It was a remarkable sensation to see ideas and words flowing so easily, as if they had always been there but had not been allowed expression.
Meanwhile, I become more and more aware that for me writing is a very powerful way of concentrating and of clarifying for myself many thoughts and feelings. Once I put my pen on paper and write for an hour or two, a real sense of peace and harmony comes to me. (p. 121)
That’s Henri Nouwen writing in his 1974 Genesee diary , but the words feel familiar. Writing calms me—that is, when it isn’t making me restless because the words won’t fit or get stuck or look ugly.
When I was 8 or 9, I entered the Malaysia Standard-Chartered Short Story Competition, laboring away on our Intel 286 till I had over a thousand words about an alternate universe (which, if memory serves, involved hot-air balloons). When I was 10 and 11, my dad attended seminary in the States, so we became temporary immigrants, living below the poverty line in a comfortable Chicago suburb. In writing class and after school, I wrote story after story about social misfits who do amazing things to Prove Themselves, thus winning popularity.
I’ve long since given up fiction-writing. I don’t have the imagination for it; as evidenced by the fact that my most distressing dreams tend to involve (a) feeling frantic because I am late for something, or (b) feeling anguished because people are saying mean things to me. But writing is still central to how I make sense of, and try to make change in, this world.
I put too much energy into any encounter, as if I have to prove each time anew that I am worth being with. “You put your whole identity at stake—and every time you start from scratch,” John Eudes suggested. (p. 171)
Halfway through my A Levels in Singapore, I started a blog. Many of my friends had blogs, and my head felt full of words; so I experimented with a writing voice and fished for approval.
And then I got to college, and was plunged into an obsessive quest to define identity. In classes, I read Edward Said’s Orientalism and Linda Nochlin’s “Why have there been no great women artists?” The postcolonial and feminist critiques fascinated me intellectually, and also because they seemed to justify my secret hope that I deserved this territory as much as anyone did, no matter how much I felt like an outsider. And then there was Facebook: I would try to come up with witty status updates and “About me” descriptions, and then try not check my “like” tallies every thirty minutes for the next few hours. I kept blogging, mostly to a shrinking audience of friends who themselves blogged. Though that didn’t stop me from writing a detailed post in June 2008 with subsections on “Why the only type of writing I do in longhand is journalling, which I try not to edit,” “Why I sometimes want to edit my journal (one of several reasons),” “Why I’d rather not spend my life in daily news,” “Why I don’t yet make political statements in type,” “Why I no longer compose fiction or poetry,” and “Why I blog.”
But my wordy self-discoveries didn’t all emerge from liberal arts syllabi and the widely felt but individually uptight urge to Figure Ourselves Out. I was also writing and editing for the campus newspaper and our new journal of Christian thought. I started speaking in front of large groups. I found that I could say things in ways that people enjoyed listening to. Sometimes that awareness quietened my insecurities. Sometimes it fanned my egotism.
I am becoming more aware that with words ambiguous feelings enter into my life. It almost seems as if it is impossible to speak and not sin. Even in the most elevated discussion, something enters that seems to pollute the atmosphere. In a strange way, speaking makes me less alert, less open, and more self-centered. (p. 133)
In 2014, I joined Teach For Malaysia. In the small town to which I was posted, I learned about silence. Since the A Levels, I had tried to go on several personal retreats, though none had seen sustained silence besides the weeklong silent retreat I had completed in between the master’s and TFM.
During my second TFM year, a combination of exhaustion, loneliness, and delayed emotional healing pushed me away from social media and towards contemplative prayer. Throughout those two years, my most useful writing was unsophisticated: passages and exercises in the simplest English helped my EFL students; while my occasional verbose blog and Facebook posts helped little but my confused pride. My most powerful words were among my most artless—a student who went from depression to energetic drive said that she motivated herself through painful study sessions by recalling my saying that “things we don’t like can be good for us.”
But then I am still more concerned with myself than with the Lord. Slowly I have to learn to meditate not on my own terms but on his. …
I see, I see—but when is God going to break through all my defenses so that I can see not just with my mind but with my heart as well? (p. 181-82)
I emerged from TFM with a jewelry box covered in pink Hello Kitty motifs—because the aforementioned student also remembered me saying that I strongly disliked Hello Kitty, and wanted me to know that even an unfortunate cartoon character could be good for me—and with the time and emotional energy to start writing again, but without the compulsion to prove my worth to the internet through a torrent of words. After one of my now-rare Facebook posts, I still have to beat down the inclination to peek at “likes” and comments; but it’s much easier to ignore. Sometimes I even forget, which is pleasant.
And now I’ve started writing for the Kairos. I’m also in the process of converting my old WordPress into a personal research website, mostly to share some datasets publicly, but I’m thinking about blogging again, in both English and Malay, so that the latter doesn’t get rusty away from the school setting. I’ve carved out a block of time on every weekday morning to spend on meditative prayer before I start work, though my thoughts are more likely to be rushing along tangents than resting in divine truths during those prayer times.
I want to use words as a medium for loving the world, not a means to grab love for myself. And I’m still squinting through a glass, darkly, but I know that one day I will see face to face.
If words have to grow out of silence, I will need much silence to prevent my words from becoming flat and superficial.
… I realized that the only thing I have to do is say loudly what they already know in their hearts to that they can recognize it as really theirs and affirm it in gratitude. (p. 161)
 Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Genesee diary: Report from a Trappist monastery, New York: Doubleday, 1989.