If you know me or if you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you probably know about my theory of open hands. As far as I can tell, the only way to live is with the understanding that just about anything (stuff, people, jobs, etc.) could be taken from you at any given moment. I feel this way because that’s been my experience--a brother who died at 20, a couple miscarriages, a house that refused to sell for four years and sat empty while we paid two mortgages every month and drained our bank account, a job that disappeared the day I finally got pregnant again. Just a few weeks ago the diamond fell out of my engagement ring. This is the beginning of a long list. I’ve found that just when you try to hold onto something it slips from between your fingers. That’s why I’ve stopped holding on so tight. I have given up on expectations of the future.
Living with open hands means assuming a posture of trust when it comes to life and God. I stand with hands open, and He can take anything He wants. And if the devil steps in and takes something (which he often does), I trust God to make it right, to make me right, or put something else in my hands.
Knowing I could lose anything--that my kids could get cancer, that my husband could leave, that I could get Alzheimer’s and suddenly be unable to write--could push me to disengage with life. And maybe that’s what you’d think open hands is, a decision not to get too invested in my kids or my marriage or my career. But that’s not it at all, not for me. I don’t ever want to drop what’s in my hands. I’d never treat it carelessly. No, I treasure it. I hold every good thing like my little girl holds a flower, tenderly, careful not to crush it. For me, the thought that something might disappear tomorrow means I’m fully invested today.
Living with open hands frees me to stop worrying about what might happen and instead enter what is happening, to be present and engaged, fearless and thankful.
I had a friend recently ask me about open hands, about how to move forward when you drop your expectations of the future. She’s a young woman and likely most of her life is ahead of her--though she doesn’t want to bank on that. Still, she needs to make some plans. Right?
How do you make plans for the future without putting much stock in the promise of tomorrow? What does it look like to discern and execute next steps when you know full well they might be derailed?
I love this question, and I think it’s closely allied to a less wise (though not unwise), more common question I get from young folks all the time: How do I know what God wants for my future?
Let’s start with a story about an eight year old cleaning her room. Because that’s just the place you thought I’d start, right?
The other day I asked my daughter Eve to clean her room. For whatever reason, cleaning her room is Eve’s least favorite activity on the planet. Like, if I mention that she’ll have to clean her room while we’re out to dinner, she’ll melt into a puddle of stress and anxiety. This day, she immediately decided she needed to go the bathroom for 45 minutes. When I finally made her buckle down she wept for two hours. Loudly. No breaks. I made her clean while she cried because crying is no excuse for disobedience, but I couldn’t make her not cry. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.
At some point in the process my husband went in and said, “Eve, you may take as long as you want to clean this room. You can clean it for an hour or for two weeks. You can still be cleaning this room tomorrow. I don’t care. But. You can’t do anything else until it’s clean. No movies. No Barbies. Nothing other than room cleaning.”
This seemed wise to me, but it made things much, much worse. Now Eve sounded like a torture victim.
So I called her out to the living room for a chat. “What is going on?” I asked like the gentle, patient mother I am. She replied, devastation dripping from her tear-soaked words, “I don’t (sniff) want to be (sniff) cleaning (sniff) my room (sniff) tomorrooooow.”
And then it hit me. Eve hates to clean her room, because she thinks ahead to how long she thinks it’s going to take. She obsesses over the amount of work it will be in the future when she finally has to do it. Eve’s room cleaning woes are entirely future oriented.
So I said, “Eve, if you spend all your time thinking about how your room won’t ever get clean, your room won’t ever get clean.” I said, “Eve, you’re living in the future. If you jump in and clean your room with all your strength and mind right now, you won’t be cleaning your room tomorrow. You’ll be done tomorrow.” I said, “Honestly, you could be done in thirty minutes if you’d just stop avoiding it and do it”
This is the kind of speech parents often give that almost never works. But apparently God sprinkled magic dust on this speech and it worked and thirty minutes later the room was clean and my daughter, though puffy-eyed, was happy.
Later that night at dinner Eve said, “Thanks for the pep talk tonight, Mom.”*
Here’s the pep talk for you as you consider your future: Often, as in almost all the time, the best thing to do to prepare for the future is to fully inhabit the present. When you’re worried about what’s coming or when you’re not worried but don’t know the next step, either way, you can find peace in knowing that a well-lived present best serves your future goals.
Wondering what to “be” when you grow up? Be who you most want to be right now, no growing up required. Passionately pursue your interests and talents. Seek out mentors, people who currently do what you love to do and want to do more of. Learn the things you want to learn. Read the books you want to read. Build stuff. Make stuff. Lead stuff. And do it now.
Want to be successful professionally? Worried about an upcoming opportunity for promotion? The best thing you can do is to do good work now, to be a stellar employee in the present.
Want to get married one day but can’t find a quality partner? Invest in the relationships you have now--relationships with parents and co-workers and friends. Learn how to navigate conflict with grace. Learn how to prioritize another person. Take trips together. Sacrifice for one another. And for goodness’ sake, if you have the chance, go on a date tonight.
Embrace today’s opportunities and you’ll sow healthy seeds for tomorrow’s harvest (if tomorrow comes).
For years I thought about what it would be like to write and publish a book. I had notebooks full of ideas, but no manuscripts. I had lots of expectations for the future: one day I’ll be a writer, I’ll write a bunch of books, I’ll be in bookstores, maybe I’ll go to fancy parties and read my books… But I had little to no action in the present.
I was never going to read one of my books at a fancy party in the future if I never wrote a book now.
Now I write books. I’m writing all the time. There’s never a time when I’m without a book in the wings and a book on my desktop. I’m not achieving all those early book publishing dreams and expectations, but lo and behold, that’s not a problem at all. I’ve learned that the joy and excitement isn’t in publishing a book or reading it in front of other people, it’s in the day to day act of writing one. The joy isn’t waiting somewhere in the future. It’s right here, today.
For years, I missed out on that joy because I didn’t know how easy it was to grab hold of. I’ve learned life is a series of present moments; and if you miss those moments, your eyes distracted by the future, you’ll miss your life.
If you want a future life worth living, devote yourself to the present.
When you commit to living with open hands, to trust in God and not be derailed by the unexpected bumps and losses, to not expect or demand certain outcomes, that doesn’t mean you give up on charting a course. It just means you set a loose, wise course (based on who you are now and what you’ve been given by God to steward in the present), and then you get going, doing, making, and moving.
Make the plan, work the plan, but never let the plan be your god or Master. When re-routing inevitably comes, embrace it and identify the next best step, the step you can take today.
*I learned later that Justin said almost exactly the same thing. Sometimes a thing must be said twice to be heard.