From Just Plain Stupid to Stupid Easy

foot prints in the sand

(Image from Pattysphotos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/34121831@N00/4592567496)

Lately, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time writing responses to posts on social media that either anger or disturb me. Sometimes, I carefully craft my response, being careful to choose words that are not intentionally incendiary, removing any accusatory or judgmental language. Other times I allow my fingers to type quickly, spewing forth the outraged reactive language running through my mind.

And then I erase them.

As I think about the swift passage of time, the ways my days run together and my weeks come to an end before I have time to blink, I realize that this has been stupidly wasteful of my time. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I erased these comments before posting them. But if I tried to add up the minutes of precious time I’ve wasted writing/erasing/writing/erasing them…well, let’s just say there are better uses for my time.

What often happens when I finally face the inanity of one behavior, is that the absurdity of other things I do becomes impossible to ignore as well. For example, on Saturday I spent the better part of the morning taking an online IQ test, simply because a friend on Facebook had challenged others to do so. After something like seventy-five pattern-recognition questions burned out my retinas, I discovered that I would have to pay $9.95 to get my results. No thanks.

Not all of my bad habits are internet related (though most of my time-wasting ones are). If I were to create an exhaustive list it would include things like getting halfway through writing a letter or card, stopping, and never finishing it. Or (God help me!) watching “My Diet is Better Than Yours” instead of turning off the television and picking up a good book. Or staring at the still unpacked boxes in my apartment, thinking about where I will put the stuff they contain…when I actually get around to it.

Everyone has bad habits and self-indulgent time-wasters, I know. I am too old and, hopefully, too wise to strive for perfection in my own habits. On the other hand, experience has shown me that I can spend a lot of time spinning my wheels through inattention – that weeks and months and years of a life can disappear with little to show in terms of actually living in them. There’s the poem about how a man dreamed he was walking with God and saw his life as a set of footprints on a sandy beach. Often, there were two sets of footprints in the sand, but at the times in his life that were hardest, there appeared to be only one set. When he asks the Lord about this, suggesting that he had been abandoned in those times, he is told, “Those were the times I carried you.” My dreaming mind changed this story into a walk down the beach where, looking back, there were no footprints. Not because I was abandoned by God, but because I was abandoning my own life.

A week or so ago, I ran across a post on Break The Twitch, in which Anthony Ongaro shares his strategies for intentionally changing his habits. He talks about needing to establish good habits to replace the bad ones we wish to excise from our lives. Anthony says:

“I often refer to this quote from Annie Dillard when thinking about how to structure these specific actions:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

The hours of our days become the weeks of our months and so on. If I want to accomplish these goals, I have to do things that will get me closer to them every single day. To create these daily actions, here are the qualifications:

Stupid-easy. Each daily action needs to be stupid-easy, as in, so easy for me that I would feel absolutely ridiculous not doing it. Essentially, take a desired action and breaking it down to the no-possible-resistance level.

Focus on action, not the outcome. I focus on celebrating the successful completion of each daily task, not the outcome that it created. Some days, the outcome is great — other days, it’s crap. That’s why I’m focusing on the habit itself, so that I don’t get discouraged. If I complete it, I am #winning.

Establish early success. The two points above contribute to early success – establishing a habit of succeeding immediately. Quickly creating a successful chain of daily actions from the very start.

Start immediately. From there, I’d start immediately and refuse to wait for a new year or a certain day to get started. If I failed on any particular day I would not wait until a specific day of the week or turn of a year to start again.”

The very first qualification that Anthony shares, “stupid easy”, is a game changer for those of us who have difficulty establishing new, more proactive, daily habits. So many times, I’ve found myself setting expectations that, in execution, are too Herculean to actually accomplish: exercise for an hour a day; always wash the dish(es) I just used; 100 crunches as soon as I get out of bed in the morning; no sweets. (This gives you an idea of what passes for “impossible” for me, anyway, as beginning goals!)

But “stupid easy” – that’s something I think I can be really good at! After all, my time-wasters are already both stupid and easy! In order to begin, I’m going to pick one positive habit I want to establish: taking time at the end of each day for reflection and quieting of my mind. I’ve realized that taking some time to do this is a way for me to set aside the day’s anxieties while setting myself up for a more calm and peaceful sleep. If I just sit quietly, I tend to fall asleep – but not comfortably, nor having put to rest the worries of the day – which sets me up for restless sleep and middle-of-the-night wakefulness. And if I don’t make a ritual of it, I’m less likely to actually do it. So I need an activity that can become rote, while not also revving my brain up to further wakefulness. So here is my “stupid easy” habit, instituting today:

Habit: Daily, brief reflection before bed.

Stupid-Easy method: Write three short statements in my bedside journal each night – 1. Something I’m asking for help with; 2. Something I am grateful for; 3. Something “Wow” or awe-inspiring from my day. (Based on the premise of Anne Lamott’s book “Help, Thanks, Wow“)

I’ll let you know how it’s going. If this “stupid easy” habit gets established, I’ll add another. The idea is that positive daily habits, as they are established, crowd out the just plain stupid ones – the time-wasters and energy-suckers. I don’t know many things for sure, but I do know that life is too short not to inhabit each and every day. If I dream again that my life is a walk along a sandy beach, I want to look back at where I’ve been and see at least one set of deeply etched footprints.

 

Note: Will you join me (and Mr. Anthony Ongaro!) in trying your own highly beneficial daily activity(ies)? If so, I invite you to share in the comments!

 

 

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In the midst of the city, discovering the village

It was late evening  on a bitterly cold Sunday. Mike and I had gone to the gym, and were returning home. As we passed the Simpson Church homeless shelter, we were waved down by several men standing on the corner. I wasn’t sure what was going on, as Mike slowed to a stop and pressed the button to open the drivers side window. It was dark, I was cold, and I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to stop so I asked Mike to please move on. But he didn’t.

One of the men approached closer to the car, his hands held in the air, open palms toward Mike. He asked for directions to the overflow shelter downtown. His language, his posture, the way he held his hands were all meant to reassure us that he intended no harm and I realized that we weren’t being scammed or victimized.  These men were simply in need of a warm place to spend the night; a little assistance. Suddenly, I was grateful Mike had been driving, instead of me.

Life is full of these moments – the ones where a seemingly small choice is required of us. Sometimes, the moment seems insignificant to the degree that we don’t even realize there’s a choice being made. Smile or not at the slow grocery checker? A word of caution to the person behind you to take care, the sidewalk is slick just there. Offer to take a photo so the happy group of strangers can all be in it. Other times, the moment calls for something more significant – an investment of time or cash, an emotional commitment, an inconvenience to ourselves. In these moments, we not only know we’re making a choice, we know the choice is bigger than the moment. Still, the choice is ours.

It has, famously and truthfully, been said that “it takes a village to raise a child”. The need to be part of a caring and generous village doesn’t end at childhood, though. Successfully navigating this life – whether you are five or fifty – takes a village. We don’t discuss this much. We live in a culture that prefers to believe the myth that hard workers will be successful – and people who need help are weak, or lazy, or just trying to get something for nothing. And if things have mostly gone well for us, we begin to think that we are self-sufficient and will always be able to rely on our own resources (internal and external) to handle whatever comes our way.

In my life, there have been enough examples to teach me otherwise. One Christmas when I was a teen, my father’s wallet –  which contained the holiday bonus he had just cashed – was stolen at the dentist’s office. Imagine the feeling of that loss, with six children at home awaiting the usual hoopla. But the next day at work, the cash was magically (and anonymously) “returned”. Or years later, when my beloved brother-in-law entered an experimental cancer treatment program and my sister needed to stay in the hospital with him – in Houston, a city they didn’t know, with two young boys. Their friend, Angela, travelled from Ohio and cared for the boys in an apartment sponsored by a local church. The treatment took six months, and Angela stayed for the duration. Or when my good friends (who would prefer to remain nameless) loaned thousands of dollars to other friends to start their dream business – then turned around a couple of years later and did the same for a sibling. It wasn’t that they had extra cash just lying around. It was that they were willing to accept small hardships themselves in order to help people they loved build their dreams.

Still, with these examples (an many more), I somehow came away seeing only one side: when I am able to help others I should do so. And I’ve tried to keep that in mind in both big and small ways as I’ve lived my life. I completely missed, however, the flip side of that lesson: that there would be times of real need in my own life. And in those moments, I would have to both rely on others to care and to actually ask for help. In missing this side of the lesson, I grew to believe in my own myth – that I was a helper, not a needer. A giver, not a taker. An offerer, not an asker.

This winter is teaching me otherwise. I have needed emotional support, logistical help, financial assistance, rides, a welcoming place to spend Christmas – the list is long. Friends have given me cash (both anonymously and directly), paid for nights or lunches out, given up garage parking so my car wouldn’t die in the extended seriously negative temps. If I hold on to our cultural myths, this neediness will crush my self-esteem – a by-product those who have helped me would never want. Instead, I’m learning to let go of the myth, to develop a proper humility (i.e. “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people : the quality or state of being humble” per Mirriam Webster). And with that humility comes deep gratitude.

You see, in a village, the streets go both ways. The neighbor who offers help today is the neighbor in need of help tomorrow. There is a flow of energy back and forth. It does us no service to tell ourselves otherwise. I can’t say it has been an enjoyable lesson or shift in perspective. But I can say, even though I am still in the midst of it, that it has been necessary. Life is about growing, learning and evolving. Sometimes, moving forward is neither easy nor painless. Yet move forward we must if we value making the most of this precious life we’ve been given. In moving to a big city, I’ve discovered my citizenship in a village – a village of which I am proud, and grateful, to be part.