I was born the eldest child to two church workers turned pastors. The idea of serving others and living a life of purpose was part of my upbringing from day one. Throughout my teenage years, I volunteered with NGOs, went on mission trips, and volunteered at church.
But all that giving was misguided. And I was giving from an empty place. I was doing these things that I was taught was good, but so that God would be pleased with me. So that I wouldn’t be a self-centered sinner. I did not know what it meant to love myself, and I was trying to love others.
Then I left home for the first time, to study in the UK. I started working. I made my way through a series of failed relationships and eventually a divorce. I quit a job I spend five years at, spent time freelancing, got an MBA, moved to Finland, and moved back into full-time employment.
I’ve had a ‘selfish’ 2018
In the busyness of life and the wilderness of trying to find myself, the practice of serving others and doing good deeds got lost for a little while. From the time I earned my first paycheck at 14 to until the age of 27, I consistently gave 10% or more of my earnings to the church, even during the times I was flaky about church. I would always ‘catch up’ with my giving - if I skipped a month of church, the next month I would give double the amount. In 2018 I stopped doing that, because I decided I don’t want my money to go into planning more church programs to keep people within the walls of a church building. I didn’t find another place to channel my money.
From the time I was 13 until my marriage started falling apart when I was 26, I spent almost every weekend volunteering - be it teaching underprivileged kids, scooping poop at a dog shelter, or giving out flyers for World Vision. When my marriage fell apart, I spend my time trying to sort out matters while juggling a freelance income and working weekends so I could live independently. I then moved to Finland, a country with one of the most comprehensive welfare systems in the world, and I wondered how I could possibly make a difference or help anyone here.
As a small group leader at church from the age of 15 to my early twenties, I spent hours each month writing handwritten notes of encouragement and support to members under my care. I continued this habit as a manager of a small team. I wrote letters and mailed postcards to let people know I was thinking of them. When I was writing 10 pages of assignments per night for my MBA and trying to sort out a divorce in the middle of it, I had no time to write anyone but a handful of friends any notes. And in 2018, while my life regained some stability, I focused my time on being present with the people who were physically in front of me. I didn’t really get back into the habit of writing notes. But with people who mattered, I looked them in the eyes (or into the webcam for conference calls) to let them know what I thought their strengths were and what I appreciated about them.
All of this is to say that by external appearances, my 2018 has been a pretty selfish one. I’ve pretty much neglected all the ‘good deeds’ and practices that for so long had been a part of my life.
Taking a step back to move forward
But despite my selfish year, I believe it was a necessary year. We cannot help others without helping ourselves first. Moving forward sometimes requires taking a step back. 2018 was a year of focusing on getting the basics right. Eating well, sleeping enough, being patient with the people you see on a daily basis, thinking positive thoughts, and learning to love myself in order to put love back out in the world.
2018 was filled with that. I learned how to disagree with my partner without hurting or getting hurt. I became even better at managing my diet and stress to a point where my eczema bothers me less, and my digestive issues even less. I became adept at switching off the phone or laptop and I don’t even sleep with my phone next to my bed these days.
What good is it to march off on a noble volunteer mission in some exotic country or donate half your earnings to a good cause if you cannot take care of your house and the people at home? What good is it to be respected as a leader in church or at work when you harbor judgmental thoughts towards others or deal with stress through poor eating habits? We may be ‘doing good’ on the outside, but we know deep down, that this is not sustainable. Eventually, something’s got to give. 2018 was my year for letting things give way. For being okay with being an average achiever (trust me, for an overachiever this is sometimes the hardest thing!). For not having to have the last word in an argument or to be the last person in the office.
As great as 2018 has been for my soul, body, and mind, I’ve been feeling restless lately. I’m in a place where I am starting to feel stable and comfortable again. And I don’t want to stay there. I want to do better, now that I know better. Well, about some things at least. There’s still much to learn!
I still believe in ‘extras’ (a concept that, incidentally, my ex-husband and I connected strongly over). I believe that anyone of us with the brains to earn a degree and the health to work has no reason to spend every dollar we earn and I believe that giving some of my money away does not just help others, it helps me. It helps me be less self-centered, it helps me be a more discerning consumer, and it helps me to be more disciplined about my money by having buffers instead of blowing my budget at the end of every month.
I still believe in the pursuit of justice and equity. As a teenager and student that might have looked like donating my time towards such causes. As a working adult, I’ve realized that the way I spend every dollar I earn is a vote for the kind of world I want to see. While I don’t currently volunteer my time, I spend more time than ever before researching brands and what I buy, and I try to make sure my money supports the right systems.
I still believe in the importance of relationships and connection. I’m learning the format is less important than the message. And the words are less important than the intent. Handwritten notes are still nice. But they are not everything. Sometimes it’s looking someone deep in the eyes, or even refraining from saying anything that are much more meaningful when timed right.
My intentions for 2019
That said, I’ve outlined seven areas in which I want to be more consciously aware of my choices. I don’t have a specific set of resolutions tied to these or even a concrete plan of how to make this happen. The idea is to spend more time in 2019 reflecting about these areas, and making some changes, even if they’re uncomfortable ones.
Here are my seven areas of focus for 2019:
Most of us in the modern world make decisions about what to eat at minimum three times a day. These seemingly inconsequential choices have massive effects on entire supply chains, the environment, and the welfare of human workers. After learning more about the food industry, this is one area of life which my conscience can no longer ignore. People who know me well know I am also a die-hard foodie, so it will be interesting to see if a compromise can be made between tasty food and ethical eating choices.
I often tell people that getting a divorce (and the events that led up to it) was the best thing that could happen to me. It snapped me out of my denial and self-delusion that everything was okay. It introduced me to therapy. Not the church kind of ‘confess your sins’ or ‘let us pray for your healing and deliverance’ kind of ‘counseling’ that tends to leave people feeling worse and more guilty. But professional therapy rooted in psychological principles that helped me understand my unhealthy thinking patterns, unpack childhood baggage, and make peace with my mistakes.
It was the single most transformational thing that has ever happened to me in my life. There was no ‘moment of truth’. No bright lights. No loud music. Very few tears. It was a slow, cognitive process of learning, letting things sink in, and having understanding creep over you ever so slowly, like light creeping over a city at sunrise. I was a high sensation seeker looking for a big life changing moment, but I found lasting change in the environment and the process that therapy created for me.
This has rippled out into my relationships. Especially in my primary relationship with my partner. We spend so much time unpacking each other’s baggage, talking about underlying issues. We don’t talk just about the things that pissed us off about each other. We talk about why we are upset and what old insecurities it brings up. This has radically changed my interactions with everyone else. More than 80% of the time I cannot understand people’s decisions and actions. But I am able to accept and empathize them more, knowing that there is more going on under the surface of the annoying or mind-blogging things people do.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the tip of the iceberg and there is more work to do. So I’m looking forward to continue getting better at communication, continue unpacking issues and challenges, and continue finding more fulfilling relationships by going deeper with people. (And soon, a furry friend too!)
It’s easy to get caught up with the ‘urgent’ quadrant of work and neglect the ‘important but less urgent’ quadrant. Especially when working in a fast-moving industry or a startup, the bulk of the working day can feel like fire-fighting. This year, I gave up on completing an online course on AI, but I managed to get officially certified as an advertising Buying and Planning Professional under the Facebook Blueprint certification program. Aside from the credentials, I gained so much value from the process and learned so much. I had to force myself to study on most days, and I only did it because there was an incentive to finish it before a certain deadline. But I don’t regret a single minute spent on that course.
Frustration at work comes from putting in long hours and feeling like in the end, it doesn’t matter. Meaning, on the other hand, comes from being able to find a state of ‘flow’, where creating new things - ideas, code, concepts, processes - feels smooth and natural. When what you are creating comes from a place of clarity and you are able to see the difference your work makes. I’ve tasted that quite a bit more than usual this past year, but at other times have slipped back into the trap of busyness.
For 2019, I want to keep learning, keep my industry qualifications up to date, continue building out T-shaped skill sets, keep abreast of industry trends, and learn more about governance and management.
Most people who can afford it enjoy traveling. I’m no different. But as a traveler it’s quite impossible to not notice the damage and impact hordes of tourists can have on a city - from leaving it dirtier to putting small shops out of business to destroying local cultures, customs, and ways of living.
For the last few years I’ve been traveling to at least three new places a year. While I enjoy being in a new place, I always feel a little bit bad by the time I leave. I feel like I’m just another tourist coming to enjoy the good parts and turn a blind eye to the blatant poverty and human rights abuses that tends to co-exist side by side in many popular tourist spots.
Next year, I hope to be more conscious about where I travel to. To understand the history and current challenges of every new place I visit. To support local organizations that are working to address these issues. To not spend money on mindless trinkets made from exploited labor but to support local cottage industries and businesses instead.
This ties in to almost every other area but it’s so vast it deserves some focus of its own. I want to buy locally more, recycle more, reduce more waste, and be more conscious about consumption in every area of my life.
10% and beyond - I may have mastered the discipline of putting aside some money each month (the benefit of this discipline is that it also makes it easy to put aside another 20-30% for savings). But I want my money to go towards causes that I resonate with and that align with my values. It requires more research than just dropping money into the offering bag at my local church.
But it seems like every year there are more good organizations out there involved in more than just charity (not that charity is bad, but the traditional way of doing charity by giving people handouts without addressing the root cause is not enough), that are looking to impact policy and systemic change, and there are many exciting new places for my money to flow to, I just need to find them.
What are my daily rituals? What world views do I have? What are they based on? What do I believe? Why do I believe that? Are my actions in line with what I say I believe? Am I surrounding myself with enough differences of opinion to challenge my thinking? In what areas am I being lazy in my thinking? These are all questions I want to spend a lot of time thinking about in 2019.
A lot of them will be intertwined with faith and spirituality, which has always been a big part of my life. For so long, I couldn’t reconcile different principles and values I held with the various religious systems around me. But as I look around me, I see more and more people starting to think more consciously and re-imagine what spirituality can look like in this modern day. I’d like to spend more time not just thinking about the practical ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ questions of life, but the big, philosophical ‘Why?’ questions that have always intrigued me.
To a more conscious year ahead
“Mindfulness has to do with waking up and living in harmony with oneself and with the world. It is examining who we are, constantly questioning our views of the world and our place in it, while cultivating appreciation for the fullness of each moment we are alive. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted. It is empowering as well, because paying attention in this way opens channels to deep reservoirs of creativity, intelligence, imagination, clarity, determination, choice, and wisdom within us.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are
“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.” - Rumi
“But if we'd only open our eyes / We'd see the blessings in disguise / That all the rain clouds are fountains / Though our troubles seem like mountains / There's gold in them hills” - Ron Sexsmith
Whatever 2019 may bring, I know it’s filled with gold, and I intend to find it. And it starts with paying attention, with being conscious, instead of sleep-walking through it. If this resonates with you, join me on this journey!