From "What" to "Why"

Photo from unsplash

Photo from unsplash

Dear Joy,

Goal setting, resolutions, looking back, looking forward... 'tis the season for all of it. I get a little anxious, right around January 1st, because everyone is making these great lists, and I'm over here, just trying to take down the Christmas tree and get dinner figured out.

I used to go crazy, compiling pages of resolutions, achievements, and goals. It was seven years ago on New Year's Day, the first time Marty and I set goals together. We took the train in to Chicago, and high up above the city, in a tiny hotel room with a plush king-sized bed and a view of another high-rise across the street, we wrote out our dreams and hopes and goals for the next year, the next five years, the next ten years. (Apparently, we couldn't think past age thirty-four. When you're in your early twenties, you mostly think, does life even happen after age thirty-four?) Our lists were ambitious, precious, filled with big dreams, lots of traveling, marathons, a dog, and five to six children. (All of this seemed completely reasonable at the time, tucked away in our dreamy hotel room, tummies full after a perfect, late, leisurely Italian dinner. We were deliriously happy novices.)

I'm not mocking our early-twenty-something selves, Goals are important, and really, you have to start somewhere. We've kept up our little goal-setting sessions for the most part, at the beginning of every year. I can pull out sheets of notebook paper from years past. They list lots and lots of things, more than most human beings could achieve in an average lifetime, and run the entire gamut: vague ("work out regularly"), boring ("take video of entire house for insurance purposes"), slightly impractical ("travel to Hawaii once every 5 years"), easily attainable ("pay for the person behind me in the Starbucks drive-thru"), ambitiously optimistic ("see pyramids"), and so on.

I can tell you what my dreams were for 2014, 2013, 2012... but 2015 is blank. This past year was dramatically different. It started off with us still in the middle of lots of messy things, and I never got around to setting goals or making resolutions. I was hanging on as my life was swirling, changing faster than I could keep up with. I looked back, and saw that I barely even journaled in December, January, or February of last year. Silence.

And yet, in the absence of lists, 2015 has shown me exactly what to aim for in 2016. Sure, I've got little goals that I've set for myself -- things like brush my kids' teeth every night, or only plant two tomato plants in the garden come springtime, because goodness knows no one eats tomatoes in this house. So there are tiny things like that. But this year, because of last year, I've got two priorities.

Love God.

Love people.

These two biggies are typical, general, sweeping, and painfully cliche. But hey, that's unfortunate, because (1) they're straight from the mouth of Jesus (see Matthew 22), and (2) 2015 taught me that these are the things that matter. I'm a list-based, achievement-driven success addict who sees more value in pounding out my to-do's on a Saturday morning than taking time for a long conversation, a slow meal, or a trip to the park. "Relationality" and I have been oil and water, apples and oranges, tea versus coffee. Part of this is practical (I have high-maintenance kids, and when they're awake, I don't get much done), but mostly, this is all driven by the simple belief that I'll be happier if I could just finish the list.

Guess what? (You already know this.) The list is never done. The list doesn't satisfy. The list is a cruel master.

Here's what surprisingly (but not surprisingly) has satisfied me, deep down in my soul, this past year:

Choosing to consistently pray, and study the Bible, not from a "just get it done" motivation, but from a genuine intention to know, understand, and better love God.

Dropping "the list" when a friend calls. Being with someone who needs someone to be with. Answering the phone, even when kids are swordfighting, dinner is boiling over, and it would be easier to listen to a voicemail later.

Taking the time to really think things through. Why is he really acting like this? What's underneath her words here? Why the heck do I want to lock myself in a closet right now? Reacting less, contemplating more, out of a motivation of love.

You get the idea, I think. I'm confessing my obsession with things over people, with achievements over relationships. I'm confessing that my focus has been on the what, instead of on the why. I'm surprised, always, by how much knowing why I'm doing what I'm doing affects my happiness levels. The goal is not happiness, granted. But happiness is nice, when it's available. And two quick reframing questions offer lots in the way of happiness and satisfaction: "Am I loving God? Am I loving people?"

That's where I'm leaving things, as 2016 barrels toward us all. Loving God, loving people, played out in a hundred-thousand different ways. There's still space for the doing, the dreaming, the goal-setting. We've got lots of plans, baby. (After all, there are pyramids to see, and houses to videotape for insurance purposes.)

But I'm painting it on a giant canvas and hanging it in my room, my two goals for this year:

God + People.

(+ brushing the kids' teeth. Tell me everyone else brushes their kids' teeth religiously? It's like Chinese torture over here, epic mega-battles every single night. So get ready, kids. I'm doing it because I love you.)

Happy New Year!