Imagine, if you will, me standing in my kitchen late at night, surrounded by mountains of cucumbers and tomatoes that I grew in my own garden, making pickles and salsa for my family, crying my eyes out with exhaustion because I have to wake up again in a few hours for my full-time job. And feeling SO mad that I can’t do it all.
Hi, my name is Ellen and I am compulsively responsible.
I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and commitment; a tendency to try to do it all. I could blame it on various factors–my intense, achiever personality or birth-order (yes, I’m a first-born. Shocking.) or life experience (the need to step up at an early age)–but nature and nurture aside, this seemingly positive trait is one I’ve had to wrestle with and grow through.
When I give my word, I follow through. When I say I’ll be there, I’ll be there. When I agree to something, barring natural disaster or illness, you can count on me! I typically don’t promise anything unless I’m certain I can make it happen, because I feel the weight and responsibility of my yeses.
While commitment and responsibility are admirable qualities in many respects, and certainly, markers of good character, it can go too far. As is often the case, our best qualities and our worst qualities are one and the same; two sides of the same coin. Some people need to learn to show up and keep their word, and others, like me, may need to learn to relax a little.
Over the last few years, I’ve understood that the best version of me isn’t the one who says yes to every invitation…even if I can do it…even if it’s an honourable and meaningful opportunity…even if I sometimes want to do it. What’s scary is that I can muster passion for just about anything, so I can’t always count on my feelings to guide me in whether or not something is mine to do.
My desire to help others, to step up, to show up and to be counted trustworthy can easily cause me to overextend myself. I can collect and collect and collect and carry and carry and carry to the point that my arms are overfull and I’m exhausted.
It’s not meant to be that way.
The truth is, we cannot keep picking up new things without putting others down. And if we don’t put things down purposefully and intentionally, we’ll put them down by accidentally “dropping the ball,” as they say; by unintentionally sacrificing something or someone that wasn’t meant to be dropped.
As much as I’d like to believe I have an immeasurable capacity for work and people and life, annoyingly, I do have limits. I hate to admit it, even to myself, but I cannot, in fact, do all of the things. At least not simultaneously. At least not with any degree of quality. At least not without causing suffering to myself and others.
Some years ago, I experienced a necessary re-ordering of priorities. It was a time when everything in my life seemed to be vying for attention. It was the tyranny of the urgent, where the most persistent and most needy tended to get my best. Often at a cost to me and a detriment to my people. Everything I was doing was important and worthwhile, but instead of getting my best, my people were getting the leftovers. I was giving it all away to the loudest voices and bringing home scraps.
And so, I made a list of the important things in my journal and then drew a diagram (remember, friends. I am a nerd).
My commitment to God comes first. Before you gasp with disbelief that I would choose my faith over my family, it’s not like that. We’re not talking ‘pieces of the pie’ here where unequal slices are being served. With Jesus as the inner circle, it doesn’t mean that other parts get ignored, but that he is at the centre of everything. Everything I do after that…loving my husband, loving my kids and family, loving the world…comes from this centred place.
Next circle, my husband. Again, this is not saying that he gets a bigger slice of the pie than the babies who grew in my body. It’s saying that loving him well and making our relationship a priority contributes to everything else. If my husband and I are not okay, this typically affects all the other things. There is a trickle-down effect and I want it to be a good one. You’ve likely heard the saying “Dads, the best thing you can do for your kids is to love their mom. Moms, the best thing you can do for your kids is to love their dad.” I believe this to be true. Prioritizing your relationship with your partner creates security and peace for your children. And you.
The next circle is my kids. After that, family and close friends. And after that, my acts of service. This would include service to others, special projects I take on when called to do so, my “jobs” at church and so forth. (A side note: Friends, do not confuse what you DO for your faith with your number one priority: relationship with God. Service comes out of your love for God; it is not one and the same). And after that, everything else.
This diagram of concentric circles became my measuring stick for everything. If an activity from an outer circle was usurping the place of my family, I would have to stop and re-order. And sometimes eliminate.
So, how does this happen? How do we re-order and/or eliminate items from our lists?
I’ve become aware that I’ve unconsciously assigned beginnings to the bright and beautiful category and dismissed endings to a list that also contains words like sadness, fading, dissolution and failure to thrive. As though an ending means loss. As though an ending means something has gone wrong. As though an ending is to be avoided.
But we know this is impossible. One cannot possibly have all beginnings and no endings. What would that look like? How could that even work? The simple answer is it doesn’t. We end up with too many things.
There are cycles and seasons in every part of the natural world. Plants cycle through seed, germination, growth, pollination and seed spreading stages. Trees experience spring growth where they wake up and burgeon with new bud, then full leaf and summer slow-down, before fading to falling leaf and winter dormancy. The moon waxes and wanes through eight phases almost monthly. Tides rise and fall daily. Animal migration, tied to seasons, weather and feeding patterns, or mating and breeding, happens at regular intervals. Other animals hibernate each year. The gestation period from conception through birth has a beginning and an ending. Seasons begin and end, fading from one into the next.
As humans who are a part of the natural world, it follows that these same cycles, patterns and seasons would exist in our own experience. So why are we often so surprised by endings? Why do we avoid them?
The song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” made famous by the Byrds is actually a scripture from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”
While we would like to assign many of these items to categories of positive and negative, desirable or to be avoided, they are all valid and necessary parts of the human experience. Things must begin and things must end.
A long-term, enduring “yes” is important to certain aspects of life, like covenants of marriage and vows to love and protect our children. But perhaps not all parts of life require that level of commitment? Maybe some parts follow the natural patterns and are more cyclical than we’d like to believe?
Let’s think on our priorities and ask what needs to be re-ordered or removed:
1) What things in your life need to lie dormant or hibernate for a season? Trees don’t die when they lose their leaves, just as animals don’t die when they hibernate. Both are very much alive, but not awake. It’s how they pass through certain seasons. Putting something on the shelf, like allowing soil to rest fallow, can restore fertility and life.
2) What things in your life have died or need to die? This is a more difficult question, but, truly, there are parts of life that are only meant for a time. It seems tragic, but not all jobs, passions, friendships or commitments are meant to endure. Longevity doesn’t always equate to winning and shorter seasons don’t always equate to losing. We need to recognize when something is over. Stop propping it up and let it go.
Autumn is a natural waning time, both in nature and metaphorically. If you’re in a season of ending, it’s not that the thing wasn’t meant to be or that it will never know life again. It just means that this part is over. At least for now. Circle of life, baby. Let it go.
Much love to you all.