Ultimately, all the greats say that self-mastery underlies any accomplishments or hope of a truly fulfilling life. We pay attention to the mundane to free us to tackle the more significant and complex problems.
Dear Thoughtful Pastor: I am eighteen years old. Shouldn’t I be like experiencing life and learning new things and being awed by the world at this age? Instead, I feel beat down by trying to make sense of my life. It’s past the point of wishing for ignorant bliss. Getting to a truly fulfilling point in my life won’t come so easy; work pays off. So I ask, “How do you deal with mundane day-to-day life without losing your mind?”
I want to run off and travel, but I do that every time, and I just end up home, broken and more behind than I was the last time. I don’t have many goals in life that excite me. I want to go back to school, but I’m more afraid of that than excited or interested. I want to make new friends whose lives aren’t molded by drugs or alcohol, but it seems without those things I’m incapable of making connections with most humans.
I’m anxious. I know I have many things to pursue in life, and with grace, poise, and dedication, I just feel stagnant, alone, jaded, and disappointed. How do you cope with these feelings? How have you learned discipline?
Three things struck me about your excellent question:
One: Even in your relative youth, you have good insight into the state of your soul. You know that you are full of longing for something more and that your current patterns of life are unlikely to help you reach a point where that something more will be achievable.
Two: The universality of your question. We are all seeking that place of fulfillment done with grace and poise; we all have feelings of failure and disappointment.
Three: the need to learn discipline to achieve your desires.
It struck me that what you, and most everyone else, longs for is a return to the Garden. The Garden: a place of harmony and peace, a place where the wolf lies down with the lamb, where people find their stability centered on the goodness of God and the unending delight of human intimacy.
This mythical, beautiful place is that spot where we can be both fully known and fully loved, and also fully aware of God. We have work, the tending of our particular gardens, that we find profoundly rich and fulfilling.
But we don’t live in the Garden. Any of us. We all live in the post-Eden world, one characterized by broken relationships; where people fight for dominance and control at the cost of longed-for intimacy. Weeds and thorns invest our gardens; droughts, pestilence and floods threaten to and often do destroy any progress we have made.
We live in a world where people call upon God to pour out fearful wrath on their enemies, that rewards greed and avarice, that inevitably tilts towards the rich and powerful. Our world teeters unceasingly on the edge of chaos; our world is where 95% of the species that ever existed are now extinct; our world is where uncertainty about the future leads to fear in the present.
Life is hard. That’s the reality.
Yet, in the midst of that hardness, the pain, the fear, it is possible to find the kind of richness you want. And, believe it or not, the very place to find it is in the very place you want to avoid: the mundane things.
It is the mastering the mundane, the bringing of order to the chaos of our lives, that will open the doors to the divine, to the awe in the beauty of the world, to stable and enduring relationships, and to meaningful work.
When we deal faithfully, and even joyfully, with the mundane, we start finding competence in the delicate but mandatory art of self-control,
Over the years, I’ve read multiple ways to kick-start this process. One possible first step comes from a woman who calls herself the “Flylady” and who taught herself to handle the mundane in a way that brought her the freedom you long for. Her first mantra was “shine your sink” before going to bed. After all, with a shiny sink at night, one won’t face a sink full of dirty dishes in the morning. The day starts much more peacefully.
Another profound piece of advice comes from Admiral William McCraven: “Make your bed every day.” Watch this short video to see what he has to say.
I’ve also been quite intrigued by a recent book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson, professor and clinical psychologist. His number one rule is “Stand up straight with your shoulders straight.” According to Peterson, that one act alone will change both how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you.
The way we face those mundane things in life determines whether we will achieve greatness. Jesus, in an enigmatic parable recorded in Luke 16 about a dishonest steward, concludes with, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”
Ultimately, all the greats say that self-mastery underlies any accomplishments or hope of a truly fulfilling life. Self-mastery itself circles around the mundane acts of life: getting enough sleep, bringing order to ourselves and our immediate environments, managing finances faithfully, treating our bodies as treasures to be cherished and not abused. We pay attention to the details to free us to tackle the more significant and complex problems.
My husband and I have developed a routine to manage our mundane. We always clean the kitchen after eating. The last one to bed starts the dishwasher, and the first one up empties it. The last one up makes the bed. On days we arise at the same time, we do both chores together. They also happen to be two chores we both dislike, but by doing them faithfully, even joyfully, offering thanks to God for food to eat and a safe, comfortable place to sleep, we start and end our days in order.
That’s how to learn discipline. Do the mundane. The rest follows.
The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.