MY MOM ALWAYS SAID, “Trust God, have faith, and you’ll have no reason to worry.” We immigrated to the U.S. when I was 2 years old. Although my parents endured great hardships in adjusting to American life, they always persevered because they trusted that God would provide for them.
We spent our first few months in an old cramped motel room. My parents had no idea how to start the process of becoming permanent residents; they could barely speak English. Naturally, our visas expired and we became illegal immigrants. By the grace of God, we were always able to survive, and my parents were able to support three children and fund the 27-year legal fight for permanent residency.
They instilled in my two older siblings and me a faith that would carry us through our troubles. Still, I found myself being told by my parents that a good job was a job that paid you well. They wanted their children to be financially secure and not have to endure the same financial hardships as they had suffered.
[My parents] wanted their children to be financially secure and not have to endure the same financial hardships as they had suffered.
I’ve always had a plan. I graduated from Arcadia High School and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I got a job at a small corporation and moved up to larger corporations. I steadily climbed the corporate ladder, increasing my income and position on the way up.
I did it all, satisfying the Asian American dream: good schools, good job, good money, steady bimonthly paychecks, and a happy marriage. My job allowed me to check off “provider” and “financial security” as well. But one day, as I stared at my computer, I realized my life had become a dead end. My money disappeared as fast as I made it, and I never felt a sense of satisfaction.
I was disillusioned. Was this to be my life for the next 40 years — dealing with office politics, pretending to respect my bosses, and sitting in an office from 9 to 5? There must be more! This cannot be why I worked so hard in school. Yet the checks kept coming, and somehow satiated me — until finally one day everything came crashing down and I was let go from my job.
There must be more! This cannot be why I worked so hard in school.
Months passed, and I received no responses from the large corporations I wanted to work for. The unemployment checks were not enough, and my ability to support myself and my wife, Olivia, was being tested. I didn’t have a five-year plan like I used to. I felt lost. Catalyst Jewelry, our small side business I started with my wife four years ago was also struggling.
I felt lost in the darkness of my despair. I had been unemployed for months, without so much as an interview. Every unemployment check made me feel incapable of providing. Every day our business received only a handful of site visits and zero sales — chipping away at what confidence I had left. Thankfully, Olivia was able to provide, but it still chipped away at my ego. Friends would ask if I’d gotten a job yet. They knew that Olivia was working, so I sensed what they were really asking was why I wasn’t stepping into my role as primary provider — implying that they thought my wife should be at home, not me.
Some days, it was hard to get out of bed. I didn’t want to face reality. Sometimes I would go cycling just to feel like I accomplished something. If I worked at Catalyst Jewelry, I wasn’t sure I would accomplish anything. But there was so much to do: planning, budgeting, working with vendors for the business, as well as all the chores of being a househusband.
Some days, it was hard to get up. I didn’t want to face reality. I asked myself, “What should I do?”
The bills didn’t stop when my income did. My confidence in my marriage was eroding, and I worried that my wife’s love for me was also fading — I was afraid I was not the same man she married three years ago and the idea of her leaving me felt very real. I felt like I was letting her down. My emotional struggles combined with external pressures from family, friends, and even church leaders to “just get a job” perpetuated my internal fear that Olivia’s love for me was nearing the last straw. My emotions ran the gamut of frustration, anger, and depression, as I applied for yet another job and dove head-first into work at Catalyst Jewelry.
I struggled with deciding whether to work on my company full time, or apply for a full-time job right away. But I wanted to be self-employed. So I started working toward opening a physical store. My wife and I talked with jewelry store owners who were interested in selling their store. After months of meetings, we were ready to take out a loan and purchase their store, when the landlord gave us devastating news: they no longer wanted to extend their lease because a jewelry store was a high liability.
Hello again to square one: unemployment, with months of working on Catalyst Jewelry amounting to nothing. I was angry at the system and how, despite my achievements and accolades, it had left me unfulfilled and destitute. Was this all life had to offer in America? I felt pressure from myself to go out and apply for another job — clearly, Catalyst Jewelry wasn’t doing well for us. The devil provided another option: “Just load your shotgun, put it against your forehead, and pull the trigger. It’s quick, painless, and all your troubles will be gone.” At the time, it seemed like a viable option — and a tempting one at that.
“Just load your shotgun, put it against your forehead, and pull the trigger — all your troubles would be gone.”
Many people have had thoughts of suicide enter their mind, and I was one of them. I entertained these thoughts, thinking that might be the least painful option. I even went as far as to speak to my wife about it. Thankfully, when I was weak, she was strong for me.
A seminar held at my church gave me that first spark of hope. The speaker shared that sin isn’t the only thing holding us down; it’s also our mindsets. That’s why it doesn’t always feel like the truth sets us free. We must come to understand the mindsets formed in our childhood, which lead to behaviors that allow the devil a foothold in our lives and make us feel less than we are. I kept beating myself up for my feelings of inadequacy, because I had the mindset that a man needed to be the primary provider for his family, mandating me to make a lot of money to fulfill God’s vision for my life.
I had felt stuck. Now I was being challenged to trust God more, rather than focusing on doing everything myself. I had believed I needed to be smarter and more resourceful in order to make money, but no matter how hard I tried, things weren’t happening. If God wanted to make something happen, it would be up to Him.
If God wanted to make something happen, it would be up to Him.
In the week after the seminar, Catalyst Jewelry had multiple jewelry sales. Since we donate to nonprofit organizations with every sale, we were able to give thousands of dollars! It was as if God was waiting for me to be fully broken — no longer buying into the lies and hopelessness — so He could continue molding me into a man who would trust Him, especially in times of uncertainty. When I gave it all up to Him, God revealed Himself as the sole provider of the household.
I still have questions, as the ebb and flow of faith continues to challenge me. But despite all the trials, life goes on; I’ve learned that just like riding my bike, I have to keep moving forward in order to keep my balance. That illustration speaks deeply to me, because God found me when I was literally on my bike, pedaling to move forward. Cycling was my time to unwind and to be alone with God, to hear my own thoughts and listen to His. It helped me keep my balance when I had no desire or motivation to get out of bed, and it gave me a different motivation and desire.
Just like riding my bike, I have to keep moving forward in order to keep my balance.
Life isn’t all about money and obtaining it. Instead, I’ve learned that it’s also about spending quality time with my wife and loved ones, and seeking out God’s will for me, even when I don’t know the master plan.
By Steven Hartono
PHOTOGRAPHY By EUNICE HO
STEVEN HARTONO is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2012, he and his wife started Catalyst Jewelry. Proceeds of every sale go toward causes, such as helping to end world hunger and fighting against sexual abuse and domestic violence. He currently resides in Southern California and faithfully serves at City Blessing Church of Walnut.
EUNICE HO is an ethnic studies graduate from the University of California, San Diego, and is passionate about empowering people to fearlessly engage in social justice issues. She hopes to become a teacher one day. In her leisure time she enjoys reading, rock climbing, and petting dogs.