Article by Dr. Ng Wai Sheng
Image: Watching sunset at Langkawi Island
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
Over the weekend, I had the privilege to attend the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) in Agape Community Church, Seremban. During the closing prayer session, my heart was perturbed by both the vision in front of me, and the fears that hold me back. I looked around the conference hall of 800+ people, and memories brought me back to 15 years ago.
It was the last day of year 2003. I was standing together with 20,000 people from different parts of the world, in a huge circular hall, fondly called the “Wok”, at a mega Christian student conference in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA. We were praying and singing praises to our God through the end of year 2003, and welcoming the year 2004. It was an amazing, almost heaven-like experience!
2003 was a very challenging year, as I recalled. I was just beginning to recover from an autoimmune disease. At the same time, I was a 3rd year graduate student in Chicago, trying to stay afloat with heavy full-time studies and practicum, while juggling with 4 part-time work that paid for my university tuition fees. I knew the financial aid for my studies was coming to an end, and should I choose to stay another year, I don’t know where money would come from. Meanwhile, there was a possibility to do my final-year internship back in Malaysia. But it’s an unprecedented path. If I want it, I would have to work very hard to create the internship structure, liaise with multiple parties/organizations to put together a team of clinical supervisors and a consortium of internship sites, and then try to convince my university’s training director that what I have created is equivalent to APPIC standard of an internship in the US. And even if my university accepted my proposal, I still had to risk the fact that those internship hours may not be recognized by the US state licensure board, should I ever want to return and practice in the US.
I had many fears and doubts, if any of these pathways would work out for me, or lead me astray. I was afraid to take more risks than I had already taken. You see, back in 2001, instead of a regular PhD program in a traditional university, I took a risk to enrol in a PsyD program in a small professional school in psychology. At that time, no one in Malaysia has ever heard of a PsyD program! I was terrified that my degree would not be accepted, that I won’t find a job in Malaysia, and after all the money and time I spent on graduate school, I would be a failure and a disappointment to myself and my family… Yes, I had (and still have) many catastrophic thoughts!
I don’t know about your God, but my God is quite a gambler, with a tad of humor. He probably knows me too well that if I have more than one attractive offers, I very likely end up not choosing any. You see, I really love to explore options, to no ends! Hence, the only way that He can push me to make a decision is by closing all doors, except one. And this is a door that leads to attractive possibilities, but not guaranteed. The other doors are either shut or clearly not what I want. So the challenge to me is: do I want to go through that one open door, or not?
At that time, the PsyD program at ISPP Chicago was my best option; the interviewing professor offered me a vision of many learning opportunities beyond what I had even asked for! On the other hand, all my other applications had already been turned down or the offer did not appeal to me. I could apply and wait some more, but I decided that I will take a chance with the PsyD program. That’s how I ended up in Chicago, a city that wasn’t ever in my dream, but one that became my home for the next 3 years.
I enjoyed thoroughly learning and living in Chicago. I belonged to a great multicultural community who became my family. And then came December 2003, I had to make a choice again: to stay in the US or to return to Malaysia for the final-year internship. If I stay back in the US, I don’t know how I can support myself financially. If I return to Malaysia, I don’t know if I can create an internship that will qualify me for graduation and eventually qualify for practice in Malaysia and the US.
While wrestling with my fears and insecurities, I stumbled upon the website on Urbana 2003 – a Christian student conference at University of Chicago, Urbana-Champaign, which happened to be not too far away from the city where I lived! I was drawn to attend because the plenary speaker was John Stott, a famous theologian (who ended up not making it to the conference due to illness). I didn’t have the money to attend, but then my church decided to sponsor me and even provided the transport for me to get there. Talk about providence!
Over the next 5 days at the conference, through different speakers and people I met, I was compelled, again and again, to reflect on what my life was about, in relation to my God and the world around me. I sensed an invitation to return to Malaysia and serve the people in my country. Hence, going back to Malaysia for my internship would probably serve as a bridge to reconnect with the people and culture, under the supervision of a local psychologist. But I was afraid. I didn’t have any certainty that things will work out the way I plan or wish for. I had more questions than answers.
That’s when I met Nairi, a woman who out of her own experiences of making difficult life choices, said this: Just pick a path! And TRUST that God will direct, refocus and readjust it. On the night of December 31st, 2003, I made a commitment to return to Malaysia for my final-year internship. 7 months later, I shipped everything back to Malaysia and started my internship in UKM Health Clinic and Malaysian Care in September 2004. For that, I am eternally grateful to Dr. Alvin Ng, Dr. Goh Chee Leong and Mr. Lee Chee Loi for helping me make the internship a success. Dr. Goh eventually hired me and empowered me to create the clinical psychology program at HELP University, which opened more doors for my personal and professional growth, in ways beyond my imagination! Choosing to go home also gave me the opportunity to spend time with my father, who suffered a recurrence of cancer in 2005 and eventually passed away in 2006.
As I was standing with the 800 people at GLS over the past weekend, I was reminded of my commitment made 15 years ago in Urbana 2003. I was reminded of Nairi, whose words still ring inside my head: Just pick a path! And TRUST that God will direct, refocus and readjust it.
Dear friends, are you feeling afraid about your future? So am I. I still do, despite having had many positive experiences. I don’t think we will ever stop being afraid. That’s just human nature – to fear the unknown. But to not let fear paralyse us, let us RE-MEMBER our own history: what brought you to where you are today? Can you TRUST the Goodness of Life to take you safely through the next phase in your life, and come out a better version of yourself?
This is my prayer for myself and for you my friends.