What does it mean to be behind?
For many years I lived by the To-Do List, which I never seemed to finish, so I often felt behind. You know what I’m talking about. (Make the soup, call the bank, do my notes, pay the car insurance, call the guy about the thing….) So imagine my bewilderment one winter evening as I sat talking with some friends by the fire, and one of my friends relayed this anecdote. She said, “When I first moved here to the Bay Area, it seemed like everyone was rushing around from place to place, thing to thing, all the time. It really stood out. So I started asking people, ‘Do you feel like you are behind?’ And most people said, ‘Yes, all the time.’”
The sun was setting and we were finishing a pot of dandelion tea. The only background noise was the fire. We contemplated this statement my friend had just made. I swirled my teacup as my brain did some gymnastics – for the first time, I was seeing something clearly that had been so familiar it was invisible.
Behind? What does that really mean? In that moment, it made no sense to any of us.
It used to make sense to me. I enjoyed crossing things off my list, and I thought being busy meant being successful, or at least that success was somehow assured if I kept busy. But that winter, my work slowed down organically, as work sometimes does. It rained a lot, and in that wet stillness I realized much of what I did to “keep busy” wasn’t actually bearing fruit in any way.
So after that conversation, I thought about the idea of Getting Ahead and Falling Behind a lot.
In my work, I help people with their health. Most are women recovering from eating disorders or with skin problems like acne and eczema, because that’s who started showing up and I’ve been able to help them tremendously. Their success depends on a lot of things, but a big part is whether or not they are willing to rest and rejuvenate – to actually allow the healing to occur.
There is an adage that we teach what we ourselves are learning, and this proved very true for me. I was still healthy, eating well, taking good care of myself in so many ways – but on the slow boat to burnout, because I believed in Staying Busy as a value and a virtue, and because I thought there was a way to Get Ahead or Fall Behind. But, there is no way to get ahead. There is no way to fall behind.
This is not what most people believe, but it’s the truth. Stay with me: Imagine yourself as a space alien observing from above. You’d never think, “That human is behind.” What you would see is, “That human is rushing.” Or possibly even, “That human is rushing so much that it is making simple mistakes and having to go back and redo everything it does at least once!”
The common belief “I am behind” is an overlay, but it’s not a fact. It isn’t the action itself or how you perform it. Instead, it is merely a thought you have about the action. Similar to any other judgment or evaluation such as, “I am ugly.” “That person is incompetent.” “Today sucks.” and so on…
Now, it makes no sense to me that I could live in a world where I do not have “enough hours in the day”, or I have to run myself ragged for any reason. I don’t believe the world would ask that of me – or of you. I have had bosses ask a lot of me, but the only person who has truly ever pushed me to the ragged edge is myself, and I’ve learned to stop doing that because it felt sh*tty and made no sense.
Twentieth-century monk and mystic Thomas Merton had this to say on rushing:
The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation with violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys her own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
– Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
This is another way to say: Rushing around hurts you – and by extension, hurts those around you. It undoes your good work.
The belief that there is a way to get ahead (and this is good) or fall behind (bad) leads to rushing: When you keep running, something (more deadlines and demands) keeps chasing you.
I know, I know – some things in life are time sensitive, but they can be thought of in a different way that doesn’t hurt.
Having a baby, for instance: If you don’t have a baby during your safely reproductive years, and don’t adopt (for any number of reasons) you just don’t have a child. But you were never behind and you aren’t behind now! Like lots of wonderful people in the world, including several of my mentors and elder friends, you took another path for one reason or another, and it just is what it is. And you simply don’t have a child.
About paying bills, license renewals, and other administrative tasks: Yes, these are time-sensitive. And it’s a powerful and liberating thing to take care of them right away, as soon as you get the notice. Do this if you can, so you can put that item out of your mind entirely and attend to something more interesting. But if that doesn’t happen and you find some crucial thing is past due, I’ll tell you what: Pay the fee. The peace of mind is worth it.
Also: I promise you, whoever you are sweet person, there are enough hours in the day.
Back beside the fire, the sun set in solemn winter hues. My friends left and I watched the shadows deepen and the fire sputter out. It was 6:00 pm. My heart was full so I enjoyed the emptiness around me, cold and peaceful. There wasn’t a thing in the world that needed to be done right then. This was a new feeling. I put on my warmest nightgown and went to bed.
Mollie Moorhead is a practical wild woman, holistic health coach and herbalist. She helps women (and a few very cool men) create health + happiness from the inside-out. You can follow her on Instagram and her website and download her free Get Healthy! guided meditation, a 10-min loving kindness meditation to help you shift from pain + frustration to health + happiness.
Image courtesy of kinkate.