Parting a Sea of Shoulds

I've always been obsessed with self-improvement.  From the time I was small, I've been making these lists that divide my life into categories--health, money, talents, etc--and writing out ambitious and nearly-absurd goals for myself.  Examples: I will create five new recipes a week. I will exercise for 2 hours on our rebounder trampoline every day.  I will read a book every day.  (Mind you, I was 11 years old.)

Maybe this sort of system works for other people, but for me this was a recipe for discouragement.  Fast forward to my life now, and my goals have gotten more elaborate, no less plentiful, and no more doable.  And basically, for all that I hope to change, and for all of the ways I want to change, I had grown to completely mistrust my ability to do so.  Sort of like: why bother? I'll just fail anyway.  That sort of thing.

Last year, in another effort to change my life completely, I tried this system of inspriring creativity from Julia Cameron called The Artist's Way. I highly recommend it, as it seems to have really helped all sorts of people, but I dropped off when I noticed a familiar pattern.  Part of the program is to handwrite three pages  in your journal every morning.  Not fancy pages, not artful pages, just a brain dump basically, whatever is in your head.  And here's the pattern I noticed: my pages were riddled with shoulds.  I should this, I should that.  I should stop doing/thinking/being like this, I should do/think/be that.  It was exhausting to be on that page every day with me, perpetually dissatisfied, perpetually imagining some other way.  For awhile I tried to forbid myself from using the word "should" altogether, but that didn't stop me from shoulding in some other form, and eventually I just dropped off.

I've missed the pages, in a way, missed the way they centered me and prompted me to observe what was around me.  So I've been sort of looking for something else.  I've been thinking about a gratitude list, but I've tried that before and it felt false somehow, or generic.  I ended up being grateful for the same thing over and over and didn't feel like I was getting the point.

All of this is background for a moment a few weeks ago when I sat in church and something struck me: what if everything is already fine?  I had been thinking about all of these ways I wanted to improve, about how I wanted be different, dig into my life with a shovel and haul out the junk.  And then it occurred to me that maybe I was already okay, maybe everything was already, basically, more or less, fine.  I got out my journal, and came up with this idea, this list of five things that happened every day that were lovely:

1. Sam makes me laugh.
2. I eat some sort of healthy food that I really enjoy.
3. I feel connected to God in some way or God helps me.
4. I notice something beautiful.
5. I work on my goals.

Since then I've been filling out that list nearly every day.  Although Sam makes me laugh, I've expanded the first one to be human interaction that is positive or meaningful.  This is important because I'm basically afraid of everyone and everything and have been having a really really hard time feeling connected with anyone.  I wanted to celebrate when I managed to get to the other side of that and connect with someone.  Anyway, it looks like this when it's filled in:

1. Human. Sam drove me around for five hours (literally) in the snow.  When we were on the way home, we were realizing it had been five hours and I said, "You're pretty good at this though.  Driving in the snow, I mean."  And he gave me this perfect look that said, "Come on.  Of course I am.  I'm the Sam."  And I laughed and loved him for being so confident.  Also, I called a woman from church before she went in for a big surgery to tell her I loved her and would be praying for her.

2. Food. A gorgeous navel orange.  Roasted carrots with marinara and parmesan cheese.  Orange vanilla rooibos tea with milk and stevia.

3. God. A moment on the train when I was crammed in with about a billion people and I looked down into my little pocket of space and somehow, while feeling very quiet, felt like God was with me on the Red Line.

4. Beauty. Sam in his hat in the snow.  The Citgo sign backdropped by a blaze of orange sunset.  My cats perched together on my office chair.

5. Goals. Sent poems to anthology man.  Found a poem I wrote years ago and had forgotten about and discovered it fit perfectly in my poetry manuscript.  Emailed friend from grad school that I collaborated with on a poem and asked if I could use my revised draft as my own.  Read books.

This list centers me, reminds me of what's important, and reminds me that I'm always, because of my nature, making progress on those fronts.  I'm more likely to make progress too because I know I'm going to write it down and give myself credit.  I know it's going to count for something, not get lost in a sea of shoulds. 

I don't know why I've been thinking about sharing this on my blog. It has seemed too personal, and I've been worried I'd jinx it, that by saying it outloud (or writing it online, rather), I'd ruin it's meaning for me. I also worry that what I'm talking about is "the power of positive thinking"--a cliche I've deeply mistrusted ever since I grew out of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. But maybe, after all, that cliche is sort of right. For me, the thinking has to be completely specific and unflinchingly honest, and then, yes, I suppose it is powerful after all. I love it and hate it when that happens, when cliches actually end up being insightful.

About a week after I started I added another item called "Tiny Checkmarks."  This is my space, at the beginning of the day, where I decide on something that I actually should do, and get it done that day.  It has to be managable, and it's become a way to clear off all of the little tasks that pile up: taking something to the post office, calling for a doctor's appointment, returning a friend's email, etc.  If something seems big, I break it down into smaller tasks and do one a day.  I usually also add a few items that are "Gravy"--meaning, if I got those extras done, I would seriously rock.  I find I usually do get them done, and if I don't, they go on tomorrow's list and I don't freak out about it.

When I feel overwhelmed and like I'm failing at everything important, I have my list to refer to, and I remember my new mantra, Everything is Already Fine. When a pile of things I think I need to do assaults me, I tell them they'll go on the tiny checkmarks slot tomorrow.  And to please leave me alone because I'm looking for something beautiful, looking for God, laughing at Sam, eating something healthy, and working on my goals.


Elise said…
Well. That was just amazing.
eden said…
i love this. this is beautiful and very insightful and such a good way to look at life.

also, maybe i'm dumb, but i didn't realize we have rooibos tea in the states. i discovered it in africa and absolutely loved it. i'll have to look for it here.
Genevieve Beck said…
Thank you for deciding it wasn't too personal. I loved reading it!
Kira said…
I think I SHOULD do that :) I really do nothing except exist. I need to find something.
Annie said…
Totally brilliant.
Terry Earley said…
Well, I needed this today. Feeling a little overwhelmed. Thanks for the re-focus.
Mike and Emily said…
Thanks for sharing, Dej. I like the list. I like your items on the list. I like you and your brain.
Bryson and Tara said…
What a great and refreshing way to look at life. So glad you're doing well and are happy.
Amara said…
Wow. It's like you don't have a subconscious. All of this stuff is in the background in my head, where I feel vaguely discontent, and then the next day try to whip through 20 to-do's on my list. I can't help feeling you'll be far more successful in your life using your system than I will using mine (or lack thereof).
belann said…
Sounds like Byron Katie to me--everything is fine. Very metaphysically true. Remember I told you you should listen to Byron Katie? Maybe in the tiny checklist spot someday? Love this post.
kathy w. said…
I'm sure you didn't jinx it. But even if you did, I'm glad you put this up here.

I'm a should-er when I shouldn't be—and it makes life HARD. I kind of loved and needed to read this today. Thanks.
Emily said…
I'm glad you shared this. My parent's therapist always says, "Stop shoulding on yourself!" I need to remember that more. I really like your realization that Everything is Fine. We need more of that. We are Enough.
Sam Ruddick said…
here comes my chinese rug.
Fritzi Marie said…
Dearest Deja,

I so needed to read this today. Thank you for being you.

love love,
I love rooibos tea with milk (my fave is Almond) and stevia too!

I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

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