Jordan River, Israel
Publication Information: McMillion, C. P. (2012, Nov / Dec). Find Your Joy. Christian Woman Magazine, 28(6), 12-14.
It was a quiet Thursday evening, and Judy and I sat on my couch sharing conversation and cups of steaming tea. Although we lived in the same community and had been friends since college days, her life had taken a very different turn of late. For years I had been lucky to snag her for a ten-minute chat. Her schedule was packed with overtime hours on the job, tutoring sessions for English language learners, countless church committee meetings, participation in the local symphony chorus, and constant involvement in any number of other activities. In fact, the more she did, the more she was called on to do. She was dependable, seemingly tireless, and would manage to squeeze every new obligation into her calendar. Was help needed with a baby shower? Judy could do it. Assistance needed to ready an apartment for a new family? Judy was there. A teacher needed for the Cambodian child struggling in school? Judy could meet with him Thursday evenings at six. Someone to help organize the silent auction? Judy again.
She wouldn’t say this, so I will say it for her: she proved herself excellent at everything she undertook.
And so it went, year after year. The frenzied pace continued to build. There would never be an end to the list of worthy causes and never an end to the need for volunteers.
I could see myself so clearly in her story. For nearly as long as I can remember, I have wanted to tackle hard things and do them exceedingly well. Some of that is good, but the triumph is self-reinforcing and easily taken to the extreme. So many times, I’ve taken on responsibilities over and beyond what I could reasonably handle and willingly accepted those that others thrust upon me. Even now I dive into assignments so intensely that I find it difficult to relax and let my mind switch gears.
If I am honest with myself, I must admit that I nearly always feel the pressure to stay up to the minute on all fronts. I want to be well informed about important political issues, talk intelligently about current movies, be in the know about hot, new trends, and keep up with all 317 friends on Facebook. I want to be in the vanguard of my profession, always pressing ahead to understand the latest technology and its application to my field. I want every project I undertake to be meticulously organized and carried out. I keep insisting that I can make it all turn out spectacularly if I just push myself a little harder. As a result, I am often tense, rushed, and frantic, haunted by the oft-repeated admonition from my childhood: “If you’re going to do something, do it right. Be the best.”
More than any other role on television, I identify with Tony Shalhoub’s character, Adrian Monk, which should tell you something about how ingrained is this tendency. I feel quite certain that if I were given the job of watching grass grow, I would find a way to turn it into a mighty, ulcer-inducing enterprise.
To state the obvious, this is not a healthy way to live. One person cannot do everything well and live to tell about it. I have always known that, I suppose, but I didn’t feel that I had a choice. Judy has shown me that I do.
For her, everything changed in a matter of months. There was no outward impetus. She didn’t have a heart attack. The doctor didn’t order bed rest. She wasn’t hospitalized with exhaustion. No one said to her, “Judy, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to spin out of control one day.”
She simply looked up from the frantically scribbled map of her life, took a very deep breath, and declared, “Enough.”
“It was like rushing toward a storm drain,” she said to me that evening, taking another sip of her tea. “The momentum swept me along, and I barely had time to think. It was impossible to keep my balance, and nearly impossible to step out. The current was so strong. It took me a long time to realize it, but it was finally clear to me that I didn’t want to live my life in that kind of rush anymore. I had a choice.”
And choose she did. Thoughtfully, deliberately, she resigned from a dozen committees. She closed out other obligations and declined to accept more. She found a coach to help her sort out priorities and walk alongside her as she hit her new stride.
Judy signed up for an evening art class at the local university and discovered she liked to sketch. “At first I was annoyed with the instructor,” she admitted. “He didn’t seem to be teaching us anything. He came by from time to time to critique what we were doing or to suggest a direction we might go with a particular drawing, but he wasn’t constantly giving us information. It took me a while to realize that a big part of what he was doing was giving us space to focus on that one thing. I would never have been still that long at home, but there I had three uninterrupted hours, and I learned to appreciate that time.”
She began to write for an hour every morning and to regularly take herself on short excursions, a la The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She drove to Reelfoot Lake one February day and was thrilled by the sight of ten bald eagles wintering there. She began to visit museums and galleries and out-of-the-way local stops, places she had not made time for in the past. One day, she brought me a lovely piece of pottery signed by an artist in Mississippi.
She took up piano, and played in her very first recital a few months later. “I was the only adult student,” she told me, laughing, “and I was the worst one there, except for the ten-year-old who cried and refused to play at all.” She has since participated in her second recital and doesn’t care one whit that she will never make it to Carnegie Hall.
“I decided I didn’t have to do it all,” she said, “and I realized that I didn’t have to be great at something to enjoy it.”
Now there’s a concept!
I can sense the difference in her tone of voice and her body language, and I am drawn to that difference the way a stranger is drawn when she hears snatches of her native tongue on a crowded street corner.
Even her home is different now. She tore down an interior wall and added large windows across the front of her house. It is as though a fresh breeze has blown though, bringing with it air and light and space. She has time to be still, to contemplate, to plant a garden, to read, and converse face to face with friends over a home-cooked meal. Where once she was virtually inaccessible, she is now calm, peaceful, and at ease with the altered rhythms she had chosen to embrace.
One way to live is to stand in the torrents, fighting desperately to stay balanced while getting sucked closer and closer to the storm drain.
The other way is to have courage to step out. Not away from what is important, but toward what is more important.
I am beginning to see a bit of what stepping out will mean to me at this point in my life, although I admit I am flying by the seat of my pants. There is no “one-size-fits-all” formula that will tell me what to take with me and what to leave behind. I am examining each facet of my life and trying to determine what place it will have as I go forward. This is no easy task.
I will have to find a way to live with imperfection in my work, although it goes against every inclination I have refined over the years. I don’t want to sit in my office doing desk exercises so that I can cope with even more stress and more responsibility. I must be reconciled to the fact that some tasks could be done better if I worked harder or longer, but that it is up to me to prioritize, and I must be kind to myself. I want to do a reasonably good job, go home at the end of the day, and enjoy to the fullest the world God has given.
I want to make peace with not being the best, even in my own limited world, whether I am at work or at play. If a brilliant performance every time (or even most of the time) is my criterion for participation, then I have painted myself into a very small corner indeed.
Of late, I have become more conscious that life is getting shorter. I am no longer twenty. I want to make time for playing my long-neglected flute, taking photographs of interesting people on the street, eating warm ripe tomatoes straight off the vine, singing out loud, drawing and coloring (yes, with markers and crayons!), mentoring kids, writing articles and poems and stories, reading good books, riding my bicycle down the greenline, and making those genuine face to face connections that make me happy to be on the planet. I don’t want to miss out on what I love.
I am resolved to step out of the torrent.
When I was a child and playing outdoors, friends and I sometimes stopped to get a cool drink from the garden hose. Funny thing was, the stronger the force of the water, the harder it was to drink. It wouldn’t seem that way. We were so thirsty, and we wanted to take big greedy gulps, so we twisted it on full force. But in fact, the only way we could manage to quench our thirst was to turn the force way down.
I can’t drink from a fire hose anymore. And I don’t intend to keep fighting the surge that seeks to pull me under. It is powerful, and it is insistent. But I have a choice and I see that now, thanks to Judy. I can climb out of the rush onto solid ground. And once I’m out, I can have the presence of mind to kneel and drink from a purer, deeper stream.
The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. Let the one who is thirsty come. – Revelation 7 & 22