In January, while I was on a little New Year’s weekend getaway with Other Half, I read a book that, in retrospect, I needed to read but maybe wish I hadn’t read it. The book was “Right People, Right Place, Right Time” by Jentezen Franklin. It’s about figuring out who you are, where you’re supposed to be, and what you’re supposed to do. Every chapter has these questions for you to reflect on how the readings intersect with your own life. About halfway through, there’s a section about what you’re supposed to do with your own professional life. He asks readers to seriously take some time and reflect on where they are and what they want, and then write down the specifics. So I did. Sitting there on the terrace at the Grove Park Inn in the fog of an early morning while drinking the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, I spelled out what I thought was my ideal professional life. I was surprised to see that it looked nothing like what I thought it would. I scribbled a little prayer in the margins, asking God if it was what I wanted, or what He wanted, and then closed the book and went about my day. Looking back, I think this was when I realized something was broken in my life that I didn’t know needed to be repaired until I allowed myself to imagine things looking a little different. I thought within the span of a few months, my life would be better and more fulfilling somehow now that I had this roadmap.
Fast forward 7 months and 10 days, and lets just say that so far, I didn’t get anything I pictured. At least not yet. I thought this year would be more peaceful after the turmoil of the past two, but that hasn’t been the case. Instead the chaos abounds, and I feel like I just react to it, bouncing through the days until I fall into bed exhausted to rest up for the next. And I wonder, when thinking back to that January day, were my thoughts accurate? Do they still apply even when my circumstances don’t line up with those dreams at all? I keep asking myself how it is that I’ve gotten everything I thought I ever wanted, but I feel like I’m in costume, playing a part in my own life, uncomfortable in my own skin, trying to claw my way out.
For the past couple of months, as I’ve had this tightness in my chest, this feeling of near suffocation every day, I’ve asked myself, “What are you supposed to be doing?” Or, “What do you do now?” I’ve pared my prayers down from long lists of things I thought would be helpful to just, “God help me,” because I don’t even know what to ask for anymore. I know I’m not the only one who has ever been there, or has ever prayed those prayers. I was talking to a friend not long ago who said, “I’m just living for today. I can’t worry about forever right now.” At the time, I didn’t know what to say to that other than, “Me too,” because it’s the strategy I’ve been following in my own life.
As I have faced difficult things with maddening and unrelenting frequency the past couple of years, I have wondered how much one person should be expected to survive. How much sadness one heart can hold. Sometimes just the day to day activities of my life have been carried out with a heaviness in the center of my chest. My heart feels like a water balloon filled with tears, and I wonder how many more it can hold before the balloon bursts and there is nothing left. The balloon is already so fragile that I avoid certain people, certain activities, certain books, certain songs, certain conversations just to protect it, carrying the heart in my chest much like an elementary child in a relay race carries an egg on a spoon across the soccer field.
When I talked to my therapist about all of this, about how someone can be expected to function in routine activities when their soul feels like it has had so many holes poked in it that it now resembles Chantilly lace. I asked her how I know what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life when nothing looks like I expected it to. When, on the inside, I don’t even recognize myself. Her advice was solid, almost mirroring the strategy my friend is using now. “Sometimes you just have to do the next thing,” she said.
“No, I’m asking how I know what the next thing is,” I said.
“You are in this particular life, in this particular community, in this particular circumstance. The next thing is whatever is required of you where you have been placed. You drive to work. You take care of your patients. You hug your kids.You kiss your husband goodnight. You just do the next thing as it comes,” she said.
She’s right, and I hate it, because doing the next thing does two things. It takes away my ability to have any type of structured plan or control, and it forces me to admit that I have to accept where I am and there is no way to escape it. I always look for a way to get out of uncomfortable situations, and following her advice means I have to sit down smack in the middle of uncomfortable and let it take me wherever it wants, like some kind of underground railway car in the coal mines where there is only enough light to see right in front of me, but no wide open space to promise me things will have a sunny ending.
It’s the same advice I saw in another book I read by Elisabeth Elliott, Suffering is Never For Nothing. After hearing that her missionary husband had been murdered by the very people he committed his life to serving, she chose to stay in the village with her small child. Her family, according to her reports, was shocked, wondering why she wouldn’t just give up and come home where she had more safety and support. But she chose to stay. When asked how she could possible survive in those circumstances, she said she just did the next thing. She had a child to take care of, meals to make, a Bible to translate into a tribal language. Whatever tasks presented themselves to her that day, she did wholeheartedly. And when her second husband died, she said she did the next thing. Whatever was required if her at the moment. And in those tasks, she found salvation from her grief. She calls this acceptance.
“Acceptance is a voluntary and willed act. God was giving me something to do. The next thing was ‘Yes Lord.’ Accept it, And that is the key to peace,” she says.
To be honest, I know I’m not anywhere near true acceptance of my current state. I’m still squirming like a bug under a magnifying glass, searching for a way out of the heat. But maybe I’ll get there. I just have to do the next thing.
This weekend the next thing was a day trip to Asheville, getting yet another fountain pen because I love the store and the family who own it, and because the owner’s wife is magical at matching the exact shade of ink to the color of the resin. It looked like eating dinner at Lake Lure and watching a flock of geese, telling funny stories and getting the side eye from all the Karen’s who think my parenting leaves something to be desired. Newsflash— it does, but in my family you never know which moment is your last so you learn to find the joy when and where you can, even if that joy is hearing your kids be too outspoken for the next table’s taste. It looked like finishing the series I was watching on Netflix with Other Half and having a long chat with a good friend. It looked like sitting at a little table in a coffee spot cranking out 2,500 more words to get me up to 86 pages of my first serious attempt at writing a not so serious book that reminds me of all the things my mother taught me. Tomorrow, the “next thing” I have to do is much less desirable but no less important, and I’ll keep doing it until I find something that doesn’t make me have to be quite so careful with the water balloon in my chest.
You keep doing your next thing too, and one day we will both look back and smile with pride at how far we’ve come. At least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself every day until I believe it.