Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. – Mother Teresa
On Friday evening I was on a connecting flight (with my daughter and wife) from Chicago to Wichita, Kansas. We were all engaged in our own activities — sleeping, reading, listening to music — when my daughter, who was sitting in the window seat, tapped my shoulder and nervously pointed outside of the airplane. The night sky was flashing and popping in a magnificent display of lightning. From our flying altitude it seemed especially close, awe inspiringly spectacular, and perhaps to my daughter, a bit frightening.
But I wasn’t worried.
A couple of times each year, I travel to Haiti to visit friends and work with a few schools. Haiti can be incredibly beautiful, but it is also shockingly poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly chaotic. A normal drive through Port-au-Prince can be a harrowing experience, but I have also driven up steep, narrow, mountain roads that are not made (or maintained) for vehicles. I have seen demonstrations and even been caught-up in a protest, narrowly slipping past a road block designed to shut down a major highway.
But I wasn’t worried.
A few times each week, or even each day, I receive an email, a phone call, or I have a situation that arises at school — something has gone wrong, someone is upset or angry, a student has had a bad experience, or a staff member is facing a challenge. I become overly anxious. How can I resolve the problem? How can I keep everyone safe and happy? How can I be responsible for my students, my staff, and my school community? Countless situations call for action, but I often feel paralyzed by indecision.
So, how is it that I am able to function with a reasonable amount of assurance in Haiti, or remain calm (and even enjoy) a lightning storm at 35,000 feet — but allow an email, an upset individual, or a growing task list to trigger anxiety. I believe the answer lies (at least in part) in the fact that I have fooled myself into believing that in the latter situations I am ultimately in control.
I am not a pilot, and I am clearly unable to influence weather patterns and storms. In Haiti, I am at the mercy of my good friend to get me safely where I need to go, translate, and monitor the surroundings for potential risk. Even if I wanted to, there is very little I could do to influence outcomes in these situations. I must rely on faith — in others and in God. I understand this and so I don’t allow those things to be stressful or create anxiety.
While it is true that I am responsible for the actions in my day-to-day life, it would be absurd to believe that I could control another person’s response, or that I am solely responsible for the attitudes and happiness of everyone around me. I am no more capable of doing that than I am of controlling a lightning storm, or dispersing a protest in Haiti. It just isn’t going to happen.
This doesn’t excuse me from responsibility. In fact, it is absolutely critical that I make deliberate, thoughtful, and responsible decisions in the moment– doing my best to positively influence outcomes for the benefit of those I serve. But once those decisions have been made, or actions have been taken, I have to rest in knowing that I did my best, have faith, and understand that final outcomes are beyond my control.
This is not an easy thing for me — or most people for that matter. I struggle to stay in the moment. I am easily distracted. I am overconfident in my ability to influence outcomes and I want everyone to be happy. I struggle to distinguish what is truly important from what is trivial. I want to be in control — but true control is an illusion.
I am convinced that my daily success depends on a few key elements:
- Taking the time for quiet reflection
- Identifying what is most important–the big rocks…the things that really matter
- Staying in the moment — being present and caring for the people in front of me
- Doing my best, and then having faith that things will be okay — letting go
None of it is easy, but for me, letting go is the biggest challenge. I have to continue to work at accepting the fact that I am not ultimately in control. I have to do my best, keep my attention on what matters most, and then have faith in the outcome.