I know we all want to conquer the world. Or at least we have a big, long complicated list of things we have to do – the deadline might be this week, this month, this year, this decade – or maybe it’s our “bucket list”. It’s admirable that we set such high standards and expectations for ourselves. Our reach should exceed our grasp, at least in those areas of life that are most important to us. We all feel that if we fail to get these things done, then surely the course of human history will be inexorably altered.
I think we are sometimes sadly mistaken about our importance in the grand scheme of things. It’s not that we aren’t important – I don’t mean to say we don’t matter. We do – and we matter very much – in many spheres of our lives. However, I think many of us are often confused about which of those spheres are of lasting importance, and which are not.
The example I will give is one I have seen over and over – a woman walking rapidly through a public place – a grocery store, shopping mall, down a busy street. With her she has a child, or even several children, trying to keep up with her rapid stride. She is invariably talking on a cell phone, no doubt some urgent earth-shaking business deal, or some critical social arrangement that must be worked out – NOW. Or maybe just idle gossip with a friend. So she is talking almost as rapidly as she is walking, and she impatiently gestures for the child – or children – to keep up. No doubt the errand she is on, and the call she is making, are very urgent. But I would submit those children matter a whole lot more, they are far more important! I think they are being taught that they don’t matter – and I think a priceless opportunity is being missed, and a painful lesson is being taught. Time to that child is priceless – and I mean dedicated time, where undivided attention is being lavished on them. They need time where they matter more than a darned cell phone, or some other distraction. I have seen children placed in actual danger while being neglected in this way – and if the unthinkable were to happen – how much would that phone call matter then?
- Letting urgent things crowd out important things. I have heard that few people on their death beds regret not spending more time at the office, or on the phone working those big deals. Most of our regrets are more likely to involve matters of the heart – our families, friends, unfulfilled passions. We regret wasted opportunities, lost time, poor decisions made. Is getting home a few minutes earlier in busy rush hour traffic really worth all the rudeness, not to mention risking your life, and the lives of others? In kindergarten we learn to take turns, and do it right the first time, even if it takes a little longer. Then we grow up, and we forget these simple principles. We are too busy.
- At the other extreme, we can also be too focused on future goals; we know we will be happy when we “arrive” at these idealized places some day. We often forget to enjoy where we are now, we are so focused on that greener grass way over there. Sometimes happiness is not a destination you get to – sometimes the joy is in the trip itself – maybe the Yellow Brick Road we are on right now is a better place than Oz will actually turn out to be, if and when we ever get there. Maybe we should just enjoy our travelling companions, and sing another song, and skip merrily down the road while the sun is shining.
- Perfectionism can really suck the joy out of things in life. Sometimes we ought to just be grateful for what we’ve got, and not expect it all to be totally perfect like in the movies and magazines. This also applies to ourselves – in fact, I think most of us are hardest on ourselves in this area. Why not cut yourself some slack, in some areas of your life? Sometimes good enough really is good enough. Sometimes it is the best you can do, with what you have to work with right then and there. Sometimes you need to focus not on perfection, but on the progress you have made. Give yourself some credit for heading in the right direction, and for how far you’ve come, even if you haven’t arrived yet! We are all works in progress. Being merciful and gracious to others is a noble thing – and that is something we should also attempt to give ourselves a measure of at times.
- There are a lot of things that are out of your control. Try as I might, I have never been able to “fix” another person. In fact, they have not even appreciated me trying to fix them, and the more broken they were, the more they seemed to resent it. I have also learned to accept that I am not going to solve world hunger, or be the guiding agent of world peace. I can maybe control myself, my attitudes, my reactions, my physical actions. I cannot even control my emotions – not completely. But I can control what I do with them – how I cope, what I do as a result of them. I can give my brain time to kick in, and let it guide my heart a little. I can also do a lot within my real spheres of influence, like in my family, my church, my work position. I can sometimes influence, where I can’t completely control. That needs to be enough – I need to be able to step back, when it is out of my control. Maybe I need to completely walk away. It’s like that old prayer – we need to have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t control.
- Play to your strengths. Why spend your limited time and energy trying (in an often futile effort) to be things you are not? Okay, so you’re not shaped like a Barbie Doll (see Item #3 if you are still hoping to look like Barbie). So, instead of focusing on the areas where you fall short, why not play up your best features, and be thankful for them? Instead of fighting with your hair, why not work with its natural texture? Why do so many women hate their own hair, anyway? If it’s curly, why not go with that; instead of all the torturous effort to make it (and especially to keep it) stick straight? If it’s straight, why not glory in that, instead of all the time and money spent trying to make it curlier? Why can’t we accept and love ourselves as we are? Why do we not see how unique and lovely we are – and that we are so much more than just a set of body parts and hair, anyway? So you have cankles, or a poochie belly. I bet you’re the main one who notices. And if you have a big, warm smile on your face, and dress in a way that flatters your strong features, I can pretty much guarantee you’re the only one who knows. Ditto on your “internal stuff”. If you’re an introvert, learn to work with the inherent advantages of being that way. Make peace with yourself. If you’re an extrovert, then work that to your best advantage. Just be real, and natural. It is so much easier. It also gives you a lot more time and energy for more important things in life, too.
- Quit whining. Get on with it. Or, as an alternative, make the best of it. Whining changes nothing, and it’s just downright annoying. If the glass is half empty, you can change your attitude, or you can go fill it up yourself, or you can go get another glass of water. Maybe you can even get something better. Standing around whining and waiting for someone else to fix it is futile and lame, and it just stirs up discontent. Sure if things are really bad, you deserve to grieve, or shake your fist at the unfairness of it all. But eventually, you just have to get on with it, unless you want to just stay where you are, being miserable. So if you’re overweight, what can you do about it? If you do nothing, you know where you’ll be a year from now. Right where you are now, or maybe even worse off. Yes, losing weight is hard. But being overweight is just a continual fun-fest, right? So which hard do you choose for yourself? I chose the losing weight hard, and it was a beast. But I have never, ever regretted it, and I am determined to never go back to that other hard place, no matter what it takes!
- If you don’t take care of yourself, you can quickly become practically worthless to everyone else. So take the time to prepare and eat healthy foods. Go out and work that body, and get it into fighting shape. Take up a hobby that works off your stress, and gives you joy. Do things you love, and spend time with people who build you up, and who help you be stronger and better. Make your own health and wellbeing a priority, and let other parts of your life fall into place around it. You are worth it. In the long run, this time and effort will be an investment that results in you being able to do more for others, and it will pay off greatly in your quality of life. You have got to think longer-term at times. Saving a few seconds hitting the fast-food drive through – what is the unseen cost of that? No time to exercise? What’ll that cost you, down the road?
- Avoid passive things in life, or at least limit their place in your life. For me, this includes most television (except for soccer!), all church committee meetings, people who talk all the time and never listen, and anyone who tells me I can’t do something, when I believe I can. Life should not be lived passively. I may be sitting quite still and quiet, but that would be because I’m praying, or knitting, or kicking butt on the New York Times crossword puzzle (the big Sunday one, in pen). Don’t just take life as it comes, or be in reactive mode. Go out and kick some butt in your own way! It doesn’t have to be things of historical importance, but there should be something to show for it, in the end. You watch 3 hours of television, and what does it get you? More dead brain cells. Why not read a good book instead, or engage in a lively debate with someone, or cook some nice healthy vegetables for dinner?
- In all things, moderation. Of course, in my twisted logic, that would also mean that moderation itself…..should be moderated. A moderate amount of excess can be truly glorious (two words: dark chocolate). But only once in a while. The rest of the time Aristotle’s Golden Mean is the way to go. Most of us really do overdo in some areas of life. If your area of overdoing is in housecleaning, I need for you to come to my house, because mine seems to be in moving the universe from a state of order to perpetual disorder (this concept is known as entropy in the physical sciences). When it comes to entropy, I am an unstoppable force of nature. But I am working on moderating this part of myself. Sometimes now I actually stop and try to reverse the swath of clutter, mayhem and destruction I have left in my wake. The rest of the time, I blame most of the mess on the dog.
- Having said that, take responsibility for yourself. If you are in a good place, then give thanks, and give some thought to what it takes to stay there. If you are not in a good place, first of all, no more whining (re-read #6). Do what you have to do – mourn, throw some plates, whatever. Then put on your “big girl pants” and do some hard thinking on how you can get yourself to a better place. Sure, you may be able to get some guidance or help with this. However, in the end, it is ultimately up to you. Even if you did get a totally raw deal – blame and bitterness are self-defeating, no matter how justified they are. You have a problem, and you need to figure some way to make things better. Maybe (probably) you can’t make it all better. But surely you can do some things to move forward, and make some improvements. Things can always change, and they can change faster if you make more effort, and implement some well thought out plans. Sometimes once you get moving, and overcome the inertia, it actually gets easier.
- No top 10 here, I am not David Letterman. Last but not least, after you learn to take care of yourself, take some of your improved energy and higher level of performance, and make sure you use it for the benefit of others. I don’t think I have ever known a selfish, self-centered person that was truly happy. The happiest people I have known were the ones who gave to and did for others their whole lives. This is something you can get better and better at, with practice; it actually sets up a wonderful cycle of giving, and getting back, then more giving, etc. Some people call it karma, others reaping what you sow. It can start in small ways, and grow from there. You can listen more than you talk, you can go to people where they are at, and just be there for them. You can be a true-blue friend, the kind people trust and depend on in the best and worst of times. We learned these concepts of sharing and kindness back in kindergarten, but we got too busy and lost sight of them along the way. It could be volunteer work – or you could cook something for a hurting friend or family. It can be something as simple as giving someone the gift of your time. This is a good time to develop your own creativity. You do only get partial credit for delivering the surplus of your bumper zucchini crop to all your friends and neighbors, and none if you do it at night or by ringing the doorbell and running away (the zucchini dump and run). Getting outside of and beyond yourself has the added benefit of growing and stretching your soul, and helping you to rise above your own circumstances and limitations. Very few of us will ever be a Mother Teresa. But wouldn’t the world be a far better place if we all made at least a little effort to be more like her?
What would you add to this list?