I build things up in my head to be more awful than they actually are. I’ll look at my unmade bed and think about how long it takes to make the bed. I’m convinced it will at least take an hour. Look at how rumpled those sheets are! And who knows where the comforter made it to during the night? But in reality, it takes 30-90 seconds, depending on how messy and tangled the sheets became as I slept. At worst, on a horrendous day when I have to change the sheets, it probably takes 2-3 minutes. I always laugh to myself when I’m done and remind my silly head that making the bed isn’t nearly as terrible as I convinced myself it was. I’m always so glad to have the bedroom feel tidy and what a difference the bed makes!
I do this dramatic anticipating in a lot of areas. I build things up to be much worse than they are. Hummus, is another great example. I’ve heard about and even experienced the ability to make your own hummus. (A few years ago, a dear friend came to visit, bringing her hummus enthusiasm with her and we made a batch in my blender.) But I never make it happen myself. I never seem to have all the ingredients on hand. And I convince myself that it is going to be incredibly difficult. To soak the beans. To pull out the food processor. Not to mention getting all the supplies you need in order to even begin!
But a few weeks ago, I did it. I bought chickpeas, that dry bag of what-feel-like pebbles (I actually did find two rocks in my bag!) I soaked them overnight and cooked them the next day. I threw them and some fresh parsley from a friend and olive oil and lemon juice and garlic into the food processor. And a beautiful thing happened. Hummus appeared. It was like magic. This impossibly hard thing to do had been done. The horrible hummus making was actually quite pleasant. I was so glad to be wrong. It had a few steps, but each was done with minimal effort on my part. And I had the incredible satisfaction of accomplishment, along with two huge containers of hummus. I’m pretty proud of those two containers.
It seems to be a human thing: the ability to look into the future, the ability to think of about what will happen next, to anticipate what is coming. It really trips me up sometimes. Before I’ve even begun step one, I’m already nervous about step twelve. When I was in elementary school, I remember confessing my fears about college to my mom. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be ready or smart enough when the time came. I remember her nodding in understanding. Right now it would be too much for me, but I didn’t have to be ready now. I just got to do one grade at a time. I would finish second grade and go to third grade. And from third grade to fourth, all the way up until college. And when I got there, she was pretty sure I would have learned all that I needed to know to be ready. I breathed a big sigh of relief as I realized she was right. No one was asking me to go to college right now. I just had to do the next thing, which was finish second grade.
I wish that my anticipation of step twelve only applied to silly things like hummus and making beds and the worries of a second grader. But often, they infect all of my thoughts and plans. I start to look at my to-do list and am overwhelmed with how terrible it is. Even if all that is there is the following:
- activate new phone
- make hummus
- defrost chicken for dinner
- respond to email
- call insurance company
- make banana bread
- go to the library
Really and truly. This was a recent to-do list and it can and is overwhelming to my little heart.
I think this is why Jesus talked about the daily life in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (Matthew 6:34, the Message)
It doesn’t seem to work for me to try and anticipate all that will come my way, whether it is something “big” like my marriage’s fate or “small” like making dinner. I get frozen with fear and spend all the time I would have spend doing the “dreaded” deed simply dreading it. I truly get stuck.
So instead, I’m trying something different. I’m trying to just do the next thing.
I’m sitting down at my computer and writing.
I’m squishing bananas with a fork to make bread.
I’m dialing the number to my phone company (which the introvert in me still dreads just a little.)
I’m sitting and talking to my husband.
I’m doing one thing on my to-do list.
And asking Jesus to help me stay here in the now, since my brain always seems to be fighting to leap towards what’s ahead.
I think courage, so often, isn’t doing the BIG dreaded deeds. It is just doing the small next thing. Instead of thinking of the great chasm I must cross to get to my goals, I’m trying to ask myself, what is ONE step I can take in that direction? I know it doesn’t work to think of ALL the steps it takes to get there. That is completely and entirely overwhelming. Instead, let’s start small. Let’s start today. What is one thing I can do towards who I want to be? What do I need to do next?
Let’s start by pulling up the sheets, before we think about finding the comforter.
Let’s start by soaking the beans, before we worry about how long to cook them for.
Let’s start by writing today, before I get overwhelmed with the possibility of a book.
Courage is doing the next thing. It is showing up and doing whatever is next. So often, it feels like I’m not making any progress. Or that my progress is too small to matter. But the beautiful thing about humans is that we can change. We change by doing small things over and over again. I’ve heard over and over again that I can make a new habit in 21 days. I think this is how we’re wired. The big things get the attention and certainly can impact us. But the small things, the next things: these seem to be the ones that go into the chasm with us and help us cross the dark, menacing valley. Courage is taking the next step.
Today that is writing a letter. Setting down my phone and reading a book with a little girl on my lap. Drinking coffee on the porch with nothing but the wind and falling leaves to keep me company. Marinating chicken in a coconut milk-curry mixture. Sitting down to write.
I don’t have to know what’s coming. I just need to do what is next.