With New Year’s Eve upon us, many of us will flirt with making resolutions, a 4,000-year-old practice once employed with hopes of pleasing the gods. Regardless of the purpose, making resolutions on the cusp of a new year requires reflection, purposeful identification of our mistakes or debts, and determination to make amends – changing our behaviors to pursue the best version of ourselves.
As 2020 concludes, with deep intention or fleeting interest, many of us will identify a resolution (or resolutions for the more ambitious among us) for the upcoming year. We will secretly or publicly declare our intentions, even though we know we will most likely abandon our goals within a few weeks . After all, it takes at least three weeks for a behavior to become a habit, and three weeks is a long time even for the most resolved.
And yet, commitment or making up one’s mind to make changes can and does happen. Towards the end of 2014, I made a promise to myself to reclaim my health. At that point, I weighed over 125 pounds more than I do today. I had been too wrapped up in caring for my family, my students, my friends, and I had neglected myself. In 2014, the universe had offered me what felt like insurmountable personal challenges, as well as the realization that if I continued to ignore my health, I would be unable to care for those most important to me. Over the course of several months, I began a life altering transformation of mind, body, and spirit.
Looking back on that pivotal year, I now realize its gift. 2014 forced me to intentionally focus on unresolved issues – to prune parts of my life that sucked my emotional energy – to seek counseling for untouched wounds – to understand that living is a gift that requires action not passivity. 2014 also taught me the depth of my strength, and it mandated, yes mandated, me to shift how I understand my purpose. And ultimately, 2014 prepared me for 2020 and what awaits.
While a resolution is “a formal expression of opinion or intention made,” it also includes “the mental state or quality of being resolved or resolute; firmness of purpose” (dictionary.com). Firmness of pupose. Firmness of purpose. As I read this definition, my mouth first whispered the phrase, and then I heard my voice say it out loud.
Firmness of purpose is not a one and done resolution, but it is a way of living – an intentional step into understanding, and it requires grace, reflection, and definition. So for 2021, I will continue to whisper, shout, sing, dance, live these words: firmness of purpose. Firmness of purpose.
Earlier this year, I listened to a 2017 episode of the On Being podcast in which Krista Tippett interviews Dr. Atul Gawande, a practicing physcian, Harvard professor, and writer. The title of the episode, “What Matters in the End,” indicates why I might be drawn to a conversation with a doctor. In my quest to live intentionally, I find myself obsessed with reading and listening to how others make the most of their “one wild and precious” lives (“The Summer Day, Oliver, 1990).
Today, Gawande’s medical practice and writings are based on the question, “What does a good day look like?” – a question he now asks both terminally-ill and healthy people. This important question allows him to treat the whole person, and it makes a difference to his patients. Good days, after all, are moments we seek.
In the interview, Gawande recalls the pivotal moment when his philosophy of healthcare shifted. A patient, who would die less than 48 hours later, told him she was going to take her family to Disney Land. In that moment, he realized as a care giver, he had missed a critical moment. He realized the importance of asking earlier, “What does a good day look like?” With that important information, he could have helped her achieve that wish a month earlier.
This conversation reminded me of the quip I often say or post on Facebook: Today is a good day for a good day. While I often tweak the statement to reflect my own spirit with “today is a great day for an excellent day,” the message is important. Live the day you have in front of you. Don’t wait to live.
Dr. Gawande’s question is one we can, and should, each ask ourselves. If we start our days with “What does a good day look like,” we remind ourselves of how fleeting time is, and how important it is to fill our days with things that make us happy – people and events that fill us with joy.
Too often, the narratives that run through our heads or the messages society offers us force us to feel obligated stay in relationships or positions we don’t enjoy. We stay in social circles that don’t excite us, we continue to work in unfulfilling jobs, or we continue in unsatisfying marriages without fixing or ending them. Days slip by, and we crawl into bed unhappy, or worse, without emotion.
I am not advocating we bail on our friendships, quit our job, or end our marriages. Each of us has our own journeys and way of approaching things that do not fill us with joy. What I am urging us to do, however, is really rather simple. Before we get out of bed in the morning, we should consider envisioning what a good day looks like. What is on our agenda for the day that will make it a good day or even an excellent one? If there is something on the day’s schedule that doesn’t serve a specfiic purpose or will not contribute to our overall happiness, can it be removed or modified?
If we take a few minutes to ask these questions and monitor our progress towards creating a “good day,” we will experience a shift in the way we think about our lives, about the people with whom we interact, and about the world around us. The time to ask ourselves “What does a good day look like?” is now, while we still have time to make all of our days good ones. #MakeRoomForJoy
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them,” wrote Maya Angelou. A quote such as this requires some unpacking – and perhaps optimism and resiliency – but it also contains so much truth. It takes work to understand that we cannot control the world, and it takes even more work to realize the narratives we create shape our responses to events and people.
This personal toil, though, ulitmately leads to a liberation, a true empowerment. Too many of us spend a lifetime waiting for life to begin. We fall victim to believing life happens to us. Once we realize we can control our responses to people, events, and even emotions often surprise us, we nudge ourselves closer to authentic living – to living in the moment – to leading a life fully present.
The more I practice this philosophy, the more I experience its power. In moments that evoke angst, fear, or even anger – moments which often feel completely out of my control – I force myself to pay attention to my thoughts and my physical reaction. With this intentional focus, I shift my thinking, and ultimately my response. I choose not to be destroyed by the event. In this choice comes the freedom. ‘
This mindset doesn’t come easilty. I still have moments where I get sucked under by the waves of hopelessness and fear, but I have discovered two key strategies that help keep life in perspective.
First of all, I work hard at taking care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Feeding my body healthy food and keeping it hydrated gives me energy and allows me to focus. My daily practice involves exercise, typically 4-5 miles every day. I also spend periods of the year swimming or biking.
Besides journaling, listening to podcasts of spiritual leaders, and processing the universe’s lessons with my trusted square squad, I also make a practice of repeating the “Serenity Prayer” – a prayer that guides an ethos of redirecting responses to things I cannot control.
I find myself reflecting on the prayer as I walk, especially if my route meanders through nature, away from town. And I find myself repeating the prayer as I swim laps: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Sometimes the prayer is reduced to “serentity, courage, wisdom” – a powerfrul mantra with each stroke.
Because I have learned to take care of my whole self, I have recognized the power in the second tool: mentoring. Over the last three decades as an educator, I have learned my role extends way beyond the content and skills I nurture in the young people with whom I work.
My teaching credo is deeply steeped in progressive education, a person-centered, inquiry-based way of learning to improve the human condition. As young people experience success in owning the learning process, they develop self-efficacy. As their belief in themselves grow, it spills into other areas of their lives.
Teaching, for me, has morphed into mentoring dozens of young people, often college students who are not even students within my department. No matter where it occurs, mentoring is a win-win. As I speak my truth – share my story – illustrate how I have shifted my thinking to reflect my understanding of the universe, I gain momentum in the practice of intentional living.
The other part of the equation comes in watching young people realize they, too, can shift their thinking. As my mentees begin to see life as something they do instead of something that happens to them, they are empowered in so many ways. The benefits they experience excites me – fuels me.
Again, none of this is easy, and I have moments of panic and fear, but they occur so much less than they did six years ago. And, more importantly, I know it works. Personally, I know I am in a different space than I was when I began this journey – a much different space. Occasionally, out of the blue, I am reminded that sharing my journey with others matters.
Recently, in less than a 24 hour period, I received texts from two different young women and a card from another. The first text was a young teacher who thanked me for making her a teacher. In the string of our conversation, she reflected on how hard 2020 had been for her, and she typed “And life is about perspetive. We can’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose if we are happy or not. As I type that it sounds very familiar, huh?”
The second text came from a young woman who is learning to navigate the world, and she wanted me to know she had realized the most difficult period in her life had brought important people into her circle, and she wrote “even in my worst times God was giving me the greatest blessings of friendship and companionship. That’s super weird to think about. My mind is blown right now honestly.”
And then the mail brought me a card from a young woman who recently lost her mother to colon cancer. The front of the card read EMPOWERED WOMEN EMPOWER WOMEN. Her note inside reminded me of the importance of believing in each other – of showing up – of living intentionally – of believing in each other.
So here is to empowering ourselves so that we can empower others. In the process, we come closer to living – truly living. We come closer to understand that living is something we do, not something that happens to us. #MakeRoomForJoy
“Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.” – Alice Walker
I’ve always been a “busy” person, fitting in as much as I possilby can in a day. My sleeping habits echo this trait; in the early hours of the day, while most humans are sound asleep, my mind begins racing and my body happily responds. Yes. I wrote “happily.”
Even in the evenings, or on the weekends or vacations, I fill the hours with work – good work: baking for others, reading, exploring topics which interest me, mentoring young people, writing notes, walking, cleaning, serving on a few executive boards, etc.
Perpetual motion has always defined me. Early, I learned the special look of a teacher urging a talkative child to stop interrupting. And I remember quite fondly, my grandmother saying firmly, but lovingly, “Heather Annie, be still. Just be still.” I struggled to sit quietly and just watch a movie or at least not jump up during commercials to throw in a load of laundry or start the dishwasher.
Upon the diagnosis of my daughter’s brain tumor, for the last six years, I have focused on living a joy-filled life – a life being present – a life keenly aware of the gifts I am given on a daily basis. Leading this type of life requires attention to time, and time to simply focus on the moment – not worry about the cookies to bake, the lessons to plan, the papers to grade, the leaves to rake. Honestly, my inabilty to be still posed a barrier to fully living authentically.
Like others, though, 2020 has taught me important lessons. Primarily, I have learned to be still – to really immerse myself in the moment. This lesson, though, began months before the global pandemic brought the world to a screeching hault.
In January of this year, stage four brain cancer swept through my daughter’s brain like a wildfire. My 27-year-old child spent weeks in the neuro-ICU, and once her medical team controlled the inflamation, she began six weeks of radiation to her head and spine. And then for the last nine months, her body has been pumped with drugs to control her headaches and chemotherapy to stave off the spread of cancer.
I credit her six year journey for giving me a passion for authentic, intentional living. This newest leg of her journey, though, has propelled me into a deeper space of intentionality. I begged for understanding, and the universe answered in its own way: TIME. Because my colleagues and friends picked up the pieces at work and home, I had the gift of time to sit by my child’s bed – to attend to her needs – to focus on her medical crisis.
In the dull glow of the hospital light, I expectantly searched for lessons. I needed to trust the universe had given our family these difficult moments for a reason. Otherwise, the darkness would be too much. In the midst of this new leg of the battle, a pandemic turned things upside down for rest of the world. And while COVID created new challenges like quaranting for two weeks before spending time with my child, I saw a huge silverlining: TIME.
COVID 19 forced the world to slow down – to turn inwards – to be still. At first, like many, I struggled with the quiet – with the aloneness – with the silence. I forced myself to see these moments as a gift – as a way to find meaning – as a way to understand myself – to set goals for myself. I found myself walking miles, often listening to podcasts, but mostly just music. As the year continued, I grew comfortable with solitude – with downtime – with opportunities to seek understanding.
At this point in my life, the propensity for perpetual motion is solidified, but I have learned to sit with the darkness, sadness, and fear the universe gives me. When I stand in the difficult times, I have an opportunity to truly appreciate the gifts – the lessons of life – the joy that comes in being present. #MakeRoomForJoy #GiftOfTime