I’ve spent so much of my life trying to prove myself to others. And a lot of this proving has been done on a stage, as I wrote about in the second paragraph here. In the picture above the lamps shining on me denote stage lights, to represent how the stage was a place that made me feel I was somebody, that I was significant. The reality is that I was not authentic to who I was. Why?
This is the mantra I lived out for many years: if only _________ approved of me, than my life would be significant. How could I possibly be authentic, being true to who I am, if I’m always trying to prove I’m someone whom I’m not? Growing up, my father is the one I’d place in that blank. But before I think about what proving myself to him looked like, I realized that my father also had to prove himself to others, but with much higher stakes.
My father was a teenager when he immigrated to the States in the 50’s, and to say that he had to prove himself to be accepted into the U.S. is an understatement. He had to memorize than regurgitate answers to obscure inquires from US interrogators whose goal was to deport as many Chinese like my father as possible. My father immigrated to the U.S. just a decade after the racist Chinese Exclusion Act ended but still a decade before President Johnson changed immigration laws that opened up the way for Chinese to come in much greater numbers. Before 1965, only a hundred or so could immigrate over per year; before 1942, that number was held to a dozen. So most Chinese needed to take on false “paper names” to immigrate in. So my father not only had to prove himself to get into the U.S., he had to do it with someone else’s identity. If he wasn’t able to convince the interrogators of his false identity, he risked deportation, spoiling the exorbitant amount of money to purchase the paper name. This would surely bring shame to the whole family, enough shame that there are documented reports of suicide for those who did not pass interrogation.
Since my youth, I had felt it my duty as a 2nd-gen Chinese-American to take the next steps in the Asian-American dream, to be either a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, and to afford a house where 3 generations could live together. This was the mantra I heard going into college, and it’s what I wanted to see fulfilled in my life to prove myself and make my family proud. If my own father was able to prove his false identity, work his way through college, and successfully raise a family, surely I can prove myself to get to this next stage of the Asian-American Dream.
And for a while, it seemed like I was fulfilling this dream. I had a hi-tech job in Silicon Valley that offered wonderful benefits. It even had a swimming pool and full gym class offerings. Perhaps most valuable was that they offered continuing education through a partnership with Stanford University. I took advantage of all those offerings…except for the swimming part. Life seemed to be going as planned and I felt the approval from my father when he began telling his friends all about where I worked and was going to school. However for me, achieving this milestone only left me feeling more inauthentic then ever. Why?
God’s graciousness began breaking into my life. The need to prove myself to my father, or anyone else for that matter was weaning away. This meant I could begin to untangle my wanting to honor my father and whole family, from the need to prove myself to earn their approval. I went through an arduous discernment time regarding my engineering job. In the end, I decided I had to leave that along with the free education that came with it. Initially, my father was very upset. But as I continued growing in authenticity, my father saw how this pursuit of authenticity began to play out in the way I love my own family and my own mother, especially during the last days of her life. He would at times even ask me (and my sister) where I had learned to love “this way,” in a way he’s not witnessed in our extended family. What I wrote here in one paragraph actually took decades to play out. But looking back, that first step of leaving engineering, something that seemingly dishonored by father, set the stage for being able to love him and my family in ways I could not have even imagined.
“You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.” Deut 8:17-18
God’s graciousness, by definition, is freely given. There’s no room in God’s graciousness to prove one’s significant nor to earn one’s approval. I’ve known that in my head for a long time. What I did not know were the lies in my heart that trumped God’s graciousness. The underlying lie was this: something was wrong with me; no one could accept me for who I was. But once the truth of God’s graciousness began to buttress against these lies, the need to prove myself began to lose its power.
In my days of believing there was something wrong with me, I could not even imagine a place of authenticity, a place of vulnerability, and a place where these things could spawn creativity and innovation. The fact that I threw an art show as part of my 50th would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago; blowing up 5 huge portraits of myself for hundreds of people to stare at was well beyond anything I could have even conceived. I was that boy growing up that was so shy, sometimes my sister was asked if I knew English! But creating art and sharing my story was an excellent exercise to prove I’ve got nothing to prove, that I can be the same guy off stage as I am on stage.
As I approached 50, I wanted to share the significant parts of me as best I could, a recounting of where I’ve seen my life inflect “upward” into greater authenticity. This was a way to “decommission” and bring closure to my first half of life and to welcome the second half. Thematically, a book called “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” has provided a great framework to tell this story. Authenticity was one of five themes. The only other one I blogged about so far was on “Work.” I made a couple-minutes video about “Authenticity” and it, along with videos of the other four motifs, can be found here.
I’m living more authentically than I’ve ever known. Yet, I feel there’s still a long way to go. God’s graciousness means the sails to unchartered waters of authenticity still lay before me as God gives me years in this second half of life.