“I’m feeling like a complete failure in life,” I said to my husband a few nights ago.
It’s a common refrain he’s heard over our 18 year marriage.
I suffer from an addiction to significance, made worse because I’ve inherited it from both sides of my family. Both my grandfathers got their Ph.D.s in America, one at Columbia, the other at Harvard. Both were government officials in China (one a Nationalist ambassador to the Ivory Coast, Philippines, and Argentina, the other the right hand man for General Lee, the president of China after Chiang Kai-Shek fled for Taiwan). I think both of them were addicted to significance as well.
Of course, when you think you’re going to help rule or represent the most populous nation in the world, you probably have the right. As opposed to me.
Which brings me back to the failure conversation.
Always wanting to be kind, generous and engaged, Scott didn’t roll his eyes, but said, “What’s happening now?”
“Between Amy Chua, Ming Tsai and Joanne Chang I’m feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing in my life.” In the past weeks I’ve read the books of these 3 famous Chinese-Americans, all first generation like me, all Ivy League grads unlike me.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Simply Ming: One Pot Meals
I’ve enjoyed all 3 books and I literally want to bake about 85% of the recipes in Flour, which is unheard of for any cookbook I own.
Amy Chua, the famous “Tiger Mom,” teaches law at Yale and is making a boatload of money, even if she might be the most hated woman in America.
Ming Tsai, the famous TV chef, happens to be the cousin of my mother’s goddaughter. My mother dated one of his uncles. So when we went to his restaurant Blue Ginger with my parents, she told him all their shared connections and he gave us free desserts. The first two times I ate at Blue Ginger, I thought I had eaten the most delicious food I’d ever tasted.
Joanne Chang owns Flour bakery here in Boston. I’ve only been to Flour 3 times. Luckily none of its locations are that convenient, because Chang’s pastries are just amazing. She won the sticky-bun throwdown with Bobby Flay on Food Network, so she has some national exposure, and her cookbook sold out before Christmas. I started reading her blog in December because I wanted to know what recipes she included before I bought her book and read every entry from a 2 year period.
I reminded Scott how Ming went to Yale, but then pursued his dream of being a chef. Joanne went to Harvard and then pursued her dream of pastry. “I’m not achieving my dreams of fame or fortune,” I concluded.
He looked at me incredulously.
“Of course, I didn’t go into the right career if I really wanted to ever achieve fame or fortune,” I conceded.
“Yes, I was going to point that out.”
What a bummer. Think about it, do you know of a single famous campus minister in the entire US? Nope, not one. I definitely went into the wrong career to be world-famous or achieve world domination.
Which brings me back to the question I left off several blogs ago, what are we racing towards? And what do we want our kids to race towards? Most sane parents know that power, prestige, the status of one’s alma mater and gobs of money won’t buy us or our kids happiness, health, loving relationships or a significant positive impact on our world. Yet all those things do buy choices and opportunities, and who wants to deprive our dearest of opportunities?
Because I often confess my addiction to significance (even starting a group called Overachievers Anonymous with grad students at Harvard but they eventually balked so we just turned into a Bible study on Genesis), I’ve had a couple White friends give me slightly different perspectives.
One said he thought my addiction wasn’t a bad thing—that my drive was essentially about the Kingdom of God breaking into our world to heal, liberate and empower. I liked that, except that because I want both to be part of the uprising, and get credit for it, I think he let me off too easy.
My leader for the inner healing class I took some years ago had another perspective. In our group, I confessed all the generational sins of my family and everyone prayed for me. In the tradition of that class, my leader prayed and God gave her a picture for me, a picture where my family wore a long cape-like train, what she said was the mantle of leadership. But idols were stuck onto the train, all the things my family worshipped and used their leadership to serve instead of God—fame, power, lust for immortality. She thought my desire to be significant was mostly about my family’s gift of leadership, but that this God-given gift could easily be subverted by worshipping the wrong things.
Like fame and fortune.
On Sunday, my pastor preached about indulgence, pointing out that we crave and feel powerless resisting the object of our indulgence, yet after we indulge, we inevitably feel like crap and are filled with self-loathing. Porn. Chips. Chocolate. Greasy-fatty junk food. TV. Random internet surfing. See what he means?
His interpretation of Jesus’s radical words about gouging out sinful eyes or cutting off stumbling right hands, was “Just say no.” Cut off whatever tempts us to indulge. Get rid of the chips, chocolate or junk food, which is what every single dieting book tells you to do. Put the computer in a public space so you can’t trawl porn sites without being seriously embarrassed.
Given those words, I guess I cut off my right hand when I chose to go into the lowest-status ministry there is—ministry where you raise your own salary and aren’t ordained—rather than becoming the lawyer my mother always wanted me to be.
But in my better moments, I remember that I went into ministry because I loved it. When I was 14 and first thought, “Maybe I should be a minister when I grow up,” (my version of God’s call) the job just sounded fun. You get to teach, you get to lead, you get to counsel, you get to take kids on summer trips to the Big Island, what’s not to love?
In Graduate/Faculty ministry where I currently serve, we love Frederick Buechner’s quote,
“True vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
When I’m not feeling insignificant, overshadowed or just plain grumpy, most days I feel deep gladness in working my tiny little plot of our world with the needs God’s presented to me.
Both Ming and Joanne also chose that path—finding their deep gladness in food and flavor to meet American taste buds, and I for one, have been grateful for their service, even if my hips aren’t. Perhaps Amy Chua has been working out her gladness also.
All to say, what could be better than to help our children work towards discovering their own deep gladness in the context of the world’s needs, and encouraging them to be part of the solution?
Now that’s a race worth running.