Thursday, February 24, 2011

Finding Balance, Part 3: Patience and Contentment

Today, I'll finish up the discussion on Finding Balance by addressing two final elements to a balanced life: patience and contentment. (See part one and part two of this discussion.)

* Be Patient. We started our discussion last week by writing down all the things we are doing, want to be doing, or should be doing with our lives. I do this exercise every so often as I try to find the right balance in my own life. It can be discouraging to look at a huge list and realize all the things you're not doing or can't do because of the many other good things that fill your time.

That's why it's important to be patient. Wilford Woodruff counseled, “Do not be discouraged because you cannot learn all at once; learn one thing at a time, learn it well, and treasure it up, then learn another truth and treasure that up, and in a few years you will have a great store of useful knowledge which will not only be a great blessing to yourselves and your children, but to your fellow men” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham [1946], 269).

One of the reasons New Year's Resolutions often fail is that too many of us try to change everything all at once. We try to exercise, stop criticizing, wake up early, learn a new hobby, and get out of debt all at the same time. After a few weeks, our brains are tired and we start to give up.

Instead of changing everything all at once, try focusing on a few things at a time. Perhaps you want to spend three months working on being more consistent with housework. After that, you could spend a few months focusing on learning how to use your camera better or being a better cook, and so on.

We also need to keep in mind that progress is not a continuous climb. Often, we take two steps forward and one step back. We try to incorporate many new habits and then just a few tend to stick. We do really well one day and have trouble the next. This a normal part of life, and one of the reasons patience is so important.

* Tiny Bites here and there add up.
Last January, I’d had my new camera for two months and I still didn’t know how to use it. I was overwhelmed by all the buttons and dials and had no clue what an F-stop was. I was discouraged that I wasn't making any progress, but I didn't have much time to devote to figuring it all out. I decided that while I couldn't learn everything as fast as I wanted, I could do a little bit at a time. I set aside an hour a week to do a photo shoot, and put books on hold at the library and read when I had spare time. I did about one shoot a week until Katie was born, and then averaged one or two a month for the rest of the year. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough -- I know I'm not the most amazing photographer (yet), but I'm improving, I know my camera pretty well, and I'm able to capture some lovely images. And I haven't neglected my more important responsibilities to pursue this goal.

(my friend Natalie's little one -- we took a few photos after the mother's group discussion)

In our instant-gratification world, it's hard to be patient with our progress sometimes. It's easy to feel that we'll never have enough time to do it all -- and we won't! But we can fit in more than we realize, if we're willing to be patient. My friend Courtney pointed out that she fits a lot into her life -- from baking bread to raising four little kids -- but most of the things she's doing now she added a little at a time over the course of years. She said that she's amazed at how much more she's able to do now than even three years ago.

* Don’t compare. One of the keys to finding contentment with our lives and staying in balance is to understand that our situations are different from those around us. In this age of Facebook and blogs, it's easy to see all the good things other people are doing with their lives. But usually? It's only the good things you are seeing. As my sister-in-law Diane put it, "It's like the never-ending Christmas letter!" Most people blog or Facebook their triumphs, not their despair and discouragement. If we can recognize that, we can cheer on others without worrying about the ways our own lives seem to fall short.

The key word is "seem." Everyone else fits more into their lives, we think. They go on more vacations, spend more time doing wonderful activities with their kids, make cool birthday cakes, sew matching clothes, make their own chocolates, throw amazing parties, raise cuter kids, help in more causes, decorate their house better, have cooler friends, a cleaner house, better-looking hair, more amazing talents, and so on.

What we don't realize is that we make assumptions based on a tiny slice of someone's life. My friend Lindsay pointed out that she does make matching outfits for her girls -- about once a year, for pictures -- and that she does make cute birthday cakes -- three times a year. It doesn't consume her whole life. And yet, with things like that, we make automatic assumptions. "She's always doing this or that," we think, "I'm not good enough."

We're also much harder on ourselves than we are on others. We fail to recognize the things we do that are amazing and wonderful. We almost always compare to people who are better at a skill than we are. I discount my photography skills, for instance, because I follow some amazing photography blogs and I see stunning work that outshines my own. And yet, at the same time, if I were to have seen someone last year at the level I'm at now, I would have been impressed.

We also have different talents and abilities. Tiffany is one of my friends who has an amazing cooking talent. She's lived in Sweden, in Israel, and in New York and she's embraced the foods of each place. She creates wonderful meals and enjoys doing it. By contrast, I'm just an okay cook. It would be easy to think, "If I just had more time, I'd be better at this too," but it's not true. If I had more time, I probably wouldn't spend much of it on improving my cooking ability. I'd spend it on something I enjoy more.

We can't develop every hobby. We can't scrapbook, run, paint, craft, cook, blog, read, write, sew, create, plan, organize, and so on, or we'd be neglecting the more important responsibilities in our lives. Sometimes, we have to realize, "that's not for me," or even "that's not for me at this stage in my life." I think a few focused hobbies are easier to keep in balance than trying to do a little of everything.

We're also at different stages of life with different responsibilities. The balance in my life with eight kids and a busy husband will look different than the balance in someone else's life. I'm tempted sometimes to think I must have the least amount of time for extras, and while that's true in some cases, in others, it's not. I have friends who deal with chronic illness, for example, and their balance has to include diminished energy. I know of others who deal with handicapped children or heavy Church responsibilities that keep them much busier than eight kids would.

Comparing is such a insidious habit. Sometimes when we start comparing, it moves on to criticism. We might feel jealous and start to tell ourselves, "Well, she's probably neglecting her kids in order to do that," or something similar.

I'm trying to teach my children that they are not competing with each other. I love that Lillian plays the violin, Joey takes electronics apart, Michael is a comic, Allison is adventurous, Sarah is artistic, Eliza does complex puzzles, Harmony loves books, and Katie is goofy. I wouldn't expect or want my kids all to be the same, nor would I put one of them down because they do things differently than another.

Can't we be happy for other people's talents and achievements without worrying about whether our own are good enough? I love this quote from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin:
Let me cite a hypothetical example of a dear sister in any ward, the one who has perfect children who never cause a disturbance in church. She is the one working on her 20th generation in her family history, keeps an immaculate home, has memorized the book of Mark, and makes wool sweaters for the orphaned children in Romania. No disrespect, of course, intended for any of these worthy goals. Now, when you get tempted to throw your hands in the air and give up because of this dear sister, please remember you’re not competing with her any more than I’m competing with the members of the Quorum of the Twelve in winning a 50-yard dash.

* Be Grateful. When I focus on my blessings and what I'm able to fit into my full and busy life, I feel content. When I start adding up what I'm not doing or what I wish I could be doing, that's when frustration and discouragement set in.

Finding balance in life is a challenge in this modern, fast-paced world, but it is possible.

Now that I've completed the three parts to the discussion, what do you have to add? How do you find balance? How do you keep from comparing yourself to others or being impatient? What have you had to cut out of your life? What have you kept in and why?


Holli said...

Thank you for sharing these wonderful thoughts! I have been thinking about this a lot since the start of the year. I served as the YW president in my ward for 4 years (just released in Dec.). When I was called I had a 4yo, 2yo, and a 5 month old. Just a few months later I found out I was pregnant with #4 surprisingly! So 4 boys under 6 and 4 years of service left me with little time to do a lot of things I would have liked to do. And now that I'm released - I want to do them all at once! I enjoyed your thoughts in reminding ourselves to take steps and focus on just a couple things at a time. And not to compare with what others are doing. I'm coming along and learning patience, focusing on raising my children.

Angie said...

I find myself needing to constantly say "baby steps, baby steps." Both as a way to make small measured bits of progress that will stick instead of setting unreachable goals followed by certain flame outs but also as a way to remind myself of progress made. They are baby steps, but we ARE making them. Sometimes I even have to repeat the baby steps mantra to people who are being critical of my or my family's progress (or lack thereof).

I think it's also important to remember that we tend to down play our own skills and achievements and idolize those things that others can do and we can't, when it's is most likely that they are awesome at something we can't do because that is the talent they have developed instead of learning to do something that comes easily to us. And both skill sets are important.

Mama Rachel said...

Oh, yeah! I am one of those "All or Nothing" kind of women. I want to change EVERYTHING, right NOW!

I really appreciate this post. I need to go back to my list of goals and set more realistic timing for myself. Thanks for the inspiration, Christine!

swedemom said...

I have loved this entire series. So well-written and very insightful.

I especially appreciated your thought about evaluating your life periodically. Our needs change based on circumstances so our lives can look very different at different periods of time.

Two years ago, when I was pregnant with my youngest, my life was completely different than what it is today. I take comfort from that realizing that not all times of sickness and trouble last.

I also love the idea of avoiding comparisons. I have a dear friends who is a 100 % involved mother. She teaches her kids music, they go to all these museums (on a far more frequent scale than I ever could manage) and her kids are very intelligent. I was feeling a bit low about this--not that I wanted for my friend to stop what she was doing, but I felt like I was less of a mother. When I finally sat down and looked at my life, I realized that some challenges I have have caused me to have a different style of parenting. But that doesn't make me less of a parent. Instead I have come to see that I'm doing very well. I'm grateful for all I do manage to accomplish in my life. After I came to this realization, my friend confided to me that she was so amazed that I could have 5 children because she felt like she was at her max. So we were probably comparing ourselves to one another.

I want to celebrate the accomplishments of my friends and learn from them. If they can teach me how to do something better or be better, than I can learn from that. And vice versa.


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