I have a question for you. How is your new year’s resolution going?
I can hear you laughing cynically behind the screen of your phone or computer because it’s the end of January and here you are, reading an article you stumbled on while scrolling through Facebook, even though you resolved to only log in to social media during your lunch hour for no more than fifteen minutes. Or maybe you resolved to work out every day, try new things, drink more water, or assert yourself at work. Whatever you chose to work on in this new year, chances are you have already failed at most of your goals.
With the arrival of the new year comes the annual barrage of articles and advertisements listing all the things you should be doing to live a better life. The titles all seem very similar (“10 Proven Ways You Can Improve Your Health/Relationships/Lifestyle/Career”) and the content all follows the same basic formula (1. Create a new exercise regime/communication habit/morning routine/work strategy, 2. Practice self care, etc.). One after another, well-meaning authors instruct us to simply pick small daily goals and before we know it we will be different! We will be better! Who does not want to choose a small action to complete each day and become a better version of ourselves? It is so simple!
It’s not that simple
I am here to say that this is a grossly oversimplified way to look at your life. The authors mean well, but with such a focus on perfect results, they are missing a step in this process of self-improvement and personal growth.
What’s missing from these catchy pieces of writing is the part about the struggle. The work. The failure. We forget the part about the renewed resolve that must come after the struggle, the work, and the failure. We forget to talk about what happens when we mess up and fall short of our goals or when life gets in the way. We forget that there is actual value in slogging through the mess, in falling off the wagon and crawling right back on again.
In 2016, I wrote an article about redemption. I wrote about what it looks like to create yourself anew and how the most horrible trials and failures often bring about the most beautiful victory and growth. Two years later, I want to expand on this idea and suggest that, while the struggle to achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle might be ugly and painful, the beauty lies in enduring these moments and coming out on the other side, scars and all.
For the second year in a row, my sister-in-law Katie gave me this Powersheets Goal Planner for Christmas, and one of the ideas that is emphasized over and over in the goal planning process is “Progress, not perfection”. You will sometimes fail in your attempt to work out every day, but how do you react when this happens? Do you indulge in self-deprecating thoughts about how you are such a failure and scold yourself because you are so lazy? Or do you leave yesterday in the past and try again today? The problem is when we say “I’ve really messed this up, why should I even try anymore?”. The goal is to make some progress, any progress, and abandon the idea of doing something perfectly. This is a brilliant idea because it not only re-frames your approach to setting goals, but it also applies to facing life’s obstacles. The goal is not to accomplish your goals perfectly and to get through life unscathed. Life is guaranteed to be messy, and so is the process of improving yourself (whether you are initiating the change or life is demanding that you do so).
Two years ago when I wrote that article about redemption, I had one of the most difficult years of my life. It seemed that I could not catch a break- this was one of those years where everything seemed incredibly difficult despite my best efforts. No one would call my struggles during that year beautiful; on the contrary, I was probably not much fun to have around, given all the ugly crying and constant anxiety and stress due to life events. Nonetheless, this seems to have been a defining year in my life, and I am actually grateful that it happened this way.
I went through hell and came out on the other side with quite a few emotional and spiritual scars and significantly darker bags under my eyes. I absolutely still carry the pain from these experiences with me. But after enduring all that life could throw at me all at once, I have gained so much. I have gained immeasurable self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-purpose. I can name, with absolute certainty, the people who will always be willing to stand by me in support. I learned how to accept help and trust in God’s divine intervention. Most of all, I was able to come out of this and salvage shreds of wisdom from the wreckage. My hope is that I can use my own struggle to guide others through their own seasons of heartbreak. My season of heartbreak also became my season of redemption.
So, what does all this talk about painful life struggles have to do with goals? Sometimes you decide to change yourself (goals), and sometimes life events force you to change (struggles), but either way, the theme that ties these together is the value that we can glean from the trials of life. I am reminded of my childhood; I spent many of my childhood years carrying around this blue blanket with bunnies on it. This blanket was truly my most prized possession. I would be furious when my mom washed it, because it did not smell right after being washed (Sorry mom. I see now where you were coming from). I loved this dirty, stained blanket because it smelled and felt and looked the way it did. I loved it because it was messy.
Now, I am the blanket.
Just stay with me and it will make sense. My blanket was so valuable to me because of the way it was before all of the smell and mess and life were washed out of it. I consider myself stronger and more loving, more beautiful, compassionate, and interesting after enduring all these trials. If it seems like I am proud of myself, it is because I am. You should be proud of yourself, too. Everyone has their seasons of destruction and redemption, but I believe that even unnecessary pain has the potential to mold us into better, more glorious, people.
Remembered for…falling over?
Last June at the end our our students’ final performance, the seniors made a speech, as they do every year. Together they named a few favorite memories they had of each teacher. This is usually a very heartfelt moment. When they came to me, the speaker said that she would never forget one time when I decided to take class with the advanced ballet students, which I did often. In her words, “That day, Miss Paige kept falling over…”. As I stood with all of my students onstage behind me and an audience of eight hundred people in front of me, my cheeks flushed red and I tried to decide what emotion to wear on my face. I plastered on a somewhat forced grin and waited for her to move on to some other teacher’s embarrassing moment. In her defense, it was true- I did fall, all the way to the floor. In my defense, I only fell three times, and I was wearing pointe shoes.
Despite my momentary embarrassment, I still managed to pay attention to what she said next. She said that this made an impression on her, because after falling, I laughed and simply tried again. She continued on, saying that she thought of me as strong role model for her and the other students, because I kept trying despite falling splat on the floor three times in a row.
I have a hope that, even if my trials in life result in no good for me, they will at least be an inspiration and a guide for others.
In the end, I would be proud to be remembered for falling over, and getting back up again.
So, before you beat yourself up for straying from your resolutions so soon, and before you convince yourself that you will never see the light in the midst of a tough situation, remember that your goal is to make progress, not achieve perfection. You can always find something useful to carry away from a big heaping mess that happened in your life.
Teddy Roosevelt said it best in what is known as “The Man in the Arena,” a passage taken from his speech “Citizenship in a Republic”:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs,
who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst,
if he fails,
at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Good luck with your goals and may you have many blessings in your life! May you endure life’s trials and carry something of value away from the wreck.
That’s all for now,