If only!

September 28, 2007 | Daily Spirituality | 10 comments

I’m happy to report that the pain of breastfeeding has finally (mostly) subsided. And thank God, because it was some of the worst pain I have ever experienced.

In those long nights a couple weeks ago, when I’d hear the baby stir and break into a cold sweat because I knew the pain that awaited me, I became convinced that I would be the most content, happy person on the face of the planet if I only didn’t have to deal with this pain. I didn’t even mind the night wakings, I told myself. I didn’t mind the chaos of having three under three, the hospital bills or the difficulty of getting out of the house with so many little kids — if only I didn’t have this pain, I would be the most grateful, joy-filled woman on the planet, dancing through my days with glee for the countless blessings that surrounded me. That’s what I told myself anyway.

What made me think of this was a little deja vu moment I had yesterday morning. After another night of little sleep I was lamenting how easy everything would be if only I got more sleep! If only I could get just a few more hours of rest I would be the most grateful, joy-filled woman on the planet, dancing through my days with glee for the…oh…wait. I already said that.

And, actually, I also said it back when I still had the DVT (blood clot) when my second baby was born. If only I could walk, if only I weren’t in so much pain every time I stood up! I’d be the most grateful, joy-filled woman on the…yeah. You know where this is going.

When I thought about it, I recalled that before the DVT it was supposedly sleep deprivation with my first child that was standing between me and sainthood. And before that it was the aches and pains of pregnancy. And before that it was morning sickness and exhaustion. And before that it was difficult clients with my business. And so on and so on.

It all came together for me yesterday, when I went shopping with my mom because she wanted to buy me a nice dress to wear to an upcoming event. I got irritated and grouchy because I was tired, the shopping trip was taking forever, nothing looked good on me, and it seemed that every 20 minutes I had to stop what I was doing and nurse the baby. As I threw some clothes back on a rack with an audible sigh to let the world know how difficult it all was for me, I had a much-needed moment of clarity: there I was, in a mall, surrounded by a kind of accessible luxury that would have baffled kings and emperors of eras past, being able to nourish my beautiful baby while out with my loving, supportive mother who was going to buy me something nice for no particular reason other than that she’s a generous person…and I was not happy. I was actually in kind of a bad mood.

In that moment something occurred to me for the first time ever: maybe this is a choice. Maybe I am just choosing to be in a bad mood.

I’ve always assumed that your emotional state, whether your happy or sad or joyful or peaceful or whatever, is due almost entirely to external forces. If things are going well, you’re happy. If they’re going bad, you’re sad. Pretty simple. I would have thought that it was impossible to say something like, “Today, I am going to be grateful. I am going appreciate all the beauty in my life. I’m not going to get frustrated and whine.” I mean, you can’t make that statement because it depends on what happens, right? I can’t say that I’m not going to get frustrated because it depends on whether or not frustrating things happen to me!…right?

I’m actually starting to clue in to the fact that that’s not right. To be sure, certain extreme situations like grave illness or the death of a loved-one would make it pretty much impossible to choose to by joyful. But I don’t currently have any circumstances like that in my life. The things that tend to leave me spewing negativity are (to name some recent examples) stuff like the downstairs toilet being broken, the oppressive heat and humidity that just won’t end, the toddler and the one-year old doing something bad (thus requiring me to get up) while I’m nursing the newborn, a surprise poopy diaper after going through the epic process of getting all the kids in their carseats, etc. These are not good reasons to be negative.

Though I’m a happy person generally and am very grateful in broad terms, I spend an inappropriate amount of time feeling frustrated or in a bad mood (supposedly) because of my circumstances. And given all the suffering in this world, and all the gifts I have in my life, it seems somehow insulting to people who actually do suffer to spend the entire drive home from the grocery store fuming about that annoying thing that happened while I was filling my cart with food.

So, ever since that moment of clarity at the mall yesterday, I’ve been trying an experiment: I’ve decided to choose not to get frustrated about any little things that don’t matter in the long run. And, to my great surprise, it’s actually kind of worked!

I recently read St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, and in it he offers some good thoughts for people who struggle with inappropriate thoughts of a sexual nature. He explains that there’s nothing sinful about simply having the thought come to mind; the important thing is to reject it, to not take pleasure in it or entertain it in any fashion. As I’ve gone through this little experiment today of choosing to be grateful and joyful at all times, I’ve realized that St. Francis’ advice applies to all kinds of negative feelings.

For example: when I walked into the living room this morning to see that the kids had gotten into a large gift box for the baby and strewn the contents all over the living room, thoughts of self-pity and frustration and a little bit of anger came to mind. So I tried just rejecting them by saying, “I am not going to get upset about this. I’m just not.” And, undoubtedly due to God’s grace, it kind of worked! I wouldn’t say I was flooded with joy or anything, but I was able to see how utterly insignificant this incident was in the grand scheme of things, and just view picking up bits of wrapping paper off my living room floor as God’s will for what I should be doing this morning. I think I even smiled a little bit.

Given that my little experiment has only been going on for about 24 hours I’m not quite ready to proclaim that from now on I will remain in a state of perpetual gratitude and joy. 🙂 But I think it’s been a big step to let go of my “If Only” spirituality (“if only I wasn’t so tired…”, “if only it wasn’t so hot…”, “if only we didn’t have so much clutter around here…”) and admit that, the majority of the time, I am simply choosing to indulge in self-pitying thoughts, always seeking to find some external event as an excuse for my behavior.

Given my personality and my tendency to be easily irritated, this is one of the more challenging spiritual exercises I’ve undertaken. So please keep me in your prayers as I attempt to banish the phrase “if only!” from my vocabulary.

10 Comments

  1. SteveG

    Here’s what you do to make this stick. Ready?

    * Sit down with your spouse for 5 minutes each day with a pencil and piece of paper for each.
    * Each of you write down 5 things you are thankful for.
    *Read your lists to each other.
    * Say a 30 second prayer offering God thanks for what you wrote on your lists.

    Do this each day for a couple of weeks and watch what happens.

    You’ll be amazed.

  2. Laura

    Great post! One of my favorite verses from the book of Proverbs – and one I repeat constantly to myself and my children – is Proverbs 19:11, “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.”

    (You’re fast becoming one of my favorite blogs to visit daily. I’m so glad Will Duquette posted your link.)

  3. Erika S.

    AWESOME POST! I really needed to read this post today. I was feeling overwhelmed with life and getting in a bad mood but now I will choose not to! Thank you!

  4. Abigail

    I needed this post today. I left my 91 year old grandfather’s house late this afternoon b/c the kids wanted to stay & play. Then we got stuck in a 2 1/2 hour traffic jam in Washington D.C. We pulled over at a scenic overlook, so I could nurse the baby. But did I get out and look at the lovely Fall view. No, I just called my husband on the cellphone and complained, yelled at the kids who were jumping into the front seat, and wished that we hadn’t stay at grandfather’s to play and buy pumpkins for 2 1/2 hours! Looks like I could use some advice from St. Francis de Sales as well.

  5. Erika S.

    Jen, Totally off topics. What are the best Catholic books that you have read and why? I would love to hear your response and add those books to my long list of books to read.
    Thanks!

  6. Jennifer F.

    Steve – wonderful advice!

    Erika – great question. I think I’ll just do a separate post about that, look out for that soon. In the meantime, I listed some in this post about a year ago, though it’s somewhat outdated now. You also might like reading the comments to this post.

  7. Kate

    Jen,

    Of course, I’ve known for a long time that you can choose your attitude (for one thing, my mother told me that constantly when I was a teenager!) but it really hit me yesterday talking to my sister on the phone. We’ve both had some really rough times, and here we were on the phone getting all ready to play “if only…” (well, I was anyway, I can’t speak for my sister) and it hit me that a few years ago, our ‘if onlys’ would look an awful lot like our present situations. Things may get tight occasionally, but my husband has work, he enjoys it, and the bills all get paid…how many times did I say, only two years ago, “if only we had a steady income!”

    Thanks for the reminder that gratitude makes all the difference between a rotten day and a good day. 🙂

  8. Literacy-chic

    I had a high school teacher who used to tell us just that fact–that we are responsible for our own frustrations, anger, boredom, etc. But I have my own “if only”: “If only it were easy to remember that at the right moment!!” 😉 I greatly sympathize and wish you luck!!

  9. Milehimama

    In his book “Holiness for Housewives and other working Women”, Dom Hubert VanZeller talks about this tendency of ours.
    The mothers say “If only I could have time for prayer, time for contemplation I would be holier and better able to love and serve God” and look with envy at the nuns.

    The nuns say “If only I could serve God through a family, I could become holier faster”.

    The grass is always greener…LOL

    I highly recommend that book, BTW. I even buy extra copies and give them away at baby showers!

  10. Sarahndipity

    Oh boy, I can so relate to this! I’m very guilty of the “if only..” thinking. My husband and I had a rough couple of years when we first got married, with an unplanned pregnancy, job losses, etc. I remember thinking that I would be perfectly happy if everything was stable again – well guess what, now things have stabalized a lot and I still find things to complain about! Now I think if only I could be a stay-at-home mom, if only we had enough money that we could do whatever we want, etc. – but I’m sure if those things happened I would find another “if only.”

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