People I used to be

“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” – Joan Didion

I have an aunt who loves beautiful things — paintings and music and furniture and even well-plated food — in an exceptional kind of way.  Like my dad and their other eleven siblings, she has both an eye for art and an artistic streak herself, and this is evident in everything from the way she speaks to the flair with which she dresses to how she sips a glass of wine.  Time with my aunt is colorful, vivid, passion-filled and abounding with ideas and inspiration.  She seeks beauty whole-heartedly, and when she finds it, she reaches for it — to hold it, to relish it, and if at all possible, to take it home with her. 

In her love of beauty, my aunt has filled her home to overflowing with paintings and tiles and clothing and dishes and sculpture and art books.  And as her shelves, closets, counter tops and cupboards have runneth over, the elegance of each individual item has been lost to clutter and distraction. 

With her deep appreciation for exquisite design, color and texture, it is easy to understand my aunt’s longing to hold on to item after item.  But too much of a good thing is precisely that: too much.  This is true when regarding objects, and it’s true in other areas of life as well.

Personally, I have a hard time letting go of vocational aspirations.  I find working in Faith Formation at a church meaningful, enjoyable and life-giving, but I could also see myself returning to hospital chaplaincy at some point, or maybe Campus Ministry.  I hope to be a stay-at-home mom for some period, at least, and I envision a life as freelance writer.  Simultaneously, I have a pipe-dream of returning to school one day to become a therapist, and there’s a part of me that hasn’t let go of my once-held aspiration to become a social worker.  I also always wonder about my childhood ambitions of teaching at a middle or high school level, within a classroom instead of a church hall. 

There was a time when I might have pursued any of these paths, and there is a place for staying open to the twists and turns of life.  I truly believe that each of our lives hold possibilities that we can’t yet fathom.  But there is also a time and place for letting go, for losing touch with the people I used to be — including their dreams — in order to fully become the person I am now. 

Unlike the Spanish-tile coasters, buried, or the grey silk blouse, stuffed away, I don’t want my potential to positively impact the world and my ability to enjoy the present moment to be lost — overcrowded and, ultimately, trapped by too many other good things.  There’s a time for relinquishing the antique Delft bowl, and resisting the Moroccan silk curtains.  Alluring as they are, there’s no room for them, and they’ll take away from the beauty of what already is. 

Entitlement to be yourself

Occasionally I will read a piece and think “these words were written for ME.”  I felt that way about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. 

Backed by research, personal stories, and interviews, Cain argues that modern western culture undervalues and misunderstands introverts. But her book isn’t a rail against western culture so much as it is a rally for introverts.  She holds a magnifying glass up to the personality and lifestyle of introverts, offers a compelling description of the gifts introverts have to offer in the home, workplace, and community, and suggests strategies for introverts to employ in order to thrive in a talkative world.

In Cain’s introduction, she writes, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.”  I certainly finished the book with a greater understanding and acceptance of myself, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. Cain normalizes the fear of public speaking.  Not only did the feelings of dread that I always experience before giving presentations, making announcements from the pulpit or even introducing other speakers used to make me miserable in and of themselves, they also sparked further feelings of guilt and embarrassment.  I would think, “Speaking in front of others is a normal, adult thing to do; feeling this anxious is immature and unreasonable.”  By sharing her experiences of not being able to sleep before a big presentation, and of having to practice for hours and hours before feeling comfortable with the content for a talk, Cain helped me to see that failing to relish public performance is not a reflection of my maturity, ability, or mental health (or lack thereof, in each of those categories).  It’s just an aspect of my personality type. 
  2. While encouraging me to accept the fact that I prefer being out of the spotlight, Cain also helped me see that I’m capable of being in the spotlight.  She writes about Free Trait Theory, the proposition that we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”  In other words, “introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”  The reminder that I can do things (and can do them well!) that I don’t necessarily want to do is empowering.  I may just need extra practice, training and support throughout the process. 
  3. Cain gives introverts permission to fortify themselves to operate in an extroverted world with restorative practices and behaviors in their homes and personal lives.  As she suggests to introverts that stepping out of our comfort zone in order to advance “core personal projects” will bring us satisfaction in the long term, she also warns us that it will be challenging and tiring at times.  She reminds introverts to be intentional with where and when we choose to stretch ourselves, and advises that we allow ourselves to lean into our introversion in all other circumstances.  My favorite example that she offers: “Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances.”  This is something that I have done many times, and have always felt a little bit funny about.  Cain validated a behavior that helps me, and I really appreciated that. 
  4. Cain highlights the qualities of introverts that make them valuable members of the workforce, political scene and humanitarian realm.  While noting that modern culture is enamored with extroverted qualities such as charismatic leadership and outgoing sense of humor, Can reminders her readers that there are other ways to lead and have an impact.  She writes of the less glamorous qualities of persistence and reflectiveness that I identify with (much more than charisma and sense of humor!) and emphasizes that introverts can use these qualities to share ideas powerfully, if quietly.  She writes, “The trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.” 

 

Photo by Ryan Riggins on Unsplash

Hard before easy

Recently, during the Sunday morning Coffee Hour at the church where I work, I had a conversation with a parishioner whom I hadn’t seen in a while.  It turns out that she had been on sabbatical from her job teaching at a local university, and had spent the last several months abroad doing research for an upcoming book. 

We got to talking about the writing process, and I asked her if embarking on a book project feels daunting.  By this point in her career, she’s done it many times.  She smiled and replied, “It’s much easier now that I have something to say.”

Of course writing is easier for her now that she’s been researching, teaching, exploring ideas, and formulating fresh insights for several decades.  How could it have been easy when she was fresh out of graduate school and still a novice in her field of study?  But, as life would have it, in order to get to this point in her career when ideas are forthcoming and she has done the research necessary to confidently take a stance on an issue or topic, she had to publish books.  She had to say things before it was easy, in order to arrive at a place when writing wouldn’t be so hard.

In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Everything is hard before it is easy.”

I think that this idea is true, in one way or another, for all of us. 

I remember coordinating service projects during my first year working at the church; each time I brought a group of students to a different service site, I had to navigate a new and often complicated parking situation, meet the site’s volunteer coordinator for the first time, and answer students’ and parents’ questions based on what I had been told versus what I had experienced myself.  Each service project was a basket full of unknowns.  The same was true of the Confirmation classes that I taught, the retreats I led, the Peer Minister and facilitator trainings I offered and the prayer services I coordinated.  The newness of everything made my first year very hard.

Short of a fast-forward time-machine invention, there is no way around the particular set of challenges that newness brings.  The value in Goethe’s words is that they normalize the feelings of struggle.  They don’t hasten the ease, but they help me remember: this isn’t hard because I’m incapable, or unsuited for this kind of work.  It’s hard because it’s new, and everything is hard before it is easy.  Goethe’s words remind me that if I stay persistent, whatever I am working on will become easier.  I find this sentiment extremely comforting and validating; it enables me to embrace the “hard” and welcome the accompanying opportunities for growth, learning, a sense of accomplishment, and joyful surprise. 

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

A Habited Mindset

Charles Duhigg’s 2012 examination of habits, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business builds around the idea of the habit loop: a cue instigates a routine which ends with a reward.  The reward is satisfying, so we crave it, making us susceptible in the future to the cue that instigated the routine in the first place.  This pattern explains numerous behaviors that any of us engage in on a daily basis, behaviors that were once the result of deliberate choices, but are now so engrained in us that we’ve ceased thinking about them and simply do them. 

One of the central arguments of the book is what Duhigg refers to as the golden rule of habit change:  “You can never truly extinguish bad habits,” he writes.  “Rather, to change the habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  That’s the rule.  If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.  Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same” (62).

I found Duhigg’s thesis convincing and interesting, but surprisingly unhelpful.  My assessment is that the book would be most impactful for readers who have several habits that they are hoping to change, and I realized as I read the book that I don’t necessarily have bad habits.  I certainly engage in unfortunate behaviors, but they aren’t habits so much as they are character flaws.  For an example, one of my least favorite things about myself is my capacity to get easily annoyed.  This is more of a personality trait than a habit, and while I believe it can be tempered with effort, it’s not the kind of effort (changing a routine) that Duhigg’s book is about. 

What I did find extremely helpful in The Power of Habit was this brief little section toward the end of the book in which Duhigg writes about William James.  James, an early 20th century psychiatrist whose writings are now pillars in the canon of literature on habits, had a rough start professionally and emotionally.  In his early thirties, he felt so unaccomplished and unsure of his place in the world that he contemplated suicide.  But then, according to Duhigg, he made a decision.

“Before doing anything rash, he would conduct a yearlong experiment.  He would spend twelve months believing that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change.  There was no proof that it was true.  But he would free himself to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that change was possible.  “I think yesterday was a crisis in my life,” he wrote in his diary.  Regarding his ability to change, “I will assume for the present — until the next year — that it is no illusion.  My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” (272)

Duhigg tells this story to illustrate the point that “the will to believe” is the most important ingredient in creating the belief in change, and that with belief in the possibility of change, change is possible.  (James is elsewhere quoted as stating, “Actions seem to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”) We can choose to adopt the habits/practices/ways-of-being of successful people, and if we believe that these actions will make us successful, likely they will have that effect.

This story spoke to me because it feels remarkably applicable to my life right now, in the form of my career.  I’ve second-guessed myself a lot in my job over the past two years and felt an overall lack of sureness when making decisions and coordinating events.  I worry that while some people will appreciate the program I’ve created, others won’t be happy with it, and still many others won’t even attend.  I worry that people think I’m not good at my job, and that I shouldn’t have been hired for it.  I worry that I’m going to disappoint people.  In short, I worry a lot.  And I realize that through all of my worrying, I’ve been sabotaging my ability to do my best work.  Worry has held me back from being enthusiastic, getting a wide variety of folks on board, and taking risks. 

But I can stop worrying.  Maybe not completely, but at least somewhat. 

Like William James, I am going to assume for the next year that I have the ability to change — and the ability to thrive — in my professional life.  I will continue to seek advice and input from mentors and the people I work with, but I’m going to stop second-guessing every decision I make.  I’m going to feel free to try knew things, knowing that, if they don’t work well, I can do them differently the next time.  I’m going to trust my vision of faith formation and put 100% of my work time effort into creating meaningful, well researched programming, but I’m not going to judge myself harshly if it isn’t well-attended, or if someone doesn’t like it. 

I’m going to get in the habit of thinking more positively about my work, and I’m going to get in the habit of acting accordingly.

Goal-Driven

I love setting goals in my personal life, as is obvious to anyone who has read my posts about New Year’s resolutions, words to guide my year, and summer intentions.  Goals orient my free time, give me a sense of purpose and enable me to stretch myself. 

books-and-coffee

Given my affinity for goal-setting, it came as a bit of a surprise when I realized, through a conversation with a mentor, that I’m not particularly goal-oriented in my work-life.  I had given my mentor a call to ask for her advice about choosing a curriculum for Pre-K through 5 faith formation classes at the Church were I work.  It has become apparent to the faith formation coordinator with whom I work that our teachers are dissatisfied with the curriculum that we are currently using, but I don’t know where to begin in choosing — or advising our faith formation coordinator to choose — a new curriculum.  There are hundreds out there, and the thought of reviewing the pros and cons of each and making a decision to switch to a different one is daunting.

After explaining the situation to my mentor, I expected her to say: check out this publisher or that one; get this information from your teachers; consider this thought.  But instead, she posed a simple question: “What’s your goal?” 

My goal?

Truthfully, I hadn’t thought about my goal.  I had gotten so stuck on the little details — whether a curriculum offers a book or handouts, involves using the Bible as a base, or the liturgical calendar, and so on — that I had lost track of the bigger picture, namely the question, “What is the goal of the faith formation program at my parish?”  Why do I want children to enroll in the program?  What do I think children and their families should take away from the program?  How do I hope catechists will benefit from volunteering for the program?

My mentor reminded me that my actions and decisions should stem from my goals — not from minuscule distinctions between various curricula options.  Without knowledge of my goal, I will be lacking a compass when making choices, and not only will I get bogged down in the details, I will likely make less wise decisions. 

I’m going to keep this bit of wisdom in mind as I move forward in choosing a curriculum, and also when considering other areas of my work and life.  When at a loss for what to do next, asking the question “What is my goal?” will almost always be a good place to start. 

Have you thought about the underlying goals of your work and personal life lately?  What are they?  How do they inform your decisions?  I’d love to hear how this looks for others. 

A Day-Off Strategy for Maximizing Enjoyment

Because I work at a church, I often end up working on weekends, meaning that my days off are fragmented — say, a Friday and Monday, or a Tuesday and a Thursday, with work sandwiched in between.  While I understand that working on weekends comes with the territory of church-employment, it’s not my favorite aspect of my job.  Practically speaking, most other people have weekends off, so that’s when social events happen, and I often end up missing them.  Less rationally, but significant in my mental-processing, is that I miss the ethos of a weekend: celebratory Friday nights, activity filled Saturdays, and lazy Sundays.  There is no substitute for the joy, rest and energy that these elements provide.  Two separate week days off just doesn’t offer the same restoration.    

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Making valentine garlands was an item on my “For-Fun” list

 

 While there is no replacement for the traditional weekend, I have found that being intentional about how I spend my days off helps me feel more satisfied with the fragmented days that, for now, are my lot.  Being intentional involves scheduling social activities, such as a lunch date with a friend who works from home, or an outing with Caleb (whom I am lucky to say has a fairly flexible schedule) and it also involves being really clear about how I am going to spend my time.  It can be easy to fritter away time (on both weekends and weekdays) but the saving grace of a full weekend is that there are multiple days in a row: if I blow off Saturday by sleeping late and dawdling through the work I need to get done, I still have Sunday to do things that will satisfy me.  With a day off here and there, I have to be extra-careful to fill the day with tasks and activities that will leave me feeling as if I have made the most of my day.

One way that I do this is by writing a For-Fun List that I make sure to attend to just as carefully as I attend to my To-Do List.  I have found that my perfect day-off includes a mixture of productive — though not necessarily “fun” — tasks such as cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, going to the gym, and catching up on personal emails (these go on my “To-Do” list) as well as purely enjoyable tasks such as reading for fun, trying a new recipe, putting out holiday decorations, or calling a friend (these go on my “For Fun” list). 

What kinds of tasks would you lay out on your for-fun list?