If you are anything like me, most days you are left with more things to do on your list than there is time left to do them. Being a maximizer type, those things that remain undone on my list really work my last nerve. It’s as though I am destined to be forever stuck in the twilight zone, tormented by a never ending list of things to do! It’s one of the reasons that doing laundry is perhaps one of my least favorite things to do. Has anybody ever gotten to the bottom of their laundry basket? Like really? I mean no sock, no blouse, no handkerchief, no bed linen, no kitchen towel etc. etc. left to be washed? If you have, I applaud you. Me, I am still fighting the good fight.
There is a certain thrill I get from seeing a project through from conceptualization to completion, knowing that the final deliverable, whatever it is, has my signature on it, and I can give the triumphant cry: “Ta da! Done it!” Then of course, there is the added thrill of ONCE and for all crossing it OFF my list! I love it!! However, as thrilling as completion is, I now recognize that for most of the really important things in our lives that crossing out moment may forever elude us. And while the thought of it initially filled me with great dread, as I have continued to reflect on it, I am more at peace with this notion of the incomplete.
On a recent trip to Spain, I stood in amazement outside the famous La Sagrada Familia. This cathedral was started in 1882 and became the magnum opus of Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí envisioned a cathedral with eighteen towers that would showcase his unique architectural style and be a place of worship for the poor. Tragically, he died when only one tower had been built. And yet that is only the beginning of the story. From the time of his death to now, many other architects have continued to add to his endeavors to create this architectural wonder that is still incomplete, but remains the most visited tourist attraction in Spain.
On my last day in Spain, my friend, *Heewon, and I were walking in Park Güell, another one of Gaudi’s creation. In the distance we could see La Sagrada Familia, and as we looked out at it, Heewon said to me wisely: “There is beauty in the incomplete.” Indeed, she is right! There are gifts that come to us from the incomplete journeys in our lives.
Gifts of a Larger Purpose: In early November, I spent a few days shadowing my friend Dr. Edwin Estevez, Provost of Greenville College. I have been in academia long enough to understand the work that a Provost does—he/she is the hand, eyes, ears, mouth and feet of the president of an institution. As Edwin and I walked the more that 10,000 steps each day meeting with faculty, students members of his administrative team, board members etc. there was hardly a moment when he was not ON. His job entails being an unseen cog that keeps the machinery of the institution going. Yet, in one of those rare moments when we sat down to chat, he said to me: “The nature of the work is that I may never see the final deliverable of my day to day activities. Yet, I am committed to a larger purpose, the mission and vision of the institution”.
Similarly, in our own lives there are gifts that come to us when we step back from the mundane day- to-day activities and catch a glimpse of the grand arc of our lives. Each day we are contributing to that larger mission and vision. And unfortunately or, perhaps, fortunately that work will forever be a “work-in-progress”.
Gifts of the Alternative: In economics, I learned the concept of the “opportunity cost.” The true cost of an action includes the cost to us of forgoing some other action. Yes, I know: “Mumbo jumbo, Mumbo jumbo!” Let me clarify with the use of an example. A few years ago, I took a sabbatical leave from my job to work on a book. Said book is still incomplete. Now, I will admit that part of the reason it is not finished has to do with lack discipline, plain and simple. At the same time, that incomplete book is a reminder of the things I did CHOOSE to complete, for example, spending more time with my children, planning birthday parties and family outings for them, reading to them, doing art projects with them etc. etc. However, the biggest gift to me of this incomplete book project comes from the time I took in the last months of my sabbatical to plan an awesome Mother’s Day event for my “mom”. I bought some fabric, dusted off my sewing machine and sewed an apron for her. Then I took the time to search online for the perfect cupcake motifs to glue on it representing her children and grandchildren. We planned a scrumptious brunch and the siblings and grandchildren got together at our house, and we showered her with gifts and tributes of love. What an awesome time we had that Mother’s Day! We had no idea that it would be the last Mother’s Day that she would spend with us! But Oh! I am SO grateful for this gift of time with her that came to me by way of my incomplete book.
Gifts of an Enduring Impact: There is a Greek Proverb that says: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I have been teaching for so long now that individuals, some whose names I don’t even remember, come up to me and tell me what a great influence I have been on their lives. I am often surprised and humbled by these admissions. Yet, many days the grind of trying to get it all done–teaching, answering emails, grading papers, (i.e. things on my to-do list), and sometimes feeling overworked, undervalued, and underpaid threatens to make me lose sight of the unique opportunity teaching affords me to invest in the future. Similarly, in taking time to write this blog, some days I wonder if this “blog seed” will yield any real fruit. What will be my impact factor! For now? Still less than 4,000 views! Yet, what I hope for in this incomplete journey is that one day my writings will be a legacy for my daughters and others after them.
Whatever your life aspirations, celebrate the gifts from your incomplete journeys and recognize that the magnum opus of your life is still unfolding…..
* I am grateful to my friend Dr. Heewon Chang for planting the idea in my head for this blog post.