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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Taking What I Can Use and Leaving the Rest

I’m super excited to have been invited to join a blog group alongside three talented bloggers.  Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays.  

Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:

This week’s topic comes from Moma Rock, who wrote:  “Choose a quote that inspires you. What makes it inspiring?”

Here’s my take:

          I used to work with a woman who had on her desk a bright wooden plaque bearing the words:  “Too blessed to be stressed.”  How cute, I’d think to myself as I passed her cubicle – all the while noting that although she may have believed herself to be blessed, she was, it seemed to me, often also quite stressed. 
          I’ve never been one for mantras.  I struggle with platitudes.  Sometimes, things people say that are meant to inspire actually kind of tick me off.  Example:  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  I beg to differ.  Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you actually maims you and leaves you emotionally battered and curled up in the fetal position on a shrink’s couch.  I feel the same way about the line, “Everything happens for a reason.”  Sure, and sometimes that “reason” is that people make ridiculously bad choices – and nothing more.
          I do enjoy reading inspirational quotes for no other reason than they make me think.  But I’ve never found myself adopting one as my own, or even feeling inspired to act because someone strung together five words in a creative way.  “The man on top of the mountain did not fall there.”  I like it; it’s clever.  But I can’t say it inspires me.  “Just do it.”  Nice marketing ploy, and not bad advice.  It does not, however, make me want to lace up my running shoes and hit the pavement. 
          As much as I’ve never really been inspired by a quote, over the years, I’ve managed to collect a handful of sayings that bring me comfort.  My Blessed-Stressed co-worker and I worked at a fast-paced litigation firm, the kind of place where, when a case got close to trial, the environment grew tense and intense.   Gearing up for trial meant working fifteen hour days, six days a week (and working from home for several hours on day seven). 
          During one particularly rough trial, not long after I’d started, I stressed myself into a tizzy trying to figure out how to finish the ridiculous amount of work that had been placed in my lap.  I’m kind of a Type-A personality when it comes to work and deadlines.  I want everything to be perfect, meaning on time and error free.  An admirable trait?  Perhaps.  But my tendencies just add to my stress.  One afternoon, my favorite partner walked into my office and quickly picked up on my rising panic.  He sat down across from me and, partly obscured by the wall of files on my desk, calmly reminded me that there were only twenty-four hours in a day and that I could only work a portion of those hours – because apparently I also had to sleep and eat and breathe.  I looked at him like he was crazy.  Didn’t he know how much work I had to do? 
          He rose to leave, but before he did, he said, simply, “Progress . . . not perfection.” 
          I’d never before heard that phrase, and after he left my office, I turned his words over in my mind.  And then the “aha” moment hit.  He was right.  In those three words – words that formed a phrase I’d later learn he gleaned from Alcoholics Anonymous – I found a center, a grounding point.  I’d turn to those words again and again, year after year, trial after trial.  And each time, those words gave me comfort.  They calmed me the hell down.
          A few years later, I’d have reason to learn a number of other Alcoholics Anonymous slogans, not out of any need for recovery myself, but while supporting someone close to me.  I found myself drawn to the phrases.  They formed a kind of emotional shorthand, a neat way to address some uncomfortable feelings and situations.  The Serenity Prayer in particular struck a chord; to me, it seemed applicable not only to addiction, but also much else in life.  I’ve caught myself saying the words in my head many times when facing a difficult situation or person:  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 
          The prayer reminds me to save my energy for situations where I can make a difference, and not to waste my precious time banging my proverbial head against a proverbial wall.  It also reminds me that I cannot change another person, I can only accept him as he is – or walk away.  And it reminds me that I will face things I do not like but I won’t always be able to fix or solve them; I will only be able to react and to manage my reaction.  These have not been easy lessons for me, yet somehow running the prayer through my head has grounded me when nothing else seemed to bring relief. 
          Over the years, I formed a friendship with Blessed-Stressed woman.  As our relationship blossomed, she gave me a birthday gift that now sits on my bedside table.  It’s a small silver box, shaped like a seashell.  Across the top are imprinted the words, “This too shall pass.”  I appreciated the gift, and I loved the saying.  I didn’t know until recently that the phrase is commonly used in AA.
          I suppose it’s interesting that I’m not inspired by platitudes meant to propel people to new heights but I am calmed by sayings intended to pull people from the depths of addiction despair.  (A psychiatrist likely would have a field day with that, assuming I could uncurl myself out of the fetal position long enough to mention it.)  I don’t know what, if anything, that might mean, and I don’t care.  I’m happy that, although I’m not motivated by pithy phrases, I am calmed by somewhat spiritual slogans.  What that says about my emotional make up, I certainly don’t know.  And that’s okay.
          As they say in AA:  It is what it is.


  1. This was a really inspiring post! I enjoyed getting to know more about you in the process.
    I had a ring from Israel that said "Gam Zeh Ya'avor," meaning "this too shall pass." I lost the ring 4 years ago, but the meaning stays with me. I still miss the ring, but hopefully someone else found it and the meaning gave them comfort too.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Did you ever see "Jersey Boys"? There's a scene where Frankie Valli realizes that all things pass -- but that also includes good things. THAT made me think.

  2. My mom used to say "this too shall pass" all the time in her later years but when you wrote "progress...not perfection" that really struck a chord with me. I am guilty of the perfection thing and will definitely add this to my life. It is true, not everything can be done perfectly but I can make progress. Thank you for an inspiring article.

  3. Thanks, cuz. Those words meant a lot to me, too. That friend just had a way of saying the right thing at the right time (he still does). And thanks for telling me that story about your mom.

  4. Thank you for sharing your inspirational quotes/phrases- The Serenity Prayer is one of my favorites, as well. Any quote that reminds me to calm down, and accept myself as is is a great quote in my book!