How To Accomplish Love

From time to time, a big sheet of butcher paper goes up on the wall at my gym. A question appears in red Magic Marker with space for members to write their answers. The questions range from the overtly fitness related—What’s your favorite workout?—to the more topical—Your favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner?

I’ve been tempted, once or twice, to stir up a little trouble by adding Gloria Gaynor or the Monkees (or, for that matter, any tune recorded before 1980) to Who do you listen to on your iPod during a workout? or answering Reading in the library to Your favorite recess game as a child?

A couple weeks ago, a new question went up, right in the stretching area. You can’t avoid it: the sign crowds out the mats hanging from hooks and the spray bottles of disinfectant to avoid spreading flu germs. What’s your greatest accomplishment?

Answers range from training for Iron Man to my children to getting my mother-in-law to stay at a hotel when she visits. These answers have started me thinking—and not just about how I really should start doing crunches again. Are one’s children themselves an accomplishment? And as for getting the mother-in-law to stay elsewhere, I can’t help wonder what else that person has been up to—and if I’m taking the question too seriously.

Maybe I’m overthinking, but here I am, leg in the air, focusing on pressing up with my big toe, wondering what really constitutes accomplishment. Is it the hurdles we clear on the way? Is it getting back up after we fall? How do we measure real accomplishment, especially in a society where more and more six-year-olds wear mortarboards and carry diplomas for finishing kindergarten?

Accomplishment implies something we do, something we work at, an action we prepare and train for. Accomplishment carries with it the sense of completion, of reaching a finish line, as a quick online search reveals about the word’s appearance in scripture:

In Esther 2:12, “so were the days of their purifications accomplished,” and in John 4:34, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to accomplish his work,” to cite two references.

Curiously, Merriam-Webster also defines the word as a “quality or ability equipping one for society.” Finishing college, makes sense. Suppressing road rage, OK. But is my recognition of a fish fork or my sporadic ability to make small talk really an accomplishment?

And what about all those accomplishments that shatter society’s expectations? They seem the most important of all.

I think about my own accomplishments as my CV lists them. Grad school and publication: absolutely significant, and yet—at the end of the day, my greatest accomplishment? Shouldn’t that be something grander, something selfless, something that spreads farther and wider? Something like love?

That’s it! That’s what I’ll write, in big capital letters on the sign. I fell in love long past when the odds said I would. I opened my heart, I went out on the proverbial limb and took a chance. After years of believing myself congenitally incapable of intimacy, I learned otherwise.

But can I really take all the credit? The follow-up question asks, And how did you achieve it? The man who wrote my children for his greatest accomplishment writes Getting lucky with my wife as how he did it. Others list qualities such as patience and perseverance and persistence.

What am I going to write: Kissed a lot of frogs? Showed up one night at Grace Cathedral for a class? That’s what happened: I met C in a class. A matter of luck or timing, but is it achievement? It’s hardly the work of brokered peace or even marathon training.

Some might say—and many have said—that I paid my dues in all those years of loneliness and loss and frogs. That I did my part in showing up, in “putting myself out there.” I think that kind of accounting sounds a little too neat for me. Plenty of people have paid much harder dues than I did, and are still waiting.

Saying I achieved something that felt both utterly natural and completely surprising feels much too glib, as though I scored a perfect 10 on some Cosmopolitan magazine quiz. After all, falling in love wasn’t and isn’t about what I did. Another person played a role, taking every bit as much a risk.

And then there’s that third factor beyond either of us. The factor that made me want to lean my head on C’s shoulder one night as we sat around the seminar table, and a few mornings later woke me from a dream of sleeping in his arms. All this, mind you, before we’d even walked home from class together. I hadn’t even let myself think of him beyond “nice guy in class.”

The achievement of love, it seems, lies in opening ourselves to something much bigger than ourselves, something that makes the whole notion of credit moot. If Love is the answer, Grace is how it comes about.

Not by anything we do, but by being blessed in ways wondrous and mysterious and infinite, and by recognizing it. Over and over. No finish line. No accomplishment or achievement necessary. Thanks be to God.

About Lindsey Crittenden

Lindsey Crittenden is the author of The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray and The View from Below: Stories. Her essays, short fiction, and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Image, Bellingham Review, The Best American Spiritual Writing, and other publications. She lives in San Francisco, where she teaches writing at UC Berkeley Extension. Her website is www.lindseycrittenden.com.

  • Dyana Herron

    Beautiful post, Lindsey. And a great meditation for Thanksgiving. Thank you for it.

  • http://katieleigh.wordpress.com Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    I love this idea. Grace is so much larger than anything we can accomplish on our own.

  • http://www.calliefeyen.com Callie Feyen

    I read this post this morning while I was waiting for my husband to call me back. I read it on my phone, which I am so ashamed of admitting because I hate reading on my phone, especially “Good Letter” posts. But the morning was bad- my babysitter called in sick, so that meant no writing would get done today, and while I was making pumpkin pie, my youngest daughter decided to try on my wedding ring. She walked into the kitchen to show me and it promptly fell off her finger and under the oven. I could not get at it which is why I called my husband. I wasn’t sure if I should turn the oven on with the ring underneath. I also wanted to tell him I was sorry.
    I wasn’t handling the situation well and Harper could tell. She sat next to me on the couch and told me she was sorry. Then she asked, “Can you still be a momma? Can you still be married?” I told her yes, I could still be a momma and I could still be married, but it was this post that helped encourage me in understanding that I am loved no matter what I accomplish (or don’t accomplish). I wonder if accepting that will be my greatest accomplishment yet.
    Thanks for your words, Lindsey.

  • Lindsey Crittenden

    Thank you, Dyana, Katie & Callie. & Callie, did you find the ring???

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  • http://2dayichoose.blogspot.com Anna

    I love this! It has me thinking about what I would consider a great accomplishment. Some of the things I worked the hardest on (writing a book) weren’t particularly successful. So they were an accomplishment in terms of my effort, but not outcome. Other professional accomplishments are more recognized, but mean less to me personally.


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