The Hidden Strength of Humility

Give me the lowest place: or if for me
That lowest place too high, make one more low
Where I may sit and see
My God and love Thee so.

            – from The Lowest Place, Christina Rossetti

Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues. – Confucius

Did you ever have an experience, or read something, or hear a song or a speech, or watch a TV show, that started you down a new path of thinking? Lately I’ve found myself noticing various references to humility, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

Our world doesn’t put much stock in humility. It’s considered a weakness. It doesn’t get you too far in the job market, or in anything, really, that requires competition with others.

Oh, people pay lip service to it. They express admiration for modest, unassuming people, especially if those people have become successful.

“He’s the same person he was back in high school,” someone might say of a sports or music star that they knew back when.

Everyone likes a modest, unassuming person, but I suspect at least part of that liking is because people don’t perceive that person as a threat. Either they feel safe around the humble person and know they can be their unguarded selves without fear of betrayal or being taken advantage of, or they feel superior to the humble person, and their liking has a touch of disdain to it.

“So-and-so is such a good, humble person. Bless her heart.”

Humility is counter-intuitive. Our first perspective in life, and our most dominant perspective throughout life, is our own, because we cannot escape ourselves. It takes effort and a willingness to consider others equal in importance to us, to shift our perspective and try to understand others, to try to see, think, feel as others do.

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Humility is the opposite of self-promotion in a world that demands self-promotion if we are to earn a living and advance in our chosen field, land a mate, recruit the top talent, establish a successful business, reach elected office, have popularity or power and influence. People who practice humility, some believe, are almost asking to be a rung on the ladder that others step on in their climb to the top. Or maybe even the rug underneath the ladder that more enterprising people wipe their feet on.

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But the wise know that those who manage to set self aside and practice true humility often possess a quiet self-assurance that neither depends on the approval of those around them, nor compares itself to those others. And as such, that person actually operates from a position of far greater strength than those who feel they must strive and strive to succeed.

All that striving. It makes me tired to think of it.

A few weeks ago, sometime during the Lenten season, I read Jesus’ words in the following familiar passage, from Matthew 11:28-30 (NASB).

28 Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.

“For I am gentle and humble in heart…” Hmm.oxen-wagon-cc

A yoke joins oxen, or some other animals, so that they can work in pairs to pull a load. Logic would seem to dictate that pulling one’s weight with a yoke requires effort, power, brute strength.

Yet the lessons of the yoke that Jesus bade us learn from Him were how to be gentle and humble in heart. These were the qualities He wanted us to cultivate to be strong enough to shoulder His yoke.

Why? Maybe so that we could stop our eternal, infernal striving. Surely this is one way to find a respite, an island of peace in the midst of the trials and turbulence, the rush and strife and noise of daily living. To find, as He said, rest for our souls.

A Peaceful Place to Rest

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Mom has a birthday this week, so I decided I’d take this weekend and travel to Mississippi to spend a little time with her and Dad. On Saturday afternoon we took a trip to the local Sonic Drive-In for happy hour half-price soft drinks, and then – as we are wont to do – we decided to take a drive through the countryside.

We wound our way through the back roads of Tishomingo County, looking at farmland and houses old and new, remembering whose homestead was at a particular site, where my grandparents lived when Mom was born, speculating as to who wound up where, and as we drove and talked, we drank in the sight of trees budding, daffodils along the roadway, the bright, fresh green of new grass, and fields still lying fallow, stretched underneath a spring blue sky, waiting for the growing season to begin.

Eventually we meandered over the state line into Alabama, and found ourselves in rural Colbert County, turning onto the gravel road that leads to Russell Cemetery.  My paternal grandparents are buried there, along with two great-aunts and a great-uncle, my dad’s grandparents, and his little brother. Other relatives and members from other families in the community also find their final resting place there.

In the South, we have what we call “decoration” days, and the Russell Cemetery Decoration Day is the Saturday before the first Sunday in May. When I was growing up, the families whose loved ones lie there would gather on that Saturday morning in their work clothes, don their heavy work gloves and hats, and, armed with mowers, weed eaters, rakes, clippers, rags, soap and water, would set about cleaning up the landscaping and the tombstones. Then they’d place flowers on the graves.

CivilWarvetWe kids would occupy our time going down into the woods to the spring, watching the Santa Gertrudis cattle in the adjoining pasture (the bull, a particularly handsome fellow, would huff and puff at us, and paw the ground, in equal parts annoyed and curious), and visiting the various tombstones and speculating about the lives of the people buried there.

One tombstone featured an old sepia photo of a couple from the 19th century, the man’s coat sleeve hanging empty where he lost an arm in the Civil War. In another corner of the cemetery, rough-shaped stones – all but one or two uncarved and of indeterminate age – mark the graves of anonymous bones, people whose lives and names and stories are long lost to the past.

With the morbid fascination typical of children, my cousins and siblings and I always paid particular attention to a grave marked by a tiny tombstone on top of which perched a marble lamb. Toy cars, teddy bears, and other toys always adorned this gHallchildgraverave. Our parents had explained to us several times over the years that the little boy buried here had died at the age of three after falling into a washtub of scalding hot water. We shivered at the horror of this story, and at the idea of death visiting a child close to our own ages. Sometimes we would bring a little toy as our own small token to place reverently on the grave of this child that we felt sure was a kindred spirit.

This young boy’s brother, a man named Rick Hall, grew up to found FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, Hall gives a harrowing account of his brother’s death, and it is obvious that he still bears the emotional scars of that tragedy and its aftermath.

But in spite of the somber setting and the unsettling story of the little Hall boy, Decoration Day was, by and large, a fun time for children and adults alike, a day spent in an idyllic rural setting.

One year, the adults noticed that several cows in the adjacent pasture were acting odd. They were clustered in a circle around something on the ground that held their attention. They’d inch slowly up to the center of the circle, then quickly back away, shying away from whatever held their fascination.

“A snake,” everyone decided, and several men, armed with garden hoes, made their way into the pasture to kill the snake, only to find the cows spooked by a plastic grocery bag tumbling around in the spring breeze.

 

Generally, the morning’s work would go quickly and then we would haul lawn chairs out of our cars, set food out on two huge picnic tables comprised of cinder block legs and giant slabs of concrete for table tops, and feast on a great pot luck meal. The eating and the visiting would last a good two hours.

Many years later I was working in an office on Music Row and explaining that I was going home for the weekend. “It’s Decoration Day,” I said, explaining our family tradition to my office mates. My coworker Hal, a native of Long Island, New York, couldn’t get his mind around the concept.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You go to a cemetery…and you have a picnic?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I said. Thereafter Hal would use that story to tease me about how weird Southerners are.

My cousin Mac likes to tell the story of how one year after dinner he and my brother Bob locked themselves in one of the cars and consumed the remainder of a chocolate cake my great-aunt Martha had made. Apparently they got in big trouble, and also got sick. And apparently they had taken both possibilities into account and had decided it would be worth the risk to eat the cake.

Over the years, the number of people attending Decoration Day has dwindled, and the pot luck dinner is no more. The little Hall boy’s grave has no toys on it. The silent unmarked graves keep their silence. The pasture is empty of cattle. But the beauty and the peace remain, unmarred by the modern world. Wind sweeps through the tree tops, across the sage grass in the fields, and over the occupants, ever asleep in tranquility’s quiet embrace.

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BEING 51: Mindfulness and the Lush Life

via Daily Prompt: Lush

 

makeoverI started my makeover on January 4.

“What makeover?” you might ask.

“Why, my new Endeavor!” I might explain. “I’m starting from scratch, at age 51, to become physically and fiscally fit, and culturally relevant!”

It’s not really a makeover in how I look that I have in mind (although I certainly hope the end results will bring at least some improvement, so that my always-lush curves will go back to just being lush instead of…Rubenesque).

 

foodlog_article_300Rather, I want to work on transforming how I think, so that I am more aware. I want to bring awareness to how I approach daily life and my habits: the amount of sleep I get; making exercise a regular part of my routine instead of a sporadic effort; what I eat and when, and how much; learning to stop eating when I am no longer hungry.

And fiscally, too, I’ve begun to track my spending habits. I’m evaluating my monthly expenses to see if I truly need everything I am paying for. I’m developing strategies for saving more and looking at different ways financially successful people make money with secondary and passive income sources.

As I ponder these things I realize I’ve lived over half a century being reactive, rolling passively along with my circumstances and whatever life throws my way. Eeh…that’s really not how I want to be. I want more input. I want health. I want financial security. I want…lushness. I want to experience things. I want to savor life. That requires discipline and planning, and… well, I’m 51. Have I waited too late? If I set these goals, how long will it take me to achieve them? How old will I be? As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way, the same age I’ll be if I don’t.

slowprogressBut I know myself well enough to know I’m not a Type A, go-get-‘em type, and I have no interest in becoming one. Over time I’ve learned to be assertive, but I’ll never be naturally aggressive. And I don’t really want to be. I can hold my own; no one will walk over me. I can certainly push back when I’m pushed, but that’s as assertive as I care to get. And really, is there ever a need for more? I’m not out to best others. I just want to be my personal best. Some might see that as weak, but I consider it a strength. Everyone else can knock themselves out competing. I’ll just toodle along over here at my own pace, happily doing my thing. Slow and steady wins the race, right?

The key, I guess, is to find a mindful balance. But nobody has ever accused me of being high-energy, and to achieve my goals, I need to step it up a bit.

Changing your mindset to change your habits, your health and your lifestyle is a very Big Project. It’s best to start with manageable goals. I met with the trainer at the gym when I first started thinking about all this, and he gave me some great advice.

  • Lemon water at room temperature is as good a cleanser as you’ll find. Good to know.
  • When you get to be in your 50s, strength training is equal in importance to cardio exercises to lose and maintain a healthy weight. I’m thrilled about this, because while I like cardio well enough, I really enjoy weight machines.
  • Drink lots and lots and lots of water. My goal is about 96 ounces a day.
  • He likes the Paleo diet. I prefer the Mediterranean diet approach.
  • He recommended lots of dark green leafy vegetables. I’m good with that. Except spinach. But there are other things.
  • Cut out caffeine. “Oh, noooooo!” I said, carefully explaining my Diet Coke® habit. He said I’d have to wean myself off. I’m down to one in the morning when I get to work, and a little decaf carbonation at night.

But the most important thing he had to say about diet and exercise was this little gem:

“You can’t outwork a bad diet.”

So there.

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In the five weeks since I started my Awareness Project, I’ve logged virtually every bite of food and every ounce of liquid that has gone into my mouth. (Except for the Communion wafer and grape juice last Sunday. That would just be wrong.) workoutrewardIn those five weeks I’ve lost three pounds (my goal was one pound a week), and had one week of regular exercise and three weeks of sporadic exercise.

I’ve recalled how cool it feels when you can tell, from the way your muscles feel internally, that you are beginning to become more firm even if no one can see it yet.

I’ve learned how good it feels to eat exactly the right amount, not too much, and you’re satisfied with that quiet steady sense of being sated, but you don’t feel all blorpy.

 

I’ve learned that when you can’t get something off your mind – i.e., a cheeseburger – hold out as long as you can. But if and when you give in, eat it, but don’t pig out on it…just enjoy the taste and the satisfaction, and then don’t beat yourself up; just get up the next day, and start again.

in-n-outburgerThat felt good, too, eating that cheeseburger. I wish I could say it didn’t feel good, that I felt awful and blorpy and the cheeseburger sat like a rock in my stomach, and that I deserved it for failing so miserably. But in fact it was every bit as fabulous as I thought it would be, and I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. I didn’t get fries, or onion rings, I just got the (double) cheeseburger, and I felt fine.

I didn’t lose a pound during cheeseburger week, but, still not feeling the guilt, I decided that was the choice I made and it was mine to live with, and as long as the scales don’t go up, I can regain (re-lose) whatever ground I might have lost (weight I might have gained). It’s been a few days now and I’ve not felt a need for a cheeseburger since. As my dieting GPS might say, “Recalculating!”

Tax refund on its way, paying extra on my car note, putting some back in savings. One day I’ll see a fabulous pair of shoes that will hit my wallet like that cheeseburger did my tastebuds, and my financial GPS will pipe up, “Recalculating!”

There’s always a way back onto the path to the lush life.

The Solace and Sweetness of Solitude

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I have lived alone virtually my entire adult life. And for the most part, I’ve been content with that. In fact, the older I get, the more necessary it seems for my mental and emotional balance that I experience at least a portion of my day alone inside my head.

I love time with family and friends, and I love going places and doing things. But if I don’t have time to collect myself, I find myself coming a little undone. After a few days without down time I feel disorganized. Things seem disjointed. I’m easily distracted and I struggle to remember all my obligations. I don’t feel able to complete any of the tasks in front of me. I compensate for my lack of down time by staying up too late, then I compound the problem by sleeping too late the next morning and rushing off to whatever my day holds. And, as family members can attest, I get very, very cranky.

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My favorite time of the week is Friday night, when I can come home and watch TV or read or watch a movie or chat with family and friends by phone or online, then go to bed and observe No Alarm Saturday.

Saturday and Sunday have their own schedules and obligations, but Friday nights and Saturday mornings are vitally important to my sense of self. If I manage to use my time even a little wisely on weekends, combining the usual errands and housework with a few blissful hours of being purely lazy, the next work week will find me better able to get up early enough for a devotional time, more likely to get in a good workout after work, and better able to cook and eat healthy meals and prepare for my work day the next day.

I’ve learned this is typical of introverts, and while it may be a luxury for anyone other than a single adult, the craving for solitude is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve also learned that after a day or so of being alone, I get really antsy for interaction with other members of the human race. I like most people, and most people like me. I need my friends. But I am a better person – a better employee, a better daughter and sister and friend – when I have time to write in my journal, to pray, to contemplate, to center myself.

As with most things in life, balance and moderation are key.

sometimes-i-like-to-be-alone-i-enjoy-the-freedom-9370754.pngWhen did solitude become something I actively sought and needed?

Looking back on my childhood, when I was the youngest of three children and shared a bedroom with my older sister, I was rarely alone. But then again, my siblings are several years older than me, and it wasn’t long before they were out and about with their friends and I was still a pre-teen. I could usually be found in a corner with my nose stuck in a book. (That hasn’t changed.)

It’s odd, how much difference a few unobligated hours can make to my peace of mind. And it makes me wonder if it is perhaps as well that I never had children. Would I have been a good mother? Or would I have adapted to that reality, as I have to this one?

Last year a friend and I vacationed in Florida for a few days. We had a wonderful, and wonderfully relaxing, time. We sunned, we shopped, we did some sightseeing. On the last morning there, my bladder woke me up shortly before 5:00 a.m. I went back to bed but couldn’t help but notice that the edges of the curtain over the window shimmered a translucent blue.

Quietly, so that I wouldn’t awaken my friend, I grabbed my journal and my Bible, and tiptoed out of the room onto the deck overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

And there, suspended low over the Gulf, was the moon, on its way down, but not quite gone, even as, behind me, the sun was not quite up. And except for the brilliant gold of the moon beaming down to reflect on the tranquil, lapping waves, the whole world was blue, and quiet, and still. And I experienced a few blessed moments of perfect peace.

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I took this photo and saved it. I often look at it and retreat into it when I feel a need to be quiet in my mind, just for a few seconds. Or when things get hectic at work, and I feel like shouting, “SERENITY NOW!” I will pull out my iPhone and pull up this photo and allow myself to sink back into that moment of solitude, when everything was bigger than me, but I was part of everything, and it was part of me, and all was one.

Shortly thereafter, a jogger in neon turquoise shorts and a neon gold tank top passed beneath me and informed me that the local donut shop was open. Everything about it – the jarring neon tones of his clothes, his cheerful conversation and the somewhat annoying obligation to respond politely, his commercial pitch to give the donut place my business – called me back to remind me I wasn’t the only person in the world.

But I had found my treasure for the day. I had luxuriated in my moment of solitude. I had found myself immersed in an other-worldly place and moment of utter tranquility, a place of blue sprinkled with gold moondust, a place of salty breezes and rhythmic, lapping waves, a place of singular beauty. I had been gifted with a sense of deep, deep peace. And I will always have it.

via Photo Challenge: Solitude

Being 51: The AARP Years

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A.A. Milne, the English author and creator of Winnie the Pooh, closed the book Now We Are Six with a poem called, simply, “The End.”  The poem goes this way:

When I was one,

I had just begun.

When I was two,

I was not quite new.

When I was three,

I was hardly me.

When I was four,

I was not much more.

When I was five,

I was just alive.

But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now and forever.

Back in October I turned 51 years old. And while I feel like I’ve learned some important life lessons and know some things, I surely don’t feel “as clever as clever.” Such boundless assurance of one’s own knowledge, I suspect, comes more easily to the young, because the older I get, and the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.

As my 51st birthday approached, I started mulling things over in a way that conventional wisdom says I should have done the year before, when I turned 50.

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I immediately went out and joined a gym. Then work picked up, the holidays hit, and I got busy, and then it was all just sort of a lost cause there for awhile.

Oh, well, procrastination has always been a habit of mine.

When the New Year came around, I started over. I took stock of where I am in life, thinking about what I have done and what I still want to do, and addressing areas where I have fallen short of my expectations of myself. Looking in a mirror, both literally and metaphorically, can be tough, but it opened my eyes to some changes I need to make.

Predictably, the two areas that stood out for me are problem spots for many of us: physical and fiscal fitness. I decided that both areas of my life need an overhaul. And that involves changing how I think as well as how I act.

It’s never too late to make changes. As long as we have life and breath, we have hope for self-improvement. 51st_birthday_checklist_stone_magnets-r3a8aa8ed49db4e90bcfbb818b43fcc3d_zxkn5_324But I wondered: what I can realistically expect to accomplish? How much ground can you regain from what you’ve lost after too many years of procrastination and self-indulgence? What is possible?

How much harder will it be to lose weight now? How much firmness can I regain in my muscle tone after age 50?

How can I become more fiscally fit as I look down the road toward retirement? How do I build savings? What are some ways to develop passive income?

How can I develop the thought patterns that will lead to action? How can I become more aware?

Another thing I want to do is remain culturally informed. I’ve found that my brother and sister – 6 and 8 years older than me, respectively – are much better at staying on top of technology, music, and pop culture in general than I am, probably because they have kids.

Me? I read an article a few weeks ago about albums that turned 10 years old this year, and I had never heard any of them. I’m a little behind. So, this will be fun.

I’ve decided I’m going to document what I’ve begun to think of as my AARP years. I’m going to track my progress and my setbacks, my struggles and my victories. I’m going to blog about articles and videos I’ve found helpful that might help others, also. I’m going to laugh at myself and I invite you to laugh with me.

Because life is no fun if you can’t laugh at yourself. And at 51, I’m feeling pretty free to be my best me.

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Photo Challenge: Resilient (Or, Blooming Where You’re Planted)

For those who find themselves facing writer’s block, WordPress offers a daily prompt as well as a weekly photo challenge to help bloggers find inspiration.

I’ve never pretended to be a photographer, but the final photo challenge of 2016 focused on the word “resilient” and immediately I knew I had the perfect photos to contribute to this challenge.

In the parking lot of the pretty little Baptist church in north Mississippi where my dad serves as interim pastor, every summer these hardy vincas push their way from underneath the surface of the parking lot, up between the concrete sidewalk and asphalt pavement, to turn their smiling faces triumphantly to the sun.

They struggle out of the darkness from underneath a seemingly impenetrable crushing weight, finding a way through the most solid of obstacles, to emerge looking serenely beautiful. And they make the world a brighter, more colorful place in the process. To me, these sweet summer flowers, going about the business of blooming where they are planted, are the very epitome of resilient.

If I resolve to be a bit more like these vincas in 2017, it wouldn’t be the worst New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made. Not by a long shot.

 

via Photo Challenge: Resilient

REFILLING THE GLASS IN 2017

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Happy New Year to you, my dear readers! I wish for each of you a wonderful 2017.

Like any year, 2016 brought much personal happiness to some individuals and great sorrow to others – or, possibly, some of both.

Social media indicators show most people feel that in terms of the collective American experience, 2016 was a stinker – social unrest, an utterly loathsome presidential campaign season, and the loss of numerous cultural icons whose contributions to the arts over the decades broke new ground, broke down barriers, and helped define us.

As for me? Well, 2016 held some wonderful experiences for me, but I also fell short of several important goals, and in fact regressed in some areas. I’m not particularly pleased with me.

But you know what? 2016 is in the rearview mirror.

Bye, Felicia.

(I have no idea where that expression came from but it makes me laugh.)

So. Now what? My friend Tim posted a comment on his Facebook page earlier today and I asked his permission to share it, because he’s absolutely right.

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“People who wonder whether the glass is half full or half empty are missing the point. The glass is REFILLABLE.” – Tim Pierce

Time to refill the glass.

A recent study on www.statisticbrain.com shows that just under half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and of those who do, about eight percent of those succeed in achieving them. But it also states that people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than those who never set any goals in the first place.

I’ve found two completely different approaches to making New Year’s resolutions, and have found both methods to be effective. Sometimes circumstances allow for the more thorough method, but sometimes life demands the other, more succinct approach.

Right after I moved to Nashville in October 1990 I answered an ad for a job interview. When I got there, I learned I was one of about 30 people at the “interview.” It turned out to be a sales pitch for a company trying to recruit sales staff for time shares.

I almost walked out, but I didn’t, and I’m glad. Because from that unlikely source – the modern-day snake oil salesman who led the meeting – I gleaned a bit of very practical advice that has stood me in good stead over the years: a simple three-step process that helps you define what you want out of life, and clarify how to get it.

  1. Write down five goals you want to achieve in three months’ time.
  2. Write down five goals you want to achieve in one year’s time.
  3. Write down five goals you want to achieve in five years’ time.

He encouraged us to take our list home with us and write down specific steps under each goal to help us achieve that goal. He wanted us to understand that without specifics and without a realistic plan, you can’t reach your goals.

I never became a time share salesperson, but I did set some goals and define some steps I wanted to take. That proved helpful for me at a time in my life when I was living in a new town, looking for a new job and new friends and a new life.

There is something powerful in forcing yourself to take your vague longings and look at them to see what, exactly, it is you want and need – out of life, out of your job, out of your spouse, out of yourself – and to say so in very specific terms, and to verbalize explicit steps you can take to get wherever it is you want to go.

The beauty of this three-step, incremental goal-setting strategy is that you can have 15 completely different goals, OR you can use the short-term goals to help make more realistic, reachable, incremental marks toward achieving the longer-term goals.

You can do whatever you want to. They’re your goals.

But you know what? Sometimes life runs over you like a freight train.

You have a health crisis, a marital crisis, a period of anxiety or depression, or even a spurt of increased business that makes you work 60-hour weeks or longer, where you barely have time to do your laundry and get your garbage to the curb, much less have meaningful conversations or read a book. Much less get to the gym, or have a quiet time for meditation and centering yourself. Much less plan a healthy diet or grocery shop for diet-friendly fresh fruits and vegetables that will survive until you have time to cook them. It’s all you can do to keep your mail sorted and make sure you’ve got clean underwear.

Those three sets of five goals? You just sort of wave to them in passing.

And in those times, when you’re frazzled, overworked, overwhelmed, despairing, when you can’t see the way forward, that’s when my other approach to New Year’s resolutions kicks in.

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Do the next thing. Ancient words from an anonymous Saxon poet, with a simplicity and  a wisdom that struck a chord with Christian writer Elisabeth Elliot, who in turn passed it on to her readers, one of which was me.

When you can’t see your way forward, when you can only see the step immediately in front of you, just take that one step. Do the next thing. And then you can see what to do next. You do that next thing. And then the next. And the next, for as long as it takes to get out of the fog.

Here’s the thing about New Year’s resolutions. People think that if you’ve stopped doing them by the third week of January, you’ve failed. But you’ve not failed. You didn’t set a new January resolution. You set a new year’s resolution. You’ve got all year to try. And you’ll need it. Because most of us start and stop, and have to start all over again. The key is to keep trying.

My friend Tim is right. It matters not whether the glass is half empty or half full. The point is, the glass is refillable.

Bottoms up, and Happy New Year.

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via Daily Prompt: Year