It happens almost every Monday morning.
Somewhere in the midst of my commute to the office, I start to review the weekend. Occasionally, I’m richly satisfied by the collection of moments and memories bridging the gap between work weeks. But the truth is, most Mondays, I end up asking myself, “How did I begin the weekend with such good intentions, and how did my priorities get so out of whack so quickly?”
A couple of months ago, on a holiday Monday, I received an answer to the question.
For several weeks, we’d been assembling a trailer for our van. My wife and I are not particularly talented mechanics, so the going had been slow. But old friends had come to town for the weekend, and they were helping us put the finishing touches on it.
Finally, the last wire was spliced and the last nut was turned.
My friend rolled the trailer to the rear of our van to attach it but stopped short when he got there. “You don’t have a hitch on your van,” he said, ‘’you’ll need to buy one and have it installed.” This had not occurred to us. Like I said, we are not exactly mechanical geniuses. Our shoulders were slumping in defeat, when our other friend observed, “Well, that’s the way of projects. They’re never finished.”
That’s the way of projects, and that’s the way of life.
The problem isn’t that our priorities are out of whack; indeed, most peoples’ priorities are soundly intact. Most of us want really good things—we want to put people before projects and love before languishing. The problem with our priorities isn’t that they are wrong.
The problem with our priorities is that they’re on hold.
We don’t get started on our priorities because we’re always trying to finish something else first. We live under the illusion that the to-do list will shrink and, once we’re done doing, we’ll get to start being. We live the myth that getting things done—making everything neat, tidy, and over—is possible.
We plan to start playing when the work is finished.
We want to wrestle with the kids but wind up wrestling with our email inbox. We want to play in the yard but wind up working in the yard. We want to just be in this space, but, instead, we wind up tidying our spaces. We just want to breathe, but we wind up losing our breath.
We plan to start risking when our hearts are finished.
We tend to think of our hearts as a project like any other—we have a list of things we think must be accomplished inside of us before we can start taking risks outside of us. Once I’m more confident, I’ll start dating. Once I’m more patient, I’ll have children. Once my insides look as orderly as everyone else looks on the outside, I’ll follow my heart and my passion and start doing the things I want to do in the world.
We plan to start engaging when our shows are finished.
We press pause on our most treasured priorities, because our digital projects aren’t finished yet. We want to catch up with a friend but instead we catch up on our television shows. We want to pay attention to our kids but instead we pay attention to Facebook Messenger. We wind up playing Words with Friends instead of speaking words to the friend next door.
Of course, our projects aren’t necessarily bad or wrong. Indeed, some of them do need to be attended to immediately—after all, some of them pay the bills and keep us safe.
But most of them are unfinishable.
There is no end to them.
Even if this thing gets completed, the next thing will take its place.
So, to live the things we love, we will have to live unfinished…
B.J. Miller is a palliative care physician who had both legs and most of one arm amputated after being electrocuted in college. He is the executive director of the Zen Hospice project. He helps people die peacefully. His is the perfect recipe for keeping his priorities straight, yet even he gets seduced by his projects. In a recent interview, he admitted, “I, of all people, know that time is precious…I have no excuse to forget that…and yet I find myself incredibly and increasingly busy, sometimes out on limbs doing things that I don’t necessarily want to do, or even believe in…I’ve got to constantly rejigger my time.”
May we be constantly tinkering with our time.
May that be the unfinishable project we are always working on, and may we give the rest of our projects and ourselves and our lives permission to be unfinished. Then, with the time we’d normally spend trying to finish things, let’s do the things we’ve been wanting to do, live the things we’ve been wanting to live, and love the things we’ve been wanting to love.
Our time here is short.
The blessing of living unfinished is the opportunity to fill it up with what matters to us most.
Now, in the spirit of living unfinished—I’m going to go play. In fact, I’m not even going to
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