A version of this essay was originally shared with readers of The Hughsletter – my free weekly newsletter about the pursuit of beauty as a prophylactic against the ugliness of the world – back in November of last year. I occasionally create treats just for the readers there. (You can sign up for yourself here. Unsubscribe anytime. No spam.) – HH
If you are a would-be world changer, then you life is more than likely, quite literally, out of control.
Those of us who would seek to change the world often find ourselves feeling that our lives are filled with chaos. We know the feeling of being pulled in many different directions by conflicting priorities, we live in the tyranny of email inboxes that never empty and phones that never stop ringing.
As a world-changer, the closer you work with people who are in crisis, the more likely it is your life is largely reactive. You show up for work, filled with plans and hope for the day, an aspirational to-do list on your phone or in your notebook. You have plans!
But like Moltke the Elder said, no plan survives its first contact with the opposition. You no more than sit at your desk and the phone rings. Someone is in crisis, and your entire plan for the day withers in front of you. You get sucked in.
You just lost control.
Many of us in the helping professions find ourselves living in a state of crisis. And you cannot be fully present for people in crisis when you yourself are in crisis.
Let me say that again: You cannot be fully present for people in crisis when you yourself are in crisis.
So, let’s focus on gaining a small bit of control.
There are many ways to do this, some of which will be the focus of other essays yet to come. But the simplest and the fastest way is the use of ritual.
Before you start conjuring up mental images of incense, chanting prayers and lighting scented candles, hear me out. I’m not talking that sort of ritual, although, if that works for you, by all means keep doing it.
Rather, I am suggesting that you mindfully and purposefully put portions of your life on autopilot and thus gain control of those parts of your life.
Why do we need ritual in our lives? Because our lives, you will remember, are out of control. We literally have lost control over our lives. It is possible, sometimes common, to come to the end of the day and feel like we accomplished nothing – like nothing we did today mattered, and all of our day was spent reacting to other people’s priorities.
That is simply exhausting.
There is a lot of talk these days about the importance of routine. I don’t discount that work, but that isn’t what I am talking about here. I am talking about ritual.
Let me show you the difference. Like many people, I wake up in the morning and make myself some coffee. Making coffee every morning is a routine – but it isn’t a ritual. But it could be,
The dictionary defines ritual as, “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.”
This is what my morning ritual looks like:
The alarm on my phone goes off at the same time almost every day. I get up, slip on some sweats, walk to the bathroom, then walk to the kitchen. If you were to measure, I walk the same path every time.
I set my phone on the counter in the same spot every morning. Then I turn on the electric kettle, get a coffee cup (one of three specific cups) out of the cabinet, get the coffee and the pour-over filter down from the other cabinet and prepare it all to make a cup of coffee. It is like a low-rent version of preparing for the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
While the water is heating, I lean against the sink with my phone, skimming the headlines to see what is going on in the world. Always against the sink. Always the same sites. Always within a minute or two of the same time every morning.
The kettle is done, so I set the phone down (in the same spot every day) on the counter beside the sink and pour the water over the coffee in the filter. When the coffee is made, I put the pour-over cone, with the dirty filter, in the sink to drain. I then get the half-and-half out of the refrigerator, add it to the coffee until is is the color of cardboard and take the coffee to the table, where I will sit at the same seat I always do and will try to write for the next hour on my laptop.
That is my morning routine, and it rarely varies by more than 30 seconds in any direction any morning. It takes about 13 minutes, start to finish. It is utterly predictable. If you ask me what I will be doing at 6:08 tomorrow morning, the answer will be, “Leaning against my sink, reading headlines while waiting for my water to heat up.”
It has all the elements of ritual – a solemn series of actions, in a prescribed order. I even have special tools.
But, I can hear you say, you already make coffee every morning, and it isn’t helping. That is because what you have isn’t a ritual, but a routine.
To be a ritual, it has to be a solemn event – you need to take it super seriously. Not to say that it has to be boring, but it needs to be serious. You have to do things in a prescribed order – meaning you have to be mindful of what you are doing. It matters if you get the cups out before you start the water, or vice versa. And the instruments matter, too – that it is one of those three cups is important. It all matters.
So why bother? Why is this important?
Because for those 13 minutes, I am in complete control, and I know exactly what to expect. And for most of my day, that isn’t something that is true.
So I put pieces of my life into ritual – creating solemn occasions of checking in with myself, islands of time in which I am in complete control of the process and the outcome, and during which time I anticipate no surprises. Approached this way, making a cup of coffee can be an act of prayer.
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This isn’t about coffee – I just used that as an example that most of us could relate to. It is, however, about carving out islands of holy intentionality in your day – spaces where you get to be in control, a place where the phone and the email cannot reach you.
If you find yourself doing something often, try to develop a ritual around it. I have a shaving ritual, a coffee break ritual, a ritual for when I plan to write creatively, a ritual for when I get to work. In an average day, I have four or five of these little islands of time where I am in complete control. And because I know that whatever periods I have when I am out of control are temporary, and I know that all I have to do to feel in control again is slip into one of my rituals, it makes the times when I am out of control much easier.
Going to the coffee shop for coffee break when I feel stressed is no longer just something I do, but an exercise in mindfulness and control. I purposefully walk two blocks south and one block west, past the house with the weedy flower bed, the house with the bamboo hedge, the gym, the fig tree, the muscadine arbor. I see the flowers in bloom, watch the leaves fall off the trees, see the maple seeds helicopter down.
I cross the street and am at the coffee shop where I always order the exact same thing, always costing $3.23 after tip, always having the exact conversation:
Me: A large coffee, to go, please.
Them: Room for cream?
Me: A little room.
I add cream until my coffee is the color of cardboard and return the way from which I came, intentionally observing the difference a change in direction makes. The entire trip will take 20 minutes, barring a long line at the coffee shop. 20 minutes, grounded in the world, where I was in control.
And all I have to feel that way again is do something I would normally do anyway – like make coffee, or shave or leave the house or get dressed – that I have turned into a ritual. And because I have these signposts throughout my day – markers so I can find my way home again – the time in between can bring what it may. I am no longer afraid of the loss of control, because I now know how to go back to the place where I am in control.
I just realized I used two examples that both revolve around coffee. I might have a small addiction here, but that doesn’t make the rest of it invalid.
Here is a list, entirely off the top of my head, of things most of us do daily that could easily be turned into ritual.
- Making your bed
- Getting dressed
- Making your lunch
- Your drive to work
- Making the kids lunch
- Taking a bath
- Your lunch break
- Walking the dog
- Leaving the house
- Coming home after work
- Taking a bathroom break
I am sure you can think of more. I hope you find this idea helpful, and if you have rituals in your life that help you navigate the day, I would love to hear about them. You can leave them in the comments below!