Open Mind, Narrow Focus: Learning to Prioritize with Joy

In the past year, one concept that’s really latched onto me is the importance of prioritizing. We all know that life often feels crazy, beyond our control, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. And it’s so hard to choose those few things we want to focus on in our limited time.

Alex and I got married when we were still in college, so maybe the realization that I had to prioritize my time hit me extra early. I had to choose from the get go that when it came down to it, my relationship and time with him was more important than all the intricacies of a college education.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I totally slacked at my work, or that I considered my personal development not important. If anything, this new arrangement gave me more responsibility for my own priorities. I’m someone who has the tendency to throw aside my own agenda for others, especially people I love or respect. While I truly believe there’s a time and place for that, I came to a sobering realization:  I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

For me, as a newlywed college student, that meant two discernible things: first, that I could not let the expectations put on me as a student by teachers or coursework dictate the time and attention I spent on my husband; and second, I could not let my desire to be a good partner to my husband detract from the work I had as a student.

This may sound contradictory. How can partner and personal growth both be the most important thing at the same time? I spent the rest of my college career trying to figure out that balance, and I went on to grad school trying to learn the same thing, and every job I’ve had and will have is a challenge in trying to figure it out.

Because for me, prioritizing boils down to the daily questions of: What things are most important to me? and When must I say no to one important thing so I can say yes to another? 

This week, my best friend Jenny and I were chatting about this concept. We noticed how many of the people we meet seem perpetually rushed, with absolutely no time to spare. We noticed how it’s so easy to say, “I don’t have time to work out,” or “I don’t have time for self-care,” or “I wish I could do xyz, but I just can’t.”

Jenny has a full time job, a lengthy commute, various activities that all take time, and her husband has a demanding and time-consuming job as well. But the truth, she said, is that we all do have the time for whatever we want to do. We just don’t always use the resources we have wisely. As she put it, “The way you spend your time shows what your priorities are.” In other words, what we do with our time reflects the things we most value.

In pondering this, I had another thought: what if the priorities that people commonly feel that they should have, say working out or social time or whatever it is, aren’t actually priorities they want to have? But instead of admitting, “hey, that’s not something I value or even want, and I choose to spend my time elsewhere,” we frame ourselves as victims. “I don’t want to” becomes “I would if I could, but I can’t,” and that makes us feel better, more justified, in not doing what we feel pressured to do. But that also ends up making us feel more strained, more stressed, less free to spend our time as we like. And we feel constantly defeated, because we don’t meet those lofty goals we feel we should.

One thing I found helpful in this process of refocusing my priorities was to look big-picture. In my life, what are a handful of things I want to be true? A handful of goals I want to accomplish? For me, it narrowed down to three things: I want to have a good relationship with God (and by extension, everyone else); I want to be physically healthy; and I want to publish a book.

With these big picture ideals in mind, I try to do something every day that cultivates those things. I spend time in prayer or devotional reading. I work out or do yoga. I read and write. Suddenly my days are very simplified; I don’t have to worry that I didn’t do enough or that I’m not succeeding enough. As long as I hit the three big priorities on my list, everything else is a bonus. And suddenly, life feels a lot more victorious, a lot more joyful.

On paper it sounds simple, but it’s not always fun, and it’s not always easy. For example, being physically healthy is one of my life goals, but it’s not a life goal that’s always joyful to pursue. I have to set aside time to work out, I have to endure the moments of pain that come with working out, and I have to be mindful about not stuffing my face with cake at every whim.

What keeps me motivated is realizing that this goal is mine, and no one else’s. I am doing this because I want to, even if in the moment I don’t really “want” to. It also encourages me to make my goals on my own terms. For me, this means I don’t run super fast or participate in insane cardio or go to hot yoga classes, because honestly, I don’t want to. I don’t completely abstain from carbs or sugar or dairy, because I don’t want to. My goal is not to win a bikini contest; my goal is to create sustainable, mindful health. I challenge myself according to my own ability and lifestyle, not someone else’s. As a result, I feel good not only physically, but mentally.

Despite the best of intentions, prioritizing is still a struggle, especially in a society that is perennially rushed and always comparing one person with another. But I keep coming back to that conviction I first put together in college: I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

I don’t have to be a victim to other people’s values. I don’t have to be a victim to society’s values. If each of us took back those reins a little bit, if we chose our priorities with mindfulness, I wonder how much society, big bad wolf that it is, might change little by little. I wonder if eventually, we might become more peaceful, more joyful, as a whole.

And it’s not something we can achieve with a snap. It’s a daily practice, one that will change with each season of life. I am still learning the balance between being married and following my personal callings, and I’m realizing its a daily mindfulness more than a one-and-done decision. But it’s a mindfulness we can each practice in little ways, little baby steps.

At first it might seem really hard, and it is! For the first time we’re going against the current; there’s bound to be some resistance. Ultimately, though, I am convinced that setting priorities leads to a more joyful heart, open mind, and narrow focus. It leads to more intentionally enjoying life, not just for our own sake, but so we can take the newfound peace we have and pour into others.

On Being a Lefty

As a young child, I was the only left-handed person in my immediate family. (As it turns out, my youngest brother is also a lefty, but because he’s ambidextrous in many areas, I like to think I’m the only true lefty. We can ignore the fact that I swing a baseball and a golf club right-handed.)

My grandmother, my Mom’s mom, was left-handed too, and she grew up in the thirties and forties, when society was not so kindly to left-handed people as it is now. Schools forced children to use their right hand in writing classes, even punishing kids for daring to prefer another perfectly good hand. My grandma, however, was lucky to have parents who didn’t force the issue, and she grew up a proud and unabashed lefty. When she had two sons who were left-handed (my uncles), and several left-handed grandchildren (one currently present), she encouraged it as a badge of honor.

“Lefties are the only people in their right minds,” she would joke. (Because the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. Get it? Har har.)

As a kid, I felt especially honored to be the only one in my household with such a skill. I didn’t realize, and perhaps you haven’t either, that society is in fact biased toward right-handed people. I used can openers with mild discomfort, not realizing they were made to go the other way around. I used scissors with intense discomfort, because my left-hand fingers didn’t conform to the intended right-hand finger angles. When I was at summer camp and we were practicing archery and they gave me a left-handed bow, I was upset because the tension was all off, and I was used to practicing on my brother’s right-handed bow.

“Can I try a right-handed bow?” I asked.

“Aw, honey, you don’t want that. You’re a lefty.”

“Dammit Carl, give me the right-handed bow,” I would have said, if I were me now.

Carl (or Bill or whoever) did, and I massacred a foam deer with one well-shot arrow.

Take that, Carl. Or Bill.

When I go shopping and sign credit card receipts, the cashier either says, “Whoa, you’re a lefty!” or “Whoa, I’m also a lefty!” As someone who doesn’t like attention being drawn to herself during what ought to be a normal business transaction, I learned to cover up my embarrassment with snark.

“What’s it like being a lefty?” asked one cashier at a jewelry store.

“You get used to it,” I said, and did a pen drop and walked away with my earrings.

Perhaps the most perplexing instance of this came recently, when I was working at a bank. If you’re a lefty who works at a bank, watch out. Every time you fill out someone’s deposit slip, they go nuts that you dare to write out their account number with your left hand. It’s practically un-American. I’ve never been made so aware of my hand dominance in my life.

One day this ragged-looking fellow, about thirty years old and wearing a beard like a brown brillo pad, came up to my window and wanted to take out some money. Whatever his particular transaction required, I had to ask my coworker for help, and she stood next to me while I filled out the man’s withdrawal ticket.

“She’s a lefty,” he said, not to me, but to my coworker.

I continued writing out the withdrawal ticket. Account number. Date. Name.

“Lefties are as mean as cat shit,” he said, to my coworker.

I’m sorry if this language offends you. If it helps, it offended me. We finished the transaction and then I went to the bathroom and stared at my face in the mirror.

Lefties are as mean as cat shit. As mean. As cat shit. The words rang in my head. I felt stunned and vaguely harassed. Vaguely insulted. Vaguely mocked.

But most of all, I felt just… What the hell does that even mean? Is cat shit inherently malicious? Are lefties somehow biologically related to cat shit in a way that righties aren’t? Is this a scientific fact I missed? Have there been studies done on this? The guy didn’t even cite his sources. A philosopher of his caliber should know better.

(I still want to know what this means. If someone can enlighten me, please do.)

I’m still proud to be a lefty, and I still cannot, for the life of me, understand why people act so weird about it. It’s not like I chose left-handedness. It’s not like I chose to live in a world that favors righties by the very makeup of its appliances and school desks, by the fact that most languages are written left to right, or that smug guys named Carl or Bill think they can decide what bows people will use. And don’t even get me started on musical instruments.

But in a way, being left-handed has offered me perspective. How often do I make assumptions about people based on biological facts they can’t control, like Brillo-Beard did to me? How often do I make unconscious comments that bewilder and offend others? (I still really want to know what “mean as cat shit” means.) How often do I assume life is the same for everyone, not seeing the little adjustments and painful adaptations people make to fit in, like I have to make with can openers and scissors? How often do I simply not see that society is better designed to help out some people and not others, because the design happens to favor me?

This realization is the key, I think, to fixing those seemingly insurmountable issues we come across in society. Our biggest problem is usually not that we disagree, but that we misunderstand each other. That when someone asks, “What’s it like being a lefty?” we offer the snarky answer instead of the honest one. It’s only when we’re honest that we can start coming up with solutions.

So see guys? I’m not mean as cat shit.

Weekend Pith: You Schmooze, You Lose

One of my Life Rules is not so much a conscious rule I carefully crafted and then imposed upon my life, but something I’ve gradually realized to be a conviction, and as it seemed to serve me well, I’ve formally adopted it as a rule to life by.

Don’t Schmooze.

Now I realize that the word “schmooze” may have slightly different meanings depending on who you are. So when I say it, I use it in the way I heard it growing up: to be a flatterer, to make someone feel better about themselves because they’re socially more powerful or attractive or whatnot.

I believe kiss-ass is the more advanced term.

The “don’t schmooze” rule isn’t very difficult for me to follow, because I’m not naturally someone who’s good at small talk and flattery. I’m polite, of course, and I think everyone should be. But Schmoozing takes politeness to another level, where someone expects the royal treatment because people give it to her.

The problem with schmoozing is that it creates a lose-lose situation. The schmoozer can never really be authentic, because she’s always trying to protect the feelings of the schmoozee. And the schmoozee isn’t really benefited either, because she never deals with a challenge to her ego. It’s mutually destructive, even if subtly so.

I’m not really sure if there’s a specific cure for the serial schmoozer, but I think the remedy must be, like schmoozing itself, subtle. You don’t go from being a schmoozer to an antagonist overnight. Nor should you. Freedom from schmoozing comes with the realization that you are valuable in your own right and way, that your experiences are valid, that your thoughts and opinions matter. Freedom comes from learning to bear the momentary discomfort of disagreement, the temporary pain of disapproval. Freedom comes from recognizing your own strength and integrity, something a schmoozee has to get from others.

You schmooze, you lose.

 

6 Things I’ve Learned from Being Married in College

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As you know if you’ve read this blog in the past few months, I got married last June. My husband and I, however, are both still in college. I have less than a year to go for my Bachelor’s degree while he has over two.

Married college students are a rare sight. I know a few classmates who are in the same boat, but it’s unusual in our culture. Unfortunately, young marrieds are largely ignored or even chided as culture embraces young  unhindered singleness. While I agree that the single college years can be incredibly fulfilling, today I want to share six things that can be learned from being a young married student.

 

1. Life is Not the Same for Everyone.

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Our society has road-mapped life to a T. Go to college, get a job, get married to your soulmate. But this is neither fair nor realistic. For as vocal as we are about individuality, why do we allow such a cookie-cutter life schedule to be imposed upon us?

I’ve learned that there’s not one life plan or lifestyle that’s inherently perfect. What’s a good choice for me isn’t a good choice for the next person. It’s okay to come to a point in your life where you decide that it’s the right time for something, not popular opinion. For us, it was getting married. We didn’t have everything planned, but we knew we loved each other and wanted to marry each other. It was the next logical step for us, and we took it.

 

2. Love is Not the Same for Everyone.

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Our generation has this grandiose view of love in which you meet someone who gives you perpetual butterflies and after much angst you finally decide to marry them and live happily ever after. Cue harps and singing birds.

For us – and for a lot of people – love is simpler and stronger, bolstered by a deep friendship, commitment to shared convictions, and a healthy dose of Mike and Ike’s and Netflix.

Marriage, although it does radically change your life, does not signal the heavenly end of your life. You are still you, with your same faults and hopes and dreams, and so is your spouse. Life goes on.

Just because our life might not look like everyone says it should doesn’t mean something’s wrong with us, nor does it mean our life is less valuable. It simply means we have to figure out what marriage looks like for us in our unique situation.

 

3. I Need People So I Can Be Myself.

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In our hyper-individualized society, admitting you need people is considered overly dependent, especially if you are a woman saying it of a man. We say things like “I just need to find myself” or “I need to love myself before I can love others”. While these attitudes may have a place, I think when taken too far they create isolation and selfishness.

The truth is that I cannot be a whole, well-rounded person without other people. Other people shape me, sharpen me, and soften me into an ever-better version of myself. This is especially helpful if, like me, you have trouble being yourself.

In marriage, having another person to show you a different perspective in life is rejuvenating. Now I have a built-in best friend who loves me unconditionally and encourages me to be myself. He shows me how to push myself and embrace life, and now I get out and try new things more as a married person than I ever did while single. I have the courage to explore the world because I know at the end of the day I will come home to my favorite person and we will talk about our discoveries together.

 

4. College is not designed for married couples.

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This is a fact of life, one I’ve noted with resigned disappointment. The undergraduate system as it is now takes for granted that its students are unattached to anything but itself. It takes for granted that I live on campus and don’t need to clean up a house at the end of the day or that I will eat my meals in the dining hall instead of running home to cook. It demands that you be there for events, practices, and trips at the drop of a hat when you are trying to build a separate, independent life as a married adult.

That’s just the way it is, and acknowledging that puts us in a better place to work out how we juggle our various responsibilities as a couple. It gives us the chance to learn how to draw boundaries, manage our time, and to consciously make our relationship a top priority.

 

5. Money Will be Tight, and That’s Okay.

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This is not a fun lesson, but in a way it’s kind of liberating. When you’re newlyweds in college, you just don’t have a lot of money. That’s what deters a lot of people because again, as a society we expect to have the lifestyle of forty-year-olds – complete with a house, car, and picket fence – as soon as we receive our college degrees. People don’t want to get married until they have a decent job and have paid off a decent amount of college loan.

For us though, getting married streamlined everything. His money and my money became our money, his savings and my savings our savings, his debt and my debt our debt. Instead of striving as individuals to make it financially, we can come alongside each other and work together toward a common goal. That helps us to stay responsible and accountable to each other and to learn together that life’s meaning is derived from relationships, not possessions.

We live simply, but comfortably, and we are sustained in ways we don’t fully understand. People have told us we’re lucky to be able to live so independently, and they ask how we do it. Honestly, we can’t answer. Each week, each month we find ourselves provided for by God in ways we never expected. We could try to be more logical and worry about it, or we could just live in peace in His provision. So we do the latter.

 

6. It’s totally worth it.

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I’ll be honest; I was a little terrified when we got married. Vowing to commit the rest of your life to someone else is huge. But each day I grow in certainty that this was absolutely the best decision to make at this time in my life. I feel like I was born to be married. I love putting together a cozy home and cooking yummy food (apparently I’m pretty good) and sharing my life with the kindest, goofiest guy I know.

When people ask what it’s like being married in college, I most often say “it’s really fun!”, which is an odd way to put it. But it honestly is. You can’t live a life of fake martial arts face-offs, stuffed animal obsessions, and Disney movie character impressions and not have fun.

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And I know, as I’ve always known, that married life isn’t always fun. There are hurt feelings and misunderstandings and pet peeves and tears. Ironically, we seem to most hurt the people we most love. But it’s that amazing ongoing lesson of Christ’s love, that picture of God and His people that marriage is meant to sketch, that keeps our perspective steady. We respect and love each other as people, which allows us to love each other as a couple much more fully.

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Obviously I wouldn’t encourage someone to go out and get married for the heck of it. But if you are at a point where you feel ready and yet society is squeezing you with its worries and expectations, know that you aren’t alone.

Getting married young isn’t for everyone. Staying single isn’t for everyone either. And that’s the point. There should never be pressure one way or the other, whether marriage is better or singleness is better. There should never be rolled eyes and raised brows. There should only be encouragement and respect in the myriad ways God chooses to plot out our lives.

Which, I suppose, is the seventh thing I’ve learned.