Words for the Overwhelmed

Time-crushed

A giant clock fell off our wall the other day. That’s right. You heard me correctly. I was very nearly squashed beneath the weight of time.

There I was, walking down our narrow hallway, the one always scattered with an obstacle course worth of toys, the hallway we continuously play domestic bumper cars in, the one with the school word-lists hanging precariously from the white rental walls with perspiring balls of blu tack (our kids call it ‘glue tack’) when boom! The shabby-chic aqua clock, bought for an irresistible bargain on Gumtree, fell with a thunderous bang from its single nail, narrowly missing my recently broken little toe. And don’t worry, I can clearly see the irony in all this. The metaphor is not hard to find on this occasion. Time fell down on me, and almost crushed me.  

The reality was the clock had already been broken for months. It had stopped ticking somewhere between adjusting to new school routines, and moving for the second time in 12 months, between getting used to an entire new area,  and negotiating a myriad of important medical appointments, that each brought with them more questions than we had bandwidth to answer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither Dr M nor I had had the energy, or yes, the ‘time’ to fix it. And so it now sits hidden in a cupboard, squashed between bags of clothing I haven’t got around to donating (blame Kon Marie), and our excess books. The stylish, oversized clock we bought to help us organise our life, perhaps with the secret wish that it would magically transform us into better working versions of ourselves, has been retired and I’ve hung a simple wooden frame in its place on the single, rental approved nail. 

But although the large ticking hands may no longer be active, though its visible presence is removed, we are no less pressed by the pressures of time in its absence. If only when the clock dropped and admitted defeat, we too had been able to take a quiet break in the cupboard, or somewhere more spacious, for a while. Because, and I know I’m not alone in this, lately time itself seems to be moving a little too fast, too heavy, too full of responsibilities and tasks, and we can find ourselves not unlike that wall-clock, barely hanging on by a nail as the weight of it all presses down upon us.

The Tyranny of To-Do’s

I’m ashamed to say that when people ask me how I am lately, my range of answers is sorely limited. I hear my own response as I utter it, sometimes with a touch of wry humour, other times released on a sigh. How am I: ‘I’m busy’ I say, or ‘I’m tired.’ Or both. Because really, don’t they mean the same thing. 

Is it this just the season of life we are in right now that makes me feel this way? Or is it more than a season. Is it a climate? Is the very air we breathe filled with a beat faster than our own pulses, or do we in fact self-create the constant throb,  our own internal expectations making us chase our tails. ‘Its so full on,’ we say to each other, over wriggly, squiggly children, around deadlines, and dates, in the margins as we sip tea and catch up in fragments of conversation . 

Lately, as I’ve talked to others, I’ve seen how not alone I am in this. While the specifics may vary, we all have our own to-do lists, and they are far from light weight. Like an iced coffee with too much cream, I would venture that we all add layers of guilt and burden to our lists, I know I do.  As Dr M said just today –‘It’s like my mind has indigestion’ trying to process so much at once. 

 

Like the feeling of containment in our narrow hallway, it is easy to think that this is all there is, a long procession of seemingly insurmountable tasks littered across our consciousnesses like the mess of toys on the floor, waiting to trip us up if we don’t pick them up first. But is it? And if so, what can we do to step aside and take a breath. 

A Non-exhaustive List of Questions for the Exhausted

I don’t like to give advice. Whatever my personality or Enneagram type is (if you are into that) I know one thing for sure: I’m not your ‘how-to’ girl. But if you need empathy, I’m here. Below is simply a list of practices that Dr M and I have found helpful in the overwhelm. They involve posing gentle questions to our to-do lists, and to ourselves.

In my experience ‘To Do’, and ‘To-Worry-About’ are almost synonymous. Perhaps these questions will help prise the two apart:

1. Can it be solved? If so, move forward. But don’t give attention to what ifs.

A task is only a task if something can be done about it. Another way to put this is: Does it actually exist or is it a what if? I know that an item on my list is a what if if rather than trying to simply solve it [step A followed by Step B] I twist it around in my mind until I become dizzy, nauseous even, with the circling. What ifs are basically our fears projected. An example, I need to take our kids to the dentist. The obvious  course of action in this situation would be to find a good local dentist, book an appointment in an available time, and take them! But my what if filter turns it like so: But what if they have 1000 holes to match the 1000’s of sweets they’ve eaten this year, due to the 1000’s of stresses. What if the dentist is a member of the ‘Bad Mummy detection association’ and reports me to the authorities. You get the idea. The first part is a solvable task, the milk in the iced chocolate (not that we eat iced chocolates!) the worrying scurrying what ifs are the cream. We just don’t need the cream. Identify it, and let it go.

 

2. Can it wait? Or is now the best time to think about this?

I am chronically impatient. Ive been known to cut my own hair on a whim at midnight rather than wait a few days for my hairdresser to be free. Sometimes a task that feels pressing, just isn’t. Sometimes things just need to wait, for the right time, and that’s okay. Just because something isn’t done instantly doesn’t mean it won’t get done.

 

3. Is this the full picture?

Okay, this one is interesting. Sometimes our to dos can seem so pressing they can exponentially grow. Proportion and perspective are important here. I know that often my worrys can obscure my vision, making me see only one angle. Step back and it can look different. Country drives, trips to the beach, laughing with friends, all these things can help to get focus back. There is always more to life than we see at any one time, and we have an inbuilt negativity bias. 

 

4. Can this be taken to Jesus?

 This is the only question I know of with a full proof answer. Jesus couldn’t be any clearer. Come to me, he says. But then why don’t we?

I’d suggest, as Dr M pointed out to me this morning, that often it is simply because we find it so hard to stop. We are all whirring machines, in full throttle activation, trying to tick off our tasks, worrying beneath them like waters continually churning. Stopping, resting, can ironically be the hardest thing. What if we don’t do this right either? we say to ourselves.  

The answer: 

It is already finished. We don’t need to worry about our performance in this area, because Jesus has already won. He’s kicked the ultimate to-do list to the curb so we don’t have to. He asks us simply to come, to sit, to collapse, to lean in, to give over, to lay down at his feet. 
He asks us to give him our exhaustion. 
And he will give us his sustaining breath for the journey.  

 

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