In secondary school, my nickname was Jetpack Kal. My classmates gave me this nickname for my infamous 19 kg backpack (yes, I weighed it one day after school) that I diligently carried every day. It all started when one of my friends tried to help me move my bag and exclaimed — in what I understood was a mix of astonishment and mortification — “Wow, why is your bag so heavy? What do you put inside?!”
Inside that ‘jetpack’ was my textbooks, notes, and assessment books that I had bought on my own accord. I would bring all of them to school to revise in my free pockets of time, and then lug them back home so that I could have all the resources with me as I studied (#kiasu). It was thus of no surprise that my bag would be breaking at its seams and small holes had started appearing at the bottom as the fabric started to give in to the weight. Whenever my grandparents, parents, or friends told me that I should carry fewer books, as it would affect my spine and posture, I would just sheepishly nod and try to get out of the conversation. Unbeknownst to them, the literal and metaphorical weight of that jetpack was something I was willing to bear in the hopes that I could continue to score with flying colours.
ENTERING THE RAT RACE
It would have seemed to my classmates that I was a smart and confident student, but I was, in fact, a very insecure student who had been utterly crushed by the outcome of her PSLE results two years ago. I still remember the day my teacher handed me my results. She pursed her lips, nodded, and said, “OK, OK” unenthusiastically. I did not do as well as I had hoped and enrolled into a secondary school that was not one of my top few choices. I felt like a failure and entered secondary school determined to prove myself and gain the approval I craved from my teachers and parents.
That desire for approval manifested in the form of striving in everything that I did. I would force myself to wake up at 7 am on Sundays to study, bring notes to revise during family dinners, and ask my parents for money so I could buy the latest assessment books.
THERE WAS ALWAYS MORE PUSHING, MORE STRIVING, MORE TO PROVE.
I was always too stressed out to enjoy life, easily agitated when I had less studying time, and would beat myself up if I missed even half a mark.
There was always more pushing, more striving, more to prove … and this was apparent not just in my studies but also in other facets of life, including my CCAs, church, and family. I was bent on topping my class, being the first among my CCA mates to be awarded a prestigious award, and joining the student council. Plagued with the stress of my expectations stemming from desiring the approval of others, I was hardly rested, hardly appreciative, and hardly happy. Nothing was enough; I realised this the day of the release of my mid-term results. My exuberant form teacher broke the news that I had topped my cohort. I was elated, but with it also came surging feelings of anxiety, stress, and dread. I had to continue to keep this up — this achieving and over-achieving.
On the journey home, I trudged along with a weary heart and heavy footsteps, perplexed that I was not satisfied with my grades. Exasperated, I cried out to God, “How can it be?! What then is enough?!” Just like my jetpack, I was slowly breaking at my seams, crushed by the weight of my own expectations and the need for approval.
A GENTLE REBUKE
Psalm 139:23–24 became a personal plea, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In the pit of anxiety and stress, I was blessed with a loving rebuke from my cell leader, who implored me to return to the Father’s love which is devoid of strife.
I HAD PLACED MY IDENTITY IN WHAT OTHERS THOUGHT OF ME, AND NOT IN THE ONE I BELONG TO.
She urged me to recognise that I had been carrying a crushing weight of expectations and achievements. Underlying this was pride in my heart, consumed by the pressure to ‘have my life together’ when I had placed my identity in what others thought of me, and not in the One I belong to. Often, our daily preoccupations and emotions suggest who we belong to — a little praise and success lifts us, while a little criticism and failure makes us dispirited. Henri Nouwen puts it this way in The Return of the Prodigal Son: “All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over … shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.”
I sought time with the Lord and asked for grace that I would be open and tender to His voice as He revealed the offensive ways in me and led me in His ways. In the secret place, I was deeply met with the revelation that there is no striving or performance in His love. With this encountered truth, I desired to turn from my ways of self-sufficiency and pride and to be set free from the need to prove myself with this constant striving and achieving. By my own strength I had tried to carry the weight of my expectations and the pressures of succeeding; but God knows our frame, and He doesn’t ask us to be more than who He has created and called us to be.
There are some weights not for us to carry and some that we are to let go of. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (ESV). Run the race that is set before us — not the rat race with its concomitant pressures and expectations, but the race in light of what God has called and redeemed us for.
As the striving and stress began to be replaced with such freedom and light, I found starting the day or study time with prayer helped to anchor me in the Lord. With God’s leading, I began to experience anew the joy of studying, of working heartily unto God and not others, and could fully enjoy the times meant for rest. My Jetpack Kal days are now behind me, and before me is a lifetime’s journey of placing my identity in Him and grasping this timeless truth: it is God who defines me, and nothing and no one else.