George Bernard Shaw said,
“We must not stay as we are, doing always what was done last time, or we shall stick in the mud.”
He’s warning us against operating by what we might call the stick-in-the-mud philosophy, which says…
“This is just the way I/we do things. I/We’ve always done it this way. I/We can’t change.”
Of course, we probably wouldn’t call it stick-in-the-mud philosophy. We might call it “playing it safe”. Or “don’t rock the boat”.
Or sometimes, it’s just habit, just repetition, just busyness.
But whatever we call it, it does have some side effects and consequences:
…Meetings that seem a pointless waste of time but we don’t change them.
…Customer service that is like being stuck in a maze with no exit.
…Schools and organizations where the same old “office politics” battles go on for years, eroding morale and effectiveness.
…Days and weeks and months in which it seems like the petty, urgent details run the show and there’s never time for doing the things that make a difference.
And this same philosophy can also end up affecting us in more personal ways:
…Family life that is so busy there doesn’t ever seem to be time to just look at one another and say something important, something meaningful.
…Schedules that are so programmed and occupying that there never seems to be any time for wonder, for surprise, for personal renewal, for pursuing a dream, or for getting real about what truly matters in life.
Now obviously, there’s a lot we can’t change in our world. But we can do something about this.
Maybe we could issue a quiet, personal declaration of secret war against the stick-in-the-mud philosophy…a declaration that might go:
“Today I will not get stuck. I might even kick myself out of a rut or two. Today I will resist the tug of mindless repetition and look for surprise and wonder and aliveness. Today I will do something new—even if it’s as simple as making that phone call I’ve been avoiding, or coming up with a new recipe for dinner, or pushing for much-needed change at work or at home, or having a real conversation with someone. And even if I make a bit of a fool of myself—at least I will not be a stick-in-the-mud.”
Here’s a radical formula for success: Don’t try to be a success.
This comes from no less a mind than that of Albert Einstein who said,
“Try not to become a person of success but rather try to become a person of value.”
I think we get what he’s getting at, right?
Don’t focus primarily on what you may get someday.
Focus primarily on what you can give—on your ability to learn and grow and do and contribute today.
Bryan Cranston, the Emmy-award-winning actor of Breaking Bad and Malcom in the Middle says one of his favorite quotes is from the great acting coach Stanislavski:
“Love the art in you, not you in the art.”
Cranston says this reminds him to focus on all that is involved in doing the work of acting rather than on the image of himself as a star.
“Love the art in you”—enjoy and embrace the challenge of doing what you do and doing it well for it’s own sake, without worrying overmuch about ultimate rewards.
“Love the art in you” whether it’s the art of writing a great report, the art of handling a difficult customer or client, the art of raising a child, the art of playing an instrument, the art of preparing a wonderful meal, the art of being married…or the art of creating a life.
This approach keeps us on solid ground. It’s more energizing.
And it even increases the odds of being successful!
I would never presume to give advice to other parents. But in light of the many pressures on parents today, I do think Fitzhugh Dodson’s words sound a relieving and realistic note and are worth passing on:
“You have the right to make mistakes in bringing up your own children: Blunder bravely! Go ahead and make your mistakes, but believe more bravely that, on the whole, you are doing a good job of raising your children…
“You have the right to be yourself. Allow your child to be himself, and you will raise a happy and psychologically healthy individual. The same reasoning applies to you as a parent. So raise your child in your own unique way. Have the courage to be yourself—as a husband, or a wife, and, above all, as a parent!”
I appreciated Dodson’s words and they triggered a thought or two.
As parents, it’s so easy to slip into a kind of perfectionism. The stakes are high. We want to do it all. We want to get it right.
But I hear Dodson telling us, “Take it easy—on yourself and on your kids! Remember that you’re human. You’re not going to be the perfect parent. And that’s okay…Be human. Be genuine. Be yourself. But don’t try to be perfect.”
There’s a place for high standards, of course. But there’s a perfectionism that can create a tense, toxic environment and rob us of some of the human lessons such as the ability to try and risk, the freedom to fail, the ability to laugh at our mistakes, the freedom to say I was wrong, and the experience of forgiveness.
So, as parents, we may need to just take a deep breath and relax once in a while. (And our kids may be hoping we will!)
I heard a speaker who said he wished he could go to all the parents around the world and tell them three words: “You are forgiven.”
Amen to that.
The circumstances are never ideal. Never.
There are always “reasons” to put off doing something you know you need to do.
There are always “reasons” not to follow that dream or make that change.
There are always “reasons” not to deal decisively with that personal or relationship problem.
There are always “reasons” to postpone or neglect doing the things that are truly important, the things that make today matter, make it meaningful.
That’s one way to go.
Another way is to simply decide that you don’t believe in circumstances. That’s the approach of George Bernard Shaw who said:
“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them make them.”
Shaw is describing a person who dances with circumstances…a person who takes a very clear-eyed look at the circumstances of her life and then opens her arms and says, “Let’s dance!”
Remember the movie Dances With Wolves? Native Americans saw Kevin Costner’s character dancing around with wolves. They thought he was a little crazy, but they loved it, and gave him that name as a sign of admiration.
Starting today, may we call you Dances With Circumstances?
The children’s book author Kate DiCamillo has written eloquently about the power and importance of paying attention. Here’s a beautiful quote:
“What I discovered is that each time you look at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changes you. The world, under the microscope of your attention, opens up like a beautiful, strange flower and gives itself back to you in ways you could never imagine. What stories are hiding behind the faces of the people who you walk past everyday? What love? What hopes? What despair?”
I think DiCamillo is right—it does take effort to truly pay attention. It takes quiet focus and imagination. It doesn’t come naturally for most of us.
But can such an effort really change us? And how?
Here’s one way to think about this. Our culture often trains us to want to be the center of attention.
Of course, everyone should get to be the center of attention once in a while. It’s nice to be appreciated. But as a way of life, wanting-to-be-the-center-of-attention has its limitations because sooner or later the spotlight switches to someone else.
When that happens, wanting-to-be-the-center-of-attention can bring a lot of tension.
DiCamillo’s approach makes the 180-degree shift from needing to be the center of attention to focusing on paying attention.
Which approach to life would you say is more rewarding? More freeing? More full of possibilities?