By Kathy Tuan-MacLean

Reflections: The Good Life

“Of course you’re miserable!” said my advisor Dan, looking over his spectacles at me. “As a doctoral student in Human Development and Social Policy, you of all people should remember that your timing is all wrong for graduate school.” We sat in Dan’s office and I was whining about my life — my insecure, powerless and confused life. I felt stressed, discontent, and anxious. Now I also felt slightly guilty — he knew I was a follower of Jesus and I was not making Jesus look very good by spewing forth all my angst.

But Dan’s comment stopped me short because he was right — according to adult development studies, my timing was all wrong! I entered graduate school straight out of college, and if I charted my life forward, all the major tasks of school and career development directly conflicted with my other goals, especially the hope of having babies. In class we discussed how graduate school put us in a time warp compared to our peers. As our age-peers married, bought houses, bore children, earned money, and climbed their career ladders, we graduate students could feel like we were just standing still, or still worse, going backwards. Looking at the research on women’s lives and my own pitiful existence, my on-going argument with Jesus about graduate school intensified. Led by wise advisors, circumstances, and prayer to graduate school, I couldn’t help but feel like it had been one big sorry mistake, and if it wasn’t, then Jesus apparently cared little for the quality of my life.

Sad to say, twenty years later I sometimes still feel the same panic I felt in Dan’s office even though on the outside I can look like a woman who “has it all.” Despite the nine year graduate school route, I finally finished — one week after my candidacy expired and thirteen days before my first child was born. I have an interesting and enriching job with gifted and fascinating colleagues and students. I married a wonderful man and we have three healthy children. We even own two cars, a home, and stainless steel appliances. So if my life is crammed with blessings, why do I regularly feel my timing is all wrong, that I have fallen behind, and that the land around me is scorched and dry?

A quick answer is that I am bombarded every day with messages about the “good life” and it doesn’t take a PhD to see how my life falls short, especially since the definition changes depending on the crowd you’re with. At Harvard, where I have worked with doctoral students for the past eleven years, the good life means achieving tenure at a top-tier university — chalk up one failure there! In both the public and private sectors, the good life usually involves rising to a certain level of management, wealth, and power—oops, there goes another one. Among certain social activists, the good life entails living harmoniously with nature and humanity, eating organic, marching for justice, or tutoring needy children — yep, don’t hit that mark, though I wish I did. In women’s self-help magazines, the good life requires embracing our own positive potential, exercising 30 minutes a day, and losing at least 10-15 pounds while either home schooling the kids or working a high powered job and juggling all demands with a smile — you guessed it, a bunch of zeroes on many counts. Even individual churches promote a vision of the good life — my church’s motto is “empowering impossibly great lives.”

Is anyone feeling as tired as I am after that litany of voices? Does anyone else want to join me in screaming, “Where is my impossibly great life??”

As the founding member of Overachievers Anonymous (a group I attempted to start at Harvard, which did not take off because students did not rush at the chance to admit they were overachievers and that it was destroying their lives), I have come to realize that no matter how outside pressures compel me, the pressures inside my own head are even more insidious. There was the dread within that if I didn’t finish my PhD, I’d feel like a failure for the rest of my life. And then, when the end came in sight, the sudden realization that since I was not going into academia, perhaps I was failing by never using my doctorate. A little envious voice points out contrasts between me and my neighbors, a louder one condemns me every time I yell at my kids, and then there is that laser-beam vision that focuses all my attention onto my latest pimple when I look in the mirror.

My over-achieving mentality even can poison my time with God. For almost all of my cognizant life, the Daily Quiet Time, the epitome of evangelical Christian spirituality, created inordinate amounts of guilt in my life—mostly because I rarely did it. On the few occasions I disciplined myself to daily pray and read the Bible, I often found my devotional time dry and meaningless, something I performed just to say I did it, to feel better about myself as a spiritual person, rather than to relate to the God of the universe.

A while ago, I had a crazy dream. I dreamt that my husband Scott took me on a surprise visit to the Oprah Winfrey show, which for some strange reason was being held in the open air in the heart of Manhattan, one of my most favorite places in the world. Although in real life I’ve never seen the program, in the dream The Oprah Winfrey Show was my favorite show of all time, and Oprah my most favorite celebrity. But Scott hadn’t told me about it ahead of time, and I didn’t like how he planned the whole thing, so rather than enjoying it, I was mad, furiously mad. At one point in the dream, I literally turned my back to the stage because it was more important for me to tell Scott my bad feelings than to watch my most favorite celebrity perform in my most favorite show in my most favorite city.

When I awoke, I lay in bed shaking with the visceral power of the dream, my husband still sleeping next to me. I knew the dream exactly described my perfectionist-never-satisfied-heart. And although my poor husband has been subjected to my critical “glass half full” spirit many times, I knew the dream was not primarily about my marriage. It was about my relationship with God. I knew this because on the journey of life, it is God who has prepared a banquet before me, even in the presence of enemies; it is God who has led me to green pastures and still waters; it is God who has guarded me with rod and staff as I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Unfortunately for God though, I’ve behaved much more like one of my kids than the mature adult I’d like to think I am. All too often, I whine that I’d rather lie on the couch watching TV than trust God that the family trip will be a blast.

Lying in bed, I immediately begged Jesus to change whatever lies within me that is so critical and negative that I would rather control everything than enjoy the great surprises he wants to give me. I then woke Scott, told him the dream, and after he shouted a few “glory, glory, hallelujahs!” asked him to pray for me as well.

There have been many ups and downs on the road to recovery but I have been gratified to see something within me slowly shifting. A key part of healing has involved realizing that the source of a good life has little to do with my work: the degrees I’ve achieved; the job title I possess; the valuable contributions I’ve made. Neither does living water flow from my relationships. Husband, children, friends, and community are great blessings, but can be the font of every burden as well.

There are several key spiritual disciplines which have helped me begin to appreciate the good life God has already given me. The first has been meeting regularly with some friends who courageously speak the truth to me while loving me well, and trying to do the same for them. The second has been to take time to thank and worship God, alone all by myself, when no one can hear me sing out of tune or catch how I missed the chord change. And another has been to take time in the midst of my normal journaling discipline to listen for God’s voice. I write any words or thoughts that come into my mind, and often the words are so much more loving, gracious, and convicting all at the same time than anything I would come up with on my own, words so different from that accusatory voice that buzzes in my head, that I know God has spoken.

All three of these spiritual disciplines change the focus from me performing to me receiving. They become conduits for evanescent instants when God somehow breaks through my harried thoughts and I experience his presence and love. In those grace-filled moments, I need not perform, indeed I cannot perform — all I can do is receive. I experience God’s character and will. Of course he wants me to flourish — to grow, to thrive, to blossom, yes, even to prosper — after all, that is my heart’s desire for my children, and God is a much more loving, patient, and kind parent than I am.

I have often heard the admonition that the joy is not in the destination, the joy is in the journey. I am learning that the joy of the journey comes from the company — walking with The Great Companion, who then gives us other great companions as well. Jesus has taken me to various destinations — graduate school, marriage, motherhood, and career among them — and I hope he will lead me through many more adventures. So perhaps the next time I find myself in Manhattan watching Oprah with the One who loves me, I’ll just relax and enjoy the show.

About the Author

Kathy Tuan-MacLean (PhD, Northwestern) is the national faculty ministry director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where she invites and resources faculty to follow Jesus together. Since joining InterVarsity in 1990, she has led numerous students and faculty in Bible study, spiritual formation, and leadership development. She is also a spiritual director who has led marriage ministry and women's retreats. Kathy is married to Scott, and they have three young adult children and an overanxious mini labradoodle.

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