There is so much that happens in life that is beyond our control (for details, see: The World We Live In!).
I don’t think it is much of a revelation to point out that if we focus on the many things over which we have little-to-zero control, it is an easy way to feel helpless, powerless, and even at risk for despair.
And I think most of us can agree that, easy as it may be to go that route, it is not particularly helpful nor desirable.
So I invite you today to reflect on the power you do have in having some say over things. Because I daresay it is more substantial than it may appear.
Take a moment and reflect on some of the many positive things that never would have happened were it not for specific, intentional decisions you made, initiative you took, or opportunities you seized. You can ponder this in respect to the past week, month, year, or even the entirety of your life.
If you spend some time on this (seriously, take an hour or so and journal on it), I think you may be surprised by just how much agency you actually have, even in the face of All Things Uncontrollable.
- You may have initiated contact with someone that led to a lasting friendship (or, you may have been on the receiving end of such a gesture and been open to it).
- You may have made a suggestion that set into place the actual occurrence of something, be it a fun evening with a group of friends or a business idea that proved to have some legs.
- You may have improved the quality of someone else’s day through a simple, kind gesture such as a phone call; a supportive letter, card, or email; a visit; or a surprise delivery of homemade food.
- You may have made a decision to cut out an unnecessary expense that, over time, saved you a significant amount of money.
- You may have purchased something, large or small, that greatly improved your life or someone else’s in some way.
- You may have made a decision to try out a new recipe that became a family favorite.
- You may have made a decision to quit a bad habit that had innumerable positive effects on yourself and your loved ones.
- You may have come to someone’s assistance in a way that was profoundly meaningful to them.
- You may have altered the entire course of your life by deciding to make a move, literally or figuratively.
(If you’re stuck coming up with examples, think back on some of your favorite memories and ask yourself what role did you play in having those experiences come to be? If you were there, you played some part!)
If you do this exercise, you may find the results staggering and empowering, and it may cause you to look ahead at the coming new calendar year more optimistically and imaginatively.
I also suspect there will be some key themes or patterns you may find in the decisions you have made that, upon reflection, make you proud, happy, and/or grateful (and who doesn’t want more of those in their memory banks?!).
For one thing, these have likely been decisions that reflect your most cherished values. So, it goes without saying that taking some time to consider the values you wish to embody further and prioritize moving forward might help you brainstorm ideas for how you might make yourself proud, happy, and grateful in the year ahead.
Ask yourself: how can I be more Courageous? Loving? Adventurous? Kind? Generous? Fun? In general, and with whom?
In regard to making things (or helping to make things) happen – that otherwise wouldn’t have, and that you can feel glad about – here are three obvious but important points to consider:
1. Have a Plan.
A plan is not a guarantee of results. But a plan is a blueprint for intentional action, and greatly increases the likelihood of success with almost any endeavor. What are you aiming for? What preparations and logistics need to be considered? How can you set yourself up for success? At some point, your project may take on an unforeseen life of its own, but even that wouldn’t have had an opportunity to arise were it not for your initial plan.
2. Getting Started is (Often) the Hardest Part.
Overcoming inertia – getting ourselves to begin – is a common hurdle to achieving anything worthwhile. For writers, it can be summed up in three words: butt in chair. It could be getting yourself out the door to begin a workout. It could be making the phone call you’re avoiding, getting up early, or doing something new for the first time. It’s doing the uncomfortable thing.
But once you’ve begun, you get to benefit from Newton’s first law of motion: paraphrased, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. In other words, once you begin something, you are likely to be propelled forward by momentum.
3. Show Up.
Once you overcome the inertia and get yourself to the literal or metaphorical starting line, the rest is just a matter of doing the next thing in front of you to do. You’re there, and other aspects of the situation beyond just your own will, such as the environment you are now in, the structure of the activity, the social pressure, etc., will be all the push you need to see the thing through.
Here’s a simple, recent example from my own life:
The Backbone Trail is a 67-mile-long continuous hiking path in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area that has long been of interest to me. I’ve hiked portions of it over the years, but never the entire thing. Being Angelenos, this is a close-to-home adventure (perfect for Covid times) for my wife and me. We both love hiking and exploring beautiful natural places (we met 16 years ago on a local Sierra Club hike), so I suggested to her that we do this together.
There are a number of ways you can break the distance up into manageable day hikes, and we decided to follow the guidance of an LA Times piece that divides the trail into eight point-to-point segments.
Even though we were both on board with the idea and knew we would enjoy the experience, there were still some psychological hurdles to overcome. These are hikes that require some advance planning, including getting up early enough to allow time for placing a car at both the start and end points of each hike, as well as traversing the distances on foot at a relaxed pace, especially during the shortest hours of daylight of the year. We needed to have our food planned out, as well; not a huge task, but still one that requires some planning and preparation. And we needed to resist the temptation to sleep in on cold winter weekend mornings! In other words: we had to commit to doing this.
But, sure enough – by planning, overcoming inertia, and showing up – we completed the first section together on Christmas Day. Starting from the gorgeous coastline at the Ray Miller Trailhead in Pt. Mugu State Park, we hiked eight miles through the mountains to Danielson Ranch (inside lovely Sycamore Canyon), and another three miles from there to the closest parking lot (Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa) from which to shuttle ourselves back to the start.
The hike did not disappoint! The scenery was expansive, varied, and breathtaking, the weather also varied but perfect throughout the day, the mountains aromatic with the pleasing scent of sagebrush, the peaceful silence a salve from life in the big city.
Seven more sections to go!
The takeaway here is that we can seize the agency we have in an effort to give ourselves positive experiences and lasting memories. We can create joy and meaning for ourselves where and when and however we can, even if we cannot control the shape of world events at large. A good, and perhaps necessary, reminder to take with us into 2022.