“Have a good day.”
We bestow that wish upon strangers: cashiers, call-center employees, mail carriers. Or, if we work in one of those service jobs, upon customers. When I say it, I mean it.
Even if the person hasn’t helped me very much, even if I thought they were rude, I do want them to have a good day. Especially if they’re stuck in a crummy job where people treat them poorly.
What does that “good day” involve? I suppose I’m extending a wish that the person’s needs be met: financial security, good health, fulfillment on the job and/or in other pursuits. Love and happiness.
What I wish for myself, however, is a different story.
For me, a good day is one in which I accomplish a lot. Crossing stuff off the to-do list. Completing projects, or at least making substantial progress. Clearing away physical clutter, which reduces my mental clutter — briefly. Maybe until the next day, when it starts all over again.
And, of course, taking care of my health. That remains my primary job even as I recover from this chronic illness that’s been with me for almost eight years now. Taking all of my pills and powders and tinctures, in various combinations, at a half-dozen intervals daily. Making sure I have the necessary supply of those supplements. Refilling my pill organizers once a week, in five daily compartments. Trying to get just the right amount of physical activity: enough to feel good and support my recovery, but not enough to induce a systemic reaction of pain and fatigue.
So in a way, I feel stuck in a crummy job where the boss treats me poorly. The boss, of course, being me — specifically, the part of me that I call my Inner Critic or Yetzer Hara (Hebrew for “evil impulse” or “devil on your shoulder”). And so, although I am blessed with many elements of the “good day” that I’m wishing for strangers — financial security, improving health, fulfilling pursuits, loving and supportive family and friends — the happiness part remains elusive, because of the inner voice that says: “You’re not good enough.”
The chores, the projects, the self-care, the reaching out to loved ones: it’s never enough.
That means that I can have a “good” day, but never a good-enough day. Despite what I’m wishing for other people, I cannot get my own needs met, because I need the impossible: to do everything and be everything. To be perfect.
The answer, it seems to me, is to change my definition of a good day. Instead of plowing through an ever-growing to-do list, I have a very simple new definition:
A good day is when I feel good.
Feeling good physically is wonderful, of course. But I have only partial control of what’s happening in my body. Potentially, I have a lot more control over what happens in my mind, my emotions, my soul. And I have come to believe that feeling good is within my control.
It doesn’t come easily, though. Turning my desire to feel good from a wish — bestowed by strangers or a fairy godmother — to a reality requires changing what I need, or what I believe I need. Instead of my faith in the almighty power of doing — what I have called my false god of productivity — I have to believe in being. Instead of needing to be perfect, I have to cultivate feeling good at a much simpler level.
I have to keep asking myself: what do I need right now? What do I want right now? How can I let myself have it?
In other words, follow Mary Oliver’s poetic teaching, the one that originally inspired this blog: “You do not have to be good. … You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Much of what I’m saying here is a restatement of what I have previously thought and written. Ditch the perfectionism. Recalibrate my expectations for myself. Flip my priorities: focus on the want-to’s and fit in the have-to’s, rather than the other way around.
It’s the same old thing, but redefining “a good day” is a new way of looking at it.
So I will tell myself to “have a good day.” And then I will answer myself: “Your wish is my command.”
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.