Insights


From Monday morning through the end of Friday, I worked 61 hours, studied 22, and slept 20. The other 10 hours must have been spent eating, showering, traveling, answering birthday phone calls, keeping in touch with my husband, and otherwise being inefficient.

For this privilege, I am paying about $2,500 a month. For the same price, I could literally run a small business. I could hire two full-time assistants at minimum wage, and still have $180 left over to pay all our bills.

Yet, I am an unprofitable servant. Had I 100 hours a day and no need for food or sleep, I would still be an unprofitable servant.

But how could that be? How much more do I need to be worth? At what price could I earn my keep? What is the cost of me being here and living this life?

It pains me to say this: The cost is infinite. Because I have been given a body, mind, and spirit, and because I am allowed to blunder my way through life, and because I am in the least bit imperfect (and much more than the least bit so), the cost is the Atonement—the life and death of God’s Only Begotten Son.

Whether we recognize this or take it for granted, there are certain conditions in this world that make life worth living:

The first and most important is agency, the ability to choose for ourselves what we will do, where we will go, whom we will be. From paper vs. plastic, to obedience vs. rebellion, to life vs. death. This ability to choose, came at a great price since the beginning.

The second is time, with which to act out our choices, see the results, learn and adapt. Time to improve, time to stagnate, time to waste.

The third is opposition, without which there would be no purpose in choosing. That there is a difference between happiness and sorrow, makes us yearn and strive for happiness. That there is good and evil, light and darkness, virtue and vice, gives us struggles and makes them worthwhile.

The last is repentance, a gift purchased with the atonement of Jesus Christ. Because of agency and the many mistakes we make, we each have less perfection than is required for exaltation. We cannot enter the presence of God unless we are perfect. Hence the need for atonement. None of us are qualified to “atone” for each other, lest we use up what little goodness we had for ourselves. Only one, who lived a perfect life and holds infinite goodness, has enough to perfect us all. So the price of man’s agency, literally, is the perfect life and sacrifice of God’s only begotten son. Without this, all men were lost with no hope of redemption.

The Atonement is what makes agency possible, and agency is what makes life worthwhile. We are given all of this through Christ who was willing to live and die for us. That is the meaning of Christmas, the meaning of Easter, and the meaning we try to remember in every day of our lives as Christians.

The world is not perfect in the sense that we like to imagine. There is work, there is sickness, there is death. There is poverty, there is injustice, there is oppression. But imagine if we didn’t have anything that we consider negative: everything equal, every life the same, everyone constantly idling around curating a perfect world. Nothing ever happens. Would anything then be positive? Compared to what? Actually, the world is perfect in ways we cannot imagine.

For all this, a war was fought in Heaven, Lucifer and a third the host of Heaven were lost, man was created in God’s likeness and given wisdom to know good from evil, Adam fell and all of the suffering of mankind was allowed to take place, and Christ, even God, was sentenced to death after living a perfect life. All this so that we could choose to make mistakes.

It didn’t have to be this way. We didn’t have to be given this opportunity to live, choose, and learn. We didn’t have to be given anything at all. But God is a parent, and, like other parents, saw fit to make the sacrifices that could never pay off in the material sense. I may never know why, except that He loved us infinitely.

The opinion in this article I’m linking to is exactly opposite to my whole philosophy on life. But it’s a valid point, and it made me giggle: Don’t Carpe Diem

I take a very go-getter approach to personal happiness. Granted, my life is great. (It especially seems so if you mostly know me through my writing.) But just like everyone else, I definitely have “those” moments, days, and even weeks. In fact, if you ask a random graduating med student, they may tell you it’s been “one of those” past 4 years.

“Those” moments don’t tend to make good essays to inspire the world. But trust me, I haven’t edited them out of my life story. You want proof? Here are a few snapshots from my past six months:

…It is 3pm on a Saturday. It is my 33rd hour at the hospital, and my 7th hour in the OR holding a pair of retractors. “I know you are post-call,” says the chief resident, “but if you stay for this, it will be the coolest surgery you have ever seen.” So far, all I can see is the surgeon poking instruments down a deep, dark hole in the patient. He points and mumbles about structures, but I can’t see any of them. I did study up on my anatomy in case he’s in the mood for quizzing, but he’s not. I shift my weight constantly as my knees are killing me. I watch the clock for a while. I nod off and close my eyes. And all the while, I’m still holding the retractors perfectly still. But what I take away is this: Life After Getting Your Face Chopped Off

…Halloween at the Trauma Bay. One patient shot himself in the head, another in the chest. A week ago, I had never seen anybody die. Now, I’ve lost count of how many deaths I’ve seen. One of the suicidal patients, upon being resuscitated, immediately begins shouting profanities at the medical staff for extending his misery. I begin to question what a doctor is supposed to contribute to a patient’s life: Trauma, Death, and the Big Picture

…I’ve been working 2 whole minutes, and the patient I’ve been assigned has already accused me of trying to poison her, made racist comments to me, and tried to inflict physical injury on me from across the room. “It’s not me,” I tell myself, “she’s schizophrenic.” I’ve made it over 2 years without struggling to establish rapport with a single patient, and my perfect record ends with this: How to Say Hello to a Crazy Person

I can see how in the midst of every single stupid day, we may not enjoy being told to “enjoy every moment.” And I’ve also had times when I’ve been absolutely miserable with everything I’ve ever dreamed of (a big house, an amazing husband, and a prestigious career, to name a few). Trust me, there is nothing about having everything we want that makes us happy. Happiness is not about the situation that surrounds us, it’s about the lens through which we choose to see it.

Every day when I wake up, I tell myself, “You will love today. You will love today.” This may or may not be preceded by me flinging my alarm across the room. =]

This is Noah, my 12-year-old brother-in-law who has Down’s syndrome. His record at ice-skating is 62 steps before falling.

He just learned yesterday, actually. At first we couldn’t peel him away from the walls. When we held his hands, he couldn’t even balance well enough to ride along. He was more interested in flopping to the ground and eating the ice. But we told him it was important to get up every time he fell. He was terrified, but we just kept picking him up and setting him on his feet to try again. Within 5 laps, he went hands-free, showing off with his arms outstretched and shouting “Vector, OH YEAH!” (a reference to his favorite movie Despicable Me).

I started tutoring Noah when he was 8 years old, before I applied to medical school. At first I was skeptical whether we would make any progress. He had a limited vocab and could not form complete sentences, and I was surprised that he was in a regular classroom where he got assigned the same reading and writing as other kids his age. He was able to write the alphabet though, so I started by giving him all the answers to his homework, letter by letter.

But over time, as I began to understand his slurred speech and became more effective at rephrasing questions, I realized that he actually understood much of what he was being taught. This made working with him more enjoyable, and I became very invested in his success.

I am still constantly surprised by his growth. Now he is 12 years old and reads at 2nd grade level. He holds long conversations about his favorite movies. He loves to sing and play piano, and his latest trick is writing out pages of music notes as he plays. His most endearing quality, though, is his social awareness. He is jubilant and silly around his siblings, which is delightful to watch. He is also very caring and empathetic. When he sees that I am sad, he gives me a hug and says with a concerned look, “Marie okay? Be happy!”

If a Down’s kid can do all this, what’s to stop you from your greatest accomplishment? All people have a great potential to reach for regardless of their limits. I just consider it a great blessing to be able to give people the tools they need to live and function at their best. Hopefully there’ll be lots more of these stories in my future career.

I have always told people that I know the secret to happiness: Don’t view anything as a means to an end. You have to see the value of everything you do and endorse every step of it. You have to live in the moment.

Today, I shipped my husband off to Scotland. I won’t see him again until Christmas.

We knew this day would come. We looked forward to it with excitement and dread. He first brought up the idea before we were married, before I was in medical school. I was immediately on board. We both wanted advanced degrees, and I knew that 4 years was an awful long time for him to wait around for me. We are no strangers to distance. For the first 3 years of our courtship, we attended universities on opposite ends of the continent. We knew this would be hard, but we knew that we of all people could make it work.

Let’s be honest. Long-distance relationships suck, especially in the very beginning. I miss snuggling. I haven’t had to cook or shop for groceries in over two years, and I don’t think I know how anymore. I am used to having a constant dialogue about our experiences and thoughts — it’s my favorite way to bond. But now we’re on an 8 hour time difference, where we have less than an hour of overlapping free time each day.

But I truly have to say, I don’t regret this decision. We chose this together when we were both rational and future-oriented. I am so proud of my husband for making this great sacrifice and for doing something good with his life instead of idling away while I complete my education. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. He is going to have wonderful experiences that will strengthen him and our family. He is learning to be more disciplined and I am learning to be more patient — both will help us to be better prepared for life and parenting.

Over the past seven years, we have endured countless trials together and have built a very strong relationship. We are better prepared for this now than we ever were before, and probably more than we ever will be again (since we don’t have children right now).

And with that knowledge, I am happy. Not only with this process as a means to an end. Not only when I think of Christmas or next September. I am happy right now because we are doing our part to move forward with the plan. We will be together again, and I am glad for that. But right now I can’t afford to make myself miserable by focusing on his absence. I am keeping myself busy by helping other people, engaging in my duties, and learning all that I can. I am actually grateful for all the extra time I have to study without feeling guilty.

We never know what life will bring us each day. All we can guarantee is that we will do our best to make it count.

Lately I have been thinking about gratitude and poverty, and the mutual exclusivity of the two: It is impossible to be poor when one is grateful. The following is a talk that I gave during Thanksgiving 2010.

 

Many people say that they’re grateful to live in America, grateful to have freedoms and rights, schools, churches, big homes, fancy cars, and expensive hobbies. But most people have no concept of what it’s actually like to be without these things.

When I was a little girl in China, I always dreamed of having a telephone in our own home. When my parents were first starting their careers as doctors, they had a tiny apartment with only 1 room, so I went to live with my grandparents in another city. I didn’t get to talk to my parents at all unless they came to visit. (Telegrams were for emergencies only, and I didn’t know how to read anyway.) When my parents moved into a slightly bigger place—1 bedroom, 1 living room, and a small kitchen across the hall—I was finally able to move in with them. As a welcome present, they took me to the mall and bought me my own toy telephone. I remember feeling like a princess! I would get together with neighbor children who also had toy phones and we would pretend to call each other; we have lots of pictures of me laughing on my phone. Years later, our neighbors next door installed a home phone; they were the first in our complex to do so. They could afford it because they were really important people. My dad moved to Canada around that time to get his Ph.D., and my mom and I had to stay in China while we waited for our visas. Once a week, my dad would call the neighbor’s house to talk to us, and I felt so lucky to be living so close to a phone. I would chat and sing him songs that I learned, and his phone bill would be $1000 at the end of the month. Sometimes our neighbors would go out on the weekends, and my mom and I would know that we were going to miss dad’s call. Those days it was sad every time we heard their phone ring. Years later, I moved in with my parents again, this time into a luxurious 2-bedroom apartment in Montreal, and I had my own real telephone in my own room… Years later, just a couple weeks ago, my sisters and I signed a family cell phone plan with unlimited texting, because calling each other just isn’t good enough for them.

It’s very humbling for me to think back on how I used to live, and even more so to imagine how my parents and grandparents used to live. I remember not having running hot water. I remember not having a refrigerator, and having to shop for just enough groceries for each day. I remember sharing a bathroom with several other families. I remember scrubbing my clothes on a washboard—and today I’m about to get a free washer and dryer because someone I know thinks it’s a nuisance to have them sitting in their garage. It’s wonderful how fast we can adapt to new improvements in our quality of life, and how many of those improvements bombard us all the time. And in some ways, it’s wonderful that in America, we really don’t see poverty. Right now, I may think being poor is having only $12 of free-spending in my budget when all I want is sushi. I don’t think of those who make $12 in a whole month–or if I do, it is irrelevant because I don’t even comprehend the meaning of living on so little.

Ironically, when I was little, my parents would tell me how fortunate I was to be born into good circumstances. I knew it, because when we went out, we saw the poor people in the streets; they were dirty, some were disabled, and all they owned was a bowl, which they used to beg for change. And as far back as I can remember, I know my parents have always been extremely generous to others, sometimes unreasonably generous. I used to wonder why they were so nice, why they worked so hard just to let people take advantage of them. I don’t know the reason, but I think it’s because after the poverty they have experienced growing up, unlike you and me, they seem to remember that they own much more than a single bowl.

I think remembering this is key. Like the hymn says, “Because I have been given much I too must give.” We would never feel that way if we didn’t recognize how much we’ve been given. Unfortunately, I know many individuals who call themselves poor, but I know very few people who aren’t at least in the middle class. I certainly don’t know anyone who lives on the streets. So it is truly a tragedy that anyone I know should call themselves poor at all. When we focus on ourselves and how we don’t have enough, it’s almost impossible to use what we do have and help others. Furthermore, I know that with such prideful ingratitude, it is impossible to be rich, no matter how much we have.

In Mark 10:17-22 is a story about a man who seems to be a devout follower of Christ. He came “running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him… Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, defraud not, honor thy father and mother. And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.”

This story always pains me, because I wonder how many people would really pass that test. After all that this man had done that was good and right, it was his possessions that brought him grief in the end. It was his possessions that caused him to literally walk away from Christ. I think most of us would find it terrifying to be in that situation with those things being asked of us. I know at least a part of me is just like him. I don’t want to be like him, and I know what the right answer is, but I also know that it’s much easier said than done. But that’s the point. When I think of charity, I think it’s supposed to hurt, at least a little bit. If it’s a piece of cake to give of what you have, then perhaps you’re just de-cluttering for your own sake, and only incidentally trying to make someone else’s life better. But true generosity is giving more than you want to, or more than you think you can. It is truly a test. No matter what, it’s hard to give more than you can afford.

In Mark 10:24 Jesus went on to say, “How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” We tend to associate rich people with that statement, and exclude ourselves—thinking it won’t be hard for us to enter the kingdom because we ourselves are not rich. This is nice, but false. There is nothing inherently wrong with being rich, but rather it is the attitude of trusting in riches that hinders and blinds us. It’s not wrong to simply have money, but it is wrong to think that having money magically makes you a happier, better person. It’s wrong to think, like this man did, that money is more important than our other efforts to be Christ-like. Both poor and rich people can become so attached to their possessions that they can no longer serve others—and, sadly, this applies most to those who perceive themselves as being poor, regardless of whether they are or not. If we always feel cheated that we don’t have enough for ourselves, we cannot give but will continue to take—and the more we take, the less we become.

And so I look at my own life and try to give this story a more peaceful ending. I know that I am blessed. I have a good husband and a supportive family. Aspiring medical students keep telling me I am lucky to be able to pursue my dream, and I feel fortunate to have the knowledge that I chose a career where I’m doing exactly what I should be doing in my life. I eat better than anyone I know. And we may not have iPhones or cable, but we never, ever worry about running out of money—and so we never feel deprived. So I constantly try to remember the times when I was required to live with less, and I especially try to remember that I didn’t always have the gospel. And when I remember, I can really appreciate how much I really have. I know that my Heavenly Father loves me and freely gives me all the beauty that I enjoy in my life. If he gives me so much without asking me to earn it—indeed there is nothing I could do to earn it—then how could I turn around and feel entitled to it? How could I refuse to give it back?

I encourage you all to think on your lives and your blessings, and remember how kind God has been to you, and how you can try to be like Him by blessing others in turn.