As a Singaporean, I grew up immersed in a national culture defined by stress.
These instincts were arguably more learned than anything else—my Malaysian father and South Korean mother moved to the country from the United States in the 1990s. So much of how I grew up was shaped by the intensity of Singapore’s academic culture, shuttling between exam-heavy course loads, afterschool tutoring, and reams of practice papers to complete.
Different phases of my life would come to mirror this rhythm: spending hectic days in high school between writing long essays and serving in church, balancing responsibilities during military service while leading a small group and trying to keep up with reading, managing the busyness of my undergraduate life and subsequent tenure as a graduate student, and, even now, trying to uphold different commitments to ministry, creative writing, editing, friends, and family amid a full-time job.
The last time I felt thoroughly burnt out was about five years ago, as an undergraduate in England. Between reading and writing essays for class, keeping active in Christian fellowships, participating in theater productions, and rowing by dawn, I found myself gradually compromising my sleep schedule. Seven hours a night got slashed to six or even four and a half. I’m not entirely sure what drove me back then. Perhaps it was a feeling of duty and responsibility I felt I owed the people I had made promises to or a desire to not let any part of my university life slip by. Lurking beneath all this, perhaps, was an impulse toward optimization.
Optimization can be described in two ways, opines writer Jia Tolentino. First, it is a means of achieving profitability by “satisfy[ing] our wants” with “the least effort”—a formulation posited by the economist William Stanley Jevons. Second, it is the process of making something, as Merriam-Webster indicates, “as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible.”
An excessive devotion to self-optimization perverts our relationships to our time and effort, trading care and an awareness of our physical and mental limitations for an unrelenting drive toward completing tasks. In other words, optimization can make us hold on too tightly to what we should entrust to God.
A national preoccupation
In tracing this instinct toward optimization to its roots, the temptation is to sketch a history of Singaporean survivalism, geopolitical anxiety, and economic competitiveness. The machinations of Singapore Inc. took root after its unceremonious separation from Malaysia in the 1960s. Because it is a small city-state with minimal natural resources, the skills of its people became its biggest competitive advantage, as we have often been told. The transformation of Singapore’s “labor force” and improvement of its “human capital” occurred through the multinational corporations that trained generations of workers and the focused educational policies that advanced our competitive edge. Meritocracy was championed as a sacred ideal; so too were diligence, productivity, and industriousness.
This heady rush toward modernization, technologization, and optimization structured national aspirations in Singapore for a long time. People saw their lives materially transformed as a result of the government’s careful management of the country’s economic development. The flip side, however, has been a perpetually stressed-out population. Upskilling has become the new mantra of the state, with government credits provided for citizens to train and learn new skills. In other words, optimizing the self continues and appears central to Singapore’s psyche.
The aspirations of many in the church in Singapore began to cohere along similar lines, with the notion of blessing becoming correlated with wealth. Church life started to resemble the country’s changes, with discipleship and fellowship traded for easily optimizable and measurable programs and events: talks, dinners, and rallies, where the number of people reached or converted could be tracked in digits.
The compression of time through a nationwide emphasis on self-optimization, as well as the climbing demands of work tasks or school assignments imposed on each person in Singapore, have served only to foster anxieties surrounding comparison and hasten the movement of the months and days.
As Singaporean writer and critic Gwee Li Sui argues, “the social and technical implements of modernity have been improving our daily lives only to raise their pace, giving us more time that is wasted away as quickly. Political and economic interdependence forges trust and understanding among peoples, but it also grows frustration and a sense of insecurity through endless comparison.”
As an undergraduate, I attended a talk by graphic designer Andrew Khatouli. As he spoke of the challenges he faced working in the creative industry and the pressures of pursuing creative excellence, a statement he made hit me hard: “Your work ethic is only as good as your rest ethic.” The impetus to slow down and give myself time to rest became something that was hard fought. The first step required a renewed commitment to observing the Sabbath. I began to resolve to take the entirety of my Sundays off, replacing frenzied hours doing last-minute reading with walks, podcasts, and time with friends.
The unfettered space of a day suddenly felt ripe with possibility, a passage providing a temporary severance between different streams of work. I took two biblical concepts seriously: shabbat (Hebrew for “sabbath”), of a cessation of work, and nuakh (Hebrew for “rest”), of settling into a space of prayer and praise at church and elsewhere. While we are created uniquely in God’s image, as the narrative of Genesis presents, we remain creatures made from dust. As preacher Christopher Ash argues in Zeal without Burnout, to forgo sleep, the Sabbath, friends, and the inner renewal of the Holy Spirit is to attempt to create for ourselves a kind of parity with God.
A Christian life of sustainable sacrifice, however, is underpinned by a recognition of human limitation. The cultivation of a divine intimacy and a serious inner life requires a space discrete from our perennially active personas. “There is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch,” wrote 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart. The intent of prayer is to visit that kind of sanctuary Eckhart describes, says poet and philosopher John O’Donohue.
Aligning to kairos
A preoccupation with efficiency and optimizing the self can serve to lessen an awareness of our humanity. We lose our sense of our being loved into existence by the Creator, of being created in his image, and of needing to be nourished spiritually and emotionally by divine communion.
Sometimes, a kairological irruption can serve to shock us from the tepidity of our busyness and proclivities toward optimization. The New Testament conception of the Greek word kairos describes an appointed time in the purpose of God. Kairos construes a kind of immediacy and is the temporal language Jesus uses when he proclaims in the Gospel of Mark, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (1:15, ESV).
Kairos moments such as the collapse of the body, the death of a loved one, or a car crash from exhaustion have the potential to shock us out of a hectic stupor. They are the moments that provide blunt reminders of the presence of God—ones that make us acutely aware not only of our mortal limitations but also of the ephemerality of time. They provide a reminder that our calendars do not operate in concert with the mystery of time as God orders it. We are accorded mere glimmers of how God moves in time beyond what we can see and perceive. “I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end,” writes the author of Ecclesiastes (3:10–11).
The love of God has “a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed,” says theologian Kosuke Koyama. “It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.” When we lose sight of the restorative ethos of the Sabbath, we forget that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). We lose the ability to cultivate an interior life, to access the untouchable “place in the soul” that Eckhart describes.
Coming to Lent
In this Lenten season, it may be worthwhile to consider how best to counter the primacy of optimization. Theologian Rowan Williams suggests in his book Being Human that humans are ascribed dignity regardless of “how many boxes are ticked” because we stand “in the middle of a network of relations” to God and to one another. “A theologically informed language of personhood corrects the mechanical language that reduces us to a checklist of attributes,” writes Christopher Benson in his review of Williams’s book.
As a corrective to the pressures of optimization, I have made several commitments to try and cultivate space for interiority and silence this Lent. Silence supports our “growing humanity” and humbles our desire for power and control, argues Williams: “God is God by being God for us, and we are human by being human for God; and all joy and fulfillment opens up once we recognize this.” My first commitment has been to continue in my reading of Scripture each day. The second has been to keep to a schedule of daily devotions published by the Bible Society of Singapore. The third has been to read a poem each day from an anthology on joy.
Learning to space out my schedule, say no to certain commitments or invitations, and carve out pockets for prayer and reading each day will hopefully help to shift the coordinates of my present relationship to time. These habits will hopefully help to dislodge the ways in which self-optimization has lurked in my life as an ideal.
I do not pretend to believe that I have dispensed with the continued stresses of each day or the impulse to address tasks quickly and effectively. However, these practices have helped to provide necessary moments of pause and reflection, not least when recent events have conspired to provide the kairological shocks I needed to turn again to God.
To fall into the slowness of the liturgical calendar, to keep the Sabbath, and to remember the interventions of kairos moments is to facilitate a turn away from optimization and the structures of time that enable it. A life of faith sustains and strengthens but takes an eternity to learn to inhabit.
Jonathan Chan is the author of the poetry collection going home (Landmark, 2022). His poetry and essays have appeared in Ekstasis, The Yale Logos, and the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.