When I was a kid, I would regularly resolve to keep my room neater, take the dog on more walks, and be less snarky to my parents. I took the fact that these decrees rarely worked as a sign of my own weakness and lack of follow-through. This would be a funny story if I’d stopped doing it when I was 13, but sadly it’s still an approach I take almost without thinking.
No matter how old I am, or how many experiences I’ve had that would point to the contrary, I have an underlying sense that if I could just get everything to its perfect state, I could keep it that way forever. Whether it’s the condition of my office desk, my workout routine, my finances, or my eating habits, my methods are the same. Despite a million examples that should prove me wrong, some true believer part of me thinks that if I get all the puzzle pieces together to form that perfect picture, I can check that area of my life off my list and all will be as it should be forever. I can't tell you how exhausting it is to try and control so much.
Real life is in those messes and my “failure” to keep it neat and clean is not really a disaster at all.
For some reason, all of the parts of my world are colluding right now to slap some sense into me. I’m definitely getting the message that this is not only a ridiculous way of thinking, but it hasn’t actually even served me very well. I'm sure I developed this approach as an antidote to fear and anxiety, but my mother was also committed to regularly “turning over a new leaf." We moved regularly to new houses where we would try again to make things perfect and keep them that way. It definitely instilled in me the notion that we need to aim for the ideal and then, once we find it—that one second on a Tuesday afternoon in May—we can hold on to it and all will be well.
In this relatively new phase of my life, I am realizing that beauty and flawlessness can be found in those seconds, or moments, and when we’re in them we can love them, but then things change. Still, with my head and my heart so often focused on the goal, I’ve missed a lot of the loveliness of those small moments that are delicious in and of themselves. I may have found a great way to file the papers on my desk, for example, but my best bet is to applaud it when everything is neatly filed and then be willing to let it get messy again within the hour. Real life is in those messes and my “failure” to keep it neat and clean is not really a disaster at all. Instead, it means it’s time to sort through things again and maybe time to find a new way to keep track of it all. Or maybe it's a time to just let things be as they are.
As with many notions I’m discovering at this point, it makes me a little sad that it took me this long to value the times in between the idyllic ones. On some level I did, of course, but it would have been nice to feel that each instance was its own form of good. Yet even this realization is not one that is going to last forever. Other pieces of my life and experience will weave together and I will see it all from a new angle.
One reason I'm thinking about these things is that I’ve been reading Dan Harris’ book 10 Percent Happier. Harris, a reporter, had a panic attack on national television, which prompted his search for something that would bring him peace. The book describes his journey to mindfulness meditation and it reminds me, once again, how much of my life I miss because I'm focused on a future that exists only in my head. Harris also emphasizes the ways he chastised himself when the perfect plan didn’t go as he’d hoped. One of his biggest lessons, he writes, was when a teacher told him, “Respond, don’t react.” That in itself is worth the price of the book for me. Just noticing how I feel when a quick turn in the road takes me someplace unexpected would be great. It would also be such an improvement over my usual reaction, which is to take a dive in both mood and confidence—as if I had some huge amount of control over the direction of life in the first place.
So my desk is messy again, I’ve encountered some unexpected financial obligations, and very little is exactly as I thought it would be. But I’m discovering that the problem is much more my misguided notion that a good life means one that stays the same, and a good person is one who can keep it reined in so that there aren’t a lot of surprises. It turns out that change means everything is moving and flowing and growing, that my plan was made up in the first place, and that everything good and delicious and worth it is in the moments when every cell of my being is right here, right now.