The Goliath at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois.
I always contend that the most terrifying part of a rollercoaster ride for me is that slow ascent with the maddening click, click, click, click of the wheels on the track. Although I’ve willfully chosen to get into that roller coaster car, I always have a moment of panic knowing that I cannot disembark halfway up, I cannot stop the train, and I must simply put on my big girl pants and scream with terror and thrill along with the rest of the passengers.
This is how I feel when the school year is about to begin.
I’m a little late to the party — many of you have been managing the beginning of the school year for several weeks already. You lucky ones are already over the summit of the coaster, having thrown yourselves in headfirst into the routines, the meetings, the new classes. But I’m still in the process of preparation, taking time (<cough>procrastinating!<cough>) to plan out the ideal patterns and habits that will ensure a fruitful and relaxed school year for myself and my whole family.
If you cannot tell by that ridiculous previous sentence, I’m a recovering idealist, tempted at every turn to establish a glorious vision of the future that usually backfires on me one way or another. But I love setting goals and I know the benefits of working hard to live life intentionally. Along the way, I learn some useful tips — like the fact that salted butter chocolate chunk shortbread cookies reliably live up to my ideal, but hosting a yard sale — especially when there is “only” a 40% chance of rain — most definitely does not.
Back-to-school season causes my idealism to flare up terribly. I’m seized by a compulsion to create elaborate schedules for study, work, chores, and meals. I begin to lose sleep at night over summer goals I had intended to conquer but only partially succeeded in (see above yard sale). And then I start to panic as I realize that the remaining unscheduled days are ticking down — 9, 8, 7, 6…
I may be a slow learner, but after managing my first-day idealism for 30 years, I’ve made a little bit of progress. The first hurdle was perhaps the hardest: I’m now able to recognize this tendency in myself and have a good laugh with my inner perfectionist. Next, I’ve learned to step back for a minute and get clear on my “why.” What is going on inside that compels me to carpe diem myself into a state of frenzy every August 31? I recently had some clarity on these questions that Psalm 103 expresses well:
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more. (Psalm 103.15-16)
When I get down into the weeds, I see that many of my compulsions and anxieties are anchored in questions that, when unexamined, drive me into the arms of Ben & Jerry:
What can I do to cultivate a life of meaning?
How can I support my family as we pursue truth, beauty, and goodness?
What are my next steps in listening for God’s call in my life?
How can I live a life without regret?
Whew. No wonder I can’t stop reading productivity books.
But ... I skipped over something important. When I’m feeling anxious about my existential meaning, it’s easy to zero in on that temporal grass situation. But immediately before those verses, the psalmist reminds us:
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103.13-14)
As we say in our house (and often in prayer), “We’re just little humans.” We are dust, and yet the Lord has compassion on us, he formed us, and he loves us deeply. I constantly do battle in my own heart, wanting to control my life (eat more vegetables!) and circumstances (let’s be on time for class!) so that my sense of significance is validated. It can be very energizing for a time — and then quickly becomes overwhelming. At that point, if I’m living out my best self, I get very quiet and acknowledge that although I’m just a speck of dirt, God loves every part of me — that’s when I remember my truest identity and purpose. But good gracious, it’s an exhausting cycle to run through every morning at breakfast.
This fall, I’m writing down a few things I plan to do this fall to stay near my true center and remember my place in the universe. They’re not rocket science, and I’ve certainly written about them before, but I need to focus on them again. That’s okay, because I’m just a little human. Plus, my idealist nature loves a set of new goals to live by. So in order to hold these with an open hand, let’s ask Ryan Gosling to help us out:
- Hey girl, take care of your body. Although I often dream of obtaining a superpower which eliminates my need for sleep, I’m just a little human and I need eight hours, doggone it. I also need real food, regular exercise, and friends — and once the midwest temperatures begin to dip, I’ll need my electric blanket. This is my own version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and I have no shame.
- Hey girl, cultivate a pleasant space. Some people can work successfully in a cluttered space, but I’m no good at it. That is not to say that my workspace is tidy — rather, it’s an explanation of why I put off creative work (like this article) until the eleventh hour. I’ve made a valiant effort to make dents in the clutter (yard sale!), but I must...keep...going. And come rainy, 50-degree weather, I intend to hygge with all my might.
- Hey girl, give thanks for your meaningful work. When tasks begin to pile up — especially from different segments of life — it’s easy to lose my perspective on the purpose behind my work. So, whether it is wrestling with the formatting on an article at The Well, folding laundry for my family, or hopping on the treadmill, I need to remind myself that it’s all part of a very good gift.
- Hey girl, remember to play. Although beach season is wrapping up for us, fall comes with its own special brand of delights in apple-picking, pumpkin lattes, and shopping for Halloween costumes — not to mention Bilbo and Frodo’s birthdays (September 22). Taking time (and, dare I say, planning) whimsical experiences gives me energy and momentum while I’m slogging through anything that resembles a spreadsheet.
- Hey girl, remember to connect with the eternal God. Every night, I wrench myself away from dishes and my favorite podcast, remove my earbuds from my ears, and force myself to journal through the day. It is always a hard start, it always takes ten minutes, and I’m always glad that I’ve done it. Taking a midday walk sometimes helps in a similar way. I know I’m addicted to thinking I’m in charge, and these practices are part of my recovery.
I recently rode a real-life rollercoaster, and the experience reminded me about an important truth: whenever I ride a rollercoaster, I have actively chosen to do so. Out of the many rides at the amusement park, I have made a conscious decision to wait in a (usually interminable) line and trust myself to this particular contraption.
It’s true for life, too. Even when there are moments of fear, regret, and uncertainty — and even when circumstances arise that are decidedly not to my taste — there is always an element of choice. I can choose to be present and experience the thrill or I can choose to shut my eyes and hold on for dear life. In either case, we have the opportunity to willingly participate in the twists and turns God has prepared for us this fall. Sounds like fun! I’m starting to feel less panicky already.