Many of you have heard the “spoon theory” of chronic illness management and energy conservation. It goes something like this:
Every morning, your average healthy and well-rested person wakes up with an enormous pile of spoons. There are so many spoons, there’s no need to count or monitor their use. Someone living with any kind of compromised health (or, I’d argue, grief, or big life stressors, or…) wakes up with a finite little pile of spoons. Each endeavor of the day requires a certain number of spoons – getting ready for work? Maybe two spoons. A big presentation or care for small children/aging parents/sick loved one? Ten or more.
Essentially, it’s drawing attention to the fact that there are circumstances in life that make every choice matter. Take a shower, or skip it? Make that overdue phone call to a friend, or close your eyes for ten minutes? Go to sleep at eight, or stay up and spend time with your significant other? Walk to the bus stop, or call a car service?
In grad school, my seminal project was a contribution to an ongoing study related to energy conservation for folks post-bone marrow transplant. We had several meetings with participants, who opened my eyes to the reality of living with a body that isn’t free and easy all the time. At the same time, though I didn’t realize it yet, I was starting to experience the effects of chronic stress and Lyme disease.
There are very few times in life when everything fits “just so” into our ideal plan. Exercise so many times per week, cook and eat healthy foods, get the right amount of sleep, take time for self-care and for loved ones. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s simple – we have the resources (physical and otherwise) to do what we need to do to live our best lives.
More often, though, we have only some of the pieces of what we feel we need to make our ideal plan reality. Whether we’re living with chronic pain/mental health challenges/fatigue/life stress or not, we find there isn’t enough time. Or energy. Or health. Not enough spoons to put us where we feel we should be.
It’s easy to give up before we even start.
I hope to never, ever sound like I have it all together – because I certainly do not. At times, I feel paralyzed out of sheer overwhelm. I snap at someone I love when I’m tired of making decisions. I choose the comfort of Netflix streaming over exercise. I let my mind tell me I’ll never be good enough.
We all do these things sometimes. To pretend we don’t isn’t helping anyone.
Lately, I find myself imagining I’m on a highway. There are two lanes: one is “mine,” the other “Love.” You can label them as it works for you – ego/God, control/surrender, The Grind/The Zone, tightness/release, fear/trust, etc. All work.
When I find myself straining and struggling in “my lane” – the one where my brain and ego think I’m in control, and where I’m focused on the small picture – I end up overwhelmed. I’m overly focused on where I imagine I need to get in order for everything to be okay. The perfect life and health balance. The relationship stability. The right job or perfect house or capsule wardrobe. It’s a place of lack and need and not enough.
When I have a moment of Grace and can recognize that I’m in that lane – struggling, straining, resisting the idea that my best bet is to let go of specific outcome – I pause. Then, with relief and waves of gratitude, I allow myself to shift lanes.
I go to the lane where I’m not in control – and I love it. I keep my intentions close in an ever-present prayer or mantra. The perfect life and health balance I seek originates from a pure desire to live a strong, rooted, joyful life. Relationship stability? I want to be a conduit of Good and Love in the world. The job, house, wardrobe? I want my work to reflect my goal of living to serve. I want space to grow my food and spend time outdoors and live joyfully with the people I love. I want my outer appearance to reflect my values – simplicity, respect for the planet and my fellow humans.
Each of those intentions could be boiled down to a line from St. Francis’ prayer: Make me an instrument of Your peace. Or God’s peace. Or peace, period. Again – the words don’t matter, only the intention does.
It’s just possible I have no idea specifically what’s best. We’ve all gotten that thing/situation we pined for, only to realize it’s not all we’d hoped, or to feel unable to enjoy it because it’s only one piece of the puzzle in which there are always more pieces missing.
I know my heart’s intentions are sound, even if my mind tugs me back into the lane of small thinking now and then. I know, deep in my belly, that if I continually merge back into the other lane, putting my heart’s intentions first and leaving the details of how/when/where to something greater than my small self, beautiful things will happen.
The more practical (and control-bent?) among us may find this a ridiculous idea. Nothing ever gets done without elbow grease and determination. Set goals, then work toward them. Yes, of course – but what if the end goal was a state of being in harmony with your purpose in this life, rather than specific outcomes?
For heaven’s sake, put in the application when the surprising job opportunity arises out of nowhere! Write the email to follow up on your inspired conversation with your seat mate on the bus, take the unexpected offer of free daycare for your dependent loved one, get up and go when you feel pulled to try that new kind of exercise. But the most important thing: be ready to see those opportunities and don’t miss them because they don’t fit into your plans. Those opportunities come when we have eyes to see them, not when we’re focused too narrowly on specific outcomes.
When we’re in the sweet lane.
May we all feel the peace and joy of merging into that sweet, sweet lane.