Smoke and Mirrors

In a season, where Spotify: Year in Review playlists are on repeat, it seems only fitting to reflect upon the happenings of the past year. On the one hand, 2019 was all kinds of pain and frustration. Post-traveling depression, battles with addiction, the search for a more potent coping mechanism, a lack of identity and belonging, wounds at work, family dysfunctionality, and the departure of close friends. On the opposite end of the spectrum, 2019 was the best year of my life. Four different countries, breakthroughs in therapy sessions, getting in touch with my feelings, family reconciliation, bold career moves, a marathon, and the re-birth of my passion for film.

As a speaker this week said, “every year is a mixed bag.”

At the beginning of this month, I began brainstorming for a blog post that would reflect on both the pain and progress that this year brought for me.

Three days ago I got into a car accident that completely de-railed my plans to do so. After that, my schedule seemed to edge out any free time that I had to plan my blog.

Now, with less than twenty-two hours before the end of a decade, I sit and reflect on all that has happened.


In life, it is so easy to see how far we have to go without ever truly appreciating how far we’ve come.

Ten years ago, I was a high school junior studying for the SAT while clandestinely seeing my secret girlfriend that my parents forbid me from having. In the ten years from then to now I have: graduated from both high school and college, attended and left three different churches, transitioned from a Christian rap/ccm heavy music palette to a very eclectic lo-fi/pop/alternative mix of music, realized that God really does exist, participated in two of my closest friends’ weddings, left the church due to being fed up with the hypocrisy, struggled with anxiety and depression, worked as an: assistant to a real estate broker, a car finance funder, a tutor, a food service team member, a corporate grand opening trainer for chick-fil-a, a staff accountant, a security system sales rep, and a Operations/Food Safety/Facilities director, lead three different small groups, and so much more.

It has been a journey that has been filled with metaphorical hills and valleys. I’ve come face to face with the darkest desires and tendencies that I possess while also discovering what motivates me to wake up each day.

2019 was so different than so many years because well..

Instead of saving for tomorrow the ideas, trips, moves, and conversations that I thought of today, I decided to just do it.


Traveling to me, made no sense for the longest time. I did not understand why we who lived in one of the most affluent countries in the world, would ever want to leave our comfort to go and see other places. So, as fate or the Divine (depending on what you believe) would have it when Crystal asked me if I wanted to go to Turkey in the fall of 2018, I just happened to have been potentially the most burned out that I will ever be. I was working as a staff accountant in the mornings, working at chick-fil-a from 2-midnight, while also doing stints across the country opening new stores. Zero creative outlets, severe writer’s block, and a mind so screwed up by consequences to rash actions of the past pointed to a need for an escape.

So when Crystal asked if I wanted to go to a country that I only knew of because of the fact that my cousin had been stranded there while the natives threw a coup, I thought that this might be a fun distraction from the hellishly busy life that I lead.

Suffice it to say, that trip changed my perspective on life. Just as January marks the beginning of a new year, so this trip to Turkey marked the beginning of a new perspective of the world and my place in it. I began to re-embrace the UC ingrained concept of trusting no one and experiencing everything oneself. I learned that sometimes… it’s better if you don’t listen to your friends.


In March, I ran and walked my first marathon. I had planned to run it from the year prior as a way to prove to myself that I was more than someone who promised to finish things he started, only to quit shortly after starting. It was the most physically tolling experience that I have ever undertaken. I was ill-prepared and afraid as my inconsistencies with training were paid for in full and with interest on the race day.

Yet somehow by the Grace of God, I finished. The encouragement of William and the accountability that was created by me telling people I was going to run the marathon, pushed me to do something that I never would have deemed possible. And what should have been next in a list of things I said I was going to do but never completed became the topic sentence of the new essay of my life. The essay in which Paul was a finisher and not just a starter. Indeed, it was fitting that there was a mile representative of each year of my 26 years of life and that as the mile count increased, so did the pain and desire to quit.


Upon returning from Turkey, I struggled with depression as I returned to what appeared to be a dead-end job. I realized that what I valued in life and in work was not reciprocated by the decision-makers where I worked. I had been trying to make my parents proud my whole life and yet that had ended up in failure after failure. Unlike my travels, the day to day was a mundane routine that never made way for new experiences. One of my best friends was moving away, following the pattern that I had begun to see in my life: that everything ends.

A business consultant for our store passed away quickly and rather unexpectedly. This shattered my fantasy of pursuing a career as a Chick-fil-A operator. For me, the profit has never been enough to keep me invested. I’ve stayed with the brand and this store because of the people. People like Imon, Dina, Jazz, Amanda, Marco, Pancho, Nolan, Emma, William, Alan, Jared, Helen, Julian, Michael, Joanne, Jade, Mariel, Lindsey, Ellison, Keisse, Marla, Jordan, Kelsey, Danielle, Twabu, Victor, Tyler, Iris, Hector, Michelle, Craig, and more than I can name. They have oftentimes been the sole reason I went into work.

So when an operator, I had never met, at a conference meant specifically for operators, slammed my vision for a store that hired people from at-risk communities with the goal of funding social work with the profits from the business, I began to make connections between this one operator and my experiences so far.

They were experiences tainted by misunderstanding, poor communication, and a focus on profits over people. And just like that, I realized, I didn’t want to delay what I was passionate about in order to accrue money to do what I wanted to do. In fact, I wasn’t even capable of lying or keeping up a facade of pursuing this potentially lucrative career.

Just like that, my primary career prospect went out the window, and I spiraled with no purpose and a stripped identity into arguably the most difficult season of my life.


Right around this time, I bit the bullet and finally joined one of Mariners’ Rooted Groups. The whole purpose behind these weekly small groups was to establish a healthy community of peers that were in similar life stages. It was one of the hardest commitments to stick with, as we literally all started out not knowing one another in the slightest. Yet, over time, we all shared about our lives and our darkest struggles (some of which were ongoing and unresolved), and we began to really engage and get to know one another.

There was a freedom that came from confiding in what was at the time a group of strangers and then sticking with that group to simply do life together. Some nights we got into the nitty-gritty of what God was doing in our lives and how we should live better lives, but some nights we just ate and drank together. I had been in many small groups before, but the honesty, transparency, and commitment of this group trumped all of the ones before.

Shoutout to Sam, Gavin, Will, Amy, Xochitl, Star, Baxter, and Jordan for doing this season of life together. Y’all encouraged me to begin to take brave steps into the unknown.


In the summer, my family took a trip to King’s Canyon and we hit a rock and got a flat tire some 38 miles away from civilization. No cell reception, no pump, and a few hours of daylight.

Through a miraculous turn of events that I’ll be sure to blog about in the future, we replaced the tire and a man stopped to help us and he just happened to have a compressor/pump in his car that he had just placed in his car a week ago because he had been caught with a flat and was heavily inconvenienced because he didn’t have a pump on him.

My family decided to end our vacation early, but we used the extra day to reconvene, and we did something that we had never done before. We met up and wrote letters to each other, without knowing who was going to be the recipient of the letter. What ensued was a three-hour session of family reconciliation and encouragement that completely changed the course of where we were heading.


When the anxiety and depression had started to spiral out of control earlier in the year, I had started turning to all sorts of coping mechanisms to try and numb the pain. Alcohol, weed, porn(More on this taboo topic in 2020), gaming, running, and writing all played a part. After realizing that none of these things was doing an adequate job of keeping me sane, I returned to therapy with the sole intent of getting things under control. (FUCK the stereotypes, mysticism, and negative connotations surrounding therapy! More on this topic in 2020 as well)

It turns out that due to a combination of different factors including upbringing, relationships, past hurts, work, and broken friendships, I had forgotten how to process my emotions and it had become difficult if not impossible to decipher what it is that I wanted in life.

I began this long process of re-hashing my past, self-validating, and processing what I was feeling or wanting in the given moment. Over the course of the year, I began to see personal growth as I began to place boundaries of where Paul Ho existed. I began to be able to discern what was what I wanted and what was what other people wanted me to be. Slowly, it was beginning to come together.


All 1839 words that have been written so far culminated in the boldest move I have ever attempted. Crystal invited me on another trip to Morocco and Spain… right in the middle of Chick-fil-a’s busiest season… as we were in interviews for another store. I had finally reached the personal conclusion while talking with my therapist that Chick-fil-a was not for me and that it was okay. So, after talking and deliberating with my family and my life group, and after binge drinking myself to throwing up four times one night when the stress of work had proven too much for me to bear, I decided that I was going to quit.

It took all the courage I did not have to table that discussion with my boss.

I had also decided that since I would be jobless anyways that I was going to plan a trip to Mexico City to do some work with an organization that I had volunteered with in the spring of 2015.

If you read waymaker, you already know how that story goes.


It was like a switch turned on after I went on that trip. All of a sudden, I wasn’t afraid of what I wanted anymore. I wasn’t trying to make my family proud. I wasn’t trying to say the right things to my boss or coworkers. I wasn’t doing the smart and practical things that people my age were supposed to be doing. I wasn’t faking who I was any more to fit in.

I was unashamedly me and I was going to pursue the passions that I had regardless of how insane, naive, or foolish they seemed to anyone else. I finally had my permission to be myself and no one could take that away from me.


It has been a month and a half since I returned and I won’t lie, it still feels like something is different about me. Yet, despite the seeming clarity that I now possess, there still remains so much uncertainty in my life. There are still days where my anxiety nearly overwhelms me. There are still miscommunications and arguments that plague my relationships. There are still challenges and hardships that I must struggle to overcome.

Yet of one thing I am certain: my life is a film, and God is the ultimate director.

I think the car accident from a few days ago, the work drama of the last week, and the flat tire Dina got today were all smokescreens to distract me from sharing about my experiences in the last year. Not to glorify my story, or to make you think that your story is any less extraordinary. To God be the glory for His provision and faithfulness this past year. In the darkest seasons, He was still there validating me. In the best seasons, He was there encouraging me. And if anything I hope that regardless of what you believe that you see that the number of coincidences is wayyy too damn high in my life to attribute to chance.


My friends, wherever this new year finds you, whether it be in the midst of addiction, a mental breakdown, tragedy, uncertainty, cynicism, loss, hopelessness, loss of dreams, emptiness, unemployment, the frayed remains of a broken relationship, a broken and dysfunctional family, or wherever else you might be, I hope and pray that you are encouraged in knowing that you are not alone.

We can never hope to explain or understand why we must go through these difficult seasons. Yet, I hope that as this new decade begins, that instead of resolving to be different in the future, that you would take a moment to realize how far you’ve come. And not only how far you’ve come, but how your story however dark it may be, is not over.

The sun still exists behind the clouds.

You have not been forgotten.

You are not alone.

There is hope.

Sometimes, we just can’t see it behind the smoke and mirrors.

 

 

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