What to Give Up to Get Your Life
"It's not hard figuring out what you want your life to be about. What's hard is giving up things in order to get that life.”
-from Bittersweet, by Shauna Niequist
Two years ago, I discovered Shauna Niequist. I finished Bread and Wine on a vacation, then immediately bought Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet. I read them all in one summer. It was like I had found a younger, way-cooler version of myself. I’ve recently finished Present Over Perfect, with much to say about it in a post yet to come.
For awhile I wouldn't even ask myself the implied question in the first part of the opening quote. What do I want my life to be about? I was afraid of the answer. Afraid shame, condemnation, and my internal task-master would all rear their ugly heads at me and in me. On some level deeper than I dared probe at the time, I probably knew that my outward life was not about the things I truly wanted. My calendar was filled with a lot of ‘should’, ‘am expected to’ and ‘have-to.’ I’d been a wife and mom for many years by then. I was also an employee. The patterns of my life were deeply embedded. Did I have the right to ask myself what I wanted? To see myself in any way other than in relationship to those roles?
I’d like to say I mustered the courage to ask, but that isn’t true. I just became tired enough internally and unhealthy enough externally and therein lay the motivation to ask myself the question. When we get uncomfortable enough, we do the work.
When I did ask it, I went blank. I cried. I couldn’t think. So I rested. I wrote. I prayed some more. A week later I came back to it again and gave myself permission to write anything down—anything— and permission to scratch it out later if I wanted to.
This is what I scribbled in my journal: I want my life to be about…
Relationships - deep relationships with people, loving well, staying in there.
Feeding people - literally and spiritually. I love to cook and have people around the table. I love it when someone tells me I said or wrote something that helped them remember God’s love and goodness.
Adventure - I love to travel, to meet new people, to be surprised, to hear people's stories, to try new things and new ideas.
As I wrote that list, I felt like I was getting close to something important but I didn't know what. Then I went back and re-read my journal from the previous six months. I couldn't believe how often those three things showed up in some way in my daily and weekly activities and I realized that I was on target with my list. I did know what I wanted my life to be about. And despite too much clutter in my life at the time, there were moments when I was living it.
Then I began to think about part two - what do I need to give up in order to have those three things be my life? This is what I wrote for each of the three areas:
Relationships - I have to give up a number of surface, peripheral relationships in order to have the deep meaningful ones which take TIME and SPACE. I can't take on everything and everyone offered and have deep meaningful relationships with anyone. There isn’t enough time and space.
I’d had a strange dream that spring, before I ‘met’ Shauna in her books. In the dream I was in a very crowded space with friends and other people were trying to give us notes and treats, but we could hardly move around to receive those gifts. ”It’s too crowded in here and we don't feel loved,” I had said to the people in charge. It wasn’t hard to see what the dream was trying to tell me, even before I began the self-examination prompted by Shauna Niequist’s quote. I was also working that summer on a new definition of silence, a new way to incorporate silence as spiritual practice, by immediately handing people up to God instead of thinking about what I was supposed to do for them as soon as I encounter them. I now see such pride in that, thinking I was so essential to solving their problems.
Feeding -It takes time and preparation. Planning, gathering, preparing, serving and cleaning up. Same process for physical and spiritual feeding. I have to give up other activities in order to do the prep work in the kitchen and in my soul.
I’ve since come to see that I cannot give to others what I do not have. If I cannot be kind and compassionate to the person within, I cannot be that to the one in front of me. (John Ortberg in Soul Keeping was my teacher here - yet another post to come.)
Adventure - I have to give up the notion that I want a quiet life with a routine. (A fantasy I have often had) I would be a terrible monastic, much as I love those guys. I've had this notion of order and rhythm and routine that I thought was what I wanted, but I realize I really don't want such predictability. I love mystery, and while the unknown can be scary; that is where the fullfillment lies.
As a child, I spent hours riding my bike alone through the idyllic small town where I grew up. My mother had clear boundaries about which streets I could ride. I often rode to the eastern edge of town where I could sit on Front street and overlook the Chattahoochee River from high up on the bluff. I also rode deep into the graveyard alone, to a spot high on a bluff overlooking that same lake. I don’t remember being scared in either place, but I do remember knowing I was pushing the edge of my mother’s boundaries. The view of the water from there was so worth it, though.
Yes, it’s the second part - the ‘giving up’ - that’s hard. For me, it is choosing a few, and giving up the many; doing prep work and clean up, which is unglamorous and solitary; and leaving the security of sameness for adventure and growth.