“Even though college has been really hard, I’m so grateful that I get to go to Davis. I’ve experienced too many blessings to count,” I had told my therapist, after a long exploration of the thoughts I’d been encountering since the beginning of college.
“Yeah. But can you think of something to be grateful for when you are sitting on the staircase crying?” She asked me.
“I am actually so grateful that I cried on that staircase,” I had said. Those tears led to rolling into my friend’s small group, to the word Ysabel gave me, to the breakdown, to calling Michela, to Fall Retreat, and to my academic advisor intervening. And the stairwell in my dorm has officially become my secret place. Looking back, of all the beautiful places there are on campus, I have my greatest revelations in that cold, grey and gloomy space.
It was an ironic question, because in the last 3 weeks of the quarter, I found myself on the stairwell a lot. The second day back from the Thanksgiving break we weren’t supposed to have (because of the California fires), I found myself holding another inadequate test score, succumbing to another wave of extreme frustration, wondering how I did so badly on a test I thought was so easy. Another wave of relentless, all-too familiar thoughts attacked, telling me that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or strong enough, followed by judging myself for how terrible I was at handling failure and my emotions. At first, I told myself it’s okay. Your whole friend group did better than you even though you studied like crazy and went to office hours and actually thought you knew stuff. But you can’t change what happened, so now you need to study really hard for your bio midterm and last math midterm to make up for it. And I sat down and opened my laptop, tired from an already extremely busy day, ready to take the 79.8%, stuff the emotion down and move on.
And then I stopped myself.
My heart posture had changed. My first instinct to cope with failure was to begin striving again. And remembering where the last striving cycle left me, I closed my laptop, texted my friend Danielle and my youth leader Britt from back home, and instead tried to spend some time with God. My thoughts didn’t allow that to happen. I tried to find something to be grateful for, but I could only think about the midterm I had the following day and the other one I had at the end of the week and how I should be studying instead of going through the motions about something I couldn’t control.
So I found myself on the stairwell, freaking out, on the edge of a striving relapse. I was crying on the staircase and I couldn’t find something to be grateful for. Danielle called me shortly after I texted her.
“Lea, If you want to fight this battle, fight. Don’t let the enemy walk all over you like this. You are trying to climb this mountain with a backpack full of bricks. God doesn’t promise that there won’t be a mountain, but he does call us to climb the mountain with our hands wide open.”
“Every time a thought comes into your head that says you’re not smart enough, you need to take that thought and hold it captive before it takes a hold of you. I know you’ve been trying to do this already, but maybe instead of asking God what he says about you, just thank God for what he says about you. You already know what He says about you. When you don’t feel smart enough, thank God for the beautiful mind He gave you. When you don’t feel strong enough, thank God for always giving you the strength you need to fight your battles.”
After she prayed for me, something clicked. A string formed between memories of all the things people had me declare over myself, to the self-compassion I had been trying to learn, to the promises gratitude releases that I know and have experienced before. Gratitude is the opposite of scarcity. Gratitude points back to Jesus. Suddenly, that verse about taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ that is somewhere in 2nd Corinthians made sense. I grabbed my journal and filled the page with declarations, and with my flashlight under my covers thanked God for every single thing on that list before I went to sleep.
And it didn’t change my circumstances but it changed everything. Throughout my impossible bio midterm, I found myself thanking God that it would never define me or hinder my future. Thank you God that I have a beautiful mind. Thank you God that I am enough. The next day my allergies were bad and I felt super under the weather, but I kept thanking God for giving me the strength to do everything. Thank you God for giving me a body that is capable of healing itself. I took the fattest nap I’d ever taken and woke up so well rested, but was tempted to be angry at myself for sleeping when I should’ve been studying. Instead, I thanked God for giving me rest.
Then, I left my phone in one of the farthest lecture halls from my dorm after the math review session from 8-10p.m. I was about to bike in the pouring rain to go fetch it at 11p.m, but my small group leader, Michela, who lives closer to that hall took her housemates on a mission where they convinced the janitors to let them in, found my phone, and then drove it up to my dorm for me. I began to notice that the days I feel the most loved are the ones where I screw up the most.
Danielle checked in with me a few days later and I told her all of this. “I think I just needed to be reminded what it means to fight the battle. Because these next few weeks are going to suck so badly but also be so amazing, and they’re not going to get to me, you know? We’re able to thank God for things before they happen because the battle has already been won.”
“YESS LEA! PREACH. You’re going to make me cry!” She replied, passionately.
She texted me 1st Thessalonians 5:16: “In everything we give thanks, for this is the will of God for your life.” When we claim that truth, we can begin to see things differently.
So I’ve been training my mind to resort to gratitude rather than all the unsustainable, intrusive, trash it’s been resorting to for so long. I am learning to sing praise before my breakthrough until my song becomes my triumph.
It’s not easy. Some days my thoughts are so intrusive it feels hopeless to even try. There are days where the words of gratitude I am declaring over myself sound so cheesy and fake. Some days I fall into the trap of comparison. Some days my brain is so fried it seems far easier to accept the lie that I can’t do anything right. On those days, I don’t pray for God to take away the mountain, but I ask Him to help me love the journey of climbing. I don’t pray for God to take away my anxiety anymore, but I do declare that it has no power over me. Because the days where life feels like a series of letdowns that happen one after the other are the days where we have all the more reason to say “thank you.” Thank you God for surrounding me when I’m surrounded. Thank you God for doing all the heavy lifting. Thank you for making me a survivor when I was a victim. Thank you for giving me the power to change my perspective. And thank you for loving me through it all.
Some days I sit on the stairwell thanking God for giving me peace when I feel the most anxious. Some days I am so happy, until I find out I did worse than the entire class on something, and I find myself trying to give thanks through my tears. Other days I sit on the stairwell thanking God for giving me strength when I feel the most depleted. Many days I am so tempted to scream at the world in anger, “I’m just not smart. I don’t know how to take these tests. Even my roommate is complaining about how screwed she is when I always do worse than her. I might actually fail this class. I’m not overreacting. Do you not understand?” And on those days I am on the phone with my youth leader Britt from back home, closing my eyes with my hands held open in front of me as she prays for God to meet me right where I am, in the storm of my head, in my dorm room stairwell. When I’m too consumed in my head to thank God for anything, I thank God for giving me people that let the light in my storm. I thank God for people who pick me up when I fail and tell me that yeah, you did really bad there. But you were brave. I’m not disappointed in you. In fact, I’m proud of you for reaching out. I’m proud of you for your heart. Keep going. I believe in you. And know I’m always right here when you fall.
I thank God for the little moments. One day I went to see my Sociology TA, Tanaya, at 3 because I couldn’t make her office hours. She checked my thesis, answered my questions, and then walked to class with me because class started at 4. She was leaving for India in a few days, and we talked the whole way. She thanked me for walking with her, told me to email her if I needed anything, and then wished me all the best once we arrived at lecture. Thank you God one of my TAs knows me by name when none of my professors do. On the last day of bio, they did a review session for the final and my professors wanted a volunteer to help design an experiment with the class. None of the other 500 people in my class wanted to go, so I volunteered willingly, galloped up there and asked my professor, “What am I doing again?” The stoic class finally erupted in laughter. She wanted me to test whether the presence of one species inhibited the growth of the other. I drew two boxes and labeled them with each treatment. She asked the class how we could incorporate a temperature factor. Crickets. Nobody raised their hand. So I said, “fire”. I was holding her mic too. I drew two correct graphs before I ran off the stage, I promise. Thank you God that even if I fail this class, at least my professors will remember me as the girl who wanted to set her experiment on fire.
And finals week definitely sucked. I blasted “Prince of Peace” by Hillsong in my ears as I re-wrote notes, created study sheets, and crunched numbers. My roommate and I had movie nights re-watching lectures about nutrient cycles and memorized evolution time periods for hours. But it was also amazing, because I was learning to take care of myself. I went to the gym every day to clear my mind between the a.m-p.m study grinds and fueled my body well. I was learning to be grateful in the storm, or find a diamond in the desert.
And I’m expecting my final grades to not be so hot. My first quarter GPA will probably be trash. This is very hard for me to swallow, and will be even harder for people back at home who thought I was smart to swallow. And can I just say that if you thought I was better than that or you think I shouldn’t be failing then you are really missing the point? Because I’ve spent my whole life trying to prove I was smart enough, only to find that even when I managed to pull a 4.6 GPA first semester of senior year that I still wasn’t “smart”. Smart doesn’t exist. I could chase it all my life, and I would never arrive. And can I just say that I’ve never been happier? Not because I’m proud of my grades but because I’m healthy, I survived my first quarter, and I am content with the intelligence I have. I’m not settling for mediocre grades, failure, or complacency by any means. This isn’t the end. But I am saying I can have joy when my best is mediocre. And after a whole life-time of wondering when my best would ever be enough, I understand now why it is.
There is a difference between striving and excellence.
Striving is trying to impress the world with everything we can do. Striving points back to us. It never arrives, it’s never satisfied, and it’s never good enough. Striving is a heart posture of, “I need to do this in order to be enough.” It’s chasing expectations that don’t exist, climbing endless ladders that lead to burnout and bondage in an effort to prove we are worth something.
But excellence is giving God our best as a gift. It’s being so in love with the Lord that you can’t help but want to give Him any less than your absolute best. It’s a heart posture that is so grateful for what He has given you that you want to steward those gifts well. It’s not about what other people think, but what God thinks, which makes excellence matter most when nobody is watching.
Excellence has a grace on it that striving does not. My 68% on a test sometimes isn’t the best, but if I gave it my everything at the time then it was excellent. Sometimes the result of 68% on my lab practical, 2 points below the class average, is just as excellent as the 96% I got on my last math midterm. Sometimes the straight As I got only twice in high school are just as excellent as the straight Cs I might get here. Sometimes the study sessions that seem to accomplish nothing are just as excellent as the ones where I manage to re-do every homework problem or memorize multiple chapters of information. A lot of times I do worse on tests than everyone I talk to, but that 54% was still excellent. A lot of days I am really grateful that my 54% was not 10%. I’m grateful that when my best is a literal F, God still makes a way. As long as my heart posture is to bring God my very best, it doesn’t matter if the world says I’m failing. I can find joy in my ability to worship Him because my heart matters more than the amount.
Excellence is having a spirit of gratitude rather than poverty. It’s working from a place of, “I am so grateful for what I have” instead of “never enough.” It’s a heart posture of abundance rather than scarcity. You can have everything and have a spirit of poverty. Or you can have nothing and have a spirit of gratitude. Your heart posture has nothing to do with what you have.
It’s wanting to always improve, not because we need to improve to be enough, but because we want to continually give God our very best. Excellence is not coping with failure by becoming apathetic and deciding you don’t care about the result. We can’t give God our best if we don’t care about the results. Excellence is being able to accept that sometimes our best isn’t making it to the top of the food chain, but knowing that there are arms of grace there to catch us throughout the journey and being able to discern our flaws from our core identity and self worth.
So today my heart desires this: to love so strongly that I fail perfectly. To climb the mountain with my hands wide open. To have the courage to risk falling, hard, but trying anyways because that is what I’m called to do. To live my life as an act of gratitude and worship. To live imperfectly but fearlessly. And to give God my absolute best in everything. Not in an effort to prove my worth, but to steward all the gifts he’s given me well in this crazy abundant life I get to live.
I want to have the courage to be thankful in the midst of uncertainty. The courage to be okay with failing. The courage to worship when everything is crashing down and when my anxiety feels demonic. The courage to be weak and still give the little that I have.
I want to have the courage to improve and persevere. I have plans to meet with a success coach and learning strategist. I plan to attend test-taking workshops to figure out my problem with multiple choice tests. This is so that the best I can give as an offering can slowly become less and less tainted with my doubt.
I want to have the courage to love and be loved regardless of my circumstances. To know that love surrounds me when my thoughts wage war. That love guards my heart when fear tries to tear me apart. When I think the storm will never end He says, “watch the giants fall.” His love tears through the night and rides on the storm, meeting me when my head is buried in my hands in my dorm room stairwell. For this, I can’t help but sing in the shower. I can’t help but lift my hands while brushing my teeth and walk into every season with a smile.
For this, I am so, incredibly grateful.
P.S: I took a break from blogging so I could give my finals my everything! There will be changes in the frequency of my posting, just because I don’t want this blog to be something I have to keep up with, but rather something that can continue to capture my journey through college. Thank you so much for 300 followers and sticking through my journey with me. It has taken me a lot longer to get to 300 than the average blogger which makes it so much more special. I am so grateful to be able to share this with you. I will be blogging all throughout undergrad and hopefully med school and wherever I end up after that. Love you all so much! ❤