There's this quick calculation we tend to make when we want something that is particularly challenging. We sort life into two categories. One side is reserved for the things we desire or dream about, things that are going to require a certain level of sacrifice or change on our part. The other side is reserved for the conditions we’ve decided must be met before we can get started.
When I get past Christmas, then I’ll go to the gym.
After I buy __________, then I’ll pay off the credit card.
When my kids reach milestone X, then I’ll take a step towards that dream.
When my husband changes ___________ in our marriage, then I’ll change _________.
First comes this, then comes that.
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About a month into life with my first baby, when I thought I was going to disappear into a gray fog of reflux and sleep deprivation, I read The Secrets of the Baby Whisperer by Tracey Hogg. It was the closest thing I ever found to an instruction manual for newborns and it gave me hope that I might make it to the other side.
Somewhere in the first or second chapter, Hogg quotes her English grandmother as she advises new parents in establishing a rhythm that works for their family. “Start as you mean to go on,” she says.
If you know where you want to end up, begin in a way that reflects your destination.
She was talking about the daunting parts of parenthood that we eventually become confident in, but her words came to mean more for the rest of my life than she probably intended.
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Moving towards achievement oriented goals has never been a struggle for me. If anything, I tend to move too far too fast and then find myself backtracking when life’s limits catch up with my sometimes-hasty ambition.
I love the type of change that can be accomplished with a new coat of paint or setting something in motion that didn't exist before.
I’d like to "go on" to write books and have a professional career and travel with my family. So I take on deadlines and go back to school and have three babies in four years and work part-time throughout, plotting vacations for when the kids (and our bank account) have grown a little more.
I sprint down the roads of big change. Over the last year though, my attention has shifted to the parts of where I want to end up that can’t be seen or measured.
BJ and I spend a lot of time talking about the relationship we hope to have with our kids when they're adults. I have this vision of taking vacations together or sitting around a long table with my boys and whoever they bring home. I'll cook lots of food and BJ will be in charge of music and we won't be perfect, but we'll enjoy being together. That's my vision and my prayer.
A few months back, I was sitting at my desk with a pile of schoolwork and a plate of food. The boys were in the kitchen, eating as fast as they could so they could get back to playing and BJ was eating while standing over the counter. It looked nothing like where we want to end up. We aren't going to catch every dinner together and if this had been an isolated night, I wouldn't have thought much of it. But it wasn't isolated. It was always hard to sit together and when we actually did sit at the same time, BJ and I couldn't seem to stop talking over their heads about bills and schedules.
We had also been talking for months about a change, saying things like, "When this class ends, then we'll sit together more." "When this particular stress is behind us, then we'll stop talking about money at dinner." "When they get bigger, then it will be easier to eat as a family." When ________ happens, then we can __________.
Rocking back in my chair to look across the kitchen, I heard it again. Start as you mean to go on. This was not how I wanted to go on. I grabbed my plate and BJ's hand and we sat down. "Ian, what was your favorite thing from today?" No grown-up talk. No phones. Just a loud, messy dinner that set the tone for how we want to go on.
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Some of us love sweeping change. I realize that's not true of everyone (just ask my dad), but if you're anything like me, you love go-big-or-go-home transformation.
Lasting change is a different beast though. It often takes the form of small, intentional, incremental steps. Even the big things - leaving a job, moving across country, going back to school - those don't normally happen overnight, and if they do, it's quite possibly the sign of a problem.
Big change is usually the result of a chain of small moments that preceded it. Simple steps, linked together, that rework and refigure old things until they start to look like something new.
Start as you mean to go on.
- Take a walk.
- Drink water with lunch.
- Read one Psalm during breakfast.
- Pray before bed.
- Push the laundry off the couch and onto the floor so you can play cards with your kids.
- Do something sacrificial for your spouse with zero expectations of receiving something in return.
- Stare down that big dream you have and take one step towards it - tell someone about it, take a class, kick fear to the curb.
- Go to bed 30 minutes earlier tonight.
I wanted to see us to come to this place where I had dinner made early in the day and everything was checked off the list and conversation was easy and fun.
Instead, I've come to embrace cheese omelets served with frozen vegetables and applesauce at an unset table for 20 minutes. I'll take that dinner as many nights as I can get it - just as it is, because that is how I want to go on. That is where we are and that is the best reflection of where we want to end up.