I am a striver. I know that I was born with a lot of advantages, and I worked hard to make the most that I could of the opportunities I had. I took that same outlook into married life and parenting. In almost 14 years of marriage, we have been constantly working to move forward, sometimes, as with a new baby or a big move, putting ourselves into “survival mode” for a while in order to get there. My life has a rhythm to it: strive, survive, recover, systemize, coast briefly, burnout, repeat. We have been thoughtful about what we aim for, thanks to grounding in the sacraments and the good examples of our parents, and so there is not much that I would change about the choices which we have made over the years, but as my children get older and ask adult questions, I think a lot about whether this pattern of striving and burn out has been good for them. In the first part, I am concerned about the example that I give, because they can take on too much of the same pattern at a very young age. Second, I am concerned about the emotional stress of living with someone who is frequently surviving or burn out. Most of all, I am worried that they do not often see the complete joy and freedom with which I have embraced motherhood, openness to life, and homeschooling.
There is joy, and this has been freely chosen, carefully chosen, and worked for, and it is also a gift. This life has not been thrust upon me, and I am not in any way a victim of my circumstances. I have an amazing marriage to a man I have loved from almost the moment we met, 7 terrific, interesting, sometimes challenging children, meals on the table and a good roof over my head.
That roof needs to be replaced shortly, it is past warranty, and when we do that should we install solar panels? Who do you even call for that? And how much does it stink that once again my major household improvement budget is going to have to go towards something that we won’t be able to see at all?
See, there I go again.
Back to contentment. As I have said, I want to be more content for the sake of my children. Even more importantly, though, I have realized that I want to be more content for my own sake. Life is short, stages and moments even shorter, and things can change very quickly. Burn out is dangerous, and it takes much longer than I realized to recover emotionally from the combination of anxiety and depression that goes along.
In my adult married life, I can think of two very specific times when I have been content and relaxed for an extended period of time which allowed my spirit to really recover. These were during an August when I left everything to spend a month alone at an old house in the Adirondacks with my four very young children and two years ago when I spent most of the winter in the Catskill Mountains. Last weekend I was back at that house in the Adirondacks, and I was again so happy there, and the time seemed too short. It was there that I had an important revelation, visiting my ancestors in the little cemetery behind the church down the road. I am never going to move to a truly rural location and check out of my life. In fact, even if I did move, my life and its worries, obligations and need for improvement would move with me! I would not be on vacation, I would not eat s’mores by the fire every night, and I would not find the moss growing on the roof quite so romantic if I lived there.
This insight came about in large part because this summer I have been reading Thrive, The Third Metric for Success by Arianna Huffington. Thrive is aimed mostly at executives and it explores Ms. Huffington’s own burn out, with serious health repercussions, her recovery and what she has learned about herself from the process. Huffington makes the point that personal well being, physical and psycho-emotional, should be an important marker of success, right up there with money and influence, even topping them. She gives research to back up the things which she believes can help people to Thrive and she also shows examples of companies which have embraced practices which help employees to Thrive.
Thrive has taught me so much, but the biggest thing has been that Huffington is not asking anyone to stop striving, or stop working at a 21st century pace. Instead, she is talking about incorporating common sense, sometimes very old fashioned principles of self care into already busy lives, in order to be more productive, more effective and healthier.Thrive intermingles discussion of meditative prayer and Christian monastic wisdom with discussion of Yoga and mindfulness in a way that will make some readers uncomfortable. While Huffington’s understanding of the soul is probably different from mine, I felt that it was great to read a book which did incorporate an understanding of a soul, that we are mind, body and spirit, and we must care for all three together. To do this without leaving the world is a project that is very close to my heart. It is right in line with St. Josemaria’s teachings on sanctity in daily life. Few of us are called to totally leave the world and have a monastic life, but all of us are called to be saints.
Like all great self help books, Thrive doesn’t really tell you anything that you didn’t already know deep down in your heart, but it gives you a slightly different package, a new perspective, and hopefully the firm resolution to put some new practices into place. So, it is not surprising to me that while I was reading about walking in Thrive, my mentor Elizabeth Foss was taking up walking. Of course Elizabeth has written about walking before, and she knows that things go better if she walks every day, but this spring she needed some friends (and a new toy) to nudge her back to the habit. For me, Arianna Huffington became like the old friend who knows best, who can see your life and gently tell you what you need to hear. She quotes lots of experts, and I found myself highlighting almost every quotation in the book. Like this one:
“Often, the very first things we give up are those that nourish us the most but seem ‘optional,’ ” write Mark Williams and Danny Penman in Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. “The result is that we are increasingly left with only work or other stressors that often deplete our resources, and nothing to replenish or nourish us—and exhaustion is the result.”
I know, right? If I knew how to make a meme, that would be my first one. But if I think too hard about how I don’t know how to make a meme, I will begin to dwell on my own inadequacy and feel guilty about how many more hits this blog would get if I would only take the time to be more tech savvy, and spinning around in that for a while, I would waste the time which I actually do have to do the things which nourish me!
Life is not a permanent vacation, and I don’t want to waste my life being too busy and distracted to be a complete person. I want to be as present to my children, to my prayer, to my husband, to my own thoughts, as I am when I am away in the mountains. I want to have a reserve of calm so that I can keep my head when those around me are losing theirs, which is pretty much always when you live with teenagers and toddlers. I want to Thrive. I want my children to Thrive. After all, I have already given up any shot at power or money as markers of my success. When one’s life’s work is the life of the home, well being, wisdom, wonder and giving are already the only metric for success.
I tend to make my New Year’s Resolutions around Labor Day, and set the tone for my year of homeschooling and parenting. This year, Thrive will be the lens through which I view my life. I hope to write much more about this in the weeks to come, and I hope that you will join me on a journey to Thrive.