I was recently on a run in the woods near my house when–as often happens when we’re quiet in nature–I had a profound sense of God’s closeness and love.
As I looked up at the beautiful foliage, and the sun shining through the leaves, and I took a deep breath of cool, crisp air, the prayer came to my heart, “God, if this is my last day to fill my lungs with air, if this is my last day to see the beauty of nature…then I'm grateful for it.”
I hadn’t finished my run, I had a million tasks left undone on my to-do list, my business wasn’t nearly where I wanted it to be, our family still hadn’t found a home to move into–in short, there were many “reasons” for me to postpone feeling gratitude until I had actually done something.
And that’s exactly what many of us do to ourselves: we postpone feeling any joy or gratitude, until our goals are completely accomplished. We might tell ourselves:
“I'll be happy when I lose ten pounds.”
“I'll be happy when I finish that half-marathon.”
“I'll be happy when I get through the Whole30.”
“I'll be happy when I have enough energy to get (some arbitrary number of things) checked off of my to do list.”
For many of us, the journey to good health means that we just have to white knuckle our way through all the things we “should” be doing. We have to struggle and grind–and we can't enjoy any of that struggle until we’ve reached our goals.
But what many of us forget to do is to “give thanks and praise always and everywhere, at all times and in all places”...even in times of struggle, even in times of growth.
Because the truth is that none of us actually knows when our last day will be. We don't actually know if we're ever going to achieve the ends for which we're striving!
We might be trying with all our heart, mind, and soul to achieve a weight loss goal, or to train for a race, or to finish a 30 day challenge. But what we have not done, what we haven't been doing is preparing our heart, mind, and soul to meet our maker in heaven…or enjoying any part of the journey right now.
So the question is: how can you both enjoy the here and now–the struggle–and also continue striving to reach your goals and “enter by the narrow gate”?
This tension is not a new thing, especially in the Catholic worldview. As Catholics, we are really used to this dichotomy of “already, but not yet.”
For instance, we know that Christ’s death and resurrection has already saved us–we have already been purchased with a price. But, (as Jesus tells us in the gospel) we still have to strive to enter the narrow gate. We still have to keep trying to be holy and keep fighting against temptation and sin. So we have both already been saved, and yet…we can't rest on our laurels because we’re not out of the woods just yet.
But in order to keep yourself motivated and moving forward, you have to be able to enjoy the work itself while you’re doing it.
As a health coach, I often help my clients to set and reach goals that will help them feel better in their physical, mental, and spiritual health. But the reality is that there is no finish line! There is no end goal when it comes to keeping your body healthy or to becoming a saint. Both of those things end with our death (and not a moment sooner!)
And so you’ve got to keep trying until the day you die to live the healthiest, happiest, and holiest life you possibly can. And that's a day that none of us knows. You could get hit by a bus today and that's the end for you…
Instead of thinking about your healthy habits or challenges as something you just have to endure to reach your goal (whether it's an exercise program, healthy eating, reducing things that you know are bad for you, or committing to regular prayer) try to embrace them with an attitude of, “I can enjoy this now and it will help me to be even healthier, happier, and holier in the future.”
It doesn’t have to be no fun, or all pain until you get that gain, because that's not the truth. The truth is that you can enjoy every minute of the journey while you're still journeying.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t an attitude that comes naturally to many of us, so here are a few tips to help you enjoy your striving a bit more.
Notice “a hair above neutral”
The first is a tip that I picked up from a meditation teacher, Jeff Warren, to notice when things are “just a hair above neutral.”
Things don't have to be amazingly awesome all the time. But I am willing to bet that almost any second, any moment of your life, if you really tried to, you could notice something that's just a little bit better than neutral.
So for instance, maybe you feel a nice cool breeze on your skin right now. That's just a little bit better than neutral. Maybe you glance up and notice a beautiful painting or a photograph or you look out the window and you see something beautiful. That's a hair above neutral. Maybe you are hearing the sound of birdsong. And that's good. Maybe you’re hearing your children laugh. And that's good. That's a hair above neutral, just a little bit better than baseline nothing.
The difference between a secular approach and a Catholic approach to this is that when you notice something that’s a hair above neutral, now you can give thanks to God for it in your heart. It doesn't even have to be a formal prayer. Like Saint Therese said, “for me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
So give thanks to God in each every little moment that’s just a little bit better than neutral, when it's a little bit better than baseline. What will happen then is that you're going to start noticing more to be grateful for. You're going to train your brain over time to notice when things are good. What you'll notice is that there are suddenly so many things for you to be grateful for and to give thanks for. When you switch your perspective from “everything has to be perfect before I can be happy” to, “I can be grateful for anything that's just a little bit above neutral,” you will be amazed by the results.
Savor Small Wins
The other tip I have for you is to find and celebrate really small wins in every healthy habit that you’re trying to develop. Let yourself feel an emotional surge, or joy, every time you experience one of those little wins.
So for instance, if you make a healthy dinner for your family, take a moment to really savor and appreciate what you've just done. Be proud of yourself. Let yourself feel grateful for the food and for the opportunity you had to prepare it.
Another example is right after you finish a workout. Can you take just a minute (maybe while you’re stretching) to savor a sense of accomplishment? Can you enjoy the pleasant feeling of a boost of endorphins?
Taking the time to embrace small wins will help you to cement your good habits into something you want to repeat in the future, but it also helps you to enjoy doing them more in the here and now.
You don’t have to wait till you’re perfect
You don’t have to wait until you’re perfect to let yourself feel any joy. (Because, let’s face it, we’d all be waiting a long time for that!)
And while you do have to be striving every day, that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy every single day and be grateful for it.
When you take this approach, you’ll be progressing towards your goals without losing your peace or your joy. In fact, you'll be amazed at how much more joy you can feel every day. Try it, and let me know how it goes!