Updated: May 25, 2020
Life can be overwhelming. Take, for example, the mixed blessing of a new perspective gained from time away from the usual routine–you return from a trip, or resume life after a holiday with a new sense of what you want to accomplish; in your mind you have a picture of the new way you’re going to approach life. You aren’t sure why you couldn’t see things this way before, but now you feel certain that your life will be better. You’re going to be more orderly and organized, more on top of things–you’ll clean out the closets, organize the wrapping paper, and exercise regularly. You can see how it’s all going to work, you feel rested, and ready to take on any challenge to your new-found determination. And then, life sets in; things may go according to plan at first, but eventually you lose sight of the goal and give up. If you’re like me, though, you don’t just let it go with a shrug, you let it kind of hound you, making you feel as though you’ve failed. Perversely, even what you might have been able to accomplish, you can’t, because you can’t imagine how to do all of it–it’s too much.
You’d think, after having experienced this over and over through the years, that it wouldn’t be such a disappointment to me when it happens, but the older I get, the more it seems I struggle with this cycle. I think part of it is that my expectations are too high. I really want to be–no, I really think I’m supposed to be–a super-woman of sorts, rising early, working out, cheerfully preparing breakfast, staying on top of current events, active in volunteer work, creatively productive, with a spotless home, thoughtfully remembering birthdays, and an excellent giver of gifts. I know this is unrealistic, I really do, but nevertheless the thoughts are still in the back of my mind, because way down deep, I believe this is what a woman should be–if others can do this, “why, oh why can’t I?”
After the recent holidays and a two-week stay away from my regular routine, I returned home filled with a new plan as usual, and yes, it involved closets, volunteer work, and exercise. When the usual set of circumstances began to kick in, and I could feel myself start to feel defeated, I made a decision: I would do just one thing, just one. I don’t mean that I would do one of the categories on my list, like clean out all the closets, but some small task of any kind that was somehow related to my list. In this case, I decided to grab some of the summer stuff crowding my bedroom closet and either store it in another closet or give it away. Not waiting to think about it, I just grabbed a small load of hangers on my way out for the day; I made a quick decision about each item, piled the give-aways in my car, and left. I even stopped by one of those used clothing drop-boxes and left the things–that very day! I was in disbelief. The next day I grabbed another bunch of clothes and moved them; the next, I got rid of some things from my drawers that I haven’t worn in years. Each time I resisted the temptation to make the project the focus of my day. I felt like a boss! I was in charge, deciding to do something, and doing it!
Since then, I’ve given a lot of thought to making my expectations more realistic. Instead of thinking in terms of entire projects, I’ve begun setting my sights on doing just one small thing each day. Yesterday it was buying this month’s suggested items for our church’s food pantry–rather than beat myself up for not being a more thoughtful and giving person, I just bought some beans and rice. I left them in bags in the car, and today I actually delivered them. I don’t know if I’ll do this every week or month; what matters is that today, I did it.
This idea of doing just one small non-routine thing each day is extremely important to me, because unfortunately, I struggle with depression. I am frequently blindsided by feelings of sadness, or guilt, or loss through which I find it difficult to function. If I add overwhelming to-do lists, which translate into an obligation to be a certain kind of person, then failure looms–it’s inevitable. I have to find a path to productivity in order to pull myself out of the funk. I’ve always known about trying to consciously focus on the positive, not the negative, and expressing gratitude to God for specific things–home, family, the weather, and so on. This is a good starting point, but making myself actually, physically move forward hasn’t always followed. Making myself do “just one thing” has proved to be very liberating, somehow breaking through the barrier that can seem to stand between me and the rest of the day–and really, when I feel this way, getting through the day is enough; for some reason, usually the next day things don’t seem as bleak.
If and when you feel overwhelmed, whether it be as a result of depressive emotions like the ones I experience, or through the daily struggles and frustrations that come with the normal human territory of children, marriage, co-workers, in-laws, etc., try doing one thing–just one thing. I think you’ll find yourself able to breathe again–your eyes will suddenly be opened as if from a bad dream, you’ll see the door to the rest of the day open in front of you, and you can step across the threshold.