My most finely-honed skill is waking up in the morning, and it’s probably the thing about me—other than the fact that I attended a Nirvana concert when Kurt Cobain was still alive, back in 1992—that tends to most impress other people. I get up at precisely 4:46 a.m. every day. Yes, even weekends. My birthday. Christmas Day.
“Wow,” people say. “You must be so productive.”
You would think. But no. Not really. I run. Walk a bit. Read a bit. My day pretty much goes downhill from there. I work, of course, but rarely accomplish as much as I’d planned. In the morning, the day stretches ahead, filled with possibility. There are all kinds of things I might achieve! I make lists of them while I run. I tell myself that I will spend no fewer than 30 minutes writing and that I’ll start the minute I get my kids out the door for school. This almost never happens; I tend instead to work in sporadic bursts of energy interrupted by long periods of inertia.
The fact is that I am, and always have been, a whole lot better and more productive in my head. I have had to struggle to become any kind of doer. One of my favorite children’s books is Oh the Thinks You Can Think by Dr. Seuss. “You can think about red. You can think about pink. You can think up a horse. Oh, the thinks you can think!” I’ve thought of some great stuff. Story plotlines. Poems. Novels. Paintings. T-shirt designs. Ball gowns. How I might win the Olympics in shot put. Birch bark canoes. Ways to make my own shoes.
And as a kid, thinking was pretty much all I did. I made up stories, invented contraptions, and tunneled all the way to China, in my mind. What I disliked about doing was that nothing worked out quite the way I’d imagined it would. I could never quite pull off the intricately beaded Indian costume, the full-sized battering ram, or the igloo. Nearly every project ended in profound disappointment. In my head, I landed my round off/back handspring/back tuck every single time—to the thunderous applause of a huge audience—but at the gym, I mostly landed on my head. It took me a long time to learn how to actually do things and accept their inherent imperfections.
A large part of doing is really nothing more than making a simple decision to act. It sounds simple, but can be incredibly hard to do sometimes.
For example, during my senior year of high school, I went skiing with a group from school. About the time we got in our cars to drive home, the road through the mountain pass was closed because of concern about avalanches. I was already in the car with a woman and her daughter—people I did not know particularly well but had ended up riding with. The two of them walked back to the lodge—as did many people—and ate French fries and drank hot chocolate and generally made merry. Not me. I decided that the road would open more quickly if I hunkered down in the back seat of the car, damp and cold. I had nothing to eat and became increasingly grumpy and miserable as the hours crept by. The woman and her daughter came back eventually and ate an entire bag of chocolate chip cookies without offering me a single one, and I fumed and stewed and became increasingly miserable. The roads finally opened, and I got home in time to jump in the shower and get ready to go to school. Not a high point in my life.
Contrast that with another day—similar in many ways, but one that I consider among the best days of my life. Perhaps three years later, I was driving back to college and crossing the same mountain pass. Again, an avalanche warning closed the highway and I, along with dozens of other drivers, was diverted to a truck stop. For maybe half an hour I sat in my car, wrapped in a down sleeping bag and staring out the window. Then, for some reason, I decided to get out of the car. Just that one simple thing: I got out of the car. And magic! Lining up to use the pay phone—this being the era before mobiles were widely used—I met two other people around my age and we formed a sort of posse of activity. We three pushed cars out of ditches and drove around rescuing people. We sat in the diner and drank free coffee and listened for updates with the other stranded travelers. We exchanged stories and made friendly banter with waitresses and truck drivers and elderly people. Together all of us in the diner cheered when, near dawn, the pass was reopened and we continued on our respective journeys, never to see each other again. I’ll never forget the profound sense of community and accomplishment I felt that night. All because I worked up the nerve to do the thing that so often eludes me: Engage.
Engaging—whether with other people or with your own work—requires courage and action. It requires you to overcome both fear and inertia—for real, not just in your imagination.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.