I’ve recently noticed that the best conversations tend to happen over food.
Maybe that should have been obvious, but it struck me last week while my team and I celebrated a birthday with sushi. We often joke about how much we love food – in fact, we tend to talk about it with each other in an extremely involved way while we’re eating (as in, we will individually list our favorite types of pizza while we are, at the same moment, literally stuffing our faces with pizza).
We sometimes deviate from this important topic to talk about something more meaningful. This time, my friend Andrew asked Michael what he had learned during his 23rd year of life. I enjoy celebrating birthdays with people for this reason - there is something really cool about hearing a friend reflect on another year of life: the joys, the challenges, the inevitable changing seasons, and the ways we grow through them. Michael shared a bit about his last year, which was filled with a lot of exciting things, and also told us what he would like to be true about himself in the future. He then turned the tables and asked us what we had each learned in the past year.
I’m a sucker for deep conversations and questions. If it was socially acceptable to walk around with one of those “Table Topic” card decks, I would keep one with me at all times. I leaned back in my chair and listened as Andrew told us about a simple but powerful shift in his thinking about life goals: ask yourself compelling questions that will engage your thinking, instead of simply making to-do lists or setting routines. Or, if you really want to make a to-do list, ask yourself what the purpose of it is before making it. It helps you center yourself around the why behind what you do – instead of running around maniacally trying to accomplish 249,187,312 things (as I often do).
After finishing my spicy tuna roll and letting the conversation simmer in my mind for a bit, I decided to try this new technique. I picked a question that a good friend and mentor of mine had asked me earlier in the summer:
What kind of person do I want to be?
I know. Why start with – literally – the most difficult question possible, Sam? I don’t know. I have issues.
The idea behind asking yourself a question like this is to let the answer dictate how you prioritize your life. For example, if I want to be someone who is disciplined, it helps to remember that goal when I need to study for my Accounting midterm. If I want to be someone who is kind and loving, it helps to remember that goal when I decide whether to react to someone with frustration or with love. Keeping the question at the forefront of my mind and revisiting it periodically serves to remind me of why I do the things I do.
Upon choosing this particular question, I promptly forgot about it and got distracted by work, school, and the news. A certain recording of a certain Presidential candidate had surfaced (you probably haven’t heard about it – minor issue), and I was so upset about it that I could barely focus. I scrolled through Twitter in a haze of irritation, letting it feed my frustration like a drug. I added fuel to the fire, drinking in all of the angry reactions and allowing them to magnify my own. I stewed. In fact, I even started playing the piano like an angsty teenager (which I only do when I’m feeling particularly emo). My sister, who was home from college for the weekend, gave me a look later in the day – a look that said, “You are being super weird. Please stop.”
Of course, my frustration wasn’t connected only to the issue at hand. As horrible as it was, the audio recording had simply pushed me over the edge. There were other little things under the surface – things I had pushed down instead of dealing with them, things that had bothered me and wounded me and confused me – and instead of processing them the mature way, I had held onto them. I didn’t want to let them go, because part of me wanted to believe I was a victim. I had allowed the resentment and bitterness in my heart to grow like a weed, and all of a sudden, it was choking out anything else that could become lovely or bright or wholesome. It was clouding my vision, and everything around me was tinted red.
I continued to sit in my cloud of anger until I realized that it was starting to feel suffocating. So I did what I often do when I’m stuck. I called my dad.
My dad did what he normally does in such situations – he listened patiently, asked a few questions, and then gave me something to read. It was an article about a familiar story: the tale of the prodigal son.
The article took a unique position, and focused on the heart of the older brother. The one who felt left out, ignored, and misunderstood. The one who didn’t get as much attention as he thought he deserved, compared to the brother who had gone astray. As an older sister, I had always sympathized with him a bit. The poor dude was doing everything “right”, and no one was noticing it. He was justified in his anger…right?
But all of a sudden, the question I had chosen to focus on floated to the forefront of my mind: What kind of person do I want to be?
Do I want to be the kind of person who lives in pride, bitterness, and jealousy? Do I want to be the kind of person who focuses solely on her own needs? Do I want to be the kind of person who instantly judges others before thinking about what I might be doing wrong?
Most of the time, I am that person. My thoughts and actions reflect what's in my heart like a mirror, revealing all kinds of gross stuff. But once I see it, I can take small steps towards patience, humility, self-control, and love.
On Wednesday, my team and I watched a documentary called The White Helmets. The film is about a group of Syrian nationals who spend their time voluntarily conducting rescue missions in areas riddled by bombings. It was inspiring and humbling to watch these men risk their lives to bring hope and healing into broken places. They can't stop the bombings from happening, but they focus on what they can control - and it frees them up to do brave and beautiful things.
I’ll end with a few words from a book I love, called The Screwtape Letters. It’s a fictional set of notes from the devil to one of his minions:
My Dear Wormwood,
Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is "out there" in the "broken system" rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself. Keep up the good work.
Let's try to prevent this from happening. It seems like our energy could be much better used elsewhere.