What fifth graders can teach us about living presently in the face of uncertainty.
“It erodes the spirit, distracts the mind, dulls our creativity and wastes our energy…Worry divides us against ourselves. When we worry about what is beyond our control, we devote less of ourselves to what we can control… Ironically, worry keeps us from exercising the one power we have over the future–the power to prepare for it by how we live in the present.” Jerry Sittser, in the Will of God as a way of life
About a year ago, I called my sister for advice on how to wade through the murky waters of my uncertain future. Disheartened by the gap between my “ideal self,” and real self, I rambled through a list of my “problems,” many of which, were hypothetical. I speculated about the work-life balance difficulties in a job that had not yet hired me. I disparaged over skills I lacked, at a time that I did not need them. And I even questioned whether I would be a good enough mom, to the children I had not birthed, with a man I did not yet know.
This wasn’t the original intent of my phone call, but sometimes the idealistic, visionary personality types require extra effort to use their imaginations well . The“ideal self” is the persona, or illusive image, of who we think we should be. It’s composed of a mixture of our values, standards, personal prerequisites, and societal influences. On the one hand, acknowledging our aspirations can serve as motivation towards personal growth, and steps to excellence. However if we demand perfection, and lack the patience to accept ourselves along the journey, we experience turmoil.
My sister listened, and then, consistent with her teacher-by-trade self, she asked just the right question to re-frame my mindset.
“Chrissa, if you were a fifth-grade teacher, would you ever tell a student to worry if they didn’t understand organic chemistry?”
“Umm, no?” I paused caught off guard, and then allowed her to continue.
“Well hypothetically, how would you advise a fifth-grader who came to you for advice about how to prepare for their unforeseen future.”
Then it clicked, and I realized she was onto something. When I flash back to fifth-grade, I see snapshot scenes of glittery scrunchies, creek walking, basketball, and kinda-sorta complaining about having to square dance with the boys on the Colonial history day. The thought of a 5th grader missing out on all of that due to preoccupation about their future paints a sad picture. But it seems as though somewhere in the growing up process, many of us adopted a belief that a hyper vigilant and fragmented mindset is all just a normal part of becoming a responsible adult.
Ironically, while trying to figure out how to advise a 5th grader, I discovered what I myself needed to learn; and the wisdom is ageless. The best way for a 5th grader to prepare for their future is neither to stress about their SAT score, nor to skip class to pick dandelions, but rather, to live wholeheartedly immersed in 5th grade. Sadly, I have encountered worried fifth graders, and even 4th grader’s for that matter. They worried that the difficulty of high school might lead to low grades that would then shut the doors on good colleges and good jobs. Surprised by the heavy responsibility they already assumed over their lives, I had little to say to them at the time. But if I could go back, now I know how I would respond.
Dear Future Fretting Fifth Grader,
Congratulations! Your brain is developing at such a fast rate that you are now capable of something called forethought: the ability to imagine a future. But sometimes it can be scary to look ahead into the mysterious dark places, and even grownups feel that way too.
But right now, in 5th grade, you are exactly where you need to be. Don’t wish away a single second of your precious time. The season for high school, college, and even living on your own with the freedom to eat pizza at midnight, will one day come. But before that, your current life, holds something valuable, every single day.
Instead of worrying about the homework load of high school, be a respectful and faithful student today. Take the vocabulary tests seriously. Even the most awkward sounding words could come in handy to communicate with others down the road. Become a whiz on those fraction worksheets, because whether or not you major in math, it’s helpful to know how to split things up and to find common denominators in life.
Instead of stressing about what type of crowd you’ll belong to in junior high, learn to work together with your chosen classmates of this year. Even if next year takes you to a different district, don’t let that hold you back. Be a loyal friend; stop the gossip in its tracks, and invite a lonely person to sit with you at lunch.
Instead of wondering about whether or not you will ever be brave enough to give a public presentation at work (like your parents might do), take a meaningful risk within your own world. Try out for the school talent show, or soccer team, and practice good sportsmanship towards both the winners and the losers. Respect the coach, practice your part, and always say thank you to the parents that bring the half time snacks.
Instead of wishing you were older, enjoy the fun that comes along with being in elementary school. If you don’t have one already, the smartphone probably dangles like a highly coveted carrot, just beyond your reach. Inevitably, when you do get one, you’ll be tempted to try and keep up with everyone and everything at every moment. But don’t use screens as an excuse to opt out of reality. It’s okay to use your imagination, ask questions, and read books made out of paper. And by all means, rejoice in all things recess. Trade snacks, create a complicated code of rules during tether-ball, build puzzles on the rainy days, and play tag until you run out of breath–or can’t stop laughing–or both.
Because one day, in June, the last bell will ring you into 6th grade, where you will find yourself surrounded by a different group of people, and classes that stretch your mind in new dimensions. But regardless of the circumstances, your heart can rest assured that you are already prepared. Every day you showed up fully engaged for 5th grade, you built a toolbox for six grade, and seventh and so on. Finally, fearless fifth grader, do not worry about 6th grade, because 5th grade will have enough trouble of its own.”
Signed with sincerity, thumbprintedchrissa
…And even though I just preached to a hypothetical audience of children, that letter serves as an equally important reminder for myself, to live presently. To be clear, the word present does not mean neglecting thoughtful plans or big dreams. Trust me, I have plenty of those, especially the latter. But instead–and maybe this has something to do with the fact that I’m gluten free and dough deprived– but I keep coming back to the basics of bread.
In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”
Now, I’m aware that many of you can recite the Lord’s Prayer in your sleep. But is anyone else mind boggled by the word daily? If I’m not careful, I can grow annoyed at the obscurity of tomorrow, and wish that what Jesus had really meant was give us this year, our fully stocked annually supplied frozen baguettes guaranteed in the earthly freezer. But he didn’t. Instead he said THIS DAY.
So in light of the bread, and the fifth graders, when I wake up, I attempt to take an honest and prayerful inventory of the 24 hours in front of me. I ask God: who are the people to love? The fears to face, the commitments to be faithful to, the blessings to delight in, and the gifts to steward…FOR TODAY
Because today is all we need, to knead our daily bread.