When I agreed to the project schedule for my first book, I knew one of the major deadlines would coincide with my daughter’s high school graduation and party. This wasn’t ideal, but we were keeping things simple, and I had already planned ahead — with the party at least — and organized everything. I had it all under control.
I don’t say that lightly. I have had plenty of situations that were completely outside my control, and have learned to be grateful for the stresses and busyness of normal life that can be navigated with a little planning and forethought. Of course there was no way to plan for the clawfoot tub in our second-floor master bathroom’s springing a leak under the shutoff and — before it was discovered and fixed — soaking the northwest corner of that floor and the two below it.
A restoration company came in and quickly tore out everything damaged beyond repair: one of the built-in bookcases flanking our living room fireplace, some flooring in two rooms and drywall in three. Then it was time to dry everything out. They carefully positioned a slew of industrial fans and large dehumidifiers on every floor. Other than the children’s bedrooms and bathroom, our house was all noise, wind and heat — imagine a sauna atop an aircraft carrier. They hoped it wouldn’t take much more than the weekend, but told me to plan on a week to avoid frustration and disappointment.
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When the water damage was first discovered, I broached the subject of postponing my daughter’s party. I knew, at best, we would be in the middle of rebuilding.
“That’s OK,” she said. “I just want to celebrate. No one’s going to care.”
I knew she was right, and was proud of her perspective, until four days before her party, almost two weeks into the dry-out, and the house still wasn’t dried out. The living room was torn up with all the furniture shoved to one wall. I had set aside regular cleaning since the fans had come in, so everything was covered with dust, and circles of dog hair swirled across the floor like tumbleweeds.
I had been working outside on my patio for a week and a half, and I couldn’t remember back to when one eye didn’t constantly twitch. I was beginning to wonder if there would still be fans running at the party. That was when I began to care. Profoundly.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” I told my husband, Paul.
He is always quick with a solution. “You need to focus on the things you can actually control. Make a list and start knocking them off one by one. The rest — you’ll just have to let go.”
I looked at him. “Did you just prescribe the Serenity Prayer?”
He laughed. “I guess I did.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the Serenity Prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s and is widely used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step recovery programs. Most famous are its opening lines:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Whether or not you believe in a higher power, this simple and excellent advice can be applied to every aspect of life: When we feel overwhelmed or out-of-control, that’s when we most need to figure out what is still under our control and, just as important, what’s outside it.
Whether it’s a short-term dilemma like this one of mine, or something more permanent, choosing to let go of everything we can’t control frees up energy and imagination to focus on, and actually do, what we can.
To be honest, it is harder when it’s something major or long-term. Most of us have one thing or another — some of us have many things — we wish we could change about our home, and for the majority of us, budget is a major constraint.
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I get it. When we accidentally bought a house that was so dark it was practically a cave, I wanted to move, but the softening real estate market made that terribly impractical. In desperation, I focused on anything and everything I could do to make our home lighter and brighter. Slowly, as our budget allowed, we went room by room repainting, replacing flooring and adding windows. These were great improvements, but I knew it wasn’t enough. I was in a constant battle to keep our home in order, and I realized that for our home to be tidy and truly peaceful, I needed to get rid of a lot of stuff. So I did.
That was the most important home improvement I could have made and, looking back, I realize it should have been my first priority. It was completely within my control and didn’t cost a dime.
Frustration and discontent can be surprisingly powerful guides. When you track down their source, you are more able to determine what is within your control to change, and what is not.
I’m sorry to say, the things you can’t do anything about won’t stop bugging you automatically. Letting go can take time, but when one of them comes to mind, it really is as simple as telling yourself, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.”
And that automatically creates space to figure out what you can do. It also prevents us from getting stuck and allows us to keep moving forward.
It certainly worked for me last spring. This is how our patio looked just before our party began. Making a list of everything I could do while those fans kept running propelled me out of the fetal position and saved me from wasting any more precious time. Working around writing and editing, I did last-minute yard work, prepped food and gathered all the supplies.
A day before the party, the fans were finally all gone and, with the help of an incredible cleaner, I scoured the house from top to bottom and put it back together. The day of the party, the whole family pitched in to set up and arrange the spread, and that night we celebrated a beautiful and deserving girl until long after the stars were out and shining.
Originally published at medium.com