The days are long but the years are short.
I heard this on a television show last week and haven’t been able to shake it from memory. This is one of those all-encompassing phrases that hops aboard the carousel of terror otherwise known as my brain, riding ‘round and ‘round to its heart’s content while its host suffers the paranoia of a finite existence. It’s later than you think, you can’t take it with you, and youth is wasted on the young are other common culprits of anxiety and panic.
If I were to die tomorrow, what would be my legacy? Did I have any real impact on the world? Why did I not act on the hundreds—thousands even—of ideas and products and business concepts I dreamed up over the years—ideas I fleshed out across a dozen or so notebooks, during work, watching TV, on planes, sitting outside in the summer sun like I’m doing this very moment?
If I were to be hit by a car tomorrow, paralyzed or worse, how much more difficult would it be to achieve my dreams—to dent the world?
Why is it so difficult to act?
The “Do Something” Principle, coined by writer and advice columnist Mark Manson, suggests that taking a first step toward action—no matter how small—will propel you to another small step, and another and another until you are, effectively, doing something. That something may ultimately turn into the goal you set out to do—write a book, climb a mountain, vacuum the house, paint the bedroom—even if it takes some time to get there. And even if you fall short of the goal, the power of the action itself should energize you, creating momentum to go out and start that next thing. In Mark’s own words: “What I found is that often once they did something, even the smallest of actions, it would soon give them the inspiration and motivation to do something else. They had sent a signal to themselves, ‘OK, I did that, I guess I can do more.’ And slowly we could take it from there.”
The flaw in this is that sometimes we get stuck—or perhaps more commonly, overwhelmed. We’re taking action, we’re on the upward trajectory, and then we hit a plateau. Take today as an example. I set out to clear some tree branches, shrubs and weeds from the perimeter of our backyard. An electric trimmer novice, I timidly cut a series of small branches crowding into our yard. As time went on (and my fiancé joined in the fun with his chainsaw), I grew more bold, taking on bigger branches, pulling out bushes from the roots with my (quite stylish beige and magenta) gardening gloves. On more than one occasion, the force of the dig sent me flying backward, bush in hand, dirt flying across my face and legs. I felt strong, empowered, emboldened by this work I’d now committed to.
Of course, I’d been gunning to cross “backyard clean-up” off of my task list for over a month. May and June had came and went, and we’d already had several dinner parties and guests milling about the house who could have been subjected to the horror of our unfinished backyard had it not—to our benefit—rained on both occasions. When our morning of hacking and slashing was said and done we found ourselves with a monstrous pile of branches, leaves and sticks needing to be cut down and piled (or otherwise grinded to a pulp) into a home of their own.
Throughout the MS progression, my mother’s life became a constant series of small steps. For many years, it took nearly all of her energy to place one foot in front of the other, the distance in which she could cover growing shorter by the month. I still remember her very last days walking from the bedroom to the bathroom in our 1100 square foot ranch—a distance no more than six steps for the rest of us. It took twenty minutes and the strength, courage and willpower of a professional boxer to fight through it—the pain, the frustration, the resistance of her own body misfiring and shutting down on her, as if to say “you’re not in charge anymore”. Through it all, my mother never beat herself up for what she couldn’t do—I never once heard her say “I wish I had walked further” or “I should have done more”. She accepted the limitations her body put forth, year by year, month by month, day by day. One small step led to another small step and that maintained the pattern by which she lived by long after her legs would no longer support her.
I suspect this debris pile on the left-hand side of the yard will sit there for a day or two, or maybe a week or two, until we figure out what to do with it. I try not to feel like a failure because of this—that I didn’t “accomplish the goal”. I try not to let it bother me—this job half done. I try to focus instead on giving myself grace, on allowing myself space to simply sit and exist. I try to focus instead on the heavenly weather of the day, the 75-and-sunny we rarely get in Michigan, much less fourth of July weekend, in which it’s more often than not stifling hot, air so thick you can drink it, mosquitos and black flies buzzing about backyard grills and corn-on-the-cobs and the heads of half-drunk house guests. I steady my gaze on the lush greenery behind out home, wind blowing through the leaves ever so gently, thankful for absence of wildfires and landslides and hurricanes and all of the catastrophes mother nature sends our way.
Thankful for rain and thankful for progress, even if not today.