To Goal or not to Goal?
“You gain strength,
in every experience
you really stop
to look fear in the face.
Do the thing
you cannot do.”
Well, it’s the beginning of September, and anyone who knows me well knows that this is probably my least favorite time of the year. A huge reason is undoubtedly that it’s still hot as all hell here in South Texas, but the other reason is that it’s back to school time, and I’m no longer talking about the sweet years of grade school and lunch boxes and crayons, but now I’m talking about…middle school.
Every September, I mourn the re-entry into schedules and grades and sports and mounting competition. The bigger my kids get, so does the pressure. And the pressure is not just for them, but for parents as well. I can’t help but overhear other moms talking about the programs or training or tutoring they engaged in over this past summer, just so their child could start this year with a head start. And, these days, a head start seems to be a massive advantage. We, on the other hand, chose to have a summer of lazy mornings and fun in the sun and a whole lot of “summering” (as we like to call it), which is code for- doing the complete opposite of anything that would get either of my kids a “head start” towards their future resumes.
After practice the other day, Ellie’s tennis coach asked her to go home and define her tennis goals. Did she want to play tennis in high school? Did she want to go to college on a tennis scholarship? Did she see herself being competitive this year in her tournaments? Was she prepared to put in the time it would take to get her ranking up to where it would need to be for all of these things to even possibly happen?
That night, I sat with my 8th grader and listened while she clearly defined both her long-term and short-term goals and watched as she listed what she would need to do to achieve them. I was so impressed that Ellie wanted such big things out of her life, and I have every single confidence that she can and will do them all. But, from my end, the thought of setting a goal brought back every single anxious feeling I’d blissfully lived without for the past three summer months. And then, after Ellie was done writing out her goals, she turned to me and asked, “Mom, what are your goals?”
And, there it was—the heart of the problem.
I no longer set goals. I stopped years ago. For me, goals feel like being trapped in a train car with no way to get off. I’d be able to watch all the beautiful scenery pass me by, but I wouldn’t be able to touch it or smell it or enjoy it. I’d feel locked in, confined, unable to allow for spontaneous detours. And isn’t someone who has overcome an incurable cancer three different times supposed to be a person who has been given the gift of freely living in the moment? And doesn’t it go against everything I’ve learned if I take my eyes off the present and instead focus my gaze on the future? I wasn’t sure.
I side-stepped my daughter’s question by bringing it back to her action plan of achieving her goals and avoided any further discussion about me by suggesting we pick back up at a later time. But after Ellie had left the table and I was left staring at her piece of paper, I began to wonder- did I not have goals? Was I really that fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants? Had I learned to live in the moment so deeply that I’d mastered the art or, was I just very, very, very scared to commit to a plan? Sadly, I knew it was the latter.
See, before cancer, I was young and invincible. I had no real fears because I’d never lost anything critical to me, but then I lost my health, and then I lost my innocence, and then nothing ever was the same. Where courage and blind faith had once been, fear and mistrust took over. I no longer believed that tomorrow would undoubtedly come and was afraid to hold onto anything or anyone too tightly. So, I loosened my grip and lengthened my attachment, and tried to protect myself as best I could. And my new method of self-protection included the erasing of all plans or dreams, or…goals.
Before cancer, I was in medical school and was a big marathon runner. I had goals- lots of them. And I had plans- detailed roadmaps of exactly how I’d achieve a better grade or a faster finishing time. I believed that it was up to me to determine whether or not I’d reach my goals. If I studied hard, it would pay off on the final test score. If I ran faster and trained harder, I’d improve my final race time. That fateful afternoon just after my twenty-seventh birthday when I walked into the doctor’s office with power and control only to twenty minutes later leave with nothing but the realization that it was all an illusion.
As I again looked down at Ellie’s goal/action plan, I marveled at her blind courage and beautiful belief in herself. I found myself being so incredibly grateful for her tenacity because I know my daughter knows what’s up and, in her own way, knows how fragile life is, so her goals are not written from a childlike innocence but instead are rooted in reality and self-belief and in…courage.
And that’s when I realized what it was all about. Courage.
Goals mean we could lose, but we still try.
Goals mean we could come up short, but we still aim high.
Goals take determination because we know we can fail, yet we still decide to go for it anyways.
And goals make us vulnerable, yet we still don’t back down.
I don’t set goals because I’m afraid of losing again. I don’t look long-term because I’m scared of being let down. And I struggle to trust that my life will still be here for me in the future. And this is where I have found the role of hope to be so essential to my being.
Courage and trust and faith and hope. Goals and failing and winning and losing- all different yet all the same damn thing. Because to trust is to hope. To hope is to have faith. To have faith is to believe. And to believe is to trust. And round and round we continue to go.
Maybe, I’m realizing, that these few weeks of the year are my least favorite, not because of the heat or the back to the daily grinding schedules or the after-school glorified uber driver position. Maybe those are the things that actually make me happy. Maybe that joy is overshadowed by the ever-present fear that looms with the starting of the new year. Maybe it’s the impossibility of not thinking about the year to come in a- what are your goals- type of way.
So, this year, I’m going to set a goal of my own, and that is just this: be brave.
I aim to be strong enough to go for it and courageous enough to accept it may not happen. I will be resolute when I feel I’m failing and will remind myself to keep things in perspective when I start doubting myself or my choices. I will promise to work hard to achieve but will not attach too firmly to the outcome. And, above all else, I am going to try my hardest to recognize my fear, and instead of turning away, this year, I want to turn towards because maybe, just maybe, my fear is not a warning sign but rather an invitation to living my best damn life.
Eleanor Roosevelt encourages us to look fear in the face and do the things we think we can’t.
She’s not wrong.
And my daughter isn’t either.
Looking fear in the face and moving towards it instead of away. Doing the things we thought we couldn’t. Trusting, believing, hoping, and fully living.
Yea, this year, I’ve got a goal- for the first time, in a long time, I do: be brave enough to think this just could just be the best year yet.
In love and hope,
Caroline, After reading your blog post about goals, I feel closer to you. The feelings and sensations in my body are tightness in my neck as if I need to swallow but can’t and a strong urge to smile. The way your work was a gift to me was remembering my conversations with my daughter, Haley, at Ellie’s age and how I feared that she had superseded me, that she was teaching me more than I was teaching her. I DO believe our children make it nearly impossible for us NOT to grow. Thank you again for this posting, as this one inspired me even more than your previous ones. With gratitude . . .
Thank you once again, Caroline, for your inspiring post. I, too, have been afraid to set goals and that fear has only been compounded by Covid. I want to ” metamorphos” out of my cocoon and have to continue self-isolating. The good news is that I am 2 years post transplant and so far, my test results are good. Also exciting is that I have been able to meet my donor from Germany and his family last week on Facetime.
Keep the posts coming.
Wow! You are an incredible writer. Thank you for pouring out your heart to us. Your children are incredibly blessed to have such a strong mother. Thank you for sharing your struggles with us. It inspires us to look at life differently. God bless you!