By Ann Boyd

Embracing a New School Year Wholeheartedly

Like many midwesterners, I love summer. People emerge from their protective winter shells and frolic in the out-of-doors. Lakeside, poolside, in the park, at the ice cream stand — we all soak up the freedom and warmth of summer with the bone-deep understanding that the chill of winter will seep in again before too long. We’re reveling in it even more after a housebound pandemic year characterized by online classes and new public health policies. Doesn’t it feel good to put the face masks and the computer screens aside, even just for a few hours, and wiggle our toes in the sun?

The start of summer offers a glorious sense of openness and possibly. Everything feels a little easier. Schedules are more relaxed. Fewer clothes make for freer morning routines (and less laundry). But after the midpoint of the season, I start to feel an unpleasant sensation that I call Rubik’s Cubism. 

Do you know this feeling? I get this sensation when I see that there are many, many things on the list — plans, activities, goals, dreams — and it dawns on me that I might not be able to squeeze them all into their rightful places in the calendar. Unlike my 13-year-old daughter, I have never been able to solve a Rubik’s Cube. The experience of manipulating it always leaves me feeling frustrated, cramped, and slightly claustrophobic. Once fall returns with its schedules and routines, we’ll need to wait for another year before the opportunities present themselves again. Swimming, picnics, hammock-reading — do I need to trade it all in for deadlines, carpools, and meetings?

This seasonal transition is painful even in the best of times. But now, following a year marked by the tensions of remote learning, racial reckoning, and existential anxiety, we’ve barely made a dent in filling our reserves. Between variants and mental health concerns and environmental disasters, I don’t know anyone who feels refreshed and ready to return to campus with a bright smile. This Rubik’s Cube is thoroughly scrambled and it’s hard to move an inch.

As I’ve been considering this back-to-school feeling, I am noticing three distinct ways I tend to respond:

  1. Suck it up. Also known as “pull yourself together” or “why don’t you put on your big-girl pants?” This reaction insists that we grow up, stop complaining, and get to work.
  2. Ignore it until it sneaks up on us. We can fall into this response intentionally or accidentally, and sometimes things even resolve themselves — but there is always a risk that the problem will become worse while we are busy sipping tropical beverages and scrolling through Instagram. 
  3. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes viewed as soft or weak, this reaction actually requires a great deal of courage and self-awareness. It allows for complex and messy feelings — including sorrow and grief — while creating a forgiving path forward. 

After much experimentation, I’ve come to have more success with being kind to myself. This response demands time and effort to acknowledge feelings and create gentle plans, but I believe it’s a very worthwhile investment of effort. 

Being Kind to Yourself

There’s a fair amount of research coming out lately that shows the effectiveness of self-kindness as a tool to pursue personal goals. In contrast, shaming or berating yourself can yield results in the short term but undermines mental and physical health in the long run. Cindy Bunch explores the spiritual implications of self-kindness in her book Be Kind to Yourself

“The ways that we talk to ourselves about the things that are bugging us are a part of a practice of self-kindness….As we learn new ways of dealing with the moments of difficulty in each day, we make space for the moments of joy to take greater hold of us.” 

Cindy goes on later to draw parallels between the Lord’s tender shepherding of Psalm 23 and the ways he would hope that we might treat our own bodies and souls: 

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.

Digging Deep

It’s so easy to slip into self-reproach when attempting a new skill or experience and not performing in the way that we view as ideal. At times, it overwhelms us and we can feel an urge to become very strict with ourselves in order to achieve our goals. But isn’t there another, more humane way forward? 

For me, transitioning away from summer and into the fall requires a moment of grief for the loss of flexibility. Allowing myself to travel through that grief paves the way toward appreciation for the gifts of fall and a sense of readiness to tackle its challenges with my whole heart.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown offers a simple mnemonic device to point us into a gentler path toward inner strength when we are faced with difficult work. Instead of forcing ahead with gritted teeth, Brené suggests digging deeper into our inner resources like this:

D — Get deliberate. Clearly identify what is troubling you and choose to address it.

I — Get inspired. Use your creativity to envision a path forward marked by self-compassion.

G — Get going. Take action without delay.

(You can read more about this on page 4 of The Gifts of Imperfection. I highly recommend this book.)

As the expansiveness of summer squeezes down into fall’s structure, I’m thinking about ways to dig in my own life. I’ll give you a real-life example that I worked out this morning on a walk:

Get deliberate. Reliable routines and schedules allow my family and work to thrive, but I personally resent overly-rigid structures. I’m pretty good at creating those structures — that’s not the problem. So as I identify my resentment of overly-rigid structures, I choose to address it by finding ways to make space for spontaneity and whimsy (especially if I want to avoid bingeing on chocolate-covered almonds as an act of rebellion). 

Get inspired. Planning for spontaneity is tricky. My best idea for a path forward is to allow for at least one hour of unscheduled, unproductive activities that feel slightly rebellious each day for the first two weeks of September. This might include reading a novel, napping, browsing at a bookstore, going out for ice cream by myself, or — good grief! — I could even watch a movie.

Get going. I can imagine two immediate actions. 1) Because it would defeat the purpose to plan this out too carefully, I’ll need to pencil in my hour of rebellion the night before — so I’m going to note that on my calendar with checkboxes. 2) Today, I’m starting a list of fun things I can do during this time so that I can start to anticipate fun in the midst of fall routines.

Although the outcome — a smooth transition into fall schedules — might look the same, approaching the transition with care for myself rather than judgment helps to keep my emotions and my soul soft and pliable. 

God is good and he longs for us to experience his deep love and steady connection with him. Treating ourselves with compassion — the same compassion he offers to us — prepares our hearts to watch for his unfailing goodness in our lives. 

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

How about you? Are you anticipating anything with a sense of dread? Are there tasks that you’re procrastinating on because it is too painful to get started? It’s really hard — I get it. There are several areas in my life where I still feel stuck. But if we can find the courage to take the challenges head-on and create a plan infused with self-kindness, we can make progress while still loving ourselves as God loves us.

Photo by Matt Moloney on StockSnap.

About the Author

Ann is the Women Scholars and Professionals Podcast host and the interim editor for The Well. She has worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship since 1997, exploring her interests in community, spiritual formation, and writing. Ann has a BM in Music Education from Northwestern University and lives in Chicago, Illinois with one husband, two spunky teenage daughters, and three snuggly cats. You’ll often find Ann baking sweet treats in the kitchen while listening to a podcast or audiobook.

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