On the Futility of Striving

Willapresents Willa, our youngest, recently had a birthday. She loves cake more than any other kid I’ve seen, so this was a monumental occasion in her tiny life. The cake was far more exciting than any of the presents, and when we mentioned the word birthday she would shout “ELMO CAKE!” with her arms fully extended to punctuate the excitement. She is such a little joy bundle, and it was so much fun to celebrate her and watch her huge eyes fill with delight.

Since the birthday, however, Willa has made an unfortunate discovery. Someone must have informed her that she is two years old, and so now would be the appropriate time to begin her reign of terror. That is not an exaggeration. I have watched my angelic cherub turn into a crazed monster overnight, and if I find the person who snitched to Willa about her age, I will make them pay. They will be forced to spend a 24 hour period at my house with my two children as they fight and scream and throw massive fits and lay on all manner of guilt trips. That will be justice served, I think.

One day a few months ago, when Willa was still in her sweet and innocent phase, I was watching her play as she snacked on a cup full of rice krispies. She dropped one, and as she leaned over to pick it up, the cup tipped with her and she dropped out two more. As she furrowed her brow, confused and frustrated, she tried to pick up those two while simultaneously spilling even more. This aggravating cycle continued, and she continued to be profoundly stumped. As I watched her in amusement, I had the revelation that I was watching myself, actually. I’m always trying to hold everything and keep everything just so, all the while not realizing in the very doing of that I am creating the mess I'm trying to escape.

My parenting seems to be the area that suffers the most from this horrible cycle. When I sense that my children have woken up on the Atila-the-Hun side of the bed (I have no idea where my girls get their overdramatic tendencies), I immediately go to beast mode and become hyper-vigilant about every misdemeanor or small infraction, until their very breath is raising the hair on my neck. I grasp for control, and the harder I try to shove everyone back into their proper “happy, respectful, responsible, joyous kid” roles, the more they high tail it out of them. It’s a losing battle when I go down this road.

“Be careful never to make too many laws, for if you draw the string too tight it will break.”

—Catherine McAuley

I’ve been drawing that string tighter and tighter all day today, with nothing but predictably aggravating results. Nobody wins when I parent this way. I collapsed into a puddle of tears at the end of a long bedtime battle, when I finally surrendered. It has regrettably taken me until 8pm to admit I’ve largely been doing this to myself. Now granted, it’s not that my kids didn’t make lots of bad choices today, because they did. But I made it far worse.

The ironic thing is, in other areas of my life, it’s fairly easy for me to let go of the futile striving. I know I can’t control the choices of others, and it’s disrespectful and debasing to try. Whether it’s at work or in relationships or in ministry, when we try to control outcomes, and keep everything and everyone in our neat little boundary lines, things will quickly go to pot. Not only will it blow up in our face, but we will expend every ounce of energy we have, working ourselves into a stress tornado, and we won’t like who we become in the process. I know from experience. During my 8 o’clock, tearful self-examination it became quite clear that the bigger monster in the house was me, and I had worn myself getting to this awful place.

The good news for me, and the good news for all of us with this problem, is that tomorrow is a new day. One of my favorite philosophers, Anne of Green Gables, said, “Tomorrow is fresh, with no mistakes in it.” Tonight, (after my good cry and therapeutic bowl of Double Dunker ice cream) I’m resolving to step off the hamster wheel of futility, the useless and selfish grasping for my desired outcome. I’m putting it in writing right here, to hold myself accountable. I will get up tomorrow like every other morning, and pray. I will center my heart in God and plead for his peace and his grace. And then I will greet my children, no matter what mood they happen to be in, with that peace and grace. I will treat them as unique individuals with emotions and faults just like mine. I will do my best to diffuse, not escalate. To be gentle, not harsh. To help, not burden.

May we all resolve to greet our own little corners of the world in this way tomorrow. May we let go of things we can’t and shouldn’t be controlling. May we resolve to sow love and peace, no matter what choices those around us make. God, help us.

Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.