I’ve been making lists since, well, probably first grade. As soon as homework entered my childhood world, I began making lists: assignments for the next day or the next week; vocabulary lists; when playmates would come to my house, and I go to theirs; lists of things to do, lists of things to buy, lists of Christmas gifts requiring “thank you” notes, lists of letters or cards due, packing lists, bill paying lists, phone call lists, email lists. Virtually all of my lists focus on things that I must not forget. Sometimes, they are things I feel I must do to be viewed positively by someone else.
Usually, making a list calms my anxiety about forgetting or failing. That function is a useful and helpful one. A thorough, prioritized list can talk me down off the ledge of panic. For most of my career, I was responsible for accomplishing my work and helping my bosses keep track of and achieve their goals. I could not have been successful or, indeed, survived without an advanced “list-making” technique.
And then came retirement, and I went right on making lists. To this very day, five and a half years after I left my last job, a list sits next to my computer—this one I have highlighted in multiple colors indicating the urgency of various tasks.
I’ve heard it said that there is a great deal of satisfaction to checking off a task on a to-do list. I’ve experienced mild pleasure in doing that. But invariably, for each job I check off, I add at least two and sometimes ten new ones. The sense of accomplishment does not last long or feel deeply gratifying. Indeed, when I go to my list to check off a recently completed item, my eyes will stray to the rest of the list where I will note, with a sinking heart, the number of things I was NOT doing while I was finishing the one thing just checked off. Even as I initially choose one item to focus on for half an hour, I am aware that fifteen others will go undone in that timeframe. Truly a depressing and discouraging realization—perhaps the epitome of the “glass half empty” syndrome. Here are the things I am not able to do right now because I AM doing THIS.
It’s a vicious circle—a vicious list.
I have friends who make fun of me because of my “obsessive” list-making. The implication is that I am at least a little odd, if not downright bad. It has been hard for me lately not to subscribe to their point of view. And, truthfully, I’d like to do away with list-making as a thing of the past, no longer necessary in this more relaxed stage of my life. But remember, I have been doing this since I was six years old.
Realistically, I don’t think a complete about-face is likely. I can and have moderated my list dependency, and I give myself breaks from it periodically when I am on vacation, sick, or on retreat. However, as with most other aspects of my life these days, the most helpful approach is to take myself less seriously, to “hold it lightly,” as one of my friends might say.
A few quotes from Pema Chödrön’s The Wisdom of No Escape (Shambala, Boston & London, 1991) might shed some light on the “path” I am currently cultivating:
“…if we see our so-called limitations [habits, crutches, addictions] with clarity, precision, gentleness, good heartedness, and kindness and having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we are doing.” [p.13-14]
“The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself. The other problem is that our hang-ups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neuroses and wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom…So whether it’s anger or craving [for comfort through list making!] or jealousy or fear or depression—whatever it might be—the notion is not to try to get rid of it, but to make friends with it. That means getting to know it completely, with some kind of softness, and learning how, once you’ve experienced it fully, to let go.” [p.14-15]
“Our life’s work is to use what we have been given to wake up.” [p. 30]
Thank you, Pema!
So, I am not going to pour a lot of energy into reform. Instead, I’ll look deeply at what lies behind my list-making. What are its roots? Where does it come from? What’s life-giving in it and what is not. I will offer acceptance to whatever I find in that investigation and hold it gently, lightly, and kindly. While I do that, perhaps I will find myself understanding and feeling compassion for others who, like me, have compulsions, coping mechanisms, and addictions. I’ll wonder about the roots of their behaviors. And I’ll try to open up—wake up—to the other side of the coin of my neuroses and theirs, our wisdom.