It is inevitable. I walk into Target and I am immediately drawn to them, like a moth to a flame. Rosy pink day planners with gold-pressed lettering on the cover. Desk calendars with inspirational quotes alongside neat lines on which to pen my “three core tasks” of the day. Journals for tracking everything from my eating habits and exercise routines to my reading goals and grocery list.
I manage to make it throughout the checkout line and out the door without buying any of them. I clutch my Christmas clearance purchases to my chest- discounted wrapping paper and snowflake napkins for next December- and actively avert my eyes from the alluring promise of all things new.
I hop onto my phone to check in with friends I haven’t seen in awhile and I am immediately sucked into a vortex of aspirations: focus words, goal lists, digital stakes thrust into the ground of cyberspace for their followers to see. As I scroll through resolutions and “this time I am resolved, seriously this time” declarations, I dodge ads left and right- ads for workout equipment, new eating regimens centered around my DNA (seriously?), meditation guides, a pricey planner centered around the daily BCP readings, and health products that will right all the wrongs within me and, somehow, make me a better mom too.
As I set down my phone, I pause to take stock. I do not feel inspired or encouraged. I do not feel invigorated or challenged. Instead, I feel the cold fingers of shame clutch at my insides. All the “not quite up to par” bits of myself pulse with it: the reading list that fell so short, the belly that is softer and less toned than last year, the writing that I should have done but avoided, the morning routine that I so often failed to complete, the minutes wasted when I wanted to be praying, the full-to-the-bursting daily calendar but not always with the right things…
My inner achiever chomps at the bit of a new year, and with the turn of a new decade (or not, depending on how annoyingly accurate you want to be), I feel the pull all the more acutely, like an undertow threatening to whisk me out to sea. In a way, I want to surrender to the pull, to ride the waves of lists, goals, and achievement indicators out into the open waves. And yet I know, with every swell, every white-crested wave, comes a plunge into the valley- the low place between the peaks. The low places are disorienting and frightening, every goal invisible, every accomplishment unseen in the shadow of the roiling water, my sense of self adrift.
Here’s the truth: I can do the things. I can accomplish the tasks. I can hammer my body into submission. I can drag myself out of bed earlier everyday to write. I can schedule every moment of my day to maximize productivity. I do not struggle with lack of motivation or capacity to accomplish the tasks before me.
And yet, I no longer wish to ride the highs and lows of the waves of accomplishments and accolades. I’ve done it and, while there are always moments of exhilaration, in the end my stomach is always a bit soured by the voyage. The promises are hollow; the newness empty. As soon as I lose those 10 pounds, I’ll find yet another flaw that needs attention. As soon as I write the next article or book, the unquenchable thirst to do it again- to prove I am the real deal for certain this time- will come calling. As soon as I read my ever-growing stack of books, I will lift my tired eyes to discover that 50 more have been written. The hunger is all-consuming. It gnaws at my belly at all hours- when I am playing with my children, when I am going for a run, when I’m washing the dishes, or preparing a sermon- it claws at my insides.
I am self-aware enough to know that my hunger is in many ways innate. I am wired to take action, to set lofty goals and attain them. Perhaps my hunger is not the problem. Perhaps it is my appetite. Perhaps I have developed a taste for that which cannot satisfy.
Bodily perfection (as if that were possible anyway) cannot do it. It cannot sanctify me. As much as my body matters in this life and the next, making it thinner cannot make me into a kinder, more empathetic, more Christlike person.
Writing a best-seller cannot do it. No amount of elusive Amazon reviews will do it. No acknowledgments or awards or attention can make me more honest or insightful or articulate. Nor can they convince me I am enough.
The boldest, most well-delivered sermon, the wisest advice given, the most insightful and beautifully crafted writing, the Insta-worthy motherhood moments of age-appropriate crafts and memories…none of it can fill my belly.
In James 5, the writer says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’”
If the Lord wishes…
I am no Calvinist who ascribes to the idea that every moment of history is pre-ordained, and my task is simply to tap into the divine play-by-play. I reject the notion that God is orchestrating the entire universe in such a way as to teach me, or anyone else, a lesson.
But, with gratitude I acknowledge the eternal desire and movement of God to redeem and restore Creation. And in humility, I recognize the divine intention to partner with humans to do that holy work.
The work is far larger than crafting the perfect reading plan, diet, or any other goal I could conjure up, and yet I feel relief. Because it is not about me. It never has been. The fate of the universe does not hinge upon the strength of my willpower to improve myself.
Mercifully, it hinges upon the uncontainable overflow of Triune Love that invites us all to join in the dance of redemption. It is this work alone that satisfies the growling in my stomach. I am unresolved, committed to nothing beyond partnering with God in the everyday obediences and unremarkable faithfulness of the ordinary.
Yes, I will still keep a planner this year. And yes, I will still journal a few times a week and exercise consistently. I will probably be more mindful of my sugar intake and we might even tweak our family budget. I will persist in diversifying and deepening my reading. I likely even seek out a new spiritual director in this part of the country since my last one refused to move with me to Ohio.
But these “goals,” if I chose to call them that, are not the end. They are the practical means of how I will seek to attune my heart to the work of the Spirit in and around me. Tasks accomplished and goals reached will not free from shame nor will they nourish my soul-hunger. It is only in seeking after and saying yes to the invitation of the Spirit today, and again tomorrow, that my soul is satisfied “as with a rich feast.” (Ps. 63:5)