The Blessing of Living Unfinished


Photo Credit: Bigstock (grafvision)

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

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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.

20 thoughts on “The Blessing of Living Unfinished

  1. I loved this post! Yes, it is so true. We think we close to” finishing” something and then we realise we’re not. We think we’ve nailed it and then another unexpected challenge pops up. We absolutely can’t wait until __________ to start living !

  2. I love this. I came across your blog on the weekend and this just reminds me that the best decision I made last week was to withdraw from University after 8 years.

    Time for life now.

  3. Cool. I like this perspective.
    According to ‘the world’ I am ‘defective’ due to my regularly forgetting to finish whatever I started on. I have ADHD. People get annoyed with me. I get annoyed with me sometimes.
    But actually, if you put it like this, it’s one thing I’m getting right. (along with many other differently wired individuals, I imagine).
    Because, sure, I may not have finished tidying and dusting the house. But the baby is well fed and her baby laughter when I play with her won’t last forever. And 3 out of 4 rooms does count, right?
    And sure, I may not have had time to do all the chores, but it’s only because I ran into someone I last saw in high school and caught up with them.

    Now, If you’ll excuse me, I am actually going to work on a project again… because sometimes you DO need to finish them. For example if you’re getting paid for it…

    • Alletta, thank you for adding this. As I wrote the post, I had increasing appreciation for the strengths of my oldest, who definitely leans in the ADHD direction. He is so good at living his life fully! It gives me more patience with him. I’m glad this encourages patience with yourself, as well. And good luck with that paying project. 🙂

  4. Marvelous!
    Life is the ultimate Unfinishing School and the sooner we catch on, the more play, breathing, love, just being, and sitting, noticing time we have to experience it. Thank you for lending your voice to quiet those forever-long and ever-replenishing to-do lists.

    • “Life is the ultimate Unfinishing School.” How do you do that every week, Shel?!? I should start sending you my posts ahead of time so you can cull the thesis statement from it and then I can revise accordingly. 🙂

  5. Thank you for such another moving post. Two years ago I did 39, the age my mother was when she died. It was quite a moving moment, because while I always “knew” this (she died when I was 5), I think I had not realized the “urgency” I felt at times and this feeling “I needed to get the most of the moment” I was living my life with were coming from that. In all these years, life happened, and as for all of us, some things worked out well and some others didn´t, and I found myself at 39, feeling disappointed at myself for not “accomplishing” all my items in the to-do list I had for these years (and certainly, not realizing all the unplanned I did accomplish). It takes a lot of perspective to come to terms on this topic, and the hardest part is to put the word “joy” before the word “done”. Wise people as BJ Miller, and posts like yours, continue to bring light in a very graceful way. Thank you!


    • I love that: the hardest part is to put the word “joy” before the word “done.” You had especially painful reasons to have difficulty with that, Cris. I’m glad that your age is beginning to give you freedom from it.

  6. Wow. Thank you for this. My heart knows it, even my mind knows it, but programming is so hard to overcome. I needed this.

  7. I opened and read this Kelly while I was trying (hard) to complete the projects before my departure. I leave in 10 days for sabbatical. The list is impossibly long and I keep making it longer. What is it about living by lists that is so infuriating? So, I am closing the computer and going to just go hang out, swim, laugh, play someplace. It is so ridiculous to act as if “getting things done” is some kind of a crown to win. Thank you for saying just what I needed to read today!

    • Brian, I’m thrilled to hear this created a little emotional space for you before you leave! As always, I’m tracking with you. A huge to-do list today. I put most of it off and went merry-go-rounding at the park with the kids. May you enjoy your people in these days before leaving, as well!

  8. My friend and I often remind each other “It’s hard to not be a slave”

    Enjoy your freedom 😉

  9. Great words, phew what a relief….. I can actually leave some weeds in my garden 😉 THANKS FOR ALL OF THIS!

  10. Lots of everyday aches here. Our impulsiveness/compulsiveness, the difficulty of self discipline, the struggle between out imaginary perfect selves and our real selves, between realistic goals and fantasies for how we will spend our time, guilt and shame and whatever else that drives us to distraction.

    Over the weekend I didn’t feel like doing the difficult tasks (because they were psyching me out) and I took a swing at them anyway because I didn’t feel like relaxing or distracting myself either. For once I knew clearly which loose ends were contributing to my internal discomfort and I took action. And felt hopeful.

  11. Thank you, once again, for such an enlightening message.
    I could feel myself exhaling and just letting go of my self inflicted ‘to do list’ stressors, as I read this.
    I’m sitting at an airport with my teenaged son, waiting to board a flight to a one week wifi-free holiday. This message could not have come at a better time! –Permission to breathe, let go a little and enjoy the wonderful gift of a holiday with my son 😊
    Thanks again! You’re a beautiful soul.

Comments are closed.