“I wish that was my biggest problem.” That was the response I used to get from my mother when I expressed the usual teenage complaints. Want a new dress for Easter? Boyfriend didn’t call when you hoped he would? School dance ends too early? There she was, with that same pat phrase, “I wish that was my biggest problem.” Of course, at that moment my biggest problem was my own annoyance at a mother who I felt didn’t take my issues with all the seriousness they deserved. Now that I have lived long enough to see and experience some much bigger issues, it feels appropriate to come up with my own list of things that—well, it would be great if any of these were MY biggest problem. Here are some for starters, and I hope this leads you to come up with a few of your own. Levity, after all, is one of the best tools to get us through our worst times. – Which car should I buy? The Jaguar or the Lexus? – Would I rather have chocolate ice cream or vanilla? – Where can I find the best creme brûlée? – What to wear to the party tonight? I have too many choices. – How best to plan for a month’s vacation? – If I stand under that tree, will a coconut fall on my head? – What size large screen TV will be best for my new home entertainment center? – I have such a wonderful circle of friends. How can I best show them my appreciation? Here’s hoping this smattering is encouraging and that you have more of your own. Just remember, the point is to come up with something trivial that you wish was your absolutely biggest problem? Have at it!
I’m a writer, but mostly in the sense that everyone is. I read years ago about cultures that do not recognize anyone as a writer, an artist, a musician…because everyone has those abilities. In these cultures, it is not a competition; everyone produces at their own level, and a huge part of the value is the self-expression, the belief that we all need to express ourselves. Writing is easier for me than it is for some, because I was always encouraged to write. I don’t have any memory of my writing being compared favorably or unfavorably to anyone else’s, though I cannot imagine that it didn’t happen. We live in too competitive a society for that to be avoided. As far as the writing I am focused on here, there is no need or even possibility for competition. I am talking about journaling, a form of writing in which it might even be best if you can ignore all the rules you have been taught about being a writer, whether for term papers, letters to the editor, professional journals, the novel you would like to create…all those things I have named will do best with careful attention to detail and some good proofreading. Journaling is best done without any of those precautions, because you want to get your thoughts on paper and it is not for anyone else’s eyes. How your writing may appear to someone else is irrelevant here. Don’t even stop to correct your spelling. You are hearing that last sentence from someone who prides herself on being part of the Spelling Police. Journaling doesn’t need to be like a dairy that is kept on a daily basis; it may be used in order to get yourself through a crisis and then forgotten about. If it has served its purpose, then that was clearly a good thing. For some, it is a form of self-counseling; for others it is an adjunct to whatever other therapies you choose. Note that I say “you choose”—it can be a professional therapist, or not. But for many, journaling is very therapeutic. We all have stories to tell, whether we tell them to others, or silently to ourselves, or put them on paper. And telling these stories helps us make sense out of our lives, our situations, often clarifying those thoughts that feel so jumbled in our heads. If you don’t want anyone else to ever see what you write, feel free to write it and then put it through a crosscut shredder. The process itself is likely to help you sort things out; you don’t need physical evidence for this journaling to serve a purpose. I had an incident of my own several years ago, when my first marriage was floundering. I journaled sporadically, and often in the backs of notebooks for the classes I was taking at the time. At one point I stumbled on a probably two-year-old journal entry “If things don’t get better, I need to leave.” Since this entry was dated and I realized things had in fact not gotten better, seeing that I had written that two years previously really helped me to take a serious look at my reality. I would be lying to say I immediately contacted an attorney, but there was a shift in my thinking to where I could no longer pretend that things would work themselves out if only I waited long enough. What will you discover with your own journaling? I will of course never know, because it is your own private writing. But you will, and it will likely open your mind to a fuller view of your own interior and exterior life, both the bad parts and the good. So have lots of paper on hand, or lots of memory on your phone or laptop. This could be an adventure.
Have you ever known anyone who does badly on every job they ever hold, but does great when self-employed? Are you that person? Do you take an unfair hunk of criticism for it, feel attacked for a failure to adjust? Does this somehow not feel right to you?
When I was looking for my first full-time job, I was heavily criticized for not wanting to work as a secretary. Because I was good at it, too many assumed I should look no further–as if I couldn’t possibly succeed at anything else. Today I worry that many others are brought down emotionally by trying to fit into the lock-step of some corporation, someone else’s pre-ordained decision about which of the countless potential jobs that person should focus on.
Clearly, it is not problematic to enjoy routine work in large companies; we couldn’t survive without people who do. Can you imagine a world without anyone to do paperwork, or packing and shipping, or countless other somewhat routine and but extremely critical career paths? (Next time we ask for that documentation or receive that properly-handled package, let’s give a nod of appreciation for the people who took the trouble to honor that job by doing it diligently.)
When I tried to do secretarial work, it was such a bad match for me that I found myself getting too bored to fit in the way I was expected to. That experience served me well, though, now that I am responsible for my own record keeping. My job in a yarn shop lasted four years, and was an excellent fit. I especially enjoyed the teaching, a joy that carried over years later when I taught at a community college. These were all jobs that gave me a great deal of independence, with some of the same benefits the self-employed enjoy.
For some of us, our earliest jobs lead to becoming more entrenched, finding our niche in the corporate structure. For others, they serve as training for striking out on our own. Some utilize more of a hybrid approach, holding a full or part time job, while building a side business after hours.
How has this worked for me as a counselor? Very well, thank you. Like most professions, there are regulations I have to follow, so the idea of totally doing as I please is folly. But I do set my own hours and rates. I picked out, furnished, and decorated my own office. And, within the limits of the rules established by the Board, I make my own choices when it comes to solving whatever problems come up along the way.
Some people enjoy the good fortune to know early in life what career path they will pursue; others take longer to find their niche. But once that niche is found, those people find themselves doing their very best work. And the joy they bring to that work is contagious. It’s kind of like having your own lemonade stand.
There are givers in the world and there are takers. People who give freely without expectations, and people whose first question is always “What’s in it for me?” Most of us aren’t totally at either end of the spectrum, but the analogy can simplify one’s word view. After a few too many personal experiences with takers, I came up with my own little fantasy: If only (how many sentences start with “if only?”)–if only the givers would hold out for other givers in their relationships, the takers would have no one left. They would have to put up with other takers, or change their ways a bit.
If you are a taker, cut that out.
If you are a giver, please pay attention: Do you ever find yourself totally exhausted by the demands of some perfectly capable adult who demands more of you than any child ever did? Do you feel powerless to do anything about it because–well, if you don’t take care of the _______ (fill in the blank) it won’t get done? You do have choices; they just aren’t always the most pleasant ones. You can sit back and let less get accomplished. Okay, you won’t leave a baby screaming in hunger. But those dishes can sit for another half hour without anyone calling the health department.
This can feel impossible, but it is a choice. I dealt with a person who wouldn’t take care of some child-related issues I felt were important. These were not things that would get him charged with neglect, but they did contribute to the children’s feeling of well-being. I angrily and resentfully stepped up to the plate. And I complained to a mental health counselor who said “You are choosing to not let those children suffer.” I do feel it was the right choice. And regarding it as a choice distinctly improved my disposition.
I am still a giver. Because I choose to be. But I now have a better recognition of my limits. My life is primarily filled with other givers these days. I don’t have the time or the inclination to pander to people who don’t contribute their fair share–whether it be effort, time, or resources. And if every giver followed the same path, those pathological takers among us would have such a shortage of victims. At least that’s my theory.