Overwhelming Stress: Part Three

An Untenable Situation)

Yesterday I recommended a process by which a person can get their life under control. I suggested that they identify the minimum, daily effort that is necessary to change all areas in decline into areas of progress. Not massive progress, only a steady, consistent movement in the right direction. Then I suggested one commit to that daily quota, prioritizing sustainability of effort over grand, but short-lived surges.

But at the end I brought up the fact that for some even their bare minimums would still be too large an effort for a single day. You might have capacity for some of them, but you just don’t have it for them all. There are still a few ways that a person can respond positively to this situation, depending on the nature of their shortcoming. I will present two of the easier strategies today, and the two more difficult ones tomorrow.

Alternating Schedules)

Ideally, one would like to have balance every day. In 24 hours they would have sufficient sleep, spiritual communion, exercise, work, time with family, leisure, and whatever other life qualities they value most. But 24 hours is a hard limit on one’s daily resources, and sometimes there literally aren’t enough hours in a day to get all the things that one needs.

I found myself in this very situation. Trying to balance my family, writing, career, spirituality, rest, exercise, recovery work, budgeting, house maintenance, and pleasure only resulted in hurried efforts that didn’t really progress any of those areas and left many of them untouched for weeks.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that several of my “daily” tasks could actually be “every-other-daily” tasks. While it may not be ideal, I’ve decided that I’m okay writing Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and exercising Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Being consistent with writing and exercising on an alternating pattern is still better than the sporadic, weeks-without pattern that I’ve had before.

Of course, not everything should be split into an alternating schedule, for example I still want to have a prayer and seek connection with God every day, but I have nearly cut my daily tasks in half. And again, so long as my every-other-day effort is enough to progress me towards a healthier lifestyle, then I will still reach my goals eventually. And you will, too!

One might even consider a three-day rotation, but the more you space things out the harder it will be to establish the habit. You really want the cadence to be as regular and rapid as possible.

Short-Term Goals)

Another strategy to consider is that some areas of life might require a higher effort temporarily, but then will become more manageable afterward. An example of this would be if you need to get your finances under control. At the beginning, you probably need a higher-than-usual effort to track down your expenditures, figure out your budget, and cut out unnecessary expenses. But once you’ve done all that, you then only require a fraction of that effort to check yourself against your budget moving forward.

Again, ideally you’d be able to do all of the work for all the areas of your life simultaneously, but if you can’t, it may be worth considering whether you have any of these temporarily high-effort areas. If you do, for the short term prioritize getting through those tasks. Once they’re taken care of, then try to settle into a daily or every-other-daily cadence to take care of everything else.

It will be up to you to decide what other areas of your life are put on hold while you’re focusing on these temporarily high-effort areas. Is it okay to not work on your physical health while you get your finances in order, so long as you make a solemn commitment to bring that area back into your schedule once your budget is established?

I had this situation when I got serious about overcoming my addiction. At some point I needed to be able to integrate my recovery work with all the rest of my daily self-care, but for the short term I needed to focus on gettimg some momentum into my sobriety. For a temporary period, everything but the bare necessities was put on hold as I attended group meetings, went to therapy, and did hours of homework. I experienced a great change of heart, and then, with a little trial-and-error, I transitioned to a lower-effort strategy that would still maintain the recovery I’d achieved while still having time for all the other parts of my life.

Minor Adjustments)

Scheduling regular, daily efforts is a great step towards taking back control of our lives, but there will probably be a couple wrinkles in that plan. Fortunately, many of these wrinkles can be smoothed out with the minor adjustments described above. By shifting some things to an every-other-day cadence and by focusing temporarily on areas that could later be reduced to a lower effort, we will find that life becomes far more manageable.

But as I mentioned at the start, this still may not be enough to resolve every situation. Come back tomorrow as we’ll deal with the areas of life that are imbalanced through-and-through. As we will see, even in these areas, there can be relief and growth.

Overwhelming Stress: Part Two

Frantic Lunges)

A sure sign that a person is losing a fight is when they give up on precision and strategy, to instead swing and lunge wildly at their foe, hoping to get a lucky connection. Unfortunately, this is very often the same manner in which we fight the problem areas of our lives, taking passionate, wild swings at our trouble, but consistently missing our mark.

I have been guilty many times of panicking at a bank statement, or a number on the scale, or a new mess in the house, and then I lunge at the problem with everything I have. I want to subdue the issue quickly and permanently, and so I try to take the biggest steps that I can towards doing so.

And, if I were able to sustain this, I probably would see real and rampant improvement in the area. But the fact is, none of us are able to maintain this sort of frantic behavior for long. We quickly lose our stamina and then aren’t able to do any work at all. Not only that, but while we’re obsessively working on one area of life, we tend to ignore all the others, and the lost ground in those areas can easily outweigh the gained footing in the one we are focused on.

Thus, our desperate efforts are doomed to failure and frustration. We’ll wind up right back where we before, and probably even worse off.

The Tortoise and the Hare)

We’re all familiar with the famous story of the tortoise and the hare, and with its moral that “slow and steady wins the race.” It might be in our nature to react to stress and fear in dramatic ways, but we need to suppress that urge and instead approach the issue with thoughtfulness and consideration, and then we need to act in a calm and deliberate manner.

If you only make mild progress towards accomplishing your goal, you won’t exhaust yourself prematurely like the hare did. A mild effort is sustainable for the rest of your life. Even better, you can only really perform one desperate lunge at a time, but you can maintain multiple mild efforts in different areas simultaneously.

As discussed in my last post, we need to shift our focus from “what is the massive gap between where I am now and where I want to be,” and instead consider “how much effort is it going to take to just get things moving in the right direction?

A Recipe for Improvement)

There is a practice I have implemented in my own life to help me keep my efforts grounded and reasonable. First, I make a list of all the areas in life that I feel I am losing ground in. Then, I try to make my best judgment for how much effort would be enough to overcome the daily entropy in each of those areas. So, for example, in the matter of cleaning the house, I don’t have to make everything spick-and-span in one weekend. I need to figure out how much mess is made in a day, and I need to clean up that much mess, plus just a little more, so that over time the house will reach the state I want it to be in.

Once I have quantified this for each area, then I have my daily to-do list. I know what my financial budget is, how many calories I’m allowed to eat, and how many messes need to be cleaned. Anytime I find myself with a spare moment in a day, I consult my list and take care of the next thing on it. Once the list has been accounted for I can spend the rest of my day on whatever projects or leisure I want with a clean conscience.

A Foundation to Build On)

You may find that your to-do list isn’t very demanding. You might be able to do all of your maintenance and improvements in just a small section of your day and still have hours leftover. It might be tempting to immediately raise your daily goals to something more ambitious, but I would recommend giving yourself a couple weeks at this lower capacity to see whether the pattern holds.

I have had times where the first week of following my plan was a breeze, because I was still highly motivated and the week did not have much else scheduled for it. After a little while, though, excitement for the new program cooled down and I had the occasional unusually busy week. This was the real test for whether my plans were sustainable or not.

If the pattern does hold for you, though, then you can incrementally raise your expectations for each day, resulting in you reaching all of your goals even more quickly. What’s important is that the goals still remain sustainable, though. You want to be able to meet them every day with rare exception.

Insufficient Resources)

Finding that you have extra time and resources is, of course, the happy outcome. The other possibility is realizing that you don’t have the capacity to even do the bare minimum in each area. Going through this process has helped us identify that our life is fundamentally unsustainable and to what degree. While this may be a depressing realization, it is crucial information to obtain. It is better to know where the realities are and react accordingly than to keep plowing ahead in vain behaviors.

This brings us to our options. Difficult options, to be sure, but now we can intelligently choose them. Tomorrow we’ll dive into those difficult choices and how we can determine the best ones for our situation.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 41:33-36

33 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 

34 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.

35 And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.

36 And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

Joseph not only interprets the dream, now he provides the solution to its problem, too. If the seven years of plenty came and no one knew that it would be followed by seven years of famine, who knows but whether they would live in rich indulgence, consuming all that they wished and selling the excess for riches, which would all do them little good when their storehouses were empty and their bellies ached. But, they do know better now, and these seven years of plenty can be years of preparation.

Joseph’s plan illustrates how incredible the harvest in the seven years of plenty will be, given that a mere fifth of each year’s yield will be enough to survive a corresponding year of famine. In fact, enough to survive and still have extra grain to sell to starving neighbors. God is providing all the resources that they need and more, if they only have the wisdom to make use of it.

This is Joseph’s counsel to Pharaoh, and it is worth noting that he is, indeed, counseling Pharaoh. To me this seems a very bold maneuver on his part. He had been summoned only to interpret a dream, and he had fulfilled that, but then, unbidden, he ventured to tell Pharaoh how to do his own job. But as we will see in the next verses, Pharaoh was not offended by Joseph’s boldness at all. On the contrary, he was delighted just to have found one who had such clarity and vision.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 35:1

1 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Beth-el, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.

After Simeon and Levi’s slaughter of the men of Shechem, things were very precarious for Jacob. For all he knew all of the surrounding clans would retaliate and destroy them. In this difficult moment God appeared to Jacob and told him that it was time to pack everything up and once again leave for a new home.

Previously he had been instructed broadly, telling him to return to the land of Canaan. Now he is instructed specifically, telling him to go to the patch of land where he had the vision of a ladder ascending to heaven. It was there that God had first promised to be with him.

I believe there is an important principle for us here about God’s directions beginning broad and becoming specific. Very rarely do we receive a clear, step-by-step plan from beginning to end. Much more common is that we prove ourselves willing to follow partial instructions, and later receive the fullness. We have to have faith that unaccounted elements will, in time, be accounted for, and they will. Jacob had proved willing to return to the land of his father and face Esau, so now he was entrusted to take the next step, too.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 30:9-13

9 When Leah saw that she had left bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her Jacob to wife.

10 And Zilpah Leah’s maid bare Jacob a son.

11 And Leah said, A troop cometh: and she called his name Gad.

12 And Zilpah Leah’s maid bare Jacob a second son.

13 And Leah said, Happy am I, for the daughters will call me blessed: and she called his name Asher.

Leah bore children, Rachel couldn’t so she had Bilhah bear children, and now Leah has her maid Ziplah bearing children, too. As I mentioned before, Rachel had to adapt to the unknown, and now we have Leah changing tactics, too.

And as for Jacob, all he had sought was one wife but now he had four! No doubt his life was a world away from anything he expected it would be while he was still living in his father’s household.

And what stands out to me out of all this is the futility of human plans. It frankly doesn’t matter what any of us think is going to happen in our lives, what will occur is only what God has already laid out for us. Even those who deny God’s purposes for themselves end up playing into His larger plan anyway.

It’s a hard thing to fully give up the reins to God, in fact that’s something I realize I still struggle with to this day. But if He’s the one calling the shots anyway, then life will feel a whole lot smoother as soon as I give up the illusion of control and just go with God’s flow.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 6:14-16, 19, 22

14 Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

15 And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

16 A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.

19 And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.

22 Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.

God did not simply tell Noah to “build an ark.” God laid out for Noah a very specific plan for it, describing the dimensions, the placement of windows and doors, and that it should be divided into three stories. This was, therefore, a joint effort between God and Noah, and each of them was essential for its completion. God was the architect and Noah was the constructor. Without God there would have been no plan to follow and without Noah there would have been no execution of that plan.

Of course sometimes God is more explicit in His directions and sometimes He leaves the finer details up to us. But in either case, all of us were meant to work in collaboration with Him. The natural reaction to hearing a story like Noah’s is to wish that God had a plan like that for us, to be given a great calling, and to have a work to do in partnership with God, Himself.

And according to Paul (1 Corinthians 12), that is exactly what God wants for us, too! We are all meant to be a part of the plan.

Optimism in a Falling World- Numbers 23:19, Isaiah 55:8-9

God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

COMMENTARY

God is not a man, that he should lie; hath he said, and shall he not do it?
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. My ways are higher than your ways

Sometimes a friend might ask me to join a cause and I don’t have faith in it. Usually this is because I can see flaws in the design, or I question his motives, or because even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. We are imperfect humans, and many of the plans we conceive of are complete folly, unworthy of trust and faith from others.
And sometimes I think we take the skepticism we have for the plans of men, and we bring it into our view of God’s plans as well. We hear bold claims in the gospel like how Jesus came to save the entire world (John 3:16, John 12:46-47) and it sound incredible. We are invited to be a part of that work and are told that by small and simple things we may have a tremendous effect in this world (Alma 37:6-7) and it sounds impossible.
We hear such tremendous, sweeping claims and we struggle to believe in them because we are so acquainted with tremendous, sweeping claims ending in utter failure. It goes against all the ways of this world to trust in a plan that is so grand. But of course, when we hold this skepticism it means we are viewing God and His capabilities as being the same as that of man. And as today’s verses firmly attest “God is not a man.” The same limitations do not apply to Him, nor to us when we act in His cause.

Optimism in a Falling World- Moroni 7:40-42

And again, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you concerning hope. How is it that ye can attain unto faith, save ye shall have hope?
And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.
Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope.

COMMENTARY

How is it that ye can attain unto faith, save ye shall have hope? If a man have faith he must needs have hope
In my previous post I spoke of the need for faith, and how it is to be exercised before we even see the path to success. Faith is not founded upon knowledge. As these verses suggest, it is founded upon hope. For while we may not know how good will triumph over evil and a lost soul will be saved, to act in faith we must hope that these things can and will happen. God does not unveil to us His master plan, but He often does show us a corner of it, enough so that we can have hope in the rest.

And what is it that ye shall hope for? Ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal
And as with my last post, our hope is not meant to be founded upon anything earthly or mortal. Frankly what makes us believe in the salvation of mankind is not what we see in mankind, only what we see in God.
This verse speaks of having hope in the atonement and the resurrection, in being brought from this fallen state to one of eternal life. And first of all we are meant to have that hope of reclamation for ourselves. Then, when we feel the reality of it, we are meant to have that hope for all our fellow man as well. For if I was once able to be so lost, yet was found, then these others are not beyond hope either.

Divided from God- 2 Nephi 2:24-25, Matthew 6:8

But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

COMMENTARY

All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things
Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him
We have already discussed how in this fallen world we feel a strange strain, one where need God’s presence, but lack the ability to commune with Him directly. Not only this, but also we are a soul divided, some parts of us craving for divinity and others for debauchery.
It is natural to wonder why are we divided so? Why is our spirit so willing, but our flesh so weak? Why do we search for God but do not see Him? Why can’t it all be more straightforward?
It is a strange, fallen world we live in, but perhaps we can take solace in the knowledge that this is how it is supposed to be. God simply would not have let us come here unless it was for our own good. God knows what we need even before we do, and provides what is good for us.
Perhaps we cannot fully understand why. Perhaps we do not need to. In the end all that we need to do is accept that God god “knoweth all things,” and that what He has orchestrated has been “done in wisdom.”

Service to Others- Personal Example #3

Why is it that we don’t do the things we know will make us happy? I’m sure each one of us could write a long list of things we wish we did on a regular basis…but just don’t. Most recently I’ve been noticing my own shortcomings in being social, giving others my time and attention, and finding ways to serve them. I don’t doubt that I will be a better person and find joy in doing these things, and yet I put them off even so.

As I’ve considered my situation, I’ve noticed that it is following the same pattern as a past experience I had. For the last several years I struggled to get into a regular exercise regime. I would start-and-stop over and over, flurries of intense workouts and then long doldrums of absolutely nothing. But then, a little more than a year ago, the struggle stopped. Today I run every workday during my lunch break, and if I happen to miss, I do aerobics at home in the evening.

Find Your Own Way)

What made the difference? Well one thing was finding my way of doing exercise. Early morning running might be great for some people, but it wasn’t for me. Leaving it until the evening never worked either, because after a long workday all I wanted to do was relax. Each time I chose a workout plan and it failed I would get disheartened and stop trying for months. But by trial and error I finally found something that worked.

It has been the same with reaching out to our neighbors. A little while ago my wife and I tried inviting a different family over for dinner every week. It went great for a little while, but it wasn’t sustainable as Summer vacations ate up so much of our schedule. Having people over for dinner is still something I want to do regularly, but I’m now adding quick cookies-and-chats visits as a fallback because they work more constantly.

You Enjoy What You Are Good At)

The other lesson I’ve learned is that when I say I do not like something, what I might really mean is that I am not good at it. For the longest while I was convinced that I hated running. But as I persevered, I found I enjoyed it more and more because I was getting better at it. During those first runs I would jog for five minutes, get winded, have to walk, try running again, get winded even sooner…it was embarrassing, so of course I “didn’t like it.” No one enjoys that experience.

Socially it is the same. At the start of my mission I was terrible at talking to people, but after being constant interaction with them all day I really got quite a bit better. Now I haven’t maintained that skill, but I know I can get it back with practice.

I think this is the same thing that keeps so many people inside of their shells. So many of us don’t know how to talk to people at first, so the experience is awkward, and of course we don’t like it. But there is a surefire way to get better at anything you want. By doing it. Yep, it’ll be awkward, stilted, and embarrassing for the first while. But then you’ll get better, and then it’ll be fun.

God’s Plan)

“Seek and ye shall find” still requires seeking. To “take his yoke upon us” is lighter than trying to do things on our own, but it is still a burden. I think many of us expect the way to be clean and paved for us when we do God’s work, but that would prevent us from having any growing experiences.

So yes, have confidence that you will succeed, that you will see miracles, and that God will show up for you. But temper that with the knowledge that it will take effort, that you will fail and have to pick yourself back up again, and that you will have to grow to make it. And then, with both those sides in mind, also remember that it will all be worth it in the end.