I have a lot to do. I’m thinking about it now as I write this. It’s all up in my head, waiting to get done. Some mornings, like this morning, I begin scrolling through my tasks of the day before I even open my eyes for the first time. It’s a never-ending mental checklist that seems to grow by two every time I cross one thing out. It can be overwhelming.
Of course, the easy answer here is to simply focus on the things that are important. After all, life is about priorities. You do things in order of urgency and sometimes let the little things fall to the wayside. It sounds simple enough. There is, however, one small problem.
They’re all important. Every. Single. One.
This stands in stark contrast to my younger years when maybe one or two out of the group were vital. Those detrimental items included studying for big tests or finding coverage for a shift at a part time job I was indifferent to. In the end, though, everything worked out.
By “worked out”, I don’t necessarily mean I passed or got work coverage. Not at all. I might have failed a few tests here and there and I never rose up the Blockbuster Video corporate ladder. In other words, even though everything might not have turned out “OK” under the parameters that I set at the time, in the long term, none of that mattered. They weren’t as life-or-death as I had convinced myself they were. That would put my mind at ease if it wasn’t for one small fact.
Those days are over now. Today, my chores and errands directly and dramatically impact everyone around me. They involve making sure lights stay on and keeping little people who live in my house alive. There are real consequences for the failures now. As I’ve aged, my checklist has grown branches and now touches more lives than just my own. It can be daunting. In the immortal words of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “I fight to feed people!”
Day to day, these tasks begin to build and even though we find ways to pile more on our shoulders and still run forward, there comes a time when all of us have to pause. You hit that one moment where it seems like you’ve just pushed yourself too far. All the plates you’ve been balancing are about to come crashing down around you and it takes just one nudge to cause it all to topple. Heading towards physical or mental exhaustion isn’t just inevitable, but in a go-go-go world, it almost feels encouraged.
It’s easy to run yourself ragged in a society where that type of behavior is applauded. We, as adults, seem to compare how little sleep we’ve had as badges of honor. You can hear us simultaneously bragging and yawning on line at summer camp pickup or in the observation room at Safe-T-Swim. Everyone’s ready to collapse and everyone else is proud of them for it.
In 2012, when I had my quintuple bypass, I learned an important lesson. These marathon sessions of responsibility, while commendable in the short term, don’t help when it comes to the big picture. The mentality that makes me push forward when my body tells me to fall down may feel like it’s helping me get things accomplished. In reality, it’s endangering the most important aspect of my task list. Me.
It’s as if you have a car that’s vital to your daily routine and you run it into the ground. You don’t get it checked. You don’t keep it fueled. You don’t even wash it. You just keep driving it back and forth to all the things you need to do. Then, one day, it all falls apart and you act surprised. Now, you not only have to rebuild it from scratch, but nothing is getting done until you do.
I realized that by never taking a step back and focusing on myself, I was jeopardizing my own health and my ability to care for my family. Sure, the supermarket shopping needs to get done and the house needs to be clean, but none of that matters if I’m no longer here.
Sounds dramatic? It is. Then again, life is dramatic. It wasn’t until my death went from being an abstract idea to a real possibility that I realized statements like, “take care of yourself or you’ll die”, aren’t just fun things that doctors say to ruin your day. Keeping myself alive is the most important item on my checklist. Nothing else can be accomplished if I fail that one.
By adopting that mindset, I found that the passing moments I had once seen as chores were actually the experiences I was supposed to remember. Year ago, I might have gone to one of my daughter’s basketball games with one eye on the clock and my mind on all the tasks I need to do later that day. Today, I try to remain present in that moment. I don’t hyperventilate or come running onto the court the moment the final buzzer rings to drag her off in a frenzy because “we have things to do.” This is life. This is what we have to do. Things will get done and we don’t have to be miserable while we do them in order to feel productive. In fact, if you do that, you miss everything.
This is where I get to the end and feel like a giant hypocrite because, while I have definitely improved my mindset about this in the past few years, I am nowhere near where I want to be. When I said I woke up thinking about all I had to do today before my eyes opened, I wasn’t just finding a fun way to open this conversation. I was being honest. That happened. Today.
I’m working on it, though, and I don’t let it bother me that I still worry. After all, if I worry about the fact that I have to stop worrying about things I have to do, that would be pretty counterproductive, no? I’ll figure it out eventually.
And if not, that’s fine. I have plenty of other things to worry about anyway.