10 Ways to Make Life Messy (and Beautiful)

Digging in the dirt

Photo Credit: Micah Taylor (Creative Commons)

This post is a Tuesday Tip.

Related Post: The Mess Will Set You Free!

Last Thursday evening I was driving my son home from guitar practice and got an emergency call from my wife. While picking up a late dinner, she’d been in a car accident with my two youngest children. Everyone was okay, but the kids were hungry and she asked me to pick them up and take them home for dinner.

When I arrived at the scene, I saw the back end of our van smashed in. I pulled in, and I began to roll up the windows to my car, so I could get out and lock it.

I didn’t know my son was craning his neck out the back window.

Until I heard strangled, plaintive grunts from the back seat.

I quickly lowered the window and he let out an anguished cry. Part pain, part anger at my seeming abuse and betrayal. Outside my car, the little ones were indeed crying and crabby, standing hungry behind the wrecked van.

An absolute mess.

A part of me—the part of me that says life is supposed to be orderly and composed and if it isn’t then somebody is at fault—wanted to be angry, to blame and shame someone for something. But then I heard inside the echoes of a lecture by Ann Lamott: “The grace of age is radical self-acceptance.” Reminding me life is messy, and we human creatures are messy, and life isn’t about eliminating the mess, it’s about embracing the mess.

And I felt a sense of peace steal over me. And with it came beauty.

I noticed the glistening tears of my beautiful daughter, and I was grateful. My son’s anger, though misplaced, was a blessed reminder that he usually trusts me so when I screw up it really hurts him. The caved-in van was a graceful symbol of the temporary nature of all material things. And there was my wife, comforting the elderly immigrant who had caused the accident. And I was grateful for the opportunity to witness real love.

An absolutely beautiful mess.

I think perhaps we begin to accept our messy selves—begin to embrace the beauty of our flawed and broken being—by first accepting the chaos of everyday living.

Would you try with me? Would you try to accept the messiness of life? Perhaps even embrace it and revel in the beauty? If we are going to do so, I think we have to do more than tolerate mess when it happens. I think we need to create mess.

Here are ten ideas:

  1. Start a food fight at the dinner table.
  2. Get into the longest line at the supermarket. Intentionally.
  3. Declare a week of no picking-up. The kids will love you, you’ll have more free time, and you might just relax into the mess.
  4. Declare a month of no yard work. When the leaves fall, throw the kids a rake, let them pile in and worry about it later.
  5. Don’t go to the grocery store this week. Cook with whatever you have in the house. Find ways to make it fun. Chocolate syrup on stale cereal? Absolutely!
  6. Make one Facebook status per day about something messy in your life. Don’t ask for comfort. Ask for celebration
  7. Pick a wall in the house for drawing on. The kids will, once again, love you.
  8. Instead of a tablecloth, use newspaper. And no plates.
  9. Let the kids dress themselves for a week, no matter how ridiculous it looks. Intentionally wear mismatched socks to work.
  10. Make no plans for an entire weekend. Live moment to moment. Go to a park if that’s the mood. Or go to a homeless shelter if that’s the mood. Let it be messy and unplanned.

Does this sound crazy? I think it might be a little crazy. But accepting our orderly, comfortable, shame-filled existence is even crazier, isn’t it?

Comments? Why stop at ten? Could we get to 100? Share your ways of making life messy and beautiful in the comments.

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TUESDAY TIP DISCLAIMER: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Hansraj Jain

    Welcome to live in the slums of Nagpur (where we work) in India. I promise you it will be an experience in living…embracing real mess! There is no sanctification in living either in the mess or in orderliness. Gratitude for what is given and that which we possess underlined by contentment is the way to live! Hansraj Jain

    • Mlinzi

      LOLEST!

    • drkellyflanagan

      On the Facebook page, another comment from India was left about embracing real mess! I really appreciate your sentiment here. Not seeking mess or order, but simply what is. Thank you.

  • Kim

    Love Ann Lamott and love this post. I know that joy and gratitude and grace are all right there in the middle of the mess. Thank you for this reminder.

  • Deborah Lonneman Plikuhn

    Last Friday I got out our stash of candy collected from birthday parties and holidays and let the kids eat that for breakfast for the first time ever! They loved it!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Make that #11!

  • Kelley Ann Neal Joseph

    we must find beauty in the reality of life, not in the perfection we try to portray to others, thank you for reminding us that is a lesson our children need to learn daily

  • Mlinzi

    I will definitely pick up on number 6.

  • Arcadio Naranjo

    Death is part of life! In order to create a new order in my life, a process of destruction and mess should appear previously. When mess appears, it is a blessing symptom of discomfort, a sign that provokes changes and making me to twist something around, so to best satisfy my needs. I embrace mess to move further to a better present, and thus accepting death and destruction. Welcome Autumn because as in Nature, I die inside. This is the so called, a regeneration process!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Well said, Arcadio. Transformation is usually (always?) a messy process!

  • Anne

    last night I let my 6 year old daughter load the dishwasher. It definitely wasn’t loaded in the orderly way I like to load it…but she was so proud of it, and so willing to help. So what it I have to rewash a couple dishes. I really appreciated her willingness…even though it was hard for me to not fix it.

    Sometimes it is also hard to let the kids make their own bed, or clean their own room. In it’s cleanliness it still has a flair of messiness. But they did it themselves…and that gives them a sense of pride in their own accomplishments. (as adults we just need to step back, accept the “messiness” and refuse to fix it!)

    • drkellyflanagan

      So true, Anne. It would be much more efficient and orderly to do it ourselves, but when a sense of accomplishment and efficacy they get when they do it themselves. Good for you!

  • Tamara Patterson

    #7 is fantastic and we don’t even have kids yet.

  • Laura Kramer

    Love these ideas of embracing and even “relaxing” into the mess. I’m looking forward to #5 and I have my kids will too.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Laura, relaxing into the mess is a great way to put it. By the way, thank you for sharing your recent post. I appreciated your honesty. I will be sharing it with several people as an affirmation of their grieving process.

      • Laura Kramer

        Thank you. Grief is hard. Period. I hope there is something in that post that affirms and heals those you share it with.

  • jlanewell

    First and foremost I am happy your family was okay after the accident.
    I would like to think that a form of embracing the mess is when you let go of having to have things done your way and you can see the beauty in the not so perfect way your spouse accomplished a task.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Jennifer, and you’re absolutely right. That’s a great express of embracing the mess!

  • kris

    Oh how I have loved Friday’s post and
    this Tuesday Tip! I grew up in chaos, not the kind you describe here but the
    kind that has turned me into a mess of an adult. Now that I am a “married
    single mom” (that’s for another post) of three beauties I can completely appreciate
    the chaos I grew up in and embrace the mess I am now. It has helped me manage
    this crazy life so well! I work outside the home full-time so there is a lot of
    mess — both figuratively and literally. My four and two year olds are free to
    dress themselves — my two year old wears her Minnie Mouse pj’s to daycare on a
    regular basis. Weekends are never
    planned — let’s do something fun! my four year old exclaims. Fun ranges from
    spending hours letting him lead us through the neighborhood then having him
    find the way back home to sitting on the back patio “painting” with
    water, sidewalk chalk and/or dish soap (which makes for some very dirty children!). When we bake I scoop (the ingredient to ensure proper measurement) and they dump (it into the bowl). Flour and sugar everywhere but oh the joy (sneezed-in batter and all)! Meals are a creative and healthy feast
    — leftover chicken with a side of raisins for breakfast? ok! yogurt and
    broccoli for dinner? why not! And when there is the need to actually clean
    something (because let’s face it, with three kids something inevitably needs to
    be cleaned) they are eager to help however they can. All that really matters to
    them is that we are together. They are
    not going to remember how clean I kept the floor or how neatly I folded their
    laundry. But they will absolutely remember
    the time I let them trash the play room and launch themselves into the sofa
    cushions. Learning to embrace the mess
    this way helps when you’ve got one screaming, one crying and another whining! And I love, love, love that someone else is putting it out there that life is messy and when you can embrace the mess you’re surprisingly not such a mess!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kris, You are an icon of playfulness; thanks for sharing yourself with us!