Like many of you who are currently in or have been in grad school, I grew up being a straight-A student. I aspired and trained myself to be a type-A, micromanaging, perfectionist over-achiever and, as a result, entered UW-Madison because it has one of the best sociology programs in the country.
Before I came, I was used to being a star in school, and I came to Madison carrying a lot of expectations from my professors back home in Taiwan. They hoped and expected I would be a representative of my country, prepared to shine on the global stage of academia. All of that became a huge part of my identity and my life goal became the pursuit of living up to that identity.
The author at National Taiwan University in 2010.
And then I had a problem. I was not working any less, but grad school was nothing like anything I had experienced in my educational career up to that point. I began to realize I have always built my sense of accomplishment on the fact that I could get good grades and that the professors liked me, not on the study itself. I began to realize that in grad school it is not just about working hard and achieving good grades. It is about having passion and genuine concern for the subject matter; that the field of study could serve as a venue where these concerns could be addressed and the passion fulfilled. Without the passion and concern, it is very difficult to have the creativity, the drive, and the ability to think critically that are required in designing and conducting good research.
Having a hard time finding myself interested in the classes I was taking and in the numerous research projects I was involved in, I began to question why I was pursuing this academic career. I started to question whether I would be able to succeed as a professor without a passion for the subject matter. I just couldn’t see how I could be a good professor when being academically successful was the primary factor driving me forward. I came to realize that I was entrusting my contentment not to my relationship with God but to academic success. I was pursuing the god of accomplishment.
God continued to teach me that lesson from a different angle, addressing the god of perfection. After I had transferred to the totally different field of piano performance, even with the greatest passion for a subject I have ever found myself possessing, I had to face the fact that I was a late-comer; I would never be top in my class in the piano studio.
But God has been using my study in music to show me that my value is not defined by how great my performances are, and I’m not any less loved when I hit wrong notes. Perfection is not my god. God is. In fact, it is only when I could find my true confidence in my identity in Christ that I was able to really play music, rather than just unsuccessfully try to hit all the right notes.
Another idol that God has been dealing with in my life is the ideal of marriage and family. I grew up wanting to be a mom, and grad school was something of a back-up plan when that wish went unfulfilled. After coming to this country on my own, the fact that I had (until a few months ago) never dated, and that no one had ever shown interest in me were like a poison eating away at my sense of self-worth. I found myself really, really lonely. Although outwardly I was outgoing and sociable, I constantly felt that there was a hole in my heart.
I secretly hoped that someone would see me as special. I realize I subconsciously believed that a romantic relationship and marriage would somehow deliver me. That sense of loneliness and my idolatry of this ideal made me sad all the time, and triggered me to become emotionally attached too quickly and recklessly. It was only after a very difficult experience that I came to realize the severity and the root of the problem. And for a long time after that, even though I was gradually letting go of the pain, I still struggled with singleness. But at the same time, God showed me that only he could be the source of my contentment, and he was giving me the best for my life at the time, whether single or married. All I was called to do was to serve God with the resources I could offer.
Now, if you know how my story developed in those two areas of my life in the past year, you’d know that my story sounds too much like a prosperity theology testimony, maybe even like a fairytale. Academically, I set aside my sociology career and went back to my long-lost dream of becoming a pianist, and earned a master’s degree this past May. Relationship-wise, a long-time musician friend whom I had not talked to for years contacted me because of my academic change (on Facebook!) and, as it turned out, we are getting married this August.
Two years ago, hearing my story today, I would not have been convinced or encouraged with my story as an example. And I don’t think it is how everyone’s story is going to be; I didn’t expect it to be my story. But one thing I have learned is that no matter what my field of study is, what my job is, what Facebook says my relationship status is, God is the sole King to be ruling in my heart. I know that I may still struggle with idolatry in other ways and I know that idols can be the worst when they are good and worthy of praise. But as I recognize them, I trust that with God’s help I can turn from them, back to him. I truly believe and experience that God is my treasure and my life, and I can genuinely pray, “Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.”