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Why I’m No Longer Waiting For My Life To ‘Calm Down’

Yes you CAN change the way you look at stress.

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illustration of lady trying to put back together a yarn ball
Hannah Buckman
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I recently noticed that every time I'm having a stressful week — or month — and am miserable and bemoaning the impossibility of getting to everything on my to-do list, I tell myself the same thing: My stress levels will abate when life "calms down." It’s my go-to method of reassuring myself. “This is temporary.” “Just get through this.” “Next month will be easier.”

The problem is, I’ve been telling myself this for over 15 years. And I’m not sure life is ever going to calm down. In fact, by this point I’m pretty certain it won’t.

There will always be some major stressor to ratchet up my stress levels. If it isn't a crisis of my own making, one will be foisted upon me. And if there are no crises, then I take advantage of that fact and expand my to-do list accordingly, figuring I’ll get around to all the tasks I couldn't do when I was dealing with the crisis. Then my massive to-do list is the thing stressing me out. And lord knows if I even get close to finishing it, inevitably another crisis presents itself.

We have had tragic deaths in the family. Close friends diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. Loved ones battling alcoholism. My son has struggled for years with ADHD and the attendant behavior issues and experimentation with medication. I am currently in the middle of a divorce.

And, of course, there are the millions of smaller struggles that make even the most patient people want to tear their hair out. Someone rear-ended our parked car. The AC stopped working. A leaky pipe dripped from the second floor to the first, and we had to repair the ceiling along with the leak. Friend drama. The hacking of a credit card account. Inconvenient bouts of flu. The ongoing stress of the freelancer life.

I've spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself and thinking my crises were a special brand — or at least, crises that would one day resolve. I kept picturing my life as if it were a traffic jam. You know how when you’re in gridlock on the highway, and then once you clear the accident, the road opens up before you and suddenly it’s smooth sailing again? I thought my life would eventually clear up like that. My modus operandi is to be frustrated with my present and looking to a future where I expect things will be better.

But … I’m starting to think this is just life. It seems like — especially when we have kids and even more once we hit our 40s — our lives are one long string of impossible to-do lists punctuated with crises big and small. There will always be too much to do, because that’s what life is.

And maybe that’s also exactly what it should be. Maybe being alive — and really living — means having way too much to do. Maybe it means suffering. And maybe, even though life is big and messy and often excruciatingly hard, all that mess is just part of the journey. Because many of the hard parts couldn’t exist without the good parts. I can’t have problems with my AC if I don’t have AC. No one can back into my car if I don’t have a car. I can’t get behind on work if I don’t have a job.

The same holds true even for some of the most painful losses. I lost my stepbrother to a terrible accident, but the pain of that loss was deeply felt because I allowed myself the gift of loving him. My friend was diagnosed with cancer, and losing her broke my heart because I had the honor of knowing her before she died. I’m not suggesting we should accept pain and suffering and injustice without trying to remedy it, and, of course, I acknowledge there are some problems so big that they exist outside the scope of what is humane or acceptable.

But for the vast majority of us, nearly every stressor in life is a manifestation in varying degrees of the same problem: Something that makes us comfortable or happy is being damaged or taken from us.

Buddhism defines suffering as the difference between expectation and reality. If I keep expecting life to become less hectic, but it never does, I will continue to suffer as long as that expectation remains unmet. In other words, forever. And that’s why, from now on, I’m changing the way I look at stress. I’m going to expect that my life will be hectic and filled with obstacles. I will expect traffic jams. I will expect all the beautiful complications that arise from living life fully and voraciously and fearlessly.

I will expect that my to-do list, much like my laundry hamper, will never be empty. And I will expect to approach life one hectic moment at a time, enjoying the sweet minutes and hours that are inevitably mixed in with the bitter.

While the chaos of life may be endless, life itself is short. And I’m not going to waste it waiting for something that will never happen.