Life passes us by quickly, but it isn’t a race. Our goals are important—we need progress to feel meaningful—but ultimately, life isn’t a contest either. And it isn’t a big report card.

If you’re one of those people who is constantly grading your every move (or, as is often the case with me, compulsively dissecting your every thought and action and intention and placing these items under the cold microscope of your own merciless judgement), then just stop for a moment. Please. Just stop judging yourself. Stop rushing around for a moment, too.

Stop wondering if your bank account is big enough, stop wondering if your social life is robust enough, stop wondering if your relationship with your spouse is electric enough, stop wondering if your career is impressive enough, stop wondering if you are enough. Just stop it already.

Today, right now, be still for a moment instead. Be grateful. This week, try to be patient with yourself and your loved ones. Be gentle with yourself. Practice forgiving and accepting yourself—and others—until it is ingrained in your daily behavior, until it is automatic.

This post was supposed to be about taking life one step at a time, and it is, but I also feel compelled to write about being gentle with yourself. Because it is often our own impatience with ourselves that causes us to thrash about joylessly in fast-forward mode. Never really enjoying the gift of today. Never really being present and absorbing the grace and love that is all around us.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

The Friday before last was the embodiment of gloom in Wisconsin, at least as far as the weather was concerned. The temperature had dropped from the mid 70’s to the low 40’s (typical May in The Dairy State), and the sun had descended underground somewhere. It was gray, frigid, rainy, and bleak. A certain anxiety seemed to hang in the air.

Anyway, around ten pm that Friday, my wife and I were driving home from dinner at my youngest brother’s house when I happened to see death. Not figuratively, but literally. As we rounded the corner to pull into our driveway, I noticed a commotion at the neighbor’s house.

For the past week, cars had been gathering en masse outside of that normally quiet house. The vehicles had been spilling out of the driveway and onto the street, and my wife had spotted the arrival of nurses that appeared to be of the hospice variety. The neighbor, a waifish blonde woman who was maybe in her late fifties, must have been ill. Seriously ill. Just last summer she was enjoying the sun and watering her plants and receiving visits from the twenty-something daughter who’d recently moved out of her house, and now she’d moved on from this earth.

I know all of this because I’d seen the daughter crying. As my wife and I rounded the street corner last Friday night, I’d seen her wailing. The world outside was dark, but that living room was lit up like Texas football field, and a quick and fatefully timed glance at the front window had shown me the sorrow playing out within that home. And the next morning, there were no more visitors. No more vehicles spilling onto the street. There was just the one car, the one the neighbor lady had used to get her groceries and whatever, and it was sitting still and silent and alone. That car hasn’t moved since, and that house has been sitting empty since. No more visitors.

I don’t know exactly what happened to my neighbor lady because we’d never actually conversed, but after she had moved on from this life—after I’d noticed a week’s worth of traffic come in to say final goodbyes to her—I couldn’t help but wonder: Why hadn’t there been more visitors to her house all along?

Why do we often wait until it is too late to show our love and appreciation for friends and family? Why don’t we get together more regularly, not to compare or compete, but just to grill out and drink a beer and watch the birds descend onto their feeders in the back yard?

I guess I’m saying that, once again, I’ve been reminded that our time on earth is too short to not be appreciative of it. Life is too short not to give happiness—whatever that means to you—your best shot.

Each day is a gift from God, truly. It’s irresponsible—sacrilegious—to run around in fast forward mode without enjoying that gift.

Take life one step at a time. Dream of grand tomorrows, but live for today. Carpe Diem.

Sometimes Healthy Looks Like a Breakdown

(Be Gentle with Yourself)

At the risk of treading a little too closely to melancholy, I’m also going to tell you about another death that crossed my path recently. Actually, there’ve been two of them. Both suicides.

About two weeks ago I heard the terrible news that a friend of the family—a young man I’d once babysat—had taken his own life. You see, one of his siblings had walked down that same fateful road many years ago, and maybe he’d never really recovered from the shock and heartache of losing his big brother. Or maybe he’d been filled with sorrow of another sort, or rage. Or maybe inconsolable guilt or regret. None of us can truly know the reasons in such a situation, but it’s probably safe to say that he wasn’t being gentle enough with someone. His lost brother maybe. His parents maybe. Most certainly himself.

And just last fall, a local pastor who’d founded a hugely successful and uplifting church just down the road from my wife and I took his own life, too. Now why would a man surrounded by so much love and fellowship do such a thing? Did he think he wasn’t good enough for his church, or for his immediate family? Why did he feel so alone? Why did he think that a better tomorrow was undeserved or impossible?

I guess the question is: If God forgives us wholly and loves us unconditionally, then why are we often so hard on ourselves?

Thinking about those people who took their own lives makes the left corner of my chest hurt, but it also makes me want to scream. Or more precisely, it makes me wish I’d been able to scream at them before they’d given in to despair. I wish I could have yelled at them, in a loving way, “You will be okay! You are okay! Okay doesn’t mean perfect, okay? It just means accepted. You are accepted by God—and surely, even if silently, by those who love you—and so it’s okay to just accept yourself!

"You don’t have to be physically flawless or the picture of mental and emotional health to be okay, because no one is all of these things. Okay just means you are okay, okay with being who you are and okay with throwing yourself into God’s hands each day to find rest and protection. Please, just be gentle with yourself! Do you need some time off, because it’s okay to take some time off. Do you need to fall apart for a little while? Because it’s okay to scream and cry and look a little hapless and helpless. Sometimes, that’s the definition of being okay. It’s okay to just be okay!”

Far too often, we feel that we aren’t allowed to pause the treadmill of life in order to catch our breath. I know that I felt that way for a good number of years, and because I wasn’t willing to pause that treadmill, I wasn’t able to grow. Instead, I just kept running breathlessly, fueled by confusion and expectations and cigarettes and antianxiety medications and too much alcohol. I kept endlessly treading the unsatisfying waters of the status quo, because I was afraid to say I wasn’t okay. I was afraid to say, I’m not happy, I don’t like who I’ve become, I don’t like my job, I don’t get excited by my church, and I need some time to get back to the soul of who I am and the heart of a healthy man’s relationship with God.

Finally, I broke down and got sick. I didn’t look okay to the outside world then, but I was just beginning a healing process. That breakdown needed to happen. It needed to happen so that recovery and growth could happen.

Sometimes, a breakdown is what healthy looks like. The breakdown is the dissolution of a lot of unhealthy pretending and a lot of unexpressed pain. It’s sometimes the first step to uncovering our true selves, the first step toward being great. Far too often, we feel that we have to put on appearances—masks—for the outside world. But there are a couple of problems with that. First, the outside world will never give us happiness—that’s from within—so we really don’t owe that outside world anything. And secondly, masks don’t allow us to cry or talk the way we need to in times of trouble. As I’ve already said, that crying and talking—that visible breakdown and tangible release—is often what we need to keep living. We need those things to start growing and to begin finding joy. So, with regards to those masks, we just have to toss them aside and be our imperfect selves for all of the world to see. That’s how we find healing and a way forward.

Thoughts for a Healthier Summer

I don’t know what issues are troubling you right now, if any, but I can bet that no matter what your situation is, it will improve by at least ten percent if you try to work a few of the following suggestions into your life this summer. Just give a few of them an honest shot and see if your life feels more content and forward-moving. See if you feel like a more developed and complete person.

Focus on improving yourself instead of on trying to become someone else. Strive to be your best self. This might sound cliché, but if you find meaningful ways to translate it into daily action, then it becomes a path toward true satisfaction.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, try these three things: Rest, talk to someone, then downsize your goals into more manageable items you can complete. It’s okay to feel good about accomplishing small items. Then, when you are ready, aim for something larger again.

Remember that most of the “Outside World” has little connection to you and the care of your soul: politics, corporate earnings, Hollywood, Facebook, Human Resource guidelines. Who cares? The outside world is often just smoke and mirrors, a mirage, a deep pool of shallow bullshit. It’s your inside world that counts. I’m not saying check out—hey, I like reading about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner as much as the next guy—but just keep things in perspective. Remember what is truly important: your physical health, the delicate care of your eternal soul, your happiness, your connection with loved ones, and your ultimate contribution to the world around you.

If you aren’t feeling well, it’s okay to take some time off. Maybe this means a day off from work, and maybe it means more. Maybe it means going to bed early five nights in a row, or telling your friends and family you can’t make it to that party. You must take care of yourself, or you’ll never be any good to anyone else, either.

Remember that you are enough! Accept yourself. You are good enough. Don’t ever let feelings of regret or inadequacy rule you. If you’ve made a mistake in the past, then make note of it and move on. And if you’d like your life to be more than it is right now, then do a little planning. Implement some small steps that will move you forward, but remember that you are good enough today, also.

Be patient with yourself. You’re getting there—wherever “there” is for you. You’re on your way. You might not arrive this afternoon, but you’re on your way. Just be patient with yourself. Take small steps toward progress on a daily basis, and remember to look back when night falls to congratulate yourself for having taken those small steps.

Talk when you’re hurting. Please, even though you might feel as if you don’t want to be a “bother” to those around you (even though you might not want to admit to those around you that your life isn’t perfect right now), just reach out and talk to someone about what is eating at you. You’ll find healing this way.

Exercise, exercise, exercise. Exercise to find renewal and clarity. Did I overstate that one? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Exercise is the great cure all and the great portal to spiritual connection. I truly believe that God gave us physical exercise as a means to find both His presence and our own inner peace more readily. No matter what is bothering you right now—anger, fatigue, confusion, physical pain—a half hour of exercise will almost always make it better. And remember, if you can’t do a great deal of physical activity right now, start small and keep at it. But at least get started.

Plan a get-together with loved ones. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A couple of lawn chairs and some snacks and drinks will do. Make the call today. Invite people over, or get together at a nearby park.

Keep a progress journal. If you want to be physically healthier, then make a note of the things you are doing to that end. And if you want to be emotionally healthier, then each day write down how you are doing that. Every so often, look back at those notes. Marvel at your progress.

Make a quick getaway. Never underestimate the restorative power of day-trips. Never underestimate the human need to get out of the house. You don’t need much money for this. Just pack up a sandwich, make a coffee, and get in the car. Go to a new park or beach or library. Just get out and feel that fresh air on your face.

Get more personal with God. Read the Gospels for yourself. Take notes about what the words of Jesus mean to you. Have informal conversations with God, and let those conversations show you a connection to where you came from and where you are going. Allow them to help you find peace and increased confidence. Even if you don’t consider yourself a very “religious” person, give spiritual connection a shot. Remember, Jesus wasn’t very hot on formal religion himself.

Work on developing your passions. A man, or a woman, without passions is like a rubber duck in the ocean—directionless—or like a sitting duck, an easy target for the wolves of the world. The wolves of the world are all of the soul-killing monsters that might leave you feeling exhausted and angry if you aren’t working on your passions: they are the baiting newspaper headlines meant to rile you, the political ads meant to mobilize your lack of direction, and the little bits of meaningless consternation that hit you in a day, the annoyances in traffic and at stores and with regards to household chores. What do you care about? What is your passion? Painting, fitness, writing, music, woodworking? Foreign languages, caring for animals, community outreach? Identify your interests and talents and get lost in them (and at the same time, allow them to give you direction). Find meaning and satisfaction in them each day.

Formulate a Dream. What do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? What do you want the future to look like? Think big, dream big, and never believe that the dream won’t come true. Keep taking those small steps toward big things. Dreaming is happiness. And . . .

Happiness is Often a Clumsy Dance

Life is an imperfect dance for all of us, so we can be grateful that the attitude and effort behind the steps rather than their precision is the important part. The attitude and the effort lead to happiness. Be gentle with yourself this summer. Work on choreographing your own dance, and learn to appreciate all of its imperfections and nuances. Remember that you’re in the process of creating something beautiful. Remember that you already are something beautiful, and remember that you’re growing every day. Please take care of yourself and your dreams.

MICHAEL PRIEBE is the author of THE LOVELY GRIND: SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION FOR WORKDAYS (90 Devotions for Stress Relief & Personal Growth). Get the book here, and sign-up for The Lovely Grind's mailing list here to receive all of Michael's blog posts and newsletters.