Dr. Paul T. P. Wong’s autobiography, A Lifelong Search for Meaning: Lessons on Virtue, Grit, and Faith, is published in weekly installments. Stay updated here.
I cannot believe that I first started working on my autobiography way back in 2008 at the urging of Mr. Chou, President of the Chou Ta-Kuan (CTK) Cultural and Educational Foundation. Many things have happened in the past nine years which have interrupted the project. I am grateful that Mr. Chou has not given up on me and is still interested in publishing my life story.
I have just finished the first section of my autobiography, which is about my family members. From this chapter on, it will be about different aspects of my adult life. I will be writing about not only key events in my life, but also share my thoughts and insights.
Meanwhile, it seems appropriate to set the stage by reprinting my prologue written in 2008, because this backward glance provides a snapshot of my difficult life circumstances and my mental state at that time.
Prologue Written in 2008
It is near midnight. Alone in my office, I’m savoring the balmy breeze from my half-closed window. The college campus is all but deserted except for the lone security guard at the main entrance.
The city is sound asleep. Silence works its hypnotic magic; it cradles me with the sweet warmth of a mother’s embrace. It’s hard to resist the pull from slumber-land. Just as a sleepy person wants to sleep, a tired person wants to retire.
Sitting slumped in my office chair, I stare blankly at my computer screen without writing a single word. I feel totally drained, both physically and emotionally, after running on empty for so long. Even my arms and legs refuse to listen to my command, as if they were paralyzed. My body feels like all but death, save that my mind remains conscious.
The last year of my life has been like a chapter from the biblical book of Job, the proverbial figure of suffering and perseverance. So many bad things have happened in quick succession:
- The death of my oldest brother from cancer after a prolonged struggle;
- The impending death of my second oldest brother due to cancer;
- Oppositions to my proposed curriculum reform at the college;
- Dealing with the revelation that my older son is gay;
- Battling with the most aggressive type of prostate cancer;
- Re-hospitalization because of intense pain after surgery;
- Working day and night to organize the Meaning Conference on Death and Dying;
- Facing unexpected opposition and betrayal by my conference co-chair; and
- Finding a way to cover the huge conference deficit.
How many blows can one absorb before going down? What does it take to get up for one more round of fight? Feeling dejected and exhausted—there seems to be nothing left in me to get back to my feet and continue the struggle.
Against the backdrop of a long human history of greed, corruption, power struggle, and wars, who am I to try to change the world?
How can I reduce the ocean of suffering with a single bucket?
Am I an old fool who tries to remove a mountain with a rusted shovel?
Do I want to spend the rest of my life tilting against the windmills?
The burden of living and the prospect of dying weigh heavily on me. I feel that I am too old to right the wrongs in society, too weary to fight another battle, and too weak to pursue my vision. I feel like praying Martin Luther’s prayer: “I am utterly weary of life. I pray the Lord will come forthwith and carry me home” (cited by William James, 1929, p. 135).
A Tiny Light in Darkness
Recently, Professor Harriet Wu from Fo Guang University emailed me, asking me where I found the energy to work long hours every day. I replied that whenever I felt exhausted, one look at the Global Love of Life Medal from the CTK Foundation was sufficient to give me a surge of energy. I cannot let Ta-Kuan Chou down, in whose memory the Love of Life Award was created.
If a young, 10-year-old boy with terminal cancer and an amputated leg could write poems that inspired millions, how could I simply give up on life when I can still walk? That’s why I have readily accepted the CTK Foundation’s invitation to publish my autobiography in connection with receiving their annual Love of Life Medal.
Now, in the depth of night, the voice of Ta-kuan again reignites a small spark in my heart and rekindles my love of life:
Doctor is the judge,
sentencing me to death,
but I am a patient, not a criminal,
I want to bravely go on living.
To live is to strive and fight. To live a purpose-driven life is to overcome obstacles and run the risk of failure and suffering. The alternative is unthinkable. What would life be like, if it is bereft of vision? Life without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder. Life without struggles would be no different from the living dead.
Now that I have received a stay of execution, a new lease on life, I need to go on living with the same spirit as Ta-kuan. I may not live long enough to see the fruit of my labor, but at least I can sow some seeds of hope and love and spread a tiny light in the dark.
On my way home, I take a deep breath and gaze into the sky: The stars smile back at me. I feel an infusion of joy and energy coming from above.
Born for Adversity and Saved for a Purpose
My life story is about how to be a first-class human being when others treat you as a second-class citizen and how to glorify God even when others malign you.
My story is one of pursuing an impossible dream against all odds. I have been beaten but not broken. I have been to hell and back. I have been knocked down and counted out many times, but I have always managed to bounce back up. I have learned to survive and flourish by embracing pain and death for a higher purpose. I have learned how to love life even when it bites.
The Psalmist wrote: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desire of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). God has indeed kept his promise, but His gift is costly. We can hold on to God’s promise only by letting go of the self and the world.
The dark night of dying to the self and moving forth to fulfilling God’s calling is liberating. I feel that my life has been purified, strengthened, and enriched by the dark night of the soul. How do we know our folly and hollowness until everything is stripped away from us? How can we learn the peace and joy of oneness with God until we are wounded on life’s busy highway?
Awareness of impending death has become a powerful motivation to love life and live each day with a clear sense of purpose. Death awakens our love of life more than all the promises of success.
I cease to be me and I cease to exist, if I stop my vocation of proclaiming the good news of faith, love, and hope to the suffering masses. That is sufficient reason to share my life story.