Though I typically push against rules and mandates to test their validity instead of blindly subscribing, I am truly a systems person. I prefer to understand the procedure in case of emergency. I want a plan of action for avoiding peril. I enjoy well-thought-out infrastructures that help navigate the annoying and chaotic parts of life, whether in my home, in my classroom or in me.
Thanks to governments, engineers, policy makers and Marie Kondo, there are many systems in place that serve us (mostly) well. But there are times when we require a specific solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. So we invent it.
As a baby, my son fell asleep easily in the car. This might sound ideal, but he didn’t transfer well between the car and his bed, so unless we were to remain in the car for the entirety of his nap, I needed a way to keep him awake until we arrived home—because I needed that blessed time in order to feel like a human. Out of necessity, I adopted a procedure that I am ridiculed for to this day. I called it “the poking stick.” It was aptly named. Before you call Social Services, it was a wrapping paper tube kept in the front seat which allowed me to reach into the back seat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I would gently poke my sweet baby in the leg while saying his name and singing silly songs. All to keep him awake. All to have a few precious minutes to regroup during his nap. I created a solution to a problem.
Here’s another high-tech system I implemented. Life was so easy when my children were both strapped into the backseat, safe in their 5-point harnesses or their booster seats. No one was allowed in the front seat with me. The police said so! When my eldest was at an age/height/weight that qualified him as a front-seat passenger, the ease continued, because, if it was only mom and kids in the vehicle, he got the front seat every time. Once my youngest was also eligible for front seat riding, the wars began. Honestly, what happened to simply yelling “SHOTGUN!” like we did as teenagers? After constant fights and several threats of how embarrassing it would be to be seen strapped into a booster in the back seat again, we developed a system.
Using a very fancy piece of yellow card stock and a Sharpie, I wrote one kid’s name on one side and one kid’s name on the other. Then I tucked this brilliant peace-keeping invention into one of the compartments on my van door. And this is how we keep track. To this day. When the kids and I get to our vehicle, I check to see who sat up front last and then flip the paper to reflect the current front-seat-proprietor. It’s not fail-proof, because sometimes I forget to flip it, and the situation denigrates to memory. But mostly, we solved our problem by employing a system. If you have more than two kids, good luck to you.
These are simplistic examples of ‘plans of action’ that have helped navigate simple troubles. But we can also implement infrastructures and practices for bigger troubles—for times of upheaval, anger or uncertainty—so that we can simply follow the plan.
If you’ve read my essays, you have likely ascertained that I’m a devout journaler. Everything goes into my journal. But it can never be read by you or anyone because lots of what is inside is fury and process. It’s not necessarily the truth—not that it’s lies, but it’s my unedited feelings about a situation or a person in that moment. I am a person who feels things deeply, so it is important for me to barf onto the page and say everything I need to say…but doing so to a person’s face or sending an email or posting online while upset or furious is always a bad idea. While we want to be honest about our hurt when warranted, we don’t need to be jerks about it. This is especially true in an age of instant communication, when it is so easy to fire off an angry email or text without taking the time to think it through, to re-read, to check our tone.
I read an article once about Abraham Lincoln’s “hot letters” (FYI: not the sexy kind of hot letters) that made very good sense to me. When Abe was angry with someone, he would compose what he dubbed a “hot letter.” Instead of sending it immediately to the recipient, he would set it aside to be read later with a cool head. Many of his letters were later found unsigned and unsent. Wise man, that Abe.
I use this practice in my own daily life. I vent to my journal…all of the raw, unedited, hurt-feelinged venom. Once I’m more balanced, I can determine whether a situation actually needs to be addressed (which, if we’re living whole-heartedly and with healthy boundaries, many situations do need to be addressed). It’s at this point that I formulate a letter.
Pro-tip: don’t type in the email address until you’re content with the way you’ve communicated. Hitting “send” before intended is a nightmare. I know this from experience.
What about times of confusion or darkness? During these inevitable seasons, we simply do the things we know to do. We take the next right step. We employ good practices physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. And we stay the course until we know it’s safe to do otherwise.
When technology fails and pilots and sea captains are unable to detect their routes, the worst thing they can do is alter course. When we can’t see where we’re going, we stick to the plan. When everything is up in the air, we don’t make major life changes. It’s not a time for aimless drifting, but for intentionality. We keep our eyes fixed in the direction we were initially going, until we hear otherwise.
When I am at a loss. When I fear what lies ahead. When skies and seas are raging. When I’m stymied and frustrated. When I don’t know my own mind. When I’m at the mercy of someone else’s brokenness. I keep my eyes fixed on the one who knows. I remember the story of Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20 and I utter the words:
“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (v.12)
In this part of the story, armies are encroaching on every side. The situation is dire and the people are paralyzed with fear. But instead of losing their heads. Instead of rushing headlong into battle. Instead of fleeing. Instead of remaining paralyzed. They follow the plan. They engage a system.
They look to the Lord.
They remember who he was and is and always will be and they begin to worship together. God causes the attacking armies to fight one another instead of attacking Jehoshaphat and his people. Though they’d expected losses from the battle, they emerge unharmed and with more plunder than they can carry. They experience peace and rest on every side. Read the whole story here.
Systems benefit our lives. Whether it’s flipping a paper to know which kid rides shotgun…maintaining a regular-ish bedtime…journaling for process and self-awareness…strengthening my muscles at the gym…minimizing conflict and relating to others in mature and healthy ways…Marie-Kondo-ing all of my drawers…drinking enough water…choosing kindness and joy whether I feel like it or not…these systems are important for daily life. But in the deeper things—in darkness, disconnection, and in determining the way forward—my plan of action and constant prayer is: “I do not know what to do, but my eyes are on you.”
This trusting relationship with God is a current that runs deeply within me, supporting and energizing all parts of my life. My most important system is to fix my gaze on the one who knows the plan. Though it’s a relationship and not a system, partnership with God is my infrastructure, my operating system, my emergency preparedness, my daily practice.
Much love to all of you.
Note: Writing today occurred solely because of a system of practice. Not feeling. I was NOT feeling it. I’ve felt so unable to write lately. Busy. Tired. Carrying heavy things. So today, I engaged my system for writing when I really don’t feel like it:
- Avoid, procrastinate and dread writing for 2 hours.
- Make a fresh pot of coffee.
- Determine to begin at exactly 9:30 am. Oops, 10:00 am. Umm, how about 10:30 am? (One cannot begin at a random, uneven time).
- Sit butt down in office chair (not allowed to write in bed or on sofa when in this frame of mind).
- Commit to one hour of writing (we can do anything for an hour).
- Think about possible rewards for finishing one hour: apples and almond butter? A nap?
- Open computer. Check email, Facebook, Pinterest. Get some self-control.
- Realize 3 hours later that the system worked!! I’ve completed an essay…total crap or not, I’ve written something!
- Edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, post. Don’t look at computer again all day long, because you’re pretty sure the essay is total garbage and everyone else will think so, too.
- Celebrate with Netflix, apples and almond butter, then a nap.