the force of a hit-and-run, leaving me to pick up the broken pieces of my self scattered over the ground, questioning my self-worth and my abilities, and struggling to find the energy to start all over again.

But that’s what happens when you try to build a career that relies too heavily on whittling down square edges, on exorcising weaknesses. It’s like trying to live in a house of cards—collapse is inevitable and debilitating.

Just think: where would I be now if I had known to change course earlier on, if I had chosen not to fear and revile my weaknesses, but to respect and honor them instead? If I had followed the trail of my talents and strengths, and allowed my limits to stand on their own and help guide my journey?

Would I be writing this blog, I wonder?

Fortunately I’m starting to learn these lessons. I can’t even begin to tell you how freeing it is to know that I cannot do everything I put my mind to. My weaknesses exist not to cut me down, but to point the way to my purpose, my calling.

My square edges are mine, and I’m keeping them.

When Common Sense Gives You the Wrong Directions

I want more from my life.

I want more than just a steady job with steady pay and a steady lifestyle.

Don’t get me wrong—steady is good. With the kind of life I’ve lived to date, steady does hold a certain appeal.

But I want more. I want vitality and purpose, I want satisfaction, I want to thrive. I want to get to the end of my life and feel that bone-deep but utterly satisfying exhaustion that comes after you put in a hard day’s work, when you’ve eagerly used every physical, mental and emotional resource given to you to keep the world turning and progressing. And then you get to heave the sigh of the deeply contented.

Common sense dictates that I should go along with the standard operating procedure for achieving this good life: Hard work. Practical, reasonable thinking. Doing the right thing. Being responsible. And if something is broken, fix it. If you have a question, find an answer. If you’re struggling in a job, try harder. If uncertainty strikes anywhere in your life, follow these five steps to total clarity. If there’s a problem, just do something about it.

Common sense would be partially right. But common sense accounts for only half of the picture. It can only get me so far before I start losing my way.

The fact is, the kind of life I want demands a great deal more of me, and not just in terms of hard work and professional striving. It also requires a higher level of trust and faith than I’ve ever known. The kind of faith that makes me quake in my boots because it demands that I go against the tide, that I measure my reality, my progress, even my state of mind by a different set of standards than the norm.

This faith compels me to look beneath the surface of my life, to see with the eyes of my heart and spirit, and not just with the eyes of my mind. Like an ocean current, it nudges me in the right direction, and challenges me—dares me—to push past my fears and reach for what I want. And it urges me to trust, to simply know that I’m in good hands, no matter how choppy things look on the surface.

No easy task, this.

But by faith I will get there.

The Paradox of Progress: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The year was 2003, and after nearly two years of unemployment, I had just gratefully accepted a full-time position with a non-profit organization in Los Angeles. After two years of doubt, confusion and the gripping fear that I would never see the light of a new job again, two years of wondering where I would possibly fit with my newly acquired Master’s degree in Theology, salvation had finally arrived.

Not only did it arrive in the form of a good job with a decent salary, but it was a position I was excited about, with an organization whose mission I heartily embraced. My heart expanded with a depth of gratitude rarely experienced before.

If you’ve been unemployed for any significant stretch of time, you know what I’m talking about.

I dove into the job enthusiastically and earnestly, knowing that I had been given a chance to break out of the cycle of fits-and-starts that had defined so much of my career to that point. During those dark days of joblessness, I had learned a lot about myself. I came to terms with who I was and acknowledged that I had some work to do if I wanted to grow.

The issue standing front and center: responsibility. Yuniya, you have to take responsibility for yourself—your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. You can’t always just pick up and leave when the going gets tough. You can’t just act impulsively without giving any serious thought to the consequences. It’s time for you to grow up and take responsibility for your life. For YOU.

This message lodged itself in my mind and heart even as I set foot into my new office on my first day. No more playing around, I determined. This was real. I would learn to stay put and grow. My life depended on it.

But six months into the new job, that message began to lose its zing. I had crested the learning curve and was starting to feel the threat of boredom. Not a good sign. For me, boredom often became a portent of doom, gradually unleashing the demons of restlessness, distraction, decreased productivity on the job, and ultimately, the impulse to leave the old behind and find something new. To my dismay and frustration, six months after my enthusiastic start, I found myself poring over job advertisements for hours on end, looking for yet another new beginning.

But the new grown-up voice spoke up: Yuniya, it’s not time for you to move on yet. If you quit now and take another job, you’ll only stifle your growth; you’ll just drag the same issues with you. You’ll never get past Go if you don’t stay. I felt the truth of this admonition; I had to stay on.

Months later, however, I found myself putting as much effort into daydreaming about new experiences as I put into the daily tasks of my job. When my boss noticed my performance had diminished and subsequently put me on a performance improvement plan, the impulse to run consumed me. The pain of failing tore me apart, and proved that a) I didn’t belong there, b) I was doomed to a life of mediocrity and underperformance, because c) I was a deeply flawed human being. How could I be expected to stay with this job when faced with these self-evident truths? I just didn’t fit. I had to escape!

But the voice spoke again: Yuniya, it’s not time for you to move on yet. This pain is a good pain. You have to stay with it. The worst thing you could do at this point is run from it. You must stay with it. Work through it. Then when you get to the other side of it, you will truly know satisfaction. What you’re looking for isn’t out there in another job. It’s right here, on the other side of this pain and discomfort.

In my mind’s eye I saw an image of a small plant, barely a shoot, struggling to push itself up through the soil. That shoot was me. If I chose to obey my impulse to run, I would effectively rip that shoot out of the ground before it even had a chance to grow some roots. I had to stay on.

I buckled down and tried as much as possible to set aside the impulse to run. I focused on embracing my here-and-now, uncomfortable as it sometimes felt. Months later, I looked up and looked around and was taken aback by what I saw. That little shoot had grown and sprouted some leaves without me even realizing.

To begin with, I acquired my first car ever, and overcame a multitude of fears about driving in Los Angeles. I bought my first laptop computer and started writing again. I finally, finally, realized a dream I had held since high school: I traveled to Mexico to immerse myself in Spanish for 16 days. I visited London, another dream destination I had ceased to believe was possible, and vacationed in Mazatlan. I drove through the streets of Manhattan for the first time, in the middle of a drenching downpour, in a mini-van packed with high school students (not a task for the faint of heart!).  I met my father for the first time.

And guess what else?

I stayed at the same job for well over two years—a record for me—despite my occasional tantrums.

All experiences I would have missed out on, had I turned tail and run.

And when it was time to move on, I felt it. I knew it to the tips of my toes. Everything in me and around me seemed to jangle in a chorus of victory. When I turned in my letter of resignation, my boss looked at me with such pride that it brought tears to my eyes. She knew how I had struggled to push through all that pain and discomfort. “Doesn’t it feel good,” she asked me, “to know that you worked hard to overcome so much, and that you succeeded? To know that you’re leaving on a victorious note?”

Indeed. Talk about satisfaction.

What I couldn’t see clearly then, I see clearly now: this season redefined and redirected my life more than any others that had come before it. It set me on a different track and gave me back my sense of hope and purpose. It helped me believe in myself again.

Good thing I stayed.