I’ve been thinking a lot about comparison recently, and it really is the thief of joy.
This weekend it was Shavuot, the Jewish festival which celebrates the giving of the ten commandments. The tenth commandment is about not coveting what others have, be it their ass, or their wife’s ass (see what I did there??) Whilst this makes sense from the perspective of discouraging jealousy and conflict in a community, it also strikes me that there is something in there about not comparing yourself to others and finding yourself wanting.
Comparison is the thief of joy because it diminishes your own space, achievements and uniqueness. It also sets up a narrative in which whatever you have is not enough, and that leads to a lack of gratitude for the space you are living in.
I absolutely loved Paula Pant’s recent podcast episode with Molly West Duffy talking about how to keep your feelings, and particularly your envy and covetousness, in check. Whilst it might seem obvious that these emotions are not a good place to live from, the podcast talked specifically about ways of ensuring that – even if you are feeling those things, as we all do at times – they are not driving your decision making.
To me, part of what mindful living means is remembering that it’s ok to have moments where you feel covetous, or envious, and forgiving yourself for it. But it also means moving on from it quickly, and not letting it cloud my judgement. I sometimes compare my life now to what it could have been if I had done things earlier, and that’s not a very helpful line of thinking. Being grateful and present for how things are, and planning for the future, feels like a much better way to approach things and reminds me to stay focused rather than comparing myself with others.
I’ve had lots of topics in my head this week to write about – the possible impact of inflation in investments; how to get started with real estate; my tax return (I am SO MUCH FUN at parties). But sitting here this Sunday morning I just feel – crappy. It’s been a busy few weeks but it has felt sort of like a deflating balloon: handing off at the end of my temporary promotion (after almost nine months of working my ass off); hitting some financial walls that I wasn’t expecting; finding it hard to get the enthusiasm together to plan for the summer, which should be exciting but I. Just. Can’t.
I feel lonely. And that’s a difficult spot to be in and stay motivated. There is something about having to constantly be my own cheerleader, my own auditor, commentator, coach, tiger mom or whatever else is just exhausting. Right now, nothing is motivating me enough to play all these roles and keep myself on track. I want to just lie down in a dark room – and unless I can pull myself out of it and get back to a place of peace, that is exactly what I will end up doing.
It is also hard to accept that when you start growing into your self, you leave people behind. The simplest antidote to loneliness feels like it’s company. So we go and hang out with those friends at the bar, take someone home for the night, get into social media scrolling. But all those things feel so empty that they can make the loneliness feel worse – make you feel like you are creating white noise instead of real connection, to distract yourself from doing the hard things.
Somewhere between these two things is where I am spending a lot of my time at the moment. I’m struggling with my own judgement about what matters, who to trust, and how to voice my needs. Honestly, I am scared that the depth of my need for closeness means that I am prepared to overlook a lot of small things which are flags that there are people who aren’t really that bothered about me after all. And I just don’t know where to go with that at the moment.
I wrote a post in January about loneliness, how it is more common than even, and the impact it has on our well-being. In that post I focused on three strategies for mitigating the feelings of loneliness and finding the kind of peace which acts as a foundation when things get rough. The first was building a stronger community, whether with family or friends, all the other Sunderland supporters you can find (good luck with that) or the girls you play Roller Derby with. My second strategy is around focusing on the calendar. Having rituals or activities which mark the passing of the seasons – from new year’s resolutions, spring cleaning, or The First BBQ of the Summer – makes me feel more like an active participant in something positive. Finally perhaps it’s about learning to listen, and to be heard. Building meaningful connections can take time and can be challenging – especially if you are feeling low – but it’s really worth it.
The JFK quote above though is also a reminder that finding peace, which is the first step to pretty much everything else really, is a transformational process even at personal level. It means taking down walls, building up new boundaries, reframing pathways and just keeping on going with the constant shift. This article about the habits that people give up on the road to peace was insightful and is helping me think about my own reactions. It talks about moving away from toxic people, from comfort, from the pursuit of perfection or impressing others, or from holding grudges (this is my own personal favourite).
But even though it sounds obvious, transformation is hard. Growth is painful. Moving away from people, and having that level of certainty in yourself and your pathway, can be lonely and exhausting. Thinking about where you will be in five years might be the right approach when you’re struggling to keep going, but if you’re doing that whilst watching people you have moved on from have The Best Party Ever on IG then it can feel like a fictitious bargain made only in your mind. I have days like today when I forget how these feelings and challenges show up, but I know that I always get through them, however crappy I feel for a little while. It’s ok. We got this.
So I have been out for a while, trying to deal with being very close to burnout. Feeling better now, but taking that space was critical. I tend to keep pushing myself well beyond what is a good idea, then getting surprised when things start to fall apart. The last few weeks I have been thinking about this and about the sense of going through life with baggage – as a single parent but also in general, as we all do – with the results and scars of our past mistakes and misfortunes, fears and triggers.
This is showing up in my life in a few ways at the moment. From the FIRE perspective, for many people the concept of baggage means coming into this journey deep in debt. And not just in debt, but with the habits, choice and often value systems which led to that debt in the first place. For me as with others, it’s more coming in and realising what I have wasted in getting here and what kind of different position I could be in. But the worst waste of time would be to get stuck in those feelings instead of getting up and at it. Your time is always now.
I was talking to a friend last night who has recently become an expat, a move which has given him a bird’s eye view of his home town. Realising that the years of making just enough money to go out and kick it with friends meant living life, which was all about ‘having fun’ actually kept him in stasis for decades. Now this could be a cause for regret. But equally, our journeys are what made us: looking backward and sneering at our younger selves is not going to change the past, though it might diminish the value that we did find. Being able to make peace with whatever our baggage is – the poor decisions, the risks that we miscalculated, that person we continued to trust in spite of there being more red flags than the bunting at the Communist Party conference – is to make it manageable and be able to take that past along on a brand new journey.
I wrote a while ago about ‘loving what is‘ – that sense of accepting and loving the present just as it is, something which is a critical step on the pathway to peace. The ability to reflect on my own triggers and limiting beliefs means that I can at least recognise them when they come up. Something like shaking hands across the divide. This is what making baggage manageable means to me: it’s not denying it but recognising my part in it, and the positives that either came through the results or through the journey. Kind of like taking a luggage trolley full of giant suitcases, feeding them into a magic vortex machine, and coming out with a little badge that you wear to remember without being tripped over by it. Or, as per my experience last week, you can just give your bags to Kenya Airways and never see them again. Either way, it works.
Making peace can be hard. It can also feel counter-intuitive in a world where – especially with FIRE, and at my stage of life – it’s all about striving. How is it possible to come from a place of tranquility and still have enough drive to get out there? The quote above from Eckhart Tolle speaks to this I think. So much of what we do is about rearranging circumstances, or the small things (or indeed the deckchairs on the Titanic) instead of rearranging how we look on the inside.
Don’t get me wrong, this internal rearranging can be just as tough as making peace. Encouraging the tectonic plates to shift inside you requires tenacity and strength. Especially when it raises questions about whether you will continue to accept the systems you have been brought up with, to live inside the structures you have internalised and all the comfortable spots you’re used to seeking solace in, however damaging.
As I start the long process of moving back to Nairobi, being able to focus on the inner work instead of the busy-work of administration, is critical. The organising bit is easy (actually it’s a massive pain in the ass, but meh) but the work on finding my peace is much harder. Who am I now, as opposed to when I last lived there? Who are my people, how do I feel about how I have moved compared to them and the spaces we find ourselves in? What are the values I have instilled in my myself and my own children and how will these blend or clash? How can I stay open to the great things coming whilst not being so attached to certain things working out that for them to go wrong would destroy me?
All those questions are critical but they aren’t things I need answers to right now. Coming to them with an internal stillness and certainty gives a certain protection both from the intensity of negative results and from freaking the F out. That has to be worth it.
Whilst I will come back to the ‘Creating the future’ thinking, this week it’s Hannukah, so I wanted to stop for a minute and think about miracles, and gratitude. It’s a recurring theme in this blog, but it’s something which is central to how I think about mindful living – and let’s face it, more gratitude in this sometimes cold and scary world can only be a good thing.
Hannukah celebrates the story of power over adversity, and of accepting grace. It’a basd on a historical story from Jerusalem in 168 BC when the Greeek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned Jewish practice and defiled the Jewish Temple in the city by installing an alter to Zeus and sacrificing pigs. The Maccabees, a small army of Jews (and not a football team) rebelled, regaining control of the temple where they removed the false alter and worked to reconsecrate the temple. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day which wasn’t enough for the necessary rituals. And then the miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days.
There’s a lot of discussion about how Hannukah was a minor Jewish festival which has become increasingly visible because it’s fun (candles, doughnuts and games – what’s not to like?!), and it’s usually around Christmas. But I love it because it’s a time of year to celebrate the miracles which surround us, and sit and stare in wonder.
But why does that matter? To me it matters because within the noise of the daily struggle, the challenges of striving and growing, the sheer astonishing, fierce, splendid grind of being human, we need to make time to be quiet. Not just to go inside yourself and see what’s there, but to get to the horizon where your power ends and feel your way into what higer power is with you.
At Hannukah you usually say ‘a miracle happened here’ if you’re in Israel, but I like to say it because miracles are happening to and within us all, all the time. Rabbi Heschel, philosopher and civil rights activist who marched with Dr King, talks a lot about why taking time to recognise this matters, saying:
People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state: it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.
Source: The Wisdom of Heschel” ― Abraham Joshua Heschel
There’s a lot of evidence that gratitude makes you happier – that people who make time to be thankful have better health, stronger relationships, and are more robust. And it makes sense if you are focused on working toward your goals that not stopping to celebrate how far you’ve come will rob you of opportunities to be proud and joyful. And they are all feelings you need, to spur you on as you climb your next mountain.
So this week,I suggest taking some time to pull over for a minute from the highway swerving of your day-to-day and taking a moment to celebrate what has happened in your life. A miracle happened here.
I’ve glibly borrowed the title for this post from the brilliant Wait But Why since I’ve been thinking a lot about how time passes. I spend a lot of energy thinking about what to fill that time with – how to make each moment a meaningful contribution of myself to the world.
In reality, I spend a lot more time making a meaningful contribution to emptying a packet of biscuits, or being Just A Little Bit Annoyed.
But this week a few things have aligned to make me remember that our time really is short. Not just short, but not guaranteed. I’ve lost a number of friends in my life and I am reminded that their time was cut short whilst I am frittering mine away.
Paula Pant had a great episode recently with Oliver Burkeman who has written a book called Four Thousand Weeks. Burkeman, who is ostensibly writing abour time management, has recognised that a lot of works about optimising our time – whether that means living mindfully, or getting through your to-do list – don’t recognise the basic fact that time is limited.
My mum always says – you can have everything, but not at the same time. It’s similar to Paula Pant’s ‘you can have anything, but not everything’ mantra. Some things are a finite resource, and time is one of those. Energy is another one: so it’s the number of shits I have to give (as it were).
Burkeman’s point is exactly that. Our average life span is 4,000 weeks which suddenly seems like it just won’t be enough. And he has some great advice about how to live with that in mind, knowing that we will have to miss out on some things, and how not to get crushed by FOMO.
There is something about having children which also makes you notice the passing of time, sometimes wishing for certain phases to be over, sometimes desperately clutching on to others which seem to have passed all too soon. It reminds me of Jonathan Fanning‘s poem about parenting: about all the last times we have of doing things, and how oftern we don’t even know it’s signalling the end of something:
The thing is, you won’t even know it’s the last time Until there are no more times. And even then, it will take you a while to realize.
So while you are living in these times, remember there are only so many of them and when they are gone, you will yearn for just one more day of them. For one last time.
So – this week I have been trying to live from that place. I stopped work at lunch time and made a bowl of steaming, spicy noodles, sparkling with chillis. I texted a boy I like who made me laugh. I quit the French classes I have taken for five years with the aim of getting a quaification I don’t need for a job I don’t want. I swam in the sea and felt the air turning to autumn. I lay in bed with my kids and listened to the rain. I lived. And I loved it.
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a journey begins with a single step’, and it’s a helpful reminder that even the most ambitious of ventures starts with just taking action. The more I engage in the FIRE journey (which continues to be much less about FIRE and much more about conscious living), the more important it is to remember that the single steps are actually the whole journey, and the journey *is* the destination.
Before I mix too many metaphors, perhaps it’s simpler to say that these days I focus more on the steps than the goals. Through peer coaching over the last year or two it became clear to me that my goals are sharp and focused: and my One Next Thing is also clear. What I was lacking though, was the idea of the messy middle section, or, what my life needed to be and become to get from here to there. So this post is about the small habits I’ve crafted and a look at how they worked this week.
Make time for gratitude: I’ve written before about my morning routine, which has been crafted to include mindfulness practice, gratitude journaling, and goal setting, all in about 30 minutes. Whilst I have to admit that I now do this probably three times a week instead of every day, I try and integrate gratitude practice throughout the day. This might sound very modern, but it’s also akin to what my granny would have called ‘prayer‘. Saying thank you before food, when receiving something, and before sleeping or travelling used to be much more ingrained into our daily lives than it is now, but it’s a habit that really makes a difference. If you really want to say thank you, be a British person asking for something in a shop – my son counted and the shopkeeper and I said ‘thanks’ three times each. Apart from generally making the world a nicer place, there is evidence that gratitude and appreciation contributes to our sense of optimism, and is one of the practices that can make you even more optimistic: something I can definitely appreciate in these challenging times.
Meal plan, and stick to it: this is one of the major tools in my (seemingly never-ending) battle with my spend on groceries. I’ve always quite enjoyed the meal planning bit, but as with my early budgets, treated it as evidence that I was Doing The Right Things and promptly ignored it. So now I take a bit of time one weekend morning over coffee to look through the special offer flyers – these come through the door once a week in Denmark, and list all the different supermarket offers – and have a poke through the fridge, freezer and cupboards to see what we have. Then I talk to the kids and let them nominate two meals each (small salad-refusing daughter invariably says pizza and pasta, but we live in hope), and we sketch out the evening meals. I try to make it so they are logical: a roast chicken on a Sunday, then leftover chicken in a risotto on a Tuesday for example, or making sure that we don’t OD on over-regular infusions of tomato sauce and mozzarella. Then I check against the commitments for the week so that the things which take more time are planned for the evenings when I, well, have more time. The proof of the meal planning is in the eating, though, so the focused work is then sticking to the plan and not heading off to the supermarket.
Check my finances: I tend to so this daily but I am also trying to trust the budget and wean myself off it. But checking in weekly means I can make sure I know what’s coming up; see if there are any sneaky tricks I have pulled on myself; and, hopefully, have a mental pat on the back for everything being in order. It has definitely taken a while to get here though, so if you are starting out then do check your bank daily (not your investments though, that way madness lies). Keeping a real eye on your spending is easily done through looking at your account regularly: whilst the odd £5 or even £15 here and there might not feel like a lot, seeing how it adds up will help keep you focused.
Do one big chore: well, they might not be that big, but it’s the kind of things where if they build up, they make me feel crazy. Recently I’ve been focusing on de-cluttering, going through the various bits of the house where crap piles up, and trying to feel like I only have things in the house which are beautiful or useful. I’ve also this week started with the Minimalists podcast which has lots of inspiration. We started the 30 day minimalism challenge as well this month – more on this soon. Other chores in this list include mowing the lawn, descaling the taps (thanks hard water in Denmark) or other thrills. But knowing I do one thing a week keeps me from waking up with randomized anxiety about the tasks undone.
Get some fresh air: maybe not as obvious as the others, but I try and work out my exercise and fresh air intake over the week. Because we’re so busy with the usual minutiae, this often means a big walk at the weekend. I am always shocked by how much better I feel after a blowy walk. There is evidence (and not only just from talking to my mum for whom the answer to all problems is either a) a walk in the fresh air or b) a hot bath) that getting outside really does make you healthier, even compared to doing the same exercises inside.
What do you do each week and how is it helping your journey? I’d love to hear from you!
With apologies to paraphrasing Byron Katie, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘loving what is’. I am prone to envy – an emotion so toxic and at odds with my ethics that I rarely even admit to friends that I feel like this. In trying to unpack why I feel envious, and the impact it has on how I interact with others and live my own life, I keep coming back to gratitude.
And it’s a relief – it’s so much simpler to find ways to be grateful rather than trying to ‘stop being envious’. It struck me that gratitude is the only tool available for digging out the roots of envy and getting on with a positive life.
In thinking about this area, I realised I have some limiting – and, frankly, horrendous – beliefs. I share them here not to totally put you off me (though I understand if that’s the case) but because recognising them is part of forgiving myself for feeling this way then weeding them out:
I worked hard for what I have – others were lucky. This is not something I believe with any part of my rational brain, but I see thoughts based on this popping up when someone is doing well. This has been really stark for me with housing, partly because in the UK at least, people who were on the property ladder some time back, or had family support at a crucial moment, are in a position that nobody could get to starting from now. Our landlord recently told me that the house we rent from them (at huge cost) has gone up $100,000 in the last year. Whilst the system is stacked in a certain way, I conveniently forget the times it has worked in my favour.
I deserve more. Oh dear. This is particularly toxic because at its core is dissatisfaction and lack of gratitude for where I am now. Which – whilst it’s not perfect – is ridiculous. My income puts me in the top 1% world wide. I am healthy and so are my amazing kids (touch wood) – and I have amazing kids. I live in the fifth happiest city in the world, one which is so safe that my 11 year old can go alone to hang out with friends. There is so much to be grateful for I am amazed that I can find the brain space to focus on the bullshit instead of weeping with happiness every day, but somehow it happens.
It wouldn’t be like this if I wasn’t a single parent. I have a specially wide jealous streak for two-parent households where I compare their options (including to work hard, take breaks, have an income double mine because there are two adults in their household) which is also unfair. There are all sorts of reasons why people are where they are on their path, and all sorts of unseen compromises. I had to make the decisions which were right for my family, and manage the consequences instead of constantly thinking ‘what if’.
So why does this matter? Apart from it making me unpleasantly whingy (at least in my head) these kind of thoughts become limiting beliefs and it takes work to get over those. This has led to limiting myself – if I really believe that others are lucky and I work hard, why bother working hard? If I am ‘unlucky’ how do I believe that things are going to work out? Its also exhausting and boring to feel this way, and it makes me negative. Consciously hearing how these beliefs play out in how I talk to people, and interact with them, has led to some very uncomfortable recognitions about myself.
But happily none of this is ingrained – every day provides a chance for change and growth. Now that’s something to be grateful for!