Sunday, January 9, 2011


It's that time of year, when a young person's mind turns to thoughts of goals, plans for the new year, resolutions.  I know I'm not the only one; I've read some really wonderful posts lately contemplating goals for the new year, including a few with watchwords (appealing to my linguistic self), some of which really resonate with me, including "deliberate" and "sufficient".  I think that both of those are keywords which help to remind me of long-term overarching practices like balance and mindfulness.  Being deliberate is an aid to living mindfully - slowing down certainly helps me to pay much closer attention in the moment; and understanding sufficiency leads to greater balance.  This got me to thinking about whether I have a resolution for the year - not the usual: lose ten pounds, start lifting weights, publish another paper - but something bigger, a practice rather than a goal to check off the list, one of those things that's worth keeping in the front of my mind, something that encourages me to be mindful and balanced.

A phrase came immediately to mind, and I've been contemplating what it actually means, and why I find it so difficult to even approach.  Put simply, I need to work on this: just because I can do something, doesn't necessarily mean that I should.

I'm not sure if I'm the only one who acts, more frequently than not, on the basic belief that the only thing that should stop me from taking on a new commitment is an inability to actually do whatever it is that I'm being asked to do.  The problem with this belief is that, push comes to shove, there is very little that I couldn't do (I don't think I'm unique in this, either, by the way; I think that all of us, if we really really had to do something, could find a way to do it).  The problem is with that "push comes to shove" bit; I am not good at judging if the pushing and shoving are real, or if the sense of do-or-die pressure is simply a fiction dreamed up by the little anxious voices in my back brain.  The upshot is that I find it very difficult to say "no, I can't".  And nearly impossible to say "no, I don't want to".  (It probably doesn't help that questions are so frequently phrased as, "Can you do this?"  Well, yes, I suppose I can...)

I don't know about you, but when I'm struggling with an old ingrained habit like this, it helps a lot to know where its power comes from.  This one has a lot of oomph, some of it from more general bad habits, some, though, from principles that I hold dear, and that's what makes this a tough one.  In terms of the negative, some of this comes from a sort of deficit mentality, the kind where I think: I'll never see this yarn again/have a chance to eat this particular food again/get this opportunity again.  And the next thing I know, the yarn is purchased, the food is eaten, and the commitment is made.  Hence the resonance of that watchword "sufficient".  Added to that is a long-held sense that what other people want is somehow more important than what I want, or than my needs/sanity/etc.  Not to mention the fear that if I say no to people, they will no longer like me.  These are not useful things to believe, and I'd be more than happy to shed them.

But the feeling that my ability to do something in some way obligates me to do it also comes from principles that I have really thought about and that I try to live by.  One of these is my general dislike of hypocrisy.  I try really hard (I don't always succeed, goodness knows, but I do try) not to criticize people for doing things that I also do, and as a concomitant, I try hard not to expect things of people that I wouldn't do myself.  It makes me crazy when people stand around saying, "Why doesn't someone do something", but then refuse to step up and do things themselves.  I guess what I'm saying is that I try hard to hold myself to the standards that I hold other people to. 

I also know myself to be truly lucky, to have not only a sufficiency but an embarrassment of riches in my life, and I am very aware that no small part of those riches comes from the actions of other people, some of whom I know but many of whom I don't.  And I believe in my obligation to respond to that generosity of the community of humankind with a generous heart.  That means that when I see something that needs doing, the seeing comes with an obligation to act. 

I also fundamentally believe in people, and in the capacity of people to do great good.  And I believe that I should do what I can to make the world a place where people have a chance to exercise that capacity.  Again, I'm not saying by any stretch of the imagination that I always (or even mostly!) manage any of these things, but they are guiding principles that I come back to when I judge my own actions, and when I try to decide on right action.

What I seem to have lost here is a sense of balance, of not only taking care of other people, but also of taking care of my self, of holding non-violence as a key principle in judging my own actions.  I encourage my friends to set limits, to take care of themselves, to say no, and I cheer them on when they do, but I don't give myself the same encouragement.  If I truly do believe in holding myself to the standards I set for others, why not that one?  This is where I stall out, though.  I know what I can do if I have to, and the voice in my head that says that choosing not to do is the lazy choice (and furthermore, that my "principle" of finding balance is just an excuse to be lazy) is a pretty loud voice.  I think that this is where a broad reading of "sufficient" would be a good thing: not only do I have sufficient (a plethora of sufficiency, in fact!), but I am sufficient.  Imagine.

So there it is: Just because I can, doesn't mean I should.  Deliberate.  Sufficient.  Balance.  Mindfulness.  Watchwords for a new year.


Nana Sadie said...

Ahimsa. The other word you're talking about. Non-violence. In this case, to yourself.

When you do harm to yourself, the world suffers, too. Immediately in your own family and work life, b/c others don't want you to overextend either!

(and I know you know I struggle with this, too!)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...are you living my life? Printed off for a moment when I can contemplate your thoughts in more detail - thank you! (Sue)

Teri S. said...

Hear, hear! Very well said. I think part of the problem is cultural. To not do something, particularly to say that I can't do something, is akin to failure and failure is not well regarded in our society.

I hadn't given thought to habits holding power, but you're right--they do. That concept is worth contemplating more.

I find myself, both at work and at home (but especially at work, where the environment is fast-paced), reacting to events. I think paying attention to your watchwords will be beneficial.

Deliberate. Sufficient. Balance. Mindfulness.

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

Jane said...

It sounds oh, so familiar! Sometimes you just have to stop and look after yourself, so you can be there and give of your best to those who are important to you and rely on you, your family.

Anonymous said...

so very many thoughts in response to this very thoughtful post. like you, like most women (in particular), i also find it hard to say no....because i can do it, whatever is being asked. and when people remind me that i can just say no, i'm sorry, i can't, without further explanation, i know they're right. that's a perfectly reasonable response, and people are usually satisfied and just move on to the next person.

but of course that vibrates in the "smart" part of my brain, not the part i always act from, which is the compulsive part, the part that says but i can do it, why not me. someone once [rightly] pointed out that there's a strong degree of grandiosity to that attitude, and it stung like hell when she said it because no i'm not! i'm not grandiose! i try to be humble! THAT person over there is grandiose, not me. i don't think i'm all that. but it is grandiose to take on the mantle of being The One Who Can Do It.

of all the things people say to me when i'm mulling over this shared characteristic, that one has been the most helpful to me. what makes me the savior of the world, i'm a human being like the rest and deserve to say no when it's just the right thing for me.

[of course that just brings up another vague issue, of what's the right thing for me. oy.]

anyway. i'm with you, sister.

Rachael said...

Very well said and OH so familiar. I wish you a wonderful year and may you find the balance you are striving towards.

Willow said...

Yup. Ditto. Enough! (in all the the manifestations and connotations of that word)

After having gotten myself into too many 'situations', I've started to repeat Mother Teresa's words to myself often. Willows' paraphrase: "You cannot do great things. You can only do small things with great love."

Gwen said...


Mary Lou said...

Say it sister! Well put, as usual. I put this in my read later folder, I hope I get to it.

Carrie#K said...

Well stated and thought provoking. My mother used that phrase on me as an admonition in my youth, but it does make sense to keep it in the forefront. I agree with you, there's little that you can't do but do you want to? Need to? Care sufficiently?

There's a cultural emphasis for women to take on caretaking duties but there's a bigger emphasis socially for us all to be busy. Doing what? It hardly matters. It should.

Anonymous said...

Ponderous thoughts.

I pray for wisdom.

twinsetellen said...

Several have put this post in their "read later" folder. I will put it in my "read every week" folder.

Keep us posted on your practice of this excellent resolution - it will provide a great role model for us. (That is, unless you don't want to take on the responsibility!)

RobinH said...

I know what you mean. Perhaps the question should be, 'I can do this, but *should* I? What will I have to give up, what things will be neglected as a result of this commitment?' Consider the consequences and let them help balance the equation. Where it gets hard is when the commitment mostly impacts 'me' time...but if you've taken the step of objectively quantifying effects, you've already slowed down enough that you'll be able to say, 'me time is important too'.

I've been a lot more cautious about taking on new projects since the year when I wound up organizing a largish event, doing a major house renovation, and getting married, all in the same year. All of these projects got done, but the cost in stress was pretty high. I still twitch when I think about it.

EGunn said...

Sounds like a great resolution to me! When I find myself holding to too high a standard, I stop and ask what I would say to a friend in my place. More often than not, it's "run the other way." I can say from painful experience that burned out and physically exhausted is no good for anyone (and that the world continues on just fine without you when you drop it all and take care of yourself). As always, though, these things are much easier said than done. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is such a wonderful resolution. Gives me lots to think about, since I have these same tendencies, and they're really not healthy for me. Just because I can, doesn't mean I must.

Anonymous said...

When I turned 50 I stopped doing meetings. I will work when asked and I volunteer regularly but I no longer waste hours at meetings. It's been great.

Susan aka paintermom said...

Thank you for this lovely, profound post. It could so easily have been written about my life.

Two suggestions: when someone asks you to do something, force yourself to say, "Let me think about it and I'll get back to you." This gives you the time to assess whether it is really the right thing for you to take on. If need be, you can turn to friends/spouse/etc. for help assessing and/or drafting your response. I find it helps me "gird my loins" for saying no without feeling too guilty.

The other is a technique I learned from a book titled "How Much Is Enough?" The authors suggest that you analyze choices in terms of whether it is a good and healthy use of resources, including time, energy, money, etc. They encourage the reader to think about the whole family system's resources as well as the individual's. My husband and I find this useful in deciding how to respond to requests from our children.

I wish you peace in the coming year.

AlisonH said...

Beautiful. Thank you.