I spent the last ten years of my life, maybe even a little longer, spiraling downward so slowly and gradually that I didn’t understand what was happening to me. After each major life change—marriage, moving to Indianapolis, having kids—I got worse, but couldn’t put the pieces together. Eventually my body began to deteriorate because it couldn’t handle the load my mind was putting on it. My husband thought that I had become a completely different person, and honestly, so did I. I couldn’t recognize the person I saw in pictures from happier times. I kind of hated her. Then, two years ago this summer, I experienced a personal crisis so debilitating in my already compromised state that I spent months practically catatonic. With counseling, meds, removal from toxic situations, the grace of God and good old fashioned grit, I’m on the path toward health. But it’s a long road. That crisis began two years ago, and I sometimes feel like I’m not in all that different a place, in any easily quantified way. The wisdom and growth gained are easier to see, the mental health and the practical life changes are a little more difficult to pin down. Because life doesn’t just take it easy on you so you can catch your breath and assess things. At least, that has not been my experience.
Which has had me wondering how to prioritize. What do you change first, when you want to change everything? How do you know what is most important? Over the last six months, the answer I’ve arrived at is that you can’t actually know what’s most important, not at first. Especially when your struggle is mixed with mental health factors. But I have come to some conclusions that have helped me a little, and they might help you too. So, here goes.
- You have to start with the life you have right now, not the one that you wish you had. I really want to wake up early in the mornings, read my Bible and write for a good little chunk of time and drink some tea in the peace and quiet. But we have things scheduled every early morning: I work most mornings and on the ones I don’t, we have meetings with friends to read the Bible and pray together. My dreamy picture of how I want reading my Bible and prioritizing writing to look is not compatible with the life I have right now. So, when I get home from opening the coffeehouse, I drink my tea and read my Bible and get sucked into researching Nephilim or patriarchy before the fall or the sacrificial system for an hour while my kids watch tv or ride their bikes outside. I write in little spurts during the time I find at home, or take the kids to the Y and instead of exercising I work on my various projects. It’s not “ideal” but life isn’t going to just give you an ideal opportunity to pursue wholeness. Don’t wait for things to change so you can fit the things you want into your day. It’ll never happen.
- Work with your challenges, not against them. As one example, for me this means I acknowledge that I am not all the other moms or homemakers I know. I am getting rid of so so much of our stuff because I simply cannot manage it. My life is better without all the junk, and yours probably would be too, but I can’t actually function the way things are now, while you maybe can. I truly, deeply believe that we use way too many resources and are drowning our one precious planet in humanity’s trash, but my slow pursuit of minimalism has less to do with that principle and more to do with the fact that I personally am drowning in our family’s junk. So, instead of figuring out a complex laundry schedule, I’m getting rid of most of our clothes. Instead of trying to find ways to organize our stuff, I’m donating it. It’s a process. Nothing happens all at once, but it goes a lot faster once you stop pretending to be somebody you’re not.
- Remember that each small thing makes a difference. I can’t have a perfectly neat and visually peaceful house right now. But I can sweep the floor, or clear my kitchen counters. Even if I can only do one thing, that one thing makes a big difference. I don’t know why this is true, because to me it is not logical–one tiny thing in the face of all the vastness of change that is required does not really equal a change in circumstance. Empirically though, that one small thing makes a bigger difference than it should. So the small thing I can do now is what I will do. Then in a little while, I’ll be able to do something else. Pretty soon everything will be perfect! Just kidding. Life is growth and change. It’ll never be perfect. I hate this truth the most, that I have to do one thing at a time, because I’m impatient and can see everything I want to change. I just can’t do it all at once.
- Remember that you can’t have everything. Anything you choose to prioritize means another thing you neglect. It might not be a one-to-one ratio, but something always gets set aside. This doesn’t mean that you are a bad person, it just means that you are a person. Right now, writing is more important to me than exercising. It feels like a fundamental piece of me that has been missing for years that I’m just getting back. So I use my childcare hours at the Y to pursue my writing, not my weight loss goals—which honestly are really just wishes at this point, since I’m writing instead of exercising. I expect that sometime down the road I will be able to prioritize a few more things, but the truth remains that I will never have it all. But when I know the thing I’m choosing, and I do it with intent, it is much easier to say no to the guilt that is always telling us that we should be doing all of the good things.
These are the few truths I have been repeating over and over to myself during this season. Hopefully they will encourage you on your own painstaking journey towards change. There’s a verse in the Bible that says “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin.” It’s so easy for us to be really hard on ourselves, especially if we’re Christians. We’re supposed to be like Jesus, so it’s easy to think that perfection is our goal. But we’re never actually going to become like God, and when you get right down to it, that was our first sin. Accept your humanity and your limitations. Let them point you to the things that you should really be focusing on right now. And remember that if God delights in the process, you’re allowed to find happiness in it as well.