Tuesday, December 8, 2015

This I Believe

I believe we can do hard things. I'm reading my students' postings about how hard the end of the semester is and notice one student's comment: we always survive. I believe we can survive hard things.

When I was working on my Master's degree, I participated in an experimental program the university only offered twice. The price was good--the cost was great. We went to classes full time two summers. In between, during the school year, I would attend classes every other weekend:  10 hours on Saturday and 10 hours on Sunday. I was teaching junior high at the time, so I would teach five days, go to classes for two days, teach five days, and then have two days off. I had six children at home at the time. My family agreed that I should do it, so they were great in picking up some of the home pieces (my husband even tried to cook a turkey for one Sunday dinner--disaster!). The load was tremendous. In fact, it got so bad that I had tremors from typing and writing so much (on my students' papers and writing my own). My mother was convinced I had a tumor. I didn't. I had stress. I had a constant tension headache, which I ignored. I had other ailments. When my back went into muscle spasms just bending over to pick up a piece of paper, I went to the doctor. Turns out our bodies give us signals. When we are under stress, if we ignore one signal, it will give us another. . . and another. . . and another: until we pay attention. I survived.

A few years later I started a doctoral program. The schedule was more spread out. Still full time classes in summers, but not on weekends. Night classes, two a week. I was teaching high school now. I would drive from school into Seattle twice a week for classes that lasted from 4:30-7:30 or 5:30-8:30. Then I would drive across Lake Washington to my home: to kids and homework and prep for tomorrow's teaching and anything else a mother/wife/teacher/daughter/church member has to do. In some ways, it was easier. I had weekends back. But the workload intellectually was much more intense. I thought I was handling it. I was a person who handled things, even if I did get physical symptoms. Until one day in the University of Washington library.

I was doing research and went to the copy machine to make copies of some articles to study in more depth at home. Standing at the copy machine, repetitively turning pages and pushing buttons, I lost my breath. I couldn't breathe! I started gasping and weeping. I didn't know what the matter was, but I knew something was wrong. The weird thing is that no one stopped me as I made my gasping, weeping way out of the library to my car. I made a lot of noise trying to gulp in air as I drove across the bridge--and to a friend's house. Why not my own? I don't know. But when she opened the door, she knew immediately what to do: she pushed me into a chair, pushed my head down, and brought me a paper bag to breathe into. A panic attack. That's what I'd had. I'd heard of them, but had never had one. My friend's daughters had, so she knew. How could a person panic copying articles at a copy machine? What was there to panic about? What I learned is that we all have limits. I was older, but I had never learned my limits. I know now more about myself and about others. I don't judge like I used to. We all have limits--and they are not all the same.

I finished my doctorate degree. I can do hard things. I learned how to take better care of myself. I learned that I don't have to make hard things harder. I learned I could let some things go: I didn't have to keep every ball in the air. I could take a detour now and then. I made choices about what was a priority in my life and in my family's life. My house wasn't as clean. We ate soup from cans or scrambled eggs and toast a lot more. I learned little signs that it was time to let something go, time to take care of myself. I learned that I could still push myself, I could do hard things, but I could also be okay with not being my best all the time. I learned to be okay with "this is the best I can do right now--and I'm okay with that." And even more, I learned to accept that in others: someone is unkind or doesn't do what I expect? Maybe that's just the best they can be right now.

So, I believe we can do hard things. We can also make them harder than they need to be. But we can also accept ourselves for doing our best, even if that best isn't quite what we hoped it would be in our minds. That, too, is a hard thing.