Joanne Lee Wong
The Secret of Contentment
Updated: Sep 18, 2021
BATHOS. It’s a word which seems to describe my life: the descent from the sublime. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it thus:
bathos: noun /ˈbeɪθɒs/ (in writing or speech) a sudden change, that is not always intended, from a serious subject or feeling to something that is silly or not important.
EG. A serious play with moments of comic bathos.
That’s my life in a word.
I’ve been struggling with the clinical depression I described in an earlier column in which I had said I don’t know what the exact cause was. After much introspection, I think I finally have found it: disappointment. Not in myself. That I can handle. But disappointment I have caused in others - specifically, my wonderful parents.
They have always been my greatest cheerleaders in my life. From when I came last when I was a toddler in a kickboard swimming race held by my father’s then-employer, the Public Utilities Board, for their family day. While my brother was already setting National records, somewhere in our family photo albums there is a picture of me in Lane Eight with my monkey grin happily kicking away knowing I’m going to be last but absolutely intent on making my Daddy proud that I competed with big kids more than twice my age.
Then, all through my school days, my lovely, dedicated mother (who gave up her own career when I was born), fetched me to and from school, from 5am swimming training to sitting in the ballet studio all afternoon while I trained and rehearsed and trained some more. Then there’s my father who is not the best at sitting still for a two-hour ballet performance. Yet he turned up to every single one I was involved in with the Singapore Dance Theatre and gave me his opinions afterwards, thereby proving he was awake throughout.
Then when I went off to university, he came with me to settle me and my many suitcases in. I will never forget the day he took off on the platform of Oxford rail station to go visit his own university friends and business contacts before flying home. I was standing on the platform when the doors closed and I could see his tears through the window. I’d never seen my stoic Dad cry - ever.
Over the years, during my journalism phase, I knew they were so proud of me. Especially when I was on telly as a business news anchor and all their friends knew who I was. The pride in my father’s voice when he said the whole management team of his company congregated in the boardroom to hear the Finance Minister unveil the Budget for the year. And how they were just as excited to watch and listen to how Andy Lee’s daughter would interpret it with her high-profile guests. It was a pride I had learned to expect.
And what do we know about pride? Well, it comes before a fall.
The stalker episode happened. My career went into free fall. My personal life melted down. And when I finally found the man of my dreams, we could not fulfill my lifelong dream of having a baby.
Since my last column on experiencing this current episode of depression, I've been doing a lot of introspection. What exactly is bothering me to a point where I can't sleep for nights and spend hours in pain and tears without knowing the cause?
I have finally boiled it down to guilt. And it's been the parable of the talents that has been disturbing me.
Jesus tells of a man off on a journey and entrusting his servants with his property according to their ability. To the more able, he gave more. To the less able, he gave less. Five talents to one, two to another, and one to the last.
The able one who had five talents went away, traded with them, and doubled his capital. So did the one who was entrusted with two. But the guy who was endowed with one talent dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money away.
When the master came back, he praised the first two servants for their initiative and castigated the third one who showed no initiative as a "wicked and slothful servant". He took the third servant's one talent away and gave it to the first who had been in charge of the ten talents and cast the third "worthless" servant away into a place where there was the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" - a place of suffering. As it says in Matthew 25:29:
"For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."
This parable has been haunting me day and sleepless night. I believe I've been given many talents - a wonderful 15-year ballet experience, an excellent education, a one-time high-flying career, a loving and supportive family, and a truly amazing husband.
And yet, I feel I haven't delivered. A descent from the sublime to nothingness. Bathos.
My once high-flying job got derailed by the stalking episode which caused me to leave journalism and I never properly found my next calling. I've consequently felt like I've wasted my education, and as such, the money my parents worked so hard to put me through the University of Oxford and my own subsequent personal investment pursuing an MBA at the University of Chicago. And, to top it all off, I'm not able to bear grandchildren for my parents to enjoy in their autumn years - the ultimate failure for someone who has been dreaming of being a mother all her life.
I never realised that I'd been bottling all this up for years until this post-riding accident happened and I had nothing to do for six months recovering in bed. Then it all came pouring out and plunged me into a downward spiral that I could not stop.
Will God one day judge me to be a "wicked and slothful servant"? Goodness knows, I probably deserve it. Poor physical health and periodic episodes of mental health issues aside, I've lost the ambition, drive and motivation I used to possess in abundance.
During my recovery period, I even started doing some online ballet classes, thinking that if I did something that used to bring me joy and achievement, it might pick my spirits up. Well, that was a bad idea to put it mildly. When you've torn ligaments in both feet that has messed up your balance, not to mention put on 20 kilos in the last 25 years, doing one-twentieth of what you used to be able to do is downright depressing. Not exactly what the doctor ordered.
It took a whole new hobby - horse riding - to provide me with new challenges, a chance to face my fears and anxieties head on, and loosen me from the hole I had been mired in.
And ever so slowly, with the angels God has surrounded me with - my husband, my family, childhood friends, new friends and my doctor - I've started to climb out of my downward spiral and am starting to look heavenwards again.
This past Sunday was my church's 27th anniversary and Bishop Gordon Wong, our former pastor-in-charge and coincidentally my brother-in-law, came to preach on Contentment in Christ. The passage he based his sermon on was Philippians 4:11-13:
"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength."
This verse was written by St Paul in his depression when he was shackled in chains within a prison's dungeon cell - facing execution. It made me think: What is my depression compared to his? Perhaps, the difference was that he had found his purpose in life whereas my purpose has been floundering.
St Paul in Prison
Rembrandt van Rijn (1627)
Then Bishop Wong told a story that my youth pastor and marriage matchmaker, Reverend Leslie Quahe, wrote in his book Planted by the Waters about someone he calls the "Chicken Lady".
Rev Quahe had stopped by his favourite chicken wing seller in Bangkok to buy some of her fare for dinner, only to find that her stall was closed. He found out later that it was not possible for her to keep the charcoal going during the rainy season as her roof leaked. Together, with some members of his congregation, they bought her a cover for her tin roof while evangelising to her until she one day accepted Christ as her saviour.
The Chicken Lady then invited them over to her tiny hut for a meal to say thank you for all they had done. Observing her humble home, Rev Quahe was already planning to get her a few more creature comforts to make her life more cosy. Her reply?
"Thank you for asking. But I have Jesus. I have everything."
Although I had read that story in his book before, it spoke to me in a new way. Her purpose was not ambitious, driven nor particularly motivated, she was just doing her best with what she had. And she had found the secret of contentment.
Bishop Wong also mentioned another quote that expounded on that secret of contentment with a German saying by Marie von Ebner: "To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much is impossible."
And so I return to my feelings of overwhelming guilt.
Should I feel like the worthless servant who did not do anything with his one talent? Or should I give thanks that I have in previous seasons of my life been able to fulfill the potential that God has given me and be happy that I have known what it was like to have plenty?
I may not be able to give my parents a grandchild. I may not be flying high in my career any longer. I may not even have robust health like I used to have. But there is a truth I will hang on to that I believe will rid me of my guilt and lift me out of my depression.
I have Jesus. I have everything.
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.