Thanks to KevinMD.com for including my article this week. You can read it here
“I just keep thinking about the jelly beans,” my husband said to me the other night as we wrestled with our nightly conundrum of just how to spend the rest of our limited waking hours that day. He commutes so that we can live in a city where we are happy; I work long hours as a resident. We’re trying to ready our home (and ourselves) for the impending birth of our baby. Like many couples our age, we spend very few hours at home, awake, at the same time. During those hours there are certain things we have to do: prepare and eat dinner, make our lunches for the next day, do any work-related tasks such as finishing notes or reviewing some document that we’ve put off until now. There are the things we probably should do: fold the laundry, answer some emails, pay the bills. Tackle that student loan paperwork we’ve been putting off. And there are the things we’d like to do, which are too numerous to list, let alone accomplish in one evening, but which include things like exercise, reading, making phone calls to friends, pursuing our various hobbies (in his case, studying Spanish; in mine, writing). And let’s not forget the ever-elusive goal of spending more quality time together. Finally, there are the things that we actually end up doing: watching too many online clips of our favorite shows or comedians, scrolling through Facebook, reading articles online about how to make the most of the limited time in our lives and then looking up to realize that we have once again run out of our supply of it for the night.
But lately he’d been thinking about jelly beans. And frankly, so had I.
About a month ago, we watched a video that a friend had posted on Facebook (yes, during an evening when we intended to be doing other things) in which a man spread out a pile of jelly beans – one for each day the average American can expect to live – and then, bit by bit, separated them according to how much time we spend on the have-to’s like eating, sleeping, working, commuting. It’s surprising to think about how many days you will devote to each of these tasks over a lifetime. But the really striking image was that of how many – how few – are left once you subtract the time spent on those have-to’s: 2,740 out of the original 28,835. As he describes it, this is the time we have for “laughing, swimming, making art, going on hikes, text messages, reading, checking Facebook, playing softball, maybe even teaching yourself how to play the guitar.”
I write a lot about time management and trying to make room for the meaningful things in life (The Things We Carry, The Leap List, Carving), probably because it’s something with which I still really struggle. I can go on and on about why it’s important, why it’s a good idea, but when it comes time to put that prioritization into practice, I falter. And I still end up trolling around on the Internet instead of doing any of the long list of things that really feed my soul.
But the jelly beans got to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a visual learner, or because I’m a person who likes facts and numbers and statistics. Seeing those jelly beans, those days of life, swept away, leaving so few – if we are even that lucky – for exploration, growth, fun, love . . . it seems to have been the tangible nudge I needed. Because tonight I pulled up the video again, and once it was over, I closed down Facebook and all of the other webpages that I had been idly browsing and opened up a Word document to write.
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to give advice to others than it is to apply the same wisdom to your own life? Not bad advice that you would never follow yourself, but advice that prompts the recipient to live more fully, more freely. To demand more from oneself and from the world around him or her. Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and applying the same sentiments to our own lives.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to have a beautiful baby shower thrown by my family and friends. One of the activities involved each guest filling out a card listing ten things she wished for my baby, following prompts such as “I hope you learn…” and “I hope you love….” Later that evening, my husband and I read through every response, giggling at the sweet jokes, growing teary at the love expressed for our little one, and, by the end, feeling thoroughly awed by the depth of emotion and consideration that saturated these pages. Common sentiments threaded through many responses, and it occurs to me as I continue to reflect on them that many of these wishes apply not just to a life starting out but to a life at any stage. And that, just as we wish good things for those we love, we might do well to apply some of the same intentions to our own lives, that we may hold ourselves to a higher standard and engage in our lives more fully.
To honor the start of the year, I share with you some highlights: wishes that I hold for my baby, but also for everyone around me. And, in the spirit of taking my own advice, for myself.
I hope you learn that there is always a silver lining
I hope you aren’t afraid to try something new every day
I hope you love to learn and go on adventures
I hope you get to explore the beauty of this world
I hope you laugh so hard you cry tears of joy
I hope you never forget how much you are loved
I hope you ignore those who tell you that you can’t do something
I hope you become someone who is passionate about what they do
I hope you respect others’ feelings
I hope you grow in wisdom and grace daily
Happy New Year.
Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” begins with a list of items carried by a platoon of soldiers during the Vietnam War:
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey…. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.
In a writing class, you might examine O’Brien’s use of repetition, about how he uses the list to reveal something about each man’s character. But I’ve been wondering lately, what do the things that we carry through life reveal about each of us?
My husband and I have too many possessions, this I know; more than we need or can even use. I am also aware that this is a developed-world, middle-to-upper-class problem, and that such complaints are at best insensitive and petty. This is not a war zone and our possessions are not strapped to our backs; instead these are the clothing and household items that pad our comfortable lives. Acknowledging these facts, I still believe that things deserve some examination.
There are the hand-painted margarita glasses that we purchased in Mexico and that have followed us, cloaked in too much bubble wrap, from apartment to apartment. Each time they settle onto a new shelf where they sit undisturbed until the next move. There are the clothes that get passed over each time we dress for work or a special occasion, but that remain in our closet because they might be perfect for an event that just hasn’t happened yet. There is the chair reminiscent of the one that sat in my parents’ vacation home when I was a child, the one that brings back memories of hours spent reading novel after novel. Except neither my husband nor I has sat in the current chair since at least two apartments ago. Instead it holds stacks of books, clothing, and anything else temporarily without a home or that we are too tired at the end of the day to put away.
Why do we keep all of these things? Is it emotional attachment, fear of loss, just plain inertia (of the staying-at-rest variety)? And how might our lives be affected if we were able to detach from our possessions, declutter, simplify?
I recently came across an article written by a woman who, along with her husband, had decided that it was time to do exactly that. They sold or donated many of their possessions, making it a point to buy only what they truly need and will use. In the process, they paid off a large chunk of debt, but the benefit that interested me most is somewhat surprising, something that I crave more than anything: “We’re finding more time for the things we gave a lot of lip service to but didn’t always make time for: health, fitness, reading and each other.”
Over time I’ve started to realize that, at least in my own life, carrying around a lot of physical stuff can feel just as burdensome as carrying a lot of emotional or psychological baggage. All of that stuff demands management – cleaning, storing, organizing, or at least sifting through as you search for something else – and thus time, energy, attention. If I had less stuff, if I limited my possessions to those that were really important to me, would I use them more? And would I discover more time to devote to the things that I really want to do in life?
It certainly seems possible. My husband and I have decided to give it a try. We are not emptying out our home by any means, but we are parting with a lot of the extras, the things that we had previously kept around on the basis of “what if” or “someday.” Already in our lives it feels a bit easier to move and to breathe.
Except there is one complication. A large part of the impetus for our decluttering is the fact that we are expecting our first baby in February and we desperately want to maximize the time that we are able to spend together as a family, as well as to grow even more fiscally responsible in order to provide for the baby’s future. But with a baby comes stuff. A lot of stuff. And how easily the line between the things we need and the things we need becomes blurred.
When we made the obligatory trip to Babies “R” Us to set up a registry, my husband paused before scanning our first item and warned, “Let’s just stick to the basics. Let’s not go overboard like we did for our wedding.” I paused and recalled the hours we had spent perusing china, crystal, and every isn’t-that-neat-looking kitchen gadget that caught our eye, ultimately adding several of each to our wish list. With this approach in mind, we braved the first overstuffed aisle.
This, I suppose, will be our first test. It is one thing to purge one’s home of a few belongings; it is another to retain the patience and thoughtfulness to avoid reflexively refilling it just because there is space available. And while we have no desire to raise a child or children with rooms overstuffed with rarely-used and under-appreciated toys, neither do we wish to impose on them a stringently spartan lifestyle. The answer for us, it seems, lies somewhere in the balance. And for the first time, we feel ready to set out in search of it.
I’m very excited to have a guest post on the blog Mothers in Medicine. Check it out here: