“I’d slow it down if I were you.”
(My friend Dave always prescient.)
I glanced in the rearview mirror, smiled or perhaps smirked… and pressed the gas just a little bit harder. Around the corner on the icy road I swerved to avoid a log. And unceremoniously impaled the Subaru in a ditch.
Deep in the New Hampshire backcountry; miles from the main road; not the faintest hint of cellphone coverage.
Stuck. Stuck in a hole with no clear way out.
I hate feeling stuck.
Feeling stuck sucks.
I was reminded of this last week as I was fielding questions from an audience after a keynote I had given.
He was well-dressed; professional; mid-forties. A parent.
He looked – and sounded – beleaguered.
“Aren’t we just stuck with the commitments that we make?” he asked. “It’s not like we can just walk away from our kids, our families, our jobs, even if we feel like it.”
Almost a sense of desperation in his voice.
The core of my message: To listen to the call of our hearts; to fulfill our dreams; to make our lives extraordinary.
I remember well that sense of desperation. Single parenting, three young boys, trying to run a business, managing a staff, keeping clients happy, struggling to pay bills, and, yes, desperately endeavoring to keep all the balls in the air. One day melting into the next wondering whether I could ever possibly reclaim a life of my own.
Here’s what I learned: Commitments matter. Relationships matter. Family matters. Careers matter. Giving matters.
But none of it matters if we lose ourselves.
There’s a reason we’re told by the flight attendants in that tired old safety schpeel that, in the event the cabin loses pressure and oxygen mask drops down, put your own mask on first. Before helping others. Because you can’t do a damn thing for anyone else if you are dead on the cabin floor.
We simply can’t take care of our children, our partners, our clients, our colleagues, our staffs if we’re empty and depleted.
And for some reason, culturally, we’re told that that is what we “should” do.
What message do we send, what example do we set, what lesson do we teach if that the way we live?
And, really, what impact do we really have if we’re constantly running on empty?
The core of my message is not to tell your boss or your wife or your kids to go screw themselves.
But it is mission critical to carve out those moments, those hours, those opportunities, even in the midst of chaos, even in the midst of all of our obligations, to feed ourselves, to nurture ourselves, to claim what is oxygen for us. An hour at the bookstore. A commitment to the gym or to a yoga practice. A couple of hours on the bike. A walk along the river. A boundary, an oasis, some small sanctuaries for yourself.
I found that I needed to “steal” those moments at first: getting up an hour earlier; setting limits; saying ‘no’ when it would be easier to say ‘yes.’
Gradually I discovered the road: ways to reclaim my dreams without abandoning the ship, ways of sharing my passions with my kids, and ultimately ways of crafting a life that was finally balanced and complete. And filled with joy.
An icy way at first. Lessons hard fought. And hurt along the way.
Imperfect to be sure. God knows it would take a few more lifetimes to get this stuff right. And I’m fairly certain that I, like many struggling parents, will have endowed more than a few therapist chairs.
A way that was not all or nothing. But a way that was – and is – whole.
So to the man in the back row: Put on your mask. And breath. Breath in the air. Claim what is yours. Rediscover again what brings you joy. And as you do, notice the space around you.
And the possibilities. Not only for yourself, but for those you love.
Slow down. Even just a bit.
So that you don’t end up. Stuck. In that ditch. With nothing left to give.