When I got the news, I wept.
Even though really, I should have jumped for joy.
Looking back, it made me challenge all the narratives that we’ve been taught and are teaching others.
“The world depends on you. You are unstoppable. Your dream is as big as you want it to be. You can be anything.”
Once upon a time, I believed and preached it. Now, I don’t believe that anymore.
It’s not that I’ve become cynical. Far from it. But I am discovering, with great trepidation, fear and awe, that perhaps when we choose to circumscribe our dreams with our values and wants, and frame them with grandeur through our self-prescribed lenses… we can
crowd out the world.
We call it passion, drive, reckless abandonment even.
I did, too.
My crashing point came when I found out it was my third time applying to Johns Hopkins University, and it might be my third time letting it go without completing the applications- again.
The first time it happened, it was between the decision to get married to a man who had travelled 10’000 miles to Singapore, or to leave for the States and return to miss a part of my destiny. The second time it happened, God called us to serve in Uganda before I finished my application.
The third time I applied, my husband said it was time.
One day in Africa, I remember a local doctor question me about my qualifications.
“You’re just a doctor? Not even a Masters? You could have done so much more for us with more qualifications.”
I left his clinic early, ran home and wept.
As much as I knew his statement did not represent the majority of Africans who had displayed so much gratitude and hospitality to us, there was truth in what he said.
My skills were limited, they circumscribed what I had to offer. The more I served the poor, the more I realized I didn’t know.
It was a mentor, a regional leader for World Vision for over 2 decades who told me, “The world’s poor only deserves the world’s very best. You need to go to Johns Hopkins.”
I applied to only one university. Some said I was unwise; a well-meaning professor offered me a local PhD programme as a backup. I had to turn it down. That PhD would not have helped me better serve the poor in a developing context in future.
But the tidal wave came in when my husband told me that instead of our original plans of moving back to Canada for 5 months a year for 2 years to fulfill his citizenship requirements for his healthcare for his liver transplant and then for me to pursue my further studies, he was given the opportunity to take up a unique missions role based in Singapore. It was a real honor for him.
I was so proud of him.
But it was now me versus you. My dreams versus yours.
It was hard to talk that night. Two of us, crouched over, holding hands and looking into the darkness, bursting with pride for the other’s achievements and the opportunities that lay ahead, and yet bristling with turmoil. The air was electric with tension but neither of
us said a word.
“Dreams should never be this way, should they? Me versus you.”
The internal turmoil grew every day. Yet the more it grew, the more we spent time holding hands, determining that God would give us a common dream to grow towards, and not separate ones to tear us apart.
Weeks later, we both decided. If God made it clear to us for Cliff to take up this role, I would give up my MPH application, or do it online, part-time and we would have to trust that God would sustain his health without the health care renewal. At the same time, if God
made it clear for us to pursue the original plan, then he would give up his role here.
That evening, holding hands, we looked out into the darkness as we both lay our dreams to rest.
I hated what came after. It resurrected the selfishness ingrained in the dreams we wanted to crucify. Well-meaning people came up to me and reminded me, “You’re missing the opportunity of a lifetime.”
I overheard the grave disappointment of my supervisors, “She could have just gone for a year and returned, couldn’t she? Poor girl, what a waste.”
I became objectified as the sacrificial, foolish wife again who couldn’t put herself above her husband. Of course, they never knew, how much Cliff had to give up and lay down all these years, every day, to intentionally help me fulfill my best. Whether it was giving up a restaurant decision, or sacrificing his time driving me to speaking engagements, it was never “me versus you”.
It was always “us”, we moved as one, towards a collective, inclusive dream which was bigger than us combined.
The night we buried our dreams, however, something magical happened.
It was like the individual dreams we had drawn for ourselves were now free of boundaries. It was not “yours” or “mine”. It was about us. Together as one, we were powerful.
But this was not a narrative I was familiar with.
I was featured on Forbes, Prestige magazine, the Straits Times… the angle of success always focused on what I had achieved, what I had done, how I had gone against the odds to pursue my dreams.
But what about the dreams of heroes that died, which were buried for a reason more worthwhile than themselves? Did they not take more courage, more humility, more self-sacrifice than any pompous, self-gratifying, and single-headed pursuit of a dream at all costs?
I learned an important life lesson that day- that it is a myth that our dreams belong to us.
The world does not depend on me, I am not indispensable. I am not unstoppable- a relative’s illness, an expecting child, a husband’s dream, does not take a pitiable second place to my
My dream should never be as big as I want it to be, but what God has destined for it to become, in His way, in His timing.
Contrary to what the world says, I can’t be anything.
This is the narrative I discovered, which was so true. And yet, I knew, so unpopular and contrary to all the talks and stories which people invited me to speak about in public.
That night holding Cliff’s hand, with tears in both our eyes, I realized there were things, values, people that were far more important than our own dreams at times.
Our personal dreams are not the end-all, be-all.
That night as we slept, I had a dream. I dreamt that I was flying a kite, like the kite in my first book, Kitesong, a book about finding one’s dreams. The string broke, and it came crashing down. I ran to it, picked it up, and ran to deliver it to Cliff. In his hands, it
lay intact and he helped me to fly it again.
I woke up.
That eventful week, Cliff got news that his leaders unanimously felt to release us to our original plans. They proposed Cliff could take up the job offer at another later season in his life. I was speechless.
But he wasn’t the least bit disappointed. Instead, like a man truly surrendered to God’s will, he smiled and said, “God’s way is the best way. Let’s celebrate.”
So when I got the news that I was accepted to Johns Hopkins University, I wept.
When we found out they would allow me to defer my program because of our pregnancy and convert the original online/part-time program to a full-time/on-campus program so I could start school when baby was bigger, I was in shock. When I found out I was 1 of 2 selected for the Fulbright scholarship which would only sponsor on-campus (and not online) programs, I reeled in amazement. Although it covers only a part of my school fees, we have to trust that He will provide the rest of the 60K or so and more.
I should have jumped for joy, but being overpowered with gratitude sent me to my knees instead.
I am learning, that the kites we fly are never our own. They must never be about us. They belong to others, to those who love us. They belong to the One who created them.
If we hold on too tight, the kitestrings will break.
But when we release them to the people who taught us how to fly them in the first place, when we surrender our dreams to the One who created them, that’s when we can truly learn how to fly.
Thank you Cliff, for teaching me to fly my kites, and to God, for creating them.