On Monday morning I went for a walk. 'Big deal!' you may say. But it was 6:30am, and instead of rolling over for another forty-five minutes (honestly, I'm grateful for any sleep I can get these days), I stoically dragged myself up, got ready and headed out the door, grabbing the coffee that Phil had kindly brewed for me. The sun was up but fighting with the morning mist to be seen. The air was still and crisp, and I was honestly thankful that it was cool enough for me to pull on a sweater. This is my favourite time of the year.
Save for the solitary dog walker and one zealous (lunatic?) runner, there was no one else around. As I marvelled at how much looser my skinny jeans feel first thing in the morning (if only that feeing lasted throughout the day *sigh*), my attention was caught by another early riser. From the corner of my eye I saw the most majestic sight: a red kite landing in the topmost branches of a tree beside the lane where I was walking. I couldn't believe it, and also couldn't stop walking in time. The raptor spotted me sooner and took flight, but not without giving me a backwards glance. I'm so grateful each time I see one of these birds that I silently whispered 'thanks' as it flew away.
I love red kites. Forever etched on my memory is the day Toby and I moved from Norfolk to Wiltshire. It was actually my 43rd birthday and the drive seemed longer than ever, but over the Oxfordshire landscape flew three red kites and I may have cried just a little when I saw them. The first time I spotted one of these magnificent birds must have been well over 15 years ago in Norfolk, and at the time I doubted what I was seeing. With its reddish-brown body, angled wings and deeply forked tail, a red kite is unmistakeable, but they were such a rare sighting at the time that I thought I'd lost the plot. A 200-year period of persecution of the birds meant that, by the 1980s, they were one of only three globally threatened species in the UK. Then, in July 1990, two Welsh birds and 11 Spanish birds from the region of Navarra were released in the Chilterns Hills on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border––this was the beginning of what was to become one of the most successful reintroduction programmes in the UK. And whilst red kites are now a common sighting, I will never tire of seeing them.
Ian Evans headed up this programme along with seven colleagues. Reading the research published in British Birds (1997), Evans' commitment to the project is unquestionable. The passion and enthusiasm of the team as a whole is infectious, and as I read I realised that for many, many years this project had been their only priority. I don't imagine that they ducked (See what I did there?...) out of life and hunkered down in some bird hide in the middle of a bog in darkest Britain for a year or more, but it does seem that they focused on this project more than anything else, pouring into it all their energies and expertise.
And that got me thinking about priorities and what I give myself to.
But before I go anywhere with that, I need to draw your attention to something: The word 'priority' is singular. Yes, that's right. Technically speaking, there can't be priorities. No multiples of priority. The word 'priority' came into the English language in the 1400s from the Old French 'prioritie', meaning 'the state of being earlier.' The very prior-ist thing. Something that comes before all else. The first of firsts. When I did some research, I couldn't find any source which could explain when this word––to explain the very first thing in a list of firsts––actually became a plural. (I suspect a USA president is to blame... love my American family though!) I mean, there can only be one first, right? A few things can be important with everything else being trivial, but only one thing can be the priority. Whatever your faith, politics, heritage, culture or whatever else, by its very definition you can only ever have one thing which is the prior-ist. Sure, there's going to be a group of things which are important all jockeying for position behind, but priority is priority.
And that realisation has challenged me. Hugely.
Phil and I have talked more than once about our priorities (yes, we used that word), both shared and individual. We've even come up with a list of our top three priorities in the hopes that, somehow, we'd be able to give our attention to those things and say no to anything else that doesn't fit with what we've claimed as ultimately important. We often (in truth, constantly) feel overwhelmed by pressing responsibilities and our own innate tendencies to want to make things better for people. We are both fixers at heart which means we take the role of problem solvers when the proverbial hits the fan. Not just in our own lives, but in the lives of people close to us, and that brings all manner of pressures that we could do without. It's not that we begrudge any of it, but pressures of work combined with those in our personal lives do become tricky. There are only so many balls we can juggle.
As a quick segue, you might be interested to know that the Guinness World Record for the most balls juggled was achieved in 2012 when Alex Barron juggled 11 balls for 23 consecutive passes. I can only manage three balls for around thred consecutive passes. Hardly a record breaker. More than Phil can do though... just sayin'.
And so I've had an epiphany: I have way too many priorities when really I need to focus on just one.
On my Monday morning walk, after my encounter with the red kite, I listened to a podcast of an interview with the so-called 'Father of Essentialism', Greg McKeown. He first gained notoriety with his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and of course my ears pricked up when he started to talk about the fact that we can make choices about where we place our energies. Through anecdotes, he talked about learning how to say no and cutting out the non-essential things in one's life.
In his book, McKeown draws a distinction between the non-essentialist and the essentialist. The non-essentialist is someone who spreads themselves too thinly and gives attention and energy in lots of directions, but doesn't get very far in any of these directions because they're trying to do too much all at once. (Ding ding! Does that ring any bells?) The essentialist, on the other hand, is someone who is excellent at cutting off outside distractions and can focus on one thing, therefore doing that one thing really well.
Something I've come to realise is that if you and I don't prioritise our lives, someone else will. That is to say, someone or something else will always call the shots if you don't know what your priority is. But here's the problem: What happens when everything in your life is important? Do you know what I mean? Even as I sit here writing this, I'm internally clenched because I know that I live a life where I think everything is important. Generally, I spend most of every day multitasking because I feel I have to, or perhaps should do. I can make a meal whilst loading the laundry, answering emails, and conversing with Toby about physics. With the other hand, I'm feeding the cats and working on my juggling record breaking attempt. It gets very messy when I mix up juggling balls and cats, I can tell you. And that's not to mention writing this blog and checking in with people. I've even stopped working my paid job for a few months to try and take some time to rest and get well! But still I'm giving out and giving out. No priority, just lots of important things.
When you see everything as a priority, what happens when you hit a crisis? Already you feel like your ship is sinking and then you hit the unexpected iceberg. What then? Do you go down with the ship? Well, that's really not an option when you're a fixer and a problem solver, or even just someone who has responsibilities. I've realised that defining a priority doesn't mean that stripping away the other, non-essential things in your life allows you to abdicate from all your responsibilities. It's so easy to think, 'Why me?' But that kind of thinking just makes a difficult situation even harder. Finding the lighter, easy path might just be the way to work through that crisis-iceberg you've hit. Indeed, it might just be the case that the crisis gives you an opportunity to find an easier way of living. And I don't say this with any kind of flippancy. My dear friend, Louise, always used to say that, as a family, we skipped from one happy crisis to another. And she wasn't wrong. I have known my fair share of drama and crises. Not that I've got it all sewn up, but I have found that the key to thriving in the midst of the mess is finding a simpler way of doing things rather than wishing it was different or less difficult.
John Mark Comer supports this idea in his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. He says,
'The solution to an overbusy life is not more time. It’s to slow down and simplify our lives around what really matters.'
Deciding what really matters. Understanding that what we give our time and energy to will ultimately define us and mark out our characters. People will be able to see who we are and what we believe simply by the things we stake as priority.
So how does one navigate the hard? When there's no way of steering round the iceberg, what can we do?
By focusing on what you're grateful for and what you can actually do, you'll find there’s joy in the moment.
If we push and push ourselves, we'll find ourselves in burnout and then past burnout to the point where there’s nothing left in the tank. When it’s your responsibility to keep the fires on, you can’t use all the fuel in the first ten minutes. You’ve got to keep all the engines running.
If you focus on what you lack you’re going to lose what you have. Focus on what you have, on what is good, and hold on to the goodness.
For every one thing you say 'yes' to, you're going to have to say 'no' to a bunch of other things, which means it's worth putting a lot of value in your yes and learning not to be afraid of saying no.
The pandemic has exacerbated the experience of burnout for so many, but what if life from hereon-in doesn't have to be so hard? We don't have to delve too deeply into Scripture to find some assistance with this one.
‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Matthew 11:30
Maybe, like me, you're all, 'Yeah yeah. Heard this one before and it ain't making no difference.' (Of course, I'm not actually cool enough to speak like that, I'm just trying to make a point here. Okay?! Okay.) I don't believe Jesus is a liar, so if he says that his yoke is easy I have to believe him. But here's the thing: What if we're busy trying to be Christians but without Christ? Rowing along through our everyday iceberg-ridden lives without actually taking Jesus along with us in the boat. Wouldn't that be stupid? I mean, for a believer in Jesus to try to do everything in their own strength without him, despite him saying that life is much easier when we do things IN HIS STRENGTH... well that would be plain madness! No one would do that, would they?...
I'm such a numpty and I do it all the time. All. The. Time. Hands up––anyone else?
Remember, priority is singular, and Jesus is clear that life with him doesn't need to be hard even when the difficult things come. There will be times of agony but living in a lighter way, focusing on the good, and maybe doing things differently, can make the striving less arduous. We weren't made to carry it all, that's why Jesus tells us to give it to him, leaving us to focus on the priority.